Dimming my own light

I’ve always enjoyed being under the influence. Whether alcohol or more illicit things, I usually have a good time, even when the times aren’t particularly good.

This is absolutely not a “drugs are bad” post. I still enjoy drugs (including alcohol), in the right context. More research is being done on the usefulness of drugs ranging from run-of-the-mill THC to ketamine to hallucinogens. No, this post is about why I used a specific drug to dim my own light (by which I mean “exercising my mind and expecting great things from other people exercising theirs”), where it got me to, and where I’m at now.

One side of my family are alcoholics (also gambling addicts and/or workaholics (in the true sense of “unable to show up for other responsibilities because work is prioritized too highly” rather than just “I work a lot”)), so I knew from an early age that I needed to keep tabs on my consumption. Ever since I started to do my Year End Reviews, I’ve tracked my intoxicant intake. I’ve been more aligned with my goals over the years, with my documented low point in 2018.

You’ll notice three buckets here – “Ideal,” “Acceptable,” and “Unwanted.” “Unwanted” means something I’m doing that I don’t actually want to be doing. What is included in each of these brackets has changed over the years as my assessment of my own behavior has changed. For instance “more than one drink” moved from “ideal” behavior (along with “no intoxicants” and “one drink”) into the “acceptable” category (alongside “buzzed”). Because I am human and this is not actual peer-reviewed science, I didn’t write down when those shifts occurred and the chart represents past use based on current thresholds for behaviors. IE, 2018 looks worse viewing it today than it would have looked in 2018 or even 2019.

What I was doing

My alcohol intake has also diminished over the years, but that is a familial struggle and a way to self medicate against mania that probably deserves its own story at some point. What I want to talk about today is nitrous, and how I used it for years to dim my own light.

I want to be clear – the point here is about the dimming, not about the drugs. Nitrous is an enjoyable party drug when you’re comfortable with your own use. And while it’s not considered addictive (note: since hitting “publish,” I’ve been informed that nitrous’s addictiveness has been reassessed and it IS now considered addictive), even mild use of it moved from “acceptable” in my rubric to “unwanted” because I found myself doing it even when I didn’t want to. I knew I was doing something I didn’t want to be doing, but I was doing it anyway. To be that out of control is scary, and it took a great care team of my counsellor, psychiatrist, and husband to realize what I was doing, why I was doing it, and how to get out of it.

I was not doing the large amounts that you hear of some people doing. I did not have a tank. I was not ordering large quantities to be shipped to my house. I was walking to a local shop a time or two a week to pick up a box or two. However, I was doing it on my own much of the time. It was a perfect drug – I could be high for an extremely delineated amount of time and then be sober again. It fit into my schedule, and you all know how I feel about my schedule.

At some point in 2018, I noticed I was doing nitrous to avoid confronting difficult things in my life; and/or to help time pass. And time is the most valuable thing we have. It’s the only thing we don’t get more of. It is, as I like to say, “the currency of caring.” And I didn’t care. I thought if I just waited, the hard things would pass. They didn’t. So I talked to my counsellor, psychiatrist, and husband about it. They all practice harm reduction and wanted to focus first on why I was doing it.

Why was I doing this?

For most of my life, I have been informed by people that I am “too much.” I have generally figured people could just piss off, but 2016-18 was a particularly light and dark time for me. I was at the (so far) height of my impact on the world – wrapping up my fellowships and affiliations at Civic, Berkman, and NECSI; and working somewhere that was a “dream fit.” You can read about when everything kind of collapsed all at once in life here.

What I didn’t talk about at the time (~2016), because I didn’t yet understand it, but now I do, is that Gunner (ED of Aspiration, where I had been working) continually asked me to dim my light. Nothing I did was right at work, but it was probably because I didn’t understand yet or wasn’t trying hard enough. It was, frankly, emotionally abusive. I have since had coffee with him to let him know that his dedication to both hiring brilliant AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) people and being extremely anti-intellectual (especially towards AFAB folk he has power over) has this impact. I don’t know if it landed or not as we haven’t spoken since.

I am not blaming Gunner for my substance abuse. That was all on me. But as a dear friend said to me, “the thing you put between yourself and your feelings is the thing you’re addicted to.” I had a lifetime of being told I was “too much” — being asked to dim my light — and I was in a position to trust that maybe this time the person asking was right. So I did. I abused a drug to help me quiet my mind, to make it possible to be comfortable (happy, even!) with sitting still doing mindless things.

Where did I end up?

There was a sort of perfect storm at the end of 2016 that had me in a very dark place. Being told I was bad at what I was doing wasn’t just about work, it was about what I had built up a life around changing – crisis response. I had been slowly removed from my networks of response (they weren’t “strategic”) and other means of income. These were also a core part of my socializing. I was searching for “legible” work as an “illegible” human, and I didn’t feel like I had value to contribute to my chosen field.

My relationship was also collapsing at the end of 2016, and my partner essentially ghosted me after a year of dating and talks of a Future. That didn’t help, but isn’t the biggest factor. It was just one more thing to try to tolerate until it got better. One more thing I didn’t want to come to terms with, even after it had passed.

It was time for me to shift from the lifestyle and focus I had to something else. I was tired of being poor, and burned out from crisis work. I had built up enough intention and momentum to know what direction I was headed for, and Past Willow had set me up to succeed if I just followed some steps. But I allowed things to be done to me, rather than to make that transition while fully present, and that’s hard to come to terms with.

And so I settled into just passing time from that collapse in 2016 into 2018. Passing time between and around my 2 four-hour daily blocks of job hunting. Settled into diminishing my light — that’s what so many had wanted for so long, right? It would make me more palatable, surely. And I had been encouraged to leave my networks of both social and work (so long intertwined). How could I go back?

I am quite certain at this point that I had diminished my cognitive capacity because of both the duration/amount of my nitrous use, and also the interruption to my intellectual momentum. Returning to things I wrote before this period left me learning things from my past self. And while it’s always nice to learn, I do mourn what I lost without intentionally putting it down.

The last time I did nitrous regularly was June 2019, and then once in June 2020 to be sure I didn’t like it anymore. I didn’t. It now just feels like a waste of time, money, and brain cells.

The now

So now, where am I at? Thanks to a great care team, a lovely husband who is both caring but also doesn’t take shit, and Past Willow setting out some clear steps, I have a deeply satisfying job. My marriage and other relationships are solid. We bought a house. I had a kid. And I wanted and want these things. What I mourn is that it happened to me in some ways, rather than being something I fully embraced as my next phase.

I am trying to be kind to myself. I am trying to re-ignite my love of learning. I am trying to give myself permission to be firey and to perhaps even verge back into “too much” territory. I am being more cautious about who I spend my time with, and am be understanding to abuse being something that often recurs for people (including for me) — as well as something that has long-lasting effects. Leaving is just the first step.

I am protecting this light, and I intend not to dim it again.

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