by Tom Layou
There is exactly one prescribed, socially accepted way to quit harmful substances, and that is to be in a program that insists on total chemical abstinence.
Early recovery is a perpetual status report because, at least in cases like mine, once you’ve lost a few jobs, pissed off everyone you know and lived as a constant embarrassment for several years, certain explanations are owed. I went around wearing shitty clothes from the weight I was losing and still being broke from all the dumb shit I did, and everyone who’d known me more than a week got an assessment of how much better I was doing. People asked. Friends, family, doctors, they’d all ask, how I was doing, what I was doing to improve. They’d ask, “Are you going to meetings?”
Any answer besides, “Yes,” is regarded an admission of pending failure, and god forbid you’re smoking weed.
Early on I admitted to a dental hygienist I was still smoking pot.
She said, “Oh, so you just traded one for the other,” then let me sit in on this lesson she was presenting to me.
And I did.
To become an addict is to join a demographic that is uniquely able to be judged by pretty much anyone and with other addicts, it’s like a sport. Even among some who ostensibly accepted my efforts, there was a sense that because I did this to myself, I was a fuck-up, and I had all the reasons I could remember to believe them. So when someone like a podiatrist, or the person who periodically reminded me how to floss, challenged me, my obligation was to apologize and make excuses, when really I was thinking something like, “Bitch, I’m here to talk about my foot.”
In the year before I quit drinking every doctor appointment was about booze. I had quit morphine in 2009 but it was alcohol I could not get away from. I checked into detox four times in 2012 and my last major relapse would have me requiring a lot of medical attention. I’d show up to my appointments in the morning and reliably blow over .20 on the breathalyzer. Any time I slept a few hours I woke up in heavy withdrawals, starting all over with nausea, headaches, and the kind of tremors where I couldn’t keep food on a fork. Pancreatitis put burning ice pick stabs in my shoulder when I coughed, sneezed, or managed a rare laugh. Becoming diabetic was on the radar. I weighed 220 pounds and knew how odd the location of pancreatic attacks were because I had been shown the placement of my swollen organs like the board game, Operation, had gotten up to walk around. I was diagnosed with Hepatitis B for the second time even though I’d been vaccinated.
The conversation is sort of like, “Well, if we look at the Greek terminology here, ‘hepa,’ means liver, and ‘itis,’ means inflammation. Yours is three times the size it’s supposed to be; what do you want us to call it, dude?” I was so bloated I couldn’t trim my toenails and eventually had to get a pedicure.
One doctor was examining me in hopes of locating the source of a bleed that would end up lasting a total of about eighty days. He also gave me the casino rundown on organ failure in end-stage alcoholism. There is a point where everything wants to give up, and it’s hard to pinpoint what will first. He couldn’t be sure, but he was predicting renal failure — soon. This was described as that magical time when my kidneys would stop filtering, urine production would stop and I would fill up with my own waste. I would have a tap put in my torso and be placed in a room where I would irreversibly seep fluid for a few days. There would be time for my goodbyes.
They asked what I wanted to happen if I died every time I went to detox. Staff offered opinions. Theology makes itself present. This doctor asked me if I believed in God and saw he bought no traction. He said he didn’t think it would work if he tried to spring it on me, but explained at certain times doctors might try to engage what is called, “the come to Jesus moment.”
This man had been educated in treating people while maintaining emotional distance and had been in the same room with me something like four times. He placed a chair in front of me and sat in it. He explained if I would indulge him he would hold my hands and sit with me in silence while I thought about, “whatever it is you believe in.”
I closed my eyes and sent a cursory glance over the cosmos. After some polite interval I told him I was ready to leave. I didn’t give a shit. I wanted to get drunk. There is a kind of partying that gets you to the same place without making any big decisions.
My body echoed my doctor. That was easier to listen to. At this point I spent half my life in the bathroom and what went on doesn’t need to be shared but it was some Hall Of Fame shit because I swear to God I kept thinking I’d “pull an Elvis.” My vision would go fully white with exploding constellations of pain I had never considered, and in that far off miserable place I did not meet Jesus, but I found the King, and I’d think, “It’s actually going to be this way. I’m going to die on the shitter.” It was going to hurt.
At no point did I set out to get sober. I didn’t even decide not to die. I decided not to die like that. This is the shitty part, or where the shitty part gets shitty I guess, where you decide you will try to make it out and have to pick out some uncomfortable things to do. I have been hospitalized for alcohol withdrawals. I was going to need to detox under medical supervision again. As much as detox itself sucks, while I lay there sweating on a cot, the future I didn’t want anymore would spill out in front of me again and there was a huge and looming question of what I would do to stay OK. How would I keep from getting fucked up long enough to do something with the life I gave up on? They ask you in detox, “Are you gonna go to meetings?”
My familiarity with programs came largely by court mandate. People are most familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, which offers 12 steps to reconstruct you and direct the rest of your life. God is directly referenced in half of the steps and while the uninitiated are told it is not a religious organization and the spirituality can be worked around, meetings are so saturated with the ideology it is impossible to have any discussion without someone turning things to God. These people enthusiastically interject themselves into your life between the sense of personal guilt and renewed purpose mapped out in the steps. They will take you to Denny’s after the meeting, tell you what to do before you go to bed and when to, they’ll tell you what time to get up, where to be, and they’ll show up at your front door to make certain. Credibility is established by your “days,” how many you’ve been sober, and when you first show up anyone who has been going to that room one day longer than you is to be regarded as a spiritual inspiration and guide when their primary qualification is having ruined their own life. I spent one meeting politely acting like I wasn’t mad at a mechanic who put the payment for my motorcycle parts in his nose. I had to get a ride to that meeting.
