I will be the first to admit that I’ve used and abused drugs and alcohol. In my mid-teens to early twenties, escaping from reality became a pastime for me. To be honest, I’ve been so fucked up—on drugs, partying and in my head—that I hated myself and I hated my life even more. I was on a mission to destroy myself. I seemingly had a death wish. And saying all this leads me to the all important question that riddles me to this day: can you get over an addiction?
Currently there is a movement—in government circles, intellectually, and in the treatment/recovery industry—to de-stigmatize the words associated with addicts. It seems that nowadays, being termed an addict, junkie or crackhead can inhibit a person’s ability to recover and lead to relapse. There are even experts that are challenging the “disease model” of addiction with the one-size-fits-all theories of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. But in the capitalistic world of the 1980s, none of the above was en vogue.
At the age of 13, I was branded a drug addict due to my experimentation and continued recreational use of marijuana. I was young and curious, with a bit of a reckless streak that was more of a longing to fit in. Smoking pot made me feel like I was cool, like I was part of a secret club where only those “in the know” were allowed. In today’s world, my life might have transpired differently. But this was 1984, at the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. The drug war was revving up, and due to my flirtation with marijuana, I was about to embark on a tumultuous journey that ended in the burgeoning criminal justice system of the 1990s.
That stigma of being a drug addict, once attached, stuck to me like glue as I descended into a downward spiral, seemingly hitting “rock bottom” several times. Every new climactic event justified my so-called addiction, through expulsions from high school, a stint in rehab at the age of 15, several suicide attempts, selling drugs, and ultimately being on the run from the law—a fugitive from justice, a counterculture outlaw who lived on the fringe. I was a Jeff Spicoli wannabe living out a movie that I was filming in my head, full of the typical suburban angst and rebel-without-a-cause attitude.
Eventually, I was apprehended and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent offense at the age of 22 for supplying 15 East Coast colleges in five states with marijuana and LSD. Have drugs, will travel was my M.O. Most of the time, back then and even sometimes today, I feel the seams ripping apart and extending me into chaos. The only way to describe it is to say that it’s like being flayed alive, and I’m sure in one lifetime or another, I’ve experienced it. I’m a big believer in karma, and now that I’ve been released and reentered the real world, I believe that karma is finally on my side after being against me for so long. But I still question the so-called root of all my problems.
I’ve continually been told that everything for me started with my drug use, my “addiction.” My parents, counselors, school administrators, authority figures, and medical professionals all told me that I had a disease. That I was different from other people. That once I started partying or taking drugs, I couldn’t stop. There was no social drug or alcohol use for me. If I used mind-altering substances, I was literally playing my own private version of Russian roulette. The cure was to practice complete and utter abstinence, never consuming a drug or drink again. For the rest of my life.
As an aspiring and wannabe rebel—dare I say, outlaw—the complete abstinence theory just didn’t vibe with me. I was a stoner. I liked to trip on LSD. I wanted to expand my consciousness. I smoked weed 24/7, wake and bake and all that. I chose to be a drug dealer. It was my vocation, but I never considered myself a criminal. I didn’t carry a gun or rob or intimidate anyone. I fancied myself an outlaw because I broke a law that I thought was wrong. I thought weed and acid should be legal. And now, looking back, I feel justified in everything I went through. Not because I deserved it, but because I stood up for something I believed in and paid the price for it.
I remember being in rehab at the age of 15 and learning all about Alcohol and Narcotics Anonymous. I had the little blue book and learned the 12 steps and how I was powerless over drugs and alcohol, and had to accept a higher power into my life. I can recite the “Serenity Prayer” to this day and still use it when I have what I call “lifetime struggles,” struggles that every human being has. Because when you’re dealing with expectations in life, frustrations will occur. My only problem back then was that when I got angry or upset, I wanted to get out of my head. I wanted to escape reality because I didn’t like my reality. I wasn’t happy with myself. But these were the symptoms of addiction, I was told.
As my parents, teachers, community and society tried to explain away my unacceptable behavior, drugs always took the blame. “Without drugs, my son would have went to Harvard,” my mom liked to tell people. “He got involved in drugs and this led to his criminality,” my father would say. It got to the point where I even convinced myself that I was an addict, and drugs or alcohol held no place in my life, not if I wanted to make something of myself. Not if I wanted to be a success in life. Addicts were junkie-criminal-scum who’d steal the money out of your purse or wallet when you weren’t looking and then deny taking it, even when they were the only other person there.
I bought into the “disease model” and remained clean and sober for over 12 years. I went through the prison’s drug program to get time off and fully believed everything that I learned about addiction and the disease I had. But upon arrival into the world, I eventually started drinking socially and since I’ve been off probation, I’ve smoked pot too. And surprisingly, I am still free. I have not committed any crimes. I am actually working regularly on my writing, comic and film projects. When I was in prison, I wanted nothing more than to be plugged back into the Matrix, but after almost two years out, I am looking more and more to my younger self. Not to the pain and torment I put myself through, because that was self-inflicted, but to the ideals and belief in what was right and what was wrong.
So now, I don’t believe I’m an addict. I believe that addiction is a behavioral disease that young people are susceptible to, and I think it can strike anyone under the right circumstances. And not circumstances that have anything to do with a “hereditary disease” that is passed down from your parents or grandparents. Not to say that I’m a doctor or anything, but there are a lot of people that were once branded “addicts” who have now outgrown their addiction and drink or smoke weed socially just like everyone else.
I never did the so-called harder drugs like heroin or cocaine or meth, but at the age of 15, after getting busted with hash at school, I was told I had a drug problem and was sent to rehab. This started a cycle of me getting in trouble for marijuana—at school, with the law, and even by my parents. Everything was cause and reaction. But now with marijuana on its way to legality and a lot of experts questioning the rigidness of the “disease model” and the “12-step method,” I am starting to see things differently and other experts have backed up my reassessment.
“If addiction is compulsive behavior despite consequences, consequences by themselves are not going to fix it,” says Maia Szalavitz, former columnist at The Fix and author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. “Once we really understand what is going on with it, then we can make better policy decisions in terms of treatment, prevention and policy in general.” I agree with her wholeheartedly, because what I had to go through just because I decided to smoke pot was a big injustice. Not to say that I want anyone’s pity. I made my bed and I’ll lie in it.
But perspective is a strong thing, and it seems to me that I was brainwashed into thinking I was an addict. I was only a kid doing what kids do. Maybe I took it to the extreme, but all my problems with the law were basically because of marijuana. I was painfully reminded of this a couple of months ago when my mom called me, crying. I had just gotten back from Jamaica and I wrote an article about pot tourism and smoking ganja on the island. My mom was worried to death because she knew every trouble I ever had was because of pot. To her, pot equaled addiction, which meant prison for her son. I’m still doing my best to shake off that stigma. It’s been 32 years and counting.
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