Learning to Sit Still
I always prided myself on my ability to handle my drugs. Now that I’m making my first clutches at sobriety, I’m beginning to see that I’d much rather be able to handle me.
On the plane from Albany, New York to Portland, Oregon, I deleted my heroin dealer’s phone number. It wasn’t the first time I’d done that—more like the 15th—and each time I’d felt a strange resistance. I knew that I would miss my heroin dealer that had been oh so accommodating in terms of helping me to ruin myself. I loved people that enabled my irresponsibility. In hindsight, he was my doctor. And I was a happy patient.
I was stupidly optimistic and naive and cocky enough to think I’d be okay once I landed in Portland. All I’d have to do was sweat the toxins out in a few yoga classes like I’d done in the past. Then I’d be new. Like a baby. I was amazing, possibly even talented, because I could maintain a drug problem better than other people. Watch me go! I can go to yoga and do heroin. None of you can even tell. It’s because I’m more functional than you. More stable. I can maintain a drug problem better than you. It would be like nothing had even happened. No track record. No consequences. No nothing.
He quietly told me that he wanted to invite me home with him for Thanksgiving but that he felt apprehensive because ”I know you’ll just bring a bunch of benzos.”
Because I’d never really had a problem before. I slipped through life doing as I pleased with no major consequences, mental or physical, from my drug use. Unlike other people, I was able to dabble. Now I realize that there had been an issue with semantics; the word actually wasn’t dabble, it was replace. I replaced weed with mushrooms. Mushrooms with acid. Acid with ecstasy. Ecstasy with Adderall. Adderall with Cocaine. Cocaine with speed. Speed with Oxycontin. Oxycontin with morphine. Morphine with heroin. And when drugs weren’t available? Alcohol. Food. Sex. I was a grabber. I was addicted to everything and nothing. I reached for anything that would keep me away from being with myself. I realized something when a drug dealer asked me, “So what do you want?” I went in never knowing what it was I wanted.
“You’re like William Burroughs,” a friend told me when I was in my early twenties. “You can do all these drugs and not get addicted!”
But when I stepped off the plane in Portland, my reality was not matching up with my ego. Jake, the guy I’d been seeing long distance for six months, was there to pick me up. I’d swallowed one Klonopin that morning and taken three Adderall XR throughout the plane ride. And I learned an important lesson: never show up anywhere on Klonopin and Adderall. (I love the part in the movie Silver Linings Playbook when Bradley Cooper snorts: “Klonopin! It’s like, what day is it?”) I was wearing a shirt from Banana Republic (wearing something from Banana Republic has always made me feel like maybe I’ll get my shit together rather than wearing something from, say, Rue 21). But clothes can only do so much; Jake later told me he knew it wouldn’t work from the minute I got off the plane since my eyes were red and glossed over. But when I was on drugs, I didn’t care how I looked. That was just a sliver of their charm and drugs charmed the hell out of me. Plus, I was convinced they made me charming. After I swallowed or snorted, I was more fun, more interesting, more attractive. Less edgy. Less human. That night at Jake’s apartment, I poured my multi-vitamin container out on the bed, chock-full of orange and green and white pills. He told me I took a Klonopin before having sex, but I don’t recall it.
I’d told Jake on the phone one night before I arrived that I was coming to Portland to get sober. “You’re coming to Portland to get sober?” he scoffed. Maybe it made no sense to him but it did to me. Portland may have had a bunch of junkies on every street corner, but my drug dealer wasn’t there. I was convinced that it was all about convenience for me. Really, I was going to Portland for a six month yoga teacher training and because I had a community of writers and friends there. Getting sober was just a back-up plan, a distant and glamorized idea, something that wouldn’t be difficult since my problem was more casual than a true drug addict’s.
Shockingly, things with Jake did not work out. I was smack in the middle of a stupor, a spiritual crisis, a quarter life crisis, an identity crisis, an anxiety disorder and he wanted a grounded girlfriend that would watch football and reality cooking shows and drink beer with him. On my second night in town, Jake came home from work and asked me to open a bottle of wine while he showered. I sat on the deck drinking it and he joined me. He quietly told me that he wanted to invite me home with him for Thanksgiving but that he felt apprehensive because ”I know you’ll just bring a bunch of benzos.” It was like a sucker punch. It was only then that I realized perhaps I did have nerves. I thought of how my senior year of high school, when I had to give a speech in class, my friend Anna said, “Chloe’s lucky. She doesn’t get nervous.”
That’s right. I don’t get nervous. I don’t have fear. All you freaks with your orange prescription bottles full of anxiety medications—I feel sorry for you. I was 17.
But if I didn’t have anxiety, why then did I take two or five Klonopin the next day? Why did I constantly hit people up for pills? Why did I take any drug handed to me and always check medicine cabinets for more? Why didn’t my boyfriend feel comfortable taking me to meet his parents? Why did I need to go to my grandmother’s on cocaine or to a bridal shower on heroin? Why did I need to have pills in my pocket like worry stones? Why did I need to have that seventh drink? Why didn’t I want to remember things? Why didn’t I want to be present for my own goddamn life?
Fear. Anxiety. Fear. Anxiety. And so on—ad infinitum.
Whenever I popped a pill of any kind, I’d lose track of how much I was drinking and popping. It always reminded me of a line in Jillian Lauren’s memoir Some Girls: “Now, I am the kind of person that never turns down pills. And if you are the kind of person that never turns down pills, then you must always, always turn down pills.” Drugs motivated me. They got me out the door. I thought this was adventurous of me. I thought, in short, that I was hot shit.
