If you’ve ever woken up in a hospital then you know how alarming it is to have fluorescent lights and cheap linoleum be the first things you see. The first time it happened to me, it took me a while to remember why I was there at all. I found a huge bruise on my knee. I felt like I had been hit by a train but was still cruelly allowed to survive. I also had a vague memory of having been hooked up to a breathing machine.
The emergency room doctor explained that I had been drunk the night before and that I had an asthma attack. She said that she already cleared me for discharge and that a campus police officer would be arriving shortly to take me back to my dorm. I’d be back in time for brunch.
The next couple of days I went on as if nothing had happened. The only thing that forced me to revisit the events of that night was a mandatory meeting that I had to attend with the school’s assistant director of health education as well as the director of health services. What I assumed to be a mere formality turned out to be a mini-intervention. They told me that my blood alcohol content was .30, despite not having had a drink in the four hours prior to the measurement, and asked for an explanation. I didn’t have one. It was just a rough night. I told them I had always been a “heavyweight” drinker and that ten or more drinks in a few hours’ span was the norm.
They were incredulous, and I could not fathom why. I was referred to an addiction therapist who told me that I had a full-blown alcoholism problem, and that if I continued drinking the way I did, I'd die soon. This, I thought, was bullshit. I told her I was just “fun.” Deep in denial, I insisted that I was no different from anyone else. I told her upfront that I refused to stop because I could not imagine life without alcohol.
The one thing I couldn’t deny was that I mostly drank alone and at inappropriate times—a shot or two in my coffee in class, for example—and hid my habits from my friends. Regardless, I thought that the longer and more fiercely that I shot down the diagnosis that any truth it had would gradually fade away. I’d prove them all wrong.
On the day before finals week that spring, I found myself in the hospital again, detoxing once more. This time, there were two armed guards outside of my door. I’d been sectioned; according to Section 12 Law, the hospital was allowed to place me on an involuntary seventy-two-hour hold at which time they would re-evaluate my case.
God fucking damn it. My ire was unbelievable. I must have sounded insane: I was certain that they would let me go if I could just convince them of how important my finals were, but no dice. “You’re not going back, so you should get used to the idea of being here for a while.” And Wellesley wouldn’t let me come back, either. It wasn’t until my father flew out to get me in person that the hospital discharged me—four days later.
Over those four days, my will to fight my doctors, parents, friends, and Wellesley gradually eroded. I thought back to the last few weeks leading up to this hospitalization: I had snapped publicly several times; out of desperation, I bought back pills I previously sold to friends; I sent several long, rambling emails to professors talking about nothing at all. The list goes on to include some paranoid behaviors, too—all in all, it was a nightmare. And all I could talk about was finishing my exams. My vision was so opaque that I was imprisoned by my own mind and its warped priorities. I cried. It was time to go home.
I was released into my father’s care and barred from setting foot on campus aside from moving out. I was told that the stipulation of my return to Wellesley in the fall was entering and completing a full-time drug rehabilitation program during the summer. I decided that I loved Wellesley more than I hated the idea of being treated for an illness I didn’t believe I had. I gave in and enrolled, but internally swore that I wouldn’t comply with quitting completely. I still thought that I was better off high.
When I look back at my mindset then, I can’t believe it either. It went beyond hard-headedness: it was a pure and simple death wish. But as I was soon to find out, wishes and wants had little to do with why I was an addict.
That first day of group therapy I sat there with my arms folded like a misbehaving toddler sitting in time-out. I stayed silent not out of shyness but rather out of arrogance. I couldn’t imagine that the others’ stories would look anything like mine, but when I stopped fuming, I finally listened.
It was like I had an epiphany that lasted a week. I sat there and listened to everyone’s ridiculous, sad, hilarious, and crazy anecdotes of all the events that brought them to that room, whether they were directly related to using and drinking or not: family issues, low self-esteem, medical conditions, past traumas, and even addiction that had no obvious “cause” or exacerbating factor at all. Everyone was good-natured and had this charmingly dark sense of humor about their disease; the moments spent laughing uncontrollably shared equal time with the quiet, reflective ones. My story came out through the voices of others with whom I shared nothing in common—aside from the most difficult times of our lives.
That first week in rehab was a major turning point in my recovery; I had never met people who were so open and, above all, kind and understanding of what I felt were the worst parts of myself. Most had been through rehab at least once before. They welcomed me like the accepting family I never had, because they had all been me at one point, and people had done the same for them. I would soon learn that a huge part of recovery is paying it all forward.
In rehab I also learned about the brain’s reward pathway and the wiring of an addict’s mind. I learned that our brains are severely and unfairly wired in such a way that we experience a compulsion to repeat actions that we find pleasurable; the more pleasure we get out of it, the stronger the compulsion to repeat it. A defining characteristic of addiction is the complete inability to limit the intake of a substance. Most of us addicts and alcoholics have tried cutting back on our own or making rules for ourselves—only wine, only on weekends, etc.—but to no avail. These misguided measures inevitably fail and will oftentimes land us in the hospital, jail, or dead. Our true drug of choice is always more.
It is difficult to separate the idea of compulsive behavior from one’s self-will. Humans are thoughtful, reflective beings. We make good decisions and poor ones, but all the while, we’re in control—except for when it comes to addiction, and other obsessive and compulsive behavior. Addiction is an illness where willpower has nothing to do with starting or stopping. (This is a big idea; I found it hard to accept, and I would not blame anyone else who shares that difficulty.) In fact, a major part of Twelve-Step programs is calling for the surrender of one’s self-will, as unintuitive as that sounds. However, through these programs we define “will” as a character flaw that begets stubbornness and that can be broken in moments of weakness. “Will” isn’t good enough to get us through something as massive and important as substance abuse recovery: we need to let it go.
