On Being An Entrepreneur, A Digital Nomad, and a (Recovering) Heroin Addict — Part 1

Skid Row, aka DTES. Where my journey as a nomad took a life-changing turn.

This is a small portion of my journey as a digital nomad, an entrepreneur -I’m a web designer and founder of Fat Panda Design.

But ultimately, I’m a (recovering) heroin addict.

I’d like to have an open, honest conversation. I think I’m finally ready.

Traveling is magical. It takes us to new places, draws us out of our self-created bubbles and crosses our paths with some absolutely beautiful human beings.

Starting my nomadic journey was the beginning of my “dream life” — I had always wanted to wander the earth, experience new cultures, languages, foods, and experience firsthand the wonders of the world.

My story is a bit different than most other digital nomad stories — and I’d like to share a glimpse of what my journey has looked like so far, and how it’s impacted me (and those around me).

(I will be publishing stories of this theme each day for the next week or so, in hopes that I can make an impact on someone who may be dealing with these very issues right now.)


Addiction is running rampant, but we have the power to fight back. We have the power to reclaim our lives and live life on OUR terms.

I have dealt with addiction issues since the age of 19, when I first became addicted to opioids (painkillers). I was never quite able to truly beat the beast of addiction, but there were times where I could escape his grip for a time.

However, after leaving Mexico and traveling to Vancouver to be with the woman I loved (her mom was suddenly diagnosed with a rare form of aggressive Cancer, and I wanted to be there to support her), was when my addiction issues came to critical mass.

Walking to a coffee shop one day to do some work on my laptop, I wandered over to the Downtown East Side of Vancouver — which is pretty much known as the epicenter of the heroin epidemic in North America, unbeknownst to me at the time.


This is when I first met heroin — and it was love at first taste. She had me in her grip the moment her chemical hooks entered my brain and induced my mind, body, and soul into a state of pure bliss and ecstasy.

That was it — all it took was one taste — and I was hooked. One small line of powder became the catalyst for the destruction of everything I had worked so hard to build.

In Vancouver, the street term for heroin is “Down”. Heroin, in it’s pure state, is “supposed” to chemically be diacetyl-morphine (2x stronger than pure morphine). The “heroin” sold in Vancouver, is something far more sinister. It’s mostly comprised of fentanyl, which is 50x stronger than heroin, and 100x stronger than morphine.

Typically what $20 buys in Vancouver— a “point” (0.1g) of heroin.

I had no idea I was actually taking fentanyl, until I went to a local clinic to seek help. They tested my urine and blood, and found extremely high levels of fentanyl metabolites in my urine, meaning I was actively ingesting massive amounts of fentanyl unknowingly.

This scared me, but being an addict, it only made me more curious, and instilled this “invincibility” complex in my mindset. Addicts have a way of seeking out the most potent (and dangerous) drugs to chase the high they seek.

A little side story: One day I witnessed someone overdose right in front of me after injecting two bags of heroin. After he was revived through Narcan administration, another nearby addict asked him where he could buy some bags of the “down” he just overdosed on. It’s absolutely fucking insane what our addicted minds think of.

The nurse at the clinic handed me a Narcan kit (shown below) and insisted on training me in how to administer it in case of an overdose. (Naloxone, the chemical in Narcan, is an opioid antagonist, meaning it can be used as an overdosing reversal agent if administered in time.)

The shit in Vancouver being sold as “Heroin”, which actually contains mostly fentanyl or sometimes even carfentanil, is incredibly dangerous.

However, once I snorted that first line, the wave of euphoria that washed over my body instantly melted away any fears and doubts in my mind. My dope-loaded mind felt no pain or worries; only bliss.

I was fearless when I should have been scared to death.


“The Survival Bracelet”

The Survival Bracelet my heroin & crack addicted friend gifted me before leaving for Rehab. Wearing this daily is something I NEVER forget.

I wear this survival bracelet every single day. It was given to me by a Persian man that I became frien nds with — while I was homeless and strung out on heroin on the streets of Vancouver — just 6 months ago.

Pouria, which I learned was his name only after we had done dope for 3 consecutive days together — gave this bracelet to me the day before I left for rehab, as a going away present.

