I’m an addict. I guess I always have been. If you go back and watch videotapes of me as a child at Christmas, you’ll see me in the background hunting for food while my brother and sister open up presents. One time, I started chewing on a wrapper because I couldn’t find anything else to eat. That’s addiction.
Anyone who thinks they need to list out the pros and cons of a given situation in order to make up their mind already knows what they need to do, they’re just stalling. By Thanksgiving break, I’d lost track of the amount of times I’d weighed the pros and cons of taking or not taking OxyContin. My most recent list went something like this…
Cons: You have to take more and more to get the same effect as when you started. You’re lying to your friends and family. You only socialize when you’re high. You’re throwing away your football career. Your whole body hurts when you’re sober. You equate happiness with the feeling you get when you’re on drugs. It’s taking all your money. You could die. You’ve had a lot of friends die.
Pros: It’s the only thing that makes you feel normal.
And that was the bitch of it. It didn’t matter that the cons list was bigger, as long as there was one reason to keep using, I would. At least ten times I’d tried in earnest to run away from that little pill, and all ten times I came crawling back. It turned out my reverence for being seen as different was only eclipsed by my need to feel normal, or the way I imagined other people who were normal felt.
You’d think the majority of time dreaming about sobriety would be spent after the drug wears off and you feel like shit. That wasn’t my experience at all. During those times I was as helpless as a newborn kitten whose eyes had yet to open wrestling to find its mother’s tit. The all-consuming hunger of addiction left room for little in the way of self-improvement.
Getting high wiped away that hunger and all my pain and worries… everything but the guilt. So, it turned out the only time I made serious plans to get off OCs was when I was on them. I guess I figured plans for the future were something normal people made.
Since none of my other strategies had worked out, I decided to try something different this time. There’s this myth out there that people like to promulgate that states: if you want to get off of hard drugs you have to do it for yourself. The problem with that thinking was this, I didn’t really like myself that much. You ever tried to force yourself to do something for someone you don’t like day after day? It’s only a matter of time before you say, “Fuck it,” and give up.
So I racked my brain for other reasons, reasons that wouldn’t let me down, reasons I thought were compelling enough to actually get me to quit.
I found three.
I’m being a complete asshole to my mom. I’m spending 18 hours a day in bed. The six hours I do manage to drag myself off the mattress are spent taking amphetamines to get myself motivated to do anything and then OCs to keep myself from committing suicide. My days are spent pouring over books on psychology and philosophy and new-age concepts and anything I can find that might help me get back to even. Some days I feel like it’s working, then the phone rings and I get so agitated I could punch a third hole through my apartment wall. The only time I pick up the phone is during the two-hour period when the amphetamines and Oxy work in concert to keep me both alert and calm. If mom doesn’t call in this time frame, I don’t answer. I could probably let this slide if things were business as usual. But they’re not. It’s been less than a year since dad died and she’s living alone for the first time in her life. And now she’s losing a son as well as a husband. I feel so fucking guilty, but the only thing that makes me feel any better is the thing that ends up making me feel this way. I have to quit.
I’m completely in love. When I’m not ignoring phones calls all I can think about is Elizabeth. She consumes my thoughts. She’d fill up my dreams too if the cocktail of drugs I’m taking wasn’t doing a stand-up job of preventing me from entering REM sleep. Just looking at her makes my heart hurt, like someone’s squeezing it, but she’s the only one who can loosen the grip. I know that being with her would be better than any drug but that I’ll never be with her unless I stop taking these ones, and even then it’s not a sure thing. It’s so bad I stole my dad’s old sleeping pills from the medicine cabinet the last time I was in Oklahoma. Now, whenever I feel that hand grab hold of my heart and she’s not there to take it off, I snort an OC and pop one of those pills. Doesn’t matter if it’s noon or night, anything, and especially no thing, feels better than this. I have to quit.
I’m letting down my friends and teammates. A week before this season began Coach Paterra called me to tell me the good news. “You’re eligible. We got you a medical hardship. You can play this year.” I let the silence sit between us for as long as I could before I responding, “Coach, I don’t think I’m ready. I think I want to use my redshirt.” We talked it over for a few minutes but he was wise enough to know he shouldn’t try to get me to change my mind. I thought for sure I’d kick the habit and start getting back in shape before the year was over. But it’s four months later now and the only thing I’ve changed is the dosage of the pills I’m taking, and if it keeps increasing at this rate I’ll never play football again. I’ll never run out on the field with my teammates or joke around at practice or celebrate a win at an after party with the rest of the university’s athletes. I’m not ready to give that up. I have to quit.
I had my reasons. But I also had my doubts. So, in an attempt to stack the deck against my subconscious mind’s unwavering effort to get me to use again, I pulled out a piece of paper and drafted up a contract even an addict wouldn’t dare break.
If Heaven exists, and I use OxyContin again, then my dad forfeits his right to be there.
I signed my name beneath it. I wasn’t even religious, but for some reason I believed those words would be enough to keep me from taking another pill.