Although I had graduated from my program and received clearance to return to school, I was still considered a “beginner” in recovery and felt shaky on my sea legs. I gave up my self-will when it came to staying sober, but I retained my stubbornness in almost everything else.
I was still kicking myself for having to take the summer off (that is, without a glamorous internship or traveling experience) to attend to what I still saw as my moral degeneracy. I accepted that it was a disease, but I still didn’t like myself any better for it.
That fall, I doubled down to make up for my losses. I took five classes and picked up a job on campus. I was active in my orgs and even joined a new one. My recovery took a peripheral role in my new life: I stopped going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and stopped being honest about my “using” thoughts and dreams. Eventually I neglected it altogether. I figured the summer should’ve been enough time to last me for a while.
It’s not hard to guess how that all turned out. I fell so behind on work due to my prior incompletes and the weight of my current workload that I skipped class because of the social anxiety of facing my professors. Then I stopped going to class, period, because the more I skipped the more ashamed I was to return. Though I was sober the entire time, it was getting harder and harder to control my emotions; I always felt unstable and on edge and struggled with even greater self-loathing for all the weight I gained from quitting amphetamine and for not living up to my beginning-of-the-semester expectations. In mid-October, an emotionally upsetting event occurred, and three days later I checked myself into the hospital again, this time voluntarily, at the behest of my therapist. In our multiple sessions that week—a bad sign in itself—I couldn’t stop talking about getting electroshock therapy for the amnesiatic effect it supposedly has. The only way I saw getting past that event was by shocking my brain into forgetting. Eventually it became clear that I needed more help than she could provide.
I stabilized after a weeklong inpatient stay and was placed on a mood stabilizer in addition to my anti-depressant. I agreed to drop a class, cut my work hours, and enroll in an intensive outpatient program for my comorbid eating disorder. But by late November I had stopped going and by December I had relapsed. I drank an entire magnum of white zinfandel (it was truly awful-tasting and I do not recommend it) and thought “fuck it all.” I drank harder than ever, and stocked up on the various readily-available forms of ephedrine—the “poor man’s speed”—at the pharmacy, though neither using nor drinking was at all like it used to be. Every high was mediocre; every hangover and comedown was unbearable.
I admitted to my therapists at the Stone Center that I had relapsed. At that point I didn’t really care. After learning of my relapse, some of my best friends confronted me, and I told them to fuck off. I didn’t owe them an iota of my recovery. My resentment toward them made me isolate myself even more, and I drank harder just to spite them. I was taking poison hoping that the other person would die.
My outpatient addiction therapist had been considering that I might suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder, and I decided that I might as well embrace my fucked up-ness. Nevertheless, one day I realized that I couldn’t return to school in the spring like this. I knew I had to take time off, so I did. I went home, got a job, and started seeing a new BPD therapist.
When I was home, I drank and wrote and drank and wrote. I hid it from my mom. It wasn’t hard; I’d had almost ten years of training myself to hold my alcohol. I drank alone on my twenty-first birthday. And one night, I was bored and decided to see what my parents had in their medicine cabinet. All the way in the back was tucked away a bottle of Norco, a painkiller that contains both acetaminophen and hydrocodone. The bottle was full: I had struck gold.
Being a speed fiend, I never really understood the allure of painkillers as euphoric agents. I was excited to try. I took two. I didn’t feel anything. I took another two. A little fuzzy, but not the kind of high I was used to. Before I knew it I had taken ten and was absolutely useless. My breathing became terribly weak and slow. I thought that if I were to die, I wouldn’t mind. I closed my eyes.
I survived my overdose. I had been too scared to call an ambulance so I decided to sleep through it. The next couple of days were so horrible that I kept praying—something I don’t do—that if I were to get through this, I would go to my home group on Monday and would quit everything. For good.
I’ve been sober ever since. For as long as I was home, I went to my home group every week. Sometimes my sister would come along mostly to support me, but also because meetings nearly unequivocally make anyone feel better, regardless of whether they suffer from the disease of addiction or not. Although my mother didn’t fully understand my addiction, she was as supportive of my recovery as I could’ve asked her to be, and that meant the world to me. When the initial storm after my “coming out” to my parents had blown over, we emerged with a greater understanding of one another and now are extremely close. Each member of my family struggles with anxiety, depression, and anger issues, and my journey through recovery has made everyone take a good, hard look at their inner demons. We are more sensitive and expressive now. We are the family we should have been.
I no longer lie to my parents. I tell them about moments when I feel unstable and overwhelmed, and even moments when I’m craving. Secrets, lies, and drugs all go hand-in-hand: once you start with one, the others enter your life soon afterward. I live a lighter and more honest life. I do what I say I’ll do and I show up when I promise to. People trust me again, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
Returning to Wellesley had the potential to be a disastrous experience, but all the growing I did during my eight months away did not go to waste. I took it easy. I enrolled in four classes and no more. (This was a big step for me.) I learned how to say no, and that it’s okay to take time for myself. By the time this article is published, I’ll have eleven months of sobriety. No matter what happens, the only fact I know to be true is that there is absolutely nothing as important as recovery, regardless of how things may feel at that moment. Everything else can wait.
From February 2015 Issue
The author of this piece is open to connecting via the following email account: firstname.lastname@example.org.