New Drugs, New Drinks, Same Sober Me

Having recently celebrated 11 years sober, it occurred to me that drinking and using has changed since I stopped. Not changed in a way like “Poof! No one uses drugs or drinks any more!” Far from it, I think our substance use disorder crisis has gotten far worse since I got sober.

No, I mean changed in like now in 2020 there are so many new products, new avenues and new ways to get inebriated. And while I cherish my sobriety and work pretty darn hard to hang onto it, I would be like if said there wasn’t just a teensy bit of FOMO when I hear about the plethora of new cool drugs and trendy new alcoholic beverages that all the kids are enjoying. 

For example, the other day a friend of mine was talking about going into a dispensary here in Portland. She said it was like a jewelry store and there were all sorts of glamorous options and different flavors of edibles all of which promised their own unique mind-altering high. I wondered as she spoke and my first thought was “Gee that sounds like fun. I should check one of those out.” My second thought, however, was “Oh wait. I don’t smoke weed anymore and like I didn’t really ever love it to begin with.” Likewise, another sober person in my life and I were laughing about all the cute, chic little cans of fancy wines that are on the market now, things that did not exist when I was drinking daily in 2008. I sighed and said out loud how nice that must be to go to events with adorable little to-go versions of wine. My friend was fast to remind me that a mini serving of wine would barely scratch the surface for a seasoned daily blackout drinker like myself. It’s definitely the same with smoking. I loved smoked cigarettes and started when I was 13. I didn’t stop until I was 37. Yet I totally missed the entire vaping phenomenon.  Despite not having a cigarette in 9 years, I really considered vaping over the summer. My brain convinced me fairly quickly that vaping could work and after all, I’d had a lot of loss over the summer. What harm could a little cupcake scented cloud of nicotine actually do? I already knew the answer to that question in the pit of my stomach. It wouldn’t be vaping just that once. I know that my inner addict would be off to the races after on puff.

Since 2009, I have seen lots of drug and alcohol trends come and go. I watched hipsters sip Moscow Mules out of fancy copper cups in 2011. I read articles about people being worried, understandably, about the presence of elephant tranquilizer showing up in heroin supplies in 2017. Just last summer at the swimming pool in my building, I saw skinny blondes guzzle back White Claws while tanning on deck chairs. I’ve also missed out on the big-time return of cocaine (But really? Did it ever leave?), the deep obsession with IPA, the momentary blip on the radar of frightening Flakka, Skittling, tainted CBD, spiked Kombucha, Kratom and probably countless others. Working as a recovery mentor in a hospital, there was no end to the new drug combinations or varieties we would see in the patients who wound up in the emergency room. I said “missed out” but when you see them in a list like that there’s zero real FOMO involved.

The daily screen time report at the end of the year on my new iPhone was, metaphorically, like looking at one of my old bar tabs. Let’s just say it was a daily average under 10 hours but not by freaking much.  It also started to make me feel depressed and filled with anxiety and not the fun entertaining thing it once was.

Yet I am reminded regularly that when it comes to anything that makes me feel good, I am not wired like “normal” people. As part of starting my new year off right, I decided to take a 90-day social media detox. Granted this in no way at all compares to quitting drinking or using drugs. It’s the luxury kind of detox that bored sober people like myself get to do when they have enough of a clear head to see other things in their lives that are problematic. The daily screen time report at the end of the year on my new iPhone was, metaphorically, like looking at one of my old bar tabs. Let’s just say it was a daily average under 10 hours but not by freaking much.  It also started to make me feel depressed and filled with anxiety and not the fun entertaining thing it once was. Thus, I decided a little break from social media would and maybe even helped me feel less anxious and depressed about the state of humanity. Also, maybe a social media break could usher in new healthy habits. I went to the bookstore to hopefully return to my love of reading and started practicing better sleeping hygiene. A few weeks in, I can honestly say this experiment is going well. I feel better and I’m getting more stuff done without being a slave to likes and notifications. But it definitely has highlighted how addicted to social media I actually am. It took a few days to not look at my phone out of sheer habit. I also found myself with a plethora of thoughts that I couldn’t instantly share. Thank god I’m a writer.  Also, it simply unleashed the inner addict in other parts of my life. Like the minute I deleted social media from my phone, I bought an AppleTV and started watching tv, in the same manner, I used to drink and reading books just like I chain smoked. Sigh.

