To most, addiction is a dirty landscape dotted with outsiders, criminals, losers and freaks. A desperate, frightening world that many groups try to abolish by laws, pathologize with diagnoses and treatment or simply shun. But there is no disappearing the world of addiction. And perhaps the most reviled and romanticized subset of inhabitants in the addiction world is the heroin addict.
There is a romantic fantasy about the alcoholic writer/artist (Bukowski and Pollock, for example) or the junkie writer (William Burroughs). “Heroin chic” was a term used to describe waif-like models like Kate Moss with the implication that their appearances were enhanced by their drug use.
There is also the vision (often romanticized as well), of the street addict or drunk: homeless, covered with sores – our collective ID ripped open and left to rot.
Enter Shane Levene, a prolific poet, writer and artist who was initially discovered through his compelling website: “Memoires of a Heroinhead,” In addition, he co-produced the book, The Void Ratio and has two further books in the works. His visual artwork is now in high demand.
I spoke with Levene about his enlightening experiences, his own personal drug use as well as the societal beliefs about “addiction”.
Regina Walker: Your father was murdered and dismembered by British serial killer Dennis Nilsen. How old were you when that happened and how did the murder affect you?
Shane Levene: Yes, my father was strangled, raped dumped in a bath for three days before being dismembered, cut into small pieces and flushed down the toilet; his head was boiled until just the skull remained. He was identified by dental records a year after going missing. I was 7 at the time. The murder itself didn’t affect me. I was too young and, though there were rumours that he was my father, I was brought up believing that I shared the same father as my brother and sister. It was directly after the murder that my mother confirmed that Graham Allen was my father and my birthright was opened up within the family. So the murder didn’t affect me, but what did affect me were the consequences that the murder had upon my mother: she became a chronic alcoholic, self-destructive and suicidal. Being the only physical part left of my father, my mother often projected her grief onto me. But not only grief. She seemed to harbour opposing views towards me. If on one hand me being a part of my father was a blessing, on the other I was also a constant reminder of him, something that never allowed her to forget for a minute. She seemed to punish me/him for that. She didn’t do that consciously. I guess instinctive emotions controlled her life during that period.
RW: You were the recipient of significant physical, and emotional abuse by your mother. How have you been able to resolve that? What is your relationship with her like now? You have mentioned she is now sober.
SL: Life resolved it. I made absolutely no effort to do so. I just don’t suffer great emotions of bitterness or blame. I despise that culture of finger-pointing, everyone blaming someone else for their failures and problems. If I have fucked up (though I don’t believe I have) I will take responsibility for it myself. But that wasn’t always the case. As a teenager I held a lot of resent towards my mother and we had some fabulous fights. We re-bonded as mother and son and friends through our joint heroin and crack addictions. That was an extreme life-event we experienced, something that pushed us together to survive. Many shared experiences like that, be it war or death or a natural disaster, often have that effect. They allow you to have real empathy for the other fellow’s suffering. Our relationship today is fantastic. We are extremely close. We were always extremely close but before there were also many contentious issues. I don’t condemn anything she has ever done and do not blame her for any trauma I left my childhood with.
RW: You were raised amidst a great deal of violence, poverty, substance abuse and insecurity. How has this affected your relationships with your step-siblings? What are their feelings about your drug use?
SL: Well, we all grew up and experienced a lot of that stuff together and so we leaned on each other and got by that way. But as we grew older, me being seen as my mother’s favourite, began to cause jealousies. I was progressively disowned because of that. Concerning heroin, they’d obviously prefer that I didn’t use drugs, but they don’t judge me and it’s very open. I inject in front of them and no one bats an eyelid. I guess they finally love or hate me enough not to nag me with false morality.
RW: Who are some of your major influences as a writer and visual artist?
SL: The three most important poets of my life are all unknowns and were all illiterate and, though they were poets, didn’t produce a single piece of work between them – not so much as a poem. The 1st poet of my life was my stepfather. The 2nd poet of my life was a West Indian alcoholic named Lloyd. And the 3rd was a Jamaican pimp, gambler and money-lender called Wardog. These people were all poets without being lauded as such, nor conscious of it.
