Features  Down the habit hole

Coming out of a four-year addiction to cocaine, I wanted to find the line between use and abuse of social drugs

If you Google image search “coke addict” you’ll likely get results of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton passed out in the back seat of a private car. Do the same for “crack addict” and let me know if you find a top image result that features any teeth. While I’m definitely not Lindsay Lohan – even though I’d like to be – and I still have all my teeth, I am an addict.

Nina, a fourth-year student at McGill, writes to me that she believed that an addict couldn’t possibly look like her. “I had no idea I could be an addict until I actually learned more about addiction and met other young people who were sober, who showed me that recovery was possible,” she tells me.

Similarly, it took me years to realize that my ‘bad habits’ were actually an addiction. Why did it take me so long to understand that my use/abuse was a problem? I am addicted to cocaine, and cocaine is a social drug. Social drugs connect the isolated, the insecure, and the anxious. They push the introverts out into the world of “normalcy” (whatever that is), the world of partying and social activity that university students are generally expected to engage in. Cocaine became my drag queen. She was fabulous, social, horny, witty – she was what I wish I could be all the time. Cocaine gave my antisocial, awkward, and inhibited interior self a Miss Congeniality-scale makeover.

Cocaine became my drag queen. She was fabulous, social, horny, witty – she was what I wish I could be all the time.

As I stopped using cocaine, I felt increasingly as if I was living between two worlds, unable to fully participate in either. I was having trouble being sober and re-integrating into my social circles. I felt shameful when I slipped up and used again. However, I also did not feel that I belonged in addiction support groups. By all external metrics, I was “high functioning”: I earned top grades, regularly called my mother, was actively involved in theatre and performance, and was in a stable relationship. As a result, my friends and peers didn’t see my dependency on cocaine as an issue – though many of them were aware that I used regularly. I thought, to be an addict, I had to have hit proverbial rock bottom. I began to understand how many addicts felt the way I did, and were slipping under the radar in their dependency on social drugs.

My goal for this article is not to sound like Oprah on “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” but I did want to interview people in my community about their experiences with addiction and party drugs, specifically in the context of McGill. One of these people is Anna*. A student at Concordia, Anna has struggled with drinking since the age of fourteen, and she tells me that she had much more trouble getting help for her alcoholism than for her abuse of prescription drugs. In the case of her addiction to opiates and Benzodiazepines (like Xanax) she was “a visible addict” – she lost weight, became increasingly withdrawn from society, and eventually overdosed before her hospitalization. Thus, she received immediate institutional care. She no longer uses any kind of non-social drugs, but her dependency on alcohol continues, and she’s finding it harder to address because of alcohol’s widespread use in social settings.

I thought, to be an addict, I had to have hit proverbial rock bottom.

Part of the reason Nina and I had a hard time realizing we were addicts is because lot of our images of addiction are rooted in racist, classist, and colonial stereotypes. The addicts we see in pop culture are almost invariably poor, uneducated, Black, or Indigenous. We have particularly deep-rooted racism when it comes to particular substances: Indigenous people are often shown to be alcoholics, and Black people are portrayed as crack addicts, for example. We need to unlearn these stereotypes because they’re deeply destructive to the marginalized communities they’re lobbied against, and have been deployed to justify their mass incarceration and ongoing disenfranchisement. But also because they prevent us from recognizing those who don’t fit the image – in my case, white, university-educated, and middle-class – as addicts.

I hope that this article can be the beginning of revisioning a more accurate spectrum of addiction. I believe that in doing so, we may widen a vocabulary for the treatment and support of addicts.

Down the habit hole

Cocaine became my entire life very quickly. I began using cocaine when I was eighteen, and less than a year later I couldn’t have an alcoholic drink without accompanying it with coke. Over the three years that I was heavily using, I would buy a gram a week on average. That’s about $320 a month, amounting to nearly $4,000 a year. I remember one week I had $12 in my account and still bought coke that night. I always found a way to pay for it. I began compulsively stealing from pharmacies and grocery stores to save an extra thirty dollars here and there.

I remember one week I had $12 in my account and still bought coke that night.

