What Heroin Taught Me About Habit-Forming

Scott Leonardi

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A pocket of my past deserves a little more credit than I’m normally willing to give it.

It’s not something I’m eagerly forthcoming about, but it’s played a big part in both the benefits and detriments I experience to this day due to that old life.

It’s not that I’m so ashamed of it that I refuse to ever speak of it, but it’s not necessarily the go-to for causal dinner conversation. When the subject does somehow come up, it’s more of a reluctant revealing instead of an exciting presentation.

Like a soldier being asked about their body count. They might not mind sharing war stories if prompted, but it’s probably not something they look forward to doing. And in this case, the lingering PTSD birthed from both theirs and my experience still haunts the abandoned hallways in the back of our minds. Specters from another life, sustaining their ghostly form on the crumbs of regret leftover from a period of time we’d rather shake off as a bad dream than remembered as a lived reality. Alas, what other recourse is there than to grab a flashlight and shine our way into those dark corners of our mind? There’re ghosts to bust and as far as I know, Bill Murray’s busy.

I used to be a heroin addict.

For around five years on and off in my 20’s, I used some sort of painkiller, opioid, or heroin, nearly every day. I’ll give myself some credit and say that I never crossed the line of using needles, and although it may not seem like that matters from an outside perspective, as any heavy user could tell you, that’s huge. Taking that literal plunge may make the entire experience feel leaps and bounds better, but also makes it unbelievably harder to get away from. I suppose I’m “lucky” in that regard, but I think I just always had the foresight of knowing one day I’d be done, and I needed to keep a tight leash on what I considered at the time to be a manageable addiction.

I wasn’t trying to say that my time spent willingly abusing my body with narcotics is exactly the same as the horrors of war, not even close, merely that they both have lasting, unseen effects that hang around for years afterwards.

Like I said, there have been benefits to my experiences as a drug addict as well as detriments. Sometimes, the two are hard to distinguish from each other. Other times, it’s clear as day how I’m being affected by those years long past.

The hardest part is always questioning whether you’re having a hard time with life because of the imposing circumstances of your current reality, or because you accidentally broke your brain which led you to these circumstances in the first place. After all, heroin damages your dopamine receptors, making it harder to create the chemical on your own. It also causes various hormonal imbalances and white matter deterioration in the brain effecting decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and how you respond to stress.

It makes sense that with enough use over enough time, these things would become harder and harder to reverse. When you have a grasp over these sorts of implications, it’s easy to look at your current life and want to place the blame for everything wrong with it on the decisions made by your younger self. It’s easy to feel hopeless and that your efforts for fixing yourself will be futile in the face of such potentially irreversible damage.

I’m not saying things are bad now, in fact I’ve grown a great deal since that time and am doing exponentially better than I was, but I still can’t help but think at times, Am I acting this way and having these thoughts because it’s natural to do so? Or did I really do enough damage to myself back then that things are harder now than they should be?

It’s like your brain is a house and instead of spending your young adulthood understanding its structure, navigating its foundations, and slowly building it into a healthy and personalized home, you decided to grab a sledgehammer and eagerly smash the walls, put holes in the floors, and topple the support beams in a reckless demolition session just because it felt exciting to break shit. Now, years later, after working your ass off to renovate the absolute travesty of a mess you made, you still find yourself surrounded by piles of dry wall, tangles of dead wiring, and unhung light fixtures gathering dust. There’s still so much work, and sometimes it feels like you should just cut your losses and “move out.” I obviously can’t (won’t) do that, but I didn’t plan on building an entire house, just furnishing the damn thing.

You also don’t realize until months or even years after the fact that being lost in the haze of heroin stifles your emotional and psychological growth. Once that fog finally clears, you feel like you’ve reentered your own mind at the age you were when you first started using. Like your true self was put on pause while the whole world continued to spin in motion around you.

The people your same age have have been developing themselves internally and externally for years while you were living in slow motion, and so you always feel in a state of “catching up.” Most people are buying literal homes while you’re still patching holes in the walls of your mind.

At least, that’s how it can feel. It becomes very tiresome when you see things this way all the time. One, because no one should live so comparatively to others, and also, things aren’t actually as bad as they can sometimes feel.

All that being said, let me get to the positives that have come out of it all and the main point of this article.