In the end, drugs have changed and will continue to change. They may even be some validity to my thoughts that maybe these new drugs would be the ones that could work for me, the ones that wouldn’t destroy my life. Maybe vaping crack and drinking White Claw is the missing combination to help me use substances like a normal person! But I don’t want to find out because while the drugs have changed, I certainly have not. 

The Benzo Epidemic Won’t Go Away On Its Own

Benzo addiction and the story you are about to read is becoming increasingly more common in the United States. It’s an epidemic that will not go away without raising awareness for the people struggling.

“I can’t stop and if I do stop, I have a seizure,” a frantic voice on the other end of the phone to me a few months ago. The voice belonged to a young man I met in the hospital in my role as a recovery mentor. By the time we talked on the phone, this substance had already caused him to blackout, get physically attacked, and lose most of his personal items as well as entire days and weeks of his life. It was slowly killing him but the thought of quitting scared the crap out of him. The drug he was so afraid of yet so enslaved to? Benzodiazepines and his story is becoming increasingly more common across the United States.

See, it would be one thing if this young man was the first guy I’d worked with who had struggled with benzos. But the fact of the matter is, in my two-plus years as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist, I’ve met dozens of people meet with severe benzodiazepine use disorders. Even more terrifying, the appeal of benzos stretches across other addictions. The peers I support who struggle with meth, heroin, and alcohol usually have a problematic relationship with benzos too. So common in fact that me and the other people on my team ask our patients about benzos when we first meet them. Through these frank conversations and some chart digging, we often find that our people have been taking them for years. I recently met a man in the emergency room who started dipping into his mother’s Valium in his teen years. He is now in his 50’s and unable to stop. It’s a mini epidemic maybe not be as talked about as our current opioid crisis but one outlet like CNN and the New York Times have stood up and taken notice of. But how did we get here?

“Even more terrifying, the appeal of benzos stretches across other addictions. The peers I support who struggle with meth, heroin, and alcohol usually have a problematic relationship with benzos too.

Touted as a wonder drug in its early days, Valium was at one time the country’s most prescribed drug. What we didn’t know then was how highly addictive it could be and how some of the side effects included depression, suicidal thoughts, and overdose. Valium prescriptions were easy to get at one time and just as easy to get your hands on if you were like the man I met in the ER who was a kid in the Valium heyday. Since the early 2000s Xanax has taken over as the benzo catchall drug for everything from anxiety to panic disorders to even nerve pain. Mixed with alcohol Xanax can be incredibly dangerous. As someone who has done that not so magical combo more than once I can tell you the one thing it’s good for is forgetting larger chunks of your life. In addition to being easy to get your hands on a prescription, Xanax is now being sold on the street in pressed bar versions that contain lethal substances like Fentanyl and the very dangerous benzo hybrid Etizolam. This Xanax (often referred to as “Xanie Bars”) can be easily picked up on the street, online and even out in front of many urban outpatient treatment clinics. This is all incredibly problematic for the folks I work with who are also receiving Suboxone or Methadone as part of their treatment as the interaction of benzos with those medications can be incredibly dangerous. About two years ago, I sat with someone during a terrifying overdose caused by a combination of Xanax and Suboxone. He lived but continued to battle getting off benzos and other substances for months. To make things even more complicated, recent studies have found that benzodiazepines are more prescribed in poorer areas, causing addiction to already vulnerable populations. Yet due to their relative easy availability and sometimes unnoticed dependence, benzo addictions are often minimized or ignored by medical providers.

