Stoic Philosophy Saved Me from Addiction
When I was younger, I wasn’t strong or in control of myself and my impulses. I hadn’t figured out how short our lives were and how unpredictable the world can be. I had to hit bottom before I found the source of my dissatisfaction and the reason I made knee-jerk decisions instead of relying on logic.
I had to battle addiction and mental illness before I started making changes to my thinking.
If we look at the people around us today and consider their thoughts and feelings, the things we see missing most are self-discipline, empathy, and humility. We live our lives in contention over who should lead us, who we hate, who we love, and if we get a say over what we can do with our own bodies. We start brawls in the comments section and are in a constant state of outrage over the memes we see scrolling through our newsfeed. We don’t control our emotions, we don’t put ourselves in others’ shoes, and we allow our pride to control how we interact with each other.
I was no different, and in some ways, that part of me lives on. Even though I’ve allowed myself permission to change my course in life, I still fall back into those same patterns all the time. I can be petty, mean, and entitled just like the people we use as an example of a disgusting human being. I can still be reflexive with my decisions when faced with situations I deem unfair. I am still not completely satisfied with what I am and what I have.
It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows — Epictetus
The anxiety that ravaged me for so many years was only getting worse. I was finding it hard to do the things that felt normal before. People at work were noticing how withdrawn I was and how I avoided social situations in the office. I knew it was finally time to ask my psychiatrist if he could give me something that would dull the edges and mute the anxiety that had turned the inside of my mind into chaos.
A week later, I filled my prescription for Paxil and took my first dose. I didn’t like medication. I hadn’t yet gotten to the point in my life where I would admit to myself that I was mentally ill. I still hoped it would go away on its own after the stress at work subsided, the kids got older, and my wife stopped busting my chops every day.
I was in denial.
Taking the medication for anxiety was a leap for me. I was already taking an antidepressant, but that was acceptable because most people were on them, right? In taking Paxil, I was admitting there was something truly wrong with me. I was no longer like everyone else and I couldn’t kid myself that I was.
Another week passed, and I started noticing the anxiety wasn’t so strong. The edges were starting to smooth out, and I was calm more than agitated. But, I also couldn’t seem to think clearly and was always sleepy.
Three days later, I was on my way home and stopped at a red light. Everyone was honking at me, and I looked around groggily trying to figure out what was going on. I had fallen asleep at the red light without realizing it! I made it home on adrenaline because I was so scared I would fall asleep and T-bone a minivan full of children.
I called my doctor and told him what happened, and he told me he expected it and I shouldn’t drive. But, I had to work, and I lived in an area with no public transportation, so I did the only thing I could do — I threw away the pills. The doctor wasn’t happy but said he understood and would give me something that didn’t have such a sedative effect.
My next medication would be my first time on benzodiazepines, but not my last.
We suffer more in imagination than in reality — Seneca
Over the years, when my anxiety got the better of me, my doctors would add clonazepam to my cocktail of medication, and after my last hospitalization in the States, kept me on them permanently. I don’t know why I never read that this medication was only for the short-term — it was never intended for long-term use because it was highly addictive.
My doctors never alerted me to the fact, either. When the medicine would lose its effectiveness, they would increase my dosage until it worked again. It was a never-ending cycle that continued until I decided to pack up my life and move to the other side of the world. The Philippines had a lot to offer, not the least of which was the opportunity to be with the woman I loved in a place I could start over with a clean slate.
I had spent so long feeling like a burden to my kids and my parents, and I wanted to remove myself from them to give them a chance to have a life that didn’t involve me putting them through all my ups and downs. I wanted them to live a life without me bringing their lives down to my level.
So, I left.
After years of hospitalizations for mental illness, bankruptcy, and a divorce — I was anxious to put it all behind me and I was happy that my family could finally live a normal life without me around.
I wouldn’t realize until much later that I had abandoned them all to finally fix my life. I thought I was doing them a favor by leaving, but my kids lost a father and my parents a son. I packed up my life and flew to the other side of the world.
But, in all my research on the Philippines before I left, I never came across anything that explained their strict drug-control policies. Clonazepam was a controlled substance almost everywhere, and the Philippine government put tight restrictions on it. My doctors in the U.S. had me up to high dosages, but I was only allowed 1 mg a day in the Philippines.
After only a few days of being on my new dosage, withdrawals hit me like a truck, but I didn’t yet know that’s what they were. I was an addict and didn’t know it. After a week, I was so physically ill that I couldn’t move. I was also suicidal, and my new wife, who didn’t know my illness was this awful, scrambled to help me through it.
