I don’t mean that love is smelly — although, there a certain odor associated with love that I can’t quite place my finger on, and no candle company has been able to recreate. I mean that love stinks. It hurts. It’s like agreeing to have open-heart surgery in your best friend’s basement, knowing that he only has a few rusty knives and instructions printed off the internet — except, his printer was low on ink so there are a lot of smudges and missing information. You know the risk; you know he isn’t equipped to handle what’s inside of you, but you do it anyway.
Love is also quite grand.
It’s not grand in the sense that it has to be huge and filled with marble staircases and expensive jewels lining the walkway. It’s grand in the way other natural phenomena are grand. Think about the way a single seed can sprout a hundred-foot tree. Or the way wind can knock down that same tree in a few gushes. Think about the force of a tsunami or the way wildfires can burn down entire forests. Love is grand because it’s natural — as natural as wind or air or water or fire —and all-natural things can bring about creation or devastation.
It’s the marrying of these two ideas — the majesty and torture of love — that has driven many people, myself included, to the brink of insanity; it’s important to denote that fact. Love won’t push you off of the edge — you’ll do that to yourself. Love will push until your toes dangle over the side of the cliff, but love will step back and let you do the rest. Love isn’t a murderer, after all. In fact, there are many things that love simply isn’t. Love isn’t a thief that pries open your bedroom window once you tuck yourself in — you pay the price voluntarily, even when you know it’s your last dollar. Love isn’t a cheat, with an ace up its sleeve or loaded dice — love plays fair, you just try to bend the rules from time to time. Love isn’t a divine mystery, or a series of hieroglyphics etched into a cave wall of the coast of Nowhere — all of the rules and institutions are clearly outlined, you just like to skip the fine print and sign contracts blindly. Love isn’t an idea or abstract concept to debate in Philosophy class, with varied definitions and thousands of interpretations — love is a pillar, a bone, tacked into your structure to keep you upright, you just didn’t pay attention in your Biology class in ninth grade, and you’ve slouched since you were a toddler.
It’s also important to note that you can love anything and anyone. Love is as much a part of your DNA as the other hard-to-pronounce chemicals and their counterparts; as much a part of you as feeling angry when someone cuts you off in traffic or feeling sad when your dog gets hit by a car for trying to cut someone else off during rush hour. Some people don’t know, or weren’t taught, how to tap into their reserves of love — I am one of those people. For us, love is both an attempt to bleed wine from an empty barrel and patch a burst dam with a package of band-aids — it is too much and not enough, but never in-between.
I didn’t learn how to love people the way other children do, with their parents pulling them onto their laps and staring longingly into their eyes or tucking them in at night with well-wishes and planted kisses. I learned how to love people in a manner similar to trying to translate Portuguese with only a spattered knowledge of Spanish at my disposal. Some of my words were correct, but most of them were short a letter or two, changing their meaning altogether. I knew love was majestic; I knew love hurt — but I didn’t know how to experience either of those wholly. I fell short, settling for water fountains instead of waterfalls and papercuts instead of weeping, gaping wounds. I pretended to be enamored with a few, but I knew they equated a beige wall in my mind. I even pretended to be broken-hearted once or twice, but I mostly just recited lines from shitty romantic comedies and out-of-context song lyrics, hoping that would suffice.
Where loving people was hard, loving things — and other nouns — was easy. I loved books with yellow pages and a stale odor. I loved movies that made me jump or made me cry or made me laugh in the middle of the night when I snuck into the living room and turned on the TV. I loved the way watermelon dripped down my chin and made it sticky at the end of a summer day. I loved my two dogs, and I cried like a madman when one of them was taken from me too soon on a cold morning before I boarded the bus. I loved the way rain smelled when it fell in the summer and rose from the asphalt in waves. I loved New York and Las Vegas and Montana and all the things their locations represented, though I had never been outside of my hometown. I loved staring at clouds, pretending to find shapes in their chaos. I loved so many things, so many feelings, but I didn’t love anyone else — not even myself.
I half-heartedly loved people and whole-heartedly loved things, and I didn’t know how to deal with those conflicting emotions — until I smoked pot for the first time.
