The Argument Against Abstinence
In the early days of getting clean, I used marijuana the same way an asthmatic might use a Ventolin inhaler. When the drug need became overwhelming, smoking pot would immediately snap me out of that dangerous frame of mind. Weed short-circuited that craving, and resulted in quiet self-reflection. The terror, the anger, and the attempts to self-justify the idea of “one more hit” would thankfully recede. After years of substitute prescribing with drugs like methadone, it was a relief to find that a nonaddicting drug could have such a positive effect on me. However, finding a creative outlet in my writing, and having a child who I loved unconditionally and who depended upon me were undoubtedly the biggest factors in my staying clean.
I wrote my first novel, Digging the Vein, during that long, painful summer when I detoxed for the last time, finishing it the week Nico was born. I had never before expressed a desire to write, but faced with a life that was in pieces—a child on the way, no career to speak of, and almost broke—I clung to whatever sliver of hope that I could find. I had spent a lot of my heroin years reading books by the likes of William Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, Dan Fante, and Herbert Huncke. If these writers had managed to transform their painful and chaotic lives into something like art, maybe I could, too. Writing and getting off heroin became intertwined for me: they both represented a final throw of the dice, one last chance to prove that I was a worthwhile human being. The book wasn’t perfect by any means, but it represented something very powerful to me: a way out.
One of the many difficult things about getting off heroin was the general consensus that stories like mine—addicts who find their way back to nonproblematic drug use—simply do not exist. Certainly there is no reference to us within the 12 steps. Those who get clean but do not work the steps are often disparagingly referred to as “dry drunks,” while the cocaine addict who still drinks or smokes marijuana is thought to have simply switched one addiction for another. Yet I’ve met many others like me: former problem drinkers, cocaine abusers, or heroin addicts who have somehow found their way back to moderate use. Why are their stories never heard?
I believe part of the problem is the overwhelming need we have in America—the country that gave us Hollywood, after all—for a “narrative,” when in fact real life is often convoluted and inconclusive. The “recovery story” regularly played out in popular culture—“boy meets drug, boy falls in love with drug, drug destroys boy’s life, boy quits drug”—has become fixed in the public imagination as the only possible story. A tale of addiction isn’t deemed complete until the protagonist has embraced total sobriety with the same zeal as she once embraced self-destruction. But this black-and-white rendering of addiction and recovery may alienate those who cannot manage total abstinence—and even help drive them back to the same fatalistic, dangerous drug use that sent them to treatment in the first place.
While I disagree with the widely held assertion that total abstinence is the only way, I am not at all critical of those who practice the 12 steps. I have many good friends who are alive today because of A.A. When I was at my lowest ebb, it was often people who were in the program who took me in and extended a much-needed helping hand. I found the 12-step programs to be no different from any other organization, really—there were as many saints as charlatans in those rooms, and usually good old junkie intuition was enough to steer me in the right direction. However, having been off heroin for almost eight years, I am living proof that the “abstinence only” approach is not the only way.
But the path I chose is not lit up and sign-posted with support groups and literature. Those of us who manage it tend to stumble around in the dark, make mistakes, and risk a fall with every step. I choose to tell my story because I know how much I would have appreciated knowing, back when I was that poor, bloody, desperate dope fiend, that others had taken this less traveled road to Damascus and found a recovery of their own.
Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. O'Neill also interviewed Jerry Stahl.