How I Got Clean and Sober by Allowing Myself to Get High

By Nathan A Thompson 10/07/16

"The minute that you start to stop [using drugs], you invest them." Unable to get with the program, this ex-addict found recovery in a 9:23 minute YouTube clip.

A stack of stones.

The NA meeting was in an under-funded youth club. They’re all under-funded these days—especially here, in the UK. This one was unappealing even to the youth. Perhaps it was the foul, musty smell. Tatty pool tables pined for missing red and black balls. Beneath them were boxes of old clothes. 

Despite the depressing venue, the meeting was packed. So much so that I found myself with a number of other late arrivals sitting on the wooden sideboards. I hung my head and swung my legs. My nerves were shattered by relapse. Heroin scorched the earth of my mind as it exited my system, burning up my well-being.  

Ever since I was kicked out of the local rehab, relapses had been falling like bowling balls from the sky, shattering things. There was something ritualistic in my expulsion, as if the other clients could send their demons into me, like Christ and pigs, and stave off their own inevitable relapses. The counselors also seemed to sublimate a sense of hopelessness through the act.

Perhaps that’s a little dramatic. But either way, the proverbial rug had been well and truly pulled. And that was an excuse to relapse more. Relapse better. Avenge their rejection and punish my own weakness. 

“I’m sorry I haven’t been coming.” It felt as if everyone at the meeting was standing too close, their sweaty chests pressed against mine, our breath mingling… I gulped. “I’ve just been in a whirlwind of relapse, I can’t hold it together.” It was a vicious circle. Whenever I returned to NA after a relapse I felt like a failure and wanted to use drugs again. 

Not that the people there didn’t try and help. The problem was my perfectionism and unwillingness to surrender control. It just didn’t make sense. Surrender control? How? And to whom? Show me control and I will put it down, show me God and I will bow. I couldn’t find either. Maybe it was lack of imagination.

A different approach was needed. One unemployed morning in my moldy bedsit, I sat on the un-hoovered floor and placed my laptop on an upturned cardboard box. Flicking through spiritual talks on YouTube, my eyes fell on a video entitled “Ram Dass on Attachment and Addiction.” A counterculture hero who had evolved from LSD advocate to beloved spiritual teacher, Ram Dass was a credible guy so I clicked “play.”


Rather than see it as a chronic, relapsing disease, a monster “doing push-ups” as the NA legend has it, Dass (a former psychology professor at Harvard) described addiction in terms of a behavioral problem that will “fall away” given the right practices and conditions. 

A behavioral problem with a behavioral solution, this was more like it. It’s ironic that Dass, who spent years wandering around India barefoot and bearded, actually presents a more pragmatic solution than the sober rooms of AA. There were no confusing imperatives to “turn it over” (what? and how?) and to “accept powerlessness.” 

Dass suggested addicts start what he calls “spiritual practices” like chanting, service or meditation. Funnily enough, I had no problem with the idea of practicing meditation in order to access the beautiful and wise parts of my nature. I just didn’t want to project agency onto these aspects. The difference was NA wanted me to interact with what they would call a “higher power,” but I couldn’t see how the ineffable could be entreated to do favors. 

But Dass’ wisdom went deeper. He explained that addiction doesn’t stop at people jamming needles in their arms—it’s a pathology of society. The same process that causes people to overeat is at work in the drug addict. 

When we were born we come from being fully at home [in “oneness”]… Once that separation has occurred there is incredible pain, we call it being thrown out of the Garden of Eden or Original Sin, whatever you want to call it… there is incredible pain and… we develop a whole set of techniques that make us feel good… and some give us that moment so intensely, and the rest of our life is filled with so much pain… that when it works it reinforces the behavior and you start to do that behavior more and more because it feels good… the use of drugs, material possessions, relationships all of it... It [feeds a] yearning that you can feel permeate the universe of people's consciousness.

And it’s true. Addiction is not only about drugs and alcohol. Stick around 12-step meetings long enough and you will hear people say that once they quit drugs they found themselves addicted to something else. A woman I knew in rehab ate half a kilo of multi-colored gummy bears a day, another guy lifted weights until he resembled the Incredible Hulk—as for myself, when I finally quit everything I found it difficult to control the impulse for sex and relationships. 

The Harm Reduction people say that any kind of progress should be applauded. And quite right. If a former boozehound quits head-butting tables in bars and collecting DUIs in favor of dining lavishly on gummy bears, then more power to her. It’s wonderful when we begin to turn away from destructive habits.

But if your goal is to be completely free—a complete non-addict—you begin to find after a while that each time an addiction is overcome, another reveals itself. The Buddhists say that the ultimate addiction is to thoughts. Clearly, if you want to be free, it’s not just about putting the drink or drugs down. It’s about coming to terms with the very nature of your existence. 

Dass then lit another mental bulb: 

So you go for gratification and then, “Ahhhh,” but then you come down and then it’s, “Oh shit… I'm bad, I shouldn’t have done this.” There's a whole chain of thoughts that go on and each one keeps the process going… so instead of [allowing depression] and revulsion [to kick in] I go back to spiritual practices… Now, if you try and stop [the process] too soon using your mind there's a residual backlash… so one develops a lot of patience and a lot of gentleness with oneself.

Being gentle and patient is a lesson ongoing. Back then I was trying to force an organic process, like giving a motivational seminar to a cornfield. Dass’ message was that trying too hard creates a mental backlash, and forcing myself to be drug-free when I wasn’t capable created a terrible pressure that eventually led to relapse, feeling failure and resolving to try even harder—thus planting the seeds of the next relapse. 

The counter-intuitive upshot of all this was best articulated by a sponsor with 30 years sobriety. “In my years sponsoring people,” he said, crossing his legs and sipping herbal tea, “I have learned that some people need to carry on using drugs for a short time until they eventually stop.” It’s unfortunate that such practices are taboo in mainstream 12-step culture. 

The gentler approach was found in the spiritual practices recommended by Dass. 

Generally, when people come to me with addictions I am inclined to say start doing spiritual practices, start doing the studies that will allow you to see yourself in a new way [and] allow you to understand the hunger you're feeding… don't worry about the addiction, it will fall away and it will fall away… the minute that you start to stop them you invest them. So my suggestion is that you just keep cultivating the practices.

So I quit NA in favor of long hours of Buddhist meditation and yoga. I’m not against the 12 steps, they just didn’t work for me. When I did use drugs I followed Dass’ advice, stopped blaming myself, and returned to my spiritual practices. I stopped worrying about my addiction and how many times and how often I relapsed—I just carried on practicing. 

Over time, my using became less and less, until one day I woke up and realized I hadn’t thought of drugs for six months. That was three years ago. I still don’t attend NA because in order to participate I have to identify as an addict and I can’t honestly apply that label.

I developed, through my own power and persistence, an entirely new identity where drugs have no place. Even if I did want to use, I couldn’t—it would be like telling myself to pick up a bowling ball from a vat of boiling water. My behavioral problem has been solved and I have Dass, a maverick sponsor, and a few ancient spiritual practices to thank.

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