Walking home from work one recent evening, I felt great. It was an unseasonably warm Friday in New York City. I had worked hard all week and finished a giant project. As I bopped along in my high black boots, listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and singing to myself, there was food in my refrigerator, money in my bank account, a husband waiting for me at home and nothing in front of me but a beautiful fall weekend.
Then the smell of pot smoke hit me from somewhere. I stopped dead in my tracks. Pot! Who’s smoking pot? Where’s the pot? Maybe that alley off to the left? Maybe those guys who just passed me? Can I smoke pot? These thoughts flew through my head in exactly as little time as it took me to identify the scent. It was reflexive and instantaneous, as if I hadn’t been clean and sober for 10 years. I wanted to smoke that pot—an unexpected reaction considering I never even liked pot when I was using. It was booze and coke that had landed me in detox.
When I snapped back to reality, I was still standing on the street craning my neck trying to see where the smell was coming from. Cabs were flying by, kids were playing basketball on a court across the street and dance music was blaring from an open car window. Keep walking, I told myself. Just keep walking.
A few blocks later I realized: it had happened again. The impulse to use always seemed to strike me when things were at their best.
Why does it happen this way? When things are tough, I understand that if I have 10 problems and I drink, I will have 11 problems. And the 11th one will lead me back to the floor of my apartment, crawling around in search of a bag of coke.
In some of the hardest times, I’ve also found that being of service—helping someone else—can stave off the urge to drink or drug. Last year, through my father’s brief illness and death, I didn’t want to pick up a drink. I just wanted to hold his hand as a nurse gave him morphine or go get a cup of coffee for my mother as we sat with him. I felt grateful to be sober and present for them.
Continuing home on the night of the pot smoke, I thought there had to be an explanation. It made no sense to consider trashing sobriety exactly when I had the most to lose.
Did I miss the drama that dominated my life when I was using? Did I feel like I needed to shake things up by doing something as self-destructive as smoking pot on the street with a stranger?
Before I got sober, drama was my constant companion. I might not have had any use for authentic feelings or meaningful relationships, but there was always room for drama. Whether it was waking up to find an orange traffic cone in the middle of my living room for no reason I could remember, or the daily routine of thinking I needed to avoid cops on the street so that their drug-sniffing German shepherds wouldn’t attack me when they picked up the scent of coke in my pocket, nothing was simple. Being an active addict may have been a painful miserable way of life that would have killed me eventually, but it certainly wasn’t boring.
Or, on nights like that Friday, did I think I should receive a prize because it was the end of a long week and I had managed to show up showered and dressed for five days?
Yes. That was true. I did. And I wanted that prize in the form of something that I knew would wreck my life. Despite understanding that, for me, having “just one” or drinking “safely” isn’t an option, I believed that I should be able to have a drink and relax on Friday night just like I saw others doing. I would glare at people enjoying a margarita at a sidewalk café as if they had just kicked a puppy. Unlike when I had held my dad’s hand in the hospital, at the end of a week at work, it was all about me.
Or maybe I wanted to sabotage myself because I didn’t believe that I was worthy of a happy life. Instead of waiting for the inevitable disappointment to come to me, I would take matters into my own hands and smash everything I had worked for onto that sidewalk, smoking pot with a stranger.
As life has gotten immeasurably better, it can at times seem too good to be true. Stability and peace, like clean clothes and paid bills, can feel uncomfortable to someone unaccustomed to self-esteem and an orderly routine. There are still the occasional days when I fully expect, sober or not, that everything good will disappear and I will die, homeless and alone, on the subway stairs.
Like the answer to most questions in recovery, the simplest one has proven to be the best one for me. The bottom line is that I am an alcoholic and a drug addict and my default setting is to use. It is wired in my brain. It is why I sometimes get tired of “keeping up the good work.”
My disease is never going to stop trying to make me self-destruct. I can work through all of the issues related to needing drama in my life, believing I deserve rewards and thinking that I don’t deserve a happy life. And there will be still be times when the smell of someone smoking pot or the sight of someone drinking a cocktail will trigger me. I am not going to outsmart this disease. The best I can do is to understand how to handle it when it happens.
For me, the best defense is a good offense. If I keep showing up at 12-step meetings and stay connected with other addicts and alcoholics, I am in a better mental and spiritual place to handle the occasional urge to use. I can stay grateful for what I have and talk to others about how I feel. I can remember that, just for today, just for this hour or just for these five minutes, I don’t have to pick up.
So far, every time my addict brain has told me to use, I’ve been able to work through it in that moment, until that moment has passed. And it has passed every time. Like on that Friday night, I just need to tell myself to keep walking.