By Rachel Wagner*
Growing up, food played an important role in our household. Bread was whole wheat, salt wasn’t kept on the table, and nothing was ever fried. My grandmother lived with us and she would always prepare nutritious meals, often according to the season. She was a healer of sorts, with an arsenal of tools to be used at the first signs of illness. My least favourite was a heaping spoon of cod liver oil. The dreadful liquid would be waiting for my sister and I every day when we got home from school (I’ll never forget the vile taste.) Ironically, this would become a staple in my daily health regimen 30 years later—my grandmother’s health rituals would have lasting effects on me.
I always knew that what I chose to eat had a direct correlation with how I felt physically and mentally. It’s the reason I chose to study and practice Chinese medicine when I reached my twenties. It was really important that I’d take care of myself so I could have the energy to give my clients the best treatments that I could. I exercised regularly and with help from a trainer, I loved seeing the gains I was making. I was committed to a fit lifestyle, and things were on a great trajectory. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that the next ten years—the majority of my thirties—would take such an inconceivable turn. That I would get locked in a cycle of cocaine binging, exercising, eating well, only to rinse and repeat over and over in varying degrees of severity.
The progression was insidious. At first I was an infrequent user, but it became my recreational drug of choice, in part because I could recover quickly. By the time I was 26, I took a hiatus from practicing natural medicine and began working in an office where I was making a good salary. That’s around the time I met my husband, who was even more into the party scene than I was and so were all his friends. Cocaine started to infiltrate the group and all of a sudden everyone was doing it. Slowly the adverse effects, from depression and anxiety to digestive issues, became harder and harder to manage.
It wasn’t unusual for me to spend around $1,000 a month on protein powders and supplements. But I was also spending up to $3,000 a month on coke.
Following a weekend binge, I would put myself on a strict dietary protocol of greens and nutrient dense foods as well as exercise (when I was able to resume such activities, which could take 2-3 days) to get back to my pre-binge state faster. My new job involved being on call during the night and at some point, I sort of stopped sleeping. It was then that I suffered somewhat of a nervous breakdown. I ended up in the hospital with a full-on panic disorder and I had to leave my job. It was kind of blessing in disguise though, because it wasn’t what I was meant to do and I decided that I was going to go back to school for massage therapy. I had to go on Paxil but as soon as the medication started working I began partying again.
I’d definitely taken breaks over the years, I could go for months where I’d stop everything, even drinking. After I got married, we moved to the suburbs and had a baby, a little girl. For a while, dropping a hit of ecstasy was a treat we would do a few times a year when we’d come into the city for a friend’s birthday or some such occasion, but it wasn’t something I’d seek out. It just wasn’t a part of my lifestyle anymore. But a few years later we moved to Toronto, and pretty quickly we were hanging around the DJ scene again where the drug was so prevalent.
In my mind, there was this distinct dichotomy between healthy living, which is what I wanted, and this other lifestyle that I found it hard to get away from. During the week, I’d be doing yoga, running five days a week, making my own smoothies (my favourite was a blend of collagen powder, coconut oil, banana, raw peanut butter and paleo protein powder) and dehydrating my own kale chips (massaged with grapeseed oil, seasoned with salt and garlic powder and baked at 350 degrees until crispy). My job working at a clinic paid really well, so it wasn’t unusual for me to spend around $1,000 a month on protein powders and supplements.
But I was also spending up to $3,000 a month on coke. The partying would start with drinks on a Friday and could last a day and a half, basically until I slept because I would just want more and more. My parents would take my daughter for the weekend, or sometimes she would be with the neighbours. It got really gross. There probably would be 3-4 days of sickness and having to cancel everything. As soon as I came to, my healthy mind would kick-in like, ‘Now I have to heal myself.’ It was perpetual. I had to do all these things as a remedy and then as soon as I felt better it was right back to my stringent workout schedule and eating well.
In 2012, my Mom got cancer and that was a big motivation for me to not smoke or do any of those things so I could be there for her. I also knew that with my panic disorder I could end up back in the hospital. A year later, I started visiting a mindfulness clinic once a week for dialectical behavioural therapy, or DBT. It was group cognitive therapy for people who have anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, but drugs were kind of consistent with everybody. (Coincidentally, a naturopath was there too.) Everyone gets their own workbook, learning different strategies to improve interpersonal skills or coping mechanisms for general life issues. I was told that I may have bipolar II disorder, which is different than bipolar I disorder, and that’s likely why I was stuck in a vicious cycle of needing to feel good and then feeling really bad.
My lowest point was Mother’s Day, holed up in my basement for three days and coming up with the most ridiculous lies. And then the guilt. I got so tired of living like that. I felt like nothing really mattered anymore. I put a message out to the universe that something needed to change. Three days later, my husband was contacted for a great job outside of another city. We moved, and it ended up being the best thing that could have happened to us. I have had a lot of friends who’ve gone through treatment or are in a program and they’re like ‘Oh, don’t be fooled, geography doesn’t change things!’ But it did for me.
Drugs were never something I woke up wanting. I don’t blame other people for my substance abuse, but I have realized how toxic and unhealthy some of my relationships were and how important it is to remove myself from those situations. I had one little set back eight months ago when it was offered to me, and it showed me that I have to avoid certain people. Even if I meet somebody new who mentions cocaine, I’m like okay, I can’t be friends with them.
But the best part about our fresh start is that we were able to pull my daughter away from an unhealthy lifestyle at a critical age, that if it went on even a little bit longer with ‘mummy’s sick’ all the time, she probably would have been so badly affected. We were just not present and luckily, her life is so enriched now that she seems to have forgotten all the negativity of the past.
It probably took me an entire year to detox mentally because I had gone so up and down, up and down. Physically, when I finally did remove the drugs, my cortisol levels totally peaked and I gained a lot of weight. My body was so influx all the time, like my hormones, so now they are trying to sort of level up. I’m finally back to doing things like barre, HIIT (high intensity interval training) and eating well, but it’s taken a long time and I don’t do it to the extreme like I used to. I’m finally putting those cognitive therapy strategies to work. Where I used to just automatically react to things, now I find that I can stand back, govern my emotions and I’m better equipped at dealing with life on life’s terms. In the quest for what makes me feel good, I’ve realized that balance, and maybe a spoon full of cod liver oil, is just fine by me.