From 15 years of heroin addiction to becoming a neuroscience lecturer

Brian Pennie's memoir tells the story of addiction, recovery and redemption

Every morning psychology lecturer and author Brian Pennie wakes up very early and does five things: "meditation, affirmation, visualisation, inner child work and gratitude". It makes up an acronym – mavig – and he swears by it. He does these things every morning, he says, "whether it's World War III or the coronavirus".

Seven years ago, when he was in the throes of a serious heroin addiction, Pennie’s mornings looked quite different. He would awake to an overly loud alarm playing In the Morning by Razorlight, after which “a couple of benzos and some gear” would get him out of bed. “I had no emotional world. I had no spiritual world. That was all gone . . . My brother, who I lived with, says he still gets shivers when he hears that song.”

Pennie’s memoir, Bonus Time, tells the story of his journey through a 15-year heroin addiction on to a post-recovery career as a speaker, neuroscience lecturer and PhD student.

All addiction, Pennie says, has its roots in trauma. His own trauma, he now believes, stems from an operation he had as a baby. In those days, operations on infants were misguidedly carried out without anaesthetic and, with what he knows now about psychology, Pennie reckons this might explain the feelings of unease and anxiety he carried with him through his childhood and into adulthood.

“I still have weird feelings around bodily sensations,” he says. “That’s my Everest. If you said to me, ‘I’ll give you a million euros, Brian, if you can feel your pulse for a minute’, I’d probably do it for a million quid but I still have negative associations around my heartbeat and my pulse.” He rubs his side. “I’m rubbing my scar as I talk about it . . . I imagine for the first year of my life I had horrible bodily sensations; I imagine that as a baby I could feel my heartbeat, I could feel the pulse and I associated that with pain.”

Throughout his childhood he was restless and agitated. “I had sirens in my head,” he says. “I was just such a worrier. I worried about my parents dying. I had huge fear of death and a huge fear of losing people close to me.”

Drugs offered him relief from this. His first drug, he says, was a cigarette. He remembers it very clearly. “All my friends were smoking and I remember thinking they were idiots . . . but something just shifted one day and one of my mates said, ‘I love the head buzz you get off that’ and that piqued my interest. And within weeks I was smoking hash.”

Pennie grew up in working-class Ladyswell in Blanchardstown, but went to a "posher school" than many of his friends, St Declan's in Cabra. He never felt he fitted in there, he says, and in an attempt to do so he styled himself as a drug dealer. "They called me Penpusher. I was such a mediocre drug dealer. I wasn't hard enough to be a drug dealer in [Ladyswell], but I was hard enough for St Declan's." He laughs. "Which is pathetic and I see that now."

He wanted to be cool. He and his best friends were obsessed with the music and poetry of Jim Morrison. "Jim was into a drug called Peyote so we thought we have to do as much acid as we can to be like Jim Morrison and expand our minds."

Did it expand their minds? He laughs. "I was completely deluding myself. I just liked the idea of expanding my mind . . . We were into Kurt Cobain as well . . . We wanted to join the 27 Club [musicians who died at the young age of 27], me and my friend Barry. We'd actually say that to each other . . . We're going to burn out, not fade out. Losers fade out. It was just a rationalisation to do more drugs."

When he was 16, Pennie tried methadone. He didn’t even know that it was a heroin substitute, he says, “though after I wrote the book the friend that I did it with said, ‘You f***ing did know, you mad thing.’ Memories are crazy.”

When he was 17, he did heroin. “It was amazing,” he says. “Even talking about it now I feel a sense of calm. I got a lovely stillness in me . . . It was amazingly powerful and beautiful. I revered it like a god from the heavens.”

Since getting clean, he says, he has discovered he can conjure up a purer less artificial version of that “still and timeless” feeling he got from heroin from meditation. At the time, however, he and his friend Barry (not his real name) fell into serious addictions. Barry, he tells me, is still in addiction and is homeless.

Pennie never saw himself as “a real addict”. He managed to keep a job in the graphics department of a printing company, and to keep a veneer of a functionality for 15 years while maintaining a serious addiction and a second job as a not particularly competent drug dealer. “I wasn’t as unusual as I thought I was. People stereotype the addict as someone on the dole, but a lot of people turn up [at methadone clinics] in vans and have jobs.”

The fact Pennie managed to keep his job for so long feels miraculous given the reality of his addiction. He was liked by his colleagues and good at his job when he did it, he says, and he thinks some of them mistook his issues for a more socially acceptable addiction to alcohol. But his problems were increasingly obvious.

