James McLeod: A decade, a year, a month — my life in sobriety milestones
One or two drinks would turn into a few more, and whatever rules I made for myself while sober, I would abandon them once I was a few drinks deep.
Note from The Line editors: James McLeod is friend and former colleague. A few days ago, he self-published this first-person account of his path to sobriety. The Line is reproducing it in full, with his permission. The original post can be found here.
By: James McLeod
Over the past few months, I’ve mentioned to a few friends that I’m coming up on 10 years sober.
“Congratulations! That’s incredible!” they say, usually sounding genuinely impressed.
It makes me uncomfortable, honestly.
I am proud of my sobriety, but it’s a complicated topic. My 10 years comes with an asterisk — that one drink I had in the spring of 2017. And in the 10 years since I stopped drinking, does it really count as sobriety if I spent a solid chunk of that time smoking weed daily, wrestling with a marijuana addiction?
When I tell friends that I’m sober, I also want to explain that I don’t regret drinking. I don’t regret smoking weed. Maybe I could’ve quit sooner, and I definitely regret things I did in the grip of my alcoholism and my addiction. But I’d be a different person if I’d never smoked a joint or downed a pint. Those experiences, including the struggle, made me who I am today. I don’t regret them.
There’s so much more I want to tell people about my sobriety.
So here we are, on the 10th anniversary, and I’m going to write it all out. If you see similarities to yourself in any part of this story, maybe what I have to say will be helpful.
I don’t have a specific date circled on the calendar, but it was around the last weekend of November 2011 when I got drunk for the last time. I am absolutely certain that choosing to stop drinking was the best decision I’ve made in my life.
In late November 2011, I’d just finished moving into a new apartment in St. John’s, and I celebrated by having a few drinks with my new roommate, and then letting the night take me. On that night I wound up going downtown, getting blackout drunk, and ultimately doing some things that I didn’t remember, but I had to apologize for the next morning.
I hadn’t intended to get blackout drunk, but that’s what happened to me in those days. For six or eight months, I’d been starting to recognize that I had a problem.
These days, when somebody asks me why I quit drinking and I don’t want to talk about it, I say, “I got sick of having to apologize for shit I didn’t remember doing.”
That’s the truth, and it doesn’t invite follow-up questions.
For years, I liked to drink, and as a 20-something newspaper reporter in St. John’s, N.L., drinking heavily didn’t always look like a problem. Eventually it started to feel like a problem for me, though.
I was living paycheque to paycheque. I would wake up with a splitting headache, and I learned to induce vomiting (a friend called it “pulling the trigger”) because a good hard puke seemed to help ease the hangover. And from time to time, I’d wake up and find out that somebody I knew was furious about something I did.
Usually when I found out what I did, I was aghast about it. I would never say something like that, do something like that. But after midnight, 10 beers deep, I’d done it. And the next morning when a friend filled me in on what happened while I was blackout drunk, I would feel awful.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2011, I’d been grappling with my alcoholism and trying to get it under control.
I made silly little rules for myself: only two drinks in a night. Actually, maybe only one. Only drinking beer. Wait, no beer, only gin and tonics. Ultimately, none of it worked. One or two drinks would turn into a few more, and whatever rules I made for myself while sober, I would abandon them once I was a few drinks deep.
Alcohol has always been a slippery slope for me. I’ve had some wonderful nights in my life drinking just a few glasses of wine or scotch. I’ve had evenings where I had one pint at the bar and then went straight home to bed. But what slowly became clear to me in 2011 was that as long as alcohol had a place in my life, there would always be nights where one drink turned into a few, and a few turned into a few too many.
In late November 2011 I had another one of those weekends. I won’t go into specifics. The people who were there know what happened, and they know I’m sorry about it.
I woke up the next morning with another hangover and a crushing sense of defeat. In spite of all my stupid little rules, all my mounting recognition that I just couldn’t keep getting wasted like that, sure enough, I went out and got wasted again.
I didn’t go to AA meetings or work through the 12 steps. For me, it was simply saying “I’m fed up with this shit,” and making a new rule for myself. No alcohol. Full stop.
It was easier than I thought. By that point, I was so completely fed up with my cycle of drinking to excess that the frustration kept me firm in my resolve. Occasionally there was temptation, but not much.
