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When a drug addict gets clean, he experiences a whole new high. This is convenient, given that the addict’s primary reason for not getting clean is fear of sobriety, as sobriety means facing life alone, without some emotionally numbing, mind-altering agent. But should the addict be lucky and determined enough to get clean, should he persist and overcome his fear of sobriety, he gets lifted on something he never thought he would: life.
Sobriety, as it turns out, is a high all its own, and it’s more exhilarating than all the previous highs the junkie has experienced. Ask him, when he’s four weeks sober, and he’ll tell you—despite being jobless, spouseless, penniless, and half toothless without a dental plan—that this new high is better than the high that follows 50 CCs of heroin or a dime-sized crack rock. This new high, which results from regained sensitivity toward life, is commonly called the Pink Cloud.
In recovery culture the Pink Cloud is considered a blessing and a curse. It’s a nice ride, sure, but it’s also as wily and deceptive as ole Screwtape. Old-timers and freshmen of sober living all warn the newcomer: beware of the Pink Cloud.
Why? What are the effects of a Pink Cloud high?
Well, there is faith and determination. Optimism. Resolve. Budding self-confidence. Honest introspection. Increased sensitivity to beauty and ugliness. A willingness to take risks, the kind that propel a soul upward instead of spiral him downward. A desire to create, to learn, to work. These are some of the symptoms of the Pink Cloud, the side effects, if you will. And it is precisely these effects that the sapling of sober living is told to be wary of. For they are the results of misplaced confidence.
When I got clean after a ten-year affair with opiates and pills and cocaine, the Pink Cloud rolled in and while high as a kite I made several life-changing decisions. I decided, in the midst of having to find work and transportation and a dwelling for my family, that I would go to college and study philosophy, become a photographer and writer, and forge a career that aligned with my near-forgotten interests. Pipe dreams, these were, for a thirty-five-year-old with a makeshift high school diploma, criminal record, and proclivity for running from difficulty. That’s what I was told, anyway.
I attended AA and 12-Step meetings on occasion in those days, and I saw sponsors and old-timers reprove the freshly sober for wallowing in the Pink Cloud. They implied, with few words, that the Pink Cloud alters perceptions in the same way a tab of LSD does: it renders the world blissful. But, like LSD, the trip is to be survived, not sustained. “This isn’t reality,” went the narrative. “You’re fucking high, but you’re going to sober up soon. You’re wafting in a cloud of sugary cotton candy, floating in a plush pink Cadillac, looking down on the world through rose-colored aviators, and smiling as though your favorite deity has guaranteed you access to pearlescent gates. But this cloud will evaporate and you’ll fall hard should you not voluntarily climb off now. Don’t dream or dare, for life will cut you down. And because failure feels acute after riding the Pink Cloud, you’ll try to escape on the skirt of some intravenous poison, some tonic that promises transcendence, some cocktail of powders and pills. You’ll again pick up the bottle or needle. You’ll be right back where you were.”
I chose to ignore this story, and I stopped going to AA altogether. I didn’t care to hear messages of “Be responsible. Don’t ruffle feathers. Play it safe.” I’d heeded similar messages for far too long, and to my mind that’s what led to my addiction in the first place. Recovery, they say, is about learning to be honest with oneself. For me, honesty meant, and still means, ignoring messages that contradict that quiet tune of the heart.
So I chose, instead, to saddle the Pink Cloud and ride it. I determined to follow every inclination that came to me while high on it. And when I was low, which was often while navigating the aftermath of my riotous decade, I held tight those visions I had glimpsed while in the clouds, visions which said: you can become who you want to be, but you must go boldly.
The Pink Cloud narrative in AA encourages the opposite. It tells the addict to be timid and cautious, to view the world as a set of traps. Bold or risky moves can set these traps off and ensnare the addict. Thus AA recommends that the addict find a safe and comfortable routine, so that he can focus on his recovery and avoid relapse.
But the safe and comfortable path is still fraught with danger. Most addicts possess at least one of two personality traits, both of which are linked to addictive behavior: sensation-seeking and impulsivity. Like any predilection, these must be expressed rather than subdued. The addict must learn, if he is to recover, that his dispositions are not character flaws, as the Pink Cloud narrative suggests, but rather are positive qualities, best loosed via healthy outlets. It is when a person attempts to subjugate himself, in an effort to comply with some outside narrative, that warts and boils spring from his soul—often in the form of addictions. The sensation-seeking addict, especially, must resist the urge to squeeze himself into a box that others have marked "safe."
I’m not arguing that AA and the 12 Steps are harmful or ineffective. I might not be alive had I not embraced Step 1. I am arguing, however, that the thoughts and feelings one has while on the Pink Cloud should not be discounted. Is it dangerous to act on impulses that arise while zipping around on a cumulonimbus ride? Absolutely. But fortune favors the bold, and nature loves courage. The greater danger lies in ignoring the soul, for it sings loudest and truest when, having been in hell, it breaks free.
So, am I still on the Cloud? It’s hard to say. It’s been five years since I climbed aboard. I got that degree in philosophy, my photography has hung in coffeehouse galleries, and I've had some writings published here and there. I like to believe I’m still high, and I do my damnedest to act on the irrational impulses that spark while my head is in the clouds. But I also sometimes want to veer into oncoming traffic. I get irritable and discontent and depressed, and I want to numb myself when I do. Today, though, a bike ride and a beer suffice. And I'm not sure I see the last five years as progress. Mostly I feel like I'm wandering, always wondering where the fuck this road goes, loving the trip and loathing it too. But wafting in the Pink Cloud while in early recovery helped me to develop habits that carry me through, habits I don’t think I would have developed had I listened to the “Beware of the Pink Cloud” narrative. Had I internalized that fable I’d still be hopping marketing shops, looking for golden leads, or trying to generate them, chasing greenbacks, talking about nothing, not thinking about death. I wouldn’t have picked up creative hobbies that have no practical application, hobbies that tickle my neurons every time I indulge them. I wouldn’t have burdened myself with the stress of college while working full time and supporting a family, or acquired a love for books. I wouldn’t have dreamed of hiking and biking mountains after all those trips to the ER with crack-induced chest pain and jaw numbness. But I’ve done and continue to do these things, because, maybe, I’m on a Pink Cloud.
It comes down to this: If a person is bold or foolish enough to ignore those warnings about the dangers of drugs and come out alive on the other side, then he or she should be bold enough to ignore warnings about the dangers of dreaming and taking risks. Let’s be honest—since that’s what recovery is about—an addict needs to get high. And he’s not going to do that by taking the middle road. Instead, he must saddle the Pink Cloud, or bareback it if necessary, and ride it wherever it takes him, sunset or storm.