The Addict in Us
"While the factual memory of an addict may be quick, accurate and extensive, his emotional memory may be scanty and, in the case of heavy addiction, approach effective zero."
– William S. Burroughs, on the effects of heroin.
John has always assumed it had been cocaine. Most people think that. But they're wrong. For Sherlock, it had always been diamorphine, in any and in all its derivatives.
He had started taking drugs because he was desperate for the distraction. He needed to ease the gnawing boredom, to quieten his mind and shut his thoughts down for a few hours. Cocaine had never succeeded in doing that; its active ingredient increases energy and motor activity, and stimulates the brain, creating the screaming feeling of euphoria. It is a loud drug, a frenetic drug. His mind had already been rubbed raw by genius; the last thing he needed was another stimulant.
By contrast, diamorphine – heroin – had smooth hands and a hushed voice. It made his blood feel slow, like glue in his veins. From the moment of the rush, Sherlock could palpably detect the shutting down of the analytic aspect of his brain. He could finally be still, stop and sink into a cerebral silence. There, he felt warm and safe.
He was eighteen when it all began. For most of his time at Cambridge, where he had ostensibly gone to read Chemistry, Sherlock had been taking drugs with his housemates in a pathetic pantomime of normality. He had been so young then, he had been trying to fit in. Sebastian and his friends, wealthy children of wealthy fathers, favoured cocaine above all else. They went to parties and bars and clubs, took it in the toilets, and spent the entire night wrapped up in hysteria, laughing and talking, talking, talking, without cessation. Sherlock had joined in, had played along and found, to his dismay, that the drug made him exactly like them. His brain moved too quickly and his thoughts became garbled. Every word that tumbled hurriedly from his mouth was awash with idiocy. The drug made him normal, the drug made him wrong.
Sherlock stopped playing along.
He was twenty-one when he met Victor, an art student with few friends and a risky habit. Sat on a sofa in a room populated by a few heavy-lidded boys and waif-like girls, it was with a certain inevitability that Sherlock accepted the heroin-laced joint that Victor proffered.
He waited a moment after inhaling. Waited for the epiphany, for the orgiastic rush, for the mind-expanding nonsense. It never came. What came, instead, was a stillness he had never before experienced. The voices of the strangers around him were muffled and remote as he felt the engine of his mind finally stop whirring. And then bliss, utter bliss, for the single purest, most crystalline moment, before the nausea kicked in. His guts wrenching, but too lethargic to move, Sherlock slumped back into the sofa and tried to concentrate on staying awake as his brain thundered inside his skull.
After an hour the feeling had passed, the fog had lifted, and his mind was as wild and frustrated as ever.
Sherlock was not so oblivious to social mores that he thought taking heroin again was a good idea. But he could not forget those few minutes of apathy; the empty mind and joyful numbness that the drug had granted him was like manna from heaven. So he did what any self-respecting Holmes would do: he did his research, he gathered data.
Taking the drug intravenously might serve his needs better, he discovered. A solitary being by nature, and a self-acknowledged narcissist, Sherlock also found the antisocial aspect of blood and needles quite alluring. Previously drug taking had been a social activity; share a joint, share a line, take one puff and pass it on. He had always been a selfish man; he didn't want to share. Alone protected him.
The first time he did it was glorious. His mind clicked to a halt like an unwound clock.
It was only later he would read about the experiments conducted on morphine-addicted rats that indicated that solitude precipitated addiction. "Severely distressed animals," the scientist had written in the medical journal, "like severely distressed people, will relieve their distress pharmacologically if they can." Sherlock sneered and resolved to conduct his own experiments.
Of course it had been Mycroft who noticed first. Although the only addictive substances his elder brother ever stooped to were caffeine, sugar and, occasionally, nicotine, he had noticed the signs as soon as Sherlock had walked through the front door the first day of the Christmas holidays. Mycroft had said nothing, but kept a stern gaze upon his brother at all times. Those eyes make Sherlock all the more furtive. He had hoped, vainly, that Mycroft might not immediately detect it – the effects of the drug upon his exterior were negligible, and he wore long sleeves to hide the marks on his arms – but he had known that his brother was, for all intents and purposes, omniscient. And one cannot hide one's transgressions from the Almighty. Sherlock shuddered under the chill of that gaze, suddenly fearful.
