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Loser to Leader––Or, How to Quit Drugs (or anything else you might want to quit!)

If I was going to live through the 1980s I had a decision to make. It wasn’t an easy one.

I had to quit drugs…

At most SENSEI LEADER events, I tell a short story about the day I quit. I want to be clear. I don’t tell this story to solicit any sympathy and I certainly don’t want to glamorize drug recovery. I hate it when people do that. I share my story for a number of reasons that become apparent through my presentation, but most of all to highlight the importance of the process of transformation.

If you’re going to survive and thrive in this world––you’ve got to change. Always. Everyone. Individuals, organizations––doesn’t matter. These days you either commit yourself to never-ending transformation, or you get left in the dust.

And you can do it. That’s another reason I share my story. I am one of those people who can say “If I can do it––so can you.”

After a presentation, it’s pretty common for people to ask me about my drug experience. Most people want to know about “the turning point.” Understandably, they’re looking for one moment of enlightenment where I realized my self-destructive path and changed course.

It doesn’t quite work that way. Anyway, at a conference just a few days ago someone threw me a curve ball. She asked me a slightly different question…

“How did you quit?”

That may sound like the same thing, but to me it was radically different and I have to admit, I answered poorly.

I gave the standard answer about substituting a healthy high for the drugs. For me at that time, martial arts fit the bill. Now that answer is certainly valid––you’ve got to substitute constructive behaviors in place of the drugs, but there is a lot more to it.

Anyway, her question inspired me to look back and see if I could find a way to express the key elements of this transformation––not just for people looking to escape drugs, but for anyone who wants to transform away from any addictive or self-destructive habit.

I don’t want to water down the message here by going into examples of how and where you can apply this process, but suffice it to say that everything I’m talking about works no matter what behavior you’re trying to change––from just being lazy or disengaged at work or becoming a more engaged and caring leader, cheating in a relationship or a full-blown drug problem.

To this day I’m ashamed of myself for the time I wasted on drugs. I lost nearly 3 full years of my to drugs. What I mean is that for 3 years my sole priority in life was getting high. Everything else was cast aside. Everything.

I was––a loser.

I can’t begin to measure the residual damage. I am still making up for lost time and wasted opportunities. I’m not whining––I am very happy with the course of my life today. I am very grateful––by rights I should’ve been dead or in jail several times over. Still, there is seldom a day that goes by that I’m not fully aware of the fact that my life is still impacted by my addiction so many years ago and that without that experience my life would have been much different.

As I said, there’s no glory in quitting drugs. When we quit drugs, we’re not heroes. We’re doing the very least we should do in appreciation of the rarest of all gifts––the human life. No matter how understandable or sympathetic our case for addiction might be, we still do not deserve any special recognition for simply realizing that it’s better to appreciate and live a productive life.

Having said that––I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who are able to move past their addictions. I can tell you––it’s not easy.

My drug of choice was pot. To excess.

At my best I smoked 6 or more bhang hits a day. A bhang is a water pipe and the preferred technique was to fill the bowl and inhale as much as possible in one––long––draw.

I want to keep the story short and get to the good stuff, so I’ll just add that along with my appetite for marijuana I would frequently indulge in speed, downers, opioids and occasionally other more exotic experiments. This all culminated with an unintentional and dramatic experience with a joint laced with PCP––angel dust. That was the wake up call I needed to quit. More on that in minute.

So––how did I do it?

The process is incredibly simple. Not easy.

First you need the will. If you don’t want to quit, you’re not ready for any other step. I’m sorry if that sounds callous, but it’s true.

If you’re friend or family of an addict––again I’m sorry––but you can’t help. Not much anyway. Until and unless an addict has the will to change there is little you can do––yet.

What you can do is stay vigilant. Keep loving. Be prepared to step in when and if this person makes the decision to change. That doesn’t mean you don’t say your piece, express your concerns or even openly confront the person with the issue. You’ve got to play that according to the situation. I just want you to avoid frustrating yourself or worse––blame yourself when your efforts don’t seem to produce any noticeable results.

That brings us back to the angel dust…

At that time I didn’t smoke joints. The plain fact is that I couldn’t get off on just one joint, so at this one particular party when someone handed me a joint, I “Bogarted” it. If you’re not familiar with that arcane reference, it means I didn’t pass it along. I smoked it myself.

As much pot as I smoked at the time, I was usually pretty mellow when I got high. This time something weird kicked in. I started running around our little 1950s vintage trailer and tried to jump out through the heavy, louvered glass living room window. Can you imagine what would have happened if I made it? Fortunately, some friends got me under control.

Later I got the munchies and tried to get into the refrigerator––without opening the door. In my altered state, I somehow thought I could pass my head through the closed door. What I actually did was beat my head against the refrigerator––again and again.

When I woke up the next morning, I looked like I’d gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. I was a mess. That’s the day I decided to quit.

Later I found out that joint was laced––with angel dust.

Whether it’s drugs or any other behavior, I hope you find the will to quit before you put your life on the line.

Nice place, eh? This is me in the doorway of Stonehenge.

