It is all too common that people think of drug addicts and alcoholics as the homeless people living under bridges, drinking out of brown paper bags. I am guilty of having that perception as well. That idea of what it looked like to be an alcoholic kept me questioning the true nature of my addiction, for a long time. I knew to some degree, when I first started drinking and using drugs, that there was a slight chance that I didn’t use substances like “normal” people. I thought that until I met all the “requirements” that I, in fact, was not an addict. However, if you were to ask any member of my family, they would have told you otherwise, and that it was no secret.
One thing that I have learned from my experience is that “hitting rock bottom” means something different from person to person. Not just from person to person, but also for one person’s rock bottom to the next. In my opinion, there are many different forms of “rock bottom.” Someone’s “rock bottom” can be spiritual, emotional, physical, or psychological. I, myself, have experienced many different forms of “rock bottom.” Certainly, all of the boxes had been checked off by the time I was admitted into treatment five years ago.
By the time I had checked into rehab, once again, I felt so lost and so confused as to how I got to where I was. But the one thing I had going for me was willingness to do the work and follow suggestions of people who had done this before. I had blind faith that I would be able to hustle through whatever it was that was causing me to seek happiness from substances. I had done the work many times previous, each time, it was around something different. The core issue was never what was talked about. It was more “situational” things that had happened, or some sort of trauma, if you will. This time was different. The 60 days that I spent in inpatient treatment were focused on things I didn’t talk about much- mostly my childhood and my adoption. The more I talked about things, the more it all started to make sense. I am not going to get into the details of what my therapy sessions looked like, because that is something that I hold very sacred. But I can tell you, that for once in my life I was able to see why I was the way I am and why I chose to do the things I was doing.
Since I have been sober for five years now, I have experienced “the box” that people put addicts and alcoholics in. I got sober in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is a city riddled with addiction. It is a problem or epidemic that is starting to affect so many people. I feel like the stigma around addicts is slowly starting to change, but only because people are willing to speak up about it and inform the general public. Addicts are not degenerates, or people who aren’t worth saving. In fact, addicts are good people who have just made some bad choices or been in bad situations. Welcome to being a human being! Part of being human is making mistakes. What separates the addict from the non-addict is that the addict’s brain, which is in charge of making decisions, is the same organ that is affected by the disease. As you might guess, that complicates things a bit.
I have also learned over the last five years, that addicts tend to fall short in learning key life skills. When I first got sober, I knew how to do chores. I knew how to make appointments. I knew how to handle the “checklist” of things. What I didn’t know how to do was to manage my stress and how to stick to my commitments. My parents had instilled a solid moral compass, so I didn’t struggle with what was right from wrong, but I struggled with wanting to choose to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do. I liked to push things to see what I could get away with. Ultimately, I had to learn what it means to want to do the right thing simply because I wanted to feel like a good person. Feeling like a good person was something I hadn’t felt in a long time, so to say it was uncomfortable is an understatement.
Now that I have a few years abstinence from drugs and alcohol, I can say clear headed that I am still not always happy with the person I am. The difference now is that I choose to use that feeling as a motivation to be a better person tomorrow. Life in sobriety has been a new lesson every day, as I think life should be. I am able to experience the things I am supposed to and learn the lessons that are intended for me to learn each day. I am a huge believer that the Universe is talking to us and showing us where we are intended to be, it’s just a matter of learning to listen and trust that I am where I am supposed to be.
I have gone through both good and bad experiences while being sober, but gratefully none of which I thought would be “better” if I got high again. One of the most important things I have learned since getting sober is, that no matter what comes my way, I’ll be okay and be able to survive it. I have gone through heartache and experienced many losses, but the blessing and the reality is that me using drugs to escape the pain was not going to help either. I felt everything I needed to feel and allowed myself to do so without judgement. Grieving is hard for anyone, addict or not, but I am at a place in my life where I think it’s a painful, yet necessary, process. I choose to believe that there is a lesson with any gain or loss, that it’s just a part of life. I know my time here isn’t permanent, but I’ve made a conscious choice to experience as much as I can before I go. I have to remind myself each day that this is my choice. No one can be held accountable for what I do, except for me- so choose wisely.
Ever since I got sober, I have made the choice to not let the label, “addict” hinder my self-esteem. If anything, I take pride in that. My past is not what defines me, my past is what has helped me get to where I am today. Because of my past, I don’t feel like I have any room to judge people. Sure, I’ve had the awkward conversation with people like, “Let’s get a drink” or “You should come over for a beer.” Anyone who knows me, knows that I am the first to respond with “Thanks, but I don’t drink.” Since I live in Salt Lake City which many people think of as a Mormon state (not 100% true), many people say back “Oh sorry, are you Mormon or something?” I’ve also gotten the “Oh, are you pregnant?” response as well. I find it funny that some people think only religious or pregnant women are the only people on this Earth who don’t drink. I simply reply, “No, I just don’t drink, I am in recovery.” I’ve had weird looks and I’ve had great responses. Either way it won’t change my answer.
