What led you to get sober?
The Drug Enforcement Administration, basically.
I’d been drinking and drugging for about 30 years. The last two years, I was using crystal meth heavily. I had a $500 a day habit, and to keep that going I had to sell a lot of drugs. Eventually the DEA put me behind bars, and then they sent me to drug treatment.
It was definitely a rock bottom. But it turned out to be a rock bottom that really saved my life, because I’m not sure I could have stopped without that.
Had there been times you’d thought about stopping?
Yeah, there had been a number of times. In fact, about a year before that happened, I went to an outpatient psych center for a depression evaluation. Every time I came down from crystal meth—which was more and more rare as time went on—I would go into these crashing depressions. I thought, “If I didn’t have these depressions, maybe I wouldn’t use.”
I did a three-hour intake with this outpatient psych place, and at the end they said, “We believe you’re having depression. We could probably help you with that, but we can’t do anything until you stop using drugs.” I walked out just kind of angry: “If you would just treat my depression, I wouldn’t have to use all these drugs.”
A year later, I owed several suppliers for drugs and really wanted to get out of the business, so I sold my last chunk of stuff. I had an appointment with my HIV doctor the next day; my plan was to get back on HIV drugs and see if he could help me get treatment. But as I was selling the last bit, a friend who was also one of my suppliers showed up with a bag full of drugs. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to quit tomorrow, might as well have a good time today.”
We had just started getting high when the police broke in and arrested both of us. Chances are pretty good I would have just kept getting high and canceled the doctor’s appointment the next day, so the DEA stepped in at just the right moment. I’ve been sober for 16 years now.
What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in yourself since?
I feel like I’ve been through a real transformation. I’m better able to deal with life. Since I got sober, I’ve had my psychiatric issues addressed. I’ve been on antidepressants all these years; it has really helped keep me stable while I’ve worked through the underlying psychological stuff that drives depression.
Things that would upset me massively in the past and would certainly drive me to drink or use drugs—I don’t have that impulse anymore. I’m able to live happily and free of drugs. I feel more confident and secure in myself.
I’m very engaged in 12-step programs and helping people get sober through them. I had been a little unsure about 12-step recovery initially, because there’s a lot of God talk in that. Shortly after I started recovery, I converted to Buddhism. I had a sponsor in 12-step programs who had a broad enough understanding of spirituality that he could support that move on my part. He said, “Maybe that’s where your higher power is.”
So I started studying and practicing with a lot of energy and commitment. I found that practicing Buddhism filled the spiritual emptiness I had—that I didn’t even know I had.
So 12-step and spiritual practices are part of your recovery. Can you go further into that, or talk about other things you do for your program?
In the beginning, I was very enthusiastic with my Buddhism practice. For two and a half years, I lived in a Buddhist study center. We lived Buddhism 24 hours a day. It was a safe place for me to go when I was newly sober. I learned a lot and took lots of classes. Since then, my Buddhist practice has evolved. I’ve tried lots of different traditions and practices.
I practice the 12 steps in a number of programs, which has been key to keeping myself sober. At this point, I go to a couple of meetings per week that are sort of 12-step-based, but more meditation.
It helps. My practice had gotten a little shabby there for a while, especially during quarantine. I was glad I could find meetings and support on Zoom.
Yeah, I was going to ask whether the pandemic impacted your recovery.
Definitely. In the beginning, I was just terrified. Not so much about my addiction as about the virus, because I’m HIV positive. I felt extremely vulnerable. That terror I guess could have led me to using, but I was afraid enough that I wouldn’t go out seeking lower companions, as they say.
Zoom meetings have helped a lot. The 12-step programs reacted quickly, within days of quarantine. One of the advantages of using Zoom is if I’m up in the middle of the night and need a meeting, there’s one somewhere in the world I can go to. My regularly scheduled meetings also moved to Zoom; it’s meant I’ve been able to hear voices I wouldn’t have otherwise, because people who aren’t able to travel to meetings can join.
A big frustration has been having no human-to-human contact. Lots of people I talk to in recovery say the same thing. It’s very helpful to have these Zoom meetings, but it’s kind of disembodying. In-person meetings are starting to come back, but man, it was a rough winter. We were all suffering from a lot of loneliness, and loneliness is hard for someone who’s trying to stay away from drugs.
Zoom is good up to a point, but I miss my friends. That’s what recovery has really been about for me: I have made all these wonderful friends. We care about each other, look out for each other, and help each other.
Yeah, that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed too. I don’t do a 12-step program, but my friends and family have been a huge part of my recovery. We did Zoom when it got cold, but it’s not the same.
I did wonder—when you were talking about 12-step meetings and some of the benefits and increased access of having the video calls—if some of them will continue with online meetings.
I’m hearing a lot of groups talk about either starting Zoom-only or doing hybrid meetings, because there are real advantages to online meetings. I don’t think they’re going to go away; I just think they’re going to supplement the in-person meetings.
Those are my questions. Is there anything you want to add?
I think the message I can bring that maybe not everyone can is that even after 30 years, I was able to get sober. I drank and used drugs from age 12 until 42. At 42 I had a terrible crash and burn. I expected I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison or die. In fact that’s not what happened. I found treatment first, and then I found supportive recovery outside of treatment.
Sometimes people think, “I’ve been using so long; there’s no way I could get sober.” Recovery is possible for everyone. It’s possible to live a life free of drugs and alcohol however you find it, whether it’s in 12-step or other modalities. It’s never too late to build a happy life for yourself.