The following is intended for readers 18+
It is the middle of the morning and I am standing in front of a sliding pocket door. The pocket door is made of wood and my forehead rests against the surface. The door divides the apartment: me on one side and my roommate on the other. It’s not a particularly nice piece of wood — unfinished, some rudimentary bevels — but it is holding me up. Earlier in the morning, I was snorting Ritalin in my closet. I have a pretty indigo glass plate I use for crushing the pills that’s now scratched with use. I was looking down at a line of powder on the plate. It was my fifth or sixth pill of the night, at a time when I was snorting 20 or so pills in a day. With the straw in my hand, I considered a couple of truths: I’d stolen the pills from my roommate; I’d eventually be caught; part of me wanted to be caught; part of me hoped I’d die before that happened.
“We really have a problem,” I said to myself. When things got really bad — when I couldn’t believe the things I was doing — I’d start referring to myself as a group.
I snorted the line. The burn felt like pain and ecstasy and shame. But no matter how high I’d get myself those days — dripping sweat, heart jumping in my chest, and ringing in my ears — I couldn’t shake the feeling of loneliness. And later in the evenings, I’d start drinking whiskey to slow down my body. Rinse, lather, repeat.
It wasn’t always that bad. Like many addicts, things were great for a while. I’d spent five years clubbing and doing drugs casually; I was a weekend warrior, I was in my late twenties, and I was thrilled. I thought I’d connected with people and there was something more real about being high than there was about not being high. But my drug life was incompatible with my work life. I couldn’t go out partying on Sunday night, coasting home at 4:00AM on Monday morning, and hope to be productive at work, though I tried. I remember one of these Mondays, falling asleep while a coworker was talking to me.
Eventually I was caught stealing all those Ritalin pills. My roommate did me the kindness of kicking me out of the apartment. I found my own place, a tiny one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of an OK neighborhood. I decided my problem was with drugs, the prescription and street kind. If I stayed off of those, I would be okay. The thing I hadn’t admitted to myself, though, was that my alcohol abuse was off the charts.
Somehow it was easier to consider myself a daily drinker. I saw alcohol everywhere: in advertising, in movies, on TV. On TV especially, it seemed like drinking was the new eating: why share a meal when you can enjoy a tumbler of something amber-colored, or a glass of wine the same size as your head? At night, living alone, I watched violent shows and movies, and drank my way through them. I had incomplete memories of “Game of Thrones:” a clear memory of the stop-motion opening credits and then things went blurry.
It didn’t help that I was a blackout drinker. One New Year’s Eve, I came to in my apartment, lying across my bed, the cashmere sweater I wore covered in cheese sauce. I’d agreed to cook for potluck. In the kitchen was a finished tray of mac-and-cheese. It was 11:45 p.m. and I was an hour away from the party. I texted profuse apologies to the hosts of the party. One host replied with a sad face. “Get yourself to a meeting, honey,” he wrote.
I mostly chuckled at that message. I’d gotten myself off drugs, so there wasn’t really a problem with my drinking — I was just acting out a little, right?
I was able to hold down a job. I went into an office one day a month, and all my other work was from home, mostly on conference calls. I drank during these calls, and sometimes I’d black out. I’d come to hours later and have to reach out to my teammates over instant messenger, casually asking how they thought the call went, and wondering if I had any tasks that came out of the call. I rationalized that, if I could get away with drinking and blacking out on calls, then the issue was with my employer. I didn’t have a problem, they did.
Despite the train wreck I’m describing, I still romanticized my drinking. I thought about what I required to be in the world, which was unbearable as a sober person. What I required was hard liquor by my bedside. I required drinking directly from the bottle as soon as I woke up. I didn’t think this was the strangest thing. I thought I was going through a rough time, and I was doing what I needed to do to get through it.
Still, that text message from New Year’s Eve lingered in my psyche. Someone completely on the outside had suggested I had a problem. Maybe I did have a problem? I thought about quitting drinking in the same way I thought about taking a vacation: musing about sunny, warm climes; wondering how could I get the time off, how could I afford to go anywhere. There was a part of me that thought I wouldn’t be able to stop drinking until I was ready. And at that point, spending my days and nights largely by myself, working out of my apartment, the membrane between life and death had become permeable. I lived an ambivalent life, not committed enough to change anything, wondering if I would die from my heavy drinking and fits of dry heaving.
I saw a therapist through most of my time as an active addict. In my mind, the work I did with my therapist was limited to the far past, especially my childhood. Though we discussed current events too, it was easier for me to pretend I didn’t have a substance abuse problem — despite the fact that I’d sometimes show up for my session high on crystal meth. My therapist casually mentioned I might have a problem with drugs, and sometimes asked me to count out how many drinks I’d had in the past week. But at that time in my life, I didn’t want her to tell me I had a problem. My truth was so foggy in those days. It came briefly into the light and then fell back into shadow.
The actual admission that I had a problem came about casually. Once again, my therapist mentioned that I might have a problem with alcohol, and instead of nodding noncommittally, I said, “Yes, I think you’re right.”
Thus started my long-term relationship with a variety of twelve-step programs. At first, what I got from meetings was not unlike school: go to class, have structured social activities, and do homework. I made sober friends, did sober activities. I went to parties, dances, and performances, where the hardest thing on the menu was coca-cola.
After a while, I learned some helpful tools. For example, I learned how to breathe. How to check in with my body to see how I was reacting: Is my heart racing? Are my palms sweaty? I learned that I can remove myself from any situation, make a quick trip to the bathroom, text a friend, get support.
A few years into my sobriety, I learned how to check in with my emotions: What was I feeling? Did I know why I was feeling this way? The most important thing I learned, however, was to see outside myself. One thing that helps me is to do things for other people.
How do I have a life that’s free of substances? To start, I’m not free of all substances. I don’t drink or or do drugs, but I do smoke cigarettes, and I do drink coffee and sometimes soda. I have periods where I give into a seemingly insatiable sweet tooth. I’m still not anything like perfect.
What I have today is a better awareness of the things I’m thinking and feeling. I’m aware of when my mind sends me a signal like, “This situation is crappy and it would be much easier to check out with a quick drink. Or even better thirteen drinks, in rapid succession.” I have a better sense of how unbearable I found most situations. If a friend was going through a rough time and turned to me, I wanted to use; if I had something to celebrate, I wanted to use. These behaviors were well-worn grooves in my psyche, developed over years of repetition.
What I know today is I don’t have to act on any of these self-destructive impulses. I don’t have to drink or take drugs. I have choices. One important choice I always have in my pocket is to do absolutely nothing. If I have to decide between going to a party or staying home, I can decide to do nothing — essentially to not decide.
I’ve learned exercises through breathing and meditation to sit with a feeling for a period of time, dipping my toe into uncomfortable emotional territory. And I know that if a feeling becomes unbearable, it won’t stay that way. No matter how angry or sad, anxious or happy I become, time will pass and I won’t feel that way. Or the feeling will become different, something more thoughtful and less desperate. Being open to the fact that things change helps me make it through tough moments. Then, before I know it, it’s nighttime and I can get into bed knowing I’ve made it through another day sober — and for me, the best part: that in the morning I’ll awaken to possibility instead of a hangover.