I arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, the summer before my sophomore year of college. I’d just quit my job and charged a $2,000 plane ticket to my credit card, to my parents’ enormous confusion. “I need to get out,” I said. “I miss home.” I blamed work and stress, the emotional trauma of my most recent breakup. Growing up far away, without my cousins and family in Russia, I was experiencing all the amped-up nostalgia of an impending midlife crisis. “I’m an adult,” I told my parents when they suggested I wait a few months to find a cheaper ticket. “I need to go and I’m going to go.”
They never knew I had a problem with cocaine. They didn’t and don’t and won’t, for as long as I can help it. I don’t come from the type of family where substance abuse is met with compassion. My parents sacrificed their whole lives for me, moved to America with four suitcases and a prayer, in hopes of giving their only child a better shot at life. If they ever found out what I did to myself they would rip the hair right out of my head and then collapse, because they would think they had failed as parents, that it was somehow their fault.
That was it, really: As much as keeping the secret of my cocaine addiction was self-protective, I didn’t want to hurt them with the truth. Somewhere between high school and college I’d gotten myself in, and now I had to get myself out. And I knew I had to get out when it got to be too much. What had started out as an easy fix for my untreated depression, heartbreak and the strain of a third-shift schedule was slowly beginning to kill me. My hair came out in clumps from malnutrition. My nose was constantly dripping blood and I shot xylometazoline up it to clear the blockage to make room for more. The only friends I had left had no idea what to do with me. Worse than that, I had no idea what to do with me. I was afraid I would end up killing myself before the drugs did, just so it wouldn’t hurt anymore. But I still loved my family and life, for what it was worth, and I knew suicide wasn’t an option. I just had to learn how to stop.
In the airport and on the plane, I shivered. My hair was lank and damp with sweat and I didn’t know if I smelled because my nose wasn’t working, but I probably did; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered. I breathed through my mouth. I didn’t sleep the night before because I had spent it finishing off my supply and I didn’t take any downers to relax because I was afraid I’d miss my flight. Roman, my dealer and new boyfriend, had given me a nice handful for the month I’d be gone. He knew what cold turkey felt like; he’s been there before, the times he’d been to jail.
My aunt picked me up at Pulkovo International and even though she didn’t say it, I knew what she was thinking. I knew what I looked like: My natural pallor had veered into a blue-tinged gray and the skin under my eyes had begun to break apart. I was thin and not in the good way. “What happened?” she asked. “Broken heart,” I told her. It wasn’t a lie, though I never told her the truth. As far as anyone would ever know, it was just extreme sadness. And that was okay, because they were no strangers to it.
I wasn’t prepared for what detox would feel like, I just knew I had to be away from the drugs. People say it’s not easy and it makes sense when you hear it, but you don’t really get it when it’s them and not you. You don’t know how not easy it is until it’s your blinding headache, until it’s you with night terrors. People have been through this, you say to yourself, there’s literature and rehab — a whole industry based on getting off drugs. But when it’s you, it’s the first time it’s happened to anyone. That’s how new the pain is. How raw.
Some days I felt like my head would split open. When I closed my eyes there were ants under my eyelids that buzzed and tunneled. I checked my email obsessively, every minute: Does he miss me? I put through long-distance calls to my friends. It was like just talking to someone who might be doing blow would get me high by association. I looked up pictures of white lines and clicked through them for hours, riding the squeeze in the pit of my stomach. I researched my symptoms too: nightmares, hallucinations, anxiety, anhedonia, something dizzying that felt like vertigo. Check, check, check, check, check.
I chain-smoked and drank, just to have something in my body. Everyone smokes and drinks in Russia so no one thought my behavior was off. I scrolled through articles about withdrawal and recovery that were too far away from me to be helpful, just words on a screen. I read. Requiem for a Dream, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. If I couldn’t do drugs I would read about them. My aunt poured white cleaning powder on the carpet and I nearly had a fit. I shoved the bed sheets in my mouth at night to keep from screaming.
“You Just Do It”
Really, quitting drugs is like anything else that’s hard to do. If you want to be a writer, you write. You don’t wait for inspiration or the right time or place. You just do it, and sooner or later you come up with something good. Complaining about writing doesn’t put words on the page. Same with drugs. If you don’t want to do drugs you don’t do them. Even when you’re scared and it feels like you’re dying. You just trust the process when you can’t trust your own mind.
I made lists. “Reasons to stay alive.” The fact that Imogen Heap existed. All the books I wanted to read. That I didn’t want to inconvenience my family with a dead body. Roman had given me Xanax, Valium and Klonopin for when the demons got too hungry, and I made these last as long as I could. Still, my favorite days were the ones I allowed myself a pill before bed, when I could get my breathing even and my mind to go dark.
One night at the bar, about three weeks in, I drank so much I couldn’t handle it and threw up in the bathroom sink. The bartender made me clean it up. “This isn’t America,” he said. I scooped it into the toilet with my hands. I didn’t know what I was thinking, that I could just stop it like this. That I could just let it go — the only thing that had been holding me together for so long. I asked everyone who came in if they had any cocaine. Even if they did they told me no. When I got home, I pulled all the cards out of my wallet and scraped them against each other over a CD case. To my great joy I came up with a small pile of powder. I rolled up a bill and snorted. There was the warm little jolt, then the crush of nothing left.
Eventually, the month was over. I would like to say my relationship with cocaine was over then too, but it wasn’t. Roman picked me up from the airport with an eight-ball in his pocket and even after we broke up I went back and forth for another month or two. It would be another six before I shook the worst of my withdrawal symptoms, and several more before I could look at sugar or salt without feeling my heart ricochet. But eventually I got there, and I’m writing this now and not missing it, six going on seven years clean. I don’t recommend getting off a drug like cocaine without help, and if I felt like I had another option at the time I would have done it differently, but I’m proud of myself and of everyone who’s done it alone. There’s nothing like taking yourself to hell and back that does quite as much to make you feel strong.