He describes his typical workday: “I would wake up in the morning and there was always stress from the night before. I owed out money. I didn’t get paid. I didn’t have enough drugs for the day. I would always have a little bit of something to keep me out of the sickness, so I wouldn’t be overly anxious at work. I’d be frantically making phone calls during the day, and I would probably make up some story to say I had to go to the credit union or something . . . I had a lot of bulls**t happening to give me excuses to get out of place and go and score some gear. I’d come back and smoke it in the industrial estate, come back into the job. I’d be looking a lot better now, because I wasn’t struggling with anxiety anymore, but I would look stoned. I would probably goof off, on the chair.”

He regularly fell asleep at work. “After work I’d go and try to collect some money, pay the dealers. In the earlier stages, it would have been just about getting more heroin, more benzos just to get nicely stoned. But in the latter years, no matter how many drugs I did, it just brought me to baseline or below baseline.”

When the heroin stopped giving him a high, he formulated a plan to move to Afghanistan where he thought it would be stronger. "Seriously. I was looking up flights and all," he says. "From a neuroscience perspective my body was just in a state of agitation, my nerve endings were always agitated. I just wanted to ease the agitation that was in my body but the more drugs I did, the more agitated I became. I was like a snake trying to eat its own tail."

When his mother discovered piles of old methadone bottles under his bed, he managed to convince everyone he was nearly recovered from addiction rather than supplementing a long-standing methadone prescription with heroin and tablets. He likens himself to a “chameleon”, changing to fit whatever world he was in. At one point he might play golf with colleagues. At another he might watch a man who had just extracted heroin from his rectum, hand it to him with his faeces-covered hands. “I thought, this is not who I am. I don’t belong here. He’s a dirt ball, I’m not a dirt ball.”

It was only when he was finally suspended from work that he sought help. He was told by his doctor that he needed to wean himself off benzodiazepine before he’d be allowed into a heroin detox centre and, against all advice, he decided to stop taking the tablets overnight. This is not recommended by the experts for good reason.

After a trip to AA with his sister – “I fell asleep on her shoulder, smelling of vodka” – he returned to his flat where, a few nights later, he had a withdrawal related seizure. He bit his tongue down the middle and ended up in hospital. “That was the moment when the world completely changed. I was never really going to get clean until I had a seizure . . . My self identity was, ‘I can’t cope with anxiety, I need to take heroin’. The seizure cracked that shell, and it just opened the door to look at the world in another way. It just broke me mentally, emotionally and physically. It was like I was dead inside afterwards. There was nothing inside of me.”

He didn’t even have the strength to score drugs at that point, which meant that several weeks later, the benzodiazepine was out of his system and he was in a detox centre coming off heroin and methadone. While there he began reading about mindfulness and psychology and eastern philosophy. He kept a diary, and wrote several overly earnest letters to his family. “I genuinely believe the most clarity I ever had in my life was when I was in detox,” he says.

This was difficult for some members of his long-suffering family to take. “The addict mind kicked in and I thought I was a sage,” he says. “I told my sister, ‘I have a secret. I’ll tell you about when I get out’, not realising that I had put them through torture for years. A few weeks after they thought I was dead I’m sending them letters [saying things like], ‘eat strawberries and really feel the strawberry.’ ”

Nonetheless, he embraced learning and never let go of it. “From a neuroscience perspective, if we have that dopamine hit – drug, drug, drug, drug, drug – and you get clean and don’t hook that little dopamine hit on to something else, you are going to feel crap. And what do you do when you feel like crap? You use drugs. I think what saved me was I hooked my dopamine receptors on to a new drug and that drug was learning. I think it’s really important to try to find what is the positive new drug for someone, and over time help them find balance. I’ve never found balance. I’m still obsessed about learning. That’s okay. We call it ‘drive’. We don’t call it ‘addiction’ anymore.”

Since then, Pennie has completed a degree in psychology in NUI Maynooth, is studying for a fully-funded PhD at the institute of neuroscience in TCD, and slowly building a reputation as a speaker and a lecturer. He's interested in the space where eastern philosophies of mind intersect with western psychology, and over the course of our chat, he quotes thinkers like Anthony de Mello, Eckhart Tolle and Viktor Frankl.

Things haven’t always gone smoothly, he says, but he insists that he’s “the happiest person I know”. He is very close with his family. He has come up with 200 tools for life, at first to help himself, but which he now imparts to clients in one-on-one sessions and to rooms full of people as a speaker. He lectures in the neuroscience of mindfulness at UCD and the neuroscience of addiction in TCD. In his spare time, he has been interviewing business leaders and public figures about their own strategies for life, and is hoping to turn his findings into another book.

He talks about the importance of affirming your own values (his include “boldness, connection, open mindedness”), and visualising the things you want to achieve. When he got a box of his books from the publisher, he tells me he was so excited he hurt his hand opening the box. “I’ve been as honest as I could. My main mantra in life is, ‘be true to your wonderfully weird self’. I just let the truth out.”

  • Bonus Time by Brian Pennie is published by Gill Books.

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