The next morning I flew back to Oklahoma for Thanksgiving break with the contract in my back pocket. I hung out with family. We played board games, ate too much food, and watched bad TV. I almost felt normal. After I’d had enough of that I asked my mom if I could borrow her car to go meet some friends.
I drove past the entrance to my friend’s apartment and took a left into the bank across the street. I took out $300 from the ATM, drove to his place, put the money on the counter, took 15 40 milligram pills from a bottle he handed me, chopped one of them up, rolled up a 20 dollar bill, leaned down and snorted it up all before I could let myself think about what it was I was doing. A couple hours later I did it again. Rinse. Repeat.
I was a machine and Oxy was my fuel. Without it I didn’t work; I could only collect dust until I filled myself back up.
I did more OCs that week than I’d done in the last month. It was as if I’d been on a diet and had tricked my brain into letting me eat just one brownie. Anyone who’s been addicted to food knows how that ends. By the time Thanksgiving break was over I’d eaten the entire pan, scooped out every bit of crumbs, and was now tucked away in the washroom with the mixing bowl and a spoon.
When I landed at the El Paso airport I couldn’t get to the restroom fast enough. I burst through the stall door, grabbed a textbook from my suitcase, pulled out a 40 milligram pill from my jeans pocket, chopped it up with shaky hands, then dug through my luggage for the red straw I’d cut down to a couple inches and snorted it up. I coughed and sniffed a little to give the illusion to the people outside that I was sick. They didn’t care. After a minute or two, neither did I.
On the drive back to Las Cruces, I pulled over in a gas station and snorted the last of my pills. I made it back to apartment 210 on Payne Street as the sun was setting. My roommate, BA, had arrived earlier that day.
“You trying to skagg?” I asked.
From one addict to another it wasn’t so much a question as an invitation to come sit by the fire after standing outside barefoot in the snow.
BA brought out an 80-milligram pill from his room. “I’ll get you back tomorrow,” I said. We both pulled out credit cards and began to chop up our half of the pill.
I’m convinced the greatest sense of peace an addict feels is the moment right before they indulge. We would have been content to sit there staring at that powder for hours. Just knowing our pain was about to be taken away was enough for us not to feel any.
We pulled out our red straws and snorted our lines in one fell swoop. After that, we talked for a few minutes about our breaks, then retired to our rooms knowing we were about to start the athlete’s training-school-practice routine all over again in the morning.
“On the line,” Coach Pun shouted out. It was exactly 6:00am, not a hint of sun shown over the Organ Mountains. I dug my fingers into the cold, hard dirt. A whistle blew and we were off. The cold wind blew against my face as I ran the length of the field. I struggled to find a solid breath of air in the high altitude and my nose began to run. When I made it to the other end zone I hocked up a loogie. It looked like a tiny white snowball against the green-tinted dirt. I stomped it out with my foot and stepped back up to the line. When I made it to the other end zone, I did it again. Back and forth I went, each time stopping long enough to catch my breath and clear the remnants of Oxy from my sinuses.
I walked out of the locker room at 7:15am. The sun was out and I could tell it was going to be another beautiful desert day. When I got to my car I reached into the center console and pulled out my prescription of Adderall. I was supposed to take 30 milligrams twice a day. I started that day off with 90.
The campus was lively that morning, the way it gets right before finals. I planned to go to class, but found myself sitting in the Corbett Center deeply entranced by the Eckhart Tolle book, The Power of Now. So much of what he was saying felt like it was being directed at me. He talked about the “pain body” and how all the accumulated pain we carry around causes us suffering and I could see that I was completely identified with mine. I found it nearly impossible to stay present because I was constantly obsessing over the past and future.
I looked up at the clock. My next class started in five minutes. I pulled out a couple more Adderall from my pocket, chewed them up, and continued reading the book.
Five hours later I made my way home. When I got there I asked BA if he had any more OCs. He was out and our main dealer wasn’t answering his calls. We both hit the phones trying to find something to quell our cravings. We thought of all the guys on the team who were hurt. At the very least they’d have Percocet and that would hold us over for a day or two. No one had anything, but we did find out a couple of our teammates were having people over at their new house.
BA and I hopped into his gold Expedition and drove over. I didn’t feel too hot but figured someone there would have something.
There were only a handful of people at the house when we arrived. They were drinking beer and socializing. I envied them. I tried my best to fit in but felt as out of place as Jack when he meets Rose’s family in BA’s favorite movie, Titanic. I didn’t belong here and I’d lost my means of being able to pretend like I did.
I found my buddy Matt who had just moved into the house and asked if he had any leftover painkillers from his recent surgery. I didn’t have time for formalities. To my overwhelming relief, he said he had an entire bottle somewhere in the garage.
There was a set of three lockers outside. Each one was jam packed with random stuff. He looked around for a couple minutes.
“They’re out here somewhere,” he said.