I find it empowering to be a woman in sobriety. I have overcome so many different obstacles in my life- emotional, physical, and psychological. I like to think that because I am in recovery, I’ve been given the chance to learn what it takes to be an honest, accountable, and kind person; a lesson which many people will never get to learn. I wish everyone took the time to learn to not be an asshole and also what it means to be accountable for your actions. Sadly, I have met many people in sobriety too that are not happy, honest, or accountable people. Recovery is an everyday process, it’s like the checks and balancing system. I have to check in with myself many times a day to see how I’m really feeling and what I need to do to fix it. Like I said, some days I’m not so great at it and I get grumpy or passive-aggressive., Some days I even become aggressive. But when I lay down to go to bed, I take the time to reflect on my day and then ask myself, “How do I do better tomorrow?” It’s nice when the answer to that question is merely “eat lunch earlier.” It gets less desirable when the answer is “apologize to that person and ask them how you can make it up to them.” But I do it because I know that if I don’t I could be jeopardizing my happiness.
As a person in recovery, I’ve experienced the stigma of what people generally think being a drug addict means. The main reason I don’t allow myself to get caught up in that is because I know I’ve worked my ass off for this life. I’ve built it myself and no one can ever take that away from me. No one is worth me ever feeling like I did the day I walked into treatment. That is something that I tell my clients to this day. We’ve been taught, both in treatment and in 12-step based programs, that resentments are the fuel to someone’s addiction. “Resentments keep you sick” is what we’re told, and in my experience, it’s proven to be true.
The best part of being in recovery is gaining the trust back from my family. Earning their trust was one thing, but I don’t know if they will ever be relieved of the fear of me using again. Some of the hardest work about getting sober is realizing the pain and wreckage that you’ve caused with the people who you care about most. My sister told me on our first phone call while I was in treatment, “I don’t know what you want me to say, I don’t need you as a sister anymore.” That was her reply to me telling her that I loved her. To most people that would sound harsh, but unfortunately, for us, that was reality. Every member of my immediate family had grieved me, in preparation for that dreaded phone call none of them wanted. It was necessary for them to heal as well and to be able to move forward in their lives. I took no offense to it, I needed to hear that. I needed people to be black and white with the brutal honesty of the situation I had created for myself, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to heal had they not.
My mom has a shadow box that she had engraved with my sobriety date on it, we add my chip to it each year. I’m not and didn’t get sober for my family, I got sober for me, but I give her a chip each year so hopefully she knows that she is a huge part of my recovery and a valued relationship that I don’t want to lose again. My dad has come with me almost every year to pick up a chip. The chips may be free and they may be so small, but they hold so much meaning to me. Those chips represent all the blood, sweat and tears that went into me getting and staying sober.
Although the chips represent much to me, I don’t pick them up so that the people in the meeting can sing me happy birthday and praise me. And it for sure, is not because I love speaking in front of a room full of people about me. I go pick up those chips because I want the “newcomer” to see that it is possible for people to get and stay sober and have the life that they deserve. So many people talk about how great sobriety is and how they have a great job, pay rent, and are driving legally. For the past few years, I have shared the good, bad and the ugly. I stand up in front of all those people and say, “This is not easy, but it’s do-able.” I’ve stood in front of meetings and said, “My last year was the worst year of my life, and not just since I’ve been sober.” I do it because I believe that people have the capacity to change if they want to, but just because they make that change doesn’t mean that life is easy from then on.
I work in treatment and have since I got sober. It’s a very hard environment to work in, but what keeps me going is that people were there for me when I was a client. I feel honored to be a part of their journey, even if they don’t stay sober. It reminds me on a daily basis what it looks like and feels like to be six months sober and how confusing, frustrating and uncertain it is. I need to be reminded of that every day, because even though I may have stayed sober for the last five years, that doesn’t mean that I am any farther away from drinking or using than my clients are. It’s a constant reminder of how important it is for me to take care of myself. The only difference between my clients and me is that my brain has healed a little more than theirs and that I have a little more practice in doing the things that they are learning to do. If I fall short on taking care of myself, I can and will end up back where they are.
I hope that this chapter about my experience with addiction and recovery has helped you understand what it’s like. Addiction is a disease of the brain but it’s possible for someone to learn to live a long, healthy, happy, and meaningful life. I hope that people start asking questions and learning about addiction. Way too many families are being affected by it today, but it is a very real, serious issue and so many people are still struggling.
If you are one of those people who are struggling with mental illness or addiction, please reach out for help.