Names have been changed.
By the time I was 14 years old, I was taking care of my mentally ill mother, alcoholic father, and my younger sister. I worked as a busboy in a pizza place so there would be something for my family to eat.
My mom’s hallucinations were scary; sometimes she destroyed stuff around the house. My father was making himself physically ill by drinking so much. He was often late for work and his eyesight was getting worse. I had to do all the parent things for my 6-year-old sister.
I would lie awake at night, and when I finally did fall asleep, I had nightmares about my father dying or my sister being taken away.
To deal with the stress, I started drinking in the fall of my freshman year of high school. Drinking made all the muscles in my body relax. I welcomed the numbness, but my father did not make drinking look good. So in January, I started smoking weed. Like alcohol, it numbed my feelings and relaxed my anxiety, but I felt more in control than when I was drunk. I could still function at work.
One day in the spring of my freshman year, my friend Duane offered me a Percocet, which is an opioid. I hesitated, then agreed. Twenty minutes later I felt happy and light, like my body was a cloud. All the stress and worries about my family vanished for four hours.
I Became a Dealer
After that one pill, I wanted more. Duane knew a dealer, so I would give him the money and he would get it for me.
All these substances were not cheap, and my pay from the pizzeria didn’t cover the cost. I asked Duane, “Do you know anyone who can get me a better job or something?”
Duane said, “Not really bro. I do have someone that could probably help you out, but it’s not exactly a legal job. I can plug you in with Vince.”
“Coke dealer Vince?” He’d gone to my high school six years before I did, and I’d heard rumors about him. Rumors like Vince bought his black Hummer with money he made selling coke, and that he beat a guy who owed him money with a crowbar. I heard he had shot people.
But his violence also meant he was serious about his money, and I needed money. A few days later, I met Vince in front of his house. He had a scruffy beard and misaligned teeth, and the paint on his house was chipping.
He invited me in. His place was dimly lit, but much nicer on the inside than on the outside. He had a huge TV and chocolate brown couches. There was a muscular pit bull in a cage.
Vince told me to take a seat. I tried to act confident and told him I was looking to make some money.
He nodded. “Since you’re Duane’s boy, I’ll hook you up with an opportunity. Have you ever sold coke?”
My eyes widened and my heart skipped a beat. “Nah I never sold any drugs, but, uh, you got anything less hardcore?”
He agreed to let me sell some weed “as a test.” He gave me weed and instructions, then said, “I don’t play around with my money. If I find out you’re screwing me over in any way, it won’t be pretty. Got it?”
I nodded and left his house, my heart beating like a drum. I was scared but excited to start making money.
After I sold my first eighth of an ounce, Vince picked me up at school in his black Hummer. I gave him the money. He looked pleased and offered to give me more weed. Soon, I was bringing Vince $560 a week; I got to keep $260 of that, and I still had the pizzeria job.
Now I could buy cigarettes, alcohol, and four or five Percocets or oxycodones (a similar opioid) a day. The rest of my money went to groceries and household expenses.
Being high allowed me to take care of my family without feeling overwhelmed or anxious. When I was sober, I couldn’t stop worrying about all the things that could happen to my father, mother, and sister.
But after I took a pill, I floated above my troubles, my mind numb. The drugs even helped me escape the nightmares: On the opioids I didn’t dream.
Soon, I needed a pill every few hours. If I didn’t take one, I experienced pain throughout my body and severe headaches.
In my junior year of high school, some of my childhood friends started to worry about my addiction. One day, four of us were in my friend Aaron’s car. I started to pop another Percocet, and Aaron pulled over. I held the pill in my hand, wondering what was about to happen.
With a stern expression, Aaron said, “Listen, man, I’m not trying to force you to do anything, but we’re worried. This popping pills sh-t isn’t good for you, man. We don’t want you to die.”
I rolled my eyes and said, “Dude, it’s fine, I’m good. Just keep driving. I don’t want to hear some depressing sh-t.” My friends looked at each other and let out a collective and defeated sigh.
On the outside, I was smiling and reassuring my friends. On the inside, I felt ashamed. Was I really going to be like my father and destroy myself with substance abuse?
