Why I Quit

November 15, 2015

Oh god am I behind on blogging. Mexico was cool, but I hadn’t brought my private key, and like most cron jobs do, the cron job I’d set up to publish new content remotely failed to run. There’s something to be said about the rush of shipping things; it feels really good and is a great motivator to continue working. With my cron job down, I no longer had any immediate feedback on my work, and with all the other distractions around, blogging suffered for it.

In cron’s defense, I managed to remember that cron runs in a weird pwd, and so I took matters into my own hands and wrote a quick bash script to normalize the environment. Turns out I forgot to chmod the executable bit on this flag, thus the lack of content over the last week. Whoops. One more thing to remember in the long journey of ascension to sysadminship.

Let’s get to brass tacks, though. You’re not here to read about why I haven’t been writing. You’re here to read the things I have written. And because I’m very (~10k) words behind, I’m going to write the first thing that comes to mind that I think I can quickly exploit for word-count. I fully expect this one to fall under my new tag for things I’ll later regret writing, but that sounds like something for future Sandy to regret.

So today I want to talk about illegal drugs; how I got into them, and ultimately, how I got out. Let’s hope that this doesn’t affect my visa status. To that end, I would like to firmly state that I am clean now, and have been for four years.

This is my story.

Until a few weeks before my nineteenth birthday, I was blissfully ignorant of life’s many vices. I knew they existed, on the periphery of my awareness, but I didn’t really get it. “I’m too smart to ruin my brain,” was something I distinctly remember saying. It was partly to appease adults (and boy, did it ever), but it was also mostly true. I took myself very seriously, and the idea of getting out of control was absurd. Why would I want to have less judgment or ability? It just didn’t make sense.

Pure as the driven snow, I was. I didn’t party, drink coffee or alcohol, touch any drugs harder than legally prescribed T3s, or to my immense shame and overwhelming disappointment, have any sex. I was a classic Nice Guy: raised with staunchly feminist values, lacked confidence, found myself somewhere gently on the autism spectrum, and took myself very seriously. A set of traits not highly amenable to getting laid in high school, as you might imagine.

That’s not to say, however, that I was immensely unpopular, either in social circles or in love. I managed to find a few girlfriends, although in retrospect they all had a distinctive type: small brunettes with an exceptionally religious upbringing. It’s not fair to read too much into the people we were when we were teenagers, so I won’t dwell too much further, but I think it’s important to establish the setting. I had a few opportunities at real, honest-to-goodness sex, but they were all qualified with statements along the lines of “well, ok, but hope I won’t hate myself forever afterwards.” Needless to say, it never happened.

Years of sexual and social frustration followed.

A few months before my nineteenth birthday, however, I somehow managed to be invited to the graduation party of an all-girls school. “It’s now or never,” I thought. I was kinda a douche back then. I hope I’m less so now. Regardless, I arranged to own some drinks for the party, and spent the weekend having the time of my life. In the span of two days, I met fifty new people, all of whom were super friendly, most of whom were attractive girls, and some of whom seemed to like me. And so my first party mixed up a few signals in my head: fast friendships, alcohol, and some degree of sexual success.

In particular, however, what I realized was that alcohol wasn’t as terrible as I had previously imagined. It was kinda fun, even. It lowered my inhibitions, let me talk to people, and get into crazy situations that everyone thought were really funny afterwards. Alcohol wasn’t this terrible drug that all the responsible people in my life had told me. And being good at math, I extrapolated from that: maybe the other ones aren’t as terrible either?

I had decided to take the year following high school off. The idea was to go traveling, but that didn’t really happen, and so I sat around in my small hometown, wasting away while most of my friends moved on to greener pastures. I made new friends, many of whom were what you might describe as “pro-marijuana”. They invited me over to try some, and I remember it as being a very magical experience. It removed the constant disassociation between my mind and my senses; textiles felt interesting, music was vivid, and for the first time ever, I felt like I was really seeing what was in front of my eyes, rather than interpreting it through my weird mind.

All in all, it was pretty cool. And what might have been the best part was that it turned off my neuroses for a few hours. That was big. Really big. For those of you without hardcore neuroses, the best way I can describe it is like spending a day on the beach with no responsibilities after eighteen long years of constantly having your attention pulled in a million ways as you attempt to understand everything. It was nice. It was relaxing.

Combined with being in a town I hated, with the majority of my friends gone, working a shit job and watching my potential waste away, marijuana was a great way to escape from everything. In retrospect, I was self-medicating for pretty serious depression, but unfortunately for me, I didn’t know that. I spent the next year spending all of my full-time income on either getting drunk or getting high. I didn’t come away with a lot to show for it. Somehow I made it into university, which was honestly amazing, but that just brought harder1 and more interesting drugs into the equation.

The only thing that had stopped me from getting into them sooner was a fantastic friend who was the only person in my life brave enough to tell me he didn’t like the person I was becoming. His lone voice was one that I depended on years later, when I decided to stop all of this madness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

And so it went. With a few brief stints in the midsts, I spent almost three years of my life smoking marijuana every day, with harder things on the weekends. The harder stuff came as a poorly-thought-out experiment. I had been studying rationality pretty seriously by this point, and a core piece of rationality is that your art will desert you when you need it most. Rather ironically, I decided to take some strong hallucinogens and see if I could still reason my way of out impaired mind-states. I consider myself a psychonaut and kept a journal detailing what I had taken, how much, when, the experience it gave me, and my thoughts while on it.

