“My life was defined by my next hit”

Confessions of a heroin addict


"You don't know what it's like to have your brain trying to sabotage you." Michael Kelly sweeps a waterfall of black hair away from his eyes. "Part of me still just wants to shut myself in my room and get fucked up."

Michael is 20 years old, and a recovering heroin addict. And he’s right. I may have scoffed a shroom at university, but to be addicted to one of the most potent recreational drugs out there is beyond my ken. I can only listen – hooked.

Michael was 16 when he first injected heroin. He'd been smoking weed for three years before then, and his father once gave him a taste of coke when Michael caught him with a line. When his dealer at school got him some junk, after checking it was genuine ("it's brown and tastes bitter") Michael didn't think twice before trying it.

"I bought needles and syringes online," he says, "and diluted the heroin with water as I didn't know how strong it would be. I didn't know anything about veins, I just stuck the needle into my arm. But after that first time, I knew this was the stuff for me." The high is a free-floating feeling that lasts for several hours, Michael tells me – "like loads of alchohol without the bother of getting drunk."

After a high like that, there's only one way to go. "It all went downhill from there," he continues. "I got addicted, I was kicked out of school at 17, I was stealing from my parents. I lost everything, absolutely everything."

Over four years of use Michael reckons he spent at least five figures on the drug – mostly stolen money from his mum, a high-earning executive. The cost to his personal life was even higher. He dropped from an A* to an E student, fought with his parents and started mixing heroin with cocaine, known as speedballing. "My life was defined by when my next hit would be."

The moment Michael decided he had to kick the habit was Christmas 2009. "It was the coldest Christmas ever", he says. "2009 was the worst year of my life. By that Christmas I couldn't enjoy anything, I just needed more and more. My mum caught me stealing from her, and I just broke down in front of her. I said I needed help."

We are standing outside a pub in Maida Vale, London. Michael tells me talking about his addiction is "cathartic" and answers my questions with a nonchalant calm, as if we were discussing a childhood hobby. He has a quiet voice with a faint Irish lilt, a pale sheen of skin framed by his long hair, and a habit of fidgeting on the spot when he speaks.

His father John, from Galway in Western Ireland, was "very lenient with my boozing and smoking [weed], but got nervy when he saw my syringes." Michael, born in London, is a single child – or so he thought until he was 11, when he found out he had a half-brother some 30 years older than him.

Out of the blue, his dad explained that in the early 60s he had fathered a son with a 16-year old girl. Ireland was fervently Catholic at the time, so condoms were not readily available and abortion was out of the question if you weren't married. 40 years later, the mother contacted John to say that their son, Joe, was living in Highbury and had three kids of his own.

Michael tells me he wasn't surprised. “I didn't think it was out of character for Dad." He met Joe ("strong Irish accent, broad hands … a no nonsense guy") in a Starbucks, and over the years came to consider him a good friend. But when Joe caught him shooting up in his bathroom, Michael looked in the mirror, saw he had become desperate, and knew he had to quit.

Checking into a rehab clinic helped Michael reduce his dependency on heroin, but he is still using, if less often. He is unemployed – a NEET – and keenly feels that he is a burden to his parents, now in their 60s. Looking to keep active, out of the house, doing something, he signed himself onto a journalism course as the first step to a possible job.

But at the back of his mind, he tells me, there is always another voice – a niggling, stubborn voice – that makes him question if he will not be a heroin addict his whole life. "It's telling me not to give a shit, to just go and get fucked up again."