“I was a ‘status quo’ addict,” Elijah said. “I believed I was managing my drug use as long as things looked good on the outside.”
Elijah’s parents divorced when he was five, and things were rough.
His mom struggled to make ends meet; his dad struggled with addiction. “I was very impressionable. I wanted to fit in. My friends’ older siblings were in gangs, and that looked attractive.
When my mom remarried, home didn’t feel safe, either. There was no physical or sexual abuse, but there was a lot of emotional and mental abuse. I was living in an environment of fear.”
In order to provide for her family, Elijah’s mother joined the military. While she was in basic training, the kids moved in with their father. Elijah was in fifth grade and his dad used openly. Elijah remembers watching in fascination as his dad rolled joints.
When his mom completed training, she and the kids moved onto a military base in Kentucky. For the first time, Elijah had structure in his life and positive male role models around him. He loved it.
When his mother deployed to Afghanistan, the kids returned to Albuquerque where both peers and relatives were drinking and smoking around them – and soon, with them. Without the structure of the base or the guidance of his mom, he started smoking and drinking as well. Soon he was using every day. Elijah started going through medicine cabinets and taking whatever he found.
Even after his mother returned from her tour of duty, his using continued. His grades were slipping. He was kicked off the football team. He was getting suspended from school.
When Elijah was a sophomore, his mom and stepdad moved to Colorado. He thought he would join them – but he was in too much trouble. When they moved, he went to live with his dad again. Elijah actually started applying himself. “I had this resentment toward my mother and this apologist mentality for my dad. My mom was better for me in a lot of ways, but I’d try a little harder for my dad.” But he was still smoking pot daily and drinking frequently.
In his junior year, he started working at the same restaurant as his dad and older sister. “I settled into working in a restaurant and getting high, which was basically following my father’s footsteps. And that was alright with me.” Elijah began partying a lot more. “My dad is weirdly strict, in spite of his own stuff. His thing was always ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. But it was easy to lie to him, because he was always stoned.”
He managed to graduate and left for college in Colorado. But he rarely went to class, and became more and more caught up in drug use. “I was officially on my own. There was no one who could tell me not to do anything.” Elijah was drinking every day, and began using LSD, ecstasy, and mushrooms. Rationalizing that “this is just what college kids do,” or comparing himself to others, he would tell himself that he wasn’t that bad, that the consequences beginning to pile up weren’t that bad. His family was doing the same dance. They knew he was getting in trouble but tried to believe it was no big deal. “Looking back, I can see I wasn’t like ‘normal’ college kids, because getting high was my daily focus. I always wanted to do more.”
That summer break he tried Oxycodone for the first time. “I remember being really high on oxy and just being like, I want this forever. I want this forever and ever. And the chase began. I was 19. My friends and I used to get together, do cocaine, roll on ecstasy — but now my old friends were all opiate addicts. I tend to take on the identities of those people around me. Like it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, at some point you lose control and you are officially unable to grasp any bit of control over when, why or how you drink or use drugs. That was it for me.”
His girlfriend broke up with him, and he responded by staying stoned. His family recognized there was a problem and didn’t want him to go back to school. “But I thought there was a chance I could get back with her.”
But when he went back, it got worse. “The first time I smoked heroin, this girl brought it over, and I was in despair. I had been drinking a ton, and I was like, yeah, hand that over. This thing that seemed so scary— all of a sudden, it just looked so good. I didn’t know you could smoke heroin. I thought you had to shoot it. It seemed safer. I could justify it.”
“Partying” gave way to a constant cycle of drinking and drug use. One night Elijah was pulled over with drugs in the car. There was a warrant outstanding for a drunk driving incident he had forgotten about, and he was arrested.
He recalls calling his mom from jail and for the first time admitting what he had been doing. He promised it was never going to happen again; he was going to change. Yet the day he got out, he got high. “I needed a substance. I just didn’t want to live in reality.”
He returned to Albuquerque, and within six months he had two jobs, a car and an apartment. “I was like, I beat it. I changed. I thought I was proving myself. I was functioning, but I didn’t stay sober at all.”
Back with old friends, Elijah started taking oxycodone regularly. He believed he was controlling it because he didn’t do it all the time. Elijah kept trying to prove he had it under control. “I always had to make sure that my outside looked right. And I always had to make sure that everyone still thought I was getting my shit done.”
