If you have a problem with cocaine, do not go to Mexico. At least not to try to fix your problem with cocaine.
My mother begged me not to go. I think she even went so far as to see if she could get my passport revoked so that I couldn’t go to Los Cabos, Mexico, for a week by myself. She definitely asked me, several times, if I wanted to be buried or cremated so that when the inevitable happened she’d know what to do with my body.
But I really had to go. I was completely miserable. Like, Sylvia Plath fan club miserable.
It was 2008, I was about to be a junior in college, the economy had just crashed, and even with all the tables I’d waited in high school I was utterly, fabulously unemployable. For the first time since childhood I had nowhere I needed to be and nothing I needed to do for weeks on end. The lack of direction was appalling; it seems I am the type of person that needs structure.
So I was doing a ton of blow.
It was far from a foolproof plan, I knew that even as I booked the tickets on my ready-to-burst credit card, but it was a plan, and that was much better than no plan, which was all I’d had for weeks. An interview about this ill-conceived adventure, which I always imagine taking place with a disappointed, father-like figure named Steve or Bill and being more like a sit-down in the principal’s office than a Q&A with a curious member of the media, would to go something like this:
“It sounds like you were in uncharted territory.”
“You know, that’s exactly what it was, Steve. I was out of school for the summer; I didn’t have a full-time job. And instead of being able to enjoy it I freaked out, you know? I was one of those teenagers who went from school to track practice to soccer practice to homework to get up and do it all over again and then worked in a restaurant during the summer.”
“And you were in what sounds like a pretty demanding academic program in college.”
“Absolutely. In fact I think part of the reason I was successful at all in college was I wasn’t used to having any free time.”
“And then the semester ended and you had all the free time in the world.”
“It sounds like you’re someone who needs structure.”
“Well, I mean, sure. Yeah, you could say that.”
“So, what exactly made you decide you needed to leave town that summer?”
“Well you know, Bill, it was the drugs, it really was. I was sad and lonely and drugs made me less of both. It was too easy to just keep doing them, you know?”
“No, no I don’t really, but I suppose I can imagine. So you took a trip to break the cycle? A sort of unofficial rehab?”
“Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.”
“And you decided to go to Mexico, to do this sobering up you felt you so badly needed?”
“I never said it was a good plan.”
I got blackout drunk the night before my 6am flight and was barely awake for take-off. I think part of me was terrified of following through with the trip. But when we hit the ground 8 hours later and disembarked straight off the plane onto the tarmac, the white-hot sun lighting my arms on fire, it took everything I had not to burst out laughing. I have one of those bubbly, raucous laughs that can be quite startling when it erupts out of the blue. I had just woken up in a different country and the last thing I wanted was to get held up in customs for appearing unstable.
After successfully navigating bag claim and customs without having my sobriety or mental capacity questioned I found myself with a brand new problem. There are two towns of Cabo – San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. San Lucas is further south and closer to the ocean and is where most people think of when they think “Cabo”: spring break shenanigans, tequila shots and clear blue water. San Jose is calmer, quieter, the mature older sister to San Lucas. I was headed to San Jose first. A quiet, small town with a pile of notebooks and cathedrals to stare at seemed like an excellent starting point to taking a step back and doing some mental recalibration. And I’m sure it would have been, if I’d gotten there.
It was a hefty cab fare and certainly too far to walk from the airport to San Jose proper. I found I had a third, if questionable, option. So many people fly into Cabo to spend time at those palatial, all-imaginable-amenities-included resorts that you are herded immediately from baggage claim to the private shuttles of various hotels. $20 to the driver saw me in the back of an Escalade, jammed in between families and honeymooners eager to begin private beach vacations in fortresses of luxury so cordoned off from the local population they would never have to know they weren’t still in SoCal.
We’d been on the road about ten minutes when someone asked me if I’d been to San Lucas before.
“No,” I said. “But we’re headed to San Jose?”
A puzzled look crossed the faces of the other passengers.
“No,” a woman said. “We’re staying at (lavish sounding compound whose name I don’t remember). In San Lucas.”
The panic I felt at realizing I was headed to the wrong town subsided when we reached the resort, but was quickly replaced by a cold stab of fear as the Cadillac wound up a driveway that seemed to have no end. The hotel sat behind a gated and guarded path at least a mile from the main road. Behind it was the Pacific. I wasn’t sure what their process for dealing with interlopers would be, but judging by the measures taken to ensure hotel guests were sealed off from the public it couldn’t be good.
