I was a heroin addict. One choice changed my life. It wasn’t the choice to quit.

When things got really bad, I knew I had to quit heroin. I knew I should quit heroin. I even wanted to quit heroin. So I made the choice to quit using heroin and went for treatment.

But I desperately wanted to keep using heroin too. So then I chose to start using it again.

I quit and restarted several times over the next 5 years. I underwent a lot of addiction treatment during that time. I was usually still in treatment when I chose to go back to heroin. I felt powerless, and doomed to forever crave heroin. It seemed like this cycle would never end. But it did.

It was a cold snowy Massachusetts winter, I was spending every day walking and taking buses to shoplift, sell my stolen goods, and score drugs. On lucky days, I was able to link up with a drug buddy who had a car, which made the whole hustling and scoring process much easier. Life was grim. My parents were pushing me to go back to treatment again.

I couldn’t bear to go back to treatment. I told my parents“don’t waste your money.” “They’ll just tell me the same things they always tell me in treatment, and I’ll still want heroin, and nothing will change.” There was no reason to believe otherwise, since this same pattern had played out repeatedly.

The message of treatment was that I had to realize and accept that I had an “incurable brain disease.” But then what? Pray to a higher power. Go to lots of counseling sessions and meetings. Take more antidepressants. Maybe even go back to those damn methadone clinics. I’d done all this over and over, and become more miserable and hopeless each time. In fact, the folks in treatment programs and meetings explicitly promised that I was in for a lifetime of miserably fighting the disease of addiction. They told me I’d crave forever and periodically fail at resisting my cravings (“relapse is a part of recovery” as they say). The life they promised in treatment was not more attractive than my life as a heroin user, which is why I always went back.

But my parents kept pestering me to go to another program. I insisted that I would only do it if they could find something completely different from what I’d already been through. Luckily, they found something completely different. My sister had helped my parents to get on the internet and start searching. They found the Saint Jude Retreat, which said that it was a non-12-step program. Going a step further, they said that addiction is not a disease. Going a massive jump further, they said their program was not even a treatment for addiction. They called what they did a “social-educational program.” It sounded extremely different. I agreed to go.

I loved the Saint Jude Retreat from the minute I got there. The staff didn’t try to scare me straight, nor did they tell me what to do. They said so many things that made sense to me, were inspiring, and that finally gave me hope. But there was one life changing conversation at the retreat that I remember vividly. It was with Clayton Walters, one of the program instructors (they didn’t have counselors or therapists, which was also a breath of fresh air).

Building off of what was discussed in the textbook and classes, Clayton talked to me as someone who was choosing my own behavior. He did not regard me as someone who is “out of control.” He knew I was pursuing happiness in my drug use, and that I would continue to use drugs if I continued to see it as the thing I needed for happiness.

We talked about drugs.What’s to like about using drugs, and what’s to like about life without drugs. He asked if I thought it was possible to be happier without drugs. No one had ever asked me such a thing before. All my previous helpers had simply prattled on about the dangers of drugs and “the disease of addiction.” They stressed that I’d die or end up in jail if I used any amount of any substance. Clayton didn’t do that. He knew that I had plenty of fears about drug use, and that these fears had never solved my problem. He didn’t try to increase the fear.

Clayton kept the conversation focused on my personal happiness. He asked about my previous quit attempts. He asked whether I had ever really tried to be happier without drugs when I quit. Or whether I had quit because I thought that I had to and to try keep bad things from happening. This may not sound like a profound question, but it was to me. My motivations, my concern, and my happiness were treated as important with this line of questioning.

My answer was clear. Every time I quit I was only focused on ending the potential consequences of my drug use. I was trying to stop getting into trouble, stay out of jail, keep from getting sick or dying, etc. These are certainly great harms to avoid. But simply avoiding harms never left me happier than using drugs. Experience had proven that this fear-based angle of approach always left me feeling empty, bored, and restless. And it always sent me back to drugs.

Working his way to his final proposal, he mentioned the news reports saying that street drugs were getting stronger and cheaper. He mentioned all the new designer drugs that keep popping up. The point was that drugs would always be available. I agreed. Then he gave me the framing for a choice that changed my life:

“Steve, since you never really tried to be happier without drugs, why don’t you try that now? Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to run this experiment. Say a year. Try your best to learn how to enjoy life without drugs. At the end of that year, after you’ve tried your best, there are two possible outcomes. You could find that you are genuinely happier without the drugs, and just continue to live that way. Or you could find out that you can’t be happier without drugs. If that’s the case, there will be new and stronger drugs waiting for you. You can then stop this battle and decisively go back to using, without guilt or shame, in the knowledge that you need drugs to be happy.”

This was a win/win proposition. I would find out what makes me happier, and confidently pursue that. There was not much talk about “how” to stay sober. It was a choice. I only needed to be motivated to make a change, and this framing gave me the motivation, because it was so attractive.

So I chose this happy experiment. The experiment included not using drugs for a sufficient amount of time to run the experiment. But I didn’t choose to quit drugs for the rest of my life. I chose to find out if I could be happier without drugs. I could tell you the specific things I did over that next year, but then you’d think you have to replicate the actions I took. That would be missing the point. It’s a uniquely personal quest, and the superficial actions don’t matter. It’s the spirit with which you approach it that matters. I believed there was a possibility of finding greater happiness without drugs, and I chose to investigate that possibility.

It’s been 17 years since I’ve used heroin. I haven’t spent a moment craving it. The choice to look for greater happiness is what saved me – not the choice to quit heroin. I don’t live in bliss every moment. I’ve had plenty of unhappiness, failures, sadness, and down-cycles over the years as all people do. I’ve also had great joy and achievements. I found that living through the ups and downs of life after heroin makes me much happier than a life focused on the singular goal of using heroin could ever make me.

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