Once you find that will, you need 3 other things:

  • Gratitude

  • Value

  • Discipline

Not the typical list you’ll get from a formal addiction counselor, but I can tell you from experience that no program will work unless you adopt these practices.


How can an addict find gratitude? Why would you be thankful if you’re on the verge of suicide? Let’s add broke, alone and depressed to the emotional vacuum.

I don’t talk about gratitude as a platitude. It’s not as easy as just adopting the attitude and this is not some kind of new age placebo.

Gratitude is an inventory. It is the most essential and practical step in this process.

Everything you’re going to do from this moment forward starts with whatever resources you have on hand––right here and right now. There’s no sense hoping and wishing for more.

What is remarkable is that no matter how little you have, it is enough––to get started. Even just the realization that you’re a mess is something to be grateful for. That’s why addiction experts tell you that the first step in recovery is realizing you have a problem.

A little while after I quit, I had a pretty powerful realization. Now at the time I didn’t have much, but somehow I started to realize that I did have some things to be thankful for.

I was thankful that I was still living in Stonehenge––that busted up old trailer. I was thankful for my dilapidated, un-inspected, uninsured VW Bug.

Most of all I was thankful for a couple of people in my life who had stood by and were ready to help once I found the will to quit.

I just thought about these things and said, out loud, “Thank you.”

That’s it. That’s the practice I discovered in that moment and the one I still do today. As I said, it’s an inventory.

Without gratitude your focus is on what you don’t have. The dominant emotions are envy, despair and scarcity. You are a victim.

With gratitude, you start to focus on what you DO have. No matter how little. You start to acknowledge whatever resources you have and like I said, that’s what you have to work with right now.


During my dark ages, I had absolutely no sense of my own value. In my mind, I was absolutely worthless. My life meant nothing.

I’m already running long so I won’t go into all the reasons for this, but suffice it to say that somewhere along the way I realized that until and unless I found some way to value myself and my life, there would be no reason to change and at times I felt––no reason to live.

We all need to know our lives count for something. It may be your relationships or responsibilities to others––particularly if you have kids. It may be some special calling, mission or vision. It may be your ability to create in art or business. It may simply be the realization that a human life is a rare and valuable gift.

Most likely, it’s a combination of things. Gratitude will help you identify this value. There are some other steps you can take:

  • Hang around with people who value your company…

  • Hang around with people doing things that excite or inspire you…

  • Look for something you can do that makes you feel that your day was worthwhile.

These sound like simple things to do––but they’re not always easy. Especially when you feel depressed, rejected or isolated. But trust me, it is a very rare person who cannot find these things once you decide to open yourself to the possibility.

Find something that gives your life meaning. It doesn’t have to be profound. It doesn’t have to be public. It just needs to be something that sustains that will to change.

And accept the likelihood that this meaning will change over time.

For me at first it was simply the realization that I didn’t want to die a junky in that old shit hole trailer.

Later I started to appreciate that other people valued place in their lives––obviously more than I valued my own life at the time. I started to focus on music, which I discovered was far more important to me than getting high. A year or two later I found martial arts. That led to the next essential ingredient…


Discipline is the development and practice of meaningful and purposeful habits.

That’s it.

When I share my story some people assume I learned discipline through martial arts. It’s more accurate to say that through my martial arts practice, I learned that I was already a disciplined person. Martial arts gave me the form and process to recognize my discipline and a formal methodology to apply this discipline in a sustainable and productive way.

I’ve found through experience that this is true for most people. In fact, some of the most disciplined people I’ve ever met are those who simply don’t know how disciplined they are!

For someone who wants to leave an addiction, discipline provides the substitution I talked about earlier. We need to find a meaningful and purposeful habit to replace whatever destructive habit we want to quit.

Discipline is the creative process of constantly shaping ourselves to our purpose and meaning. It is our action plan embodied. It is whatever we do day by day to guide us in the direction we want our lives to follow.

I said it before, these things are simple––not easy.

Discipline is what we use to get us through the “not easy” part. When it’s not easy, we do it anyway. When it’s boring, mundane or doesn’t seem to be producing results––we do it anyway.

Just make sure you analyze your disciplines from time to time to make sure you’re practicing the right ones! Some of them will become permanent. Others will need to change as you learn, grow and develop.

A final word of caution––and one I have to remind myself of every once in awhile…

Don’t go it alone!

Human beings are extremely interdependent––whether we acknowledge it or not. We are people as much as we are persons. We operate much more effectively together than separately. That’s probably the single most powerful factor in our evolutionary dominance.


Reach out. Seek the company of others. Ask for help when you need it. Just enjoy other people…

And allow them to enjoy you. Give back. Be reciprocal. Do for others not just as you would like them to do unto you, but more.

You grow as a person in direct proportion to what you’re willing to share with others. It is the act of sharing, more than anything else, that gives your life meaning and purpose.

When I was an addict, I sincerely thought I was alone.

As I learned to be grateful, I learned there were people to be grateful for. I learned that they valued me and my place in their lives. I learned to value my own life and contributions too. And as I found discipline, I discovered the talents and abilities I could share with them––and that’s what gives my life meaning…

That’s how I quit. And so can you.


Sharing the Stonehenge story at a conference…

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