“Recent studies have found that benzodiazepines are more prescribed in poorer areas, causing addiction to already vulnerable populations. Yet due to their relative easy availability and sometimes unnoticed dependence, benzo addictions are often minimized or ignored by medical providers.

The very 2019 mess of benzo addiction carries with it an additional deadly twist: withdrawal. Withdrawal from benzos, like my friend at the top of this essay alluded to, are something to be afraid of. Like alcohol withdrawal, benzo withdrawal can literally kill. Grand mal seizures, hypertension, elevated temperature and increased bizarre behavior are just a few of the things that can happen when a person tries to quit benzos on their own. Working in the field and seeing real people in the grips of this addiction, I’ve had to develop very real strategies and conversations to keep people alive and safe. The first thing we talk about is if they want to stop taking benzos they should go to the ER, a local detox or at the bare minimum their primary care doctor. Again, the physical and medical ramifications are too intense and scary for someone to navigate on their own. Next, we talk about ways to keep them safe if they want to continue to use benzos. Using the compassion-based principle of harm reduction I walk through with them about ways benzos can be less problematic. This ideas include not mixing them with alcohol, letting others know how many and what you’ve taken, accessing Fentanyl testing strips, using them as prescribed and also making sure they have access to Naloxone, which can literally save a life of someone who has overdosed on an opiate and benzo combo.

I wish I could say that was the only phone call I ever got from this guy, this kid, really with the benzos problem. But it wasn’t. For months, we looked for safe ways that he could detox and get the help he desperately needed. Riddled by the combination of addiction and fear, he is, as of this writing, still battling this very real and common problem. Yet he isn’t alone. The microcosm of Portland, Oregon where I live and work is but one of many hundreds of battlegrounds fighting this epidemic. While there are no easy solutions what I do know is that people with benzo use disorders don’t need to be ignored any longer. They need our understanding, our help and our love.

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Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition. He also works as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist in Portland, Oregon.

Sober and Suddenly Single

“It’s just us three from here on out,” I remember thinking as I stood in my kitchen and stared at the scruffy faces of my two cats. See, I was getting divorced and it was hard not to feel like a divorced old cat lady.

This person is a cliché for reason: they actually exist and now I was them.  Here I was a gay man at 46 years old as my ex-husband went off with his new, younger boyfriend and I was left the consolation prize of these two felines. Oh don’t get me wrong. They are delightful creatures and better than most people I know. It’s just that I never pictured myself here. Ten years sober and suddenly single.

Yet that is precisely where I found myself this summer.  If you would have told me this is where I would wind up when I was new to recovery in 2009, I might have rethought this whole getting sober thing. Instead of nonstop glitter and rainbows, this unexpected turn in sobriety was really hard and full of challenges. Plus, completely lacking in substances to help me take the edge off. What was even more daunting was the idea of returning to dating after being out of the game for over 9 years. The world of gay dating had changed since I took myself off the market. I had missed the advent of Grindr, Scruff and all of the other dating apps. Also, I was left with a surplus of time and nobody to come home to.  How was I going to survive any of this without my old coping strategies (i.e. lots of drugs and alcohol.)?

“In a lot of ways, being newly single is like being newly sober.  When I was new to recovery, much of what I faced was just trying to do this whole life thing without drugs and alcohol. ”

The answer in short was I wasn’t if I tried it alone. This didn’t mean hopping right into another relationship. Dear god. No. I knew as much as I problem that I have with drugs and alcohol, I had at least that much of a problem with relationships. Not only am I from a long line of folks with mental health challenges and substance use disorders, codependency runs in my family as well. This genetic jackpot meant if I knew what was good for me, I’d avoid love and drugs of any kind and run screaming to my therapist’s office, which is exactly what I did. The only man I saw with regularity was my therapist and I paid him to put up with me. Not that a similar arrangement couldn’t be found elsewhere but I kept it in the purely therapeutic lane. I meant not alone in the sense of not having any support. If sobriety has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t get through change or challenging times all by my lonesome. Therefore, in addition to my therapist, I leaned heavily on my other sober friends. In addition to late night crying sessions and moments when I just needed someone to remind me to eat and take a shower, my sober support system help me see that I was eventually going to be okay but until then it was normal to not be okay too. Feeling all of my feelings, another horrible, icky thing I avoided when I was using ,  was key in this whole newly single thing. It was okay to feel heartbroken, to feel mad, to feel overwhelmed and bewildered by this newly single thing. Every person I talked to who had gone through a breakup had described the same rollercoaster of emotions. Every sober person I talked to about this, however, said something else: no person, no heartache no matter how bad was worth losing my sobriety over. They were right and it wasn’t going to go down like that.

