If somebody had told me twelve years ago what I was in for, I seriously wonder if I would have believed them. Of course, that raises the question of whether or not I would have attempted what I’ve done if I had believed them. You see, twelve years ago I made the decision to change my life from that of an addict to whatever it is I am now.
I had plenty of excuses for being an addict. That’s the great thing about being an addict: you can always find a reason for your behaviour. It’s usually someone else’s fault that you’re the way you are, not your own. You never made that decision to take the first drink, smoke that first joint, or whatever.
Of course there are mitigating circumstances that can drive people to try and hide from the pain of their existence by numbing themselves. Anesthetics that come from a bottle, a needle, a piece of blotter paper, or any of the other many splendid means at your disposal – any of it’s the easiest route to take when you’re thirteen, scared, and alone.
As a teenager in the seventies, it was far easier to obtain drugs than alcohol; no one is going to ask you for identification when you buy it and in those innocent days, a nickel bag was actually five dollars. It wasn’t until the American government, in a fit of moral outrage, starting spraying the Mexican pot crops with the pesticide, Paraquat, that pot prices jumped from twenty-five dollars an ounce to $120.00 for Columbian Gold. (Not to be confused with the Columbian white powder that was worth more than gold in the 1980s.)
But whatever the price, I seemed able to spend my high school years in a complete fog. By the time I entered my second last year, I made the jump to the big leagues and began chemical usage. Making use of the stuff that passed for LSD in those days was always a risky proposition unless you knew the chemist. Potency and contents were wildly divergent even within the same batch.
Still, it was inexpensive, at most $5.00 a hit, and lasted a good long time. If you worked it right you could stay high all day long for as little as $20.00 and not even be too incapacitated to work. I spent six weeks in the summer of 1979 doing just that when I traveled out to Western Canada to work in a resort hotel in Banff, Alberta.
As the legal drinking age in Alberta was eighteen at the time, unlike my native Ontario’s nineteen, I was also able to begin drinking seriously at the same time. Now that’s a pretty lethal combination — a steady diet of acid and booze does not do much for one’s mental health. It’s been known to have a detrimental effect on your cognitive abilities.
Thankfully, I had enough sense to realize this. I decided a change of scene would be healthy and caught a red-eye flight back to Ontario after six weeks. Sitting on the plane, strung out, hung over, and unable to sleep, I looked out the cabin window to see the sun rising like a ball of red fire and momentarily thought a nuclear bomb had gone off somewhere in Northern Ontario.
I was so far gone that it took me almost five minutes to recognise what I was seeing. Wiser men than me would have taken that as a sign that changes should be made. But unlike my contemporaries, who began to change their habits as university approached and the real world beckoned, I became more deeply entrenched.
For the next fourteen years I continued to work on keeping myself comfortably numb for as much of the time as possible. People who work in the arts are hard drinkers and live hard anyway, so my behaviour didn’t seem as outlandish as it would have in other circumstances. I had also learned how to make sure the worst of my excesses weren’t on public display.
If I was always slightly stoned it was no big deal because I was doing my work and getting things accomplished. But I was beginning to bottom out without realizing what was happening. Even after the summer of 1992, when my behaviour became so abhorrent that I lost all my friends, it took me two more years to realize I had a problem of any sort.
My stroke of luck came about via circumstances most others would look upon as bad fortune. At other times I have written about having reconstructive knee surgery in 1992 that resulted in my contracting sympathetic dystrophy in the left leg. After two years of living on Tylenol 3 (30mg codeine tablets) and hashish to deaden the pain, I reached the point where I was desperate for help.
From the knee down, my left leg had turned gray as the circulation decreased. As a thirty-third birthday present, a friend arranged for me to see an acupuncturist. Thankfully, the woman I went to see was extremely generous as well as gifted. My leg was going to require extensive work and would take weeks of sessions, time I would not have been able to afford to pay for, so she didn’t charge me for the treatments.
After the first treatment, I began to have nightmares. After the second treatment, they got worse. By the third treatment, I began to have flashbacks of my father raping me as a child. I thought I was losing my mind. Why did I wake up every morning believing I was five years old and that my father was raping me?
Somehow or other, the treatments for my knee had freed up the memories. When I asked my acupuncturist about it, she said that it was quite normal for deep nerve trauma like mine to have some emotional trauma associated with it. She also advised I seek counseling as soon as possible to help me recover because that was beyond her capabilities.
She made one more suggestion — that I should consider stopping my use of street drugs, as they would only hinder my recovery. That was not advice I was prepared to listen to at the time. The drugs seemed to be one of the few things I could count on for a modicum of comfort. My comfort was the ability to escape the emotional pain and anguish. This made it all the more difficult to give up the habit.
The therapist I began seeing worked with helping survivors of abuse, and other Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome recoveries, to correct inappropriate coping mechanisms by teaching healthy alternatives: in other words, Behaviour Modification.
Our first sessions involved me just spilling out the traumas of the past week, flashbacks, memories, and other incidents that had left me reeling. As I gradually began to regain my footing in this, my new reality, we began to look at the variety of means I employed to keep myself from remembering what had happened in my past.
By this time, I had already begun to realize the negative impact drugs and booze were having on my life, and how, even though initially they might have seemed to be the ideal way of protecting myself from the horrors in my past, they had become the fount of many of my behavioural problems.
Resentment, anger, self-pity, and self-loathing were all lurking beneath the surface, ready to seep out like poison from a wound when the scab is torn away. It was a pretty ugly time, believe me — one I wouldn’t want to go through again, but am glad I did.
When you begin to feel like you’re making it, when you begin to feel free of the chains that had been binding you for years, the feelings of relief and jubilation are extraordinary. This initial feeling of exultation can carry you quite a long way, but eventually it will wear off and you ‘re brought back to earth.
The real tricky part about being a recovering addict is not starting the drinking and drug activity again because a craving can be recognised for what it is and dealt with. It’s the long-term effects of feeling like the world revolves around you and the emotions that thrive in that atmosphere that become the real trial.
When you have no means of comparing what is right and what is wrong, you are like a young child again, learning to understand and control the feelings that rage and cry inside of you. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling resentment and self-pity, which will then lead you into self-loathing because of the disappointment in yourself for the perceived failure.
As the years pass, it gets easier, but I still have to be vigilant so I don’t fall back on the habits of old. Of course, things aren’t made any easier by the fact that I’m still also dealing with residual effects of the abuse coming back to haunt me periodically. Perhaps, once I have finally laid the demons to rest that caused me to look for an escape, I’ll be able to put these feelings behind me as well
I do know that it is a damn good thing I was woefully ignorant about what I was getting myself into when this all started. It would have seemed an insurmountable task. Rebuilding my life from the bottom up isn’t easy, but even if I have to spend the rest of my days on it, it will have been worth it.