“Work hard, party harder”

The mis­use of so­cial drugs at Mcgill

The McGill Daily - - Front Page - writ­ten by na­talie li­conti | vi­su­als by conor nick­er­son


If you Google im­age search “coke ad­dict” you’ll likely get re­sults of celebri­ties like Lind­say Lo­han and Paris Hil­ton passed out in the back seat of a pri­vate car. Do the same for “crack ad­dict” and let me know if you find a top im­age re­sult that fea­tures any teeth. While I’m def­i­nitely not Lind­say Lo­han – even though I’d like to be – and I still have all my teeth, I am an ad­dict.

Nina, a fourth-year stu­dent at Mcgill, writes to me that she be­lieved that an ad­dict couldn’t pos­si­bly look like her. “I had no idea I could be an ad­dict un­til I ac­tu­ally learned more about ad­dic­tion and met other young peo­ple who were sober, who showed me that re­cov­ery was pos­si­ble,” she tells me.

Sim­i­larly, it took me years to re­al­ize that my ‘bad habits’ were ac­tu­ally an ad­dic­tion. Why did it take me so long to un­der­stand that my use/abuse was a prob­lem? I am ad­dicted to co­caine, and co­caine is a so­cial drug. So­cial drugs con­nect the iso­lated, the in­se­cure, and the anx­ious. They push the in­tro­verts out into the world of “nor­malcy” (what­ever that is), the world of par­ty­ing and so­cial ac­tiv­ity that univer­sity stu­dents are gen­er­ally ex­pected to en­gage in. Co­caine be­came my drag queen. She was fab­u­lous, so­cial, horny, witty – she was what I wish I could be all the time. Co­caine gave my an­ti­so­cial, awk­ward, and in­hib­ited in­te­rior self a Miss Con­ge­nial­i­tyscale makeover.

As I stopped us­ing co­caine, I felt in­creas­ingly as if I was liv­ing be­tween two worlds, un­able to fully par­tic­i­pate in ei­ther. I was hav­ing trou­ble be­ing sober and rein­te­grat­ing into my so­cial cir­cles. I felt shame­ful when I slipped up and used again. How­ever, I also did not feel that I be­longed in ad­dic­tion sup­port groups. By all ex­ter­nal met­rics, I was “high func­tion­ing”: I earned top grades, reg­u­larly called my mother, was ac­tively in­volved in theatre and per­for­mance, and was in a sta­ble re­la­tion­ship. As a re­sult, my friends and peers didn’t see my de­pen­dency on co­caine as an is­sue – though many of them were aware that I used reg­u­larly. I thought, to be an ad­dict, I had to have hit prover­bial rock bot­tom. I be­gan to un­der­stand how many ad­dicts felt the way I did, and were slip­ping un­der the radar in their de­pen­dency on so­cial drugs.

My goal for this ar­ti­cle is not to sound like Oprah on “Oprah’s Next Chap­ter,” but I did want to in­ter­view peo­ple in my com­mu­nity about their ex­pe­ri­ences with ad­dic­tion and party drugs, specif­i­cally in the con­text of Mcgill. One of these peo­ple is Anna*. A stu­dent at Con­cor­dia, Anna has strug­gled with drink­ing since the age of four­teen, and she tells me that she had much more trou­ble get­ting help for her al­co­holism than for her abuse of pre­scrip­tion drugs. In the case of her ad­dic­tion to opi­ates and Ben­zo­di­azepines (like Xanax) she was “a vis­i­ble ad­dict” – she lost weight, be­came in­creas­ingly with­drawn from so­ci­ety, and even­tu­ally over­dosed be­fore her hos­pi­tal­iza­tion. Thus, she re­ceived im­me­di­ate in­sti­tu­tional care. She no longer uses any kind of non-so­cial drugs, but her de­pen­dency on al­co­hol con­tin­ues, and she’s find­ing it harder to ad­dress be­cause of al­co­hol’s wide­spread use in so­cial set­tings.

Part of the rea­son Nina and I had a hard time re­al­iz­ing we were ad­dicts is be­cause lot of our images of ad­dic­tion are rooted in racist, clas­sist, and colo­nial stereo­types. The ad­dicts we see in pop cul­ture are al­most in­vari­ably poor, un­e­d­u­cated, Black, or In­dige­nous. We have par­tic­u­larly deep­rooted racism when it comes to par­tic­u­lar sub­stances: In­dige­nous peo­ple are often shown to be al­co­holics, and Black peo­ple are por­trayed as crack ad­dicts, for ex­am­ple. We need to un­learn these stereo­types be­cause they’re deeply de­struc­tive to the marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties they’re lob­bied against, and have been de­ployed to jus­tify their mass in­car­cer­a­tion and on­go­ing dis­en­fran­chise­ment. But also be­cause they pre­vent us from rec­og­niz­ing those who don’t fit the im­age – in my case, white, uni­ver­si­tye­d­u­cated, and mid­dle- class – as ad­dicts.

