Part of an ongoing series. Next chapter: fitting in.
The Pursuit of Happiness: Drugs
“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” – Neil Gaiman
Ah, chemical indulgence and its aftermath. How many meetings have I sat in where fellow survivors retailed their horror stories, their brushes with death and dismemberment, with a perverse undercurrent of pride?
And it’s true that I share that survivor’s arrogance. Often we talk of only switching our addictions to an addiction to recovery, of the obnoxiousness and upstaging, overbearing nature of our self-righteousness, as though we were veterans of a war we waged against ourselves, memorializing like Henry V presages at Agincourt: “Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars./And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’” But, like I’ve said before, I’d rather hear you pompously hold forth on your sobriety than keep your hair out of your face while you puke.
This discussion is fraught with perils. Me writing about this topic, or declaring my ever-recovering status, is seen by many as a violation of a key principle of anonymity in the recovery community, particularly if such writing is a play for public approval, or for the gain of influence, or for financial reward. I firmly reject any and all three of those possible outcomes, which are pretty damn unlikely anyway, based on my track record.
I hope to make amends as well, though – not just to the many individuals I have damaged, worried, alienated, or pissed off down the years. I hope to expiate my thoughtlessness, my bad behavior, to raise the pall of oblivion that hung over me for decades, to the universe at large. I can do it because I have a gift for expressing myself. I hope to convince you, if you ever feel tempted, not to start bad habits or to drop them, somehow, if you can. I can only tell my story.
Like most people, I had absolutely no intention of winding up here. There is a marked genetic predisposition for addiction in my family, passed down on both sides. My father drank himself to death, basically, and cigarettes accompanied my parents from morning ‘til night, including at the dinner table and on long car rides with the windows rolled up. I was steeped in booze and smoke from birth, like an indolent whiskey keg in some bar’s basement.
This is no attempt at an excuse. Any apology that is followed by a “but” is not an apology at all. Given the example that ground away at all of us every day growing up, I should perhaps have been more resistant to alcohol than I was. I know I swore I would never drink or smoke.
And, beyond isolated trials in high school, I did pretty well. My college roommate basically ran a major distribution point for marijuana on the Lower East Side from our dorm room, but I stuck to the straight and narrow.
It wasn’t until I finally entered the real world via massive nervous breakdown after college that I began to drink and do drugs. My unprepared soul’s collisions with reality, my nightly climbs onto the stage to feign outgoing sociability as a comic, my confrontation with absolute poverty and life a step from sleeping in the alley, all pushed me into the arms of Morpheus. Here’s a basic rundown of abuse, by category:
Tobacco: Disgusting, but tempting. The pain, inability to breathe, and periodic bronchitis didn’t stop me from this affectation for decades, until long after my father’s chain-smoking antics were curtailed by Mr. Death. There is something so assuring and sexy about the cigarette! Blame Bogie and other black-and-white film stars. Too bad it kills you. I smoked, in turn, a pipe, cigars, and cigs. Favorite brands: The tasty Balkan Sobranie, Camels, and a horrible discount, now-discontinued brand called Barclay. It was all about the look . . . and the way it kept me from swallowing my anger, snapping and lashing out at people.
Stimulants, club drugs, dissociative drugs: Nope. Never appealed to me. No painkillers, downers, uppers, anything. I took speed once while working an all-night shift at Yellow Cab. It worked fine until I came down, whence I fell into a fit of suicidal depression. Somehow I have saved my life to date by not taking anything that could kill me IMMEDIATELY.
Cocaine: Same thing. Tried it twice. Each time, I felt like Superman for 10 minutes, then nothing. It was so expensive at the time (the ‘80s) that I considered this is a swindle. Also, my penis shrank to an almost undetectable size (I mean even more than usual).
Inhalants: No, but I knew a lot of people who liked amyl nitrate. Tried it once. It was painful, a heart attack in a vial. Yikes. Nitrous oxide? Helium? Spray paint? Just weird.
Opioids: Fortunately, I numbered among my friends a few survivors of heroin, and their testimonies, along with my marked aversion to sticking anything into me, especially something pointy, kept me miles safely away from ever contemplating heroin, opium, etc.
