Nan Goldin lights a cigarette and takes a puff. “My dealer came here 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I was one of his best customers.” She giggles sarcastically. “He texted me when I was in rehab saying he was having a sale.” He had dropped his prices in the hope of luring her back. She has since deleted his number from her phone and has been out of rehab and drug-free for 10 months.
“I almost didn’t leave this house for three years,” she says. Goldin looks around the living room in her elegant Brooklyn apartment, paintings and photographs dotted around the walls, though none of her own, and Larry the stuffed coyote fixed in a permanent howl by the window.
Her most recent drug experience was very different to the old days, when she became one of the world’s most famous art photographers, capturing herself and those around her getting high, having sex and hanging out in downtrodden homes in the 70s and 80s.
This second experience began with a doctor in Berlin, where she has a second home. In 2014, Goldin was prescribed the potent narcotic OxyContin for painful tendonitis in her left wrist. She promptly became addicted, despite taking the pills exactly as prescribed.
“The first time I got a ‘scrip it was 40 milligrams and it was too strong for me; they made me nauseated and dulled. By the end, I was on 450mg a day,” she says. Eventually she was crushing and snorting them. When, back in New York, doctors refused to supply her any more, she turned to the black market, and to cheaper hard street drugs whenever she ran out of money.
Emerging from a rehab facility in Massachusetts last March, she began reading about OxyContin and realised the branded medicine was prime suspect in the opioid crisis that has ripped through the US over the past 20 years. The epidemic has killed more than 200,000 people so far. Now she is declaring war against members of the secretive US family behind the invention of OxyContin, and behind the ingenious marketing strategy that was used to convince doctors it was harmless and patients that they needed it.
“I don’t know how they live with themselves,” she says. Synthetic opioids mimic the effects of natural opioid drugs (which include opium and heroin), and their use, on prescription, is spreading in the UK and beyond, causing alarm among health experts. (The makers of OxyContin have subsidiary firms in Europe, Asia and Latin America.)