A Humble Reflection of Adversity: Higher Learning
There I was, a recent high school graduate caught in the midst of a terrible heroin and crack cocaine addiction.
Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and after taking a long look at this time in my life I am fully aware that the drugs and alcohol were never the problem. In fact, I believe whole heartedly that the drugs and alcohol were my misguided and selfish solution to the problem. I say selfish because I never once thought about how my choices were going to affect those around me who loved me unconditionally. It felt as if I was the center of my own universe; and if I was not getting what I believed was owed to me, I became resentful. But it wasn’t always that easy for me to distinguish between the rational and the irrational. At this point I was dealing with a drug addiction and an undiagnosed mental health issue that would be uncovered in the near future.
Even though I had been battling these demons throughout high school, I still managed to get into some decent colleges due to my academic and athletic body of work. I was done with the idea of Catholic school because I believed if there was a God he had abandoned me a long time ago. I can remember the impending feeling of doom I had when my father was dropping me off at orientation and I saw the sign that read, “Welcome to the University of Massachusetts class of 2011!” I had to bring a carton of Marlboro Reds and four grams of heroin just to make it through the weekend. When will this end I thought?
The college campus was about 100 miles west of Boston in a small college town set in the middle of nowhere. I was completely out of my element. I was a city kid raised on gangster rap, drug culture and a misguided idea of what the word “friend” meant. But I did what anyone hiding from the truth would have done, I put on my mask and tried to blend in with the crowd. But I was alone; and the only two things I had with me were a bad drug addiction and an even worse attitude.
I discovered that heroin was more difficult to find in the boondocks, so I did what any self respecting addict would do, I switched addictions. After going through terrible heroin withdrawals for about a week or so, I realized that people in college drink and do the occasional line of cocaine. So that is what I did. The only problem was I didn’t drink and do cocaine sparingly like a college student; I majored in it. If I ever went to class it was simply because one of the people I got drugs from was going to be on campus and it made sense to meet them early in the morning. I would drink a solo cup full of rum in a few massive sips and black out before I could even see the bottom of the glass. When these weren’t enough for me, I would take the two hour trip back to Boston, get a bunch of heroin and bring it back to campus for a few days of “bliss.” I didn’t even show up to classes on exam days because I knew the curtain was coming down and the Wizard of Oz was not who everyone thought he was.
I finished that first semester with a 1.8 grade point average in an undeclared area of study. I was so physically and mentally exhausted from maintaining all my lies that I finally got honest. I told my parents everything, and in between semesters I attended drug and alcohol treatment. I went to groups for six hours a day and also received one on one therapy a few times a week. I wanted to go back to school and have some semblance of a life, and I thought this may fix me. After a short period of counseling I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and prescribed the same meds I was abusing in high school - Xanax and Klonopins. On top of that, I was also prescribed a maintenance drug for heroin addicts known as Suboxone. It is based on the same premise as methadone, and it acts more as a substitute than a solution.
Armed with some FDA approved - and doctor prescribed - medications, I made it back to school for that second semester. The anxiety meds helped ease my overactive mind, and the Suboxone helped take away some of the cravings for heroin. I thought I was cured. I decided that if I was going to try to be a college student I would need to go to class and get some healthy stress relievers in my life. I made a deal with myself that I would go to every single class because I knew if I missed just one it would start a downward spiral back to my old behaviors. After class was over for the day, I created a routine for myself at the gym that I followed religiously. Since I was no longer playing sports, the gym became my competitive release. Just by doing these two simple things, I completed that second semester with a 3.0 grade point average and a much more hopeful outlook on my life.
For the next three years I did not get anything less than an A in every single class I took. I used my willingness to work hard and my excitement for a challenge, and I took it to a whole new level. I knew that after getting straight A’s once, if I didn’t do it again I would have been selling myself short. I declared for majors in Communications and Journalism, while also adding a minor in Spanish. I began writing for the student newspaper and sitting in on classes that I was not even enrolled in. I was writing investigative journalism pieces about environmental issues, and spending my Saturday mornings interviewing the appropriate people. I taught myself about video editing and podcasting while working on highlight reels for the basketball and lacrosse teams. I knew that hard work paid off all along, I was just finally seeing it materialize in my life again and it felt great!
Just as it was when I was growing up, school always went hand and hand with athletics. I wasn’t playing organized sports any more, but I created a gym regiment for myself and stuck with it. Growing up I was always short and skinny and I never believed I would be able to get past a certain point. But, I decided to trust in the process I had learned from my father and work out regularly. I started to see some real changes in my body and I fell in love with the results. I was hooked on the feeling of the pump, and I was hooked on the way my body reacted when being pushed to the limits. Once I started gaining weight and getting more muscular, I had tangible proof that my lifestyle in the gym was paying dividends. That was all I needed to continue pushing forward. When I went to treatment after my first semester I was about 115 pounds, and by the time I graduated college I was closer to 170 pounds. In three years I managed to gain close to 55 pounds of muscle. What could I do in ten years?
During this time I was also able to live life like a college student and find some balance in my academics, athletics and recreational life. I had parties, took trips to New York City, went to Cancun for spring break, and spent lazy weekend days on the Connecticut river. However, I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I didn’t admit to putting too much academic pressure on myself. There were times when I felt as if the world was ending because I believed a letter grade below an A on my transcript would change my life forever. But there are two sides to every coin, and it’s the same anxious mind that allowed me to grow academically and undertake things that I will bring with me for the rest of my life. It’s the same mind that allowed me take what I knew about the gym and turn it from a hobby to a lifestyle. And it’s the same mind that would allow me to graduate college with multiple degrees. The anxiety was both a blessing and a curse.
I stayed on my medications all throughout college and I was completely physically and mentally dependent on the both of them. They allowed me to focus on my studies and gave me the illusion of a normal life during my college career. I knew that if I didn’t take either of them I would have withdrawals, but I figured once I graduated college I would revaluate which medications were necessary. I couldn’t risk trying to get off them when I was doing so well where I was at, so I just continued doing what I needed to do while kicking the can down the road. Knowing what I know now I still wouldn’t change it. How many heroin addicts get to experience such a full life for over three years? I felt like I was given a mulligan, and I was more than willing to accept any help I could get to have my life back.
There was always this burning question in the back of my mind. What happens when this is over and I go back home to Boston? Will I be okay back in my old stomping grounds? However, it was always a passing thought that I never let consume me. It never felt like this life I was living would end; but eventually it did. One day the party was over and the four years of accepted Tom Foolery were gone. What’s next? Do I just find a job and work for the next 40 years? How do I know what I really want to do with my life? I had so many questions and not enough life experience to come up with all the answers. So I moved back in with my parents and told myself I would figure it out in short order. But life had other plans for me, I just didn’t know it yet.
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