My year of heroin and acne

I was 25 and living with Dad. I wasn't in the clubs, I was in my room. And the worse my skin got, the more I used

Published January 5, 2013 12:30AM (EST)

         (<a href=''>Sbremer</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/<a href=''>Africa Studio</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Sbremer via iStock/Africa Studio via Shutterstock/Salon)

I got a pedicure each time I promised myself I’d stop doing heroin -- which is to say, I got pedicures all summer. Pedicures gave me the false notion that I was about to get it together. I wasn’t functioning well — my brain cells were spent and my serotonin was depleted. Sitting in a chair, despondent, was all I felt like doing.

My acne had taken over any joy in my life at that point and I was having opiate withdrawal, so I’d go to the nail salon in the middle of the day when it was quiet and I could avoid seeing humans. I liked eating the candy from the candy bowl. I took handfuls of Dum Dum pops, peppermints, butterscotch and those strawberry candies with the gooey middle that grandmothers always have. I sat in the massage chair, crunched down on my candies and watched Lifetime movies with subtitles. I pushed buttons on the remote to control the strength of the massage, and I drifted off. I hated myself. I actually hated myself. I never got manicures. They would be too much work, sitting upright and making small talk. Plus, I bite my fingernails down too low for them to be manicured. A disgusting addiction, but in comparison to my other addictions, I let it slide. I have too many battles to fight with myself, so I choose them carefully.

Last June, after one of my pedicures, I left the nail salon and got into the car. I don’t say my car, because I shared it with my dad. I was living with my dad at the time, and we shared everything -- the bathroom, food; we even worked together at his music store. The car was an eggplant-colored PT Cruiser. I checked my phone. My mom had left me a voicemail, asking me to go on a hike with her before she left for Costa Rica. I would have rather done anything than go on a hike, but I drove to meet her instead of starting a fight. I was wearing flip-flops because it was a spur of the moment hike and I didn’t want to ruin my pedicure. As we hiked, I couldn’t speak. My jaw was locked. Oh mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Help me, I thought in my head. Help me, mom. Please help me.

My mom knew I was depressed, but she didn’t know why. We sat on a log when we reached the top of the hill. Sometimes all my mother has to do is touch me the right way or say the right sensitive thing, and I’ll tell her anything. She was doing those things, saying, “What is it, Chloe?” but I knew I couldn’t put that burden on her. Tears streamed down my face. She put her arm around me and we sat on a log for a long time. “Wow, did you just get your feet done? They look beautiful,” she said. When we parted ways I told myself that was it. No more heroin. I drove away from the woods in my flip-flops listening to mainstream rap on the radio. The color of the toenail polish I’d chosen was called Cha-Ching Cherry.

To say that my year of heroin and acne was dark would be an understatement. The cycle went like this: The worse my skin got, the more stressed I felt and the more heroin I would buy. The more heroin I snorted, the worse my skin would get and the more stressed I would become. I couldn’t find the source of my sadness, my stress or my acne. Each thing was feeding the other things.

Through adolescence and my teens, my skin was clear. I didn’t have a blemish. I was like Snow White: pale, with soft skin and a round face. My best friend K had the same complexion as me. “Ghost!” the boys would call as we walked by. Because of this, we went tanning after school every day. My skin was fake baked and glowing into my late teens. K and I had the same white skin, but  hers may have been whiter than mine — she recently told me it was so white it was blue. We covered up our insecurities with red lipstick and Sun-In. We didn’t know how lucky we were that acne products weren’t part of our regime. I didn’t have Noxema or Pro-active or Retin-A because I did not need them. Until I did.

I moved to New York City at 20 -- acne-free, but loving drugs. K went away to college. Around 22 or 23, I started having benign breakouts. I thought it was a fluke. I thought that I was having a weird week. Then I thought I was having a weird couple months. I went into denial. I wasn’t going to have a problem with acne because I wasn’t a person who got acne. We tell these stories about ourselves. Looking back, if I’d just accepted it, I could have possibly prevented the acne from getting as bad as it did.

I’ve used drugs to numb myself since I was 16. They've helped me be there but not really there. When my parents separated, I smoked pot four times a day. When the man I loved didn’t love me back enough, I drank myself silly and snorted cocaine. After my car accident, I fell into the painkiller pothole. And most recently, heroin (and other opiates) helped me cope with my acne problem. Got a bunch of zits? Buy a bag of heroin. Depressed about how you look? Text your drug dealer. What else was there to do?

I read a comment on xoJane once: "Fuck acne! It's evil. It has literally made me forget who I am as a person." I get it.

