Addiction is...

I went cold turkey sort of by accident, one drug at a time. Well, that’s not entirely true. Alcohol was first, and that was not an accident. After a very bad weekend in the Poconos that started with lots of alcohol and ended at 6 AM, having been driven home at knifepoint and unceremoniously dumped in a parking lot, I decided that maybe I should lay off the alcohol for a while. I didn’t have the foggiest idea at the time that “a while” would turn into “forever, God willing”, but that’s how it started.

Pot came to an end a few days later, and then cigarettes a few days after that. Those were not so much an accident as the fact that I was so depressed and out of my head, I didn’t even realize I had gone sober until two days after my last cigarette. I left my cigarettes and my pot on my desk, in plain sight, assuming I would get back to them, but I never did. After seven days I put them away, assuming I would get back to them, but I never did.

After two weeks I dumped the alcohol—all $500 worth of it—down the kitchen sink and threw away all the shot glasses but one. About the same time I realized I hadn’t had any caffeine for a while either, so I vowed to give that up as well. After three weeks I turned off the fan. After two months I threw away the pot and all the pipes but one. After six months I threw away the cigarettes and all the ashtrays but one. After eighteen months I threw away the last remaining shot glass, pipe, and ashtray.

In the meantime, I meditated, and exercised, and cried a lot. I also kept track of how many days I had gone without a cigarette (and also my other drugs, although I didn’t tell my coworkers that). Every morning, I would open up my desktop wallpaper image in Photo Editor, add another tally mark, save it, and update the desktop. I started in the upper right corner and counted left in two groups of five, then down until I ran out of room, then started at the top of the next column over. Every morning, another mark. Weekends were the hardest, but Mondays were great—Mondays were three marks. I only counted days I had completed; the current day never counts until tomorrow, because you never know. I kept a backup of the original picture without any tick marks, and I swore that if I ever slipped, I would start over counting at zero.

I kept this up until I left for a new job. I had 219 tick marks. I never slipped. After some careful consideration, I decided not to keep up the ritual at my new job. A few weeks after that, I realized I had lost track of how many days it had been.

I have been drug-free since January 26, 2000. I don’t smoke cigarettes; I don’t smoke pot; I don’t drink alcohol; I don’t even drink caffeine. It didn’t have to be this way. The happy ending was not a given. I finally got smart, but mostly I was just incredibly lucky.

By a cosmic quirk of fate, a few days after I quit everything, went cold turkey, and started my daily counting routine, I came across an article on Salon.com. It expresses succinctly something I have always felt but could never pinpoint.

Addiction for me is strange; in the middle of it, it’s like I’m in a tunnel. Quitting is unimaginable. The thought of it makes me feel lonely and jittery. But somewhere in the middle of the addiction, this dark tunnel (at a time when I strangely don’t feel lonely), my body tires of the constant subliminal messages that are bombarding it. I can no longer bear the thought of myself dying of lung cancer, of my sick father, frowning as he wonders why I’m throwing away the health that he’d give anything to have again, of my friends shifting their position to avoid the noxious fumes that emanate from my direction. My body just gives me an escape clause, a ladder is lowered, and if I take it, then quitting is fairly easy. If I don’t quit then, I’m trapped again. Eventually, weeks—maybe months—later, another ladder is lowered. I wonder if everybody’s body gives them these little escape hatches, times when quitting is so much easier and more imaginable.

My weekend in the Poconos lowered the ladder for me. It was the same ladder I’d seen countless times before, but this time I climbed up and made it all the way to the top. To this day, I don’t know what was so different about this particular ladder, this particular time. If I knew, I would tell you; if I ever figure it out, I will tell everyone. But all I can tell you now is that it happened.

Later that summer, after being sober for six months, I went camping with the one friend I had left. We were hiking up a mountain, and I, in the best shape of my life, was running ahead of him and scouting for trails. At one point, he looked up at me, out of breath, and said, “My God, you make it look so effortless.” And I looked back, smiled, and said, “You know, a lot of effort went into making this effortless.”

219 days

Originally written September 16, 2001