Eventually I couldn’t afford cocaine anymore – not the price, but the sleepless nights, the damaged relationships, the increasingly aggressive behaviour, the manipulation of friends and family, and the complete sense of desperation that I felt without it. Instead of feeling excited to go on exchange in my final year of university, I became incredibly anxious about the thought of arriving in a new city without having a dealer there. I even considered flying with bulk, or mailing cocaine to my address in Glasgow. Of course, within a week, I found a dealer in Glasgow. While I was traveling in Europe during my exchange, my trips were determined by whether I could travel via train in order to bring cocaine with me. If I had to fly somewhere, I would frantically contact all of my connections to see if they knew someone who knew someone who could “hook me up in Stockholm.”

Addiction is exhausting.

Hélena*, a friend of mine who works at a restaurant in Montreal, began drinking when she was fourteen. She tells me that in the town that she grew up in, drinking was normalized and “everyone was getting fucked up.” Being naturally shy, she found alcohol appealing because it helped her feel social. From there, drinking became a habit, then an addiction. “When you learn how to function with a substance in your life,” she tells me, “you don’t even see what it’s like to function without that substance. It automatically becomes an addiction.”

The habit began as an excuse. She would tell herself I can’t fall asleep without a couple of beers, or I can’t unwind after work without a couple of beers. As her tolerance built up, a couple of beers escalated into a bottle of wine every night. “When a bottle of wine isn’t enough to get you drunk,” she says, “there’s a serious fucking problem.”

“When you learn how to function with a substance in your life, you don’t even see what it’s like to function without that substance. It automatically becomes an addiction.”

So after years of drinking, Hélena began to ask herself some difficult questions like Can I go out and not have more than two beers?, which was clearly not the case. Working in the service industry furthered the normalization of alcohol as a daily ritual. Since drinking is an inherent part of the after-work culture in the service industry, she told herself, We’re all like this, it’s not a problem if everyone does it.

Eventually Hélena became less and less functional and began to feel serious physical repercussions from her drinking. To alleviate the physical pain associated with constant hangovers – fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, stomach pain, decreased sleep, shakiness, and depression – she would start drinking earlier in the day. It got to a point where everything she did revolved around whether or not she would have access to alcohol. Her mind was consumed with whether she could make it to the dep on time before it closed after her shift. If she couldn’t make it, she’d have to go to the local bar where she would be surrounded by people with similar problems. She had developed superficial friendships with people who she believed to be important to her, but really what was important to all of them was drinking.

It got to a point where everything she did revolved around whether or not she would have access to alcohol.

Just like Hélena, Nina tells me how she began to orchestrate her entire life around ensuring that she could drink. “A habit floats around in the background,” she says, “where[as] an addiction is the undercurrent to everything that you do. The difference between addiction and habit is that you can’t imagine life without this substance,” she writes. “Non-addicts change their behaviours to meet their goals, but addicts change their goals to meet their behaviours.”

Drugs are super fun until they’re not fun anymore

After Hélena’s first attempt at sobriety several years ago, she re-introduced alcohol several months later – and her alcoholism soon got worse than it had ever been. One night her upstairs neighbour broke into her apartment after smelling smoke. She had been cooking when she passed out on the kitchen floor, drunk; her food began burning and filled the apartment with smoke. “That took me a while to get over,” she tells me. “The shame associated with something like that happening […] When all you know is drinking, you just drink to forget that kind of thing. That incident was definitely the beginning of the end.”

I was feeling empty and tired, after years of using cocaine regularly. I would feel so much shame from things I had said or done to people while being high, and I didn’t want that anymore. I was desperate to find the middle ground of having two drinks and going home – without doing coke. For me everything is always all or nothing, a mindset inherently bound to my manic depression. When I tried to cut back on my use I’d either stay in, needing complete isolation from all people, or go out and stay out until the sun came up.

I would feel so much shame from things I had said or done to people while being high, and I didn’t want that anymore.

Similarly to my experience with coke, Nina tells me that “drinking socially” had a very different meaning than what it apparently meant to other people. For others, drinking was a nice accessory to a pleasant event. For her, “drinking was the event.” She drank because of self-hate and it became a socially acceptable way of self-harming. When she was drunk she stopped hating herself for a few hours. Eventually she learned that it’s not normal to black out every single time you drink. She tells me that “The most powerful part of addiction is it’s the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease.”

