I’m surrounded by addicts. Mostly recovering ones – my support system and closest friends all have histories that involve sniffing, shooting, or swigging something designed to alter or, ideally, obliterate their moods.
Then there’s the close family member who has spent the last year bouncing between rehabs, detoxes and halfway houses, getting together no more than a few days clean before spectacularly, destructively relapsing, ball-of-flame style. The friends who cycle endlessly in and out of recovery, whose relapses only come to light when I noticed they've stopped calling. And I don't think it's a surprise to anyone that I have also worked with a drug user, an obvious genius who was also an active addict.
There's also you. By putting myself out there a publicly addicted person, I become a lightning rod for those of you who struggle with substance abuse. You email me saying, “I know I’m an alcoholic, but I don’t think I can quit drinking,” or “Can you explain to me exactly how you got sober?”
It happens in real life, too. I am at a party, sipping a Diet Coke, and some aquaintance inevitably confesses to me that they think they might have a problem, slurringly, gripping my arm and blowing flammable breath in my face. I’m happy to talk, but they never remember the conversation the next day.
And look, when you recover from addiction, you sometimes get a bad rap as some sort of clean-living chemical-hater. But the reason I’m sober is because I LOVE drugs. I love the shit out of them, never wanted to stop doing them once I started, and if I could without destroying my life, would still be doing them today. I don’t begrudge anyone their alcohol and drugs. Enjoy ‘em, wish I could join you.
But I also can’t fuck with addicts.
There's a difference between a drug user and a drug addict. The line between the two can be thin and easily crossed. The addict: manipulative, tricky, and convincing with its half-truths, can convince you that they are the former when they are the latter, and that you are the corporate square bent on squashing drug-induced creativity and fun. But being understanding of recreational drug use doesn’t make it any easier to live and work with a full-on addict.
I was a high-functioning drug addict and alcoholic. I spent the worst years of my addiction reporting to an office job on an hour of sleep and reeking of booze, then snorting cocaine in the bathroom or “discreetly” at my desk to keep going, But no matter how difficult I made it for myself, I always kept my shit together. I clenched my fists so tight around those vestiges of respectability – a job, an apartment, a boyfriend – that I never lost anything but my own dignity to my disease.
Some addicts are like that. Others let it all go, vanish and won’t answer calls, miss important appointments, sabotage themselves in ways that seem almost deliberate. It is actually funny sometimes, the ability of the addicts to make life difficult.
“I didn’t have a mattress, so I drank,” one friend told me. “In sobriety, I realized that I could have just bought a mattress.” Another friend didn’t have curtains to block the sun from streaming into her bedroom in the morning, so she slept in her closet for a year. That's how feels to be an addict -- obvious solutions don't occur to you because you're too busy twisting yourself into a pretzel trying to make an unworkable solution viable.
Addicts can be fun, but they can also be rageful, nasty, cruel. Having one in your life eventually begins to feel like dealing with a monster, something inhuman that terrorizes you. It’s impossible to reason with or negotiate with the addict, because the person you are talking to, that black hole of resentment and rage and ego and pain, is not your friend, or sibling, or co-worker. It’s the addict, and the addict’s only concern is placating you so they can keep filling their need.
You can pour everything into an addict, and they will keep taking it until you shrivel up and die. There will always be some new excuse, some new problem to explain away their actions, and instead of trying to fix it for the millionth time, you must remember that the real problem is always addiction. You cannot save an addict. You can rarely even help them.
I once tweeted that drugs are the enemy of talent, which some people loudly refuted. "Look at all the amazing artists that have created work under the influence of drugs!" they said."Yeah, look at how dead they all are," I said back. But the truth is that I misspoke. Drug addiction, not drugs, is the enemy of talent. And I truly believe that all that amazing work produced by creative junkies was just a fraction of what they're capable of. The drug addict creates interesting shapes because he only has one hand to paint with. A non-addict has two hands, and sometimes decides to tie one behind his back.
Addicts are often talented, charming and intelligent people, which can lead to a lot of chances in life, even as they thumb their noses at them. But eventually those chances run out, or are taken forcefully by an untimely death.
That’s not an abstraction to me. I have been to a lot of funerals. These addicts I know die all the time, from suicides and overdoses and tripping and tumbling onto the train tracks. I have known more than one murder victim. There are lots of ways to die of addiction. So I keep my distance. I pull away, I put up walls, even as I feel guilty for doing so. But addicts have quicksand hands, capable of pulling you down with a hungry slurp. I give death a wide berth these days.
I sent a package last time my family member was in rehab, but I haven’t called. When a friend wants to go back out there, I don’t chase after them. I read your emails, but I don’t answer your questions. Because I did it using two letters that are at the front of the alphabet, but I can’t do it for you.
I love the addicts in my life, I worry about them, but I stay away. I safeguard my own hard-won sobriety.
Yet I picked up the phone a few weeks ago, before that co-worker decided to accept an offer/mandate of outpatient rehab, when she called me to falteringly ask some questions about what it had been like to get sober.
“Did you find yourself turning into a really bad person…a person you don’t recognize?” she asked, before telling me that she felt sad to know that despite loving kids, she wasn’t the kind of person Jane or I could ask to babysit. I described my sobriety as best I could, and, as I have before, told her that she can’t imagine the places her life and her career will go if she manages to get sober.
“You’re going to be amazing,” I told her. “You'll be able to do literally anything.”