“Chasing the dragon” (traditional Chinese: 追龍; simplified Chinese: 追龙) is a slang phrase of Cantonese origin from Hong Kong referring to inhaling the vapor from a heated solution of heroin. The “chasing” occurs as the user gingerly keeps the liquid moving in order to keep it from overheating and burning up too quickly, on a heat conducting material such as aluminium foil.
After five minutes of waiting in the pool parking lot and some subtly threatening questions from Sergio about my intentions there, I still haven’t noticed any sign of my source. Then I see a hand reach out the cracked window of a beat-up, early 2000s sedan and knock a piece of ash off the end of a cigarette. As I cross the street to his car, parked next to the Redwoods, my interviewee looks up and flashes a smile.
Will, a junior at Tam who requested anonymity, gets decent grades, loves music, and is passionate about art. His face is slightly flushed, he likes the color blue, and he always seems to be able to offer a smile and greeting. He’s also a heroin addict, who recently got clean.
“Do you care if I smoke?” he asks as I step into his car, producing another cigarette and a large, rusted, industrial blowtorch, seemingly from nowhere. “Cops can’t smell the weed when you smoke a stoge [cigarette].” He sits with one foot on the seat, completely at ease in his space. There are pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge taped to his dashboard.
“Let me know when you want to start,” he says, taking another drag. “I’m ready whenever.”
Despite the image of a heroin user being a streetside junkie, shooting up with dirty needles in an alley or rural town, Will’s use was almost entirely smoking in his Marin house, separated from his family by just a few thing walls. Unfortunately, Will isn’t alone. California’s Healthy Kids Survey of Tam High showed that 21% of 11th graders self reported as heavy drug users in 2015. In addition, he personally knows at least six other individuals in his grade at Tam who regularly used heroin last year. All six tried, and initially failed, to get sober. Five are still sober today. As his frequency and dosage increased, Will realized that he would also need to go sober eventually.
Will is more open with me about his heroin use than most people are about their grades. When asked about his recent step into sobriety, he jumps into his story immediately, with the ease of someone discussing the weather.
“I wanted to [get] sober for a while … But with withdrawal and addiction, I just couldn’t. I tried like three, four times by myself,” he explains. “But withdrawal is really terrible. Some people can literally, for ten days, have diarrhea, be vomiting, and shaking, looking like they are having seizures because their muscles are getting used to being without heroin.” This process can often go beyond physical pain, though. Withdrawal from drugs can cause death, and heroin is one of the leading killers, according to Adi Jaffe, Ph.D, writing for Psychology Today.
When individuals get off heroin, they can take medication to make the transition to sobriety easier. Users are often prescribed Suboxone, a combination of the drugs buprenorphine and naloxone. “[With] Suboxone, the way it works, basically you wait 24 hours from the last time you smoked, then you take it. It stops withdrawal from continuing, and pretty much the agonist fills the receptors for opiates in your head, so [heroin] doesn’t do anything,” Will said. According to the description on the Suboxone website, the drug reduces the effects of withdrawal and can prevent users from getting high on heroin.
However, Will didn’t have access to Suboxone, and was resigned to his addiction at least until he became an adult. “There’s these things called Suboxone clinics, and you can just get it for free. But you have to be 18. I was like ‘What am I gonna do? I’m just gonna have to wait until I’m 18.’ It was fucked. But what else was I gonna do?” he said.
However, when Will’s family found out about his use, he was forced to face his addiction and his loved ones head on. His family was also able to get him the medication he needed. “I went to my family and was like, ‘Please get me some Suboxone and leave me the fuck alone.’”
The first step Will had to take before healing, however, was facing the fundamental issues in his life that led him to his addiction in the first place. “The thing is, that for every drug addict, there is a vacuum in your life created by some kind of depression, anxiety, or just pain, physical pain,” Will said. “Most people who get addicted to heroin, you know, start off on opiates. They hurt their back at work, get some Oxycontin. Their insurance covers that for four years, but then it stops. So they go start doing heroin.” According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 86 percent of heroin users were on prescription painkillers beforehand.
