Twenty-nine-year-old British expat R. Simmons came to Berlin as an aspiring writer and university graduate before falling into a spiral of addiction that took him from U-Bahn platforms to a run-down Kreuzberg drug den. Now in rehab, he tells Exberliner his story.
I came to Berlin in 2006 just after my final-year exams. Not wanting to wait in London for the results, I decided to return to a city I had visited briefly the previous summer, drawn back by my impressions of Eastern Bloc architecture rubbing abrasively against older buildings pockmarked with bullet-holes, art by the Dada artists I’d just finished studying, and bars open late enough to satisfy my most nocturnal inclinations. I had no clear intentions to stay indefinitely, but nothing was pulling me back to London either. I was content just to explore somewhere new, to find my feet after three years as a student, and seek out some new adventures.
I first scored on the platform of U-Bahnhof Rosenthaler Platz. I knew you could buy heroin there because a friend (who looked a lot like Nick Cave in his Birthday Party degenerate glory, appropriately enough) had described how an ever-changing gang of Lebanese teenagers stood there daily, waiting for customers. I lived around the corner, and perhaps this is what made me curious. It certainly grabbed my attention that something previously so peripheral to my life was now almost literally on my doorstep. At the same time, I was in a new city, and looking to create impressions and connections in an unfamiliar place. Berlin had its own peculiar mythologies for me, of Low-era David Bowie, Christiane F. at Bahnhof Zoo, the expanses of desolate waste ground, the ghosts of lovers kissing by the Wall. I had just learnt I’d gotten top marks at university. I had just fallen in love. How did heroin fit into all of that? I decided to find out.
They were not difficult to spot. I approached them and we stared at one another for a long time. ‘Braun?’ I mumbled with my terrible accent.
At Rosenthaler Platz it was just as my friend had told me. Two young and surprisingly frail teenagers dragged their feet along the edge of the platform. They were not difficult to spot. I approached them and we stared at one another for a long time. “Braun?” I mumbled with my terrible accent. They drew me behind a pillar where I handed over €20, and within 10 minutes I was back home, my heart still thudding behind my ribs with a feeling of tense elation that buying drugs would soon make all-too familiar.
My girlfriend and I smoked it together off aluminium foil. I halfexpected something terrible to happen the moment I inhaled, police breaking down the door or an instant overdose, the way Catholics sometimes terrify themselves with thoughts of the Devil appearing to cart them off for unrepented sins. Instead, the effects were surprisingly mild. I felt tranquil and protected in a way that gave me a sense of confidence. It was subtle and sensual at the same time. We talked, cuddled, watched a film, and had sex. Lots and lots of sex. We didn’t know it then, but heroin is a drug that offers everything on account because it will all get paid back later. The desire and well-being changes to impotence and disconnection, but when we came to realise that, Berlin had become so ubiquitous with addiction that sometimes we despaired of ever being disentangled from it.
At the time, though, we didn’t worry. We failed to stop or cut down even when our usage was became increasingly frequent. Weeks without using turned into days, and those days shortened until by the same time in 2007, we were smoking daily. Suddenly, heroin was everywhere, as if by using I gained a sixth sense for its existence. I became familiar with not only the teenagers at Rosenthaler Platz, but the other gangs who fought for junkie business on platforms from Wedding to Neukölln, Schöneberg to Kreuzberg – a kaleidoscope of youthful Arabic faces known by the same few pseudonyms: Ali, Saddam, Hassan. You could score at every station on the U8 from Gesundbrunnen to Hermannstraße, with the better dealers attracting crowds of 30 or 40 addicts at a time.
I realised then that not every customer sold homeless magazines or begged and no longer cared to hide their swollen hands or pinhole pupils. I encountered women nipping out of the office for a fix, couples with toddlers and other foreigners who, like me, had been sucked in by the cheapness, quality, and pervasiveness of heroin in Berlin: Josh*, a successful musician and software developer; Marc*, a New Yorker working in the club scene; Romeo*, an Italian tattoo artist with wife and child, among others. We would meet, exchange greetings, then melt away with hurrying steps to wherever we went to get high.
My girlfriend and I soon began drifting into the more experienced and established heroin scene in Kreuzberg. Most of the dealers there were Germans who worked from their flats instead of on the streets. We started to inject instead of smoke – first because it was cheaper, then because it associated us more intimately with the mythology of heroin use, and finally because we were too addicted to turn back. This, I thought, was the authentic Kreuzberg: look, this woman used to sell speed to Blixa Bargeld! Jochen*, an absolute man-mountain of a punk, would sing along to the records he had recorded 20 years before. And unlike the Lebanese gangs, who were all clean, the Kreuzberg dealers sold to support their habits and, as such, let you use around them. It was there that I met Jan* and Charlotte*. He was in his mid-twenties and existed in a cloud of heroin and cocaine, spending hours searching his arms, legs and neck for a vein before passing out in front of his Xbox. She was in her late forties, a kind of emaciated Courtney Love with brown teeth which she glued back herself after her dog knocked them out. At one point, she been married to Jan’s father, Stefan*. Now she was his lover – they spoke of getting married, once Stefan granted her a divorce, that is. Together, the three of them held court.
If you entered the toilet without knocking, you were almost certain to find Sputnik sitting on the toilet seat, trousers round his ankles, needle dug into his groin.