To my astonishment, the same drinking buddies who used to be my worst enemy, the ones who’d always be ready to say, “C’mon James, just one more round,” they were mostly completely supportive. Oftentimes when I said I wasn’t drinking, those same people would give me a clap on the shoulder and say “Good for you, man.”
I lost a few friends by stopping drinking. Nothing acrimonious or dramatic, but I just drifted away from some people. It turns out we didn’t really have anything in common except that we enjoyed drinking together.
I had to make all kinds of adjustments. I learned that when I was invited to house parties, nobody would mind if I started rifling through the cupboards to make myself a cup of tea in a stranger’s kitchen. I learned that the good restaurants will make you an interesting and delicious non-alcoholic cocktail. (I will not say mocktail. I hate that.)
I still haven’t figured out how to celebrate my birthday without alcohol (I used to just invite all my friends to meet me at the bar) so mostly I just don’t celebrate my birthday anymore.
Since November 2011 I’ve had exactly one drink, in the spring of 2017. It was one of those social situations where the drink arrives even though you didn’t ask for it, and refusing it will call attention to yourself at a time when you don’t want to be rude. I remember holding up the glass, and looking at it, thinking you no longer hold any power over me and then I took a sip. I put it down, and I haven’t felt the urge to have another drink since.
Since I quit drinking, I’ve tried to be a supportive friend to other people who have struggled with their own alcoholism. I’ve learned that the best I can do is to talk about my own experience, and what I’ve learned.
The only Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I ever went to, I was there as moral support for a friend. It was a powerful experience, and listening to the stories, I could hear versions of what I’d been through, and versions of where I probably would’ve gone if I hadn’t managed to put down the bottle when I did.
If you see commonalities with your own experience, all I can say is that quitting drinking is by far the best decision I’ve ever made. My life is immeasurably better because I did it.
I never want to go back.
There are many, many, many people who are ready to drop what they’re doing and talk. Only you can make that decision. Only you can walk that path. But there are plenty of us who are ready to talk you through it, and show you the way.
But that’s not the end of my story…
The last time I got high on cannabis was Jan. 2, 2021.
I never really smoked weed in my teens or my early 20s. Alcohol was my drug of choice, and weed was a hassle. I didn’t want to have a drug dealer. It wasn’t until I’d been sober a few years that I even got high for the first time.
At first, I’d just buy one or two joints every once in a while off a friend in my Dungeons and Dragons group. It didn’t become a regular habit until all those illegal dispensaries started to spring up, once I could just go to a shop and buy what I wanted.
Gradually an occasional treat became a regular weekly indulgence, and then at times, a near daily pastime.
What’s weird is that in hindsight, I don’t have many good memories. I have lots of drinking stories, but weed wasn’t like that.
Sure, there was one night a friend visited from out of town, and we had dinner and then shared a joint and walked through Toronto for hours, having a wonderful, sprawling conversation.
I remember getting high with my girlfriend at the time, and having the most amazing sex. And on another night with another girlfriend, I remember laying in bed listening to a full Explosions in the Sky album and cuddling.
There were a handful of good nights, but mostly I just smoked weed because I wanted to soften the harshness of life. Feeling numb and fuzzy was a nice escape. It was similar to alcohol in that way. The intoxication wasn’t about getting somewhere. It was about escaping the anxiety and discomfort of reality.
But there were differences, too.
All of my problematic drinking happened in social settings, the alcohol making me loose and gregarious, until it made me a stupid sloppy lout. I occasionally drank alone, but that was just three or four glasses of scotch while playing video games in my underwear. Pathetic? Yes. But it never caused me problems.
With weed, my default was smoking alone, and then further isolating myself because I was self-conscious about being high. Aside from some enigmatic and risky tweets, I mostly just pulled into my shell.
I’d eat like a cartoon stoner, I’d watch stupid stuff on the internet, I’d jerk off, and I’d fall asleep at 7 p.m., then wake up at midnight, and I’d need to smoke more weed to get back to sleep.
It wasn’t cool or fun, for the most part. It was just an addiction.
I now think a lot about how the social discourse around cannabis swung all the way from “Reefer Madness” and scare tactics for kids, until we arrived in the lead up legalization where the attitude was, like, “This stuff is harmless. It’s basically medicine for everything!”
We were told that cannabis is not addictive. Bullshit. I disagree in the strongest possible terms. I have lived a cannabis addiction and I know for a fact that I’m not alone.