Hallucinogens: Well. It took a long time for the doors of perception to open for me. When they did, I was fortunately in good company and under friendly supervision – although spending my first night on them atop a wind-swept microwave transmission tower overlooking the Front Range with no safety railing was probably not such a great idea. I always treated them as journeys unto themselves, not accompaniments to a night out or a social occasion. While not indulging too much in either acid or ‘shrooms, I think that the experiences did leave me with at least a marginal benefit, an ineluctable and lingering sense of the positive interconnectedness of all life, and an awareness of a larger universe, for which I am grateful. What they did NOT do, for me at least, was provide specific insights that had portability into non-altered life. Like so many other supposedly creative people, the reams of notes I would take while tripping would, on examination in the cold light of day, be either incoherent or banal. Plus the experience was awfully wearing on me. Psilocybins are mellow and gentle, lasting only a few hours; LSD, vastly more dangerous in my mind as it is manufactured by humans and therefore completely untrustworthy from batch to batch, is a hard-edged taskmaster that scoops you up and works you for a dozen hours at least. In both cases, you are trapped in the experience once you begin – no sobering up, no stepping off the moving vehicle. (I became the go-to babysitter for people who were having a bad trip or who were, God forbid, dosed as a prank, back when that was considered funny and not a crime.) Both kinds of trips were exhausting, and I ended up feeling like I lost something proportional to whatever it was I gained.
Weed: As, yes. My favorite. If there was anything designed to fit my neural receptors, it was marijuana. It relaxed me, it made me funnier, more spontaneous, social, outgoing, empathetic. I could live and work in the real world with calm and assurance. I thought. It was a part of our rebellious young culture growing up, a brotherhood, a common sacrament. It was cool. Did it save me? In some ways. Perhaps. For a time. In fact, it pushed my fear away but did not diminish it. It preached oblivion to me, lowered my resistance to other drugs, kept me stupid, froze me to change. I had my own foot on my own neck and didn’t realize it. For decades, it was a daily part of my life, all day long. (I found out later this is common for only about 2 percent of the population, and about half of all smokers nationwide). I was addicted. I was not OK without it. My life revolved around its acquisition and use. Now, of course, it is available everywhere – an irony not lost on me that makes my occasional craving for it all the more pathetic, and makes my arrogant little pride about not going there anyway more precious. When I finally stopped, all that fear reared up and bit me in the ass, and it took a great deal of time to get over that. However, I could remember my dreams again, in more ways than one.
Booze: The killer. I feel worse about this than any other, as I should have known better, based on family history. I learned that the human capacity for self-deception is boundless. I became a wino. I wound be being able to (or unable not to) drink a bottle in about 20 minutes; a magnum was a challenge not a deterrent. The brands got cheaper and cheaper, the drinking started earlier and earlier. A huge side effect was a zone of amnesia that would envelop the time before, during, and after drinking, to the extent that there are now huge empty patches of memory in my life. I have potentially almost killed myself, my companions, even my children; I will never know for sure. My apologies and amends continue to this day and stretch to the end of my foreseeable existence. This was by far the most difficult thing I ever accomplished (TO DATE: never ever ever say that you are cured or a former alcoholic; I have seen many many people prove the adage that you are only one drink away from being back in the shit again).
I don’t know how I did it. According to the 12-step program I have followed, I didn’t do it at all. My simply willing to stop never changed anything. It was only a surrender of a kind that made it happen. All I know is, I stopped feeling like a victim. I stopped figuring I deserve to get wasted, since life sucked so hard. I took responsibility for, not the choice I made to use, as having a choice implies that I was or am in control, but for forgiving myself for being stupid and scared. It was only when I got real about feeling worthless, incompetent, and unlovable that I realized that I was none of those things. It’s not all about me; it’s not about me at all. I got out of my own way.
Now I live one day at a time; under stressful circumstances, an hour at a time or five minutes at a time. I avoid the past like the plague. I am never interested in the hazy good old days. I stay out of bars and cocktail hours. I avoid crowds. I read, I write, I work in yard. I love my kids, my wife, my family, my friends. I feed my soul with art, music, baseball. I have the strength to take care of myself and make choices that won’t harm myself or others, to the best of my ability. I found a God that works for me, and I pray a lot. It makes some people uncomfortable. Tough shit. I am still only beginning to figure out who I am and making sense of my life. Tough shit! I laugh at myself, and go on.
And life is bearable. It still sucks sometimes. I am still an idiot. But when I think something, I remember it, and I am capable of transmitting to others. When I feel something, I am really feeling it. I can help other people now.
There is no shortcut to enlightenment. Maybe there is no enlightenment. But I am really here. Right now. I am part of life, and it’s all the more precious to me because I almost destroyed it. Cheers!