After years of roaming and railing, at 25, I began living with my dad in upstate New York. My dad stood in line at CVS with me after my first dermatologist appointment. I cried. My prescription for Differin was something like 175 dollars. My dad looked scared of my sadness. We went out to breakfast carrying the prescription bags of expensive acne products that wouldn’t work. The place was French, called Le Gamin. There were mirrors on the walls. I sat in the booth, facing away from the mirror. I’d rather swallow nails than look in a mirror. My dad pointed out the mirrors. “I know,” I said. “Why do you think I’m sitting on this side?”

I would not have chosen to have my heroin phase take place while I was living under my father’s roof, but we don’t always decide when certain drugs come into our life. The thing about my heroin experience is that I did heroin when I did the most mundane things. I snorted heroin and went to the Dollar General. I went to Stop & Shop and bought yogurt. I treated my acne. I changed my profile picture. I cleaned my room. I went to bed. I wasn’t out partying. I was home in bed on the computer reading acne forums. When you stay in your bedroom and have heroin, you’re a king. You can be checking your email and be a king while eating an apple.

K graduated college by a thread and moved to the city I was in. We’ve known each other since age 7 — since we swam in the river behind her house and got snake bites. She’s always been the closest thing to a sister I'll ever have. The kind of friend who calls and you both immediately launch into whom you slept with, how you felt, how depressed you are, what mental illness you think you have. “If I have it — you have it!” we like to yell at each other. “Oh, don’t have it,” the other will say with a smile. Later, after some drinks or heroin, your friend will come around and say, “You were right before. I have always thought I had histrionic Borderline Personality Disorder.”

K was an Aries like me, hilarious, with great bone structure and dark hair. People were scared of her, and some hated her — during high school and after. Acne also hit her. Our acne overlapped. While she was in college and I was in various cities, her text messages to me consisted of miserable photos of her face. And we texted products back in forth -- so hopeful that finally we’d found the answer. “You gotta buy this!” we’d text, with a photo of tea tree soap or Dr. Bronners or whatever.

K understood when I cried about my skin, and she would hug me through the window of the car and say, “I know, I know. Lie in the sun. Take a shower. Don’t pick at it. Here, have the rest of my heroin.” She understood. Our relationship was precarious, dangerous even. My mother thought she was a bad influence on me, and her mother thought I was a bad influence on her. We’d begin the evening by walking around in the sun, complaining about how small our town was. Then we’d go for a beer. Then tequila shots. We waited for the other to say, “We should get shit. We should text B.” Someone always said it. The other always agreed. We enabled each other. We wanted each other to feel good. We stayed out all night talking about monogamy, men, women, mothers. Did we want to have children? Did we want to get clean? We got riled up. We cried and laughed uncontrollably. And we went to the bathroom to do lines together. K usually puked. She had a weak stomach. In the afternoon, she’d call me around 3 after she’d woken up. We giggled and giggled into the phone about our antics. No words needed to be spoken.

My acne was so bad I couldn’t sleep on one side of my face. I couldn’t smile or chew. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t see myself. Acne makes you feel desperate. Heroin makes you feel beautiful. They went hand in hand. Heroin helped me survive.

At my best, I’d have a day or two of clear-ish skin. Once I was lucky enough for this to coincide on the day I had to do a reading in New York City. Like an alcoholic, I didn’t only do heroin when I was down. I did it when I was up. That morning I took the Amtrak two hours to the city, I bought three decks of heroin and shoved them in my jeans. I did some in the train bathroom. As the train pulled into Penn Station, my phone vibrated. It was my ex. The one it took me three years and three cities to let go of. He was saying hi. Letting me know that he’d love to see me, if I ever came to the city.

Obviously, I could have ignored it. But he caught me on a clear skin and heroin possession day. I could hang out with him but have my secret friend, my scapegoat, my false confidence. I pondered this. I went into Urban Outfitters. I was also having a good body image day. I tried on some sexy dresses. It was June in Manhattan and it was hot. I bought a bright blue sundress with spaghetti straps that showed off my cleavage nicely. I poured some heroin out of the baggie onto my cell phone in the dressing room, looking myself in the eye, smiling. Then I texted him back. “I’m actually here now. Do you want to meet me at the Strand?”

We met up and sat in Union Square. We had drinks at a bar we’d never been to before. It was too early and hot for red wine, but I loved it with heroin, so I got a glass anyway. I went to the bathroom twice to snort more. I was honest with him about my struggles — we’d always been super close. I alluded to the fact that I’d been partying pretty hard. He said, “Well, you don’t look like it. You look really good. Healthy.” And there it was — the ability to appear one thing and to be another.

The night went like this — bar after bar, me getting more and more high. Never one to keep much to myself, when we got to his apartment, I came clean. His response: “Can I do a line?”