For several years, I went through waves of it. I’d smoke to excess, recognize that it was bad, and stop for a while. And then I’d backslide. I started to recognize that I had a problem, but arrogantly, I didn’t worry too much about it, because I’d already been through this once with alcohol.
“I know the path to sobriety,” I’d tell myself, “and I’ll walk that path again. But not yet.”
When the pandemic hit, things got very bad. My weed addiction was already in full swing, and those scary first few months of COVID-19 delivered a new wave of excuses. In March of 2020, everyone was anxious and struggling. Talking to friends, there were a lot of remarks like, “Whatever helps you keep going, it’s not great, but it’s understandable. We’re all in survival mode. Don’t feel guilty about it.”
I was working for the Financial Post at the time, and thoroughly burnt out on journalism. Alone in my tiny bachelor apartment I was gulping down COVID-19 news, and I worried about everything.
I worried about getting sick. I worried about how my suicidal thoughts seemed to be getting more vivid. I worried about the collapse in print advertising, and I would think about how the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy was probably the only thing keeping Postmedia solvent. I worried about long COVID, about the economy, and my own personal finances. My anxiety was unchecked, except when I was stoned.
In the spring of 2020 I would sometimes wake up at 6 a.m. and have three or four little puffs on a joint on my balcony before making coffee. I rationalized to myself that I’d be mostly sober by 9 a.m. when I started my workday.
Sometimes I’d get high during the workday too. I don’t think I ever did an interview while I was stoned, but … actually that’s not true. I don’t think I did an interview in the hour or two after smoking a joint, but I did interviews in those hours where you’re not really high but still kinda buzzed. The same goes for driving my car.
I feel awful about this now, and I knew it was risky and awful at the time. But that’s the thing about addiction, at least for me. In the same way I made rules for myself with alcohol (Only a couple drinks a week! Only gin and tonic!) I made rules for myself with weed, and then I bent those rules, and then I broke them.
Addiction is knowing that something is a problem, and then feeling a compulsion to do it anyway.
In 2019 and 2020 I developed a ritual. Every once in a while, I would pack up all my pot and paraphernalia, and I would throw it down the garbage chute in my apartment building. Sometimes I would do this at night when I was high. Sometimes I would do this in the morning when I was sober.
I knew later in the day I’d be tempted to go out and buy more. I knew I was an addict. But the absurdity of going out to buy marijuana after I’d just thrown $40 worth of the stuff down the garbage chute was enough to stop me.
I would stop myself for a day, or a week, or a couple months, and then I’d backslide. And in the isolation of the pandemic, all of this would happen alone. It was just me in my apartment, my willpower doing battle against my temptation, with nobody to judge me if I let the temptation win out.
I was so alone. The pandemic was isolating. Being around people was a source of anxiety. And when I was high, I was self-conscious so I’d avoid talking on the phone or texting, because I didn’t want people to know I was high.
The cannabis took up more and more space in my life. It squeezed out exercise, because I woke up too groggy to run or do yoga. It squeezed out healthy meals, because I gorged myself on junk when I was stoned. It squeezed out friendships, because in the hours when I was stoned, I mostly just didn’t want to talk to anybody.
I had some time off over Christmas in 2020, and I spent most days of it high. When I wasn’t high, I was an anxious wreck. The anxiety led to a bad fight with my family where I nearly left at 7 a.m. on Christmas Day. I just wanted to get back to my apartment, where I could be alone. I’m sure if my family had let me go, I would’ve gotten stoned as soon as I got there.
Ultimately I had a reckoning with myself over New Year’s, and like with alcohol, again I finally got fed up. More weed went down the garbage chute on Jan. 2, and I haven’t gotten high since.
I’d known this was coming for a long time. I’d recognized the same patterns and progression with weed that I’d been through with alcohol, and I was confident that it’d end in the same place. Sobriety.
But cannabis has been different.
In the early months of 2021, it became clear just how much anxiety the cannabis was smothering. I wouldn’t describe my alcohol consumption as self-medicating, but there was definitely some of that going on with cannabis.
Also, for some reason those dispensaries all over Toronto are different than the LCBO. Nearly a year later, there’s still a little urge in my head saying that I could just pop in and buy a preroll and a lighter and zone out for tonight. I’ve been doing so well. One joint couldn’t hurt.
My willpower is still doing battle with my temptation.
