By staying committed to my recovery, I am staying alive, and by staying alive, I am keeping hope alive.

My name is Lissa, and I am a person in long-term recovery since February 1, 2012. What this means to me is that since that date, I have been accountable to myself and others. My intentions now align with my actions, my mind is clear, my heart is full, and today I appreciate life. The light at the end of my tunnel is no longer a train, rather it is a vast sky of gleaming stars as my possibilities are endless. Today I believe in miracles, and today I believe in myself.

I am a 26 year old, born and raised Iowan. I have a mom and a dad, who have been happily married for 28 (almost 29) years, and I have two younger brothers who are 23 and 21. I was raised with praise and adoration, coupled with strong morals and values. My home was one of respect, support, and unconditional love. I was considered academically gifted, musically inclined, and athletically talented. On the outside, I was the golden child and I had a perfect life. Looking in, I always felt different.

The different I felt, was not a disregard to my wonderful life. The different I felt, was like something was missing, like I didn’t feel right. As young as second grade, I would crawl in my own skin. As young as third grade, my addiction first manifested itself in an eating disorder. Fast forward three years to sixth grade, and I ingested my first substance. I began to drink alcoholically at 14 years old, and began to use illicit drugs regularly at 16. From then until now, I was on a path of mass destruction.

So I began to drink alcoholically at age 14, yet I did not have my first residential treatment admission until 10 years later - why did I wait so long? If I knew I had a problem, why didn’t I seek help? I didn’t seek help, and I didn’t vocalize admission to my problem, because of the stigma associated with addiction. I was taught that addiction is dirty, shameful, and only for criminals. My entire life I grew up thinking of an alcoholic as a man on the corner, holding a sign and a 40oz asking for a dollar. I grew up with the mental picture of a drug addict as a homeless person under a bridge, with a needle in their arm. I grew up thinking that both persons described chose to be like that. Truth is, I am just like them. I can also tell you that when I was little and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, “an addict” never came out of my mouth. I may never have looked like that, or have been in those exact situations, but I am exactly like them. I have an illness, not a badness, and I am by no means morally deficient. I did not choose to have addiction, what I have is a genetic predisposition. What I was doing with those images is, I was finding the differences. I was comparing what little good I had left in my life, to their bad. I was forgetting to recognize that I had been sexually assaulted multiple times, that I would have physical seizures if I was not impaired, that I could not remember the last time I drove completely sober, that I was so jealous of the people going to work at 7am with their nice clothes and coffee when I was shaking driving to the liquor store. I was forgetting to recognize that I would bawl every single time I would drink, wanting to stop and I couldn’t. That stigma haunted me for years, and almost brought me to my death.

I was so lost, and so hopeless. Toward the end, I had absolutely no concept of self. I went from a spunky, kind, and loving person, to a shell of a human being. I had spent years wreaking havoc and heartache, to the ones that loved me the most. Believe it or not, almost all of those same people are in my life today and support my recovering efforts one-hundred percent. It blows my mind that they are, and I am forever grateful.

It is my job as a survivor to spark the conversations, to fuel the recovery movement and to break the stigma associated with addiction.

The stigma surrounding addiction, also influenced my thought patterns of rehabilitation. I thought treatment was only available for the ultra-rich and famous. I thought in order to get access to one of those facilities, that I needed to go on the popular reality TV show that showcases the addict and their journey. What I didn’t understand, was that there is access to care for anyone in need. While quality care is not extremely simple to find, it is there. Thankfully, I was able to find one of those facilities. My first residential treatment admission was on June 21, 2011. I came to South Florida with a busted suitcase, my infamous jean shorts, and no hope. While I didn’t stay clean after that first admission, the stigma surrounding addiction began to crack, until it completely shattered. What I saw were people just like me, in situations that were worse than mine, coming out on the other side better than they ever have been in their life. Hope was instilled, and that hope was never lost. Personally, what needed to happen for me, was that I needed to have an overwhelming breakdown, to have an undeniable breakthrough. When I finally had enough, I surrendered. The only reason I had enough guts to surrender, was because of all of the people that believed in me at my residential treatment center. My superheroes, the Avengers. What they did, was they offered me hope. The very hope they offered me, is what keeps me alive today.

Upon entering long-term recovery, I would have never guessed where my life would be today. My first recovery job was at an ice cream store, the second was at an adolescent treatment center. When I was working at the center, beyond my title, I was perfectly aligned to carry out my primary purpose and now passion in life, and that was to be a giver of hope. Some of the most fulfilling moments happen when a teen that went through the program reaches out, and tells me about how great they are doing, or even when they are not doing great. When they are struggling and they reach out, that means that I am their light in a time of darkness. That means that they aren’t giving up, and that means that their hope is still alive.

Upon entering my sixth month of recovery, I bravely attempted college again, fearful because of my past failures. I ended up graduating the community college that I attended after becoming the president of the psychology club, a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and earning highest honors. Shortly after that, the same superheroes that believed in me from the beginning offered me hope to attempt admission into a four year university, and I can proudly say that I am currently a student at the University of Miami. Both of my majors are going to allow me the opportunity to continue to offer hope to persons struggling with substance use disorder, as well as their loved ones - I will be able to keep hope alive, the same way it was kept alive for me.

Thanks to recovery, I am even fortunate to have an employer who is active in breaking the stigma of addiction. They are active in breaking the stigma, not just as a whole, but in the collegiate realm. Through the enmeshment of recovery and higher education, we are changing the trajectory of the recovering student’s life, while smashing the stigma associated with addiction across college campuses, all while helping the student obtain a Life of Purpose.

Breaking the stigma associated with addiction, is something that I will fiercely advocate for until it becomes something that is no longer thought of negatively in a single person’s mind. I am an open book, and not afraid to share my story, no matter what. I am not embarrassed, ashamed, or silent. I am loud, I am proud, and I will continue to fight the good fight. By choosing not be to anonymous, it is my hope to shed light on the fact that addiction does not discriminate. My favorite response that I hear when someone finds out that I am in recovery has to be, “Well, you don’t look like a drug addict!?”  That very response is associated with the stigma, and that very response is what I actively try to break. It is my job as a survivor to spark the conversations, to fuel the recovery movement, to break the stigma associated with addiction, and to remain committed to my recovery because there is no finish line in this. By staying committed to my recovery, I am staying alive, and by staying alive, I am keeping hope alive.