For those of you interested, I could reason my way through drug-induced mind-states, but it stopped being as important. Soon this too became just another means of escaping from life.

Despite keeping that journal, I never actually read it when sober. I kept my notes in a big spooky grimoire which seemed appropriate; it was vaguely wizard-themed. One day while packing up over the holidays to move, I decided to go through it, just for fun. What I found was honestly terrifying.

I had written messages to myself, messages that at the time I thought were imperative to communicate to sober-me. I don’t have the journal anymore, and so unfortunately I can’t quote it verbatim, but it was along the lines of “this is a living hell. Why are you subjecting me to this? stop taking drugs.” I had written this a few months before reading it, taking drugs the whole while.

There are very few words in the English language to express the thoughts that went through my head as I read that, but “oh fuck” comes pretty close. I was inadvertently doing the whole Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing. It’s an interesting story, but it’s literally terrifying when it’s you living a secret double life.

I guess this is what they call hitting rock bottom.

Over the New Years which began 2012, I decided to quit drugs once and for all. I gave up the remainder of my hard drugs (which were hard to find), flushed my marijuana and deleted any contacts I had who might be able to get it for me (since it wasn’t very hard to find). I decided to return to my ascetic life, and at the same time I gave up alcohol, though that was only to be temporary.

Quitting was surprisingly easy, honestly. I managed to convince myself overnight that not only was I not doing drugs, and that I didn’t want to do drugs, but also that I didn’t even want to want to do drugs. I developed a defense mechanism: anytime anybody said anything about drugs, I would tell them that “drugs are bad. Don’t do drugs.” Every single time, regardless of the drug in question. Brains are weird, and highly sensitive to consistency, and I wholly suspect that it was this consistency that gave me the mental fortitude to pull myself out. I firmly suspect that until you want to stop, you won’t be able to, regardless of the external pressure. I did it for myself, and only for myself.

What also made quitting easy was that giving up marijuana was fantastic. It’s sincerely the best thing I’ve ever done, and I realized that a few days into my new sobriety. All of a sudden, I had an extra two hours every day in which I could do things because I wasn’t so high that activity was challenging. That worked out to an entire extra month of my life every year that I was throwing away in a misguided attempt to escape from depression.

I quickly started getting back into hobbies. I read more, because I was suddenly capable of remembering more than two sentences at a time. I bought a piano and started practicing again. I started new projects, and I even finished some. What was perhaps most exciting, was that I made some new friends, and we did things other than sitting around mindlessly watching TV with no commentary other than “I am so high right now.” Yes, things were good.

But I started noticing some of the more subtle things that drugs had done to me. In my three years abusing drugs, I had stopped being interesting, because I had stopped doing interesting things. I didn’t know how to have fun anymore, because drugs made everything fun; it was fun to sit and wave my hand around; it was fun to have discussions with people who were talking about something completely different and neither of us realized it. I can’t describe the level of embarrassment I feel at time of writing, that this was the person I let myself become.

Eighteen months later, I finally noticed that I could think again. Without realizing it, my mental agility had atrophied, because I never needed to use it. It took eighteen months before I finally felt like my brain was back up to speed, concentration and clarity. That’s a horrifyingly long time, especially when you remember that I didn’t realize it until it was gone.

As of late I’ve started to think that I might have an alcohol problem. I took some time off a few weeks ago when I realized that I got really grumpy on days that I didn’t have a drink. That scared me. That really scared me. I’m not there yet, but I can feel a force inside of me getting ready to pull the plug on alcohol forever like I’ve pulled it on drugs. It’s slow going, because like it or not, alcohol does have a place in modern culture and contemporary society. I haven’t yet convinced myself that I don’t want to want to drink, but I think the more meta-levels above that have stabilized. I’m getting there. New Years might be a good, symbolic time to make it happen. Sounds like a good project for 2016.

Part of the reason I’ve written this was to spit out lots of words, but there’s also a more practical goal. I still have a lot of friends who abuse drugs, and it breaks my heart to watch. It’s their lives, and they can do whatever they please with it, I know, but I needed to do something. Lots of them seem to legitimately want to stop, but can’t, and so it might be helpful to have a case study in what has worked, even if possibly only once.

It would be emotionally distressing to calculate just how much potential I wasted during this period of my life, but it did come with a benefit: when I got out, I knew I was behind, and that helped me work my ass off. All of the great things that my agency has achieved in the last four years are due to this vague dissatisfaction in the back of my mind that I needed to make up for lost time. I suspect I’m more productive for it, both in terms of my employment and in terms of my life. These days, my life is the best it’s ever been, and I strongly suspect a large part of that is because I can still remember how terrible life can get, and I’ve been trying to distance myself from that as hard as possible.

That’s not to say I’d do it again, though, given the chance.

Usually I like to wrap up these posts with a “present”: something that makes the reader go away feeling good, or remembering me as being very clever. It’s a neat hack to exploit the peak-end rule. I’ve got nothing like that for today, but instead would like to end with a shout-out to my friend Ian Lewis, the man who didn’t like the person I was becoming. Thanks for saving my life dude. I owe you one.

  1. I intentionally stayed away from all the addictive ones though. I might have been dumb, but I wasn’t that dumb.↩︎