The moment the “high” set in, I looked to my best friend, Kelly, and told her I loved her — the words took forever to exit my lips, and they hung in front of us like a banner announcing a new restaurant or a sign pointing to a road we hadn’t explored. They were exciting. They said, “Come inside and try our new, never-before-seen entrée, handcrafted and unique to this location only.” They said, “Take this right turn, down this road you’ve never noticed before now, and find the pot of gold at the end.” They said, “I want to spend more time with you, and I want to get to know you, and I want to be there for you — no matter what.” She laughed and asked if I was feeling “good,” but there was a twinkle in her eye. We had been friends for a long time, and, in that time, she had told me she loved me a lot. This was my first time.
Armed with the terrible misreading of how drugs interacted with my brain — they made me love people — I chased them down ravenously. It was the beginning of a downward spiral laced with the best of intentions. I didn’t want to get “high” or “fucked up” the way my friends did — I wanted to love them, and I was convinced I could only do so when I was under the influence of something, anything. Pot made me love Kelly. Stealing my grandmother’s painkillers made me love her. Nicotine made me love the boy who called me every night — I would even refer to him as my “boyfriend” when I smoked a few too many in the backyard behind the overgrown tree where my tire-swing dangled.
It still wasn’t enough, though. I loved those people momentarily, until the haze of the buzz wore off, but I didn’t love them when sobriety brought back my senses — and that realization coincided with Kelly losing her virginity.
She told me about it just before it happened, having made the plan with a boy on the bus after school. She was going to get off at his stop, have sex with him, and walk back to her house, which was only a few streets over. I asked her if she was “ready” because it seemed like the right thing to ask, but she laughed at me. “Oh Najwa,” she said, “It’s not about being ready. You just have to do it. Get it out of the way.” She followed him off of the bus, and I watched them walk, hand-in-hand, to his doorway through the dirty bus window.
The next day, I bombarded her with questions, but she shrugged them off, seemingly annoyed by my curiosity. She told me, rather nonchalantly, that they were “dating” now — similar to the “boyfriend” I had when I smoked cigarettes. Except their relationship wasn’t contingent on something as arbitrary as nicotine; it involved feelings that could only be stirred up by being naked with someone else and trying to mesh your bodies together with scraps of metal and a soldering iron. They held hands every day. They wrote each other little notes that I sometimes had to pass between classes when they were in separate hallways. But, most important of all, they “loved” each other — and they stayed that way for months. So, I knew I had to do it — get it over with — so I could love someone for more than a few minutes or hours. I knew I had to do it so I could love someone for months, maybe even years.
Sex wasn’t fun. My “first-time” was as unromantic as anyone else’s first-time having sex with someone they barely knew, using parts neither of really understood and stumbling over each other’s bodies in the physical manifestation of what a “stutter” must look like. Afterward, I less than loved him — I loathed him. The boys that came after him fell prey to the same fate, becoming boys I couldn’t love — no matter how many cigarettes I smoked — after the deed was over.
This pattern continued, stitching together regret-after-regret through my high-school existence, and I grew to adore the way having sex with someone allowed me to instantly reject them from my life the moment we finished. It was a fail-safe — allowing us both the attempt at satisfaction without any of the caveats that love and relationships bring. I didn’t even kiss some of them, convincing myself that it was too “intimate.” I didn’t have to share details about my life. We didn’t have to discuss our favorite color or our favorite movie over a meal we didn’t enjoy. We didn’t even go on “dates,” choosing to hop in the backseat the moment an abandoned road became available in lieu of spending money we didn’t have on time we didn’t want to spend together.
Throughout all of these meaningless sexual encounters, I was still chasing down drugs at every corner. A guy got bonus points with me if he offered to roll a joint before or after having sex — sometimes earning himself a second round or, at the very least, the honor of being a somewhat pleasant memory instead of another in a long list of boys I hated. The boys who got me tipsy, sometimes drunk, before sex were my favorites, though. With our inhibitions lowered, we could be honest about the encounter, acknowledging that neither of us really liked the other — we just liked the prospect of having an orgasm.
Although, I didn’t have those. I blamed it on the boys at first, citing their duration and lack of skill as the reason I couldn’t find pleasure. However, upon further investigation, I realized that I couldn’t bring myself to have an orgasm, either. No amount of stimulation or penetration or pornography or fantasy could satisfy me — it was just white noise. I started to reason that some key component of my anatomy had been damaged, or simply hadn’t developed in the first place — that my clitoris was broken, or my g-spot didn’t exist.
This sad-but-true fact about me continued until the night I had sex on acid for the first time.
