THERE was a time in Dave's life, before he teetered on the brink of losing control, when ``the greatest feeling in the world'' was being high on cocaine and knowing that he still had another line of coke, that ``this doesn't have to end, I have more.'' Dave loved the euphoric high, the feeling of being confident and vibrant, of having the world at his feet. He'd party all night, ``doing'' cocaine until there was none left, until 9 or 10 the next morning, when he'd start popping valium or Quaaludes or drinking a bottle of Nyquil, trying to subdue himself into a few hours of sleep.
Dave didn't know, years before, what he was getting into when a friend offered him a little bit of cocaine, just enough to make him ``feel great.'' But the drug finally became the center of his world, and with its temporary highs brought the nastiest of lows -- savaging Dave's self-respect, his integrity, his work ethic, and his relationships with other people.
Three months ago, Dave joined Narcotics Anonymous. He hasn't touched cocaine since then, but every day is still a struggle, a step-by-step battle to purge himself of the desire for the drug, to find the strength to say, ``No.''
As the nation begins to map the course for an all-out drive against illegal drugs, Dave's story and the stories of others like him help illuminate the thicket of human emotions, needs, and desires that make the road ahead a rough one.
To reach its end, many observers say, society will ultimately have to take a long, hard look at its values and priorities.
``The problem with talking about drug problems is that we isolate it from our whole culture,'' says Elaine Resnick, a clinical social worker. She and her husband, Richard, a psychotherapist, have been researching drug abuse for years, and treating drug users in their private psychiatric practice in New York City.
``Until we begin to address the materialistic values of society,'' says Dr. Richard Resnick, ``[cocaine] will always be around.''
Both he and his wife contend that drug abuse is not so much the problem as it is a symptom -- an indicator of the troubled search for individual meaning and purpose in what, for many people, has become the vacuum of modern values.
Jessica knows what that search is all about. She is a young professional who has used cocaine for several years. But it wasn't until recently, after the death of someone close to her, that she began to go overboard, spending $5,000 in three months on the drug. Like many users, she was drawn to cocaine because she found a self-confidence in its high, a way to escape depression.
``People like myself,'' she says, ``who are single, a little bit older, maybe 29 or 30, who have no prospect of marriage, who aren't working for any real goal, yet are reasonably successful -- there's really not much else to do [besides taking drugs], especially if you feel depressed a lot about life in general.
``We live in such a structured world,'' she says. ``It's not like we have to go out and survive. I'm sure that walking into the grocery store and buying meat doesn't [provide] the same satisfaction that going mammoth hunting 10,000 years ago did. I mean, your life mattered [then]. The whole village could have depended on you.
``My cats think I'm a hero because I bring that can of food home for them,'' she adds, with a small laugh. ``But I'm not getting that much satisfaction out of it.
``I guess love is a very important thing,'' says Jessica. ``And I'm not talking about love like sending valentines. I mean love which is as essential as your will for survival. If you can find that kind of a love, you don't need anything else.''
Jessica is trying to pull herself out of the whirl of cocaine that she says surrounds her at work, at parties, with friends. She says the crash -- the coming down, which is as low as the high is high -- is more than she can take. The depression she once escaped from only comes back when she comes down, but with an even greater intensity than before.
``When the end of the night comes and there is no more coke, you feel yourself coming down,'' she says, ``and every little bad thing in your life starts to flood your brains and just doesn't go away. . . . I can't bear it anymore. I really can't.''
Unlike many cocaine users, Jessica is putting the brakes on her habit before it takes a toll on everything she has.
But for some people, the drug is so mesmeric -- so insidious, says one user -- that their lives must be in ruins before they are ready to admit they have a problem.
Six years ago, Michael had everything he'd been striving for -- a wife and two children, a successful business, enough money to do just about whatever he wanted to do. He'd always turned down offers of drugs; in fact, he prided himself on what he called his ``natural up.''
But then one night over a coffee table in a friend's apartment, he tried cocaine, and liked it. He thought it enhanced his own ``up.'' It also played off his desire to live in a manner that reached beyond the grind of a 9-to-5 life in the suburbs.
``As a kid, I grew up wanting to be something different,'' he says. ``I have two brothers whom I love dearly. One's a postal clerk and one's a cop. And I did not want to live that kind of life. I just did not want to live a middle-class life.
``That was part of the attraction of cocaine for me,'' he admits. ``It tapped into my desire to be different.''
His drug use escalated to the point where he breezed through $100,000 in six months. His wife threw him out. His business was in shambles. For days on end he would lock himself away, getting high every day, living on soup and pizza. He tried a hospital treatment program once, but went back to cocaine.
Finally, Michael knew he had bottomed out. He went into private therapy and began to pick up the pieces of his life, trying to regain the control over his life that cocaine had taken away.
``It takes you over to such a degree that it's like an alien form,'' he says. ``It's almost like some of these crazy movies you see where an alien invades your body. It changes your entire psyche, it just controls you to the point where you're not even human anymore.
``The saddest part of it, once you're able to get past the initial problem of abuse,'' he continues, ``is that you never forget the marvelous feeling you had. You don't remember the crash. You just think of the times you were flying high and it became your strength. It became part of your mental muscle.
``Without it, even though you've gotten past it, you just don't feel as strong as you once did,'' Michael says. ``I've been fighting that for a long time, to gain that strength on my own again, and I haven't attained it yet. I'm trying to.''
Michael, Jessica, and Dave don't know each other, but there is a thread that binds their stories together. It's the same thread that Elaine and Richard Resnick say runs through the lives of all the drug abusers they have known -- a desire to feel better, to live a better life, to be a better human being.
``Most treatment programs simply stress the need for self-control,'' says Mrs. Resnick. ``What's missing from them is the acknowledgment that what the person wanted was a good thing. You've got to say, `Of course you wanted that. Now let's figure out how you can get that on your own.'
``So many people don't have a sense of purpose, that what they do matters,'' she says. ``There is a universal need to feel [that] your life matters.''
Meeting that need isn't an easy task. Answers are as individual as the people searching for them. The Resnicks agree, though, on a bottom line: ``Drugs may show where you want to go,'' says Mr. Resnick, ``but not the way to get there.''