I didn’t know I was different. I never had a period of social drinking; I was a black out drinker from day one. I used it as a coping mechanism to deal with a traumatic event I experienced when I was 14 years old. I just wanted to sleep at night without having nightmares. The memory of my first drink is visceral; I can still feel the burn as the blue curacao slowly made its way down my throat. The burn that was replaced with a feeling I had never known before, like the puzzle pieces finally fit. Then next thing I remember I was in my shower at 4 am, cold water beating down on my head. Instead of being absolutely terrified that I remembered nothing, I knew I had found the solution. The descent into my disease was rapid and devastating-by the time I was 17 I had failed out of college, had acquired several DUI’s, and started my first in a long string of rehabs when I was 19.
I never planned on becoming what they call a low bottom drunk- homeless and desperate, and I have long since stopped wondering if I had known about my genetic predisposition to addiction if I would’ve opted not to take that first drink. I know now that I would have tried it no matter what; my experience has taught me that there was no consequence or warning profound enough to scare me into not doing what I wanted to do. The unconditional love of a man who believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself, and then his loss to the war in Afghanistan finally pushed me into crisis. A crisis that spanned 3 years where I gave away everything I had left to my disease. I gave away custody of my child, a nursing program I worked so hard to get into, any dream I had for a future, my self-respect, and what was left of my soul…a piece at a time. I drank and used until there was nothing left, which in the end was a blessing, because it made my path very clear. It took a combination of rehabs, intensive outpatient programs, jails, hospitals, sober living houses, probation, house arrest, and tough love to push me into recovery for myself. My run ended in a homeless shelter, drinking a half gallon of cheap vodka a day to keep the seizures away. I made my last plea to NIH where I had been to treatment before, and got a bed.
I wish I could pinpoint why it was different for me that time. For years when I bounced in and out of the rooms people would ask me what was I going to do differently this time and I always had a trite answer, but in the back of my mind I knew it was only a matter of time before I picked up again. This time, I just don’t drink- no matter what. I know the hopelessness and despair that’s one second behind that burn; that out-of-control, self- destruction that’s just lying in wait. Today I don’t believe the lies that run through my head like the chorus of the song that is perpetually stuck there. This time, I allowed sober living to teach me how to be part of a community, and to trust people again. This time, I am truly seeking the change that I tried for so long to cover up with drugs and alcohol, to feel comfortable in my own skin. When I first got sober, I would have done anything to have my life back, but I’m discovering instead that I’ve gotten a whole new one. A life where I’m finding my voice, an opportunity to share that one feeling that helps someone else to discover that recovery might work for them too.
I want someone to hear my experience and know for the first time in a lifetime of darkness that there is hope. I wish I had believed it when people told me I had a disease that talks to me in my own voice, that tells me I’m not sick. I wish I had not been taught that I could do anything I set my mind to, because self-sufficiency, will power, and intelligence did not help me get sober. Sober living, a community of people who support each other, medical interventions that were available to someone with no resources, and a job that helped me gain skills and my independence back- all helped me get and stay sober. A collection of people and organizations who believed I deserved one more chance- that’s how I made it to where I am today.
Because of recovery I have custody of my 12 year old son today. A boy who once was put in foster care after he watched me be removed from an airplane because I was so drunk no one could wake me up. We live in an apartment I obtained with my own name and credit. I have a job that sustains us now that I have returned to school to pursue the nursing degree I gave up; an education that I will use to help other people with substance use disorder and the co-occurring disorders that usually accompany it. Today I tell people about my journey without fear or shame, because it’s part of who I am. My story is one of destruction, survival, and restoration. I can look into the eyes of someone desperate and lost and tell them I know the way out. All the countless perceived “failures” were part of my process- my path to recovery.
The only thing that makes sense to me today is to share my story, because if I don’t have the courage to tell you what happened, how can I ever hope for it to be different for someone else? Too many people suffer from this disease to keep quiet anymore. Because of my addiction, I acquired a criminal history that obligates me to disclose my disease to any future employer. At first this filled me with anxiety and shame- who’s going to hire someone with multiple DUIs, public intoxication, and possession charges? I’ve found that being forthright and honest about my past has opened the right doors and kept the wrong ones closed. Because I didn’t get a job I planned on having, I had the opportunity to go back to school and pursue my passion. I wrote honestly about my downfall and recovery and won scholarships to attain my education. I’m on the Dean’s List and in the academic honor society at my college. I presented my experience with substance use disorder to my pathophysiology class filled with future medical professionals, and was received with curiosity and respect, which then opened a dialogue for the rest of the semester.
In all of these things I am transparent because in recovery, I don’t know any other way to be. Gandhi said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Today my soul is on fire, because I am the change.
I was not anonymous in my addiction, and I refuse to be anonymous in my recovery.