The resort staff looked at me like I was crazy when I said I wanted to walk into town, but they didn’t run me off the beach or call security. It was a walk, though, several dusty miles along the highway in baking heat. I was beyond grateful I’d purchased a giant, floppy safari hat to keep the sun off my face and neck. I passed mostly dogs and a trio of young men who completely ignored me which came as a relief - the hotel concierge had cautioned me about walking alone as a woman.
When I arrived on the outskirts of downtown San Lucas I caught a glimpse of myself in a storefront. With my mid-thigh-length cutoffs and large hat over my pixie cut I looked more like a fourteen-year-old boy than a twenty-year-old girl.
I was even more thankful I’d bought the hat.
“So, I happened to ask Courtney Love this once, back in the day, and I really feel like she gave me a great answer, taught me something, so I’ve made it a habit to ask all the young women I interview. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?”
Ah, yes, the interviewer’s favorite kicker for Q&As with the glamorous, the celebrity, the inspiring. If for some reason, for I am none of these things, Steve actually felt compelled to ask me this question I already know how I’d answer: be good to you; you do deserve it.
There’s been a flurry of articles written recently about how many people today, particularly young women, are so intensely focused on being successful in every aspect of their lives that they forget to examine whose definition of ‘success’ they’re striving to achieve. We’ve been sold the idea of ‘having it all’ for so long that even now, with numerous books published about how ‘having it all’ is not only subjective but actually not all it’s cracked up to be, the tendency to compare ourselves to people with more glamorous careers, sculpted bodies or exciting relationships isn’t even conscious; the doubt and self-judgment run deep. Thinking “you’re doing it wrong” has become a reflex.
Cocaine fixed all of that for me. Even if I didn’t have the slightest idea of where to start on being “successful” I was flooded with the feeling that, even for just an hour or two, that was ok.
“Just breathe in naturally,” someone said as they handed me a rolled up $20 to do my first line in a crowded bedroom at a party one night early in my sophomore year.
I remember not noticing anything right away but then, when we’d made our way back to the main festivities, everything was…better. I was prettier. My boyfriend loved me, I could tell. The girl in my 20th century literature class who had always made me cringe with her intellectual one-upmanship was suddenly relatable. She wasn’t all that bad she was just competitive. I got that, that made sense; we all made sense.
I didn’t do any more that night. In fact, I remember I felt so sad and alone when the effects first started to wear off that I left the party early, practically in tears.
But that didn’t stop me from doing more, later. I just learned that coke was something you did frequently throughout an evening, or, for me, over the course of a day – a little here, a little there. And that was that. I felt better, about everything.
The problem with a drug like cocaine is the more you do, the more you want to do, and after a while the more you need to do to, to feel like a normal person. There is no reward in changing your habits like there is with attempts to improve your diet or vows to drink more water — you’re just fucking miserable.
I knew I was starting to have a problem when I went from being the girl with a gram in her pocket Saturday night to being the girl with an eight ball in her backpack during the week.
It just worked so much better than coffee.
If you have a problem with cocaine, do not go to Mexico, at least not to try to fix your problem with cocaine.
“Yeah, I didn’t think that was the best idea.”
It was my second or third night in San Lucas. It was hot, like all the nights were, and I was out walking around by the beach, enjoying the cooler air coming off the water. I’d had a great few days of sunning and swimming; enjoying cheap tacos and even cheaper tequila. I’d read, and wrote and spent considerably less time thinking about sucking anything up my nose. So far, even with a mild detour, all was going according to plan.
“Chica, chica, you looking for something?”
I didn’t see him right away, I was lost in my thoughts, but the man standing near the boarded up tourist information kiosk was clearly talking to me.
“Un poquito de ganja, o…la cocaína?”
It was like it was tattooed on my forehead. A little light bulb went off in my brain and my pulse quickened. My response was Pavlovian.
My interest must have shown on my face because he said, “You’re not policía, are you?”
My turn to be skeptical.
“No. You’re not policía, are you?”
“No, no. $40 for two; what I have is good.”
I’d like to say I thought about it, that I struggled with the idea of buying a drug I’d basically flown to a foreign country to escape, but I didn’t. He pointed me to an ATM and said he’d wait for me. I was more uncomfortable with how many zeros there are in $40 worth of pesos.
He was right; what he had was good.
It must have been a Friday night; the streets were swarming by ten o’clock when I wandered into the thick of downtown. The noise coming from a few blocks away was hard to ignore, and when I rounded a corner I found my spot for the night: Squid Roe.
