Fifteen Years Smoking Crack: Life in the Space Between Abstinence and Rock Bottom

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 28 2014 8:48 AM

Fifteen Years Smoking Crack

Life in the middle ground between total abstinence and rock bottom.

I was taught how to cook and smoke crack when I was 21. It was in a high-rise hotel room on East 34th Street in Manhattan, and some friends from New Jersey—in town for the New Year’s Eve Phish shows at Madison Square Garden—showed me the technique to convert powder cocaine into its smokable counterpart.

These upper-middle-class suburban kids seemed to know every detail about the drug, from the minutiae of proper pipe handling (taking a hit requires some optimization) to the kinder, gentler euphemism for crack, “hubbas.” They knew how to cook HCL (powder) cocaine into a base (freebase) as well as where to find the street version of the same drug (crack). Earlier that night, before I’d learned to make freebase, we had driven to someone’s house in Paterson, N.J., and one of my friends went inside and bought a bag of ready-made, smokable rocks. I sat shotgun on the way into the city while the backseat passenger took the wheel, allowing the driver to use both hands to take a hit off the pipe.

My levels of experimentation have varied since that night, from three months of daily usage in 1999 after that initial introduction to a year or two of abstinence. I eventually settled into a seasonal habit (I smoked crack only during the winter months), followed by a less moderate phase in 2013.

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I don’t present these stories for shock value. On the contrary, I proceed with a lot of anxiety, knowing the potential to upset and alienate family members, friends, present or past business associates, future landlords, and whoever else is likely to take a dim view of the information I’m volunteering.

So why would I choose to share, both in this story and in my new podcast Dope Stories? Because I believe it’s necessary to forge a truthful, direct discussion about drugs before we can comprehend addiction, much less effectively treat drug abuse or hope to implement rational drug policy. My visceral fear when presenting these revelations shows that we are not close to achieving that level of dialogue.

The incisive documentary The House I Live In and Carl Hart’s book High Price: A Neuroscientists Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know about Drugs and Society both show that this country’s “war on drugs” could more accurately be described as a systematic effort to marginalize immigrants, minorities, and poor people, decade after decade. I am certainly aware, then, that my ability to experiment with a highly toxic drug has been enabled by the fact that I won the socio-economic lottery at birth, growing up upper-middle-class and Jewish, living on the Upper West Side with smart, caring parents.

That being said, there isn’t anything ennobling about going on a crack binge (or, for that matter, waking up with a hangover from one drug that is inarguably more toxic than cocaine—alcohol). But more people need to understand that addiction can be a middle ground, a place between having zero substance abuse issues and “needing to hit rock bottom before you can get better.”

I’m not particularly interested in “bottoming out” or destroying my life in exchange for whatever temporary benefit I get from smoking cocaine. On the other hand, the path I’ve taken over the last 15 years indicates that I’m not motivated to achieve total abstinence. That’s why I have tried to find a middle way, hopefully reducing the amount of harm I inflict upon myself. That is another reason why I’m sharing my story here, and why I don’t hide my drug use from those who are close to me. I need my friends and loved ones to help keep me in check.

It’s not hard to imagine a starker alternative, one in which I was ostracized based on the decades-old perception of the crack user as an out-of-control, devious individual. If family members and friends had forced me to choose between total sobriety and being out on the streets, I can imagine myself traveling down darker and more self-destructive roads.

In my experience and observation, putting a user in rehab is often a way of avoiding, not treating, drug addiction. I understand that there is enormous value in recovery programs, abstinence, and maintaining sobriety. But I also believe the implied choice between abstinence and rock bottom presents users with two options that are equally unsustainable and unreasonable.

* * *

To be clear, my crack habit (call it a “crack problem” if you want) has not always been a hunky-dory, easily manageable part of my drug experimentation. I know exactly why and how “crack is wack,” and those details could fill up a column of greater length. I’ve felt the potential for physical and mental devastation.

But as much as I don’t intend to glorify crack use, I also don’t need to spend time condemning it or comparing it with other commonly used substances that aren’t viewed in the same negative light.

I’d rather go back to the early part of 1999, when my friend and I shared a habit that eventually took us on divergent paths. We held down day jobs so we could afford our nightly fix. (I worked as a bike messenger.) We would spend the evenings waiting for our cocaine to be delivered, then we’d cook it and watch MTV. That’s when the network still played videos like 2pac’s “Changes” (where he raps, “both black and white smoking crack tonight”) and Eminem’s “My Name Is,” the lead single of an album that might as well be dedicated to the highs and lows of hard drug use.