I hadn’t tried psychedelics before that night — chalking them up as too hard to find and too easily distorted. I didn’t want to have a “bad trip,” or waste my money on knock-off drugs. So, I stayed away from them when they were offered to me at parties in college, reasoning that I would suffice to quell my urges with other substances; Adderall, Ambien, oxycodone, cocaine, Xanax, etc. The drugs still made me feel the hollow recreation of love, but I had developed quite the tolerance — in both arenas. I didn’t get as “high” as I used to, and I didn’t love as many people as I tried to.
The night I finally tried acid, my world was flipped upside down — literally and metaphorically. I laid outside my small duplex in the grass, feeling my body tingle as I counted every blade that grazed my skin. I saw things that weren’t there, heard people that weren’t there, and felt everything touch my body with unparalleled intensity. It was incredible. And, best of all, I loved everyone around me that night, strangers and friends alike. It was like the drug had unlocked a secret reservoir of love that I hadn’t known I was storing, and it poured out of me. When my boyfriend asked me to have sex, I didn’t even have the words to say “yes” — it was too intense. I just nodded my head until I felt my brain rattle, and we coiled up like snakes in bed.
I had my first orgasm that night. It left my body shaking and my head spinning and love dripping out of my mouth. I was so entrenched in the emotion that I actually felt my heart start to break when the “high” was wearing off, but I had a new appreciation for sex and boys and myself — which was something I clung to like a map, using it to navigate my new mission: to recreate that love, permanently, with whatever concoction of drugs it would take.
I had a drug problem, obviously, but I had mistakenly thought my problem with drugs was that there wasn’t ever enough — there wasn’t a pill or powder or drink or plant or man-made chemical strong enough, and there was never a large enough supply. I thought drugs made me love people, so they couldn’t be harmful. I used them with good intentions, so I couldn’t be an “addict.” I didn’t shake and tremble when my supply and funds ran low. I didn’t get “dope-sick.” I didn’t crave the drugs — I craved the love they made me feel.
In hindsight, this was the height of my drug addiction, marked by the fact that I couldn’t even admit I was addicted to the drugs themselves. I had convinced myself that I was addicted to love, and I didn’t believe I could recreate that feeling in myself without the aid of various substances. My well-intentioned downward spiral turned into a train wreck in a matter of weeks. Drugs didn’t help me love people — they only helped me love the drugs even more. It was the same pattern as before — loving things instead of others — but I was too delusional to acknowledge the truth.
Love is sober.
I’ve been sober for a while now, and I’ve managed to have love and orgasms despite that fact.
My complicated relationship with love and boyfriends and people I cared about was nothing in comparison to the complicated relationship I had with drugs. I used them to process an emotion so pure, so pristine, and they muddied the water. They made me feel things, truly feel them, but they also inhibited my ability to recreate those emotions while sober. Drugs were the reason I had my first orgasm, and they were also the reason I blacked out while driving my car home from the bar and almost killed myself — or someone else. Drugs were the reason I told my best friend I loved her for the first time, but they were also the reason I couldn’t really love her or anyone else afterward. Drugs were the reason I felt confidence and happiness and sadness and hopelessness and optimism, and they were the reason I had to re-learn how to have those feelings in an authentic way; instead of manufacturing them on a whim.
I owe my addiction a lot of respect, which is something they probably don’t encourage — with good reason. Before I fell in love with the drugs I started chasing, I thought I was broken. I thought I had been damaged beyond — they showed me that I wasn’t. The irony is that while using drugs of all shapes and sizes helped me realize I wasn’t a shattered person, they also shattered me. There is no symbiotic-relationship to be found with addiction. There isn’t a reality where eating painkillers and sleeping medication and snorting things up your nose doesn’t leave you emotionally vacant. But, nonetheless, I respect my addiction. I respect the journey we took together, as it ate away at me. I respect the things I learned about myself in those moments — things like how much love stinks when you love something like Percocet; things like how grand love is as it crushes you in a tidal wave of vomit after drinking too heavily; things like how insane love can be, as you spend your last twenty-dollars to get a buzz instead of paying your rent; things like how love, when used improperly, can absolutely ruin you.
As I stated in the beginning — love is voluntary; it’s a choice. My addiction, though crippling, was a direct result of the choices I made. The havoc I wreaked on myself and others was a decision — no one forced me into it. When you play around with things like love and drugs, voluntarily mixing them together in a little beaker, you wind up with a chemical that is destined to explode. Sometimes that explosion only singes your eyebrows — sometimes it scars your face for life.