“Their poetry wasn’t of ink, Nor made for the page:
It was vomited up the walls
Pissed into beer cans
Shit into plastic sacks
Carved into faces
Raped into the unconscious
Exposed through open trousers
Born out of wedlock
The Black bastard child of Margaret Thatcher
The Verse of the Dead and Dying
A Degenerate Stanza of living”
They had very rich oral traditions of storytelling, which was unlike any literature I’ve ever been exposed to. The greatest writers fall out of life and are all around us. Just because they don’t or cannot write means nothing. In fact, the illiterate are often the greatest manipulators of language because in order to express themselves they are condemned to use an often limited vocabulary in highly original and poetical ways. Writers in traditional print who I admire range from the French décadent writers to George Bataille; Oscar Wilde to George Orwell… Bukowski… Dostoevsky… Joyce… The usual all-star group of drunks, tramps, thieves, scoundrels and sexual deviants. Not anyone new I can shine a light on.
RW: You have written that you first used heroin not because of the deplorable circumstances surrounding your upbringing but due to the end of your 3 day marriage. What about that event pushed you to cross the line between considering using heroin to actually doing so?
SL: That is from another interview but that response was severely edited due to a restrictive word count and the reality isn’t quite as simple. I had used heroin before my marriage (but only on maybe three occasions). However, during my marriage, and for years prior, I was regularly using very strong opiates (buprenorphine). If you’ve never used heroin, buprenorphine has an affect very similar. I had been using regularly for many years but had never fallen into addiction. After the collapse of my marriage I made a conscious decision to find a good supplier of heroin and use it daily. I was hurting so much emotionally that I wanted to die to escape the pain… Heroin was my last chance saloon: if that didn’t kill the pain then I felt I wouldn’t make it. Luckily, heroin worked. It didn’t take the pain away, nor cure the reason I was hurting, but it numbed the hurt to an acceptable level, a level at which I could process it logically and accept the beating life had given me. So, I made up my mind to become an addict – although, in retrospect, I had no idea of what addiction really was. Until one has personal experience of physical addiction one cannot begin to have the slightest idea about it. Some people think they know addiction because they have seen it in a loved one or worked a summer in a methadone clinic, others think they can understand it by relating it to smoking a little too much weed in younger days, but no one has the slightest idea really. To know physical drug addiction one has to have lived it or have made it a mission to objectively understand it – and that’s à lifetime’s work in both instances.
RW: You have noted that you have taken over 60,000 IV hits of heroin. How has your health been impacted by this?
SL: God knows. Not even my doctor knows that. His only diagnosis is that I’ll be dead pretty soon…. but he’s been saying that since I was 20! Doctors try to scare you into good health. It doesn’t work. I know I have problems with blood circulation where all my veins have been shot out. If you removed my scars I’d have no skin left. All the injections have damaged my muscles (I could never again bend and touch my toes as the muscles down the backs of my legs are taut and tough). I have skin problems on my hands and arms and legs – a consequence of too many missed shots and the citric acid destroying the underlying flesh and skin. Also, where there are no veins, the body doesn’t heal so well and even cuts scar now. There’s lots of small problems that are common to most long-term injecting users. But any damage that 60, 000 shots of heroin have done is nothing in comparison to the damage caused by 25 years of chain smoking. The common cigarette has done more damage than the heroin. I don’t blame cigarette companies for that. I shoved each cigarette in my gob and continue to do so. It was fucking expensive getting this unhealthy and I’m taking all the credit myself.
RW: Many people believe that addicts all want to be clean but simply “can’t do it.” What are your thoughts about that? Do you want to stop? Do you believe ‘life would be better clean’?
SL: Well that just goes to show what a naïve bunch the populace is and how they like speaking about things they have absolutely no knowledge of. But I guess if your mouth’s full of shit you have to spit it out some time or another. We are coerced to say we want to quit. If you don’t say such nonsense, if you don’t fall to your knees pleading and begging for help, then you will be punished until you do. The only honourable thing to do under such duress is lie: and that’s what most of us do. To get that methadone script, to secure the borrow of 25 quid, to be taken in for a while, we say what hell life is, how we rue the day we ever used heroin and how desperate we are to change. It’s absolutely nothing new. Mark Twain wrote a fantastic description of it concerning Huckleberry Finn’s father. Once he had what he wanted he climbed out the window and with renewed spite against those wanting to impose sobriety upon him went and got well and truly shit-faced. But at some stage most junkies want to get clean, but that is very different from them having always and forever wanting to be clean. We go years without that even as a thought in our heads. It’s usually poor and dire circumstance which make us want to quit for a while – and it usually only lasts until the next check comes through. There is also a very negative and condescending feel in that phrase “simply can’t do it”. That’s already saying that the addict is a weak piece of shit and it’s about willpower. That is maybe the most idiotic thinking and the absolute height of ignorance anyone can have around the subject. Quitting a drug your body then needs to function is never a simple matter – not for anyone. Talk like that just shows how people talk out of place.