It’s definitely not all just wandering the chaotic ruins of addiction’s atomic aftermath. Some of the benefits of that experience are just as good as the negative effects are bad. The amount of mental fortitude and resilience I’ve garnered from having to pull myself away from the grips of the magnetizing black tar on my own is unmatched by anything else I’ve ever gone through. Battling addiction, and defeating it, was the most important and most rewarding things I’ve ever done for myself. Despite the lingering struggles, I can still look back and be proud of myself and endlessly thankful for making it through that experience with my life and spirit intact. Not many do.

The main thing I’ve noticed from dealing with addiction is that I’ve become extremely adept at spotting habitual behavior. In myself as well as others. Friends, family, or strangers, I understand and can see the desire for comfort in particular vices and can tell when they’re being used as crutches for problems instead of those problems being dealt with head-on.

It’s anything from sugar, to alcohol, to T.V., to sex, to sleeping, to nicotine, to social media, to pornography, to gambling and more. Anything that gives pleasure in some way, I can immediately tell when it’s being done because of a genuine desire to relax, and when it’s being done out of unconscious habit.

I can tell when I’ve become reliant on daily rituals as a form of distraction from the stresses of life. I know that sometimes I’m not even in the mood to watch a movie before bed, yet I’ll do it anyways because I’m so used to trying to zone out at the end of the day. It’s barely a decision before I’m already halfway through watching something I have no interest in. It reminds me exactly of spending half my day chasing the brown baggie only to finally get what I needed and feel terrible about myself for having spent my time that way. But unconscious decisions are just that, habitual grasps at comfort.

So, here’s a few things about habit-forming that heroin has taught me over the years.

  • The thing you think you want isn’t literally the thing you want.

You don’t want the thing, you want the comfort the thing provides you. You just want to feel okay for a moment. You’ve merely projected your source of comfort from within you onto something external. Now, instead of utilizing your capacity for happiness from the place of inner peace that resides in each of us, you’ve placed yourself within a game of cat and mouse — always chasing something just out of reach.

This perpetuates itself because this game convinces you that you can only feel “okay” by being in constant motion. Happiness becomes something to catch or find. You no longer believe or are even able to see how you could be happy without “acquiring” that feeling through some external means. It doesn’t need to be sought after or held onto, but you’ve severed your tie to what stirs you at your core, and so you look for similar stimulation elsewhere.

  • Any behavior or action you take out of discomfort, stress, or an unconscious “signaling” is a poor habit either in the making, or is already set.

When you check your phone in uncomfortable situations? Poor habit. Do you need to have a drink after a stressful day? Poor habit. Are you eating sugar, numbing your brain with sitcoms, or masturbating before bed every night without even thinking about if you desire those things or not? Really poor habit.

I use these examples because I’ve fallen into every one of them. Work sucked? Few beers will erase all that. Time for bed? Time for some candy, a crappy show, and a little one-two-strokeroo. Why? Not because I even had a desire for these things but because, well, it was just time to do them.

Unconscious actions feeding into a numbing cycle of feeling helpless against your own impulses. Not because you truly desire something, but because you’re not even aware that’s it’s an impulse and not a real desire.

  • Cold turkey is the best way to get over bad habits.

I can’t stress this enough.

No weening yourself away from the snacks. No cutting down on drinks. No fast food once a week. No two smokes a week. No slowly backing away from the thing you’re trying to quit. The best way to cut the legs out from the thing that holds power over you is to simply stop on a dime. That’s how I stopped using dope every day, how I’ve stopped other habits as well, and what I truly believe is the most effective way of cutting something out of your life.

Now, that being said, I’m not saying that certain things can’t be re-introduced into your life in moderation after a long while away from them. But to sever their habit-forming power, you need to be able to willingly step away from them entirely with no looking back. It’s only when you know you have no problem living without them can you consider inviting them back into your life, and then only under your control.

Except heroin. Definitely not heroin. It should go without saying that’s a big no-no when it comes to doing things “once in a while.”

For example, though, I never said that I’m a completely sober person, because I’m not. I’m able to go out and have one or two drinks and call it a night. Sometimes even get a little saucy, but it’s always because I consciously choose to. I don’t allow alcohol to have that kind of power over me. Mostly because I’ve never quite had the same addictive relationship with it as other substances, but also because I know the power of habits and I’m aware when I’m buying another drink out of sheer muscle-memory than a making a conscious decision to tip a few back with friends.

I know that there’s plenty of people in the sober community that might think it dangerous or irresponsible of me to continue allowing myself these indulgences with my history and the domino-effect that kind of thing has on former addicts, but like I said, I’m aware of what exactly I was addicted to and what I wasn’t. I was never an everything-or-nothing user. I just had a spoiled apple in the bunch so I cleaned house and replanted the entire tree.

