I Numbed My Feelings With Heroin For 15 Years
When I wrote my memoir, my emotions all came spilling out of me.
When taking on any challenge, I always believe that I will knock it out of the park. I’m not sure if this is self-belief or self-deception? A mixture of both, I think. But my latest challenge was different. I was about to write my memoir, my first book. Maybe I wouldn’t be so confident?
At the time, I didn’t think too much about it. I just dived straight in. But when I reflect back now, about how I felt, it was much of the same. Did I feel uncertain? I didn’t. Did I start doubting myself? Not in the slightest. I was as confident as ever. “This is going to be easy,” I thought. I was sadly mistaken.
Self-deception is a cunning adversary. It’s the reason I used heroin for so long. I never listened to anyone — mostly to protect my addiction — so with no other reference point, I simply believed my own lies.
Many of my lies were harmless, but as my addiction progressed, so did my ability to deceive myself. I was becoming a master of the craft — a black belt in self-deception — and I could make myself do anything, cross any boundary, by making up stories and believing my own lies.
It was only while writing my memoir that I realised my talent for self-deception. Before that, I thought I had dealt with the scars from my addiction. I had worked so hard on myself — looking inward at every opportunity. There was no way I didn’t know my own mind.
But I was wrong. Halfway through the book— the darkest part — I needed to confirm details with those who were on the journey with me. I started by talking to my mam about the harm I’d caused her. That’s when it hit me, like a thump from a heavyweight boxer, straight into my heart.
The writing process had started off well. I had written the prologue as part of the proposal and it sounded great. I then booked a week at a writing retreat in the West of Ireland. “I’ll get three chapters done,” I thought to myself, “I’ll be way ahead of schedule.”
The timing for the book was tight, four months, but with a mix of self-belief and self-deception in my back pocket, that wasn’t going to be a problem.
That’s when I hit my first stumbling block. I wrote two chapters in five days at the retreat. I knew it wasn’t my best work, but I thought they were OK. That was until I asked the host, who was also an editor, to take a look. “I love negative feedback,” I said, brazenly, “so feel free to go hard.”
She kindly agreed to give feedback, and as it turned out, she also agreed to go hard. She ripped my new chapters to shreds. But she didn’t stop there — she tore my prologue apart too.
She was a brilliant editor — that was obvious even to me — so I was gutted when she gave me her verdict. But I was also thrilled. Failure is the best teacher — I had first-hand experience of that — so I knew I could turn this into a win. I was telling my story instead of bringing the reader on the journey with me. I needed to make changes, big changes, so for the last two days at the retreat, I decided to start from scratch — a decision that saved the book.
When I returned to Dublin, I read William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well. This was a game-changer. The book advised me to focus on critical life experiences related to the topic of the memoir. My new plan was to paint these experiences as pictures in the heads of the readers. In other words, bring them on the journey with me.
There was only one place to start — my first time doing heroin — a moment that completely changed the course of my life. This experience turned into a whole chapter, which I called Falling in Love.
First, I relived the entire event in my head. Then I poured all of my memories onto the page. I left nothing out: the excitement, the fear, what it looks like, how it feels, how it smells, how it spoke to me, my perverse longing — even now — for the drug that nearly killed me, and how vomiting while high was one of the best experiences of my life.
I found my feet while writing about this experience. It also changed my writing style. I loved creating scenes and painting pictures in people’s heads. When I showed the chapter to my editors, they loved it too, so this set the trajectory for the rest of the book. I also wrote an article about this experience that went viral, so it was obvious I was doing something right.
From here on in, I started every chapter with a vivid scene from my life. Unfortunately for me, many of these events were distressing, especially for my family. Reliving these experiences was hard enough, but when talking to my loved ones about them, especially my mother, that’s when I realised I was still deceiving myself.
I had numbed my feelings throughout my entire addiction — that was the core goal after all — to kill anxiety. But now, with over 5-years recovery under my belt, I realised I was still numbing my feelings. Not anxiety. I had conquered that demon, but I was refusing to feel the harm I caused to others.
I knew about this pain on an intellectual level, but I never felt it. And I certainly didn’t consider how others might be feeling. In reality, I didn’t know how to take the perspective of others. Addiction is a selfish game, and I never learned that skill-set. It simply wasn’t in my repertoire.
But all of that changed while writing the book. I felt everything, for everyone, all at once. It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life — heroin withdrawal included — and despite the looming book deadline, there was nothing I could do. It floored me — emotionally, mentally, and most of all physically. For one full week, I just sat with my feelings. It was all I could do.
Fuel to Thrive
I’ve learned many lessons since I found recovery, but my biggest lesson is this: Adversity doesn’t stop me; it fuels my ability to thrive. With the right mindset, this is the same for everyone. I had experienced this on many occasions, and now that my feelings had floored me, I was going to apply it here too.
Thankfully, I had a toolbox to help me. When I was two years clean, I had a mini-relapse. It was just like old times, and I didn’t even see it — self-deception at its very best. After that experience, however, I developed a programme to navigate my new life.
This toolbox has helped me through many challenges, and this would be no different. Instead of wallowing in my pain, I felt it fully. I finally understood how much my family had suffered, and I used it as an opportunity to build stronger relationships with them.
I knew my addiction had a huge impact on my mam, but I never apologised. I just assumed she knew. But feeling her pain changed all of that. So instead of avoiding my feelings, I leaned right in and chatted with her about them.
My relationship with my mam is now stronger than ever. When I reflect on how much it’s changed, it fills me with joy. Instead of watching me kill myself, we go for walks together in the park. Instead of listening to my lies, we have deep conversations about life. And instead of making her cry, I like to think I make her laugh.
I wrote my memoir for two reasons. The first one is clear — I wanted to share a message of hope with those who are still struggling.
The second reason is not so clear. Maybe it was ego. Or maybe it was my new found love of writing — it’s hard to know for sure. But I’d like to think that deep down, my subconscious mind knew I was still deceiving myself, that I was hiding from my emotions. So it nudged me to open up in the only way it knew I could — by writing my memoir.
It might be the grandest deception of them all, but the one I’m most thankful for. By forcing me to face my emotions, my memoir has given the greatest of gifts — a life full of feeling and emotion.
(c) Brian Pennie
About Bonus Time: A true story of surviving the worst and discovering the magic of every moment
How would you live differently if life gave you a second chance?
Brian Pennie shouldn’t be alive today. His drug addiction was so bad that he was deemed too much of a risk for detox. Determined to confront his demons, he went cold turkey at home. Discovered in a pool of blood, it didn’t exactly go to plan, but that’s where his life truly began.
On 8 October 2013, he was finally clean after fifteen years of chronic heroin addiction, and something extraordinary happened: the world suddenly became beautiful.
Free of the anxiety and fear that had always plagued him, Brian was given a second chance at life, and he devoured every minute of it. Bit by bit he rebuilt his world and began to share what he had learned with others.
In this incredibly honest and inspirational book, Brian tells the story of how he turned a seemingly hopeless existence into a rich and rewarding life, showing that change is always possible, no matter how stuck we feel.
Order your copy online here.