Living with heroin

Alexi David is a 26-year-old man suffering from a chronic incurable illness. He is a former heroin addict and this is his story.

NINE years ago, Alexi decided to destroy himself. It didn’t feel like a conscious decision, but in reality that’s what it was, he admits today.

Born on March 8, 1977 in Cyprus, he moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1984 with his parents and older sister. He was seven years old and already unsure of himself and insecure. He remembers feelings pangs of intense loneliness at school and not knowing why.

Although Alexi did not want to go into his family background into detail, it is apparent he comes from a disruptive home. In his own words, “no junkie has a good upbringing”. His parents, now recently divorced, fought a lot and Alexi was either ignored or smothered with affection.

When he arrived in America, things became worse and his classmates alienated him because he was different. “I was called names like Greasy Greek”. The only good thing he refers to back then was his music, and he started playing the electric bass guitar at the age of 10.

Alexi’s drug addiction began in August 1993.

“It was the first time I ever got drunk. I was 16 and in that moment, even at a low level of maturity I said this is it; this is what I want to do the rest of my life. I want to be fucked up. I want to be high. That’s it. This works. Because I was too immature to know better ways to deal with the situation,” he said.

From that moment on, things only got worse. “From there it’s a very slow progression, like it is for any addict until they find a drug of their choice and off they go.”
Alexi tried everything, from marijuana, to pills, to cocaine, until in the spring of 1995 he met his favourite substance: heroin.

“Heroin basically dulls any physical and emotional pain you have. Dead. When I say dead I mean the most intense kind of apathy in the world. You couldn’t give a damn what’s happening to anyone around you. You don’t care about anyone really. You think you do, but in an immature childish kind of way. But you really don’t care about anyone.”

Yet surely most people, no matter how much they hate themselves, have heard frightening stories about heroin and dare not try it for fear of becoming addicted?
“It didn’t matter at that point,” he said. “If someone has made up their mind that they don’t care about themselves and they want to harm themselves from a young age, all those things are irrelevant.

“I was angry with myself, with the world, with everything and I didn’t know how to deal with the anger. The heroin calms you.”

Within a few years he had metaphorically become the very same “greasy” Greek his former classmates had mocked. As a heroin addict he rarely washed and didn’t care about anything but his next hit. Old photographs depict a dishevelled young man with a vacant gaze, not the aspiring musician with a future that he is today.

Initially he started snorting heroin, but within three years he was injecting. In New York, heroin cost him $10 a dose. Depending on the purity of the stuff he used between one and five doses daily. At first, he supported his habits with odd jobs and music gigs, but before long he started stealing.

“I started to steal from anybody. I’d steal cash from handbags, from shops, from anywhere. I also started pawning my own stuff. When you start doing those things you know it’s getting bad because you’re getting really, really desperate,” he said.

“You feel dirty, bad, ashamed, worthless, ugly and useless all the time.

“At first, when you become an addict everything is nice and sweet and you’re very much living in euphoria. But after a few years things change and you start to take heroin so as not to get sick (withdrawal symptoms). You don’t get that same psychological high and so your negative feelings get stronger and with them your addiction gets worse.

“All the negative things in life get worse and keep piling up and up and you just can’t deal with it,” he said.

In 1998, Alexi joined a methadone clinic to come off the heroin, although he had no genuine intention of getting clean. Methadone is usually just a heroin addict’s way of not getting sick and being able to combine the two addictions simultaneously, he said.

In 1999, he came to Cyprus for a holiday, and supposedly to get off his methadone addiction. Initially he went to psychiatrists for help but before long they had him addicted to prescription medication. “They were so easy to get. You just had to say you weren’t sleeping and they’d give you a box of valium,” he said.

This only made things worse, as he started to abuse combinations of legal drugs. In no time, he was having fits of paranoia and violence, to the point where he took knives out on his mother. In March 2000, he had his worse overdose. He was found in a coma outside a Nicosia coffee shop and rushed to hospital. The doctors said he wouldn’t make it, but miraculously he woke up. Instead of being happy to be alive, he was angry to have messed up his high and discharged himself immediately. By the end of April, his parents took out a court order and had him put in the Athalassa psychiatric institution for a month. When he was discharged they took him to the Ayia Skepi Therapeutic Community.

“I agreed to go for a week and stayed two years. If it hadn’t been for Ayia Skepi I would be dead.”

Alexi says his stay at Ayia Skepi was psychologically gruelling, but that it is the only way to recover from heroin addiction. During his time there, he learned how to communicate with others and to ask for help. Group therapy, gardening, sports and kitchen duties are all part of the programme, he said. Eventually, the patients are allowed day passes and even 24-hour passes. They are also sent out to work. This way they are reintegrated back into society slowly, he said.

Alexi recognises he has an addictive personality and swings from extremes. Sometimes even now he feels lonely and shuts himself off from the world for a few days to stay at home and compose as well as play the upright bass. At first he was very angry with his parents, but now he has come to terms with their parenting techniques and that they too, like him, have faults.

Alexi battles his addiction every day by fighting small things that could lead to a relapse, such as putting off goals he has set for himself. What saved him, for example, was his love of music, both performing and composing. “You need to have a motive. You have to want to get clean for yourself. You have to ask yourself, do I want to live? If I do, why? What is the benefit of a clean life? When you find the answer, you have to cling to that.”
Alexi says he’s OK with talking about his addiction. “It’s one of the tricks with quitting heroin and staying off it because a lot of your addiction is born out of fear. Fear of who are; to be ashamed of yourself. Most of my life I was ashamed of myself.

“Every time I do something like this I fight my fears. I’m not scared to show who I am. This is who I am my faults and my good points. That’s very, very important in the recovery. You mustn’t be scared. You have to fight your fears. If you let them take over you’re finished. That’s a very important point. I don’t need to take dope to talk to a girl, or to talk on stage or to meet new people,” he said.

But life as a clean junkie is not all rosy. “I don’t have a big house, a lot of money or someone to love me. But I do have little things like my own place, I earn money from gigs that I don’t have to spend on drugs and people respect me. For once, people look up to me,” he said.

Nevertheless he still keeps a reality check on the situation and tells himself it’s never over and there is no one cure. It is a constant battle that he must face.

Despite all this, he still feels stronger because of his addiction, and all that his recovery has taught him. And, besides, as he himself says: “Life’s a pain in the arse, but it’s worth trying.”