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Drugs were Katie Mack's connection to the world. Until she found real community in sobriety

OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Editor’s note: Treatment for addiction is available. For help, call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP), or visit findtreatment.gov.

Opioids can ‘feel like love.’ Here’s how that helps our understanding of addiction. Listen here.

For about a third of people who have taken opioids, when they do, they feel something remarkable. Not intense pleasure, but something much more fundamental. They feel like they’re being loved.

And in a world of fraying social bonds, economic vulnerability and increased isolation due to the pandemic, an addiction-driven feeling of being loved adds to our understanding of why opioid overdose deaths soared 30% last year.

But when we say taking opioids can feel like love, what does that really mean? What does it really feel like in your body and soul?

KATIE MACK: I have always felt out of my body. I haven’t felt comfortable in my skin for all of my life. This idea that, like when you’re using there is nothing but the present. It just is as close to feeling at home than any other place.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That’s Katie Mack. She goes by Mack. And she’s an actor, writer and podcaster based in New York. She suffered from opioid addiction for 10 years.

MACK: I very specifically remember the first time I used OxyContin. I just remember being at this boy’s house who I was in love with since I was nine or something. And he was 16, I was 15. It was like the upstairs, [attic] part. He was like, Yo, you want some? And I said, Yeah. For some reason, I wasn’t getting what I needed to feel loved.

And so there was no one hug that was going to solve that … feeling of [not] being loved. There was no like hi-five or like soccer team that was going to make me feel like I was part of a community. I had already sort of like developed whatever pathways that had made me feel othered. And then I got this whole other new roadmap and then I could just drive down that. And it was faster and it was easier.

And I’m 35 years old, so I have dated a lot of people. I had a partner for about five years who really put up with a lot from me. And I think he was very comfortable in his skin. And I think he really tried to make me feel loved. I just wasn’t able to receive it. And I think that’s why sometimes drugs or heroin for me felt so simple for a short period of time, until it didn’t. It’s because, like I knew, I didn’t have to have a conversation about it. I didn’t have to talk about my feelings. I knew what I was getting. And that felt very simple.

After having used for some amount of time, it’s like an absence. And it’s like an itch. And then like when you use, you get that quick calm. Your brain won’t stop or this other thing won’t stop, and then you’re able to like, chill for a second. It’s like being swaddled. Like you can self-soothe. And you get to like, I mean, often you get to decide how much self-soothing you need. And since leaving my mother’s womb, right, how do I give myself, you know what I need? How do I self soothe? How do I protect myself from feeling bad, or insecure or hurt? It’s a combination of knowing that there’s nothing that needs to change about you.

There’s a sense that like people like you. And it’s all kind of these like, this locking system that sort of happens in my personal body. It is accompanied by a feeling that is accompanied by a sound effect. And it is often the sound of like a lock clicking. And then it’s secure. And that feels good. It feels good and it feels secure.

CHAKRABARTI: The drugs became Katie’s way to connect with the world. She didn’t know who she was without heroin. Until she found a real community, one that gave her purpose and, more importantly, unconditional real love.

MACK: I got to the point where, like, I didn’t want to do it anymore, and then I had to. And that is just a very different thing. You know, that’s how people are like, how can you be a food addict? It’s like, I don’t want to eat. I can’t stop eating. You know, I think people know the sensation of like, man, I woke up hung over. I don’t want to drink tonight. And then you drink. That’s the yuck. That is the man. … It feels like it’s out of your body. That’s not love anymore. That’s just plain itch. I had to know in my soul that it was make a different choice or die. It was so clear for me, I could see how quickly this is going to go down.

I think it’s like anything else. I went to AA and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t like fun, but I was like, I don’t know. I know where it is now and like, this one person was really nice to me. And like, they told me to come back. So like, I guess I’ll come back. And like, it happened really slowly. And then how did it become a community? It’s like, Yo, at this point, I didn’t have any friends. So like these other people were like, I’ll be your friend.

When I finally found a community, the first thing I needed to be was willing to sort of like, let a lot of my protective gear go. And for me, the first step again was a lot like my way into using. I saw these people who are like cool. Who like were talking about stuff that like, made me laugh. Because I was like, Oh my God, me too. And I had this feeling of being like, I want what they have. And I watched other people genuinely be and feel happy, and I wanted to know what that felt like. Because I don’t know if I’d ever felt that way in my life.

You can’t get sober without other people. You can’t, you can’t. Some of it is just, you know, you’re so riddled with shame and you hate yourself so much. And then you see somebody else hating themselves so much. And for a second, you’re like, Oh, I think I should tell that person not to hate themselves so much. And for one second, while you’re talking to the other person, you stop thinking about yourself. I think there’s something about, you know, having something in common with a bunch of other people that just get it.

I am so well-loved by my friends, and I feel so strongly that love and I understand that feeling of love that never runs out. Man, I just really like my life now. The most important thing about that is that my life is, like, pretty normal. But I just really like it. I kind of can’t believe I’m about to say this, but the community of people I’m around is like God to me. It is whatever that means to people, right? It is this unconditional, never-ending blanket-hammock-catch to my life, to me, to who I am, no matter what I do. And it doesn’t have like one face. It’s just like this warm feeling that I know is always there, and I’m always there for it. What did I say about here when I said it felt like coming home? And that’s exactly, you know, the same feeling, too. Like this warm, constantly coming home.

CHAKRABARTI: Katie Mack has been sober for 10 years now. She’s based in New York City and hosts her own podcast. It’s loosely based on her first 90 days of getting clean. It’s called F*cking Sober. Katie uses the actual word, but my old school broadcast self resists using it. But you know what we mean.

And by the way, we talked a lot more about what opioids are doing in the brain that make people feel so loved when they’re taking the drugs, and about how that research should expand treatment options for people suffering from addiction. You can listen to that here.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.