Poisons & Cures Not Everything Legal is Clean
My Brief Journey In and Out of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was reading a collection of essays by a writer I admire that prompted me to join Alcoholics Anonymous though I’d been sober for two years and had drank through most of my rock bottoms. Like most life-changing moments, my decision to stop drinking was quiet.
I woke up late one morning after a night of drinking, saw my clothes flung across the back of a chair, and ran a mental check to see what I could remember. Not much. I knew I didn’t hop out of a taxi scared the driver might rape me, didn’t punch anyone, didn’t wind up in a derelict apartment block with a strange man, didn’t puke on a friend, didn’t try to jump off a building, didn’t get arrested. All those moments happened to me while drunk but none of it stopped me from drinking.
The clothes were not what I wore when I’d gone out, which meant I’d come home sometime in the night, changed, and gone out again. Though I knew nothing dangerous had happened, for the first time I was scared. I stopped drinking that morning. Hash helped me get sober. I have been an inconsistent user of hash for nearly twenty-five years. I started smoking as a teenager but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I experienced hash’s ability to simultaneously connect me to a deeper version of myself and disconnect me from my problems.
I was in my childhood bedroom, with the door shut and my mother downstairs making dinner. I was heartsick, pining for an ex-boyfriend, and trying to study for exams, the monotony of the words fueling my discontent. I opened the window, closed the curtains, rolled a joint, panned out on the bed, and got stoned. The calm I felt was divine. I floated above the clouds and spoke to God. The clanking of my aching heart stopped and began to chime in harmony with the heavens. That day, getting stoned switched from something I did for fun to a way to shield myself from emotions too raw to bear.
In my second year of sobriety, my relationship with hash got complicated. Before then, I accepted it as a part of my persona and never questioned it. I was a binge drinker, got blasted two or three times a month. In between I didn’t drink; in between I smoked. For the last decade, I’ve lived in the south of Spain, twelve kilometers from Morocco, which means an easy supply of quality hashish. But sobriety had changed me. I changed so much I no longer knew who I was.
Alcohol had been my culture and a language I understood. I knew how to banter in bars or chat up strangers on the street. Drunk, I could freestyle. Without it, I was mute. Without it, I felt like an outcast. My tribe no longer understood me. I lost all my friends and had no social life. I wasn’t prepared for the loneliness. To compensate I’d joined a gym and become obsessed with nutrition. After a year of working out, I tried boxing for a spell, and started making high-protein banana bread to sell to fellow gym-goers.
I grew to love the gym and wanted to conquer my last vice, as I felt it was holding me back. Past research suggested tokers could lack motivation and that long-term smoking warps the brain’s reward system . I had dreams. I worked hard, but my goals remained dreams and I longed for a bit of cold hard reality. I’d been working on a novel for years and was tired of my meandering efforts. I was sick of mediocrity. I’d grown up and was ready to confront the emotions hash had helped me avoid.
On my own, I was having a hard time quitting the ritual that had become my identity. I tried to do a forty-day fast and lasted eleven days. Tried only smoking on the weekends, but if I had hash, I smoked it. Tried not buying it but then a dealer would show up at my door with quality pollen too good to resist. Temptation was everywhere.
I quit smoking tobacco and for a while that helped me cut down until I discovered I could smoke joints with dried mint leaves. By then, I was smoking a lot less but I felt adrift and lonely, so I did what any self-respecting toker would do: I started dating a Rasta who puffed all day long, a joint permanently hanging from his lower lip. When I went out with him, I felt self-conscious, as if I was wearing my addiction on my sleeve. Temptation was holding my hand, but I wanted to quit.
I needed help. In her book on writing, Bird by Bird , Anne Lamott writes: “Getting all of one’s addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed.” My octopus wasn’t going down without a fight.
How I managed to stay booze-free for two years was what my AA group wanted to know when I went to my first meeting. Ah, they nodded knowingly when I confessed I had a crutch. Substituting one substance for another was a common tactic, they told me. They advised me to not worry about the differences and listen for the similarities when other members shared their stories.
I was instantly moved as I heard the challenges others had faced to achieve sobriety. I’d had firsthand experience of the downward spiral and losing friends, feeling unsupported, spending weekend after weekend alone and knowing how easy it would be to throw it all away just to feel normal, like one of the gang, again. I knew what it felt like to have low self-esteem and an unwavering faith in the worst possible outcome. I related to the burning need to have a few beers or tokes to get me through the day, and maybe even a few lines or pills on a night out.
They spoke a language I could understand, the language of pain, that point where you know you’re no longer in control, but you desperately want to be, that gradual slipping away till you wake up one morning and you know something’s really wrong.
“Addicts think they’re different. Special, even. The addict brain is wired this way to keep the user isolated and addicted,” they said.
