2016-06-30
Adapted from "Recovery Options: The Complete Guide," published by John Wiley, 2000.

I wasn't supposed to become a cocaine and heroin addict. My eighth grade class voted me "Most Likely to Succeed," and in high school I was known as "Mass Media Maia," because of my obsession with producing the school's cable TV news show. I wrote for Seventeen Magazine. My grades and test scores won me admission to Columbia University.

But all that early promise didn't make me happy. My overweening ambition was a geeky attempt to win friends by offering the promise of future favors. I couldn't imagine that anyone would like me for myself.

Being told in drug prevention classes that peer pressure will make you take drugs was as good as telling me that "drugs are cool." A nerd already, I didn't want to be an outcast, so I felt I'd have to give in to peer pressure on at least one substance. Marijuana and psychedelics began to fascinate me. I wanted that ecstatic, spiritual experience which users described. As soon as I could find a source, I began smoking pot.

The prep school kids with their perfect clothes and their trust funds intimidated me.I started selling coke so I could make friends by having something they wanted.

Pot and psychedelics caused me few problems--in fact, I still believe that I learned some valuable spiritual lessons from them. I continued to do well in school and, in fact, my social life improved radically. My drug use didn't cause "symptoms"--it alleviated them. I became more helpful to my parents as I recognized the importance of serving others. I felt more at peace in the world. But only before I tried cocaine.

That was when I was 17. By the time I started college, I was well on my way to becoming a cocaine addict. The prep school kids with their perfect clothes and their trust funds intimidated me. I felt like I always had toilet paper or worse on the bottom of my shoe--like a walking faux pas. I started selling coke so I could make friends by having something they wanted.

And again, it worked at first. Soon I was part of the "in crowd" who could get behind the velvet ropes at the eighties' hottest nightclubs. I had changed from an enlightenment-seeking Deadhead to an escape-desiring capitalist yuppie almost without realizing it.

Soon I got caught dealing by the school--and suspended for a year. I should have been grateful they didn't call the police, but I was too depressed.

It was during my suspension, when my life had no structure and I had no hope, that I tried heroin. A friend described the experience as "warm, buttery love." I agreed.

Junkies' descriptions of heroin read like saints' descriptions of heaven or lovers' descriptions of their beloveds, but the truth is that for most people, it doesn't feel like it did for me. Heroin kills both emotional and physical pain--so if your life is OK, it feels rather nice, but not worth self-sacrifice. My life was not OK. Within six months, I'd moved from snorting to shooting--often 40 times a day. Finally, in the summer of 1988, I hit bottom. I was starting to withdraw from heroin, and there was a cocaine customer visiting who had some. I found myself begging him for it, figuratively if not literally on my knees. When he refused, I found myself thinking of other ways to get it--like seducing him, or stealing.

I'd always thought of addicts as people who do things which violate their principles to get their drugs and then can't enjoy them because of guilt. I knew that that was a vicious cycle, and I hadn't seen myself as being in it. Suddenly, I did.

It was as though a camera pulled back and revealed my life for what it was. I was sitting in a filthy, garbage-strewn apartment with blood on the ceiling, dirty laundry, rotting food and crumpled newspapers everywhere. I was 85 pounds, a ghastly etiolated gray color, with angry red tracks on both my arms and ankles. I looked like someone with a fatal illness. I knew something had to change.

I now see that moment as a moment of grace, and an important turning point on my spiritual path. I called my mother, who got me into a hospital detox program. I stayed for seven days, shaking, vomiting and hardly able to sleep--although they did provide some medical assistance. I then attended a 28-day, 12-step-based rehab.

The 12 Steps taught me about process. By trying to work out what they meant to me, I began to understand my own values and beliefs and how these shaped my world.

Today, I have some problems with the way many treatment centers force 12-step ideology on people because I believe spirituality needs to come from within and that treatment should truly be based on science and medicine. I know that some of the ways treatment programs have developed to "encourage humility" and "increase spirituality" actually do harm--and believe that people need to be offered many options for recovery.

But for me, at that time, it did the trick. In 12-step fellowships I found that I could make friends without having to give them drugs and that I could be loved for who I was without being a superstar. I was terrified that recovery meant working some low-level job and learning to be content with my misery, but that wasn't the case. In fact, it meant freeing myself from the parts of me that had gotten in my way.

I found, too, that inspiration is more of a process than an event. The 12 Steps taught me about process. By trying to work out what they meant to me, I began to understand my own values and beliefs and how these shaped my world. By considering "God as I understand God," by taking "moral inventory" and trying to perform estimable actions, I started to make a life for myself that made sense and felt good. I certainly don't have all the answers now--but I know how to ask for help, I know that I needn't live in pain, and I know what brings me peace.

The main gift I got from the program was a sense of meaning and purpose--and one of my place in the world. I didn't have to be rich or famous to be useful. I could do that just by helping a friend. I didn't need to look up to or down at people. I could just try my best to be kind. My work didn't have to be utterly brilliant or world-changing--I could do my part as well as I could and leave the rest to God. I learned that, to paraphrase Zusia, a Hasidic scholar, "When I shall face the celestial tribunal, I shall not be asked why I was not Abraham, Jacob or Moses. I shall be asked why I was not Maia."

Adapted from "Recovery Options: The Complete Guide: How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol and Other Drug Problems," by Dr. Joseph Volpicelli and Maia Szalavitz, John Wiley, 2000.

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