'Judgment day': Healing after addiction

This article discusses mental illness and substance abuse.

Throughout ninth grade, I spent all my spare time in Ms. Ramone’s classroom.

She was more relaxed than other teachers, allowing us to call her just “Ramone.” She wore open-toed sandals with baggy jeans and conducted her lessons like conversations between friends. Snacks to share were kept in the cupboard behind her desk, and the door always remained open to welcome hallway stragglers inside.

Like most students, I was so fond of Ramone that I visited her outside of class time. But there came a Monday in early June when I was avoiding her at all costs. I kept my head down as I passed the glass-panelled walls of her classroom, but she still noticed me and called out my name.

Begrudgingly, I backtracked. Entering the classroom of my own will was better than being dragged in by Ramone.

As soon as I showed my face, the visiting students knew they were to clear out. Everyone squeezed past me in the doorway, averting their eyes. Only Kelsey, a Ramone regular, extended a compassionate vote of confidence.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “It won’t be that bad.”

Kelsey shut the door, isolating me with Ramone. There was officially nowhere to run. I sat in the plastic chair opposite her desk, watching as her nails burrowed into the peeling wood.

“Do you know why I called you in here?”

Of course I did. The previous Friday, there had been a final exam which I shamelessly skipped. Ditching was completely out of character for me; my attendance had been perfect up until that year, when I started missing class to hang out in Ramone’s room.

I had also never had a teacher yell at me before. Growing-up as a mild-mannered, gifted student, I had seldom given reason to be disciplined.

“I missed the exam.”

“Right. Which is funny considering I saw you Friday morning, sleeping in that corner,” she said as she pointed. “Where did you go?”

I had been with Sam. She was older, taller and prettier, with long blonde hair that always fell immaculately. Sam had charisma beyond anyone else’s, harbouring an endless supply of witty jokes or entertaining anecdotes. She was the star player of the school soccer team and a contender for Team Canada. Being effortlessly exceptional, I didn’t understand why Sam would spend her precious time with me.

Our first conversation was in the bathroom between classes. I usually pretended I was nonexistent in the presence of popular girls. When Sam said hi to me, I was stunned.

She asked me how I was liking high school, as she wiped her damp hands on her jeans. It was okay, I explained — stressful, but manageable.

Sam pulled out her phone. “What’s your number? Maybe we can talk if you ever get too stressed.”

In the following months, I came to regard this interaction as the start of a friendship. We texted frequently. Sam told me about her history of panic attacks, intrusive thoughts and existential dread, just like my own. She didn’t fit the mentally ill archetype — she had everything. For her mind to be as burdensome as mine seemed impossible.

“I met a friend,” I told Ramone.

Ramone crossed her arms. “To do what? Get high?”

I still believed I could talk my way out of trouble. Smoking weed on lunch break was ritualized at our school, especially as its upcoming legalization increased accessibility. I’d heard many conversations where Ramone seemed indifferent to marijuana use; she was aware that most students were high half of the time.

“I was anxious for the test, so I smoked a little. I just got too high, panicked and left.”

“Don’t lie. I know you weren’t stoned.” She leaned across the desk. “When I looked in your eyes, there was nobody there.”

When Sam introduced me to the pills, the vacancy was a critical selling point.

Usually they were three for $15, but she would give them to me for $10 because we were “friends.” For months, I truly believed my relationship with Sam was friendship. I didn’t realize these were tactics that drug dealers used to get new clients hooked.

I glared back at Ramone, defensive. “I don’t know what you mean,” I told her.

“Do you know how many of your classmates you worried? I could barely sleep this weekend, thinking about whether you made it home safe.”

I wanted to cry at the sentiment, but the pill I had taken earlier made it impossible to produce tears.

I had started with one a day, although Sam said I’d eventually be up to eight, just like her. On the day of the test, I had taken five and blacked out. The pills had a name — benzodiazepines — although I seldom use it, considering the number of unknown components weaved into our supply.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Ramone. Her face reminded me of my parents, back when they had the time to feel things for me. I wondered how different the conversation would be if I were having it with them instead.

Drug-use was an expellable offence. Ramone couldn’t prove that I had been using, but she had numerous eye-witness accounts of my erratic behaviour: napping during lacrosse practice, shoplifting, constantly misplacing my belongings. Various teachers could vouch for my slurred speech in class. At least I remained an over-achiever, even while high.

“Are you going to tell anyone?” I asked her.

Ramone took a deep breath before answering. “Are you going to keep doing this to yourself?”

I didn’t know what to say. Subduing myself into shallow consciousness granted me peace. I would much rather be a spectator to my life than the host agent.

“I won’t.”

Her face remained tense, but she let me go.

I initially made the promise so that I could leave, but I never did benzos again. I also avoided Ramone completely, aside from my scheduled course with her. When I told Sam I was quitting, we had an immediate, explosive falling out. In the following weeks, she was hospitalized twice due to fentanyl contamination.

My addiction was never centered around the pills, so it didn’t diminish, even as my drug use did. Instead, this compulsion manifested in one futile vice after another, appearing in forms that fluctuated between healthy and harmful.

I spent my teenage years living in absolutes: adultery or abstinence, feasting or fasting, masochism or mania. I got through my days by smoking weed between classes or sneaking vodka stowed in travel-size perfume bottles. I latched onto undeserving men and sought validation in faceless social media followers.

Eventually, my obsessive behaviour took on some more productive forms, and I became motivated to write, study and work. I heard that when Sam got sober, she was playing soccer better than she ever had before. Perhaps that was how her addiction persevered.

I was in a positive headspace when I graduated from high school. My future seemed bright. I had gotten into UBC, which I never would have anticipated at fourteen. Overwhelmed with gratitude, I wrote Ramone a letter that acknowledged our conversation and thanked her for the mercy she showed me that day.

Before I heard back from Ramone, Sam extended a sincere apology for her role in my past, even offering up another secret on how to escape pain. This time, she urged me to have faith in God and His Plan, certain that our hardship would lead somewhere meaningful. I forgave her half-heartedly, assuming her strange apology was a by-product of drug abuse. There would come a date when I invited spirituality into my life, but it took some time.

Shortly after I began my first university semester, Ramone wrote to me. She apologized for her delay; my email had been marinating in her mailbox over summer. She admitted that her decision had weighed heavily on her for some time, but she was happy to hear things had worked out. You are an intelligent, strong young woman who can overcome anything you put your mind to. Even if they are just words on a screen, they transport me back to that classroom conversation.

Five years later, I document this exchange as an evolved person. My life isn’t always as exciting as it once was. However, I finally find myself in a state of equilibrium. For so long I believed that I would always be dependent on temporary gratification, but with the belief and grace instilled in me by others, I no longer carry the burden of struggle alone.

Ramone, Kelsey and Sam's names have been changed to protect their identities.


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