I’ve no intention of stopping, no. I have never and will never give that ridiculous vow. I will, and do, not use for days and weeks and sometimes months at a time, but it is never on the back of a vow to quit. Maybe it will come where I stop using for a while and never use again, but again, I will never make a vow of total abstention like that as it does more harm than anything. And also, if ever I want to use in that time I will with no qualms. The philosophy of making people vow total abstention and treating them like a total failure if they use even once in 3 years only does damage. Under that philosophy, the addict thinks: Oh well, I’ve fucked up now, gonna be treated like a failure and a let down, and so I may as well have a good ol’ blow out. If a day’s use once in a while was not even registered as anything terrible then the addict would use for his day and maybe not use the next. Whenever people are punished to stay clean it will lead to failure and all statistics of our present methods prove that.
RW: Of your book “The Void Ratio”, musician Pete Doherty commented: “The Void Ratio left me dreaming again of the fucking nightmare…..” Is there a way out of the nightmare?
SL: “The nightmare” is Peter’s description of addiction, not mine. I’d never call it a nightmare. If there’s a nightmare to be had then it is life; heroin addiction is just another experience in that process. But Peter is a poet and that phrase was him playing around with the duplexity of dream and nightmare. He comes from a veritable line of romantics and nightmares are romantic in that world. So if anyone thinks they can escape the nightmare by quitting heroin they’ll be in for one almighty shock. They shouldn’t be, because they started using precisely because life was so shitty. By quitting heroin the world is still gonna be the same place that made you want to escape it in the first place. Quitting heroin is easy. A secure prison cell will have you clean pretty soon. But the nightmare of existence will still persist.
RW: At time you have used your body as a canvas, as a means to communicate. You have described the process as “a critique against the rapid, cold and faceless communication of e-mails and text messages.” What differentiates what you are doing from self-mutilation?
SL: Probably nothing. But what then differentiates body-piercing or tattooing from self-mutilation? If I cut myself it is for the effect not the pain. I don’t cut myself to hurt or to dampen any other anxiety. So we must think of the Philosophy of the Cut. I also find cut and wounded bodies aesthetically pleasing. And anyway, if you’ve not at least one life-threatening self-inflicted wound it’s a sure sign you’ve never lived and never loved – and. I’m not talking the love of hearts and roses. Surely, the stakes have got to be higher than that.
RW: You wrote that your first few months in France you were clean and things were wonderful. What made you decide to resume heroin use?
SL: Well, wonderful is great but it’s not at the end of the pleasure spectrum. After wonderful there comes more wonderful. My friend, writer Tony O’Neill tells a fantastic little story which I will now poorly recite: it is of an addict who is clean and is with his wife and baby daughter alongside the river. His child is playing and happy in the sun as the water laps by and the world turns so tranquil. The addict says about the day that one could never wish for more… that it was just perfect… Only it could have been even more perfect with a shot of smack. And that’s how heroin is for the addict – everything feels just a little more beautiful, protective and calm than without it.
RW: After approximately 10 years in France during which you have written 3 books, created a significant amount of content for your site “Memoires of a Heroinhead”, as well as other work, you are planning on moving on from France. Why and what is next?
SL: I think France has had enough of me; I’ve certainly had enough of France. The French are not a backward people, but the country is a backward place. Just to get cigarettes after 7pm is a major hassle, and God forbid if you smoke yourself out on a Sunday. I’ve just had enough of this place and am lonely here. I need my home and I need to revisit the life I left behind. France was great for my writing, but London will be even greater. The place is calling to me like the wild called to Buck. And even if the Call of the Wild is really nothing more than death luring you in, it is a call you know you must answer at all costs. As for the future, I’m as blind as anyone when it comes to that. But I have hope. In my words I have hope… the same dream I’ve been peddling for years.
“Memoires of a Heroinhead” can be found at: http://memoiresofaheroinhead.blogspot.com
For more information about “Void Ratio” by Shane Levene, visit this site: http://infinitylandpress.com/untitled-gallery
By Regina Walker
Regina Walker’s first book, “Through My Eyes” is now available. For more information, visit: http://www.innerchildpress.com/regina-a-walker.php