Life After Drugs
Author’s note: This article mentions drug use and suicide.
I was 14 when I smoked my first cigarette, a milestone that was shortly followed by my first time getting drunk. My brief stint as a stoner at age 15 led me to turn towards harder drugs by the time I hit 16. By 17, I was a full-fledged addict. I started trying to get sober before I had even reached Quebec’s legal drinking age.
To this day, it’s hard to pinpoint why I fell into addiction so easily. I have my theories, but above all, I think it was the disillusionment I felt upon entering the real world. As a kid, people told me that I was smart and that I would accomplish incredible things. When harsh realities hit, I wasn’t equipped to handle the blow. Failing to meet the ridiculously high standards I set for myself, installed there by the adults who believed in me, I entered adulthood totally unprepared, feeling inadequate and worthless. I wasn't the gold-star student I was supposed to be, so I might as well become a drug addict instead. If I can't be the best, why not be the worst?
I'm all-or-nothing in every aspect of my life, either giving my everything or giving nothing at all. I live at the extremes, unable to exist in-between polar opposites. I like to tell this story of a night when I impulsively announced, "Tonight is the night I will quit smoking!" I headed to the bar with friends, and after a few drinks, I smoked one, then another, until I caved and walked to the dep to buy myself a whole pack. Pack in hand, cigarette propped in my mouth, smoke filling my lungs, I thought, "Well, seeing as I failed at this, I might as well call my cocaine dealer.” I've known for a while that I'm not the type who can stop at "just one drink". I wouldn't go to the bar unless I was planning on coming home too drunk to walk straight. I never half-ass anything, and that includes addiction. At some point, I decided that if I was going to become a drug addict, I had to do it right. I can recognize this logic as counterintuitive, but this irrational mentality was what enabled me to let everything else go and plummet into the abyss of drugs and partying.
I was in deep, deeper than anyone around me knew. I took pills offered to me by people whose names I could never remember. After my second overdose, I realized that I had taken enough to die three times over. I consumed recklessly and carelessly. While I was not actively attempting suicide, I didn’t care about the consequences of my consumption.
If my friends expressed concern for me, I would lie straight to their faces. I pulled out all the classics: "I can stop whenever I want; I have everything under control." They didn't believe me, but eventually, they realized that trying to help me was a futile gesture and let me be. It's true what they say about being unable to help someone who doesn't want to help themselves. I didn't want to tell anyone how far in over my head I was because I knew that there would be no going back once I did. Once they knew that I knew, it would all be over. They wouldn't let me get away with anything I was doing then. If I took so much as one line of coke at the bar, I would never hear the end of it. I wouldn't have kept it a secret if I had been ready to give up the drugs.
While some friends stuck by me, many disappeared, which is something I can't blame them for; Drugs made me a mean, selfish, and destructive person. I might have been guzzling pills like they were Tic-Tacs, but I knew that this was becoming a problem. Despite my startling self-awareness, I was still somewhat in denial; some part of me still thought I could get myself out of this mess, that maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought. I pushed away anyone who tried to deter me from my lifestyle. I distinctly remember receiving a phone call from a friend who I had unintentionally stood up to. I had gone out the previous night and awoken in a bed that wasn’t mine with a heavy head, the previous night’s makeup still clinging to my face. The friend told me that she was at the place we had promised to meet, she asked if I was coming, when I told her I wouldn’t make it she sighed and said: “Josephine, at some point you’re going to have to make choices.” The threat of departure from my close friends was a wake-up call.
I finally faced my drug problem head-on by telling my parents. After this, they placed greater restrictions on my liberties, for which I was simultaneously grateful and resentful. When I had to explain to my friends why I couldn’t go out anymore, I told them that my parents had found my stash in my desk drawers. I was embarrassed by the fact that I had lost control and that I needed to procure external help. They might have been addicts too, but they still maintained the illusion of control, which was something that I had forfeited.