We had sloppy sex all night — neither of us could come. I remember brushing my hair a lot because it felt really good. In the morning, I had to sneakily get up early to put make-up on so he wouldn’t see my real face. We got bagels, hung out on the roof of a building and talked. He told me he didn’t like heroin. He liked coke better. I left for my train and headed back upstate riding high on anxiety. The next day, I broke out with cysts all over my face. "Why do we do these things?" I asked a friend. "Why do we go backward?" "We do them to remember why we don’t do them," he said.

I read this article on xoJane called “Why Acne Psychologist Ted Grossbart Blames My Ex for My Bad Skin.” He says: Your skin as a loyal part of your mind/body complex, may well be saying, Hey, we need to protect her from getting hurt.”

“Do you ever think that you and K have bad skin now because of … karma?” my friend Amy asked me. She had a point. K and I were bitches in high school.

Buddhists say that anger causes acne. And I was angry — angry at myself. Where was my character? Where was my discipline? Where was I? Wasn’t I better than this? And yet, I could not stop. I dreaded when my dad would have me go do an errand -- because each time I got into the PT Cruiser, I’d drive to my dealer’s block. “Hey,” I’d text. “Hey girl, how many slices?” he’d ask. My usual was two. They were tiny wax bags, with a red or black stamp on them. They had different names. "Fire" was one. "Apple" was another. And then — I kid you not — there was "Soul Killer."

Was it anger or was it my karma? Was it my hormones or was it my genes? Should I cut out meat or should I cut out dairy? Was I allergic to gluten? Was it my ex or was it my stress level? No one knew. And yet everyone had an opinion. I was enraged, frustrated, mortified and heartbroken.

“I want to kill someone!” was my mantra. That was my thing to yell. "I want to kill someone." Such terrible words to utter. “I don’t think you want to kill someone,” my dad tried to reason with me. “I do! I do, dad! I really would love to. I want to kill someone.” On that morning, I slammed my fist into the wall like a 14-year-old boy. My father was shocked, as was I. But I wasn’t in control of myself anymore. I stomped into the bathroom and slammed the door behind me.

I stepped into the dreaded shower. I hated taking showers and using my dumb products that weren’t working, I hated feeling the bumps on my face, but I mostly hated stepping out and having to look at myself in the mirror with no make-up on. And putting make-up on sucked, too. Mornings were the worst. I looked like I had been hit by a truck. It took me forever to make myself look even a little less dead. My dad kept telling me that he wished he could take it on for me, that he would if he could. It choked me up whenever he said this. I wished he could, too.

This essay in Jezebel about cystic acne says: “Fighting acne is like fighting a war. There is collateral damage. Things get worse before they get better.”

Things got worse. At my lowest, I was my highest. In early December, me, K and another friend drove to New York City. I was battling a stubborn cyst on the side of my face but, besides that, my skin was decent. I gave a reading at Happy Ending Lounge on Bowery Street. I’d invited my friend J, a functioning heroin addict. He slipped me two hot pink baggies. K and I went into the bathroom. And we came out way happier. This was nothing like the stuff we got from my dealer. This was the real deal. We had grand fun that night — that much I know — but I don’t remember much. But I felt good.

Our friend dropped K and I off at my house late at 4 a.m. We went into my room, fell into bed and snuggled into each other.

Around 5:30 a.m., K and I both jumped up — like we heard it at the same time. It was my father on the phone. He was talking about us. He was defending us. Defending me. He was saying I wasn’t doing drugs. K and I got out of bed and put our ears to the door. We looked at each other with shocked eyes. Eventually we opened the door.

My dad hung up. He was pissed. Not at us. At the person on the phone. K’s mom. She was on to us.

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but K's boyfriend was a cop. She lived with him, and he had found an empty wrapper from heroin. He called K’s mom, who then called my dad. K and I sat on the wooden floor outside of my room wearing boxers, T-shirts and our make-up from the night before. I felt about 12 years old.

My father was kind but stern. My fiercely loyal father. Then he said, “But if you’re doing heroin — I want you to cut the shit. I have a short rope for that. My brother died from it.”

“We’re not!” we told him. “We’re not.”

I remembered my father’s brother. My Uncle Steve. He was my favorite uncle as a kid, on my dad’s side. He was always in a reclined chair, dozing off. He ate CoCo Puffs and drank Sunny D. He was laid-back and there, but not really there. I was with my father at Uncle Steve’s funeral. I was 12. I’d never seen my dad cry before. I laid my head on his shoulder. I always told my dad that Uncle Steve reminded me of Will Smith’s character in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” My dad loved that story -- often asked me to repeat it.

