‘I can’t think of anything else. It drives me mad. I don’t want anything else. I am obsessed.’ Obsessed might be too spiritual a word for what goes on in Michael’s body, his head and his veins alike, but it is surely not too strong. Michael is an addict. Day in, day out, he sits in front of the Tesco in Hackney and looks up at people. Endless streams of feet unfold in front of his eyes and wrap his thoughts into unpleasantly grey clouds. People don’t look down at Michael as he silently tries to make himself seen. He doesn’t want to be too explicit – what he does can lead him to prison at any time and has done so previously. Michael barely addresses passers-by directly; he sends out whispered words to the people standing in front of the cash machine next to which he positions himself strategically.
Begging is a side-effect of his addiction. He could get enough money to scrape by – the government is happy to help with accommodation and food and so are other voluntary organisations. But an addiction of up to £100 a day is not easily paid for with benefits. It asks for more drastic measures: begging is one of them and surely is a more preferable one when your other options appear to be burglary, robbery or rape. The more preferable option at least for us, the by-standers, society, but not for the person actually sitting down on the cold concrete of a street full of chewing gum just off the centre of London. Drastic developments are necessary in order to push you towards what quickly turns into a desert of shoes, rubbish and black fumes.
Excitedly, Michael arrives back in the makeshift hut right next to the buzzing high street. He smiles at me broadly and can barely keep his hands from shaking. Two small bags full of greyish powdery pellets appear from his jacket as he kneels down next to me. He proudly puts the bags into my hand and looking back over his shoulder at his prey crawls to the far end of the tiny hut to get his needles. As he returns to me, spoon and syringe jingle in anticipation. Michael takes care of the drug, of the brown powder: he thoroughly releases it from its plastic prison onto the metal plane of the spoon. Mixed with a dash of citric acid, he heats it up trying hard not to loose too much of the valuable substance from his jittery shaking. The syringe has its appearance to eventually handle the liquidised potion which promises freedom anew and anew. Slowly, it pricks through a small cotton ball, hits the spoon with a ‘cling’ and starts sucking the substance up. His arm stretched, a nylon stocking wrapped around it, the blank metal tip of the syringe blinks one last time before it enters Michael. He closes his eyes and slowly pushes the grey water – marbled with a flush of dark red as it mixes with his blood – into the vein. The syringe serves as the not-at-all threatening tool to bring the heroin even closer to him – closer than otherwise possible, so close that it becomes one with him, is inside him, is him.
Being inside someone’s body, being part of somebody – is so often only metaphorical. Lovers are part of each others’ thoughts, there are inside each others’ brains, they are all over each other. Michael and his substance are at the same time less and more than this: they are more than (healthy) lovers in that one not only penetrates the other (and his thoughts), it becomes the other, dissolves in the seven litres of blood that keep Michael alive. Heroin is like a child to Michael; he cares for it, thinks about it, can’t stop chasing it, constantly strives for it. Like a newborn for a parent, the drug dominates Michael’s mind, makes him want more, faster, now. It demands attention, careful and delicate treatment (‘Don’t shake!’) and really only unfolds its effect when it is closest, when it is inside him.
Heroin evaporates. It disappears. And being without it is not fun. It is pitch-black, as if looking into Moby Dick’s mouth at first; and eventually as if swallowed by him, attacked by the acids, rotting in his whalish belly. The juices – your own juices – rip you apart, tear you into two. Dopesickness. But like for Patrick Melrose in Edward St Aubyn’s novel Bad News, Heroin for Michael “was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster’s wheel of unanswerable questions … Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion … The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin.” This ambiguity – between a promise of security, of rescue and the eventual realisation of impotence, even worse: of pain driving you back, round in circles – made the substance so pestilent.
Suddenly, the grey of the hostile street turns into a desirable option. Grey is not too bad after all when your only alternative is the black hole of your own thoughts, your own body. At least the street is productive, it is cluttered with possibilities (even if in the form of negligible straws) to find a way out of the black and into the brown. At least, one can beg on the street (if the coppers allow one to do so) and, surely, some money will come from that. I really only need £7, please, please, please. Can you spare some change? Going round in circles.
Why? Because I have not had a cuddly toy for 15 years. They made me throw it away when I was seven and put me into a care home. I didn’t like my Dad; I can barely remember him; shouldn’t anyway. My Mum didn’t beat me as much. Sometimes, when she was drunk. The home was worse. But I escaped and the street found me. The first high catapulted me up to a plane, which since then I have not dared to leave. The stainless-steel plane of the spoon which I use six times a day.
 All characters in this article are modelled on real people. I changed names and places, however, in order to protect the people I am writing about. The monologues and thoughts are fictional.
Johannes Lenhard is currently a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at King’s College, Cambridge. His research is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. He tweets under @acjf37.
The column: Flummox
Flummox, from the mid C19th flummock: to bring to confusion; to ‘do for’, cause to fail; to confound, bewilder, nonplus… The world is made of stuff and non-sense. Flummox is about being caught amongst things, and about ways between things, and about our strange encounters with the ever bewildering lives and narratives of stuff, things, the nonhuman.