We shed our addictions in the order in which they’ll kill us. That’s what I heard in 1989, and it turned out to be my experience. At 16, I was already using hard drugs. I was cooking and injecting powders before I ever smoked a joint. So much for the gateway theory. Like many of my generation, I spent the 1960s experimenting with every drug that promised a rapid departure from my unbearable reality and a shortcut to nirvana. Not everyone who has experienced trauma turns to drugs, but nearly all addicts and alcoholics have had traumatic experiences.
Drugs promised relief from the snakes and scorpions lacerating and poisoning my soul and my psyche. For awhile, getting loaded worked; the venomous invertebrates were kept at bay in a covered basket. I would spend the next quarter century scrambling to keep the lid on.
Addiction is an indicator of deeper underlying conditions. The booze and drugs are neutral; my relationship with them is not. Getting clean and sober is like getting divorced. I knew it was over long before I was ready to turn the page. Navigating the misery and demoralization of the familiar was preferable to stepping through the portal of the unknown. I knew I couldn’t go on living this way. But the idea of not using was unimaginable. It was a circle of Hell Dante overlooked.
In February of 1989, I walked into my first Twelve Step meeting. I had no idea what was going on. How in the world could a meeting in a poorly lit, dreary, smoke-filled room packed with people compulsively drinking all the coffee a body could absorb in an hour possibly help me?
Miraculously, I sobered up and learned how to live life on life’s terms without getting loaded. I watched people just like me living their lives one day at a time. I did what was suggested and listened to the contemplative and happy people.
When I stopped drinking and using, I fantasized that my life would spontaneously adjust and self-correct. I envisioned something akin to the transmutation of the Wizard of Oz from black and white to color. I thought by abstaining from booze and drugs, I would effortlessly ascend to a state of emotional and spiritual transcendence.
I was horrified to learn that the chemical detoxification was merely an introduction to the deeper experience of recovery. In other words, the problem wasn’t the booze or the dope. The problem was me. The blessing and the curse of life is that the future is unknown. I had no idea that cleaning my body of booze and drugs was merely an invitation to the journey. I stood at the foot of my spiritual Everest. The blizzard kept me from seeing the full scope of the daunting task ahead. Fortunately sherpas appeared to guide me through the storms.
During the next 17 years of sobriety, my addiction changed form. I used sex and money instead of cocaine or booze. After that phase ran its course, I started on food.
I became a regular at buffet restaurants. I was particularly fond of an Indian buffet restaurant on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. I’m surprised they didn’t post a guard by the door with an AK47 to block me from entering! Before I picked up a tray, I inspected the steam table. If the items I wanted were on the sparse side, I would promptly inform the waiter to replenish them.
By the end of my assault, there was a stack of empty plates on my table. As I wiped my hands, the remorse and disgust began to spread like black ink in a glass of water. I swore I would never do this again. The next day I would not eat all day to compensate. By evening I was inspecting the steam table . . . again. It was a familiar dance, just with a different tune. This choreography would expand me to 300 pounds.
My life was characterized by the transference of addictions – from smoking cigarettes to speed to heroin to booze and cocaine to sex and money and finally to food.
I had reached another plateau. I was stuck. My health was on yellow alert. I was pre-diabetic; my cholesterol was in the 400 range and I was always tired. If these medical issues weren’t enough, I was being treated for Hepatitis C with interferon, ribavirin and a host of other meds.
The colors were fading, and the lights were getting dim. Life felt like a dreary film noir. Something had to shift, but I didn’t know how or what the shift would look like. After 17 years, I felt as if I were back at my first Twelve Step meeting. I didn’t know what to do or how to start. I felt as though I had reached that part of the climb where you need oxygen. Unbeknownst to me, the Universe heard my plea. Be careful what you ask for.
Help arrived from an unlikely source – a trio of young 20-something, raw-vegan hipsters, skinny jeans and all. Gratitude is a central theme in the Twelve Step world. It is said that a grateful heart will not drink. One foggy night in San Francisco, I saw a sign in the distance – Café Gratitude. I imagined that a clever member of a Twelve Step program had opened a coffee shop geared toward the recovery crowd.
I strolled toward the place. What I thought was a coffee shop turned out to be a vegan and raw food restaurant. Instead of a bunch of recovered dope fiends, I found a community of health-conscious and spiritually-inquisitive people. Like my first Twelve Step meeting, I was desperate and open-minded enough to take suggestions from people I had never taken seriously and at whom I had always poked fun. I came to scoff, but was offered an opportunity to begin a path that would lead me into an unimaginable depth of redemption.
The tragedy of addiction is that it robs you of all your best intentions. It blinds you from the poetry of life. Grandeur has its place, but the joys of life are nestled in the nuances. It is from the subtleties that the fragrance of joy emerges.
Getting clean is more than abstinence, more than meetings and accumulating years. It is redemption of the soul and resurrection of the spirit. Getting clean is just that – removing barriers that inhibit the expression of a courageous heart and a restoration of ethical living that fosters a peaceful mind. I have come to believe that what people really want is peace of mind and a loving heart.
Frank Ferrante has been, in no particular order, a New York City cab driver, scrap metal hauler, dishwasher, census taker, mail boy, ditch digger, bouncer, general contractor, actor, radio announcer, carpenter, avid reader, seeker of God, weight gain and weight loss aficionado, recovered alcoholic/junkie, cocaine crazy, smoker, speed freak, raw foodist, vegan, BBQ connoisseur, lover, hater, father, husband, author of the new book May I Be Frank and subject of the award-winning documentary of the same name.