My parents either didn’t notice or didn’t care about my addiction. One day I drank and took several opioids and blacked out at home. I woke up covered in vomit on my bedroom floor. My mother walked into the room and looked down at me. She didn’t say a word, just walked out. I expected to be yelled at, not this cold silence.
Squirming in the Shame
That was my worst moment, lying in my vomit, with my mother seeming indifferent. I realized I was on my own.
I was the only one who was going to take care of myself, and I had to stop. But the withdrawals were so bad that I could never make it through a day without taking a pill.
I called my grandparents in the beginning of my junior year and asked them to come get my little sister to live with them in India, and they agreed. During that time I was still getting high a lot, but somehow was able to make my smartest decision ever. I was proud that I’d gotten my baby sister out of this mess.
At the beginning of my senior year, my household was in shambles. I was still working at the pizzeria and still dealing for Vince. My father was deteriorating physically and my mother was disconnected from reality.
One night about a year after my sister left, clarity came as I lay in silence in my room. I was graduating high school next semester, and I had to face the future. My grandparents were old; what would happen to my sister once they were gone? What would happen to me if I continued taking opioids? Only I could change my life.
I knew I was an addict and the first step to getting sober was admitting that to myself. To squirm around in that shame. I thought about all the stupid decisions I’d made. I could’ve just stayed away from the array of substances I was using. Even now, three years later, that shame sticks with me and reminds me that I never want to go back to addiction.
Then, October of senior year, I took action. I sold my last ounce, gave Vince his cut, and told him I’m not going to sell anymore. He let me go pretty easily because I never screwed him out of any money.
I looked up the symptoms of withdrawal and bought eight bottles of Gatorade and two big boxes of crackers to get me through it. I flushed the pills I had left down the toilet. I knew I’d have to miss school, too, because I’d read that physical withdrawal lasts a week.
It was even worse than I’d read. My body hurt all over and I felt extremely weak. I trembled and threw up several times a day to the point where my vomit was just water and Gatorade. I was sweating profusely, but I felt cold. I quit my job at the pizza place.
The whole week I lay in my bed and watched YouTube videos on my phone. I had told Aaron and a few other close friends I was quitting, and I’d call them and report how I was doing. They told me that they were proud of me and there for me.
I realized that I didn’t have to face my demons alone. My mom continued to talk to herself in the living room while my father sulked in my little sister’s old room, but I had friends to support me in my time of need.
The physical withdrawal lasted about a week, but the psychological addiction was much worse, like an itch that wouldn’t go away. I constantly craved opioids, especially when I felt stressed. So I stayed home from school most of October into November to minimize stress and focus on staying clean.
Recovering Emotionally and Academically
I missed almost a month of school, and my GPA fell a lot. In fact, that quarter I failed two classes because of my absences. I knew if people knew my real situation, I might go into foster care. At that point, I didn’t want to be separated from my parents so I told my teachers that “I was dealing with some family stuff.”
Some teachers had heard rumors that I was selling weed. My English teacher said, “I’m proud that you decided to change for the better. You’re a smart kid and I hope you stay on the right path.” Her response almost brought me to tears. I’d never heard anyone, not even my own parents, tell me that they were proud of me.
Once I returned to school, I did all my homework, never missed another class, and did extremely well on all the tests. I got into college. I was finally on the right track, but life didn’t get that much easier once I was sober.
Starting college was overwhelming because I wasn’t used to the amount of work professors assigned. It was hard to stay clean through the doubts: I believed I wasn’t good enough for college and that if I screwed up even a little, I’d go back to being a junkie.
Being off drugs doesn’t mean you are no longer an addict. Three years after my last pill, I still think, when I’m upset, “Maybe I should get some Percocets or oxys.”
Writing helps me stay clean. When I feel overwhelmed or depressed, I write about my anxiety, sadness, self-doubt, and feel a catharsis. The act of writing helps wash the pain away, at least for the moment. Instead of numbing myself, I face the demons and release them. It’s way better than feeling nothing.
Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
- What do drinking and drugs do for the writer? That said, what’s the down side?
- What helps the writer decide to get clean and who supports them on this journey?
- In what ways does the writer still struggle after staying clean?
- What do you think the writer will need to do in order to maintain their sobriety?