Sherlock had not been so foolish as to bring any drugs home with him. Mycroft would have disposed of them within hours, and he had convinced himself that going a week or two without would be easy. After the first few days of enforced jollity with his extended family, he had begun to feel uncomfortable; he suffered from intermittent shivers and frequent headaches, but he put it down to the drafty house, the terrible company, and the garish decorations. There were few things that sickened him more than a Christmas cracker. By the time he was sweating and convulsing over Christmas dinner, though, Sherlock knew there might be a problem. As he was lying in bed that night, insomnolent and feverish, Mycroft's shadow appeared in his doorway, and Sherlock tried to hide the aching in his bones from the cold, rational stare of his brother. The careful conversation that normal people would have had, then, went unspoken, and Mycroft left the room, disgust dampening the anger behind his eyes. Sherlock curled into the sheets, indignant and suffering. By Boxing Day, Sherlock had cracked, and returned to Cambridge at dawn without telling anyone.
The moment Sherlock was back in his room, he injected. He tumbled onto his bed in a splendid stupor, broken only by how his skin hummed with itchiness. He scratched, absently, thoughtlessly, until he bled. He was happy to be thoughtless again.
His data regarding the famously addictive properties of opiates had led Sherlock to believe that it took many weeks of persistent usage for serious withdrawal symptoms to appear. He could stop at any point and still experience relatively few ill effects. At least, that's what he told himself. To maintain the illusion, he studied hard and never missed a lecture. He could still be a functioning member of society, in spite of his new habit, he decided, and pored over his university textbooks and turned his assignments in on time.
By the time he noticed that every chemical formula he wrote down read C-21-H-23-NO-5 it was too late.
He was twenty-seven, and the overdose took him by surprise. Sherlock learnt, to his cost, that it was never the new, naive users that overdid it and landed themselves in the hospital, but the hardened addicts, so desperate to feel something that they flushed their veins with too much toxicity and fell into shock.
As his eyes flickered open he was met with a dim, bleary vision of white and yellow light. In place of his senses there was, for a moment, a void. Gradually, he began to hear the distant, mechanical bleeping of what he presumed to be a heart monitor, and the image of a stark hospital room swam into focus. A sense of relief fluttered into being. Then he felt the pain.
Damn, naloxone. Once administered sends the patient into immediate withdrawal.
Soon conscious thought was taken over by tremors. He tried to speak, to ask for help, but all that came out was a deep, rasping scream that rattled his throat. He felt strong arms grasp him, hold him down. He heard a familiar voice above him, but he could not understand the words – it was as though they were speaking in a foreign tongue. He felt the sudden wash of medication come over him. With a shudder, he was wrenched backwards, into unconsciousness.
When he came to again, the light had changed. Everything seemed to glow with an orange halo; he blinked a few times, and the halo dissolved into electric light bulbs. His head was thumping, the blood in his ears pounding out his erratic heartbeat against his pillow. By and large, though, the agony seemed to have abated. Testing his muscles, Sherlock tried to sit up. He felt fluid rushing around behind his eyes. Emitting a small groan, he gritted his teeth and pulled himself up. It was then he noticed his brother.
Mycroft, every inch the plutocrat in his expensive suit, was reading the newspaper by his bedside. That his waistcoat was slightly rumpled and his teeth bore coffee stains indicated that he had been keeping vigil for some time. When he heard Sherlock stir, he lifted his eyes up from the paper to observe the patient. In spite of the icily deductive look Mycroft was giving him as he appraised his condition, Sherlock knew immediately that it had been his brother who had found him.
All these years, Mycroft, ever watchful and overprotective, had been carefully and persistently trying to clean him up. Sherlock had reacted to this with the ferocity of a wild dog. He violently oscillated between agreeing to kick the habit and demanding his brother send clean needles to his flat. Mycroft, understanding the delicate balance shaped by addiction, knew exactly when to acquiesce and when to deny. Never had he been more careful when he wielded his power. Somewhere along the road, this behaviour became what passed as normal in their fraternal relationship.