They had flats on either side of Görlitzer Park, and for a year and a half I spent more hours in both than I care to remember. Stefan’s flat in particular was a magnet for all the junkies in the area. He was in his early fifties, still boyish, with a voice that reminded me of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. Day and night it would be full with addicts who came to buy and use, helping themselves from the boxes of fresh needles he picked up regularly from the needle exchange on Cuvrystraße. If you entered the toilet without knocking, you were almost certain to find Stefan’s friend Sputnik sitting on the toilet seat, trousers round his ankles, needle dug into his groin – unless you caught him stealing your gear. The landlord, who occupied the dilapidated building’s only other habitable flat, turned a blind eye to what he believed was weed dealing and, in any case, Stefan had installed a CCTV camera in the front door’s spy-hole so he could watch who came and went on the TV from his bed.
After Jan went to prison (and where, withdrawing, he suffered a total mental breakdown), Stefan took over completely, and my mid-twenties slipped away on his sofa watching day-time television or laughing at his jokes, hoping to appease him like some capricious idol. In that flat, summer turned into winter and the only way you could tell was by looking at the tops of the trees in the park over the road to check the colour of the leaves. Drug-friendships were made and then broken over and over again on Stefan’s hideous 1980s furniture covered with hair from ancient dogs. His coffee table was a permanent mess of bloody needles, beer bottles and alcohol pads. The stairwell was almost never free of customers arriving as snivelling wrecks and leaving in a daze. Marco*, a sometime ski instructor who looked like George Clooney on meth and was forever being thrown out by his analyst wife, would wait outside and watch for Stefan leaving so he could break into the flat. Others, out of favour with Stefan, who lorded it over his customers as much as any pasha, hid themselves in the shadows to smoke, sniff or have a fix.
He was generous with credit, especially if he sensed you had money on the way. To support my habit, I signed on, worked cash-in-hand jobs, sold my possessions or performed poetry in bars, restaurants, and the streets. I had between three and six shots per day, €30-60, depending on my finances. Already, though, my veins were collapsing. From a relatively simple operation in the crook of my arm, it had become time-consuming and messy. But addiction is a series of broken pledges: I would never do this, sell that, hurt myself that way. So I turned to my feet and legs. The acquisition of money and drugs began to dominate mine and my partner’s life to the extent that we neglected everything else – our relationship, our interests, our ambitions. Everything about being addicted at the beginning had morphed into its other, just as we had morphed into our addictions. Heroin does not change people, its demands crowd out and refuse to give space to anything else. And even when you want to stop, the fear of cold turkey drives you on, hour after hour, day after day.
Over time, the heroin scene changed. The quality grew worse and it was harder to buy. As areas like Mitte, Neukölln and Wedding grew fancier, the police took steps to force dealing underground. With that, people became increasingly desperate. There were droughts, like the one during which I spent over 12 hours trying to score, eventually buying from a pimp near Kurfürstenstraße who supplied the local hookers. In Kreuzberg, people were being arrested. Moreover, the more time I spent in this world, the worse it seemed. Characters like Moses*, a colossus from Ghana who sold weed in the park but also mugged random people when he got desperate, or Nora*, who had lived her entire life in the neighbourhood and used to cry hysterically when she took too much cocaine, seemed less colourful and more nasty, or sad, or both. Eventually, we fell out with Stefan. Later I discovered that while he had not been arrested, he had been beaten to within an inch of his life by assailants armed with a baseball bat, revenge for having left their friend outside his flat to die after suffering an overdose.
I began to avoid Kreuzberg, tried several times to stop, but always ended up lapsing. By then, around 2011, you had to travel all over the city to score. The best dealer in town was Murat*, but to find him was never easy. You had to call first because it was never certain where he would be: Buch, Blankenberg or, my personal favourite, Mühlenbeck-Mönchmühle, where two boys hid in some bushes away from the station. Once there, all you had to do was follow the line of customers pumping their arms and legs like cross-country skiers, faster and faster until they descended on the dealers in a pushing and shoving mass, fist-clenched money pushed under their noses, one counting the cash, the other dispensing the bags or summary justice to those who stepped out of line (for which purpose he carried a police nightstick, right up until the day he whacked an undercover officer and was hauled to jail in Moabit).
In 2012, both my girlfriend and I decided to stop for good. It is not hard to say why, because the reasons for stopping had been there for a long time. Wealth, health, time, love (not in that order!). What is not so simple is why then and not sooner, or later. I felt the mythology I had built around Berlin and heroin could no longer exist. The stories and characters I used to hoard had become repetitive, or tragic, and I had other ways I wanted to spend my time. I’d become morbid and apathetic. Having come here for adventure, I felt the need for some new ones rather than the same one again and again.
Some never reached that point, and three of them were foreigners like me. One, a designer, overdosed the first time taking heroin in years. Josh, the musician, who had also become a close friend, committed suicide in London having struggled desperately to get clean in Berlin. And, finally, Sasha*, a 23-year-old girl who was clean when she got here but began lapsing before my eyes. Despite efforts to discourage her, she kept going. It was only a few weeks later I found out she had overdosed in a bathroom. Her boyfriend, who found her, could not revive her.
Now in a treatment progamme, we pass the time of day. Some of my friends, who cannot believe I am clean, ask me where I buy from now. Others, when I tell them that I am in treatment, quickly edge away from me, as if frightened (junkies, like misery, love company). When I pass the stations where I used to score – Rosenthaler Platz, Schönleinstraße, Osloer Straße – I sometimes look up, almost involuntarily, to see what is happening. Groups of junkies waiting to score give me a strange feeling of unease. Most of all, though, I am trying to remake my own Berlin away from the heroin scene that, for half of my twenties, seemed indivisible with the city itself. But I still can’t listen to Heroes. And I still avoid Kreuzberg.