I want to remind everyone that this series of posts has some ground rules for commenting. I welcome feedback, but there are a handful of boilerplate responses that I’ve heard a million times before, already spoken to, and am really tired of. I already know I can’t "prove" any of this. I already know it sounds crazy. I already know that this could all be in my head. I find these distinctions meaningless in the face of my experience.
To go forward, I first have to go back.
I have to tell you a story of my very-nearly-fatal addiction and my deeply flawed coping mechanisms. The important part of this story doesn’t require that much background or a precise timeline. But here is what you need to know.
-In late 2011, I was diagnosed with adult ADHD. My mom had dealt with the diagnosis when I was a child but refused to put me on medication at the time. I was hoping for coping mechanisms and techniques, but it was Kaiser, so instead I got a script for generic Ritalin.
-There’s a lot I could tell you about how it happened and WHY it happened—I was struggling with a difficult relationship—but the important part is that I got addicted to the ADHD meds. Nothing like a little bit of P.G. meth to liven up the life of someone who craves stimulation.
-Within only a couple of years, I had a problem. A big problem. I won’t go into everything I did, but it was bad. I did things I’m deeply ashamed of trying to chase that high including partaking of other people’s meds. I learned which ones I really liked and which ones were not that interesting.
Amphetamine salts were my favorite.
-Then, around 2014, I stopped taking ADHD meds. I was going to therapy. I was beginning the process of extricating myself from the bad relationship. I started to move away from my addiction. It was a hard and cold-turkey process that freaked my psychiatrists out, but I wasn’t willing to taper.
-There were hard and tempting moments (especially as a pet sitter who sometimes ended up in a house with a client’s ADHD meds), but I dealt with them.
And then one day, in 2019, my clients died while I was watching their pets. It was a couple and they both died in a boat fire off the coast of Santa Cruz. I was in the house with their animals waiting on family to arrive to start making arrangements. And I was alone in the house with probably 300 amphetamine salt pills.
Addiction is a terrible monster. It will never die. Not completely. And it will never stop. You can overcome physical dependence, but still get cravings a month…a year…even a decade later. And just because you can make the healthy choice once, twice, ten times…twenty times…doesn’t mean that the twenty-first time that compulsion comes knocking that you will have the same willpower to resist it. It’s why addicts can’t be around people who get high on their drug of choice. It’s why they remove themselves from situations where they’re tempted. It’s why they often don’t even hang out at their old haunts.
Because they know…eventually…they’ll be stressed, weak, low-resourced and they won’t face those moments of temptation with the same willpower. And the addiction will win. Their brain has been rewired. Once they start….
I had been in that house a dozen times. Watched their cats. Noticed that one of them clearly wasn’t using their amphetamine salt prescription. Bottles everywhere in the third bedroom—dozens and dozens of them—none of them touched. Clearly nothing that would be missed if a few disappeared here or there. For months I fed the cats, scooped the boxes, slept in the house and just said “no,” whenever the thought of those pills came to mind.
I don’t say this to make excuses. I can’t justify what happened. They died, I was an emotional wreck (try sleeping dead people’s house!), and alone with those pills day after day. I did not make a good choice the twenty-first time. I knew the pills wouldn’t be missed and I took a prescription bottle absolutely filled to the brim. It's one of the most shameful things I've ever done.
I got high as fucking balls the day I came home. I sobered up and did it again a couple of days later. Then again a couple of days later. Pretty soon I was high more than I was sober. When one didn’t make me high enough, I started taking two. Sometimes I would take a second or third pill to stay high instead of coming down. I would sit for hours, locked in place, staring at porn, my heart slamming 160 beats a minute in my chest and every light on the dashboard of my brain lit up like a thousand watt flood.
I couldn’t tell you how long this went on. Each time I sobered up, I would promise myself I was going to wait to do that again—that it needed to be a rare treat. Each time I stayed sober for less and less time between pills. Soon, I started to go about my daily business with one pill in me all the time, and take a second and third to get high.
I remember few surrounding details about what happened next. I remember being high and wanting to stay high. I remember tapping out three pills into my hand. I remember being up for two days straight. I remember thinking I would never get enough sleep to be functional the next day, so I might as well stay up…with a little help from a three pill bump.
“You’re going to kill yourself.”
It’s a curious sensation when a voice in your head isn’t yours. You might think any thought in your head would be yours, but your internal monologue has a distinctive voice. If you’re like me, you have an ensemble cast, depending on what’s being said. My mom is my voice of prudence (and maybe sometimes criticism). My therapist is the voice that asks me what it would feel like if I were kinder to myself about something.
But a voice you’ve never heard before—even if it is clearly in your head—sounds strange. Invasive. Alien. It doesn’t sound like the voice (or voices) you’re used to, and has a dissonant quality quite like you’ve heard another person casually using your head to think. It was firm, not compassionless, but also matter-of-fact. A woman’s voice. Like a mother telling their child they’re about to hurt themselves, but being willing to let them fuck around and find out.
I put the pills back in the little brown bottle. I slid the child safety lid closed, threw them out, and took out the garbage. Then just to be sure, I fished them back OUT of the dumpster, and poured them down into the rain gutter, watching as the water dissolved dozens of pills into a shapeless white sludge. That was the last time I ever took an ADHD med. It’s been four years.
I know how human memory works. I understand the fallibility of years old memories and how we go back and rewrite things to conform to our narratives of who we are and how we got here. I know that I probably had a salient moment of clarity and listened to myself, then years later decided to ascribe something more to it.
I also know that I really DID almost kill myself. My heart had arrhythmias so bad I had chest pains for weeks. I spasmed uncontrollably for a month. My liver still shows signs of cirrhosis years later. But it’s healing. (Because livers regenerate if you stop kicking the crap out of them.) And my doctor pointed out that if it looked that bad three years after I’d taken my last pill, I probably came SO close to acute liver failure that there would have been nothing anyone could do.
But I also know that I recognized that voice. From the moment it answered my question of who it was and I woke with the word “Anu” in my head, I recognized the voice.
Because that was the voice I heard that night tell me I was about to kill myself. And when she started talking to me in my dreams, I knew that she had at least stopped by that night to give me one last chance to stay alive.