I knew sobriety was the answer, but I was so scared of leaving a world in which I was a master only to enter one in which I’d be looked down on as nothing but a washed-up, teenage addict. I was great at having unforgettable nights, but I struggled with the forgettable yet necessary days in between these nights. I was worried that becoming sober would make me boring. Over the years of my addiction, I surrounded myself with individuals who built their existence around drugs and partying. Most of them had distant parents and a lack of a support system, which entitled them to the unrestricted freedom regarded as priceless amongst rule-breaking teenagers. I was envious of them, marveling at their stories of crazy drunken nights, bad trips, and encounters with the police. I dreamed of having stories like that one day. It was only once I had those types of stories that I realized they were but the measly consolation prize for a life dictated by addiction.
Luckily, becoming sober didn't make me boring, as I feared it would. In fact, I became a far more interesting and well-rounded person. When my existence revolved around drugs, I was exhausted all the time, either never sleeping enough or sleeping far too much. I didn't eat properly. I was either too high or too low. I wasted so much time. I felt like I was constantly wearing myself out, doing too much, but I was doing nothing. I stopped reading, stopped writing, disregarded my studies, and isolated myself from anyone who didn’t support my acts of self-destruction. Only once I was sober did I realize how much I had been missing out on. The real world can and will run you down. I feel exhausted at the end of some tough work weeks, but never as much as I did on the Sunday after a bender. At the end of a hard work week, I have something to show for it. The same could not be said about the bender.
In the early stages of sobriety, and even now, I felt like I was playing pretend. Sobriety was an elaborate facade I was putting on, but it wasn't who I really was. I could read as many books as I wanted, dedicate myself to my studies, and choose to spend my weekends in libraries and museums and cafés instead of bars. Still, a voice inside me told me I wasn't worth that life; I didn't deserve it. Despite all these changes, I was and would always be a wash-up drug addict - eventually, I'd have to return to my ways. I could pretend that I relished in bettering myself, but my former life would come calling back to me in a way I couldn’t refuse, and I would be back to snorting mystery powders in bar bathrooms with strangers. Of course, this isn't true, but your mind will tell you anything to get what it thinks it wants.
I am virtually unrecognizable from the person I was two years ago. When I run into former friends and acquaintances from this period of my life, I know what they're thinking. They never explicitly say it, but their gaze says, "What happened to you?" I think this reaction is two-fold. First, it’s genuine confusion, something I can understand. Even I look at myself and wonder how I grew out of the lifestyle that once held me hostage. Second, I know from experience how troubling it is to see someone who I considered a "low life" like myself exit addiction and reintegrate into society, becoming a functioning human being. There's jealousy, a kind of competitiveness. It's unsettling to see someone else succeed when you once considered them as "bad" as you.
I am not a licensed medical professional, but if you have found yourself in a situation similar to the one I was in two years ago, I’ll offer some advice. Tell someone; it’s the best way to hold yourself accountable for your actions. Download one of those sobriety tracker apps; I know they sound juvenile and patronizing, but the little number getting bigger on the screen every day can feel reassuring. Surround yourself with good influences, people who aren’t going to pressure you to consume. If you’re worried about your friends leaving once you get sober, maybe you should be more concerned about finding yourself some new friends. And most importantly: make a list of everything that addiction costs you. Whether it’s your academics, friends, family, or passions, addiction is a thief, and it’s vital you take inventory of what it’s stolen from you.
The way I'm writing this, in the present, looking back at the past and seeing all of it for what it was, it may seem like getting to this point was easy. It was by no means easy. I relapsed countless times, more than I can count. And it still isn’t easy. It’s hard to order when I go on first dates and order Coca-Cola instead of the gin and tonic that would alleviate the awkwardness of the getting-to-know-you conversation. It’s hard finding drugless activities to occupy my Friday and Saturday nights. It’s hard being an extrovert and feeling so dreadfully alone sometimes because most of the social spaces available to me as a young adult in 21st-century North America are based purely around consumption. Getting sober is difficult, and staying sober can be even worse, but it’s definitely possible and worth it.