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Clean and Kind of Sober
Antwaun Garcia

When I was a kid, I noticed how family members picked up a cigarette whenever they felt stress or got mad. My mom would hand me her bogie (cigarette) and tell me to flush it down the toilet. One day, when I was 9, I closed the bathroom door and smoked it.

I figured that if my parents saw me smoking they’d laugh, like parents do when they watch a little girl walk in high heels impersonating her mother. But soon I used cigarettes the same way my parents did—to feel better.

When I was 10, my life got stressful. My friend Ricky died in a fire, and I went into foster care, moving from Manhattan to my aunt’s house in Queens, NY, because my mom was using drugs.

When I couldn’t read a book my aunt gave me, or thought about how my dad used to hit my mom, or wondered what my mom was doing on the streets, I couldn’t wait to smoke a cigarette. Sometimes I even sneaked a little alcohol. At family parties my grandma had let us try it, and it made me feel loose.

Then, when I was 13, my best friend, Jarrel, killed himself. After he died, I drank a bunch of Bacardi and sat out on my terrace crying, confused and lost, thinking about my friends’ deaths, not being with my parents or brothers, and feeling isolated instead of loved.

I felt completely alone. I doubted anyone could understand me or all that I had gone through.

After Jarrel died, I wrote many poems about guilt, death, and anger. I found that writing helped me vent emotions. But the next year, when I got to high school, my boys put me on to something even better: smoking weed. I loved it from the first.

We cut class, went to my boy’s crib and smoked about four blunts. I took a mean pull, and after the second pull I didn’t want to pass it around.

In my first two years of high school, I cut class more than 300 times and had a 55 average. I liked smoking so much because I never thought about my past or my life when I was high. I just thought about food and what I was going to do when I get home.

I smoked mostly by myself, because when I was smoking with my friends, I would come out with thoughts that I later regretted sharing. I didn’t want my boys to know me too well. By 15, I was lighting up by myself in a park far from my neighborhood.

By 17, I was also drinking a lot, taking Bacardi or Hennessy to school in water bottles or drinking after school in a park. I felt lonely, frustrated, angry, and helpless.

I thought it best to drink alone so I didn’t show anyone my sadness or get in trouble. When I drank I wanted to fight. If I had liquor in me, I didn’t care who the dude was, I threw the hands. In every fight, the anger of my childhood ran through my body. I didn’t like who I was, but fighting, drinking, smoking, and writing were the only ways I knew of to deal with my emotions.

Then, when I was 18, I met a girl in my high school. She was a Dominican mami, a natural beauty, intelligent, loved to laugh, and had a beautiful smile. We had two classes together and eventually started dating.

Together we went shopping, to movies and amusement parks, and on picnics. At night we would sit in a park and talk for hours, or bug out in hotels, ordering Pizza Hut and watching movies and having bugged out pillow fights. We couldn’t get enough of one another.

But my habits started to affect our relationship. Every time I drank, the anger I’d bottled up inside came out. On the phone, she would hear me breathing hard and ask, “Antwaun, are you OK?” I’d tell her about a fight I had, usually because I was smoking or drinking.

She realized that smoking and drinking brought out the demon in me, which we were both scared of. My girl would cry because she felt helpless to calm or console me, and I’d get mad at myself for putting her through pain.

Finally one day she told me, “Antwaun, you know I love you, right?”

“Yes!” I replied.

“I love you so much that it hurts. So you have to choose—your habits or me.”

I didn’t know what to say but I was thinking, “Antwaun, you’re losing someone important, and for what? Choose her before you lose her!” So I told her I would stop.

I never completely stopped drinking. (My girl sometimes drank, too, and we’d have a few drinks together.) But I made a major effort to keep my cups under control. Smoking I stopped completely, because I didn’t need to escape my reality when I was with her.

image by Kaisha Jones

As I let her get to know me, she helped me let out some of the feelings I kept inside. To help her understand why I was so angry, I told her about my past.

We talked for hours about each other’s pasts, even though her past wasn’t like mine. She listened to me, so I felt at ease coming out with everything. I learned how to talk about my feelings rather than hide from them.

Whenever I started to cry, she would tell me, “You don’t have to tell me if you’re not ready,” because she knew I hated crying. I would hold my head back and cover my eyes, and she would hug me and say, “It’s OK to cry. I’m here. Everything is fine.”

