Fentanyl Blues: Why Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death Hit Close to Home

Note: I originally published on TheFix.com in January 2012 under a pseudonym. Since that time, there’s been a surge on

A Fentanyl patch.
A Fentanyl patch.

Note: I originally published on TheFix.com in January 2012 under a pseudonym. Since that time, there’s been a surge on Fentanyl-related deaths, with the unfortunate demise of Philip Seymour Hoffman this weekend putting the deadly narcotic in the spotlight.  I originally wrote this essay to tell my story, now I’m sharing it as a public service: Fentanyl is a drug that isn’t just relegated to people in poor, urban areas, and the next life it takes could be a family member’s, a friend’s, or your own.

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Here’s a good tip for what not to do after graduating from college if you don’t want to get addicted to opioids: do not go on Craigslist’s “For Sale” section and search for “pain.”

Honestly, you just graduated from college, why are you trying to buy more pain? You can’t afford the pain you are in already, because you don’t have health insurance and also because you are in $40,000 of debt. What are you, some kind of masochist?

Also, don’t search for “pain” in Craigslist’s seller section (feel free to search for it on Missed Connections), because you might end up buying pharmaceutical grade heroin from a quadriplegic at Coney Island (true story).

Here’s how your addiction starts: in college, everyone traded pills all the time. My Adderall for your Vicodin, my Adderall for your Ambien, my Adderall for your capsule-of-what-you-claim-to-be-MDMA-but-looks-like-crushed-up-baby-aspirin. But out in the big scary world—which is very big, and is very scary, and will remain so regardless of how much of your graduation money you spend on moving to the city that contains the densest ratio of liberal art school buddies—you can’t score.

You graduated in 2012, which means you’re half a generation beyond Generation Prozac, and you turn to the Internet as your source for once-in-a-blue-moon recreational pharmies. Not for cocaine or marijuana or heroin, because that’s super illegal and you aren’t stupid enough to meet a random person from the web who might ruin your life. But calling a person who lists a phone number so they can hand you five Percocets for $50? Honestly, what are the chances of anyone giving a shit? That’s what you think. It’s not like The Wire, where at the top of the pyramid you have some family dynasty or drug cartel that the police could try to flip you against. The top of the pill market is pharmaceutical companies.

Still, Bristol Palin’s baby’s daddy’s momma did get caught selling OxyContin to teenagers, and she got in big trouble. But she was also related to someone who was once on the cover of Playgirl because he was related-in-law to someone who was almost Vice President. Plus, she was selling, not buying.

When you Google the word “pain” or “pill” in a random city (say, Philadelphia), you come across legit listings for back braces or herbal Viagra supplements. Then you’ll come across something that says “Pain Relief!!” Go ahead, click that link. Those “premium meds” are your standard Codeine/OxyContin/Vicodin sellers. Sometimes they are college kids. But most of the time they are middle-aged white people who have these really sad stories that make you feel like buying their medication off of them is kind a kind of charity. Like the nurse you call “Grandma Pills,” whose husband is dying of cancer and the chemo treatments are putting them in severe debt at a time when they should be retiring. This lady will be working at a hospital till she’s 80, and you will always hope that she’s stealing the pills from her job and not her husband, and then feel guilty when you realize that she could get fired for doing that and then her family would be really fucked.

Or, maybe she’s lying about all of it. She is your drug dealer, after all. Your kindly old Grandma Pills.

Unfortunately, there is a reason Biggie warned to never mix drugs with family (even if “Grandma” is only something you call her in your head), and that’s because you will get as emotionally attached to the person selling to you as you do to your increasing amount of prescription pain medication. You have to support her, because her life has resorted to this: an old lady selling drugs to twenty-somethings instead of getting her purse snatched by them. It’s just wrong. Also: surprise! Now you are a high-functioning drug addict.

So the day that she doesn’t call you back, you will search the Internet for the word “pain.” And this time a listing doesn’t pop up offering pills. It’s offering Fentanyl.

Have you heard of Fentanyl? Go check out this thread on Reddit, which gives the best layman’s term explanation for the drug. Here’s how one user—who sounds like kind of a shady doctor—describes it:

Fentanyl is not new. They give fentanyl lollipops to kids after surgery. It does not have the same super intense euphoric effect that heroin does but it is a synthetic opioid, so it still gets you feeling good. However if you took 1 mg of Fentanyl vs. 1 mg of Heroin, the Fentanyl would be very, very strong. It would probably take 10 vials of fentanyl to equal 1 milligram of drug, and you would stop breathing as soon as you shot it. I give it to patients on a regular basis and it is given in micrograms, due to its potency.

Everything he is saying is correct, except that Fentanyl isn’t sold as a liquid, so you don’t shoot it. It does come in lollipops, which is what Evel Knievel sucked on all day, or at least that’s what you remember someone saying on TV once. Also it comes in trans-dermal patches. These are patches that are filled with gel and you stick on your skin, and they slowly deliver a drip of the opioid into your system over the course of three days.

Sounds super fun, but after you meet the quadriplegic on the boardwalk who sells you his patches (and will one time try to sell you a TV, which strikes you as super ghetto and just really shady), you will be disappointed with the results. You don’t really feel anything for the first several hours, and budding drug abusers aren’t really known for their patience. So you read somewhere else online that you can rip the packet open and scoop out the tiniest pinprick of gel and just straight eat it.

And it will feel amazing. You never tried heroin, because you hate needles. Your friends back home—who will all be addicted to heroin and shooting up in front of you every time you go stay with your parents—will make you uncomfortable with their unhygienic hypodermic shit, sitting with those belts or tubes tied around their arms in giant warehouses like some really depressing cliché. They don’t know what they are missing. You are classy. You are a synthetic opioid addict, not an actual heroin addict, the difference between the two being that one sounds like a character in a Phillip K. Dick book and that is cool, while heroin sounds like something you do when you give up.

You will sleep all day and lose several jobs, one right after another, because you only appear employable for four hours at a time before you have to go vomit in a toilet or nod off at your desk. One time you will get fired because you threw up so hard you gave yourself a nosebleed in the bathroom right when the boss walks in. They fire you because they think you have a coke problem, and you wonder if you can sue them in court because you certainly don’t. You just love your Fentanyl patches.

You love them so much, and you love everyone else around you, which is a relatively new feeling. Also, all those old fears about what to do with your life after college are completely gone, because every day not spent throwing up is spent feeling like God is giving you a big warm hug with pillows for arms. Sometimes you will wake up in the middle of the night and realize you haven’t taken a breath in awhile. You chew the plastic parts of your patch when they run out of actual gel, because there’s a residual high. You also, oddly enough, get really fat.

It will be a couple months down the road, when you are sucking up pieces of dirt from under your bed that sort of resemble chewed-up plastic that might have some juice in them yet, that you realize you are an actual drug addict. Other people do, too. Your friends on heroin hold an intervention for you, because a friend of theirs recently died when his dope was spiked with Fentanyl and he OD’d. That’s how bad you are in it. “Kicking the habit” won’t be a walk in the park, but it won’t be like Trainspotting either: mostly you’ll just eat a lot more and not be able to sleep and get really snippy with everyone. A year and a half in AA will convince you that although the 12-step program is a good one, you don’t think you have the disease of alcoholism/addiction. You’ll find out during that time that you have a talent for writing, mainly because you are bored and itchy. Your life will continue to be marked with little blips of recreational drug use (even a stray Vicodin will pass your lips once a year), but you’re pretty sure you’ll never find Fentanyl again.

You will no longer search for pain.

Fentanyl Blues: Why Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death Hit Close to Home