When they explained that addicts suffer from anxiety, grandiosity, heightened sensitivity, black-and-white thinking that created untenable expectations, isolation, and insecurity, I felt like they’d known me all my life. They shared my shame. They explained the 12 Steps, urged me to recognize and surrender my moral defects.
“The newcomer is the most important person in the room,” they said.
The love in the room overwhelmed me at that first meeting. I cried when I shared, safe in the knowledge I was talking to people who’d had similar experiences to mine. Afterwards they surrounded me offering support and phone numbers. But when they gave me a coin to mark twenty-four hours of sobriety I was disgruntled. Insulted, even. My two drink-free years counted for nothing in AA. To them, I was a stoner, an addict, and until I quit the hash, I was not “clean and sober”; I was a user.
On the way home, I stopped at a local Burger King, which was overrun with kids exiting the cinema. Normally that kind of crowd would agitate me but this evening I felt calm. I couldn’t stop smiling as I got into my car and headed for home. Thump, thump. On the motorway I hit a dog. I’ve driven this road a thousand times and never before met an animal on it. I hit it head-on and killed it outright.
My own dog sat in the back of my car, a silent witness to my howls. I cried until I found a spot to pull off the motorway; then cried some more. A car pulled in ahead of me, a man got out and approached me. “Are you alright?” he asked. “I killed a dog,” I sobbed. “I know. I saw,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault.” He drove in front of me the whole way back to my town just to make sure I was okay. When I told AAers that story, they said the man was likely a member, as only a member could show such compassion. I felt it was a bit of a reach to suggest only AA members were capable of selfless acts of kindness but I didn’t contradict them.
“The days of summer flipped past like the pages of the books I was inhaling,” writes Wendy C. Ortiz in her memoir Excavation . The only thing I inhaled that summer was Rasta’s secondhand smoke. Thirty-five degrees in the shade. The Levante—a hot, grainy, Saharan wind that sweeps across the sound of Spain from the east—blew hard for twenty-one days. I tried to stick to the AA routine, start my day with prayer and a gratitude list, though prayer didn’t come naturally and my list felt shallow: I’m grateful for my home, my bed, my willingness to change, I wrote but couldn’t connect to the words because my emotions were tied up in my codependent relationship.
The meetings were my refuge. It was refreshing to be amongst people who’d shed their masks and spoke honestly. I watched the hands of another member shake as she vowed to stay sober, this time she meant it, she promised. At another meeting, an ex-chronic alcoholic who’d been living on the streets for eight years thanked AA for saving his life, for helping him become a professor and get his family back. His humility was God-like.
AA was as demanding as an addiction: daily commitments, ninety-minute meetings, confessions to make, shame to reflect on, literature to read, friends to phone, messages to answer. “Are you writing your gratitude list?” “Reading from the Big Book?” “What about Morning Prayers?” “Can you do more meetings?”
Clean and sober. Clean and grateful to the program. I wanted to be one of this new gang who’d welcomed me so openly.
Clean and sober. The words became a mantra, an ideal; utopia; how I wanted to live. I was sober. What did it mean to be clean?
I researched the effects of long-term smoking online: Users wear shades to hide bloodshot eyes; suffer from anxiety and craving; experience heightened senses, spurts of creativity and increased focus; psychological addiction only. Risks include loss of fertility and motivation, lung damage, and delayed emotional growth. The proof that I was emotionally stunted was passing out on my couch every night, a joint hanging from his lower lip. I became one of those annoying women who talks endlessly about dumping her loser boyfriend, though everyone knows she’ll be back with him by the end of the night and secretly hates her whiny tirades. On a Joe Rogan podcast, Steve-O admitted that out of one hundred addicts he’s sponsored over eight years, only two have stayed sober. “It’s the self-loathing that gets most people,” he said.
There was a passage we read at the beginning of meetings, which stated that the people who failed at AA were “unfortunates,” unable to commit to the “path” because they’re “naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.” Every time I read those lines, my anxiety spiked. If I failed, was I an unfortunate, incapable of rigorous honesty? I wasn’t clean and sober. I was an addict. When I shared, I was conscious of the things I didn’t say.
They tapped into my vulnerability. They wanted me to feel the shame. They wanted me to be helpless. This was the language of recovery.
After six weeks of meetings coupled with my yo-yo relationship and feeling like a failure, I was so overwhelmed, I felt like a doctor permanently on call. I got sick (kidney infection) and ended up in a hospital on Valium with a ten-day prescription for antibiotics. Classic wake-up call. When I got home, Rasta and I argued. A few days later I ended the relationship. The following week, I quit hash and got a sponsor. The idea that I’d never smoke hash again terrified me. Who would I become? Would I lose my weed friends, too? Outside of AA, who could I talk to?