There are other programs dressed up to look like something new but all I’ve seen is the same spirituality based full abstinence turd sandwich on different bread. I had been to one group in the past to address the things I personally chose. I had been honest, and as a result every single conversation in group wheeled around to target one thing: my weed.
I was being told in the depths of fatalistic depression the only way was to give up a lifelong resentment to God, surrender myself to Him with the help of those I found questionable, and live the remainder of my life in pious sobriety. I wasn’t about to do any of that. But I was going to die.
Pat was the cool counselor. “Shit,” he said. “I was sittin’ by the campfire, drinkin’ beers and smokin’ dope, ‘n my buddy was out on the river in one of those big old inner tubes, drinkin’ beers and smokin’ dope, and I had my little .22 pistol I kept taking pot shots at it with. It was just foolishness.”
There was a leisurely feel in the courtyard so I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the time everyone ran out of cigarettes.
I was going to spend the better part of a week shaking, sweating, not eating, and pretty sure my nervous system was squeezing out of my pores like Play-Doh, and I needed one fairly reasonable person I could talk to who had been through this. He could tell a few innocuous tales of past shenanigans and be identifiable. He wore a Harley shirt every day and reminded me of my uncle.
I admitted to Pat I was planning to keep smoking weed.
“Oh, I tried that” he said, getting back to his job. “The marijuana maintenance program. Did that for a couple years until I went to go get my two-year coin. Couldn’t keep lying to everyone. I had to tell ‘em all at my meeting what I’d been doing. Had to go right back to the first step, start all over again.”
There is a variety of condescension available to addicts in recovery speaking to someone newly trying to unfuck their life. The first step in a program is to admit you are “powerless,” but even though I wasn’t planning to work the steps I did realize I had lost control in every way and it felt more like awakening to my own worthlessness.
This wasn’t like at the dentist. I had just begun scrambling to get out and I needed approval. But it didn’t change anything. He didn’t impart some new understanding to struggle with. I was going to smoke.
I went to a few meetings, to try to pick out good parts. I ran into a girl I had dated who was excited to see me quitting.
“How many days do you have?” She asked.
“Well, I mean, 17 days, but I’m still smoking weed.”
“Oh, well then you don’t have seventeen days.”
She wasn’t wrong, but if the support group wasn’t going to support my actual goals I was kind of on my own. I was geeking out 24/7, didn’t know how to live, couldn’t sit still, and I had no idea how I was actually going to fix anything. I smoked. I smoked and reacquainted myself with Albert Camus’ ‘Myth Of Sisyphus’. I became obsessed with the twist on the Greek myth, of the man condemned to roll a rock up a mountainside for eternity. I embraced the idea of life not getting better and absurdly doing shit anyway. It was bleak, but handy, because recovery is a matter of delayed gratification. Looking back to the point of quitting and before, I had to keep reminding myself how bad things had been, to be aware I might still be pretty screwed, but in the time of simply enduring improvement had happened. A week without puking. A month of sleeping all night. A few months and a modicum of functionality. After years of progress I’d start to wonder what the half-life of suck is.
It wasn’t expected but things eventually got better. On the way a fairly minor problem could get me thinking about neon signs, powders and pills and there were a lot of them. A true crisis can still become a concentration of regret and hopeless depression that feels like a reminder I should have given up before. Cannabis gives me the patience to make it through another night and see what the next day is. Weed doesn’t fix anything, but it does make a whole lot of bullshit tolerable. My relationship with cannabis in the last six years has prevented dozens of relapses, and knowing where I can go with alcohol, any one of them could have killed me.
Working at a pot shop, I’ve found AA chips by the register, the coin a person carries to show how far they’ve made it in the program. There is a bit of a tradition where a person “pays” with their coin when they relapse. You walk into a place, joke with the bartender about giving up sobriety, and put your chip on the bar with your real money. Once or twice it was the one day chip, for going to your first meeting. I think another time I found a three-month, but I’ve seen people with stacks of these things they’d probably grab first if their house caught fire. I try to imagine the mindset of a person leaving one of those behind. In the context of a pot shop it sounds funny enough to me and I always smiled, but I also know a relapse comes with a deep sense of loss, failure, and fear.
Pat is everywhere, muttering warnings from church basements with a cigarette in his hand that cannabis rots your life like any other intoxicant. I’ve researched this one and weed isn’t that bad. I invite anyone who finds themselves trying to leave behind an unhealthy lifestyle, confronted by a culture that regards consuming marijuana as a mistake on the same level as a potentially fatal relapse, to consider whether this unconditional philosophy is really worth living and dying by.
Addiction is for life and I don’t have some huge thing figured out. I tried an approach and I’ve gotten through so far. I wonder if another way, heavy meditation, veganism, pilates, would have gotten me to a better place sooner. What I know is my name is Tom, I’m an addict, I have zero days of sobriety, and with the aid of cannabis I have been alive six years without alcohol.
A program wasn’t going to do that for me.