When I was drinking, my life was ruled by shame. It’s exhausting, living a double life. On the outside I was a put-together, active, intelligent woman. I made sure my outside always looked okay, so nobody would look too closely at what was really going on, at my dirty secret. Inside, I was a crumbling mess. I felt less-than, unworthy and insecure. I strove for perfection in all things, which of course is unattainable, and this left me feeling empty and ashamed.
I drank to fill the cracks, the emptiness. I drank to numb out, escape. I drank to feel okay with myself. I found myself in my late thirties, a shell of a person, hollow and feeling desperately alone, even though I had a beautiful family, a job, and people who loved me. I thought I was weak, broken and utterly alone. I thought I was the only person who drank the way I drank, who felt the way I felt. It was inconceivable for me to ask for help, I was so afraid that my dirty little secret would drive everyone away.
Here’s what I didn’t know: there is a vibrant, loving, compassionate world full of people in recovery. Once I finally hit bottom and had no choice but to ask for help, hands were there to help me up. People shared their own experiences, shared their hope, and loved me until I could love myself. All I needed to do was ask.
But asking for help is so hard, isn’t it? It’s part of our culture, I think, to need to feel self-sufficient, accomplished, invulnerable. It’s ironic, because asking for help is one of the most courageous things a person can do. For me to get help, I had to take my addiction to the point where I was a physical and emotional wreck. I wanted to stop, but couldn’t. I fought long and hard to get sober on my own, but every day brought the same cycle. I was so afraid of being judged as weak, so afraid of the stigma of addiction, I couldn’t (wouldn’t) ask for help.
Finally, it got so bad I ended up in a hospital, and from there in detox. I lived in terror that people would find out; I felt like the sickest, weakest, most broken person in the world. Although I didn’t feel lucky at the time, I was fortunate enough to go to a long term treatment program, and it saved my life.
There I learned I wasn’t alone. I learned that there is hope and freedom from addiction. I learned about the tens of millions of people who live in recovery. And, most importantly, I heard my story come from other peoples’ mouths. I learned that I was far from alone. I felt that connection, that experience of “me too.” Addiction wanted me isolated, alone and shameful. Recovery put me in the middle of a group of people, got me connected and opened me up. I started sharing. The more vulnerable I was, the more help I got, and the more strength I gained. The light and love from others in recovery sent that shame scuttling back into the shadows, where it belongs.
I know I could never have recovered on my own.
In order to recover, though, I had to overcome a huge hurdle: The stigma of addiction. Everyone has an idea in their head about what addiction looks like, but not enough people understand what recovery looks like, and that recovery is everywhere. If other people hadn’t come before me, shared their experience and hope with me, I wouldn’t have gotten out of my own way. I wouldn’t have had a helping hand there for me when I was finally broken enough to reach for one. That’s what makes me determined to live in the light of recovery. I refuse to hang my head in shame anymore. I am proud to be a person in recovery. I willingly share my story because I know the power of “me too.” That spark I felt, when I heard my story come from another person’s lips, when I shared my darkest feelings and someone said “I understand,” that spark ignited hope in me, and without it I wouldn’t have made it out of the darkness.
An interesting thing happened to me in recovery: I found my voice. I found myself. I am present in my own life, and even through the hard times I am grateful that I no longer hide from the hard feelings, stuck in the anesthesia of addiction. Because now I don’t go through anything alone. People in recovery are always there to help, and my world is rich and full of love. Most importantly, I have learned to love myself again. I have learned that we are not defined by our mistakes, but rather what we do about them.
I learned the difference between guilt and shame: guilt is feeling badly about something I did, and shame is feeling badly about who I am. In recovery, I can own my actions, make amends and reparations where it’s needed, grow and learn from my experiences. Shame is a never-ending spiral. It feeds on my self-worth, my well-being, until there is nothing left of me. The stigma of addiction feeds shame, and one of the most powerful ways to break stigma is through the power of voice, the power of story.
In order to overcome the stigma of addiction, the world needs to see what recovery looks like. We can share our faces, our stories, and our hope. We can show the world that we are just like everyone else. Everyone can understand struggle. Everyone can understand the power of redemption. People in recovery aren’t any different than anyone else who overcomes adversity.
But we can’t heal from something we can’t face.
I want to be involved in the I Am Not Anonymous project because I am not ashamed. I am not a face of addiction. I am a face of recovery.
Today, when asked, I don’t say “I’m an alcoholic.” I say “I am a person in recovery.” And an interesting thing happens… people are curious. If I say “I am an alcoholic” people recoil, or give me a blank stare, or try to politely change the subject. But when I tell them I’m in recovery, they say “Tell me more about that.”
To me, this project is about overcoming the stigma, showing the world that recovery is not only possible, it’s everywhere. We DO recover. So much policy change is needed: we need more treatment beds, we need better health care coverage, we need to offer help to struggling addicts instead of punishment. To get there, though, we need to show the world our faces, share our stories. We need to celebrate recovery, instead of miring ourselves down in the trenches of addition.
My name is Ellie, and I am a proud woman in recovery. I live in the solution. Come along with me.