Memories Of A Heroin Head: “Heroin Has Given Me More Life Than It Has Taken Away”

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Shane Levene is a writer, artist, and a heroin addict. He is quite fabulous at being all three of those things. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and his lifestyle.

B.W. By anyone’s standards I have used excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol over my life. I once had a girlfriend who was a heroin addict who would use in my presence, but still I never used. What do you think separates those who embrace heroin from those of us that don’t?

S.L. I think it’s probably a lot to do with association. But not only association to the drug and what it is and what it represents, but an association of ourselves and who we think we are, would like to be and what we feel we represent through our existence. They’re very complicated things, figuring out what the hell life and existence is all about and how best to be oneself/find oneself in the midst of everything that is on offer. Often these choices come down to how pathetic and superficial we can be as humans. It’s not always easy or cool to admit that, but such choices are rife through everyone’s life whether it’s stumbling around town smacked up, sitting in the cafeteria of some obscure art-house cinema with an intellectual haircut or hanging about the history section of a library in a suit woven from horse-shit. We all have quite superficial ideas of who we are and what we represent and who we want to be in this world. We are offshoots of culture and place and we root and find our own niche within niches, find our own heroes and anti-heroes and through them make some sense of the world and finally/hopefully come to terms with and accept mortality. It’s all about our internal hero and we all have one. Some may on the surface seem more mature and sophisticated but they all serve the same purpose of identity in a world in which we really don’t understand. So often an initial attraction to heroin can come through that (or depending on your idea of yourself to a another drug or alcohol). As for those who embrace heroin after trying it and those who don’t, that has more to do with the emotional state of the user and their needs at the time and what heroin does. The more stress or trauma you have to be relieved of the greater  effect heroin will have. It’s bullshit that addicts are forever trying to chase the heights of the first high. The initial high is often a nauseating experience with little enjoyable effect to speak of. A junkie’s greatest fix can come at any time as it’s relative to trauma: the more one has to be relieved of the better the hit. it’s why a genuine happy person who experiments with heroin will often conclude “it’s shit… it did nothing”. It did do nothing because they had nothing to  be relieved of. 

B.W. You have shot up over 60,000 times in you estimation. Your father was murdered by serial killer Dennis Nilsen,  Obviously death has to be something you think about often. Do you care if you die? Should it matter to anyone if you do?

S.L. Of course I care if I die. I began using heroin (as most do) to make life more acceptable. It’s another myth (often perpetrated by addicts themselves) that heroin users are self-destructive and suicidal. In fact it’s the opposite: we use to make life more bearable because we want to live. Death is easy. Anyone who wants to die is a cut  away. For me, heroin use was more about self-preservation, as under sober life conditions in a certain moment in my life I wasn’t going to survive. Heroin allowed me to get through that. Of course it leaves its marks, fucks up the body and organs, but it has given me more life than it has taken away. That was the deal I bought into. I don’t bemoan that now but must live with the consequences of my actions. But we all do that anyway.

As to whether it matters to anyone else? Logically it shouldn’t, but of course we all have attachments and lovers and friends and even the most ruthless, bastard scoundrel leaves a little space behind when he goes. I’m sure there’ll be someone (a dog or rat or something) that’ll care if I  am dead or alive. I think more people will care about the art and writing rather than my physical continuation. Death puts a cap on your work and makes it finite. There can never be any more and so it becomes more precious and more appreciated. Those people now who wait for me to put up new writing will appreciate that even more when I cannot and they will have experienced something of my work that others, reading post-my-mortem, can never experience. As no-one has ever said before: a dog may bark. That’ll be my 3 gunshot salute before battle recommences for those left behind.

B.W. Most people in society simply can’t imagine someone using heroin that doesn’t want to quit. To most you are a pathetic junkie and you are weak. How do you respond to that thought process?

