36 years in this skin

It’s my 36th birthday today. It sounds cliché, but I can honestly say I never expected to live this long. For the first 24 years of my life, I believed my life expectancy was 24. For a few years after that it felt like I was living on borrowed time. These days I accept that I’m making better choices and look forward to living to a respectable old age, if everything goes well. I’m grateful for every. single. day.

I’ve been more or less clean for over a decade now.1 I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world in that time. I feel like at the age of 36 I can effectively assess the first 22 years of my life.

I started drinking and smoking in Middle School. I wasn’t a popular kid, but I didn’t fit in with the burnouts, either. I was just a nerd with a proclivity for addiction and a need to snuff out my feelings. It was later determined that I was Bi-polar and ADD, among other things. I saw a shrink for depression and suicidal thoughts, but nothing came of it as far as treatment. Self-medication became a way of life. By High School I was always “on” something. By college I was a full-fledged addict.

I was what they call a “highly functional addict.” This was both my salvation and my downfall. I could maintain decent grades, hold down jobs, and even convince a partner that I was fine. All these things while consuming an inhuman amount of narcotics. It made it possible to quiet my inner demons and still smile for the world. It also made it hard to feel like I needed help, even when things got really bad.

When I refer to the amount of drugs I’ve done, it’s not to brag. Far from it. It’s simply to underline that the average person has no concept of what I’ve done to this body. I’ve been checked into hospitals for “unrelated” injuries and accidents, and when blood panels came back I’d receive a visit from a doctor, often in pairs, who would tell me that I should technically be dead2 and that if they could find a way to force me into treatment, they would. They never did.

I eventually checked myself into rehab after watching enough friends decline into “junkiehood,” overdose, and even die.3 It should have been the knowledge of the amount of drugs I required to function normally, but it wasn’t. It was my observations of my friends.

I should mention that my last time through rehab was actually my third trip. The first two times I was high before I left the parking lot. After 15-30 days of rigorous self-examination and horrible feelings of isolation, a relapse just feels like coming home at the end of a long day.

The third time, I called my parents from rehab, dumped the story of the prior eight years on them, and asked them to drive up and meet me outside the door of the hospital in St. Paul, MN.

My parents were saints, in the sense that they showed unconditional love and support despite betrayal and in the face of zero reasons to do so. There were tears, and there was concern, resentment, and questioning of everything. They supported me nonetheless, and for that I am forever grateful. As a kid I had developed my own irrational resentments of my parents, but after coming out of the haze and really considering what they’d done for me, I began to truly love them. The thought of the extent to which they supported me is one of the things that helps keep me clean today.

Love is not an emotion that comes easily to me. My innate understanding of love is that it’s a chemically manufactured construct with the sole purpose of manipulation. I consider loyalty, in most instances, to be a braindead decision-making process. Honesty, though, I consider pure and holy, and had always reserved it for only the most sacred conversations, as well as a last-ditch manipulation tactic. Honesty about myself (and with myself), that is. I always found it all too easy to be honest about other people, usually to their faces, and not to the benefit of my social life.

I’ve learned to love over the last decade. I don’t think it’s the kind of love that other people refer to, but I’m able to rationally assess my feelings toward others and decide whether or not I’m willing to sacrifice for them. It’s not always a reciprocal thing, sometimes my detachment outweighs the sacrifices others have made for me. I don’t love them. I appreciate them. But my wife, my family and a select few friends I truly believe I love. I would risk everything for them.

My tendency to risk it all is another thing I’ve come to understand. I’m a gambler with all things, but the rush of gambling isn’t the core of the quirk. It’s a complete lack of fear of consequences. The kind that gets a person into trouble quickly, especially when their judgement is impaired to begin with.

Even now, with a clear head, I’m prone to make rash decisions and try things in a way that a more rational person never would. Whether it’s a split-second decision about shooting for that opening in a line of traffic on the highway, or a larger choice such as whether to quit my job and try to make it as an independent developer and writer, I lack the fear.4 I can logically weigh the pros and cons, but when it comes to gut instinct, I go for anything that looks gratifying. People often laud me for audacity when, in fact, it’s simply a lack of fear.

Courage is different from the absence of fear. You can’t be courageous if you don’t first internalize the consequences. Courage, to me, means overcoming fear, not ignoring it. If I’m courageous about anything, it’s facing life without chemicals, and that still occasionally scares the shit out of me.

So that’s me. I’m a mess. I hope you don’t think less of me for saying all of this. I accept my past and I’m grateful for where it’s inexplicably left me: alive, well, and able to ponder the reasons I’ve made it here. I’ll relish this birthday as I have every birthday since I was 25, and will continue to do so for as long as I can.

Thank you to my parents, my wife, my family and my friends for helping me be here today to write all of this. I’m grateful for all of you.

  1. Experienced addicts will know that the fact that I drink craft beers and fine scotch is not “clean.” I believe I have it under control, but know that it may land me back in “the rooms” someday.

  2. 2g of 85% pure china white really should do that to a person.

  3. This.

  4. Or perhaps the decision about whether or not to bare my soul on a blog.

Brett Terpstra

Brett is a writer and developer living in Minnesota, USA. You can follow him as ttscoff on Twitter, GitHub, and Mastodon. Keep up with this blog by subscribing in your favorite news reader.

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