The high from crack provided an escape, an instantaneous and short-lived burst of creative and emotional energy, a way of simultaneously embracing and expelling whatever darkness was circulating through our lives. And to this day, I remain intrigued by the taboo aspect of the drug. I am still sometimes compelled by curiosity to experience the forbidden, to remind myself (once again) what all the fuss is about.

But around March of that first year of crack use, I found myself, in the parlance of 12-step programs, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Sleepless as the sun rose after another binge, I felt the pattern had to end, and for me, that day, it did. For a while, anyway. My friend wasn’t able to cut the cord as cleanly, but when he did, he did it more permanently and with a conviction that continues to inspire me.

First, though, he went further down the crack rabbit hole of paranoia and self-degradation (and he proceeded to repeat a similar pattern with other substances) before he successfully pursued recovery. In the time since, he has made achievements in business and academia that would be impressive for anyone and impossible for me. He has been completely sober for so long that he doesn’t even identify himself that way—he simply is.

There is a variety of paths that a drug user can take, both on the way to addiction and toward the possibility of “recovery.” Or moderation. Or self-destruction. Except moderation is not a socially acceptable option, when to me it often seems like a simple reality.

I don’t have a problem with 12-step philosophy. Rather, I think 12-step programs can be useful to drug users a lot sooner than the point where they hit “rock bottom.” There’s plenty of simple truth to be found in the Serenity Prayer, and plenty of value in knowing what HALT stands for (“hungry, angry, lonely, tired”). That value exists even for those drug users who don’t “accept that their life has become unmanageable.”

* * *

In my more recent phase of experimentation, I’ve started to notice the deleterious consequences of the habit. This includes some physical side effects that are hard to quantify, like what smoking crack does to my lungs, leaving my insides feeling rawer than any amount of cigarettes or weed (both of which I have smoked for 20 years).

Then there’s the irrational paranoia, the unfounded fear that someone is out there monitoring my behavior or that the police are ready to kick down the door and bust me. An expert in substance abuse explained to me that this is the result of my limbic brain overriding my cortical brain. In the throes of a crack binge, I essentially become a frightened animal.

My rough understanding of that science helped me understand why I was subjecting myself to a level of mental chaos and tension that I don’t really enjoy. My behavior corresponds to a classic view of addiction: the inability to control usage relative to pleasure. But that doesn’t capture it fully, because I still find benefits in the high. I may be making objectively subpar decisions regarding how to spend my time and money, but I’ve also had a lot of fun and I haven’t been trying to hasten the supposedly inevitable bottoming out that many believe is a prerequisite to gaining control of your habit.

In fact, although I probably smoked more crack last year than I did in 1999, I also had the best year of my life in 2013. I got married. I hit a peak in my career as a poker player, a profession I took up in 2005 and have been struggling with since 2011, when legislation basically outlawed online poker, forcing me to work in a foreign country. My life came into focus in 2013, and I realized I had to get back to the United States, put an end to my career as a poker player, and devote myself to marriage and to writing. 

I don’t describe the events of the past year to defy the traditional narrative that drugs “cloud your thinking.” In this part of the tale, there is neither correlation nor causation, just the good and the bad, side by side. I had a great year (good), and I smoked too much crack (bad).

I expect to smoke a lot less crack in 2014 than I did in 2013, but I think I’d be setting myself up for failure if I made abstinence a goal. Despite my awareness that the drug has toxic physical and mental side effects that I want to avoid, past experience indicates that I will likely indulge my habit in the coming months.

When I talked about my drug use on the Dope Stories podcast, my co-host, Pauly McGuire, asked me how I was going to advance my conscious desire to avoid smoking crack given my occasional lust for it. I had to stop and think about that before coming up with my answer.

“Tennis,” I said, thinking back to a recent experience in which I dragged myself onto the court after a long night of smoking crack. Describing that experience to him, I remembered it all very clearly: how muddied the skies looked, how the trees and hills around the court seemed to sag, how my lungs burned as I ran around the court. I compared it with a normal tennis lesson when I wasn’t hung over from smoking crack and how much I clearly preferred the high from playing tennis to the high from crack.

The next time I had the urge to smoke, I thought back to that day on the tennis court, and I resisted. It didn’t exactly feel like I had the answer, but at least it felt like I was starting to ask the right questions.

Shane Schleger is a co-host of the Dope Stories podcast. You can follow him on Twitter and read his blog.

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