Squid Roe is like Coyote Ugly on steroids. It is a giant warehouse with an open-air dance floor the size of a barn and two levels of balconies. Servers with squirt guns of tequila run through the crowd and when a bell rings waitresses in stilettos and bikinis bearing trays of tiny cups force feed passersby Jello shots – then charge them $10.
The stage resembles the jailhouse set of Chicago. Women dance on poles and in cages; whether they work for the club or are patrons is unclear. There is a carnival of neon signs and bright lights pointing you towards the nearest bartender. You have no idea what color the floor is and you hope you don’t find out.
I wound my way through the crowd and was instantly drunk on the Bacchanalia of the room (the shots of tequila I drank back at my room at the inn probably helped). There’s something empowering about being in a room that crowded with strangers, almost like wearing a mask – no one expects anything reasonable of you.
Towards the end of the evening I found myself in one of those instantly intimate and wonderfully pure conversations that only two inebriated girls waiting for a free bathroom stall can conjure. I have no idea what her name was, but she was a flight attendant, in town for one night, and she was nearly as drenched in sweat from dancing as I was. After gushing compliments over each other’s hair and figures a stall freed up and I snaked inside, digging through my pockets for a key and the coke.
She must have heard me inhale, even over the music, because from the neighboring stall erupted, “Oh shit, girl!! No way!!”
“You know what’s that,” she said as we exited our stalls.
I laughed and smiled one of those shit-eating grins someone with too much dopamine running through their system smiles.
“Well, you want some?”
“Holy shit, it’s been years. But yeah!”
I laughed and turned back towards the stall I’d just left, but it was occupied by another sweaty dancer. I looked back at my newfound partner in crime and shot her the “looks like we’re gonna have to wait,” look.
“Oh come on, nobody here gives a shit, you’re in Cabo,” she said and held out her hand.
We danced all night. By last call, if there even was such a thing, my face hurt from smiling like a lunatic. If we’d taken pictures I’d bet I looked like The Joker.
We ran from the club to the beach, knowing we were going skinny-dipping before we even hit the powder-fine sand. I don’t remember what I was wearing but it didn’t take very long to get out of. After a few quick laps and generous dunking we scrambled back to our clothes. Whatever I was wearing was much more difficult to pull on over a wet body. We made our way back up the beach, laughing. Where the sand met the road we hugged and parted ways.
I watched her walk down the road for a bit and knew right then that I wanted to be her, instead, and meet someone like me for just one crazy night. I didn’t envy her exciting-sounding job or her financial situation, didn’t want her shoes or her boyfriend she told me about. I wanted her freedom to not be me. She got to walk away at the end of the night; I still had to go home with myself.
I’d gone all the way to Mexico only to learn you can’t outrun the rain when the thunderclouds are deep inside you. I wasn’t just riding out a squall in a dingy; I was the storm. I cried all the way back to the hostel.
“Doesn’t really sound like your plan worked, does it?”
“Well, Steve, I definitely didn’t shed my party girl skin in Mexico.”
“No, but I’m not sorry I made that trip.”
“And why is that?”
“I had a lot of feelings and a lot of thoughts about myself that summer, none of them good. I was riding the shame train pretty frequently. But that night in Mexico, that was the first time I’d felt sad for myself, which, I think you’ll agree, is different than feeling sorry for myself.”
“Yes, I agree with that.”
“I realized I needed to be patient and understanding with myself; that I wasn’t ever going to fix any of the things I was hoping to fix on that trip if I didn’t start being kind to me. I ended up seeing myself as someone who needed some help but also as someone who deserved compassion. It took me much longer than that trip to really get it together, but I’d found a good place to start.”
“Well it sounds like you did make some breakthroughs, then. Well done.”
“Thank you Bill, I appreciate that.”
“You’re welcome, it’s been good talking with you.”
“Thank you both, again.”
“You bet, good to have you on. So…you still party from time to time?”
“Oh come on, Steve. Did you ask Courtney Love that, too?”
Haley Hamilton is a reporter/editor/story wrangler for the Boston Institute of Nonprofit Journalism and a crafty cocktail maker in downtown Boston. Her work has been published in DigBoston, Spare Change News, and on boston.com.
She's been searching for a way to trick herself into finishing and publishing those essays littering her desktop and is thrilled to have found Catapult.
For random bursts of applause and mild indignation you can follow her @saucylit.