“Go back inside, man. I’ll look for ‘em.”
“Yeah,” I said. And I was. Truth be told I was craving so bad I’d started to shake and get cold sweats and I wasn’t sure how long I could interact with another human being without them noticing.
After Matt went back inside I started my search. I looked everywhere. I must have cleaned out each locker three or four times. Then I inspected the rest of the garage. I cased the washer and dryer, looking above, underneath, inside, and behind them. I went through all the cabinets and checked every inch of his car. I even examined the water heater closet to see if the bottle had been hidden in there. When I was done, I did it all again, just in case.
As I was looking through the lockers for a fifth time, I got a text from BA.
Where you at?
I started to reply but stopped when I saw the time on my phone. It was 1:00am. I’d been out there in the garage for three straight hours. I felt like the kid in those tapes from Christmas searching for a wrapper to chew on.
I told BA I’d already gone home, then snuck out the side door of the garage and walked back to our place. That one and a half mile walk was the first time I’d ever seriously thought about getting sober while I was sober.
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep that night when I got home, so instead I decided to plan my strategy. I found a message board for people who’d been addicted to opiates and wrote down all the things they said that I thought would help me when I wanted to use.
The first five days are the hardest.
After two weeks you’ll start to feel normal again.
I’ve been clean and year and life keeps getting better.
Best decision I ever made.
I tacked those quotes up around my room to remind myself that things would get better.
Lastly, I wrote down the words “Palm Tree Rose” on a strip of paper and taped it to the base of my computer monitor. It reminded me of the time I was walking the boardwalk in San Francisco when I was fifteen and happened upon a homeless man making roses out of palm tree leaves. Always inquisitive, I stopped to talk to him. He told me his goal wasn’t to make money but rather make people happy. A big part of me thought he was full of shit, but then a couple passed by with their six-year-old son. The boy looked up at the man and the man handed him the rose. Naturally the parents were a little nervous. The mother reached out for her son’s hand while the father dug into his pockets searching for change.
“It’s free,” my new friend said as he waved him off.
The kid smiled at the man and the family walked away.
“See,” the man said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
I did see. We all want to be happy and feel like our life has a purpose. We need to know it’s important that we’re alive because so often it feels like the opposite.
I’d had the good fortune of being born into a loving family and was currently on a full ride scholarship for a sport I loved at a university where I’d made friends with some of the most amazing people, and I was absolutely miserable. I wanted desperately to be as content as the man I’d met at fifteen who spent his days making palm tree roses.
I didn’t sleep at all that night.
In the morning I drove over to campus. I figured the distraction of being around people might help. It didn’t. After about 30 minutes walking around campus I felt exhausted. I realized I should probably eat something, so I drove over to Quizno’s and ordered a large honey mustard chicken sandwich – the same one I’d been ordering for the past two years – and drove back to my apartment. I wasn’t hungry but I felt so fatigued that I forced myself to eat it.
Five minutes later I was huddled around the toilet throwing up everything I’d just consumed. After my stomach was empty I spent another few minutes dry heaving before I regained control. I sat there freezing cold and sweating profusely for over an hour before I got up the energy to reach over and draw a scalding hot bath. My whole body felt like it had been smashed by a Mack Truck and I remembered reading on a message board that this would help.
I sat in that bath, draining and refilling it again and again, until all the hot water had run out. When I pulled myself from the tub I was more raisin than human. I threw on some sweats and opened my bedroom door.
There at the kitchen table crushing up an OC was BA. He turned around when he heard me enter the room and asked if I wanted some.
You can quit tomorrow. Or maybe you should quit by tapering off of it. You just proved you could go a whole day without it. Do it. Do it. Do it.
I took a deep breath.
I thought about my mom, about Elizabeth, and about all my friends. I thought about my dad and the contract I signed. I thought about the person I was and the one I wanted to be.
“I’m good, man. I’m giving that shit up.”
BA nodded. He’d heard me say it before. He had no idea this time it was for real.
The next five days were an absolute nightmare. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, could barely drag myself from my bedroom to the bathtub.
All of that was a cakewalk compared to the thoughts that raced through my mind. I couldn’t shake thoughts of relapsing and how I’d never be happy again and how I should just kill myself and get all this suffering over with.
Whenever it became too much to bear, I’d go back to the message board and read about all these people who’d experienced what I was going through, people who never thought they’d be happy again until they were.
I put my faith in them.
December 1, 2006 is the day I quit masking my pain with painkillers. Two months after quitting I returned to spring practice with the rest of my teammates and began the long process of getting back in shape for my senior season. Five months later I came home for the summer to spend time with my family. Nine months in I suited up for the first time in over a year. A year later I started dating Elizabeth.
To say my life has been free of struggle since then would be a bold-faced lie. I’ve had, and continue to have, my share of pain, and every time it hits I think about how nice it would be to take it all away with a little pill. I’m an addict always will be, and everyday I struggle with the compulsions that come with that. But I’m done chewing on wrappers.