HELL ON WHEELS
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
“The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” – Hunter S. Thompson
When I left home for university at the age of seventeen I hit the road running, followed by hell on wheels. I like the way that sounds. Hell on wheels. The term, dating back to the 1860s, referred to convoys offering alcohol, prostitution, and gambling to Union Pacific railway laborers as they constructed the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Initially, my own hell on wheels didn’t feel like hell at all. Like all stories about serious substance abuse, mine began innocent and clichéd, as harmless fun. As a naïve first year student seeking acceptance, I quickly familiarized myself with the campus-wide culture of weekend binge drinking and recreational drug use. It seemed as if the entire student body had been stricken with a cultural malady, one of reckless indulgence. And even as liquor filled our cups and smoke filled our lungs, we remained oblivious to the potential consequences of our impulsiveness.
Like my peers, I rationalized my growing reputation as a partygoer with a “work hard, play hard” motto, and maintained a commendable academic standing. Of course, one’s luck eventually runs out. There’s only so many times you can roll the dice before inevitably rolling snake eyes.
After I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I sought comfort in drugs and alcohol. I chose a chemically induced reality over the reality of living with a mental illness. There wasn’t a great deal of thought that went into this decision. I would have done just about anything to avoid facing what I knew to be true, that I was sick and needed help.
The capricious nature of my illness troubled me most. That I was no longer able to steer my thoughts, emotions and behaviours was enough to transform harmless fun into desperate escapism.
I explored other substances, harder drugs I had sworn never to try. I began drinking heavily. My substance abuse exacerbated my illness, leaving me depleted, depressed, anxious, and jonesing. But still, I continued to romanticize the fast life.
I lived a decade in turmoil. However, this was recovery and I have learned recovery is like a poker game – sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. And at the age of twenty-seven, I finally went bust. When you hit rock bottom, you are left with two options: keep digging or climb your way up. So, I decided to start climbing.
I have come a long way. There’s no denying the past several years have been mentally and emotionally taxing. Leaving “the lifestyle” behind meant starting anew. “This is a process,” my therapist once told me. Managing my illness without the crutch of drugs and alcohol required I abandon old friends, re-evaluate my goals and values, and learn to cope with the triggers and stressors of day-to-day life. This process hasn’t been without its setbacks. Old habits die hard, as they say. But I have learned to direct my uncertainties, fears and anxieties through healthier channels.
Today, I recognize the importance of accepting my illness for what it is – just an illness. Experience has granted me wisdom. I am not defined by my illness, nor need it dominate my life. I regret my past failures to accept my diagnosis. I chose substance abuse as a means of folding the cards I was dealt. We live with the consequences of our choices, and I have learned (the hard way) how dangerous my choices were to my recovery.
From time to time, I question the meaning of recovery. And as I sift through the miscellany of scattered memories, I always come to the same conclusion – life isn’t about finding meaning. It’s about the search for meaning. With that search comes the propensity to make mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I think I’m likely to make more. In fact, I’m willing to bet on it.