But the addiction was escalating. Elijah still tried to rationalize his use, telling himself he worked hard to maintain his apartment, financial responsibilities, and his drug use. He didn’t steal, rip people off, or commit fraud. He was working seven days a week. He believed he had it under control. He began buying Suboxone off the streets to ward off withdrawals and be able to function.
But he had no control over his emotions; he was arguing constantly with his family. He also couldn’t get high the way he used to, and couldn’t afford to use as much as he needed. He was completely dependent on drugs to feel normal. “I knew this was no way to live.”
But Elijah didn’t know what sobriety meant. His method of getting off Oxy was to smoke a lot of marijuana, use Suboxone, and substitute with Xanax. He would do cocaine during the day to give himself energy and Xanax at night. The Xanax use escalated frighteningly; he he knew Xanax withdrawal could be deadly. He lost one of his jobs due to his drug use, and could no longer afford his drug use. “I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
He had started seeing a therapist and finally asked for treatment recommendations. They found a 30-day treatment center and he agreed to go.
“I remember telling my mom that after this, I’m just gonna smoke pot and drink, right? And I’m telling myself I’ve been able to manage that before. I just need to sweat this out. I think I can do that.”
He went to treatment and even decided to enter into a Sober Living program after, but he still held onto the idea that he would be able to drink and smoke pot when he got out. The program he was in taught 12-step recovery, but Elijah struggled with that model. He feared that if he gave up intoxicants, he would lose access to his creative self.
He left the Sober Living early. As soon as he got home, he smoked pot. He began drinking and using Xanax again almost immediately. Before long, he was in touch with an old dealer. Within a couple months he couldn’t maintain the appearance that he was managing. He was passing out at work, and one night had an accident. He knew when his employer investigated it he would be busted.
He decided to detox again and returned to the Sober Living facility. This time Elijah knew it had to be different. He didn’t have the cushion of the 30-day treatment, so he threw himself into the program — taking suggestions, working the Steps, going to meetings and signing up for several service positions, such as making coffee and chairing meetings.
He started sharing more honestly, admitting when he was having cravings, which he didn’t do the first time — he had wanted to seem like he had things under control. Elijah really cared about his recovery this time, and was able to get a glimpse of himself as a productive, sober person. He started acting in local theater productions. He got a new apartment and two jobs — one of them giving alcohol presentations to high school students.
“I was doing a lot of good stuff. I was still very active in the community, very active in the program. But my growth stopped when I got a girlfriend. I was going to meetings and doing service, but I wasn’t working a program of recovery. I kind of kicked my feet up. The way I see it now I was using, but I was using a person like I would use a drug.”
“I told myself I was a success story. Everything looked really good on the outside so it must be good on the inside.” He was keeping up the status quo. But he started doubting the 12-Step programs and stopped doing service. With the loss of the accountability to stay sober, he decided he could handle drinking again. He convinced himself he was not powerless over his addiction, that he could conquer it on his own. And when the relationship fell apart, he picked up heroin again.
Elijah had learned enough in treatment to know he had to do something different, fast. He called a friend in recovery who came to help him. Then he called his mother, admitted everything, and told her he had to come home. “It was that moment that I really conceded to my innermost self that I was an addict.”
He signed up for an intensive outpatient program and threw himself back into 12-Step meetings. “I still felt 12-Step programs were kind of cults, but I didn’t know how else to to stay clean. I only knew one way: go to meetings, be of service, work the Steps. That’s the only thing that ever worked for me. I had the willingness.” He got a new sponsor who helped him understand he truly was powerless over drugs and alcohol, and if he didn’t fully believe that he was just going to keep doing the same things over and over again.
Elijah made a shift this time. He came to love his recovery — he wanted go to meetings, hang out with recovery people, participate in sober events. Nine months in, he’s learning to be patient with himself, recognizing that he’s human and it’s okay to make mistakes. “I definitely think my true nature, when I’m not in my disease, is organized, punctual, and structured. That is the kind of person I am deep down. I learned unhealthy practices growing up. I just kind of thought I was a lazy procrastinator, a liar, a cheat.”
He is working again, rebuilding relationships with his family, and contemplating buying his first house. He has started performing as an actor and comedian, but is learning to take it slow, build up his daily routines, maintain his program. “One of the biggest aspects of someone who can achieve or will achieve long term recovery is the ability to see a future for yourself without substances. And anytime I think of my future there’s no substances involved. There’s no drinking, there’s no using. I can see myself doing everything I’ve always wanted to do, sober. I can envision that and I can imagine myself being able to stay sober through anything.”