I consumed everything compulsively, from vodka to juicy fruit. Here’s what I know about drug addiction.
“Where the hell are you?” I screamed knocking on his door at 3am. I couldn’t believe he was screwing my mind after he just told me to travel an hour to see him so late. What game was my guy playing?
No, it wasn’t a lover fucking me. He was my pot dealer. I was waiting for him in the freezing cold, wearing a flimsy blazer with $100 in my pocket, all alone in a strange neighborhood in Queens that suddenly seemed dangerous.
I had rushed there to buy a small bag of strong, bright green Hawaiian weed and was kind of surprised that someone who was often stoned and sold drugs for a living would be so unreliable .
Eventually he let me into his vestibule and we quickly exchanged my money for his stash. Then, scared of taking the subway so late (years before Uber), I had to find another cab to get back to my studio in Greenwich Village and get my fix.
I was a nice Jewish girl finishing her master’s degree who had just landed a coveted (albeit low-paying) position as an editorial assistant at a major magazine. Why was I risking my safety for this excursion in the middle of the night? I hadn’t seen a choice, as I had unexpectedly exhausted my daily dose and hadn’t found anyone closer who had any to share, lend, or sell to me.
I used to buy bags of dimes in Washington Square Park a few blocks away – until someone sold me some oregano and I realized there was no no Better Business Bureau to take my complaints. I wanted to get high so much that my brain flew out the window of the taxi that I couldn’t afford.
Addiction is the desire on steroids. Not only do you want something, but you’ll do anything to get it, wanting it so badly you’ll feel like you’re dying without it. In my case, that involved repeatedly sweating, shaking, crying, and withdrawing whenever I couldn’t find him. And yes, you can become physically dependent on marijuana.
I fit the textbook definition of an addict, someone who has a compulsive physiological craving for a habit-forming substance – many different substances, in fact.
In a psychology class, I read about Stanford University’s so-called marshmallow test, which showed that children who can delay gratification do better later in life. I laughed because I literally ate a bag of marshmallows myself as a kid, and picked out all the lucky charms as soon as the cereal appeared in our pantry.
By age 13 in suburban Michigan, I had become addicted to nicotine like my difficult doctor father because it was a way for me to suppress my appetite. My first boyfriend introduced me to Bob Dylan, drugs (as he was called then) and cocaine, before sleeping with two of my roommates while taking magic mushrooms.
“To want is to have a weakness”, wrote Margaret Atwood inThe Handmaid’s Tale.” I’ve had a variety of weaknesses over the years. Mixed with compulsive cigarette and pot smoking, 12 cans of Tab a day, and forays into diet pills, champagne, rum (mixed with diet soda), vodka, Juicy Fruit gum, popcorn and cupcake frosting.
At 29, I met a nice, older, curly-haired screenwriter who was only addicted to me. I said to the boss who arranged us, “He’s smart and nice, but he’s not my type. She said: “Your type is neurotic, self-destructive and not into you. Date him again.
We got married when I was 35. Right after we said “yes” to each other, he told me that he hated the smell of smoke in our house and that I needed to quit smoking and partying. I threatened to leave him. The only problem was that we had just had a big wedding party with all of our friends, co-workers and relatives, then drained our savings and borrowed more to buy an apartment. Besides, I loved him.
Luckily, he found me a brilliant new shrink, a tough-talking father figure who was an addiction specialist. It was weeks after 9/11, when we were both still in shock and mourning in midtown Manhattan. I had just turned 40.
“I read the obituaries of people my age who have been killed. I can’t help thinking that if I died tomorrow, I would never have achieved what I really wanted in life,” I selfishly confessed.
“What do you want the most?” He asked.
“I want to publish my book.”
I admitted to feeling like a loser since the story I had spent seven years revising kept getting rejected. I had helped so many students find agents and publishers; I was like the wedding planner who couldn’t get married. I craved a book deal so badly I could taste it. Finding that my desire to be healthier was not motivating enough, he told me that my memoirs would only sell if I quit smoking, smoking, and drinking. (Never mind that many perpetrators were known as lushes, smokers, smokers, sniffers, and even heroin shooters.)
