The first time Tom Walker* experimented with heroin he was 19—and it made him sob.
New to Southern California, the college freshman became euphoric when the chronic pain that plagued him from a sports injury years earlier, disappeared. “It was amazing. It was a feeling of coming home,” he says. As the anxiety he’d been facing for a lifetime began to disappear, too, tears of joy welled up in his eyes. “I sobbed from pure, all-encompassing relief.”
Twenty-seven years later and now a tenured professor at a distinguished American university, Walker shoots up almost daily—sometimes as many as six times.
The tragic overdose of Philip Seymour Hoffman has brought upon an almost compulsory exploration of the drug that killed him: What kind of heroin it was, how many bags of it, who sold those to him, and why. But in the search for someone to blame we’re missing our own society’s role in the death. If only anyone near Hoffman had access to Nalaxone, a 40-year-old anti-opiod that can reverse the effects of an overdose, he may have been saved. Had anyone known that he was relapsing to begin with, he might not have needed to be.
In 2010, the most recent year for which the Drug Enforcement Administration has data, 3,038 people overdosed and died from heroin use in the United States—almost double the number in 2004.
But while the number of deaths from heroin are increasing, education and awareness about the drug remain stagnant.
Contrary to the image of the typical heroin user propagated by the media, those using it are not all poverty-stricken delinquents. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of heroin users in the U.S. doubled, from 373,00 to almost 700,000, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Many of those users are people you see every day; otherwise normal individuals—most—with debilitating addictions.
The homeless man shooting up on the corner isn’t the only face of heroin. Walker is too. "Heroin abuse is not limited to a certain demographic or geographic area," says Rusty Payne, public affairs director of the DEA. "What has been seen as primarily an urban drug in reality is a drug that touches every segment of society. Inner cities, wealthy suburbs, poor rural areas – everywhere."
A dad with a PhD, Walker held a high profile job in state government for years before heading into academia. Even while there he continued to use everyday—something he was only capable of because of his status. “This is coming from a place of tremendous privilege, I was able to build up relations with suppliers. I wasn’t on the street...I wasn’t opening myself to the tremendous risks,” he says. Taking 4-6 strictly measured doses of heroin each day, makes Walker feel “emotionally centered” and gives him a greater ability to focus and articulate. “Think of it like a cigarette break,” he says of the times he stops to inject.
While Walker’s situation is unusual, it’s not one of a kind. “I know a lot of people working in various professions doing the exact same thing,” he says. “Judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers, engineers, day traders, stock brokers, computer information specialists, government contractors.” With full time jobs and salaries, it’s these heroin users that have the luxury of remaining hidden—in great deal because of their ability to minimize the risks associated with heroin use.
“The people whose heroin use we come to know about are people who couldn’t afford to insulate themselves from the authorities,” Walker says. “If you base me on the stereotype of a heroin addict that the media propagates, I couldn’t talk because I’d be in a playground shooting heroin into my eye sockets.”
The perils of a heroin addiction for a user who is without the means to "insulate" themselves from disease and crime are many. "Street heroin" can be laced with anything from baking soda to fentanyl—a narcotic 100 times as strong as morphine that has been linked to dozens of recent deaths. Without access to clean needles, users are suspectible to deadly infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Often left with no explanation of what the batch contains, they are more prone to an overdose, slowing their breath to the point of death.
Part of the media’s representation of heroin addicts is based on the severity of these risks—from which no heroin user, no matter how privileged, is entirely immune. Beyond its toxicity, long term side effects of heroin use can be deadly too, ranging from abscesses to infections of the heart lining and valves. Dr. Jack B. Stein, Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls situations like Walker’s "unique." Under tobacco, heroin is the second most addicting narcotic, he explains, triggering dependency in 23 percent of the people who use it. “But what might be extremely addictive for one person won’t be for another," he tells The Daily Beast. "Not everyone who uses heroin gets addicted.”
“I was able to build up relations with suppliers. I wasn’t on the street...I wasn’t opening myself to the tremendous risks. Think of it like a cigarette break.”
When asked if someone could theoretically be a high-functioning adult who is also a regular heroin user, Dr. Stein is careful with his response. “One would be able to be functioning to the same extent that somebody would be on another opiate-based drug or medication (i.e. Vicodin).”
Meghan Ralston, the Los Angeles harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance is equally concerned about the effects—but more focused on preventing them. “Heroin addiction is misunderstood and deeply stigmatized,” she tells The Daily Beast. “Not everyone who uses drugs is committing crimes. It happens to good people. It happens to people with no intentions to ever, ever use it again.” It’s the disconnect with what heroin addiction looks like that keeps the stigmas alive. “Here was Hoffman, a guy functioning at the very top of his game—incredibly responsible, wildly respected, family man. And then here was his secret shame,” Ralston says.
In order to make actual progress, we have to admit there is a problem, she says. “We never change the national discourse, we just keep telling people ‘don’t do it.’ That’s ridiculous. It’s ineffective and it doesn’t work.” Instead, Ralston says, we must admit there's a problem. “We’ve got to be less terrified. We've got to do a much better job teaching people basic life-saving practices. I hope that [Hoffman's] death can bring some of those life-saving tips forward."
When asked about Hoffman’s tragic overdose, Walker’s voice is audibly agitated.
The anger, it seems, is directed not at the actor himself, nor the deadly “Ace of Spades” that killed him, but at what Walker calls the “multi-layered” stigmatization process of heroin addiction in America. The silencing that results encourages users to do so alone, leaving no one to catch them when things turn deadly. “We lie to ourselves,” he says, of heroin users and addicts. “We can’t do the one thing that would save our lives: tell others that we are using.”
*Name has been changed