Whatever I didn’t tell her about myself, she read in my articles (I was writing for a teen magazine). She kept a book of all my articles and saved them next to her journal and baby pictures. I also kept writing down all my emotions to prevent that feeling of pressure that comes from holding too much in. With my girl’s help, I became more focused in school and my life started to look clearer. I was good.

After two years, my girl became depressed due to family issues. Then she moved away. We broke up, and I fell into a deep depression that lasted for months. I felt alone and lost. I had no clue of what I wanted to do in life.

I started drinking and smoking again and fell off in school. I didn’t wash because I wanted to look like I felt: dirty and pathetic. I was always mad. I stopped writing and let my pain eat at me.

My cravings for fast food became real serious, too. Whenever I went to Micky D’s I ordered up to $8 worth of food from the dollar menu. If I ordered Chinese food, I got an egg roll to go with every dish. I gained almost 20 pounds that February. Now I was depressed, confused, alone, failing school—and fat!

Gradually, I got disgusted by myself and tired of always being depressed. I was walking around in small T-shirts with a gut that hung low. My clothes felt tight. I felt like Homer Simpson with waves and a $5 T-shirt.

I started wondering, “How am I going to get over my depression? What direction am I heading in life?” I wasn’t the man I wanted to be. Getting high all the time was not helping me to be at peace. Finally, I couldn’t stand myself anymore. I knew I had to change.

It helped when my ex and my mom called and reminded me of my good points. “You always had a presence when you entered a room,” my ex told me. My mom said she thought of me as a determined guy who never let anyone stand in his way. I began to remember my good characteristics. I am a funny, determined, caring, real dude with a passion to write and a gift for making people smile.

I decided to test myself to see if I could stop smoking weed. I started slowly, going a day without smoking by keeping myself busy. I avoided the weed spots, went to school, the library, and home.

I would get the urge to smoke at night. My anger had always given me energy. Without it, I felt lifeless and exhausted sometimes, as if the life force had drained out of me. I almost felt like if I didn’t smoke or drink, I wouldn’t wake up and feel alive.

But when I got the urge to drink, cry, or smoke, I took 45-minute-long showers. It’s a good thing my aunt didn’t have to pay the water bill! I also started taking care of myself, putting on my jewelry, which I’d left on the dresser when I was depressed, and slowing down my eating to three meals a day.

I started a workout regimen—running up and down steps, doing push-ups and sit-ups. I started to feel good physically. Seeing that I could take control of my life made my confidence grow. As I felt better, I started to keep busier and be more social. Each change made other changes happen. A year later, I’m still in the process of getting myself back.

Now I keep myself on the move—running in the morning, going to work in the afternoon. On weekends I chill with friends who don’t smoke or drink, play basketball with my sister, and take my little cousins to the movies. I don’t have time to be alone and drink and smoke and reminisce about painful things.

The last time I smoked weed was four months ago. I was at my brother’s apartment in Harlem. We ordered Chinese food, and one of my boys brought over an NBA game. We passed around some weed and drank orange juice and vodka while playing video games, and conversing about sports and music. I didn’t turn down the weed, because it didn’t seem like a big deal to smoke one time with friends.

But the next morning I felt physically sick. I was coughing hard and spitting non-stop. That turned me off to smoking. Since then I haven’t smoked weed at all.

When I saw my brother again in November and he was smoking weed, I passed it up. When I turned it down, I felt powerful. I knew I could overcome my addiction to smoking weed. I was strict with myself and I stopped.

Since then, I’ve also cut down smoking cigarettes (to one or two a month) and I don’t drink recklessly to deal with stress—just when I’m at a party or celebration.

Both my parents have bad lungs and livers and are perfect examples of what I don’t want for myself. My father is sick and paralyzed on the left side of his face but he still smokes and drinks. Now I realize that my parents may have gotten addicted to smoking, using crack, and drinking the same way I started: to cope with feelings of loneliness, anger, and fear.

I can’t say I won’t have any more depressions, or that the urge to drink or smoke won’t ever overtake me, because I don’t know what life has in store, but I know I’ve made a big change. I feel more in control of myself than ever before.

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