Effects of Cocaine: From Addict to Graduate

Sunrise brings doom for every cocaine addict. My heart, still pulsing from lines of Columbia’s notorious export, sounded like a Scarface drum solo. I tore the plastic baggy apart, but I knew there was nothing left. I felt like I was in a free falling elevator. Frantically, I called and texted anyone who could help me score. It was 5:30am, and I didn’t care. I needed my fix.

This was a typical morning for me at the height of my cocaine addiction.

I haven’t touched it in 3 years.

How Did I Get Started?

The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia (CASA) claims 90% of people who tried cocaine smoked cigarettes, marijuana and drank alcohol first. 

As Dewey Cox said, “Guilty as charged!”

Before I snorted my first line, pot, cigarettes and booze were a part of my every day drug routine. Substance abuse crept in with the legal stuff and left the illegal drugs in its wake. I got bored with just booze and pot and smokes. Like any “good addict," when I get bored, I get curious.

With a fairytale introduction, cocaine came to me one night at a club. “Come to Narnia with me,” my friend whispered, as he pulled me into a bathroom stall. I accepted and catapulted into a snowy world where I was queen. It felt as though nothing was impossible. 

Cocaine produces euphoria – understatement of the year. Euphoria is intense excitement, happiness and a sense of overall well-being. I felt all of the above and more, but why?

The region of the brain that cocaine hits hardest is responsible for the pleasurable sensation often called a “rewarding feeling.” That full body tingle you get when you smell delicious foods? That’s your brain producing chemicals (primarily dopamine), which in turn cause a feeling of reward.

In a normal brain the reward signal is sent, received and then recycled for later use.

A brain fueled by blow (slang for cocaine), however, not only amps up the tingling/reward sensation, but also prohibits it from ending. So feelings of being fit to flip a truck, hearing a fly breathe a mile away, believing you are God’s gift to humankind and truly comprehending Einstein’s theory of relativity can be attributed to a flood of dopamine.

Thus, the lights of my mind shined like Times Square. The music’s bass rattled my spine. My lonely world, littered with acquaintances minutes before, now brimmed with lifelong friends. I was Athena, Gandhi and Hillary Clinton all in one. I was unstoppable! Enter the cocaine crash.

The party stops 15-20 minutes after the last line of coke. Tingles? Gone. Panic? Sets in like a schizophrenic nightmare. Dopamine depleted, the brain starts the slow process of recovery. In short, I felt terrible. Worse than terrible. I felt like I’d studied for an astrophysics exam for four weeks, while at the same time, training for an Iron Man Triathlon.

So I chase the high to avoid the crash like a gambler’s futile attempts to recoup losses. It’s a compounding problem. With each line, I deplete my brain’s “feel good” chemicals. I need more for the same effect. But I can’t get it. Cocaine’s first touch – that intoxicating rush of dopamine – can’t be replicated. It doesn’t stop me from chasing it.

Recreational to Addicted

The American Psychiatric Association separates drug use into three phases: substance use, substance abuse and substance dependence (or addiction). They call it the Alcohol and Drug Use Continuum.

Substance Use: Casual Cocaine User

This stage means what it says – using the substance and that’s it. Social and entertainment value are the reasons for experimentation. At this point, nobody is selling organs to score. Some people call it “recreational”. I call it an appetizer.

I told myself it’s ok when I’m getting sloppy at the club around 1 every once and a while. I will never buy it.”

Rationalization begins.

Substance Abuse: Cocaine’s Weekend Warrior

This stage occurs when drug use starts to interfere with every day life. You’ve moved into the abuse phase when at least one of the following factors is present over a 12 month period:

  • The effects of the drug have interfered with health, work or social functioning.
  • Engaged in hazardous activity on a recurring basis, such as driving or operating machinery under the influence.
  • Experienced use-related legal problems.
  • Continued use despite ongoing or recurring problems caused or exacerbated by use—this included a maladaptive pattern of use, such as binging.

My cocaine use transformed from an occasional bump to a weekend blowout. I went from Dancing with the Stars at the club to guarding my precious coke like a drugged-out Smeagol. 