In the past few years, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about the similarities and differences between alcohol and cannabis. They’re more similar than they are different, at least in terms of the way I experience them. But the differences — social attitudes, the experience of intoxication, and where I was at in my life when my addiction was in full swing — have all made cannabis more difficult for me.
But at this point, it has been most of a year, and I don’t think I’ll ever get stoned again. Perhaps I’ll have more to say in nine years, when I get to a decade of marijuana sobriety.
But that’s not quite the end of the story…
The point of this essay is to be honest. If there’s any value in these words, I think it’s just in reflecting on my experience, and that’s only worth a damn if I’m unflinching.
It would be wrong to give you the impression that I’ve been a good little sober boy since January. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a word about psilocybin mushrooms.
In my 20s I went through a phase where I smoked salvia divinorum for a while, and enjoyed the wild psychedelic experiences. I’ve been curious about mushrooms and acid for a long time.
In July, and then about a dozen times since then, I’ve been experimenting with mushrooms. Mostly, I’ve been doing this alone.
I’m not quite sure what to say about this.
I’ve enjoyed the experience. I think it’s different from alcohol or cannabis. It’s been about a month since I last ate mushrooms, and I plan on taking some time to reflect and digest my experiences before I consider going in for more. I don’t plan on going on another mushroom trip before the end of 2021, but I will probably do it again in 2022.
There’s an obvious question looming at the moment: After coming to terms with alcoholism, and then the struggle with cannabis, why would you dive headlong into something else? Is this just the beginning of the next problematic chapter with some new intoxicant?
I don’t have a great answer. It’s certainly possible that this is just simple hubris, and I’m making the same mistakes in a different way. I don’t think that’s what’s happening with mushrooms, but it’s possible.
After some initial caution in July and August, on Labour Day weekend I took a higher dose and got really, truly high on mushrooms for the first time. I spent about four hours laying on my bed, wide awake, listening to music, my mind racing. It was wonderful.
For about 40 minutes at one point, I turned on the recorder on my phone and rambled, trying to describe the experience while the Penguin Cafe Orchestra played in the background on my smart speaker.
I was as high as I’ve ever been in my life, but I wasn’t hallucinating, and I sort of thought that was the main feature of magic mushrooms. In a rambling, confused, distracted way, I tried to describe how I was happy that I wasn’t hallucinating. It felt like all my neurons were firing at once, with my brain seeing patterns and connections, racing from one thought to the next. If I was hallucinating, I said, it would simply be a distraction from all the other things I was experiencing in my mind.
I was thinking about how, with drugs, people don’t often talk about what the experience of being on drugs is actually like. Sometimes you get clinical antiseptic descriptions of the effects of a drug. And sometimes you see cartoonish portrayals in the media of people drunk, or high, or tripping on mushrooms.
But the thing about drugs is that they’re more complicated than a stereotypical experience or a list of documented effects. There’s an ineffable, subjective thing that comes from how your brain and your body responds to the drug.
This isn’t much of an epiphany. It felt profound at the time, but of course, I was pretty high. But it’s true, you can’t know how you’ll respond to a drug without trying it. There’s simply no substitute for experience.
The fact of the matter is that I like being intoxicated. Inside my own head, I am an awkward, anxious, neurotic person. I’m tense and nervous.
Alcohol made me loose, and gave me an easy way to be gregarious, and on the good nights, keeping it loose carried me through some very fun nights.
Weed mostly just numbed me out, but it also gave me one night walking through downtown Toronto marvelling at the shapes of different apartment buildings with my girlfriend.
Mushrooms send my mind running in a different way, and I’ve enjoyed that too.
But more to the point, all of this, every bit of it, this is who I am. I don’t regret drinking. I don’t regret smoking weed. I don’t know who I’d be if I’d eschewed alcohol and drugs, but I know that I’d be an entirely different person.
The nights drunk and high, those experiences are part of my personality. And the struggles, the slow lessons, the hard-won victories have shaped me. This — all of this — is my experience, and it made me the man I am today.
It’s been 10 years sober. It’s been nearly a year since I got stoned. It’s been about a month since I got high on mushrooms. As I write this, I think my weekend will be better if I don’t consume any of these substances.
That’s not a moral judgement. What’s right for me might not be right for you. What’s right for me today wasn’t the right decision for me at a different time in my life.
All I can really do is talk about my own experience, and if it’s helpful in guiding you with yours, I’m happy for that.
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