I hope that this ar­ti­cle can be the begin­ning of re­vi­sion­ing a more ac­cu­rate spec­trum of ad­dic­tion. I be­lieve that in do­ing so, we may widen a vo­cab­u­lary for the treat­ment and sup­port of ad­dicts.

Down the habit hole

Co­caine be­came my en­tire life very quickly. I be­gan us­ing co­caine when I was eigh­teen, and less than a year later I couldn’t have an al­co­holic drink with­out ac­com­pa­ny­ing it with coke. Over the three years that I was heav­ily us­ing, I would buy a gram a week on av­er­age. That’s about $320 a month, amount­ing to nearly $4,000 a year. I re­mem­ber one week I had $12 in my ac­count and still bought coke that night. I al­ways found a way to pay for it. I be­gan com­pul­sively steal­ing from phar­ma­cies and gro­cery stores to save an ex­tra thirty dol­lars here and there.

Even­tu­ally I couldn’t af­ford co­caine any­more – not the price, but the sleep­less nights, the da­m­aged re­la­tion­ships, the in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour, the ma­nip­u­la­tion of friends and fam­ily, and the com­plete sense of des­per­a­tion that I felt with­out it. In­stead of feel­ing ex­cited to go on ex­change in my fi­nal year of univer­sity, I be­came in­cred­i­bly anx­ious about the thought of ar­riv­ing in a new city with­out hav­ing a dealer there. I even con­sid­ered flying with bulk, or mail­ing co­caine to my ad­dress in Glas­gow. Of course, within a week, I found a dealer in Glas­gow. While I was trav­el­ing in Europe dur­ing my ex­change, my trips were de­ter­mined by whether I could travel via train in or­der to bring co­caine with me. If I had to fly some­where, I would fran­ti­cally con­tact all of my con­nec­tions to see if they knew some­one who knew some­one who could “hook me up in Stock­holm.” Ad­dic­tion is ex­haust­ing. Hélena*, a friend of mine who works at a restau­rant in Mon­treal, be­gan drink­ing when she was four­teen. She tells me that in the town that she grew up in, drink­ing was nor­mal­ized and “ev­ery­one was get­ting fucked up.” Be­ing nat­u­rally shy, she found al­co­hol ap­peal­ing be­cause it helped her feel so­cial. From there, drink­ing be­came a habit, then an ad­dic­tion. “When you learn how to func­tion with a sub­stance in your life,” she tells me, “you don’t even see what it’s like to func­tion with­out that sub­stance. It au­to­mat­i­cally be­comes an ad­dic­tion.”

The habit be­gan as an ex­cuse. She would tell her­self I can’t fall asleep with­out a cou­ple of beers, or I can’t un­wind af­ter work with­out a cou­ple of beers. As her tol­er­ance built up, a cou­ple of beers es­ca­lated into a bot­tle of wine ev­ery night. “When a bot­tle of wine isn’t enough to get you drunk,” she says, “there’s a se­ri­ous fuck­ing prob­lem.”

So af­ter years of drink­ing, Hélena be­gan to ask her­self some dif­fi­cult ques­tions like Can I go out and not have more than two beers?, which was clearly not the case. Work­ing in the ser­vice in­dus­try fur­thered the nor­mal­iza­tion of al­co­hol as a daily rit­ual. Since drink­ing is an in­her­ent part of the af­ter­work cul­ture in the ser­vice in­dus­try, she told her­self, We’re all like this, it’s not a prob­lem if ev­ery­one does it.

Even­tu­ally Hélena be­came less and less func­tional and be­gan to feel se­ri­ous phys­i­cal reper­cus­sions from her drink­ing. To al­le­vi­ate the phys­i­cal pain as­so­ci­ated with con­stant hang­overs – fa­tigue, headaches, mus­cle aches, stom­ach pain, de­creased sleep, shak­i­ness, and de­pres­sion – she would start drink­ing ear­lier in the day. It got to a point where ev­ery­thing she did re­volved around whether or not she would have ac­cess to al­co­hol. Her mind was con­sumed with whether she could make it to the dep on time be­fore it closed af­ter her shift. If she couldn’t make it, she’d have to go to the lo­cal bar where she would be sur­rounded by peo­ple with sim­i­lar prob­lems. She had de­vel­oped su­per­fi­cial friend­ships with peo­ple who she be­lieved to be im­por­tant to

Co­caine be­came my drag queen. She was fab­u­lous, so­cial, horny, witty – she was what I wish I could be all the time. I thought, to be an ad­dict, I had to have hit prover­bial rock bot­tom.

her, but re­ally what was im­por­tant to all of them was drink­ing.