Will was never prescribed pain medication, though. “For me… I had a lot of anxiety, depression runs in my family, just all this shit. There was a lot of pressure on me to just do good–and I’m a very rebellious person so I pushed back against that, and when I was offered heroin by a friend I was just like, ‘Why not?’ I didn’t really think I was gonna get addicted. I had no idea that was gonna happen. I couldn’t even imagine it,” he said. Over time, Will used more and more heroin, and cared less and less about what kind of drugs he did. He did cocaine, Molly, and thinks he probably did Fentanyl, a highly potent and often fatal opiate, more than once.
Then one day he realized he was addicted. Physically and mentally.
Will’s addiction came to define in his life. “Life on heroin is just like normal life, except you’re on heroin. Pretty much you spend all your time trying to get heroin, trying to get high,” Will said, “All you’re thinking [is], what can I do to get heroin? What can I sell to get heroin?” Will had a job, but often required more money to get the drugs he needed. However, he had a luxury that other drug users didn’t–an ingenious way of getting drugs for extremely cheap. “What I would often do is go online, buy a bunch of fake Gucci, fake Louis Vuitton, and give it to the gang members and get 50 dollars of heroin for five dollars.”
Even with this dangerous strategy, Will was struggling to support his addiction. Heroin users often report overwhelming feelings of both physical pain and mental urges when they don’t have the drug, to the point where every fiber of their being needs another dose, according to former addicts speaking for American Addiction Center. “When I stopped, my dose was at least 50 to 60 dollars to get high. For the last few months I never got high–because I just ran out of money. You just need to smoke enough to not feel like killing yourself until your next dose.”
The physical hardship and the mental urges weren’t what Will struggled with the most, however. Facing his family hurt far more. “After 18 hours I was okay [with the withdrawals]. But the hard part was having those conversations with my family. We argued for so many hours. My sister was crying; she thought I was going to die. But now I’m just trying to get my life back on track. They want to help me. My dad is very understanding… My sister is just worried sick all the time. She thinks I’m going to kill myself or something. I’ve just been dealing with it. It’s a lot better than being on heroin,” he said. Regardless of all he has to deal with – family problems, the continuing pain of withdrawal, dropping grades — Will says he is happier now.
Will is ready to approach the rest of his life and is hopeful about the future, but this ideal has not been secured yet. “It’s been about a month since I last used. There was one time, a weekend, where I smoked a hit of heroin because I wanted to taste it again. I don’t know if that counts as a relapse, but I didn’t get high or anything. I just wanted to taste it, because I’m a fucking heroin addict. I can’t really say [if I will relapse in] the future, because I don’t know what exactly will happen around me.” Despite his hopeful outlook, the statistics are not on Will’s side for recovery, and overcoming them would be not only impressive, but also lucky.
“I think if I’m doing good and no shit starts happening around me, I’ll be fine. Doing good mostly means not doing heroin. My priority is staying healthy.” Will isn’t just focusing on the present, though. He is also thinking about his future.
“For my future I see… [girls]. Not fucking up my grades. Staying sober. Go to college. Totally doable. If I just pull my shit together I’ll be fine. Some weird shit to go through as a 16-17 year old… you learn how fucked the world is. You hang around these people who sit on the sidewalk, smoking crack, doing drugs. I don’t think kids in Mill Valley have any idea what that’s like.” Which, according to Will, is a good thing. He doesn’t believe any teen should be subject to the horrors of addiction. Despite this, he believes that his addiction and the things that he saw during it changed him – for the better. “The whole heroin experience has made me a smarter and kinder person… I definitely grew up a lot. In a good way. Overall, the experience has had a bad effect, and I wish it never happened. But you can’t turn back time, and I definitely think that it’s our past experiences that make us the person who we are today. And I like who I am. Even if I’m a shitbag ex heroin addict – I accept myself.” Will sighed, and almost as if in defense, said: “I valued my life then just as much as I do now. I’m just doing a better job at preserving it.” As we finished up the interview and I walk away, he lights up another cigarette and starts his car. He looks happy.
A study published in 2010 showed 91 percent of heroin users relapse. Since this story was written, I have repeatedly tried to contact Will, without response.
Will seemed hopeful, but I can’t help but imagine that he has become another part of that statistic.