“Sure, sure it sucks being a 46-year-old sober gay man being single in a youth obsessed culture but it sucks more being stuck in a marriage that wasn’t working. I now got the opportunity to find out who I am without out him, like I did when I said goodbye to substances. ”

In a lot of ways, being newly single is like being newly sober.  When I was new to recovery, much of what I faced was just trying to do this whole life thing without drugs and alcohol. My breakup has felt the same. The comfort, the thing I relied on, the fuel for my day to day life was no longer. I would have to figure out how to navigate life without it. Much like when booze and drugs had been gone for a while, I also started to realize how my old relationship wasn’t serving me. So here I am without my relationship and drugs and alcohol and in uncharted waters and you know what? It’s kind of incredible. Sure, sure it sucks being a 46-year-old sober gay man being single in a youth obsessed culture but it sucks more being stuck in a marriage that wasn’t working. I now got the opportunity to find out who I am without out him, like I did when I said goodbye to substances. What did I even like? Did I even want another relationship? Who was I? Turns out, I’m pretty awesome. I am incredible company and recovery helped me figure that out in the first place.  I like going to dinner and movies by myself. I like having plans with friends and not coming home at any specific time. It wasn’t some sad ass cat lady existence because I liked myself and for what it’s worth, like my cats every much too.

Last week, I woke up with the two scruffy aforementioned faces on my bed. It was just us and it was okay. Better than okay. I felt grateful to be on the other side of the bulk of all the sadness and chaos that a breakup brings.  Oh of course, newly single life still scares the hell out of me and I feel lonely and sad on a regular basis. There are still a lot of mechanical pieces in play about this divorce which have unknown and potentially stressful outcomes. But oddly none of it matters.  Recovery prepared me for the idea that everything changes and that as long as I didn’t pick up a drink or use I would be okay. Sober with cats beats drunk and in a relationship any day of the week. Plus I never have to worry about my cats leaving me for someone younger.

Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition. He also works as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist in Portland, Oregon.

Being Sober Doesn’t Mean Being Perfect

At this moment, my life is what you could politely call a shambles.

Shambles, let’s go with that. A sh!tshow, a disaster, a hot mess would all work too but shambles sounds like such a classy way to say falling apart.

The thing is I am going through a divorce, I am grieving the loss of a friend, I am barely hanging on emotionally every single day. I spend a lot of time crying in public, crying private and crying in general. My house and state of affairs are as messy as the life the life that currently inhabits them. There are people I need to call back and tasks I desperately need to handle. It all feels too heavy, too overwhelming and too much. When I got sober in 2009, I honestly thought things would be all come together, like the third act of Cinderella. I thought life and myself would be perfect. Clearly, I thought wrong.

“My daily life was so disaster filled with chaos at every turn that I knew that sobriety had to offer an alternative that was less traumatic.”

