Simply Sober Won’t Do – From Crystal Meth Addict to Scholar

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.

16 responses to “Simply Sober Won’t Do – From Crystal Meth Addict to Scholar”

  1. This is truly inspiring. I am almost 2 months clean and know it’s not going to be easy. Thankyou for your information that is so useful for addicts and addicts in remission.

  2. This is an insightful article that I could relate to.
    I have never heard of a person being labelled as a ‘do-er’, but I can identify with that totally.
    Keep up the great work!!

  3. This is a very good article, it pretty much is just saying to live the 12 steps outlined in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”
    thank you

  4. Great story. I am enrolling into University. I’m not very sober — I slip and binge drink sometimes. It will be easier to abstain when I respect myself more as I’ve taken my own path finally. Thanks.

  5. I’m very pleased I came over and checked out your blog. Very impressive. I saw a lot of my story in yours. But, then isn’t that how it always goes. I’m just 15 months clean, but each day is a gift to me. I’m just so blessed even still to have another day clean, to be free of crack, which was the drug that took me down to my bottom of lows in the last six months of my using. I’m truly happy, joyous and free today. I’m taking a very slow recovery, undergoing the Interferon treatment for my HCV, not working yet in my profession as an RN so I don’t make good money to get things back too quick to have a progression hit me in the face with choices too quick. I’d rather be poorer for now, plod along, go to my meetings, hang with my sponsor, and get a couple of years or so under my belt, and then go back to work in crisis substance abuse nursing. Then, I’ll feel grounded and ready I believe to make a good living and keep my clean time. Anyway, it’s been good bantering with you on facebook. My name’s Kate. Email me anytime!

    • Thank you for sharing kate. I have to say that my road was not quick either – It took 2 years after my accident and arrest before I went back to school and 7 more years after that before I received my Ph.D. Take your time and do it right, whatever that may mean for you.
      Good luck!

  6. This article is so well written, I am ecstatic to have found it. In my own blogs I have tried to nail this subject on the head, but -perhaps due to my own ADHD – I start wandering down other paths related to addiction.

    This article says exactly what I have said a number of times in another way, and that is: If you are living each day just to stay sober, you are going to get bored. It gets tiring just getting through a day not to do something wrong, eg. focused only on staying sober. You get tired of the AA way of just congratulating yourself for not doing something wrong. You reach a point where you want to begin ADDING to the world again and get to where you are congratulating yourself for doing something that has forward motion and involves more than just being able to stay in neutral (and not throw yourself into reverse).

    I have long maintained that anyone who is fighting addiction will do much better if they can get to a point where they can not only make a plan for moving forward, but begin to follow that plan and succeed in fulfilling it.

    In other words, do everything you can do develop a life-absorbing goal, and then do more than just make a plan — follow it! Addicts can be big dreamers and spend days thinking about how to do different things, but the real test is putting those plans into action. if you can succeed in doing that, you are going to begin to feel a very fulfilling and satisfying feeling, and it is one that beats taking drugs. Once you can realize this, you are truly on the path to lifelong recovery, I believe.

  7. Hello Adi Jaffe,

    I loved your article, there are so many parallels between you and I, and passion, and challenge. I found a very powerful way to tap into Jungian shadow for mission through the New Warrior Adventure Weekend, and I would recommend to you. I have also studied Chi Gong, because of the length of the program, 13 years and counting, and the need for almost ritualized practice. Now I am building online businesses because I can ritualize the effort, and it is actually beginning to pay off. By the way, I would love to talk about collaboration as I get lots of traffic to my online sites. I am also very glad that crystal meth was not available when I was using…loved speed and booze. Mike

  8. I have been clean from everything for 8 or so years. I was shooting Meth back then and I spiraled deep into the addiction; it was horrible. My first few years clean were so troubling for me that I didn’t work, but instead just roamed the streets as a homeless person. I would later be treated for depression among other issues and given medication. Although I look back and think about how horrible that experience was, I still find myself an addict to something. If I have no outward expression of an addiction it is internalized and I suffer from extreme obsessive compulsive symptoms. It just makes me think that I will always be this way and constantly have to do inventory on if I am over-eating, over using tobacco or even over thinking. The idea of graduating from college soon and entering grad school does not make me feel anything but empty. I am on the ultimate quest to find the answer to this, so any feedback is much appreciated.

    • Thanks for writing Replydude,
      My path included graduate school but there’s nothing that says yours has to. Find something you’re good at and go for it, no matter what it is and no matter how hard the climb. Make sure you love it because the road will be hard at some point and will take far longer than you’d like it to. In the end, you’ll have actual achievement at hand and that, my friend, is priceless.

      Good luck!

  9. I have been sober for a year from meth, and am so bored. I just over-eat and watch tv. I have always been a lil bored with life, that is probably why I started using… even though my life was pretty good, (married, kids, good job, and nice things) Now I am just sad that I have to start over, and feel fat, and poor, and my kids are grown and I missed so much or have forgotten a lot of it. I got sober on my own, never hit the total bottom, but used for about 10yrs. I guess I am scared to start something I can’t finish. I tried to get sober so many times, finally I just moved away from the problem. I really enjoyed your blog, it has got me thinking… thanks

    • Hi Stephanie and thank you for writing. To get better when fighting addiction I think it’s important to find a goal aside from stopping drug use. Sure, stopping your use will open the door to many new things, but it’d be nice to have an idea what you want in life that’ll make opening that door worthwhile.
      For some people it’s hard to make that discovery before they clean up, spend some time without the mind-altering influence of the drugs, and then the answer just comes like a bolt of lightening. Others need help finding the answer even after a long period of abstinence.
      If you think you might be in one of the latter two groups, email me and we can talk!

      Dr. Jaffe

  10. I’m nearly eighteen months clean from over twenty-three years of addiction to cocaine. Not by coincidence have I been enrolled in college for the last sixteen months attaining a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Video. My sobriety and my time in school work hand in hand. Part of my problem with past relapses was I had too much idle time on my hands with no goals or plans. Going back to school challenged me, inspires me and gives me a place to focus my energies and be creative. Reading your post and seeing others who have followed a similar path confirms what I suspected about filling my idle time with something positive and consuming.

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