Today was different, though. The way Mycroft was looking at him jolted loose a memory he had thought he had deleted long ago. Seven years old, and scaling the tallest tree in the garden, Sherlock was almost at the top and ignoring Mycroft's increasingly irate cries for him to climb back down, when a rotten branch broke under his weight and he plummeted to earth. He fell awkwardly and broke his arm in three places. Mycroft had rushed over to help, but with a look that displayed both concern and a certain glint of all-knowing complacency. Sherlock had no doubt that his brother had known about that rotting branch and was disappointed that he had failed to notice it. The thought made Sherlock want to spit venom. It was that same look that Mycroft was giving Sherlock now.
But this time it didn't make him venomous. Instead he felt tired and quite ashamed. Somehow, today, the knowledge that he had disappointed Mycroft made him feel even sicker than the withdrawal symptoms possibly could. He couldn't meet his brother's eye.
"This time, you're going to rehab." Mycroft said unfeelingly, turning the page of his paper.
For once, Sherlock agreed with his brother.
He hated the way everyone said recovery as though the word were sacred and diaphanous.
He scratched at his arm, rubbing at the veins, dark under his thin skin. They ached. His blood ached. He wondered idly how much damage he had done to his body over the years, and whether he would ever fully recover.
Mycroft had him locked in his home in Pall Mall, where a determined, though frustrated, Sherlock chain-smoked and drank coffee and felt his mind tearing itself to pieces. He stood at the window and swore at the sunlight. The plush flat offered few distractions. Spinning around the walls, Sherlock lunged into the stack of newspapers that Mycroft had kept, tearing through the crossword puzzles, desperate for something to train his mind on. After that, he started reading the stories, with the intention of correcting the reporters' grammar, but, instead, found himself engrossed in the details of the criminal cases. He scratched case notes all over the margins of the papers, finding solutions to the kidnappings, disappearances, thefts and murders as though they were mathematical equations.
Mycroft returned from work to find his younger brother on the living room floor, surrounded by hastily scribbled notes and cigarette ash. He bent down to pick up one page, the newspaper print scarcely visible beneath Sherlock's handwriting.
"You could make a living doing this, you know." Mycroft said, contemplatively.
"Boring." Sherlock replied, opening another paper and lighting another cigarette.
Always from one addiction to the next.
Mycroft lifted an imperious eyebrow, but didn't say anything else.
Sherlock would figure it out.
Sherlock doesn't think about those years of his life very often anymore. He has his cases now, to keep his mind busy; he has John now, to keep him grounded. There are some nights, though, when, hypnagogic and pent up on caffeine and nicotine patches, he feels a familiar burning numbness in his blood. Something scratches at the underside of his skin.
He'll scrape at his violin, he'll shoot the wall, he'll cause a scene. He'll run up the stairs and wake John, who usually throws a pillow at him and tells him to go away. John doesn't know about the past; Sherlock will never tell him.
Sometimes he'll even ring up Mycroft, who understands why he must always answer his phone. The post-midnight hours are dangerous, treacherous. It is when our minds turn on themselves. In some ways, his brother had always understood; he was a man who had seized power, not for glory, but for the distraction.
Mycroft listened patiently.
"I want to chew my skin off."
"Don't do that."
"Why is it your vices never ran this deep?"
"They do. They're just of a different sort."
"I don't want it to happen to me again."
"It won't. Go to sleep."
On those nights, Sherlock was vulnerable in his humanity. But, in 221b, he felt warm and safe.
Notes: I know that Holmes of the books was a habitual user of cocaine and only an occasional morphine user, but I have been researching heroin use for my thesis and every story I read about the drug, its usage and effects just chanted Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock. It was quite uncanny.
Although, as with all drugs, it affects different people differently, heroin addicts often find that the drug shuts off much of conscious thought, cuts off emotions and it is often taken to alleviate boredom. In spite of what is generally known about the drug, it frequently doesn't come with that blissed, drugged high that one would assume drug users chase. In much of my reading, users mostly experienced nausea, vomiting, itchiness and feelings of emptiness, not the stuff of great poetry.
C-21-H-23-NO-5 is the chemical formula for diamorphine. (FF . net cannot format it properly)
Naloxone is a drug frequently used in cases of heroin overdose. It works by blocking the action of heroin, causing instant withdrawal. Recovery is usually rapid.
The rat park experiments were conducted in the late 70s by Bruce K Alexander, and suggested that much of addiction is a social problem.
It goes without saying that this a road no one should go down and, if you find yourself already on the path, seek intervention.
I'm not sure why I wrote this. But thanks for reading it.