It took weeks of withdrawals for my body to acclimate to the smaller dosage. I still didn’t know about addiction — I just thought I was having a bad reaction to a new brand of clonazepam (Rivotril was the only thing available).
Circumstances over the next few years made me see that all the years of benzo abuse had made me an addict. There were times I would run out of medication, and I either didn’t have a prescription, or the pharmacies didn’t have my needs available. The withdrawals would come back after a few days, and I would be deathly ill, physically and mentally, until I could get more drugs.
I brought my concerns at times to my doctor, be she always said I should stay on the benzos. She said there was nothing better and even tried to help me increase my dosage by doing some creative paper-shuffling to confuse the pharmacy.
I didn’t know until much later that her bank account was getting bigger from the addiction of all her patients.
The cycle continued, and every month there was a problem getting my prescription so I would be forced into withdrawals. I tried to quit the pills many times, but I always went crawling back because the mental and physical withdrawals were too intense.
Depressed from the constant battering my body and mind took, I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t find another doctor, and couldn’t quit the pills on my own. I was stuck. Something would have to unstick me.
And something did.
As the beginning of the month was getting close, I called my doctor so I could get her to fill my prescription (she could only legally write one script a month for me, so I had to go through this every thirty days). She told me she couldn’t see me because she was leaving town for a while, and I should call another doctor (who I found out later had no idea I would be calling). I went through three weeks of hell trying to get an appointment with the temporary doctor, but she was always too busy to see me.
Finally, I went to the clinic she worked and waited in the hallway, to take five minutes of her time to write a prescription that would tide me over until my doctor came back. I harassed the nurses to get me a slot all day until finally, the doctor herself tried to walk past me to leave for the day.
To say I exploded would be an understatement. It was not my finest moment but I was sick from withdrawals and needed drugs. I wasn’t violent, but I was abusive because she had put me off for so long and then tried to ignore me. I am still ashamed of my actions to this day.
Addiction is a hell of a thing.
What I didn’t know is she had anxiety problems too, and my tirade gave her a panic attack. She was only trying to save her license by avoiding me because she could no longer legally write me a script. My doctor had lied to me.
It seems as though my personal doctor was in a bit of trouble. She had been skirting the laws and keeping hundreds of her patients addicted to Rivotril. She played it off that she wasn’t going to renew her license because it was too much trouble, but I knew the government was watching her.
When she finally came back to the country and I finally was able to see her, she told me I couldn’t get any more Rivotril.
Now, if she had been a good doctor, she would have known that a guy who took benzos for over ten years cannot go cold turkey. She would have made arrangements to hospitalize me so I could be monitored — but she didn’t.
I was on my own.
There were times in the next few months that I felt if my heart didn’t give out, I would kill myself. I had quit smoking some time before, but I’d never experienced anything this horrible. I tried to sleep as much as possible, but my body wouldn’t allow it.
Physically and mentally, I was a trainwreck, and if I could have gotten back on my medication, no matter what I had to do, I would have done it.
It was that bad, but I woke one day a month or so later and realized I’d made it past the worst of it. I could go outside and spend time with my family. I could eat and sleep. My moods stabilized, and I started to feel human again. Yes, the anxiety was terrible, but it was a worthwhile trade-off for not being on those pills. I was a free man, and I was very proud of myself.
How did I get through it alive? Believe it or not, the stoics had it right all along.
It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs — Seneca
I knew a little stoicism from my research over the years, but I didn’t put faith in it until around the time when I realized I was an addict.
I read about Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. I found ways to better handle the hard times in life by preparing for their inevitability. I found out how to show empathy, how to control my unhealthy knee-jerk reactions, and how to be more compassionate.
Stoicism helped me get through hell, and when I was out, it helped me live the rest of my life because I had already been through the worst possible situation I could imagine. Whenever things in my life get bad, I get past it because I ask myself, “What is the worst that can happen?” “Is it as bad as what I’ve already been through?” The answer is always no, and now I have a calm about me in situations that would have brought me to my knees before.
I am a simple man who has a few simple pleasures in life. I remind myself of what can happen in the future and prepare myself for it.
The idea of stoicism helped me through the roughest times of my life and I still remember the lessons I learned. I didn’t follow it like a religion like some tech-bro after reading The 4-Hour Workweek, but I still remembered the lessons and ideas when I needed them the most.
Did it work? Yes, I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t used stoicism. It gave me something to grasp when I needed guidance and I held on like a drowning man.
Take it from me, the ideas you learn from stoicism can change your life if you let it, and it did for me.