I wrote this on Christmas morning in 2021.
I haven’t used cocaine in 9,446 days. Most of my clients know that, but it wasn’t until this year that I told anyone in my personal life. It’s blindingly ironic that I continued to hold tight to this one tenet of 12-step programs long after I stopped going to the meetings regularly. I was so fixated on remaining anonymous that I didn’t share my truth with those closest to me, and that’s not something I’m proud of.
Any kid who grew up knowing they were different learned award-level acting at an early age. I personally believe it’s the real reason so many queer kids are drawn to theater, because we could get some positive attention for doing something we already did every day just to survive. Truth is, I spent the first half of my life acting like someone else whether I was on stage or not. It was how I survived my childhood.
I acted like my home life was normal. I acted like school was stupid and that I was interested in the same people and the same music as everyone else because I didn’t want anything to make me stand out. I acted like I wasn’t abused and bullied.
I acted like I wasn’t attracted to boys.
By the time I realized I had a problem with cocaine, I was in my early twenties and on active duty in the military. I was such a good actor (or such a good liar) that no one had any idea what I was doing or what it was doing to me. I can’t commit many details to paper for security reasons, but the long and short of it is that I had to find a way out of my situation without tipping anyone off as to what was going on. Any other option could have ended really badly. On a day off I drove two hours away from the base and crept into an NA meeting in a city where I was sure no one would give two shits about some cocaine-addicted flyboy.
I didn’t know anything about meetings or how they worked, just that I was in trouble and needed to figure out how to get out of it. I can’t even tell you what possessed me to stand up when they asked newcomers to introduce themselves, but I did. After I managed to mumble “I’m Michael”, my throat constricted and my eyes clenched shut. At some point a hand touched my back and a voice broke the silence by whispering, “We ready when you ready, baby. You gonna be alright. It’s alright.”
“I’m Michael, and I don’t know what I am.”
When they asked me how long I had, I started to cry and somehow managed to say that I hadn’t used in six hours and 12 minutes. The entire room gave me a standing ovation like I had just accepted a Best Actor award. That was Valentine’s Day, 1996. Hindsight being 20/20, if I had any clue about what would be just ahead for me in my military career, I probably wouldn’t have ever made it to the meeting that day and I definitely wouldn’t be sitting on my couch writing this. The what-if scenarios still play in my head once in a while, and none of them end well.
But the reality is nothing like those scenarios. I didn’t just survive, I grew. Through years of trial and error I came to grips with things that worked for me in my search for recovery and things that didn’t. I learned to take what I needed and to leave the rest. I learned that addiction isn’t something you can just walk away from, and that anyone who thinks you can has no real understanding of physiology and psychology. I learned that addiction is like a dangerous and toxic ex who will never leave you alone, never stop calling, never stop showing up where you don’t want them to be because they know if they’re persistent enough, you’ll let them come home with you again. I learned that if I wanted to really get addiction out of my life I had to kick it out and issue a restraining order. I had to wake up every day for the rest of my life, look in the mirror and tell myself that I deserved a life free of that relationship.
As I sit here writing this, it’s 4:30 on Christmas morning and I’m closing in on 26 years without using. I’m married. I have a dog, a nice home, nice car, and a career I love. I wake up every day looking forward to helping someone unlock the door that will help them move just a step or two further in their journey toward recovery on their own terms.
9,446 days after I ended my problematic relationship with cocaine for good, I do outreach in trap houses at least once a week. I hand out Narcan and clean supplies, do some wound care, and test drugs for fentanyl before people use them. When asked, I give someone my business card and tell them to call me if they need to talk. I don’t do all those things because they’re my job. I do them because I’m still afraid of what’s inside me, and this work keeps me focused on all the reasons I can never answer the door when that toxic ex comes knocking.