I don’t know where this idea comes from, that everything will be all better once we get sober, but it’s an idea that needs to go away. I guess this sober perfection springs up when we think about how hard our day-to-day lives were when we were drinking and using. Personally, everything was an effort. Just getting out the door and not worrying about being evicted from my apartment or fired from my job was enough. My daily life was so disaster filled with chaos at every turn that I knew that sobriety had to offer an alternative that was less traumatic. “If I just stop drinking and using drugs, life will get easier,” I thought. I equated sobriety with gift baskets filled with perfect jobs, perfect boyfriends, perfect apartments and perfect friends.  I mean anything would be better than the life I had before, right? In general, it was better. Just waking up knowing where my keys were and how I got home was a miracle. Likewise mornings without a hangover or bone crushing regret felt like the kind of mornings they have in old school Hollywood musicals. Plus, now I could actually show up and be present for things and actually participate in my life. People even liked me and wanted to be around me. But perfect? God no.

 See, what I didn’t count on was all of the wreckage I had to clean up from decades of drugs and alcohol use. I also didn’t realize that all of those pesky emotions I had been avoiding for so long would show up and multiply, like Gremlins who had been doused with water. My health, my teeth, my relationships were all things that also needed tending to. But more than that, my life didn’t just come all together and I didn’t get everything I ever wanted just because I stopped using drugs and drinking. This is a highly disappointing revelation for a fantasy junkie and instant gratification addict like myself. The reality was that life was still super messy and now I was hyper aware of all of its messiness. There wasn’t the buffer of mass amounts of cocaine and tequila to numb out the pain of daily existence. Now when I felt pain or felt uncomfortable, I could feel all of it and for sometimes for days at a time. What a joy!

I failed to realize in early sobriety that each time my life was difficult and a million miles from perfect but I stayed sober anyway the actual magic was happening. See, the way I drank and used drugs I sought total and complete oblivion. I liked not feeling anything. Therefore by somehow navigating a life without drugs and alcohol, despite how hard and messy it looked, was way better than any form of perfection I could come up with. Also, I would venture to say a lifelong desire to look like everything is perfect or at the bare minimum that everything was okay made me stay in my addiction even longer. As a master of disguise and low-grade espionage (aka lying), I could make it all look okay from the outside. The last six years of my drinking and using, I laid on a thick act that I was just fine and my life was really fantastic. Mere days before I got sober, I was still telling anybody who would listen how great my holidays were and how amazing I was. Tales of perfect Christmas dinners and festive shopping trips were shared with family members. The reality however is that I was drinking and using 7 days a week and couldn’t stop. My relationships were garbage, my health declining and I couldn’t stop getting evicted from my apartments. God forbid people know I was dying on the inside and in mass amounts of pain. It felt easier to just lie and say everything was fine and keep moving. Thankfully, it all came crashing down in January 2009 and I had to admit that I was struggling with drugs and alcohol and my life was not perfect. Like at all.

“I failed to realize in early sobriety that each time my life was difficult and a million miles from perfect but I stayed sober anyway the actual magic was happening.”

These days, when I look around at a currently messy existence I have to focus on the current moment. Is it perfect? Hell no. Did I ever think that at over a decade sober I would be feeling the most emotional pain I’ve ever felt? Also no.  But am I sober? Yes. Am I employed, loved and always taken care of? Yes, yes and yes. What being in recovery has allowed me is the ability to give myself a break. I get to not be okay. I no longer have to say “I’m Fine” when I am not fine. I get to embrace all parts of my life. Sometimes my condo looks like something from Architectural Digest, other times it looks like the before photo from a home makeover show.

I am a work in progress and as long as I stay sober, I get closer to loving all parts of myself. Even the imperfect ones.

Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition. He also works as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist in Portland, Oregon.

What The Show “Euphoria” Gets Right About Addiction

HBO’s new series Euphoria provides an eye opening look at the life of a young addict, and how she gets through the day to day challenges of being a teenager.

There’s a moment in the new HBO series Euphoria where Ru (in a knockout performance by former Disney star Zendaya) tries to buy drugs, only to be denied, that felt eerily familiar. Sure, the character is a teenager but this moment was one any person of any age who has struggled with addiction can feel in their bones. It’s a scene that will surely be submitted for Zendaya’s Emmy consideration and it should be. In it, Rue bangs on the door of her drug dealer and begs him to sell her drugs, only to be coldly denied. She yells, she begs, she bargains, she ultimately melts down. He doesn’t budge and ultimately she walks away. Struggling with sobriety since the first episode, the scene encapsulates the desperation Ru has. She just wants the pain of her life to go away. The day after it aired, friends texted and we all concurred that even though we are all in our thirties and forties and may not have ever had that exact scene, the feelings of bone crushing craving and utter despair were completely identifiable.

