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18) I deserve it

This idea, that I “deserve it” fueled my drug use for a very long time. In fact, this rationalization was present from the beginning. I legitimately felt like I deserved to use as a way to treat myself for all of my hard work. You see, I’m a perfectionist. Like any perfectionist, I chase an unattainable standard that it always out of reach. But yet, I feel like perfection is within my grasp, if I just work hard enough for it. I am willing to work. That has never been an issue. I kill myself on academics or work projects; whatever the task, I show up 110%. I will put myself in all kinds of danger to be perfect. I used stimulants, specifically Adderall and cocaine, during the last years of my addiction to make sure I had the energy and precision to do my work “perfectly.” Certainly, my first escapes into drinking as a teenager were to blow off steam and to reward myself on weekends for studying so hard during the week. This would become my typical consumption pattern for the next three decades. “Work hard, play hard.” This was modeled by my alcoholic/addict father. He was the director of a hospital in Boston for many years as he succumbed to severe alcoholism and drug addiction. I was taught that you must go above and beyond in your work and then you get rewarded for it. Interestingly, my father also used stimulants to work harder and more efficiently. He started stealing my younger brother’s Ritalin which my brother was prescribed when he was a child for his ADHD. My father began taking his Ritalin for a boost and then ended up prescribing Ritalin in our names. He said that he never used my mother’s name for his phony prescriptions, but that he would readily use his other children’s. (My older sister and myself.)

When I relapsed in Ecuador, after 8 years of white knuckling my sobriety, I felt like I deserved it. I relapsed after four years of course work for my PhD in Cultural Anthropology at New York University. Those four years were an intense time in which I dedicated my life to my studies. I lived a monastic existence. I studied for 7-8 hours daily. My life was incredibly regimented, involving riding my bike to campus in the morning and attending classes, teaching my TA sections, and settling into the library to crank out my school work for the night. I worked myself to the bone. It was not a healthy existence. It was toxic and unsustainable, but yet, I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I could muscle my way through. The only thing that mattered to me was finishing my studies and performing at a very high level. I read everything assigned and wrote my reflections in depth. I was engaged and singularly focused. Nothing could prevent me from studying. Everything else came second. Sleep, healthy meals, socializing, exercise, etc. I just wanted to be the best. I sought external validation from my professors to help mitigate my low self-worth. I had long ago learned that getting good grades ensured a rush of dopamine from parental figures and the like.

Quite frankly, it was a relief when I sucked down that first beer in Ecuador at the beginning of my fieldwork. It was in September, I believe, just when I had arrived for what would be four years of fieldwork and making a documentary film. I remember feeling relieved that I had finally found alcohol in my life again. I had worked my ass off over the prior four years at NYU. I had lived like a nun. I deserved to blow off some steam. This idea that I deserved it was also conflated into notions of “FUCK YOU” to everyone who expected me to be perfect. No one in my immediate family spoke of the pressure placed upon us to achieve. It mostly came explicitly from my paternal grandparents, who were superstars in their own right. My grandmother was a powerful woman--a pioneer--as an early graduate of Columbia Medical School in the first half of the 20th century. My grandfather went to Harvard as a young prodigy and then met my grandmother in medical school. My grandmother was a child psychiatrist and pediatrician and my grandfather was also a pediatrician. Their clients were celebrities’ children in New York City. They made it clear that we were expected to succeed. My father had certainly received the same message and became a physician after first following his dream to become an Episcopalian minister. My father’s drive to achieve lent itself to drug use, just as mine did as well. Stimulants could only make us that much better. At least at first.

So yes, my drinking and drug use in Ecuador fed on this idea that I deserved it. I had worked hard and now I got to relax. I went out almost every night of the week! I felt like I had to make up for lost time. My friends and I became regulars at the Quito nightclub, El Aguijon, a drug den and dance space. It was fun. I needed fun. I needed to blow off steam. I went from one extreme to the other, like a good addict. I swung from this nun-like existence in NYC to going out at night in Quito. I had no idea that my excesses would eventually lead to full blown addiction, which would almost take my life. It was just fun and games back then. I had no idea that I was reckless and putting myself in danger, just like my extreme studying. However, this was more dangerous. I was playing with substances that could kill me. Indeed, they would have killed me, had I not put the brakes on it. I was an out of control party girl, trying to fill a void that could never be satiated, at least not by substances. I seemed determined to self-destruct, but I had no idea just how out of control I was, until it was almost too late.

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