Getting 'California Sober' Showed Me a Kinder, Gentler Way to Do Drugs

When I quit every substance except weed and psychedelics, I could still party and expand my mind, but without the selfishness and addiction.

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Apr 29 2019, 2:46pm

Photo by Jacob Andrew.

This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter about the previously private and highly personal tactics people use to make the world less harrowing. In this week's letter, Michelle Lhooq writes about how streamlining her substance use made her feel better about partying—and everything else. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy from Broadly and This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.

I moved to California to save myself, although I didn’t realize this until much later. All I knew was I was sick and tired and something buried inside me was screaming. The details of my story are specific, but the archetype should be familiar: I’d arrived in New York as a bright-eyed college kid, and after a decade of gruesome grinding, I parlayed my Ivy League pedigree and party girl lifestyle into my dream job as a music journalist at VICE. This gave me the perfect alibi to immerse myself into freaky rave subcultures all over the world—every party was field research, every marathon night an anthropological spree. But you know how this story goes: New York makes your dreams come true, and then those dreams start to kill you.

People used to ask me how I did it—work in the office for 12 hours, and then hit the dancefloor till dawn. The answer I would always give with a bitter chuckle was: DRUGS. When you do lots of drugs over a long period of time you start to understand their contours, and their distinct personalities feel like old friends. And after endless nights of hardcore hedonism, I became disillusioned by the company I was keeping. MDMA’s idiot grin felt like a lie. The indulgence of cocaine was disgusting—like a chattering egomaniac spraying you in spit. Opiates felt like checking out into meaningless blankness. Only psychedelics remained profoundly interesting—at least the void of a k-hole loops back into infinity, gesturing towards some larger ineffable meaning. Still, I kept up the tightrope walk of high-achieving hedonism, modulating my body with carefully calibrated drug cocktails—something to come up, something to come down, repeat ad nauseam.

(Here, I want to pause and note that I don’t believe in drug exceptionalism—that some substances are inherently “better” than others. These observations are specific to my journey, and I have zero judgement towards those who self-medicate with ketamine for depression, for example, or find deep empathetic connection on MDMA.)

One Friday, I rolled into the office and discovered that the golden chains of my privileged hell had been cut: My job had been liquidated in the latest bloody round of media layoffs, and I was free to do whatever I pleased. So I moved to Los Angeles to witness the legal cannabis revolution and write a book about it. At first, I carried around my destructive habits like old baggage, but after a while, to put it plainly, California changed me. Because here’s the thing: The fizzy adrenaline of uppers do not allow you to appreciate the slow wash of sunlight on your skin. When you’re strung out, every inhalation triggers a craving for a cigarette instead of fresh air. Every minute is so pregnant with possibilities for more spikes of manufactured pleasure that even an idle second is torture—and an hour-long car ride becomes hell. And so the sublime natural beauty and slower rhythms of my new city encouraged me to try a radical way of living.

I decided to quit all drugs, including alcohol, except weed and psychedelics for a year. (Psychedelics encompass a wide spectrum of drugs, but for my purposes, I’m limiting them to LSD, psilocybin, DMT/ayahuasca, and other trippy varietals; I am definitely not doing molly.) I call this “Cali sober,” a term some people also use when they quit everything but weed. I’d experimented with month-long stints of total sobriety before, so I knew I could survive it.

Before going Cali sober, I was doing pretty much any drug handed to me. Alcohol was the easiest to quit—most experienced ravers barely drink anyway (it makes you tired and go home early). Adderall was the hardest because it had become so wired into the way that I worked. For that exact reason, it had become my biggest secret and shame: As a writer, I could never escape the nagging sense that I’d cheated—that my words were lies because they were forced out of some chemical mania, not my own psyche.

When I quit, I very quickly noticed changes that kept me going. My skin cleared up, and my friends told me I was glowing. As the muscles that had been bound by the taut grip of amphetamine started to relax, I could feel my whole body unwinding. And I know this sounds absurdly California New Age hippie, but I could almost feel my chakras opening—my creativity felt easy and natural, and my instincts sharpened into intuition.

The truth is that I will always love drugs and raving—and a future without either would be spiritually unfulfilling. Being Cali sober allows me to keep my feet in both subcultures, while its parameters make it easier not to cave to temptation. I am able to take from these experiences what I’m looking for—mind-expansion, self-exploration, empathetic connection, sensorial amplification—without the addiction and selfishness, and other types of ugliness that I associate with many non-psychedelic drugs.

It’s not always easy. Psychedelics can push you to deal with the traumas you were relying on drugs to distract you from; as they unplug the blockages in your brain, the buried gunk rises to the surface. I’m also gaining weight, often stuffing my face with food to combat stress when, in the past, I’d reach for a pill. Some things make it easier: My friend recently started an email chain for people in the music scene struggling with addiction—a virtual AA for ravers. I am often struck by the similarities between our struggles—the journey I’m on is actually a well-worn path.

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Ultimately, this mode of being feels like a radical self-experiment, except I am tweaking my body’s neurochemistry through removing substances, instead of adding them. After more than a decade of reckless self-indulgence, being Cali sober is the ultimate trip.

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