The show which premiered earlier this summer has been criticized by some for sensationalizing teen drug abuse, sex and violence.  Perhaps rightfully as it’s a blasting, in-your-face soap opera that often verges on silly. Yet what Euphoria does completely nail is the complex and heartbreaking world of addiction. We meet Ru in the first episode after a stint in rehab. This is a girl who doesn’t look like she has much interest in staying sober, despite nearly dying from an overdose. Her relapses, her lying to her parents, the complex storytelling to get what she wants- again all eerily familiar. See, although my teen years were in the 80’s and early 90’s, sometimes looking at Ru is like looking at a mirror.

Great writing and again that performance helps successfully build Ru as a girl who feels broken and out of place and looking for a way out. Growing up a gay teenager in Golden, Colorado, I too often felt like an alien. Bullied, misunderstood and ignored, I wanted connection and to feel like I could float away from a life that was sometimes too painful to endure. Finding drugs, cigarettes and alcohol at the age of 14 was like finding a way out. Using instantly garnered me a slew of cool new friends while successfully taking the edge off of day-to-day living. But it was also immediately out of control. I got arrested at age 15 for stealing peppermint schnapps. Peppermint schnapps? Eww. I should have been arrested for that and they should have thrown away the key. What’s worse, I LIED to the police officers and gave them a fake address and phone number! This all laughably blew up in my face and is in no way on par with the complex blackmail and espionage the teens of Euphoria take part in but it’s the same flavor.

What terrifies people about this show and movies like Thirteen and Kids is that they force us to look at the truth: American kids are addicted, in trouble and dying. Left to their own devices and often times raising themselves, lots of teens fall into all sorts of crazy situations. As a former teen who used to do acid at the mall just for something to do, I can attest to this. But it isn’t all fun and games. Study after study links early drug use to substance use disorders, drug overdose and death. Getting sober in Los Angeles at age 36, I was blown away by the amount of 18, 19, 20 year olds in recovery. These kids all had multiple overdoses and near death experience due to drugs and alcohol. They were done by at 19. If I am totally honest with myself, I should have been done at that age too but remarkably went on almost two more decades. Much like the character Ru, these kids had been hit fast and hard by addiction at an early age and were now just trying to stay alive and stay sober. Another fantastic moment in the show finds Ru at a party with her friend Lexi who reflects that it must be hard for Ru to miss out on all the teen things like drinking and using drugs now that she’s sober. Ru quips that she’ll have to miss out on all of the adult things too. Again, that’s a sentiment anybody of any age in early recovery can relate to.

I don’t understand people who say weird stuff like “I loved high school!” What was that like to feel not suicidal, high or depressed for the majority of your high school life? How weird to have felt like you belonged or that you didn’t need to get wasted just to do things like go to class or take a final. I think that’s why shows like Euphoria speak to me. I truly understand these kids who feel lost and doomed, even though we are from totally different generations. A tiny part of teenage Sean still feels that way and still longs to be approved of and to belong. As a sober adult, I get to tell that kid that he is loved and now that he is okay. The natural isolation of high school mixed with the hurricane of addiction is a story that needs to be told and Euphoria does a fantastic job. But more than that, all of the stories of addiction and recovery need told too. Euphoria stands out on another level because it’s a person of color in recovery from addiction. That’s something that happens all of the time and around the world but if we were to believe television and films, only white people get sober and stay sober. But mainly, these stories need to keep being told and retold so that people who have what I have can turn on their television and think, “I’m not alone.”

Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition. He also works as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist in Portland, Oregon.