Work hard, party hard: Drugs at McGill

It’s especially hard to quit social substances like cocaine or alcohol because we’re trained to think that being social is necessarily positive. It’s hard to see how high energy and extroversion could be a symptom of an illness. But we sometimes end up enforcing sociability – especially in a university environment, with immense pressure to have “the best four years of your life” – at the expense of our health. McGill, and Montreal generally, are known for their “work hard, party hard” ethic. But it’s a lifestyle that ends up invisibilizing addiction: when you’re getting good grades and making new friends, it’s so easy to argue that it’s alright to do Adderall during the day and coke at night.

Nina is drug-free and sober, and has not let this socially isolate her. She still often goes out; she simply won’t drink alcohol. She tells me that now she knows what situations she enjoys: “Come out dancing with me and expect to see me flapping on the dance floor, Red Bull in hand,” she says. People in her life frequently forget that she is sober and drug-free because she looks nothing like the somber, no-fun sober girl stereotype.

It’s hard to see how high energy and extroversion could be a symptom of an illness.

Having spent her entire academic career in recovery, Nina told me that, “At McGill, there’s a disturbing culture that normalizes substance abuse, and can make it extremely difficult for students to recognize addiction when it’s present in their lives.” Being from the U.S., she had no knowledge of what frosh was. By complete luck, she signed up for Rad Frosh (which isn’t dry, but isn’t centred around drinking) instead of the more typical Faculty Frosh (“had the McGill website described this as what it is, chugging beer at 10 a.m., the choice would have been easy for me”). She has now seen casual cocaine use at parties go unquestioned, and has learned about drinking competitions like Carnival that are spun as ‘school sponsored charity events.’ As a floor fellow, she has watched students spend hundreds of dollars a week on drugs, drink every night, and simply slip under the radar. She has friends who have either gotten sober while at McGill, or came here already sober, and they have all shared these sentiments: McGill fosters a community that normalizes harmful substance use behaviours, ignores addiction, and provides next to no support for those struggling with substance use issues.

In complete agreement with Nina, I have found McGill Counselling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) insufficient (to put it lightly) when it came to seeking help for my addiction. In my first year I made several attempts to get into a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) group therapy session – a type of therapy well-suited to treat addiction – and was on a waitlist from November until March. When I was finally at the top of the waitlist, I was told by the same clinician that had encouraged me to sign up immediately that I was unable to join as there were only a few sessions left before the summer. When I asked if I could be placed on the waitlist for the following semester, the clinician said I’d have to come in the Fall and try again.

“At McGill, there’s a disturbing culture that normalizes substance abuse.”

There have been a number of recent reforms of mental health services at McGill – like combining Mental Health and Counselling services, and their new, dubiously effective stepped-care model. These changes were instituted only in response to student outcry in the face of months-long waitlists and inadequate care. Currently, CMHS’s Substance Misuse Program (SMP) is the main hub of support on campus for students with addictions – but McGill needs a wider variety of support groups and resources specifically addressing addiction. But we’re stuck in a catch-22: the stigma and silence surrounding addiction makes it difficult for students who are former or current addicts to publicly call on the administration to provide adequate support. This lack of resources only make it easier for students to develop or sustain addictions without the proper help.

Breaking the habit, and recovery

It was a Monday morning and Hélena thought to herself, It’s a fucking Monday. You don’t need to have a drink on a Monday. Half the world doesn’t get as shit-faced as you do on a Monday, it’s going to be okay. “And then it was Tuesday, and I thought, It’s fucking Tuesday – I don’t need to have a drink. And then on Wednesday, and the first drink that was punched in was a mistake – and the week before I would have been super stoked that the first drink was a mistake because that’s a free drink I could have. I had it in my hand and I thought, No – and gave it to someone else.”

“So it became one day at a time,” she says.

The most significant part of Nina’s recovery has been her membership in 12 Step Groups (groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous). She is also involved with these programs professionally, and tells me that the sense of community healing and support is life-changing for her clients. It helps them make new friends, learn coping skills for life, and understand their addiction in order to overcome it.