The meetings got more challenging. “If you’re enjoying every meeting, you’re not attending enough meetings,” another AAer told me. The meeting closest to me was more than a 100-kilometer drive from my house, meaning I could only go once or twice a week. For convenience, I started doing more online meetings.
“Hi. My name’s Tasha and I’m an alcoholic.” The words of recovery. I wanted to believe them. I upped my participation by doing readings and serving as chairperson. I always shared and made a point of being positive about my progress even when I’d had crap days because I needed the meetings to be uplifting. By now, they were my drug. With no other members in my town and AA’s anonymity rule making me too self-conscious to talk to nonmembers, I felt isolated, an outcast, a slave to my healthy choices.
When I was feeling weak or tempted, I could call Jill, my sponsor. I tried to call her one Friday evening, my usual time to spark up. I was anxious; my mind fired up like the night sky on New Year’s Eve. Bang! I could just smoke one joint. Whoosh! Try to breathe . Crack! Would one be so bad?
When I couldn’t get hold of Jill, I did what any self-respecting woman does in a moment of crisis: I went shopping. Two hours of trying on clothes and twirling in mirrors, and two pretty dresses in the bag, I was satiated. If I’d bought shoes, I might have OD’d. Is shopping the most addictive drug of all? It’s certainly the most sanctioned, the most legal.
By the time I spoke to Jill I was calm. I didn’t know Jill, and talking to her so intimately felt unnatural. She slipped easily into the mother role and was happy to dish out advice: “Have some tea.” “Eat some chocolate.” “Do some exercise.” There was nothing she told me that I couldn’t tell myself. Her glib advice cemented my sense of isolation.
There was no question AA worked for some people, but seeds of doubt had taken root in my mind. I researched the benefits of using cannabis. The list is long. It has been shown to stop cancer cells from spreading, improve lung health, reduce seizures and spasms, alleviate arthritis, boost the metabolism, plug the tremors and anxieties of Parkinson’s and PTSD, stimulate appetite, help people cut back on drinking, and is seen to be a far safer substance than alcohol in terms of long-term physical effects and emotional wellbeing.
When one AA member insisted, “Hash is a gateway drug,” I flinched, but didn’t contradict her. She was trying to convince me that hash was as dangerous as alcohol. I wasn’t buying it. Equating alcohol and cannabis is like comparing Lindsay Lohan to Rose Byrne (if you haven’t seen Two Hands , watch it now!), Oasis to London Grammar or a Doner Kebab to a Dunkin’ Donuts Boston Cream. One is crass and messy; the other soft and measured. As someone who drank and smoked for years, I can tell you that using the two together leads to all sorts of madness: See above references to inappropriate puking and arrested development. But toking occasionally instead of drinking is a different experience. A way to unwind and resurface refreshed.
Any recreational user of drugs will tell you that not all drugs are the same, and use of one drug doesn’t necessarily lead to use of another drug. In the 1950s Bill Wilson tried LSD and claimed that it could help recovering alcoholics, as it did “no damage” and had “some value.” Devout AAers denounced Wilson’s view of LSD as misleading, which caused a rift within the AA community. But lumping all drugs in the same category of “gateway” to addiction is not an accurate reflection of the reality of drug use for millions of recreational users. Plus, some legal drugs are far deadlier in terms of addictiveness and side effects, and everyone can buy legal drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 81 percent of the world’s oxycodone is consumed in the US.
When Jill urged me to go a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, I shook off my reservations and was glad I went. It was one of the most positive meetings I attended, the people the most down-to-earth. They reminded me of my club days; The Ministry of Sound, Ibiza, double-dropping doves, dancing till dawn, nights that started with drinks and ended with lines of powder. But I was never a regular user of any Class A; I’d dabbled and these people were hardcore. The room we sat in had a high ceiling, barred windows, and smelled like a damp, unused church hall.
Some members were energized, “grateful to the program,” while others were withdrawn, unspeaking. It was the quiet ones who bothered me most. To me, they were caged animals and I wanted to release them. I didn’t want to feel bound like them. “You seem like a bunch of people I’d love to get drunk with,” I said when it was my turn to share. It was the wrong thing to say but I’d had sixteen clean and sober days and was giddy with the sense of achievement. I was in bed with my octopus and he had me in a chokehold.
My abstinence lasted eighteen days. I hadn’t seen Rasta in weeks but chose to go camping with him that day. We argued. I escaped the heat of our tent to sit in my car, door open, bare feet on the dash, staring up at a full moon in a starlit sky, smoking a joint. It was four in the morning. It felt wrong, tasted like guilt. I took a photo of the moon to record the moment of my defeat, a moment I never wanted to return to.
The next day I phoned Jill. I confessed my slip-up with unexpected pride: I was following the rules, fessing up in the spirit of honesty AA preaches. “How are you going to handle this relapse?” she asked. The word “relapse” made me cringe, seemed too severe for the circumstances. “Smoking a joint is not the same as shooting up,” I said.
