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Drug abuse or drug use?


At first drugs made me euphoric. It was only years later that things began to fall apart.

I loved drugs. Even after they had ruined my health, alienated me from my family, stunted my career and nearly cost me my marriage, I still loved them.

I was an unhappy child, insecure and self-conscious. I longed to be accepted by my peers but my eagerness singled me out for ridicule and bullying.

Things improved somewhat when I reached high school. I excelled at sport and was a good student. But the feeling of being alone in a crowd persisted, as did my chronic and painful need for approval.

University, I thought, would be a fresh start. Instead I found myself in the lion’s den, living in residence filled with guys from private boarding schools. My naive eagerness and attention-seeking made me a target for another round of ridicule and social exclusion.

It’s only when I was about to graduate from university that I discovered what I thought was the cure for my chronic awkwardness.

I remember taking my first ‘hit’ of ecstasy at a warehouse party. That night lived up to the name of the drug in every sense. Suddenly I was utterly self-assured. I was able to speak to anyone about anything, to dance without fear of judgement, to express my affection for my friends without restraint. This substance was what I had been missing.

Not long after graduating, I spent a year in London, revelling in the club scene. I learned to dance, to flirt, to make friends with strangers. But without the drugs I had no social fuel, nothing to sustain me through any awkward moments, nothing to assure me that everything was going to be okay.

By the time I moved to Cape Town I had discovered my drug of choice: cocaine. Ecstasy, by comparison, was kid’s stuff. Cocaine made me feel clever, charming and powerful. Within a few years I was taking it nearly every weekend.

All drug users have bad trips at some point. At first these were rare exceptions, but by the time I got married in 2008, they had become the norm. My wife, growing more and more alarmed by my behaviour, had started asking me to quit. She had also taken drugs, but was always able to stop whenever she wanted to. I seemed to lack the same “off” switch.

I remember leaving a friend’s wedding in the winelands to drive back to Cape Town to score drugs. I left my wife alone, our friends asking where I was. I missed the entire reception, arriving back so obviously high that even the parents noticed.

Just one year into my marriage, I was constantly lying to my wife. I had cut my family off, not returning their calls or seeing them. I would disappear for hours, even days at a time. I began avoiding even the friends I used drugs with, fearing they too would judge me.

But, rather than a constant party, my days had become a living nightmare. I was consumed by anxiety, shame and guilt. Using no longer made me euphoric, even for a short while. The drugs had stopped working, but I was unable to stop.

Finally my wife had had enough. She moved out of our flat and gave me an ultimatum: clean up or our marriage is over. I will always be grateful to her for this – the reality of possibly losing her gave me my first moment of clarity.

I told my parents about my problem and admitted myself to a drug rehabilitation centre. For the next 12 weeks I faced the fear and shame I had been suppressing for my entire life. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced, but also one of the most worthwhile. For the first time in a decade I was awake.

Like millions of other addicts around the world, I have stayed clean with the help of Narcotics Anonymous. Perhaps the most striking feature of the programme, for the uninitiated, is its lack of emphasis on drugs. Instead, addicts learn that we used drugs to cope with a deep and persistent emotional discomfort. The drugs, then, are a symptom of the disease of addiction, not the cause.

For many people the idea that addiction is a disease seems like a cop-out. But what it means is that we are not responsible for being sick in the first place. It means that, once we know how to recover, we are responsible for that recovery.

It’s a great pity, then, that most of society is still focused on the drugs themselves and not the people who are addicted to them. Billions have been spent fighting the “war on drugs”, but people have not stopped taking drugs. If anything, consumption has increased.

Prohibition and condemnation usually achieve the opposite of what we intend, and criminalisation and condemnation have served us poorly.

At my high school, anti-drug campaigners warned us that if you take drugs once, not only would you immediately be addicted, your life would quickly spiral into depravity and death. Yet when I started taking drugs I found that my life was just fine. Apart from a hangover the next morning, there seemed to be no ill effects. I dismissed the anti-drug lobby as scaremongers. It took nearly a decade for my disease to show its teeth.

We should treat teenagers more like adults. Many (if not most) of them will try drugs at some point. What they need to be vigilant about is their relationship to those substances, not the substances themselves.

In defence of being a responsible drug user

I always swore I would never drop acid. I can still remember the time I berated my best friend when he told me he went candy flipping (dropping acid – lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD – and taking ecstacy at the same time) on a beach in Kenton in the Eastern Cape.

We were university students and, even though I was smoking pot daily, acid was a bridge too far.

“It was beautiful,” he told me, breathless and starry-eyed. “I saw the air breathing … everything sparkled.”

I was not convinced. It would be another two years before I tried it for myself.

I was in a dodgy bar 300m down the road from my house in my final year of university and it was one of our last big nights out before graduation. I bought myself three pills of ecstacy while the rest of my friends dropped acid.

One by one their eyes started to glaze over; they were “coming on” but I still felt nothing. My E was just not working. So I marched up to the dealer as he nodded his dreaded head to the trance music blaring from the speakers. I gave him R150, he handed me a tiny piece of tinfoil, and that was that.

I unwrapped the foil to find a 1cm x 1cm piece of paper with a smiley face on it. I placed it under my tongue and waited. Soon I saw the music in colours swirling around my head. And so began one of the most beautiful nights of my life.

I don’t think anyone can truly explain what an acid trip really feels like. All I can tell you is on that night my six friends and I were bound together in psychedelic solidarity. For that night I felt as though I was part of the universe, connected to every living thing.

Now, before you start throwing your arms up in the air and tut-tutting me from your moral high ground – What about the kids? How can you possibly advocate illicit drug use of any kind? There is absolutely no responsible way of taking hard drugs! – allow me to explain myself.

I have a job, which I get to on time every day. I am successful in my field. I am in a strong and loving relationship with my fiancé. I have a savings account and several healthy, happy animals. And I have smoked pot every day since 2006; in addition to making me feel mentally better, it also relieves the pain associated with a chronic muscle pain disorder I suffer from.

On special occasions I even take MDMA (pure methylene­dioxymethamphetamine, not ecstacy, which is what you get after MDMA has been cut with who knows what). In addition to taking acid three times, I’ve tried “party drugs” like Special K (once) and cocaine (more than once), though I firmly draw the line at drugs such as heroin, tik or nyaope.

I do wish the drugs I take were regulated – I’d prefer to know exactly what I was ingesting, and I realise the real risk of not knowing – but I always make sure I am in a safe environment before I take any drug of any kind and I only do it with my friends. We look after each other and we always take a taxi.

Writing about responsible drug-taking is far from being kosher – in fact, it’s outright taboo. But you and I both know that I’m far from alone.

For Steve Jobs, at least, acid was a life-changer.

“LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it,” Wired magazine reported Jobs said regarding his repeated use of the drug between 1972 and 1974.

“It reinforced my sense of what was important – creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”

The father of LSD, Dr Albert Hofmann, the chemist who developed the compound, maintained throughout his life that the drug had the ability to advance the human spiritual condition.

He hoped LSD would make an important contribution to psychiatric research as it exaggerated inner conflicts that could be used to treat mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Of course it deeply saddens me when someone dies of an overdose. I worry about addicts who ruin their lives and the lives of those who love them, and about underage children using drugs.

But although most people won’t frown at someone who enjoys a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with dinner, you never know who will judge you for an occasional weekend drug indulgence, no matter how highly functional and responsible you are.

I may smoke pot every day but I have plenty of ambition. And I guarantee you that my short-term memory is better than yours.

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