I spent 11 years addicted to methamphetamine and have now been clean for nine. Today, I am a self-defense instructor, a budding entrepreneur, a volunteer first responder, a friend and family member. Yet at my core I consider myself a garden-variety recovered drug addict.
So to the fellow addict: You may get as much from learning my story as I would get from learning yours. Maybe less, probably not more. But, to those of you who know and love an addict, hopeless though he or she may appear: This article is for you. Perhaps it may help you understand matters a little better. If I am no longer alone, it means you are not alone, either.
1) Meth was not my problem. It was my attempt at a solution to my problems.
My problem was me; I was my problem.
I never got high on meth in order to become a high-on-meth version of myself. I got high on meth because I wanted to morph into a completely different person.
This desire to be someone different started young. As a kid, I’d bring home stacks of books from the library … any fantasy world was worth escaping toward. I was too uncoordinated to compete in sports, too sensitive not to start bawling when the teachers yelled. Where I went to school: reading, crying, and being uncoordinated? Not exactly a campaign platform upon which one might run for class president. I was afraid to stand up to the schoolyard bullies. What few attempts there were to start conversations with girls in study hall ended about as well as you might imagine.
I grew up learning not to like myself very much. Throughout most of my adult life, I had compulsions. Compulsive smoking, compulsive eating, compulsive drug-taking. As if by doing enough of something, the doer — me — would become someone new. Drugs were the compulsion that seemed to present a path to getting there quickest.
There were plenty of drugs available to a college student in San Francisco. One clear blue morning, a friend stopped by with a baggie of crystalline shards. He cut up tiny lines; I snorted one, and pain exploded in my head. As the pain subsided, the psychic gears began to shift. The high was the kind that brought with it feelings that not only was self-expression possible, it was also acceptable — that little line I snorted turned me into someone worthwhile. Other drugs might have gotten me high, but here was a medicament that made me feel like a whole new person.
2) The traditional markers of a good life (money, job, status, relationships) failed to solve my problems. Therefore, it was not so difficult to let go of those things in favor of meth.
For the next 20-odd years, drugs were not the only priority, but they were always number one. I took the college classes that were the easiest path to a degree, held down jobs that weren’t so challenging they couldn’t be performed at an acceptable level while high or hung over, found as a soul mate a woman who loved to get wasted with me. I got a home, a car, and a motorcycle. Money came easy, mostly due to my privileged socioeconomic status.
Then meth became the drug of choice. The first thing to go away was the intimacy with a soul mate; romantic relationships become superficial and centered on shared base desires. I started using meth every weekend. Then I started using it weekdays after work. Then I used it before work, then during work, then instead of work. There were two groups of people in my life: those from whom I’d conceal my use, and those from whom I’d conceal how much I was using.
After about six years of regular and increasing meth use, my life was a seesaw: on one side, the home, relationships and the rest. On the other side, the meth and its promise to make me a new person. Meth outweighed it all. It launched everything else off that seesaw and far into the distance. It wasn’t the meth’s fault. I was always deeply unsatisfied with money, relationships, and status; meth might, in fact, have saved me from finding a more permanent solution to the problem of being me.
When 2004 began, I found myself without a job, romantic relationship, or associations with anyone outside my circle of meth-using friends. I’d sold my home and begun to spend vast amounts of time and money on electronics that I tore apart looking for hidden cameras and microphones, guitars that I smashed to bits, driven to fits of rage and loneliness by the disembodied voices that had become my sole and constant companions. I went to strip clubs where it was clear the entertainers were only acting like friends because I paid them. Which was okay. They were always such good actors.
I became a full-time denizen of the world of methamphetamine psychosis. Mornings meant coming to with the cold steel barrel of a shotgun resting on my chest — it was how I’d passed out the night before, waiting to blast away at the gangsters who were coming to kick down the door and kidnap and torture me to death.
The disembodied voices of family and former friends pled for rescue … they’d been taken hostage by futuristic criminals with the technology to put voices in my head. The criminals were going to kill the people I once loved and set me up to take the blame. Or I’d become caught up in an operation conducted by the CIA, because folks I’d known and trusted were actually spies and I had been recruited as an agent to expose their treason and send them to prison, to the electric chair.
3) While my life as an addict was rife with horror and fear, it also had moments of sublime beauty
One disembodied voice wove its way through the years of psychosis. She called herself my Promised One. The Promised One sang out late at night. I’d gallantly push aside the danger posed by the unseen enemies and take a cab through the shimmering city, gliding on a nighttime highway, headed toward the luminescent downtown and guided only by the sound of her voice and a belief that there was love, hope, and a finer life at that voice’s source.
Sometimes I believed the hallucinations were the work of a race of space aliens that had selected me as an ambassador and were toughening me up for the journey to come. These beings wouldn’t have been aliens on whatever planet they were from. They had traveled a vast distance to find and take me away to somewhere better, and theirs was a world into which even someone like me might someday fit.
Thanks to the hallucinations and delusions, the kid who never stood up to bullies or gathered the courage to talk to girls now battled powerful enemies and risked everything to be with his Promised One. I’d become a hero in the world of the psychosis.
4) The unacceptable — jails, psych wards, homeless shelters — became normal
In his book Permanent Midnight, Jerry Stahl writes about his heroin addiction: With drugs, the unthinkable becomes routine, and the routine is something you never have to think about, because of the drugs.
One fine July morning, I broke into a relative’s home, stole a valuable heirloom, and sold it at a pawnshop. Now there was enough money for about a day’s worth of meth. The next afternoon, I went to the same relative’s home to try the same thing. When the police came, I demanded to speak to an FBI agent because I had been secretly recruited via subliminal messaging to act as a clandestine agent at the heart of a sweeping anti-espionage operation. I spent the next 24 hours in a safety cell, naked, surrounded by padded walls and with a straitjacket for a blanket. From there came transfer to a psych ward and eventually to county jail.
