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College Sober—It's Like Cheating

My priorities and constructs as a student addicted to heroin were a farce

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By Zachary Siegel

08/01/14

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Where I grew up, after you finish high school, you go to college. 90% of my graduating class went to four-year colleges after senior year. I’m aware that this is not the case for every public high school in America. After all, the high school I went to is located in a stupidly posh Northwest Chicago suburb, vaguely where Hughes filmed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

By this time, around seventeen or eighteen years old, I had a substantial painkiller habit that would take a turn for the worse throughout my early twenties. For someone like me who recognizes, in a general way, the futility of living—you know, roll the rock up the hill, it comes back down the hill, and repeat—it was no surprise that I met school with boredom and disinterest. I was intent on studying the nature of being and reality. But I felt this was best done outside of the classroom, in altered states. 

At eighteen I moved to a small town outside of Aspen, Colorado. The culture of the Rocky Mountains and the various valley-towns I inhabited was the polar opposite of Chicago: slow, relaxed, and people didn’t care about many things aside from the potency of their weed and if the forecast called for snow. 

That old adage, wherever I go there go I, is an old adage because it is true. I transplanted with a massive opioid habit just to find myself crawl deeper into the void of sedation and boredom. I think Nietzsche said that if you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss stares back. 

I took a lot of online courses through a university in Colorado. Online classes are perfect for junkies because you don't have to be at a certain place at a certain time. I could sit and read and do the work remotely on my own time, that is, when I felt it was time to do the work at all, which was typically two weeks before the semester was over. 

Managing my habit so far away from any major metropolitan area proved to be more challenging than any college course I’ve ever taken, so I moved to Denver where black tar heroin was (and still is) abundant and cheap.  

I started doing real classes (real as in, I had to be there in the physical) in Denver. The first few years of school I barely did any work, receiving some sixty credits that were transferable, with a G.P.A. that was close to the mathematical shit. Turns out professors don’t like when you submit twelve late assignments the day of the final. Turns out professors tend not to believe you when seven of your grandparents have died in one semester. 

Up to this point, I hadn’t done anything significant with my life. I learned that the nature of being—on my own terms—was euphoria, sedation, boredom, and sickness. The eternal return, however, was always to sickness. And I mean sickness here, in an existential register. Sickness is a serious word and I mean it in all its seriousness.  David Foster Wallace defined despair as, “like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I'm small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It's wanting to jump overboard.” I’m basically using sickness as he did despair. 

Sickness becomes powerful; it conquers the human imagination. I start talking to it, anthropomorphizing it, asking it questions that I know it can’t answer. I want it to speak back. Its language is silence. Like the abyss, it just stares. 

I’ll flat out say that the majority years of my using sedatives were rather boring. I stayed up very late, read a lot of books, too many to be healthy, and watched movies. Let’s just say, in the vain of Rust Cohle from True Detective, I wasn’t good at parties. 

So, I was doing classes, mainly because that is just what people my age did. I think the only class I showed up for was Silent Cinema Study (please note: I took this course only because I knew we would watch movies). The professor turned out to be the hardest grader of papers I had ever come across in all my years of school (probably still is). He was also pretentious as could be; aside from his black-framed glasses and goatee, he kept telling us to take his new Hitchcock course and his Kubrick summer class. He would quote Deleuze and Guattari like we actually knew what he meant (nobody, not even Deleuze and Guattari, knew what Deleuze and Guattari meant). In sum, in that class, I regretfully nodded out through classics such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Metropolis, Nosferatu, and Sunrise. 

Aside from getting my ass kicked by that professor, I couldn’t learn anything because when I was there I was never really there. I mostly wanted to die but there was something too human in me that didn’t want to go overboard. This is the limbo that eventuates from prolonged sickness. And it is precisely this state of living that makes an active existential engagement with life utterly impossible. 

My priorities and constructs as a student addicted to heroin were a farce: heroin helped me study, I used to ditch class if my heroin dealer's schedule conflicted with my class schedule, I used to never do too much (whatever that meant) before going to class, I used to stay home if I was too sick to show up, but I used to (almost) always do the work—however shitty it was. This is delusional, and I’m aware of the delusion here so it’s not quite delusional because the one who is deluded, by definition, is unaware of the delusion. I don’t know what this is. 

But after prolonged exposure to sickness, showing up was no longer a possibility. I became a semi-agoraphobe, only leaving when a fix was due. I hardly spoke English anymore because my heroin dealers didn’t speak English. Only so much more of living like this was tolerable. All of my priorities and semi-delusional constructs eventually slipped away. I no longer had anything to anchor me. I picture this feeling something like Sandra Bullock floating around outer space searching for the embodiment of George Clooney. It’s truly terrifying. 

This state of being—in sickness and afraid—kicked me into detox and rehab at the age of twenty-two. Twenty-two is significant because most of my cohorts, and then vague faces from high school, were graduating with honors, jobs, or plans to pursue even higher education (masters, doctorates etc. etc.).  

To spare you the pains of more misdirection, sickness, and discord, I eventually cleaned up for good when I was twenty-two, a week or two before turning twenty-three. 

I ended up taking a year off of school. In that year here is what I did: I read more books, probably an unhealthy amount, I wrote stories everyday, I worked six hours a day five days a week as a deli clerk in St. Paul, Minnesota, I had met a few friends whom I came to really enjoy being around, I lived in half-way houses, sober houses and so on, went to meetings, and met other sober people, though, I must say, I never bought into anything in the realm of a spiritual solution, but I certainly felt the positive effect of just being around decent people who do their best to be decent, or is that the spiritual solution? 

At over a year sober I moved back to Chicago to finish school. I went back to pursue psychology and philosophy. Quickly, professors began notice that I was a student. Professors even noticed that I went to class. Heck, they even knew my name. And I didn’t go to class because I was super gung-ho; I couldn’t not show up even if I tried to talk myself out of it, and of course I tried.

Whereas before, had I stubbed my toe on a given morning that would be the only reason I needed to not show up, I now looked like a great student mostly because the rest of my cohorts were re-hydrating from post-molly, Miley Cyrus weekend sweats. I was reading and writing, a lot. I was encouraged by my professors to get into research, to publish, read new things, meet new people, go new places. 

After doing quite well, at nearly two years sober, finishing up school, publishing, researching, and so on, it hit me that going to college sober is like cheating, cheating in that it is unfairly easy. I even began to enjoy living an alert life. I found that the only way to truly understand the nature of being, of reality, is to not only be in reality, but to consciously go to the brink of it, to put yourself in question, to walk around so acutely aware that the stench of worms after a recent rain makes you gag, and you love it. It’s this type of living—engaged, alert— that I missed the mark on with the sedatives. The pendulum no longer swung from boredom to sickness to euphoria, and so on. 

Being in college as an alert student, who was sober, changed me, utterly. I write this because I know more and more young whippersnappers are being thrown into recovery at younger and younger ages. I write this because I want you all to know that college sober is not only more than possible, it’s as I say, cheating. 

I’ll end on a humanist note about us addicts that I have always loved, and find to be true. I think that we are wildly ambitious people. If it is possible to quantify the amount of forward thought calculation-managing addiction takes, we’d score on the genius spectrum. Don’t get me wrong; we do plenty of idiotic things. But the amount of data (aka lies) that we can store at once is astounding. Imagine, some fifty thousand thoughts each day just calculating the next fix. That is a lot of thought power about one object of intense desire. If we can change the object of intense desire, away from substance “X,” and toward, basically, anything else under the sun, there are no limits. 

Zachary Siegel is a writer based in Chicago. He last wrote about existentialism and AA vs. NA.

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