He wanted me to remember him and not forget the living hell that we had survived, aka Hastings Street, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

Interesting fact: the DTES is notoriously known for being the drug, prostitution, and homeless center of Vancouver — while the rest of the city is immaculate, beautiful, and pristine — the DTES is full of dirty needles and bloody rags, and tent cities. You can basically turn 1 corner off a main street, walk 100 meters, and enter what looks like an entirely different city, when you get to the DTES. Even the entire place smells — the homeless population is massive in the DTES.

Pouria, my friend, told me he was headed to rehab, or at least the hospital to detox himself a few days after I was scheduled to fly. I believed him, and thought everything would be OKAY. But, addicts lie so often, they believe their own lies as truth. He never went.


I left YVR International airport in Vancouver on December 10th, 2016, a completely broken and lost soul. In my mind I was thinking about some of the things that I would be leaving behind as I headed to rehab:

  • A raging Heroin addiction — 15–20 bags daily, or roughly 1.5–2g a day — mostly snorted, sometimes done as a “dragon” (smoked on foil). This would cost me around $150-$200 canadian dollars a day, or about $110-$140US.
  • Beginnings of a crack-cocaine addiction — I started smoking crack for the entire week prior to leaving — and I don’t know why. I had NEVER done crack in my life and had no intentions on ever doing so).
  • Sporadic methamphetamine use — I used meth a few times a week to balance me out if I was nodding too hard on the heroin, so that I could still stay awake/work/spend time with Nickie/have sex (heroin makes you completely numb, good luck getting an erection without either using meth or viagara). Basically, it was a ridiculous way of trying to maintain a normal lifestyle and hide the drug abuse.
  • Massive alcoholism that had been growing for years — just another monkey that needed to be yanked off my back.

But I also left behind something that I absolutely did not want to, and it tore a hole in my heart that took a long time to heal.

I left behind the love of my life, the one who held the keys to my heart, and yes, the one I truly intended on marrying. Her name was Nickie, and Nickie is the only woman I’ve ever truly fallen in love with.

But of course, I had completely broken her heart and left a trail of destruction in my wake. I was leaving her behind so that I could go to rehab in the US — but, she was still faced with taking care of her mom who was suffering from a very resistant strain of cancer. It was a fucked up situation all around…but, I’ll continue that story in the next post. I came to Vancouver to be “the rock” for the one I loved, her shield, her constant.

Instead, I became a junkie with a high probability of overdosing and dying on any random day. I have thought about what it would be like, for Nickie and my family members to receive a phone call late at night or in the morning, informing them that I’d overdosed and didn’t make it. It makes me sick to my stomach — my mom has admitted that for years, she’s slept with the phone by her pillow, always on alert that “tonight would be the night”.

How fucking sad, selfish, and destructive. This was the impact I had on others.

Nickie begged me to leave. My family advised me to get help, go to rehab, do something. My mind just numbly agreed, but knew that I’d just go right back to doing heroin. I “wasn’t finished” yet, as they often say.


Then, one day, something happened that finally made me realize that I. WAS. DONE.

I watched someone overdose on the sidewalk one early afternoon, tons of people walking by without offering help, seeing if he was okay, NOTHING. I didn’t have a cell phone, and I had given my Narcan kit to another friend the night before since he uses needles (I have never shot up, I am terrified of needles).

I screamed and shouted for someone to call 9/11. I ran down the street asking every single junkie and person if they had a kit on them. Tears streaming down my face the whole time.

I ran back to this man, someone had called 9/11 and was standing watch over him, but I watched him closely — he was foaming at the mouth, he was suffocating, turning purple all over, and there was NOTHING that I could do.

I have never felt so fucking useless or guilty in my entire life. If I had kept my Narcan kit, I could have had a chance of saving his life.

By the time the EMT’s showed up, it was already too late. I had watched this man die, along with my heart shattering, my mind going in spirals, and tears pouring down my face.

I felt it in this moment — that I was finished.

I knew if I didn’t get the FUCK out of Vancouver, and fast, that it was only a matter of time, maybe even just days, before that would be my body, lying stiff on the ground in some random alley, turning blue and pale, the life just slipping from my soul.

Nickie talked me into going back to Buffalo, going to rehab (I had insurance in the US, but not in Canada), and ultimately being by my support system — my family. I talked to my family, and they thought it was a smart decision.