In a four-year period, I had at least 16 face-to-face interactions with law enforcement. We’re not talking traffic tickets here. Sometimes others called the authorities on me. Sometimes I went to the police, the FBI, and, once, the Secret Service, told them who I was, and presented them with “evidence” that someone was “after me,” asking for their help. The police came to my home five times. I was put in handcuffs four times and arrested three. These types of experiences were as routine as business trips. Something one had to engage in, if not enjoy; a necessary evil within one’s chosen profession.
5) Quitting meth meant facing up to my false belief that by quitting meth, my problems would go away
In early 2006, feeling the pressure, I decided to take a stab at getting clean for a little while. I entered rehab and got hired by Stanford University to work as a research professional in the brand new, state-of-the-art cancer center. I left rehab, rented an apartment just off the Stanford campus. One Saturday, two months later, I caught the train up to San Francisco and knocked on the door of the motel room where my old meth dealer was staying. We went to the strip clubs and partied all night. Four months later, a regular meth head once again, I was staying in a homeless shelter.
The homeless shelter had an outdoor smoking area. One enterprising young man sold cigarettes for a quarter each. I jingled the 50 cents in my pocket. Later, as I was smoking, the thought came: I had just spent one-half of my entire net worth on a single cigarette.
Another thought came: “It’s time for things to be okay again. Now all I need to do is stop doing meth.” Deep down was the knowledge that it wasn’t true, that quitting meth would, for a time, actually make things worse. There would be nothing left to tamp down those feelings, no more seeming path to becoming a new person.
I spent the next year bouncing back and forth between rehabs, soup kitchens, attempts to reconcile with family, and long stretches sunk deep in methamphetamine psychosis.
With the decision to put away the pipe for good came feelings of transparency, nakedness. As if my thoughts, feelings, and history were right there for anyone to see. The one way for me to try and come to terms with it was embracing spirituality. To paraphrase George Harrison: Everything can wait except the search for spiritual meaning.
Although I’ve been exploring spirituality for nine years, I remain very much a beginner. My goal is to not stop improving at making compassion, gratitude, and respect for others the key driving forces in my life. The best way I’ve come up with to describe my journey involves asking the listener to imagine a mountain and not worry too much about what name to give its summit, whether that name is heaven, spiritual awakening, or something else. Many paths lead to the mountaintop. Some paths are gentle and sunlit, and traveled by many. Some are narrow, solitary, and obscure. The various routes intersect and diverge. But they all lead to the same place.
This is the patchwork spirituality I have practiced and continue to practice. Alone and with others, struggling and moving with ease, confident and unsure. I am Jewish by birth, Christian by baptism. My daily meditation practice borders on Buddhism. Who knows, maybe there’s some aspects of Hinduism mixed in by way of my having adopted, in a fashion halting yet improving through the years, what I understand from reading the Bhagavad-Gita: one-pointed devotion to the concept of a guiding force. I hope to someday discover where a connection to Muslim faith might fit in.
It may seem that I’m confused; indeed, this is so, and hopefully it will stay that way. When it comes to spiritual matters, when the day comes that I’m no longer confused — when I’m sure that there’s only one right way to get to that mountaintop — that will be the day I know I’m wrong. That I’ve stopped allowing the universe to be my guide. For now I’ll continue exploring different paths, free from being bound by any belief there’s just one right way to get where I’m going. If there is such a thing as God, I’m confident she’s of the nature so as to be shepherding me along those routes that are right.
6) Friends and family, though well-meaning, could no more help me with my addiction than they could help with a heart condition by attempting to perform cardiac surgery upon me
Spirituality worked for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right solution for all addicts. What I do know is that the loved ones and friends who offered their help couldn’t have known what they were up against. In the old days, one was not considered foolish for believing Earth to be flat and at the center of a swirling solar system. It stood to sound reasoning that were I to give up meth, the matter would be resolved. The family and friends weren’t wrong to believe that. Even I believed it, at least on the surface.
That day in the homeless shelter, I finally admitted that I needed help. But family and friends — who should have been obvious places to which to turn — were, through no real fault of their own, not viable sources.
If you treated me in a way I felt was unfair, I resented you. But if you treated me well, that resentment was even greater … because I knew the real me and assumed that, somehow, you did, too. Why would you want to assist a person like me? In my meth-addicted mind, the answer had to be that you were pretending to care about me, and in that case must be out to get me.
The only help I was able to receive came from people who themselves were once like me. My addiction was in part a symptom of loneliness and isolation, before my pursuit of spirituality led to the realization that I’m never truly alone. My fellow addicts were the first (and, sometimes still the only) general group of humans with whom I felt able to form a connection. Maybe I’m like the clichéd ex-soldier from the movies, who can’t seem to make sense of life outside the war zone without those spoken and unspoken bonds with battle mates. The biggest part of me, the piece that is who I really am, is firmly rooted in my ability (or lack thereof) to translate those truths revealed by addiction — which always seemed like weaknesses — into sources of strength.
Perhaps it’s the case with someone you love. For what it may be worth: Try to accept that for many of us addicts, the best help — the only real help — can’t come directly from you. This can be a formidable task, this acceptance. The good news is the rest is relatively straightforward. Find someone who has been there. We’re here for you and the person you care about. We’re willing to assist where we can. After all, we’ve finally changed from being the people we once were.
Ed Kressy is the CEO and founder of Access Self-Defense Inc. He is building his company as a program participant with Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that delivers entrepreneurship training to currently and formerly incarcerated men and women. Kressy writes fiction and nonfiction in his spare time. He lives and works in San Francisco.