This is a “reprint” of an article I recently wrote for a NY publication called Spotlight On Recovery:
For an addict, the prospect of no longer using whatever it is that gets them through each day is daunting. There’s a comfort in knowing what life is going to look like even if all it entails is dragging yourself out of bed, taking a drink, smoke, or hit of crystal meth, and going on with a day focused only on managing the disaster. The dark cloud that surrounds us is obscured by our drug of choice; it’s what makes the days tolerable.
The first step of recovery – Addiction treatment sets the table
Some of us are sent into treatment by family members or jurists, while others recognize the problem themselves and decide to take the first step into addiction treatment on their own. However we get there, getting into addiction treatment is only the first step; often it’s not even the one that gets us clean. Whether you recover by yourself or with help, whether you got it done your first time or your twelfth, if you’ve managed to stop using, you’ve come up against the ultimate challenge: What now?!
For me, the most difficult aspect of steering my life in the right direction was simply learning how to live. True, I’d been doing it for 24 years by that day, but my life involved constant escape, discomfort, and boredom. When I stopped smoking crystal meth, getting over the fatigue, hunger, and even my non-existent libido (all part of my withdrawal) was easy when compared with the simple challenge of what to do every day.
You see, I smoked crystal meth for 5 years (and before that came alcohol, weed, cocaine, and a slew of other drugs). I smoked meth when I was in a good mood, when I was upset, when I was bored, sad, tired, or alert. With the one common denominator in my life now gone, I wasn’t even sure how to simply pass the time. True, rehab had groups, it had meetings, and it gave me an opportunity to discover myself. But, while all those were helpful, for me, it was the time in between all those that was a challenge.
Learning to live without drugs – Finding purpose in recovery
My inability to fill my time with anything other than thoughts of using got me tossed out of my first rehab. Going back to work in my studio, I couldn’t help but look for some left behind treasures; I found a bag of meth, filled a pipe, and threw out three months of sobriety without a second thought.
My second attempt at getting sober was more successful, not only because I’d learned from my mistake. I’d made mistakes before but never learned a thing. The difference was that this place made us all do chores. They made us work. They made us recognize, and then follow through, on what it meant to be a normal, functioning, member of society. As I got a better and better grasp on life as a non-user, I realized that for me, simply staying sober was never going to cut it.
I’m a doer. I need to get things accomplished in order to feel satisfied. When it came to my drug life, I got things done by becoming a pretty successful drug dealer as well as a less successful, but working, musician. Now, I needed to find another channel for my energy, one that didn’t center around filling a meth pipe.
12-Step meetings did the trick for a little while. Having a place to go where I didn’t have to be ashamed of my past made it easier for me to get adjusted to sober life. Still, within months, I was getting restless again, and for me, that’s a sign of trouble. I was looking for something to do that would pose a challenge, giving me something else to focus on than the gap left in my life.
My purpose – To learn about addiction and help others
I’d always been good at school. Even in the throws of my crystal-meth addiction, I managed to perform well enough in class. That was the reason for my looking into academics as my healthy way out. I mulled over the possibilities with my parents. I was a pre-med student in college and thought about medical school. My dad, a physician himself, wasn’t excited about the idea. Understandably, he wasn’t quite ready to believe that I could follow through on such a challenge. I hadn’t done anything to give him a reason to believe yet.
I decided to start more gradually, and applied for a Master’s program in psychology at a state school in California. Psychology was my undergraduate major, which made the application a little bit easier, but getting myself ready for a life I’d left so far behind was scary.
No matter how dark, there’s a charm in the aimless nature of drug addiction; the focus is simple, the goals, close at hand, and the reward, immediate. What I was embarking on now was some nebulous, long term contest that could end up any which way. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the uncertainty. Still, within minutes of sitting down in that first summer class, I knew I’d made the right decision.
Now that I was sober, I liked the daily routines I’d run away from so many years before. When class was finished every day, I was happy to dive into the work, proving to myself that I could do well here again, that I could reach my goal of getting a Master’s degree after more than 5 years as a daily crystal-meth user-dealer. I did well in that program and started looking into psychology research about addiction. I’d slowly moved away from the rooms of AA, and looking into the psychology of addiction allowed me to stay close to the reasons why I was taking this new path. It also allowed me to work with others who’d had similar experiences to my own without focusing on the past as much as AA meetings did.
I performed so well in the program that I started looking into further schooling, eying the outstanding program at UCLA, my alma mater. The UCLA psychology graduate program is the best in the country and one of the best in the world. Feeling a bit like a novice climber taking on Everest, I set my sights high and went for it. I gathered recommendations; I made phone calls, set up interviews, and worked my full court press. After working tirelessly for more than six months, the good news came in. I was ecstatic. Then I was scared. Quickly, I realized that for me, challenge is food. I need to feel like I’m working toward something to quiet the restlessness in my head.
I know now, having researched addiction for the past 9 years, that addicts have personalities that make them search out challenges, make them need a rush, that leave them unable to sit still. For some of us, it manifests as Attention Deficit problems, but even for the others, for whom the challenge doesn’t quite reach clinical levels, the underlying restlessness is still a constant factor.
In our past lives, that restlessness left us searching for a way to pass the time. Drugs did that reasonably well for me while filling my life with distractions that moved me away from everything that was important. In my new life, I made sure that the challenges were worthwhile; I got involved in sports, rechanneling my need for achievement not only into school, but into fitness as well.
It has taken me years to balance my life, and the struggle is ongoing. I still have classmates, as well as my wife, reminding me sometime that I need time off once in a while to smell the roses. They’re right, and I try, but for me, staying busy is the rose. Without my endless work, I’m afraid I’d lose my grip.
So no matter how long ago it was that you seemed to have lost your passion, if you want to make life without drugs worthwhile, it’s crucial that you find it again now. Simply being clean of drugs is not the end-all. In fact, being drug free merely offers us the means to rediscover the life we left behind.