I wondered if my father 100% believed K and me. I really just wished someone would ask me if I was OK so that I could say no. Even I could see that my behavior was erratic. I was either sleeping 10 hours a night or not sleeping at all. I was either binge eating or not eating at all. The sky was always falling. I was always pissed about something. Everyone was an asshole. I loved to bitch about how annoying everyone was.

When I woke up in the mornings, I would find that I wrote things online that I did not remember. I sent naked photographs to people I did not remember. My wallet was chock full of empty heroin wrappers. I flushed them down the toilet when I remembered, but usually I forgot to. I wasn’t exactly organized. Sometimes when I was paying for gas or gum or something — I’d reach into the change pocket and feel all of the little baggies, reminding me of my other self.

During my work days, I watched videos of Cassandra Bankson to comfort myself. Cassandra Bankson is a model who was born in 1992. She, like me, had severe cystic acne. On her YouTube channel, she posts videos of herself and her acne struggles. Sometimes my dad watched them with me. She made one video that she begins with make-up on, then she washes it off. She says, “This is my biggest insecurity.” She showed her acne to the camera. It’s absolutely amazing, and it's the only thing in the world like itself. One night when my cousin was visiting, we stayed up past midnight in my bed watching videos of her. I couldn’t believe what my life had turned into.

There were only certain foods I was eating -- mainly Dannon Light and Fit Pineapple Coconut yogurt. You could pretty much taste the chemicals in it; there must have been something really, really bad for you in it. I craved milk and dairy. I became tiny. I was in my 16-year-old body. “You gonna eat something?” my dad started saying to me. “I bet you weigh what you weighed in high school,” K said one night when we were hanging out in my room trying on dresses. “You look like a completely different person from the back,” she said.

Throughout all of this, I was still going to yoga. Even after doing heroin all day. Once I was heaving into the toilet, but I shoved a piece of bread in my mouth and ran across the street to yoga. Yoga feels good. Heroin feels good. Together they felt like heaven. Sometimes, in between everything, I’d have revelatory days. Days when I’d had enough of my pathetic self-destruction. On those days, I read “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron and drank Smooth Move, trying to get all the toxins out of my body. I underlined sentences in the book that were meaningful to me. This was great for a few hours, and then I’d buckle and text my dealer, praying he wouldn’t answer. Heroin is exactly the opposite of being in the present moment. I needed to spend 20 dollars on some light brown powder to put up my nose to be in the present moment. Being in the present moment cost me.

I went from denying I had bad skin and avoiding the topic to it being all I talked about. I couldn’t have a conversation without bringing it up. “What’s wrong?” They’d ask. My skin. My skin. My skin. I was obsessed. I tried everything for my acne. I tried the hard stuff: Benzoyl Peroxide, Pro-active and topicals like Differin and Duac gel. I tried antibiotics: Doxycycline, Minocycline and Oracea. I tried tea: Green, Nettle, Skin Detox, Healthy Fasting, Valerian Root. I tried vitamins: Milk Thistle; Hair, Skin and Nails; Zinc. I tried restorative yoga, acupuncture and even lavender oil on my forehead. I tried meditating on having clear skin. I changed my pillow cases each night. I refused to take Accutane because someday I want to have a baby. At the end of my rope, I tried ortho-tri-cyclen, which turned me into a suicidal, emotional mess and gave me the “initial break-out,” which was hell on earth. When nothing worked, I just didn’t leave my house. I cried in my dad’s arms on the couch. I was even embarrassed to meet my dealer. I kept my hair in front of my face and wore big, unflattering sunglasses. I wanted to be attractive to him so he would cut me deals.

And then the heroin stopped working. I told this to my friend, a recovering drug addict, and he said, “You could probably just eat dark chocolate at this point, and it would do the same thing.” My tolerance was high. So was K’s. We yelled at the dealer, telling him he was selling us shit. We bought Suboxen and started to wean off. We ordered these herb capsules called Kratom that are supposed to make you feel good, and we popped them and pretended they worked. We walked around and drank cherry slushies and ate candy. The only other option, if we wanted the heroin to feel good again, was to shoot it. And I wasn’t going to do that, though I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t entertain the idea.

One of my yoga teachers used to say that what is nectar for you in the beginning is poison in the long run, and what feels like poison in the beginning is nectar in the end. It annoyed me how often he said this because it resonated with me so much. "Shut up!" I thought in my head. "I know. I know." I don’t live in the same city anymore. I’m in therapy and my therapist says it’s going to take a while for me to piece myself back together. It’s early January, and I haven’t had a pedicure since August. My feet look dry and sad but my face, finally, looks alive.

By Chloe Caldwell

Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella "Women" (SF/LD). Her nonfiction has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, VICE, Nylon, and Men’s Health.

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