My name is Bryn Gallagher and I am a person in long-term recovery. Among many things, this means that I have had the privilege of spending the last two years re-aligning myself with the most meaningful parts of my life, without using substances. My aim in living a life based in recovery is to be able to show up fully and authentically for my endeavors and for the people around me. Before I made my way into recovery, I could show up for certain parts of my life, but rarely was I present and comfortable in my skin. I drank in a way that our culture has unfortunately normalized, especially for high school- and college-aged people. I was a blackout drinker from the start and used alcohol as an escape route from my constant discomfort. I held on tightly to people, possessions, and alcohol, convinced that they were the only solution to the growing emptiness that I felt.
My parents surrounded me with compassion and love and told me repeatedly that I was worthy of joy, fulfillment, and freedom. Still, I always felt like I was missing out on the best parts of life. This feeling did not leave as I made my way through elementary, middle, and high school. No matter which milestone I reached, I never felt satisfied. At some point in high school, I developed a belief that two things could “fill” this pit: alcohol and people. Alcohol let me live in a delusional world where I had everything I thought I needed. I perfected the art of wearing masks to fit in and to get my hands on whatever material object I thought would finally fulfill me. People also comforted me in an unhealthy way. From a young age, I have attached my own worth and security to the acceptance and validation of others. My codependency is something I have had to work on in my recovery with as much, if not more, intensity than my substance abuse patterns.
As I came into recovery, it was made clear that my addiction and recovery itself was to remain a hushed reality. At first, I was okay with this because I was embarrassed that I was in recovery. At twenty years old, nearly all of my friends were just beginning to go to the bars and drink openly. How would they react if they knew I was giving all of that up? Before long, I would have to tell them that I wasn’t drinking. Sure enough, many of them responded with confusion and, sometimes, with alienation. A small handful of them stuck around and have been deeply supportive of my recovery throughout the entire process. My family is now fully supportive of my recovery as well, although that was not always the case. The stigma around addiction left my mother wondering what she had done wrong as a parent. It took at least the first year of my recovery and many conversations with her before she began to accept that she was not at fault, nor was I. The stigma we’re talking about keeps people from reaching out for help and, in turn, it takes lives.
Last year, I learned that my experience has the ability to touch, transform, and save lives. This happened on a day that I had the honor of speaking to a group of students on an island in Maine. This island, much like most of the world, is in the throes of an addiction epidemic. Two friends and I were asked to share our stories with the body of students, in the hope that at least some of them would be deterred from walking down paths similar to ours. Our time on stage went well and at least some of the students seemed to be listening. At the end of the day, I passed by a freshman girl in the hall who stopped me to ask, “Would you consider cutting yourself to be a form of self-harm?” I affirmed that I would. She went on to tell me that she has struggled with this behavior in the past but had declared her “sober date” as earlier in the year. Things have been getting really hard at home, she told me, and over the past few days I had started planning to cut again. Listening to you changed my mind. I see how much hope there is for me, too… thank you. I was at a loss for words. Since coming into recovery, I had hoped that I would be able to shine a light onto the path of someone else. I struggled in knowing how to do this if I was not allowed to be open about the darkness I had experienced, and in turn, the brightness of the my life now. That fifteen-year-old girl peeled back a layer of fear for me. She made clear to me that sharing my experience could save lives.
The stigma surrounding addiction and recovery is still thick and, at times, I choose to let it silence me. I am quickly learning how important our storytelling will always be and I am so humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to open up with whoever is reading this. My hope is that we all learn the strength of our light and the power to transform that it holds.
This has not been a one-woman journey. Mentors and friends have guided me and each of them have shared with me the amazement, joy, pain, and growth that they have felt over the course of their own journeys. Not all of them are in recovery, but when we meet each other with open hearts, the barriers of stigma crumble and we connect in amazing ways. Some of the most satisfying growth that I have seen in myself in the past couple of years has been in moments full of vulnerability and openness, and almost always, fear. At first it was scary to finally feel my heart peeking open to the world. The rawness that comes with trying to move beyond self-medication has been acutely painful.
Two years into this journey, I am still confronted with opportunities to give in to old, comfortable, destructive patterns. I am – and hopefully always will be – a work in progress. This means that I do not always reach for new and healthy patterns. However, in the times that I do find the courage to step into unknown territory, I am never let down. There is an intense and beautiful freedom that comes with the willingness to move forward, to step even one foot beyond the realm of comfort. Any discomfort I still feel when opening up about my recovery is washed away by the knowledge that I can save lives by sharing my raw experience.
My light is brighter when I am not anonymous.