While I packed my suitcases for Portland, I listened to two Aimee Mann songs over and over: “Save Me” and “Long Shot.” I liked singing the words “Save me” and also the chorus in “Long Shot” that begs, “Please love me.” “Save Me” opens with: You look like a perfect fit for a girl in need of a tourniquet.
In Portland, without my drug hook-ups, I was beginning to bug the shit out of myself. Was I a drug addict or a binge-eater or did I have borderline personality disorder? My anxiety was through the roof. I couldn’t get through breakfast without crying. I remember once, while living in a house with roommates, opening the fridge and seeing syringes for their cat’s medicine and also narcotics for the dog and I stood there truly considering using these things. I shut the fridge door reluctantly. This was one of the hundreds of times I realized I needed to get help. Other times: falling asleep alone and drooling midday in the park with homeless people, having a cop drive behind me while I had a deck of heroin in my bra, having people tell me that I looked high in my Facebook photos. So I called a health coach and asked for help. I called The Grotto, a Catholic Shrine and botanical garden that offered free counseling. I called Cascadia, a drug and alcohol behavioral center. I started seeing a therapist and getting drug-tested. At one point, I went to see the movie Smashed with a friend and sobbed through most of it, gasping for air. It was the scene where the main character is hammered and offered crack. I knew that moment too well. My life seemed to be made up of those moments. The moment where you say yes instead of no. It haunted me. The next scene showed Mary Elizabeth Winstead at dawn, speedy, high and babbling on crack to homeless people. I knew that feeling well too—the one where you think you’re so sly and that no one knows you’re on drugs. You feel on top of the world. I see now how obvious it is. In January I published an essay about my heroin use and a minute after posting it on Facebook I got a message from a woman I’d done a reading with, who wrote: “No wonder you were such an insensitive, obnoxious asshole when I met you.” I didn’t have the same memory as her. I’d had a fantastic night, but ruined hers.
It turned out that yoga teacher training is nothing like running into yoga class late and on heroin. Yoga teacher training is a commitment, a physical and mental challenge, not a quick fix to make you feel better about your body. Turns out we actually have to work. During our first week, I was struggling in Parivritta Trikonasana. My legs were shaking from working so hard and I kept falling over. My teacher tried every prop and modification with me before she finally shrugged and said, “Maybe you just need to get stronger.” I held back tears. She meant it in a physical way, but I knew there was more to it. The body and the mind are connected and I was embarrassingly, obviously, ungrounded.
When I was singing the words “Save me” and “Please love me” over and over, I thought I was talking to my friends. To the universe. To the man I would meet and fall in love with. To the city of Portland. But now I know that those words were for me. I see now that I can live anywhere if I can learn to build a safe home inside my own body and mind. No one else cares if I binge eat, get drunk alone, and secretly pop pills.
And in the same way that I’ve heard alcoholics say that their body starts rejecting alcohol, drugs have stopped working for me. The last time I took a Valium, I turned into an evil bitch, then slept for 15 hours. Oh, and even worse—I got completely ripped off when trying to buy drugs from a stranger at a bar. I gave him $20 and he gave me some black dirt from outside wrapped in tinfoil. I found this out when I went to the bathroom to snort it. He’d already left the bar.
I have more time now that I’m not going the distance to get drugs. When I’m not looking up pills on Google, I have time for movies. For hours of coffee with friends. To get my hair colored. To sleep in.
I’m embarrassed yet relieved to find that the cause of my drug use is anxiety. What’s working for me is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. As I’m sure thousands of others have discovered before, DBT feels like it was written exactly for me. DBT is a form of therapy using four modules: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness—four things that have never come easily for me and were leading me to drugs. Training myself to be in the present moment is saving my life. I remember thinking once that doing heroin was the opposite of being in the present moment. All I wanted was simple and yet the hardest thing to find: A sense of well being. And I was using shortcuts.
It’s pull-your-hair-out frustrating to take the long way after using shortcuts. Last month, a yoga instructor and philosopher named Michael Stone visited our teacher training. He asked us, “What would it be like to have a feeling and just feel it?” And then, the thing that made me cry, that made me gasp for air, that made me understand myself more: “The cause for unhappiness is that one cannot sit still alone in a room.” While in Michael’s class, he had us doing formal seated meditation and then fast and slow walking meditation. While in the seated meditation, some of us would start to nod off. “Be awake!” he would yell. “Forgive yourself. When you’re sitting, you’re not going anywhere or planning anything. You are here, sitting in your life.”
Do you know anything more terrifying than sitting still in your own life? I don’t.
Some days are better than others. On “good” days, I eat kale and go to yoga and read books and drug use doesn’t cross my mind. On not great days, I notice I’m using coffee and wine as a sort of speedball. And on worse days, I look out the window from my basement apartment and see the sneakers hanging over the telephone wires and think about standing there and waiting for heroin. But then I think, Would I buy heroin for the child me? I use all my DBT tricks all day long. All. Day. Long. What can I do to self-soothe? Can I use opposing emotion? Distraction? Mindfulness? How can I make this moment I’m stuck in better? Besides the occasional pill, I’ve been clean for five months.
Recovery is heavy DBT therapy. It’s walking around with workbooks in my purse: The 12 Steps for Women and DBT for Anxiety workbooks. It’s telling my friends and family that I need support. It’s learning to sit still in a room by myself. I roll off my bed and do this first thing every morning, sometimes for five minutes and sometimes for 20: I set a timer and literally hold hands with myself while I sit. This is how I sit still in the only life I have, trying to love the only self I’ve got.
Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray. Her essays have been published in Salon, The Rumpus, Thought Catalog and more. She lives in Portland, Oregon. This is her first piece for The Fix.