Substance Dependence (Addiction): Full-Blown Cocaine Addict

This marks the transition from problematic abuse to all-out addiction. Once addicted, a person develops a pattern of use that results in three or more of the following symptoms over a 12 month period.

  • Tolerance —needing more of the drug to get “high.”
  • Withdrawal—physical symptoms when drugs are not used, such as tremors, nausea, sweating, and shakiness.
  • Unable to control use— a strong craving or compulsion to use and an inability to limit use.
  • The drug increasingly becomes the focus of the person’s life at the expense of all other areas, including family, work, social, and recreational.
  • Continued use despite ongoing or recurring physical or psychological problems cause or exacerbated by the drug use.

I remember rationalizing an hour drive on a Tuesday night to meet a friend of a friend’s dealer for an 8 ball (3.5 grams of cocaine). It wasn’t an addiction; it was a supplemental study aide. The rigors of college academia demand students seek an edge, right? That’s what cocaine was – my edge.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. And it gets better.

If I studied high on cocaine, it made perfect sense to take the exam high. I’m certain this logic just made Aristotle turn over in his grave. But it sounded entirely rational to me.

Nights and days begin to bleed together. I measured time by how much cocaine remained. Life became one constant binge. I stopped going to classes and almost lost my generous scholarship.

Ribs poked through my skin, revealing a progressive, fatal condition – cocaine addiction. You could cut metal on my cheek bones. The inside of my nose was full of scabs and crusty blood.  My room warped into a sunless cave. Too paranoid to leave, I emerged only to buy cigarettes, and of course, more blow.

I lost all my friends except those who used with me. I stopped talking to my family, yet still expected money. My only joy, synthetic as it was, came from a snort. I became a desperate, dangerous creature who only cared about a fix.

Getting Sober

(Caetlin, pictured on the right, graduated college after getting sober)

When the story shifts to a train wrecked addict entering rehab, people stop reading. But they shouldn’t. This is where the magic happens. And anyone brave enough to face life on its own terms will claim the same.

Sobriety is where the deplorable stories end and unimaginable ones begin.

There were three vital elements in my early recovery: my family’s refusal to enable my addiction, inpatient treatment and 12 step programs.

My Family Refuses to Enable Cocaine Addiction

Once my addiction became apparent to family, they made a few things clear:

  • They loved me.
  • They loved me enough to withhold money, valuables and would not be a financial guarantor.
  • They loved me enough to pull me out of college because I was failing classes.
  • They loved me enough to tell me that using substances in their home was unacceptable. They would take me to treatment, or I could leave.
  • They loved me enough to let me choose to be homeless before I was willing to accept their gracious offer.

Without my parent’s “tough love” approach, my addiction would have lasted many more years. If I survived.

Friends and families receive support dealing with a loved one struggling with substance dependence by attending Al-Anon (alcohol abuse) or Nar-Anon (drug abuse) Family meetings.

Click here to find Al-Anon meetings in your area.

Click here to find Nar-Anon meetings in your area.

Inpatient Treatment

I needed a qualified facility that met my individual needs. I was lucky to find one. Many don’t.

I knew I constantly wanted to use cocaine. Abstinence seemed impossible. What I didn’t know was why? Why did this desire to use cocaine persist? Why did I feel this compulsive need to numb my feelings? How do I become stable again?

Eventually, I found a place that helped me start to answer some of those questions through individual therapy, group therapy, communal living and medical supervision.

12 Step Programs

I learned that substance abuse wasn’t my problem, it was merely a symptom. And I learned that in 12 step meetings.

I found a community dedicated to getting sober, staying sober and living with purpose. Members with long-term sobriety passed me a plan of action through application of the 12 steps. I discovered a real solution to my underlying issues. This was the answer I never thought possible.

Click here to find meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in your local area.

Click here to find meetings of Narcotics Anonymous in your local area.

Life Sober Today

Today I see the sun rise because I am on my way to work. I don’t call into work sick anymore. And I work for employers who trust me.

My heart still races. I feel it pound in my chest after dance class, before a first kiss and now as I write. I enjoy the freedom to feel that sensation, just as nature intended.

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Caetlin Mangan