Drug abuse, addiction, luck and choice: I was addicted to pills for a while


I started taking Ambien, Zoloft and other assorted pills without a prescription when I was taking care of my aging father. I would say that I was doing so recreationally, but that is not a particularly accurate description of what I was trying to get out of doing them. I smoked a good deal of pot, too, which I would never suggest I was addicted to. I was, however, certainly keen on shutting out any and all feeling while I watched my father die.

The pills, though, were another story. My father was sick for over a decade. He saw many different specialists and they prescribed many different medications. A lot of them went unconsumed and sat around the house for years. He had whole shelves consumed by unopened bottles. I started taking the Ambien to go to sleep and the Zoloft to quell the anxiety. Then it took more to do the trick, and so I did more. After my father passed away, I upped the doses again, washing them down with beer and whiskey, in order to avoid any feeling altogether.

Fortunately I had made a conscious decision to never try opiates. There were plenty of those around, too. My father was prescribed morphine and Oxys on at least a dozen or so of occasions to ease the pains of his surgeries and cancer treatments, but he rarely ever took them. “People take this for fun?” he’d ask. “They make me feel like a haunted idiot.” I decided to never touch them because I always felt that I had something of an addictive personality. A lot of my heroes were counter-culture types, at once elevated and totally undone by heroin. I had seen a good deal of friends be unhinged by related addictions at that point too, and so I knew better. I kept them around, though, and never questioned why at the time. In retrospect, it feels obvious that I never got rid of them just in case I ever got around to needing them.

My parents had separated when I was twelve and so I went a handful of years with little to no parental oversight and I hung out with a lot of older kids. Nearly two decades ago I was very likely saved from opiate addiction entirely by chance. I was at a small party with some friends where one offered me Vicodin, which I accepted without question. Another friend intervened, scolding the other who made the offer. “He’s just a kid, asshole. He doesn’t know any better.” She told me to make better choices than they had to that point, offering me a beer instead. They both, with a number of the people who were in that room, ended up and and out of rehab programs over the past 20 years. The guardian angel who intervened ended up in jail a couple of times. I went at least a decade without seeing her, but found myself working as a waiter at a restaurant her family celebrated one of her homecomings at. I was happy to have the opportunity to thank her.

After my father died, I sat in his ghost house for a handful of months, kept eating the pills, went through an absurd breakup and starting eating even more. My close friends and I refer to this as my dark and crazy period, as it was when I started to lose my mind. I ate pills and drank and got into fights about nothing and preached about half-philosophies, half delusions to anyone who would listen. No one really understood why I was crazy as I was decent at hiding the rationale. My father had just died. That was more than enough of a justification for odd behavior.

I ran in to the guy who offered me the Vicodin all those years back. He had gone through rehab, car crashes and legal trouble. Seeing him helped me to realize that I definitely had a problem. I tried to stop a handful of times and I couldn’t, which made me nervous. I eventually threw everything away, lost my mind further for a couple of weeks while coping with that loss of dependency, and started to reconfigure the way I processed my feelings. I was lucky that my primary supply never ran out before I realized what was going on, which likely would have led me to that backup stash of opiates. Would my decision to stay away from them have stuck had I been in a more desperate situation? I am fortunate to have never been tested. I came out on the other side not because I was stronger than other people in similar situations, but because I was lucky to not go too deep.

All of the pill stuff feels like it was forever ago. I have a wife, family, house, business and maybe even a life because I was fortunate enough to stop. I was fortunate to take a small step that I recognize can be crippling for some. I acknowledge everything above because—the same way we overlook how close we are to living on the street due to a paycheck-to-paycheck culture—we tend to overlook how close we, or people we know know, have come to devastating addiction.

I also bring this up because a handful of recent events and comments from LePage have rekindled conversations about solutions to these problems, and addiction in general. Too often I hear folks talk about how drug addiction is something that people choose to go through. The circumstances are different for everyone, of course, but this perspective ignores the complicated circumstances by which people get themselves into trouble. We are all naive or confused or overwhelmed at some point in our lives. Some of us go unmonitored as children, and make decisions that lead to life-long dependencies. Some of us have perfect upbringings and do exactly the same. We live in a wonderland of short-term bandaids for pain, which end up transitioning into long-term battles for many. I know a good deal of people who kicked addiction only to be prescribed a pain pill and to fall into it again. I have lost friends to addictions that formed around their mechanisms for coping with abuse. Choice isn’t always black and white. It doesn’t exist within a vacuum.

PHOTO CREDIT: Annie Reichert

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.