For the all-out assault on my bad habits, I avoided bars, parties, smokers, drinkers, and drug addicts—essentially my entire social circle of writers and artists. I did weekly chat sessions with him, supplemented by emergency phone calls and emails to which he responded, often five times a day. I was nervous, nervous, anxious, angry, lonely and lost for months. I cried for nothing. He admitted that I had the worst withdrawal he had ever seen and that I was his most trying patient.
“Put everyone you know into two categories,” he said. “If they’re part of the problem, avoid them. If they are part of the solution, see them more. He wrote little sayings and guidelines on the back of the business cards he handed me, like “Underlying every substance abuse problem I’ve ever seen is a deep depression that seems unbearable to me.”
“Make your husband hold you for an hour every night without talking” was a mantra I shared with my mate, who obeyed. I figured if we couldn’t talk, we couldn’t argue. (Also, his arms were soothing.) I became dependent on his touch to stay calm.
When I mentioned chewing gum or vegetables all day, my shrink got worried. “Your personality is so addictive that you could get addicted to carrot sticks,” he told me. “Diet and the practice of portion control. Don’t overeat or you’ll just mix things up.
“What can I have?” Water? Tea?” I asked, exhausted from all the abandonment.
“You can keep your mouth shut and put nothing in there for hours,” he told me — a choice that until then had never occurred to me.
Continually warning me that you could get addicted to anything, he mentioned other patients who had fallen into the burrows of gambling, charity work, religious events, shopping, adventure sports, cheating and danger.
“Beware of any excitement because it takes you out of yourself and you always have to come back to yourself,” he said. For me, that meant going back to 13, before finding the two-pack-a-day instant gratification band-aids of More Menthol Lights to fill fear and emptiness.
I was so deprived of substance that a girlfriend emailed me, “Hey, let’s go and drink some water.
Surprisingly, the treatment was a resounding success. After nine months – a poetic period – I sold my memoir about a handful of self-destructive relationships I had left, titled “Five men who broke my heart. Then I sold a sequel on five self-destructive substances I quit called “Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, While drinking and All Other I Like Inot Life Except Sexchronicling our addiction therapy.
A neuroscientist whose book I read argued that since people learn to be addicted, they can learn not to be. Yet, based on my own experience, I doubted that an addict could become a non-addict. Instead, you simply switch addictions by refocusing your powerful energy elsewhere. (That’s why members of Alcoholics Anonymous often drink coffee or donuts and smoke cigarettes outside of their meetings.)
Publishing books replaced other dependencies. Hearing an editor say yes was exhilarating; I felt like I had found God or at least a higher power in nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, gum or soda – substances that I had not touched in 20 years and that I do not wanted more. Sometimes I missed wanting something so much that it drove me crazy.
Last summer, I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary with my screenwriter soulmate. At that time, I was the author or co-author of 17 books. Interestingly, a new study revisited the adults who had taken the 1972 marshmallow experiment and disavowed the original results, showing no difference between those who waited and those who wolfed down the fluffy white treats.
I saw flaws in the premise that delaying gratification was the key to success. As a longtime NNew York Times editor said at a writing class I teach, the writers he saw become the most famous were the ones who were the most obsessed. Someone with passion has gone further than a bright, patient and unmotivated person.
In my 50s, I woke up every day hyperactive as the Energizer Bunny, drinking green tea and rushing to my computer to check what my agent, editors, or reviewers had to say.
“Book deals and the press are your new cocaine,” my shrink warned over email.
Substitutes seem safer and more benign – except for the months when I can’t make a new music video or the years when a book deal isn’t forthcoming. Then I feel like I’m always knocking on doors at all hours, exhausted and frustrated when they don’t open to give me my fix.
In these cases, I go back to teletherapy for emergency tune-ups, a less burdensome dependency that involves limits, limitations, and dependency on another human being. Yet I still pay him to help reshape the waves of my endless hunger to get what I want: the thrill of landing the next prize.
Susan Shapiro is the bestselling author of several books her family hates, including “Lighting Up” and “Unhooked.” An award-winning writing teacher in Manhattan, she now teaches online. You can follow her on Instagram at @profsue123 or on Twitter at @susanshapironet. This essay is adapted from the upcoming Catapult anthology “Wanting: Women Writing About Desire”.
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