Just like Hélena, Nina tells me how she be­gan to or­ches­trate her en­tire life around en­sur­ing that she could drink. “A habit floats around in the back­ground,” she says, “where[ as] an ad­dic­tion is the un­der­cur­rent to ev­ery­thing that you do. The dif­fer­ence be­tween ad­dic­tion and habit is that you can’t imag­ine life with­out this sub­stance,” she writes. “Non- ad­dicts change their be­hav­iours to meet their goals, but ad­dicts change their goals to meet their be­hav­iours.”

Drugs are su­per fun un­til they’re not fun any­more

Af­ter Hélena’s first at­tempt at so­bri­ety sev­eral years ago, she re-in­tro­duced al­co­hol sev­eral months later – and her al­co­holism soon got worse than it had ever been. One night her up­stairs neigh­bour broke into her apart­ment af­ter smelling smoke. She had been cook­ing when she passed out on the kitchen floor, drunk; her food be­gan burn­ing and filled the apart­ment with smoke. “That took me a while to get over,” she tells me. “The shame as­so­ci­ated with some­thing like that hap­pen­ing [...] When all you know is drink­ing, you just drink to for­get that kind of thing. That in­ci­dent was def­i­nitely the begin­ning of the end.”

I was feel­ing empty and tired, af­ter years of us­ing co­caine reg­u­larly. I would feel so much shame from things I had said or done to peo­ple while be­ing high, and I didn’t want that any­more. I was des­per­ate to find the mid­dle ground of hav­ing two drinks and go­ing home – with­out do­ing coke. For me ev­ery­thing is al­ways all or noth­ing, a mind­set in­her­ently bound to my manic de­pres­sion. When I tried to cut back on my use I’d ei­ther stay in, need­ing com­plete iso­la­tion from all peo­ple, or go out and stay out un­til the sun came up.

Sim­i­larly to my ex­pe­ri­ence with coke, Nina tells me that “drink­ing so­cially” had a very dif­fer­ent meaning than what it ap­par­ently meant to other peo­ple. For oth­ers, drink­ing was a nice ac­ces­sory to a pleas­ant event. For her, “drink­ing was the event.” She drank be­cause of self-hate and it be­came a so­cially ac­cept­able way of self­harm­ing. When she was drunk she stopped hat­ing her­self for a few hours. Even­tu­ally she learned that it’s not nor­mal to black out ev­ery sin­gle time you drink. She tells me that “The most pow­er­ful part of ad­dic­tion is it’s the only dis­ease that tells you that you don’t have a dis­ease.”

Work hard, party hard: Drugs at Mcgill

It’s es­pe­cially hard to quit so­cial sub­stances like co­caine or al­co­hol be­cause we’re trained to think that be­ing so­cial is nec­es­sar­ily pos­i­tive. It’s hard to see how high en­ergy and ex­tro­ver­sion could be a symp­tom of an ill­ness. But we some­times end up en­forc­ing so­cia­bil­ity – es­pe­cially in a univer­sity en­vi­ron­ment, with im­mense pres­sure to have “the best four years of your life” – at the ex­pense of our health. Mcgill, and Mon­treal gen­er­ally, are known for their “work hard, party hard” ethic. But it’s a life­style that ends up in­vis­i­bi­liz­ing ad­dic­tion: when you’re get­ting good grades and mak­ing new friends, it’s so easy to ar­gue that it’s al­right to do Ad­der­all dur­ing the day and coke at night.

Nina is drug-free and sober, and has not let this so­cially iso­late her. She still often goes out; she sim­ply won’t drink al­co­hol. She tells me that now she knows what sit­u­a­tions she en­joys: “Come out danc­ing with me and ex­pect to see me flap­ping on the dance floor, Red Bull in hand,” she says. Peo­ple in her life fre­quently for­get that she is sober and drug-free be­cause she looks noth­ing like the somber, no-fun sober girl stereo­type.