S.L. Whether they can imagine it or not has no bearing on things because it’s happening. Of course, the pressure from society is put on us to whinge about wanting to quit. We cannot get help or treatment if we don’t lie and say that junk is hell and we want to stop. As a consequence most addicts will say they want to quit so as they can get the help they need to make their addiction a little less brutal. But the truth is far from that. No-one (apart from ex-addicts) working in  conventional drug treatment in the UK or US knows anything about the life and thoughts of a real junkie. They see the side we are forced to present to get what we need. If we dared tell the  truth we’d be slung out on the streets to decompose in our own shit. And so we lie and bullshit and say what is needed and expected. The truth is most junkies want to quit for very specific reasons and it’s often financial. I know all my friends and I only ever first considered treatment when we were potless and laying around stuffed full of sickness and pain. Once we got somewhere near to back on our feet, swindled a half decent check from somewhere we discarded our  treatment and only crawled back into the clinic when life got back down to the wire. Not all are like that, but the vast majority are and only want to quit for certain reasons which have little to do with really quitting. That the average heroin addiction lasts a decade says a lot more than what I can. Those are truths we cannot speak if we want the help of the state. As to being pathetic and weak. Well, anyone who understands addiction at all would not say such a thing and anyone who does I would instantly suspect of being fresh out of the lobotomy ward.  The world likes trying to insult people out of ways of being. But maybe I would consider someone pathetic and weak who would struggle through years of emotional and physical pain without so much as taking a painkiller. Maybe to me that kind of stubbornness is ridiculous and pathetic. It’s their ignorance not mine and I much prefer it that way.

B.W. Tell me a little about your book The Void Ratio.

S.L. The Void Ratio is a book born out of an idea by a great photographer and artist called Karolina Urbaniak. It began as a little chapbook, her photography of my shooting paraphernalia each set to a small text of mine. It  expanded from there. It’s a weird book (not really a book at all… not in the conventional sense). But it was perfect for me as my first official publication was always going to be a tricky affair to show what I represent as a writer. I had vowed and refused to  publish  a straight up memoir as a debut work and that left the question just what would I publish? The Void Ratio was just right to showcase a certain side of my writing and where I sit as a writer. Having said that, because the texts were so much influenced by the photography, they are quite different from the bulk of my stuff. There is an unresolved bleakness which runs through the book and a lot of the wonder and magic of life is kinda desaturated down to sit in with the feel of the photography. As ever my real representational writing can be found on my site. I don’t differentiate between traditionally published writing and online writing. For me they are both equally valid. Of course The Void Ratio was also a little special as it had the support of various artists and writers and musicians who I admire greatly. Namely Martin Bladh, Dennis Cooper, Tony O’neill and the world’s favourite rogue Peter Doherty. Apart from the respect such things don’t mean much to me but it does help to give a certain validation of my work to those who need it, and it goes without saying that they were all honest involvements from people who  genuinely enjoy my words.

B.W. Your writing is excellent. How much does your drug use give to your creativity and how much does it take away?

S.L. Aside from the life and trouble it leads me into and around it doesn’t give anything at all. Drugs and creativity is another myth I’m not a great fan of. The artist cannot be reliant on drugs to create. If that were the case where exactly is the artist when the drugs are all shot? The artist must exist independently of such things. If anyone needs drugs to create then they’re obviously(sooner rather than later) going to have a huge crisis of creativity and identity. I very rarely write under the influence of heroin – I can’t. Heroin use and  writing are not mutually compatible. The heroin user can often keep it together while standing up and being active, but the moment he/she sits down the drug wears heavy again and the ol’ eyelids close over and all productivity stops there. Sure, I can knock out a poem or pen in a comma or something on heroin but concerning serious, strenuous  writing, no, I do all that straight… well, straightish, as I am always on methadone as that is my treatment.

But that explanation must not be misunderstood. Heroin does not effect one’s creativity. The mind and brain still work under heroin and the user is just as creative as ever, but  heroin impedes the production of that creativity from brain to paper. It is the process of writing which becomes impossible, not the formation of the words. I guess then, by default of what I have just said,  drug use must take away in the time that I do not spend writing due to being under the influence. An outsider would maybe conclude that I would write twice as much not using heroin as I would using it. I don’t see things that way. I don’t differentiate between living and writing and so in a sense, while I am breathing I am also doing my best writing (or learning to write/figuring out what to write). Far from the common misconception writing isn’t living; it is merely the receipt of it. And the real writing isn’t  done at the typewriter or computer but in the living. So all time spent away from the physical process of writing is where the real poetry is created. I only sit down for the horrendous task of typing it up when absolutely necessary. I wouldn’t be interested in any writer who rarely leaves his writing space; just as I wouldn’t trust one with all his internal organs intact.  What could such a person possibly have to say about anything in life? I’m rarely to be found typing and my organs are dissolving away by the second. If I’m right the poet should put in an appearance very soon… You’ll have to watch this space…. X

 Check out Shane’s website Memories of a Heroinhead.
Brian Whitney is the author of Raping the Gods.