  • If you want to see which of your behaviors are harming you, stop doing everything you normally do.

Now, I’m able to catch myself early when bad habits are starting to form before they get out of hand. It’s so much easier now for me to see a particular behavior and think Oh, this is just a habit. I don’t even actually care about doing this. And so I just stop doing it. At least until I know I don’t feel like I “need” it.

When you’re addicted to heroin, you aren’t thinking about what your options might be to wind down after a day at work. You aren’t thinking Hm, maybe I’ll watch a movie, or maybe I’ll grab a beer with so-and-so, or maybe I’ll try to make that recipe I saw online. Instead, you’re not even seeing the part of your day before you have a little brown baggie in your hand as part of your day at all, because life doesn’t feel like it even starts until you’ve had what you need. It’s all a preamble to you getting a chance to “take a drive.”

All of your decisions are based around a habit so deeply ingrained into you that they aren’t even decisions anymore, just a particular context you have to deal with so you can fulfill your main objective. And that objective is ALWAYS the priority.

In this same sense now, years later, when I find myself rushing through my workday or mindlessly going through the motions of whatever responsibilities I’m taking care of, I can see it’s because I’m trying to hurry up so I can get to the part where it’s over, where I can do the thing I’d rather do. Be it watch some show or eat some food or meet with friends. Everything I have to do becomes the subtext for the main event, which is doing whatever I want. It’s obvious when I start doing this now, and it’s much easier to stop and realize that whatever comfort I’m rushing to isn’t actually there. It’s in my power in this moment and always has been.

On a final note, I’ll leave you with the most important aspect of my entire experience.

That is, you can only change how you feel when you change how you think.

This is difficult for people in general to understand, but addicts especially.

Most people think that they want to stop doing what they’re doing, but deep down they still find comfort in their behavior. Now, before anyone jumps on me for it, I’m not saying that addicts want to be addicted. Trust me, I know how desperate some people are to quit and change their lives. I get it, I’ve been there! It can feel like you’ve never wanted anything more in your life, and yet it still feels like an impossible feat to make it through a day without using. Quitting something as powerful as opiates can be extremely stressful, so yes, making it through two days can feel momentous. It can even feel like you deserve a little reward for your achievement…

That being said, the only way real change can occur within a person is when the decision is so final within their mind that they may as well already be that person.

You can’t do something as hard overcoming addiction(of any kind), or getting in shape, or creating wealth for yourself without altering your mindset in such a radical way that you walk around as if you’ve already reached your goal. When I was in my own recovery, I had cravings and felt like shit for months, sure, but I also knew whole-heartedly that I was done. I acted as if I was already that clean person and was merely dealing with a bit of sickness until I was well again.

The same goes for losing weight, saving money, or any number of good and bad habits. You must act as if you are already the person you wish to be. When you embody that state of mind completely, that is when your life starts to catch up to what it’s “supposed” to be.

All in all, habit-forming, whether it be adding new ones or removing old ones, all comes down to being aware of your motivations. It’s all a matter of whether or not you’re making a conscious decision or are acting out of impulse.

If you’re not sure whether a habit is good or bad for you, do this — try going without it for a month and note how many times you think about it during each day.

Do you crave it before the time you’d normally do it? Are you obsessively thinking about it during the time you’d normally be doing it? Or are you okay without it? Do you not think about it at all? Are you able to regulate the amount of times you consciously indulge yourself, or can you not have just one drink, one candy bar, one day off running, or go shopping for just one thing? If you see yourself falling prey to the pull of your habits, it may be time to reevaluate what you really want and what’s truly in control of your behavior.

Comforting habits are born of a desire for love and comfort within oneself. When we can make peace with who we are, flaws and all, we can start to uncover the place within us that’s capable of simply existing without the external pull of temporary comforts.

When we can truly love ourselves unconditionally, we discover a strength within that can overcome any imposition on our wellbeing. We can consciously notice our thoughts, our behaviors, and the habits that unintentionally form out of misplaced awareness.

Take your time to look inward at your actions. See them for what they are and be honest with yourself about where they stem from. We each have a whole inner world full of creative potential and reality-manifesting power waiting for us to use it to benefit our lives. And once you start looking, you’ll be surprised what you find.

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I write a lot about self-development and personal growth. I want to help people uncover their authentic selves through creative expression and in the process understand their place in the world a little better. I also enjoy writing screenplays, short stories, and poetry. All of which can be found at MossManSupreme.com

Imperial Beach, CA

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