Hav­ing spent her en­tire aca­demic ca­reer in re­cov­ery, Nina told me that, “At Mcgill, there’s a dis­turb­ing cul­ture that nor­mal­izes sub­stance abuse, and can make it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for stu­dents to rec­og­nize ad­dic­tion when it’s present in their lives.” Be­ing from the U.S., she had no knowl­edge of what frosh was. By com­plete luck, she signed up for Rad Frosh (which isn’t dry, but isn’t cen­tred around drink­ing) in­stead of the more typ­i­cal Fac­ulty Frosh (“had the Mcgill web­site de­scribed this as what it is, chug­ging beer at 10 a.m., the choice would have been easy for me”). She has now seen ca­sual co­caine use at par­ties go un­ques­tioned, and has learned about drink­ing com­pe­ti­tions like Car­ni­val that are spun as ‘school spon­sored char­ity events.’ As a floor fel­low, she has watched stu­dents spend hun­dreds of dol­lars a week on drugs, drink ev­ery night, and sim­ply slip un­der the radar. She has friends who have ei­ther got­ten sober while at Mcgill, or came here al­ready sober, and they have all shared these sen­ti­ments: Mcgill fos­ters a com­mu­nity that nor­mal­izes harm­ful sub­stance use be­hav­iours, ig­nores ad­dic­tion, and pro­vides next to no sup­port for those strug­gling with sub­stance use is­sues.

In com­plete agree­ment with Nina, I have found Mcgill Coun­selling and Men­tal Health Ser­vices (CMHS) in­suf­fi­cient (to put it lightly) when it came to seek­ing help for my ad­dic­tion. In my first year I made sev­eral at­tempts to get into a Cog­ni­tive Be­havioural Ther­apy (CBT) group ther­apy ses­sion – a type of ther­apy well-suited to treat ad­dic­tion – and was on a wait­list from Novem­ber un­til March. When I was fi­nally at the top of the wait­list, I was told by the same clin­i­cian that had en­cour­aged me to sign up im­me­di­ately that I was un­able to join as there were only a few ses­sions left be­fore the sum­mer. When I asked if I could be placed on the wait­list for the fol­low­ing se­mes­ter, the clin­i­cian said I’d have to come in the Fall and try again.

There have been a num­ber of re­cent re­forms of men­tal health ser­vices at Mcgill – like com­bin­ing Men­tal Health and Coun­selling ser­vices, and their new, du­bi­ously ef­fec­tive stepped-care model. These changes were in­sti­tuted only in re­sponse to stu­dent outcry in the face of months-long wait­lists and in­ad­e­quate care. Cur­rently, CMHS’S Sub­stance Mis­use Pro­gram (SMP) is the main hub of sup­port on cam­pus for stu­dents with ad­dic­tions – but Mcgill needs a wider va­ri­ety of sup­port groups and re­sources specif­i­cally ad­dress­ing ad­dic­tion. But we’re stuck in a catch-22: the stigma and si­lence sur­round­ing ad­dic­tion makes it dif­fi­cult for stu­dents who are for­mer or cur­rent ad­dicts to pub­licly call on the ad­min­is­tra­tion to pro­vide ad­e­quate sup­port. This lack of re­sources only make it eas­ier for stu­dents to de­velop or sus­tain ad­dic­tions with­out the proper help.

Break­ing the habit, and re­cov­ery

It was a Mon­day morn­ing and Hélena thought to her­self, It’s a fuck­ing Mon­day. You don’t need to have a drink on a Mon­day. Half the world doesn’t get as shit-faced as you do on a Mon­day, it’s go­ing to be okay. “And then it was Tues­day, and I thought, It’s fuck­ing Tues­day – I don’t need to have a drink. And then on Wed­nes­day, and the first drink that was punched in was a mis­take – and the week be­fore I would have been su­per stoked that the first drink was a mis­take be­cause that’s a free drink I could have. I had it in my hand and I thought, No – and gave it to some­one else.” “So it be­came one day at a time,” she says. The most sig­nif­i­cant part of Nina’s re­cov­ery has been her mem­ber­ship in 12 Step Groups ( groups such as Al­co­holics Anony­mous, Co­caine Anony­mous, and Nar­cotics Anony­mous). She is also in­volved with these pro­grams pro­fes­sion­ally, and tells me that the sense of com­mu­nity heal­ing and sup­port is life-chang­ing for her clients. It helps them make new friends, learn cop­ing skills for life, and un­der­stand their ad­dic­tion in or­der to over­come it.

Anna has found ab­sti­nence ap­proaches to be less use­ful; the all- or-noth­ing ap­proach of ab­sti­nence groups feels un­remit­ting to her. Be­ing men­tally ill, queer, and a sur­vivor of sex­ual as­sault, she voices a con­stant sense of os­tra­ciza­tion through­out her life. Adding so­bri­ety to that equa­tion would be too so­cially iso­lat­ing for her at this point in her life, she told me. In­stead, she is fo­cus­ing on harm re­duc­tion – how to use safely – rather than ab­sti­nence.