Anna has found abstinence approaches to be less useful; the all-or-nothing approach of abstinence groups feels unremitting to her. Being mentally ill, queer, and a survivor of sexual assault, she voices a constant sense of ostracization throughout her life. Adding sobriety to that equation would be too socially isolating for her at this point in her life, she told me. Instead, she is focusing on harm reduction – how to use safely – rather than abstinence.

“So it became one day at a time.”

Similarly, because of the substance’s ubiquity in her work environment, Hélena’s strategy for recovery can’t involve demonizing alcohol. Alcohol “is our culture,” she tells me – she often even works behind the bar. She still quality checks drinks that she sends out, and is willing to try wines that she hasn’t tasted yet. It’s important that she works towards developing a healthy relationship to alcohol with the hope that one day she can reintroduce it into her life in moderation. Her strategy from the beginning was not to “never have a drink again.” She says, “I don’t tell myself, Don’t touch that, it’s evil, but rather, You’re not in a good place for that right now. You need to learn how to live independently from it.” For the past four months, Hélena has had extreme self-discipline in convincing herself not to have “that first drink,” because if she does, the rest of it is easy. As she has begun to feel physically healthier, her commitment to sobriety has strengthened.

Hélena isn’t entirely drug-free. “It feels terrible to say but replacing one addiction for another has really helped,” she tells me. She still smokes weed to calm down and increase her sociability. She realizes that her dependence on weed (she smokes a small joint every night) is a substitution for alcohol, but at least it is less harmful to her mind and body than drinking was. She doesn’t believe in complete abstinence, and for her “at the bottom of [Alcoholics Anonymous] you’re replacing your addiction with faith. […] Some addictions are abusive, and some are not as abusive.”

Finding solutions

I have used several times since I first decided to quit, but for me that’s huge. Learning how to drink without using coke was my first step, and I’ve done that. I’m content to go out and not drink, or have a couple of drinks and go home. My process of recovery is slow; I only take a step forward in that process when I know that my legs won’t buckle beneath me. I want to actually believe that I don’t need cocaine in my life, rather than simply pretending that I don’t need it – and I’m almost there.

A big part of my recovery has been connection. The reason I was so drawn to cocaine is because it allowed me to connect with people that I would normally be unable to connect with. I loved staying up until six a.m. talking to someone about their most unmasked selves. I am a theatre practitioner, and this connection and unmasking is at the heart of performance art too. In performance you are taught to care, listen and support one another as a matter of necessity, of improving your skill as a performer.

I want to actually believe that I don’t need cocaine in my life, rather than simply pretending that I don’t need it – and I’m almost there.

These temporary communities, and moments of connection, have allowed me to move on from those false drug-fuelled relations and replace them with less damaging, and often more powerful moments. Whether it be abstinence groups, or other activities such as fitness or creative outlets, addicts need to re-introduce social connection and bonding in a non-harmful way. And that type of connection usually needs to not be associated to nightlife or peers that use, which is the hard part.

Recovering from an addiction forces you to re-examine the people, spaces, and objects that you believed made you feel good. It felt a bit like going through a bad breakup: sorting through my life and chucking a bunch out; holding onto the things that I thought I would throw out; repurposing them, re-centering them. Addiction makes you cling to something that keeps you stuck. It whispers in your ear to keep going. It tells you that you’re okay – that you don’t have a problem. It’s hard to tell someone that you’ve been living with for years to get out. It’s hard to think of what will happen if you’re alone without your addiction. It took me a long time to find my voice to shout back at it.

*Names have been changed.

If you suspect you might have an addiction, here are some resources that could help.

You can call, message, or email the Ontario Drug and Alcohol Helpline for free and confidential health services information.

The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC)’s Addiction Unit provides medical treatment and care for those with addictions. They have support groups specifically for women, provide sessions on stress management, life skills, and relapse prevention, and can even have your relatives or partner(s) talk to a therapist about ways to support you.

Narcotiques Anonymes (Narcotics Anonymous) Quebec is a nonprofit which holds regular meetings to support members in remaining sober.