I agreed to, reluctantly. I bought my plane ticket for a few days later. I knew my only chance was to escape that place, and get somewhere safe. The addict within still wanted me to stay and feed the habit, tricking me into thinking I could somehow make it work.

I still had 2 days left in Vancouver, and I was living in a homeless shelter right down the street from Hastings St. aka Skid Row.


And then I had my very first overdose — and nearly died.

I had smoked about 12 bags (1.2g) that day, and also taken a few xanax bars to take the edge off — I was nervous about going to rehab, about going through withdrawals, about leaving behind the woman I loved, everything.

I overdosed around 7PM in the evening on a quiet sidewalk down one of the side streets. All I remember was being woken up with EMT’s standing over me. They told me they had to shoot me up with Narcan 3 times, because the fentanyl in my system was that strong.

If it weren’t for Narcan, I would already be dead.

I refused to go to the hospital, they’d call my emergency contacts and Nickie would surely find out. I wanted to hide this. I didn’t want anyone I loved or cared about to hear that I had just nearly died.

I never told anyone about this incident, until now. The bags of dope I had bought were very heavily laced with fentanyl and most likely a small amount of carfentanil.

This was a sign to me: death was knocking at my front door. Now I was 100% certain that if I didn’t leave, I would be dead within a week tops.


I flew out of Vancouver clutching this survival bracelet and the few belongings I had left in my backpack. I wear it EVERY SINGLE DAY without fail — because it has meaning to me.

Earlier last night, I received a message from another friend named “A” that had spent a lot of time on the streets with Pouria and I, stating that he had been sober for a few days.

I hadn’t heard back from “A” for nearly 3 months, and had been pretty worried for a while. So receiving that message last night was some excellent news and I just remember thinking in my head “I’m glad you’re still alive, “A”.

However, “A” informed me that my buddy who gave me the bracelet apparently is still out there, “ripping and running” on the streets, as they say.

This alley was practically my home for the entirety of my heroin addiction. I’ll never forget this place.

It breaks my heart to think about it, honestly. But I wear this bracelet as a reminder of a time period in life when I had nothing left and was on the verge of death. I wore it all through rehab.

In fact, I’ve worn it every day since the day I left Vancouver and got clean, December 10th. It’s my reminder that while I made it out, others are still struggling with this insidious affliction.

I wear it to remind myself of where I’ve been, what I’ve been through, and how far I’ve come. And I’ll continue to wear it every day so that I never forget — because addiction is a cunning enemy. I can never let my guard down to it, I have to be resilient always.


Last Wednesday, I did a 45 minute podcast interview with “The Nomad Capitalist” —it was supposed to be a piece that shared my story of being a traveling entrepreneur and how I made it work, and interesting things that happened along the way.

Well, for the first time ever, to anyone besides my family, I shared the story about Vancouver and my heroin habit and various other bits that intertwined with being a digital nomad and a business owner.

The Nomad Capitalist will release this 45-minute podcast interview soon, and I’ll be sure to share it and update this post with an embedded clip.

EDIT: The podcast has finally been released! Here’s the link to the full episode (The first 7 minutes are an intro from Andrew, the narrator and owner of Nomad Capitalist, and the remainder is the interview with me):

http://nomadcapitalist.com/2017/05/26/091-ben-schwartz-pay-less-tax-legal-way/


For those still struggling with addiction, just know you’re not forgotten or alone. Addiction is a tough bastard, but you can turn the tables and regain control of your life.

Share your story with someone who will listen. Ask for help. Reach out to others. I didn’t win my fight alone — I went to rehab, but mainly it was my family that helped me maintain my sanity and kick the shit out of this monster.

Without my family, I would not be where I am today. I love you guys so much, thank you for taking me in and giving me a chance to recover and heal.

Without them, I would have wandered right back to heroin, and I’d probably be dead already.

Because of them, I’m alive and well, and currently traveling around Thailand (I’m in Chiang Mai working on my business, Fat Panda Design, as well as a new side project for digital nomads.

It’s a daily battle and will be forever. Today, I’m just keeping my buddy who gave this bracelet to me in my thoughts — I hope he gets the help he needs so he can live the life he deserves to have.

No one deserves to live and die as an addict. No one. You’re not alone. People love you, and people care about you. So reach out and ask for help.

Interested in talking? I’m always willing to talk to someone in need.

Reach out to me on Facebook

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