One of the most interesting words connected to the world of substance abuse, addiction, and recovery is “gateway.” It’s a word that is often used to explain why people with no intention of becoming addicted to a drug they might choose to experiment with in the beginning wind up full-blown addicts to another drug altogether—swallowed up in a deep, dark, hopeless life full of guilt, shame, and despair.
Drug counselors and professionals alike explain that almost all those who end up addicted to much heavier, more dangerous drugs in the end, begin with something far less harmful. For example, one might experiment with marijuana as a teenager with only the intent to fit in and later end up hooked on cocaine and enslaved to a $150-a-day habit. Another might begin sneaking beer and cigarettes from his or her father’s stash to impress their friends, only to end up thirty years later lost in a daily fifth of cheap whiskey and a two-pack-a-day habit.
In each of these examples, both started with a seemingly harmless first drug of choice (their gateway), with no other intention but to see what it might feel like to be high or how cool it might be to fit in. Before they know it, this once innocent curiosity snowballs into a full-blown dependency and completely out of control. Once this happens, as they’re caught deep in the grip of addiction, it is just a matter of time before they inevitably hit rock bottom. And when the smoke clears, and they begin to look at their life, they’re more than likely left with only two questions:
“How did I get here?”
“Why did I ever let it get this bad?”
You see, the unfortunate problem with a decision to experiment with any drug is that most all are highly addictive. Whether nicotine or alcohol, marijuana or cocaine, barbiturates, or heroin, there’s an extremely high risk of becoming addicted. And once hooked, you go from being the one who decides when to use this recreational drug of choice to the drug deciding when it’s time for you to use it. You no longer get to choose. It begins to dictate when you need it and how much of it you will need. It eventually gains full control of your every thought, your every move. It becomes more than just a part of your life. It becomes your life.
As I have shared in my new book, Stepson to the Mob, I, too, fell victim to the grip of addiction. Both alcohol and cocaine became my drugs of choice throughout most of the eighties and nineties. My gateway drug was marijuana. Like many, it all began with a strong sense of peer pressure, insecurity, and an unavoidable sense of curiosity. But regardless of the reasons, in the end, it was still a decision that I made. It is one that I own and that I certainly take full responsibility for.
‘Drug of Choice’
Which brings me to an interesting phrase in the world of addiction— “drug of choice.” The word that stands out here is “choice.” The way it’s stated, one might think that when choosing a drug that best suits them, it’s just like choosing a music genre or a preferred brand of shoes.
— “My favorite music is country, and I will always prefer country over anything else.”
— “I will only wear Nike athletic shoes. Nike is my favorite brand of shoe.”
But sadly, it isn’t the same at all. Not even close. For starters, the word “choice” should have no connection to the word “drug.” Once you begin to use a highly addictive drug like nicotine or alcohol, it’s just a matter of time before you no longer have a choice. You’re hooked! Your drug of choice is now your drug of necessity. Sure, it might seem like you’re the one calling the shots (no pun intended) about whether to light up that cigarette or pour yourself that glass of wine. But the truth is, once the powerful nature of these addictive chemicals digs in, they don’t let go. And before you know it, they’re running the show.
You will often hear one who is struggling with addiction say, “I don’t have a problem, I can quit anytime I want.” And, sadly, they believe this to be true. I thought this way for a long time, and in the beginning, I did believe I could quit whenever I wanted to. In the early days, everything seems harmless. It’s just nothing but a good time, all the time, especially if you, like me, were swept up in the heart of the crazy eighties!
But as time goes on and the addictive behaviors only increase, the ability to slow things down becomes impossible. Before you know it, you wake up twenty years later with no idea what just happened. Twenty years ago, your curiosity had led you to smoke your first joint. Not long after, you found yourself at a keg party drinking beer for the first time. And now, you’re staring at an empty bottle of 100 proof Goldschlager, a mirror full of cocaine residue, and an ashtray overflowing with two-day-old cigarette butts. So much for, “I can quit anytime I want.”
Drugs and Alcohol?
Lastly, I would like to share with you a phrase that is also directly connected to the world of addiction—though actually a term, I must admit, I do not find as interesting as I do incredibly damaging. It’s the famous term “Drugs and Alcohol.” Our society, from the beginning of time, has purposely separated those two words as if to presume they are two different things. Indicating that there are drugs, and then there is alcohol. Really? No—sorry—not correct. Alcohol is a drug. In fact, it is the second most deadly drug in America—second only to tobacco and twice as deadly as its runner-up, opioids. And more concerning—all three are legal. But for some reason, society refuses to label alcohol a drug. In fact, they seemingly want it to be considered something separate altogether. If someone has a drinking problem, we can’t say this person has a drug problem? Even though that is exactly what they have? There has always been a preconceived notion that if someone is abusing drugs, those drugs must surely be illegal. I have always believed that keeping alcohol separate from the drug conversation has been dangerous. Alcohol is viewed as a “socially acceptable” indulgence. The perfect toast at any celebration. The perfect way to wind down after a tough day at the office.
The truth is, it’s nothing more than society’s “drug of choice.” It is this very “choice” that has taken down some of the most unsuspecting souls over a span of many decades. I must admit, if it wasn’t for alcohol in my life, I wouldn’t have made most of the really bad decisions that I made throughout the course of my addicted past. As a recovering addict of now twenty-four years, I have always said that nothing good ever comes from drinking, and I stand by that to this day. And there’s something else that I stand by to this day, something that I also share in my book:
“No matter how bad things get, we are just one ‘good’ decision away from turning it all around.”