Jill requested that I phone her every morning after prayers and got annoyed when I said that wouldn’t be possible. I write at night and am not a morning person. She was an early riser and unwilling to understand my “morning” was different from hers. “You need discipline in your life,” she said, which irritated me. Any writer knows without discipline there is no craft. “Are you willing to do anything to succeed?” she wanted to know. This question hit me, bullet-like, in the heart.
Who was she to define my success? But it was a question I’d been asking myself for years and was still having trouble answering. I’d sacrificed relationships and security in favor of the writing life. I’d lost friends to get sober. Was it enough? What is sacrifice? What is success? Did I have the discipline? Was I fooling myself?
On a “New Yorker Fiction” podcast, Annie Proulx described how J. F. Powers was a talented writer who won the National Book Award, beating Nabokov and Updike, but never earned any money in his life, and died unknown, his books out of print. His five kids were raised in poverty. That’s the trouble with writing: It’s a gamble. My life is a gamble. I didn’t expect Jill’s sponsorship to tap into my deepest insecurities as a writer. It’s the self-loathing that gets most people . I ended the call with her and spent the next two days baked. AA felt like an angry mommy and I was sick of my Higher Power breathing down my neck.
My thoughts lay around the house like cold, untouched cups of coffee. “Night 9 of insomnia,” I wrote in my diary, “I’m waiting for the ghosts to show up.” My attempts to reconcile my reality with the ideals AA preached had exhausted me. I was tired of the shame and the self-loathing. My octopus was out of bed and dancing on my desk.
I love to write. It’s my reason to get up in the morning. It fills my days, mind, heart, and soul. My favorite thing to do when stoned: Write a poem. AA had taken so much of my time it had disconnected me from my true self, from my writing. Aristotle, Confucius, Voltaire, and Shakespeare all warn of the dangers of striving for perfection, calling it the “enemy.” As long as I had writing, I wanted to be flawed, dirty, and defective. I didn’t need God. Writing was my Higher Power.
At the end of the week, I called Jill again. When she answered her voice was friendly but shrill, made tight by the effort not to be curt with me. We opened the conversation talking about the weather and the festival she was attending later: neutral topics. When I told her I’d attended an online meeting during the week, she asked, her tone terse, “No face to face?” I explained I was unable to drive to a meeting, as my car was busted and would cost a lot to repair. “You could buy a new one for that money,” she said, eager to offer maternal advice. “Don’t care. Love my car,” I said, defensive.
“I’m not sure this program is for me,” I told her.
“Well, you have to be honest with yourself. You have to sleep with your own conscience,” she said, almost accusing.
“I don’t want to put AA down. I’ve met so many wonderful people,” I assured her, which was true, but I couldn’t be completely honest with her. AA was her whole life. Who was I to criticize her values? If it worked for her, I was happy for her.
She suggested I work with an online sponsor, a convenient way of letting me know I was free from her sponsorship. She sounded relieved to be free of me. I was relieved, too.
When I hung up that call, I felt cast adrift again, but this time it was empowering. I was free from guilt, shame, and self-loathing. I posted the photo of the full moon from my bleak night as the header photo on my Twitter account. Whereas before it had represented a moment I didn’t want to return to, now it represented what I would never subject myself to again: judgment.
I was ashamed of my smoking, and as a result, ashamed of me. AA tapped into that vulnerability, played on my insecurities, and, for a while, hooked me like a drug. But I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life ashamed for doing something I love. My octopus was crafty but he kept me on my toes, kept me sane. That moment, twenty-plus years ago, getting stoned in my childhood bedroom, was a moment that defined me. In whatever ways it’s made me stronger or weaker, that’s the package. To deny that is to deny me.
“Through writing it’s possible to re-visit a ghost of your past self,” Chris Kraus writes in I Love Dick . I returned to my writing with fresh perspective, understanding, and acceptance. I had immersed myself in AA’s “path to recovery” in search of my ghosts. It was the wrong path. Their finger-pointing rhetoric could have clouded my vision, but I broke free. Remembered what my past self knew: No moments can be recovered. There is only momentum to follow. Be wary of people who claim to have answers. There is no right or wrong. Not everything illegal is dirty. Not everything legal is clean. There is no life without death.
The ghosts of me live in me, in every breath I take, every word I write, every joint I smoke. I’ve discovered I’m not an alcoholic. I am an addict. I have many flaws. I go to the gym five days a week, am currently focused on my triceps, refuse to accept middle-aged bat wings. My novel is evolving. I dream of a house in the jungle with a private garden full of palm trees, jasmine, honeysuckle, marijuana. I will make oil in the morning, cook sumptuous edibles for lunch, and, in the evening, sit on my porch, watch the stars creep across the night sky, and smoke weed in a thin pipe.