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It’s a familiar scene — almost. A few years ago, as I got ready for whatever alienating temp job I was working at the time, I stood in front of the mirror finishing my makeup routine.
I started with foundation to cover my greying skin, followed by powder to offset the sweating; next came blush to add some color and life to my face. Heavy eye concealer was crucial, eyeliner to cover the red rims, and mascara for flourish. Once I had achieved the look of what I perceived to be a well-adapted, professional woman, it was time for the most essential (and my favorite) part. In a ritual that never got old, I would lift up the mirror in my blush compact to expose the compartment below which typically housed the applicator brush.
I lost the brush long ago, but instead I had tucked my secret weapon, my biggest asset, my shortcut: a small, quarter-sized baggie filled with a light brown powder and secured shut with a bobby pin. I would take my tweezers and use their handle to scoop a small (but increasingly larger) bump of the seemingly benign, intoxicating substance before inhaling it, all the while still looking in the mirror, sometimes wondering how the hell I had gotten there, sometimes feeling cool. I had become a heroin addict, but I still didn’t see one in the mirror, and so I didn’t identify as such.
I was living in a particularly student-friendly area of Boston despite having graduated from college several years prior. Youth and youthfulness were everywhere, and I didn’t get the memo that rampant drug use is supposed to stop upon graduation. I can’t blame the city or even college culture for all of my transgressions, but my time there was certainly wild, fast, and reckless. During my years living in the city, partying at the various schools and meeting new people all the time, I encountered drugs of all shapes and varieties, and some really smart, well-made-up, pretty people doing them. I wasn’t expecting that. I always thought junkies looked like junkies and acted like junkies, and to my surprise, that really wasn’t the case at all.
Sooner or later, all addicts find their drug of choice, and for me, it was heroin. I was introduced to it by an ex-boyfriend who also didn’t fit the mold I had in my mind of what addiction looked like. He wore nice clothes (and bought me nice clothes), went to school, had a far nicer apartment than me, and everyone seemed to love him. I’d later learn this was because he was also giving them drugs, but at the time, he just seemed cool. I thought that everything everyone had always told me about drugs had been a lie designed to keep me in line, pacified, alive to meet the demands of society and nothing more. He and I went down the rabbit hole together, all while projecting the image of a young couple in fresh love.
It was very important to me that I look put-together. If I managed to do that, how was anyone supposed to know what I was high on that day, what else I’d done when getting ready? It was a secret that at the time seemed sexy; it was fun to look good and feel good at the same time. It was its own sort of high and I felt I was beating the odds or getting away with something—pulling something off that someone somehow less interesting, pretty, or dynamic than me wouldn’t be able to.
I always held a full-time job during even the worst of my addiction, and dressed professionally as was expected. It is amazing what people assume about you when you dress like you bought the entire Ann Taylor catalogue (and I probably had, on my soon-to-be-maxed-out credit card). Clothes are a way to express ourselves, but they’re also a way to hide ourselves. Would someone who is about to take a taxi downtown on lunch to meet their dope man in the bowels of the subway system wear a cardigan? The answer is yes.
My favorite thing to do after getting a big check was 1. Get high 2. Nod out while getting my acrylics put on at the nail salon. I always made sure to get my nails done every two weeks during the height of my addiction. I think it makes sense that as I was neglecting my inner self, I became more fixated on my outer self as a sort of overcompensation. I wanted my nails to send a message: “Don’t fuck with me!” I both wanted to trick people and send a very clear message.
The journey downward was never linear, but over time, I was using more and more frequently and having a harder time keeping up with the negative effects. I lost weight from food and meals and money diminishing, partially due to a belief of mine picked up from other users that an empty stomach meant getting higher.
To my surprise, I didn’t get many comments about looking sickly, but rather comments like, “I hate you, you’re so thin,” and “You look so good, what are you doing?!” I think, worst of all, was that people seemed to like me better when I was high. “Wow, you’re in such a good mood today,” they’d say, or “You have so much energy today!” I felt like a magical unicorn among sheep. My ego inflated while I simultaneously lost sight of what it meant to be alive; when I was up, I truly believed I was having the time of my life.
What people didn’t see was how sick I would get, either from being too high or not high enough. I was pretty just sweating in bed, wearing yesterday’s makeup streaked down my face, a sad reminder of the extremes I was capable of. It became exhausting. I’d disappear for days at a time when I was sick and out of control; I couldn’t bear to let the facade I believed I’d put up fall, always believing I was still succeeding or one step away from it.
What I didn’t see was that my mask slipped long before I thought it did. I, like a lot of other addicts, did not go to the dentist or doctor during the years of my highest, most consistent heroin use. Eventually, the teeth grinding that came along with withdrawal starting pushing my teeth out of whack. I had large blue and reddish circles under my eyes; my skin became a very pale white with my veins showing through; I developed broken blood vessels around my nose from snorting. But most extreme was the lack of life in my eyes. I’ve seen this in other users as the disease takes over; the eyes darken and lose their luster.
While other people didn’t notice these changes due to my extreme efforts to conceal them, I certainly did. I told myself that I would stop using heroin before I “looked like a heroin addict,” but what I came to realize was that there is no one way a heroin addict looks. As I became honest with myself and others about my addiction, I came to understand that I was far from being the only junkie in a cardigan, and believing that only further isolated me. The notion that I was some enigma not meant to live a normal life or a genius capable of dressing up my demons ultimately fed my addiction by creating a conflict that only heroin could solve. It was only once I was completely laid bare in all my misery and disarray, to friends, family and the world, that I could begin to recover.
If addiction is about control, recovery is about letting go, however that looks for you. For me, now, there have been weeks where I haven’t tweezed my eyebrows or shaved my legs because I don’t really care and sometimes I have bigger things to worry about. I dress more modestly, as I no longer feel my body exists as an object to be consumed by the world. And sometimes I go without makeup; my skin looks better now, so I definitely don’t need as much, and more than that, I don’t need that same ritual I used to rely on. The space below my blush compact is empty once again, but I am not.
Visit Recovery.org and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for more information on addiction and treatment.