Sim­i­larly, be­cause of the sub­stance’s ubiq­uity in her work en­vi­ron­ment, Hélena’s strat­egy for re­cov­ery can’t in­volve de­mo­niz­ing al­co­hol. Al­co­hol “is our cul­ture,” she tells me – she often even works be­hind the bar. She still qual­ity checks drinks that she sends out, and is will­ing to try wines that she hasn’t tasted yet. It’s im­por­tant that she works to­wards de­vel­op­ing a healthy re­la­tion­ship to al­co­hol with the hope that one day she can rein­tro­duce it into her life in moder­a­tion. Her strat­egy from the begin­ning was not to “never have a drink again.” She says, “I don’t tell my­self, Don’t touch that, it’s evil, but rather, You’re not in a good place for that right now. You need to learn how to live in­de­pen­dently from it.” For the past four months, Hélena has had ex­treme self-dis­ci­pline in con­vinc­ing her­self not to have “that first drink,” be­cause if she does, the rest of it is easy. As she has be­gun to feel phys­i­cally health­ier, her com­mit­ment to so­bri­ety has strength­ened.

Hélena isn’t en­tirely drug-free. “It feels ter­ri­ble to say but re­plac­ing one ad­dic­tion for an­other has re­ally helped,” she tells me. She still smokes weed to calm down and in­crease her so­cia­bil­ity. She re­al­izes that her de­pen­dence on weed (she smokes a small joint ev­ery night) is a sub­sti­tu­tion for al­co­hol, but at least it is less harm­ful to her mind and body than drink­ing was. She doesn’t be­lieve in com­plete ab­sti­nence, and for her “at the bot­tom of [Al­co­holics Anony­mous] you’re re­plac­ing your ad­dic­tion with faith. [...] Some ad­dic­tions are abu­sive, and some are not as abu­sive.”

Find­ing so­lu­tions

I have used sev­eral times since I first de­cided to quit, but for me that’s huge. Learn­ing how to drink with­out us­ing coke was my first step, and I’ve done that. I’m con­tent to go out and not drink, or have a cou­ple of drinks and go home. My process of re­cov­ery is slow; I only take a step for­ward in that process when I know that my legs won’t buckle be­neath me. I want to ac­tu­ally be­lieve that I don’t need co­caine in my life, rather than sim­ply pre­tend­ing that I don’t need it – and I’m al­most there.

A big part of my re­cov­ery has been con­nec­tion. The rea­son I was so drawn to co­caine is be­cause it al­lowed me to con­nect with peo­ple that I would nor­mally be un­able to con­nect with. I loved stay­ing up un­til six a.m. talk­ing to some­one about their most un­masked selves. I am a theatre prac­ti­tioner, and this con­nec­tion and un­mask­ing is at the heart of per­for­mance art too. In per­for­mance you are taught to care, lis­ten and sup­port one an­other as a mat­ter of ne­ces­sity, of im­prov­ing your skill as a per­former.

These tem­po­rary com­mu­ni­ties, and mo­ments of con­nec­tion, have al­lowed me to move on from those false drug­fu­elled re­la­tions and re­place them with less dam­ag­ing, and often more pow­er­ful mo­ments. Whether it be ab­sti­nence groups, or other ac­tiv­i­ties such as fit­ness or creative out­lets, ad­dicts need to re-in­tro­duce so­cial con­nec­tion and bond­ing in a non-harm­ful way. And that type of con­nec­tion usu­ally needs to not be as­so­ci­ated to nightlife or peers that use, which is the hard part.

Re­cov­er­ing from an ad­dic­tion forces you to re-ex­am­ine the peo­ple, spa­ces, and ob­jects that you be­lieved made you feel good. It felt a bit like go­ing through a bad breakup: sort­ing through my life and chuck­ing a bunch out; hold­ing onto the things that I thought I would throw out; re­pur­pos­ing them, re-cen­ter­ing them. Ad­dic­tion makes you cling to some­thing that keeps you stuck. It whis­pers in your ear to keep go­ing. It tells you that you’re okay – that you don’t have a prob­lem. It’s hard to tell some­one that you’ve been liv­ing with for years to get out. It’s hard to think of what will hap­pen if you’re alone with­out your ad­dic­tion. It took me a long time to find my voice to shout back at it.

“When you learn how to func­tion with a sub­stance in your life, you don’t even see what it’s like to func­tion with­out that sub­stance. It au­to­mat­i­cally be­comes an ad­dic­tion.” “At Mcgill, there’s a dis­turb­ing cul­ture that nor­mal­izes sub­stance abuse.”

*Names have been changed.

*con­tent warn­ing* *co­caine and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion, and self-harm.*

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