“Have you ever done cocaine?”
The inflection of my son’s voice when he asked me that question was as if he had asked me to pass the peas, but his eyes were fixed on mine, waiting for my answer.
It began as a conversation about sex. My husband was out of town on a business trip, and my sons, 17 and 14, and I were bonding while eating pizza between homework and activities. It was January, before I had ever heard of COVID-19, and my biggest concern as far as their health was concerned was STIs. Neither of them was dating at the time, but I have always felt that is when information is the most helpful ― before it is needed. I am always attempting to stay several steps in front of any future calamity. Unfortunately for my boys, this can mean mealtime turns into the perfect time for a lecture about the importance of condoms. When I saw their eyes glaze over, I ended the conversation.
“I know you two would rather talk to Dad about this, or not at all,” I said “but I want you to feel free to talk to me about any questions you might have.”
“Really? We can ask you any question?” my oldest son asked.
“Of course,” I replied, curious about his sudden enthusiasm.
He told me his class had watched a movie at school that day about the risks of doing cocaine, and he wanted to know about my experience.
I hesitated just a moment before admitting it. Part of me wanted to lie because I don’t like the truth. Although my husband wasn’t there, I knew he would support me in disclosing my past. We have a policy of being honest with our sons in the hope of making them feel comfortable doing the same. Still, I was reluctant to reveal that painful part of my past.
I took a deep breath. I told the boys that I used cocaine during a brief period between dropping out of and returning to college. I said I had lacked the wisdom then to understand the root of my emotional problems, and coped by drifting from one shiny thing to the next to escape my pain. Cocaine, like skipping classes and dating jerks, was a self-destructive distraction.
I didn’t tell the boys that the first time I tried cocaine was at a party. Or that I was pressured to do so by a good friend, who had also dropped out of college. “You’ll love it!” she promised. And I did. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that good. I didn’t know then that every time after that meant chasing, but narrowly missing, that first perfect high.
“'You’ll love it!' she promised. And I did. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that good. I didn’t know then that every time after that meant chasing, but narrowly missing, that first perfect high.”
I lived in my parents’ house then, working retail and spending money on clothes and coke. At first I only used on the weekends, blasting the Stones and cutting lines with friends in my childhood bedroom before heading to clubs.
I once popped a blood vessel in one nostril, and switched to the other side and popped the other one. Both nostrils flooded. I shrugged, wiped the blood off the mirror, and kept going. When I glanced up again, my friend was watching me and crying. I didn’t care enough to be concerned. Coke was good about letting me not care.
Once I used in a dressing room while trying on clothes at the mall. Cocaine had gone from being a social activity to something I did alone, and even I knew that was a warning sign.
But it wasn’t the warning signs that made me finally decide to stop, or the nights I lay awake praying for sleep, my heart pounding in my eardrums. It was the afternoon I saw a double rainbow, yet felt nothing but gray sky. Cocaine had taken my ability to feel awe from me.
I decided to quit with the hope my brain chemistry would recover. I left my retail job and moved to Israel, where I lived on a kibbutz and chopped cucumbers and tomatoes endlessly in the dining hall. I took up running and found peace scaling the hills of Jerusalem. When I returned to the States, I was ready for college. I graduated three years later with honors and got married soon afterward.
Years later, my baby boys safely settled in the day care of our local gym, I smelled cocaine in the locker room. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could do it in a public place, or why the smell was so pervasive. Eventually, I realized the scent came from the cleaning solution they used to disinfect the counters. Ever since, I’ve wondered what exactly I was snorting up my nose all those years ago.
A friend I had used with, also currently a mom of teens, was horrified to hear that I had admitted my cocaine use to my sons.
“You wouldn’t tell your kids?” I asked. “Not even when they are older?”
“Oh hell no,” she responded. “They have asked. I denied it.”
Perhaps I inherited my penchant for transparency from my mother, who once told me she had tried LSD with college friends. “I was bored out of my mind.” she confessed. “Everyone else was excited, and talking about their hallucinations, but all I wanted to do was come back down and go to sleep.”
I never felt that her admission had given me permission to try LSD. In fact, hearing about her negative experience made me less inclined to try hallucinogens.
I don’t mean to trivialize my cocaine use. I know that what was a misguided, temporary experience for me could have turned into lifelong problems with addiction. I avoided getting caught ― and being sent to jail. This is a privileged account of illicit drug use ― one that many other people are not as fortunate to have ― and I know it.
“I’m not perfect and I haven’t always made the best decisions. I want my sons to know it’s possible to own their mistakes and acknowledge them.”
These days, you’re much more likely to find me drinking a green smoothie than a glass of wine. I manage my anxiety by eating well, exercising and meditating.
Given my healthy lifestyle, it would be easy to deny my past, to tell my children to do as I say and do now. But I’m not interested in sheltering them or anyone else from my truth. My cocaine use was stupid and risky, and I’m lucky I survived to be able to reflect on it ― but I’m not ashamed of it.
I’m not perfect and I haven’t always made the best decisions. I want my sons to know it’s possible to own their mistakes and acknowledge them. They too can choose to carry forward the lessons they’ve learned and leave the past behind. I share my stories with the hope that they learn from mine, without feeling the need to repeat them.
When I finished telling the boys about my cocaine use, my younger son rolled his eyes.
He said, “You snorted cocaine up your nose for three months? That was dumb.”
My plan seems to be working, for now.
Sarah Leibov is a writer and Feldenkrais practitioner in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and teenage sons. She is at work on a memoir about surviving her own teen years. You can find her on twitter at @LeibovSarah.