In my previous article, What Does Addiction Feel Like, I shared Stephanie’s experience of addiction. Here, I want to share her story of recovery.
Her recovery was a six-year process. She spent two years continuing to use substances off and on, three years with an opioid substitute, and she will be one year off of the substitute in August.
I share her story of recovery to show that despite the extreme lows she faced, recovery is possible. See the previous article for more perspective on the depth of pain she encountered while trapped in addiction.
If you know someone struggling to recover from an addiction, I hope this article will help you better understand what they are going through and how to be supportive.
If you are struggling with an addiction, I hope this article helps you feel like you are not alone and recovery is possible.
Here is Stephanie’s story of addiction and recovery, in her own words.
Recovery Starts Before You Stop Using
You don’t just wake up and stop using.
Recovery starts before you actually get clean. It was the biggest mind war I ever went through. You know what your doing is hurting you but can’t stop. It’s like watching a bad movie you are the star of.
I was getting tired of chasing money and pills just to feel normal.
I started thinking about recovery when I had gotten an abscess and had to carry around a machine for five days. The whole time I was lying and telling everyone it was a spider bite.
You want to be clean but you’re not sure how or what that looks like. It takes planning and finding the right supports while still using.
I woke up for months saying, “today I will not use,” and be using by noon.
Recovery requires taking a leap of faith and reaching out for support, but not expecting perfection the first time. I would often miss counseling appointments because the dopeman showed up first. I then had the excuse that I couldn’t go to the appointment high because they would know I was using.
A Turning Point
Despite my using, I still cared about my kids and didn’t want my using to be the thing that took me away from them.
My oldest told me his biggest fear was Childen’s Aid Society coming in and taking them away. That hurt. He told me this while we were playing a board game called Nightmare where you have to share your biggest fear. I had to hold it together for the rest of the game.
It didn’t make me quit, but it made me work harder to hide my addiction.
What really pushed me over the edge was a story I saw on Facebook about a mother who overdosed in her home alone with her baby and the baby died of starvation. I had a toddler at the time, and all I could picture was him trying to wake me up and me not responding. I went to Dr. Farago the next day.
Recovery took a very intricate plan involving lots of pieces.
Having to Sever Destructive Social Ties
I had to cut my ex out in order for my recovery to work.
While I was living with my ex, he was in active addiction as well, so there was no chance I could stop with him there. He was my biggest trigger and would regularly bring drugs home. Three weeks after I got on suboxone, I had to use his addiction against him with the help of Childen’s Aid Society.
He then went on a meth bender, and I had grounds to put a protection order on him. That forced him to move out. Mind you, he is still homeless and using, so it took me a year and a half to get over the guilt. I still feel it sometimes.
He was broken, and I loved him. I felt like I was putting a baby out in the street in the cold and rain. I knew I was the only thing holding him together and that losing me would make it worse. But I also told him that if it came down to it and I had to choose between him or the kids, they would win.
I dropped a lot of friends that still used. My best friend used cocaine, and I had to distance from her, too.
No one ever wants to be alone, but the first bit of recovery is just that. It about tearing down the social network and rebuilding it with people that aren’t involved in that life
Adjusting to Social Life Outside Addiction
In addiction, your friends are the people you buy from and use with. You feel isolated from the normies. In recovery, you are trying to enter the normie world and be a part of that, but it is tough because you been in the underbelly for so long.
I couldn’t hold eye contact or a normal combo with someone when I first got into recovery. I felt awkward all the time, so I just muddled through it.
I had a really good counselor at House of Sophrosyne that really understood all of this, so she walked me through it. The social skills came when I started volunteering with the AIDS Committee of Windsor. I entered their peer program and attended their training series on active listening, public speaking, conflict resolution, and storytelling. These helped me to be able to speak about my experience and communicate effectively in other areas of my life.
They helped me build confidence. I’m still rough around the edges sometimes. The addiction world took away my ability to sugar coat things and gave me a very different perspective on the world I live in.
Dealing With Stigma
After finding out about my drug use, my family doctor treated me differently. He stopped taking me seriously, or at least that’s how I felt.
I had gone to several counselors at CMHA that had no knowledge of drugs and I found myself teaching drug 101 to them.
My family members would ask “how that drug thing was going” at family get-togethers, as well as monitor my drinking at these events. I was never an alcoholic but a social drinker.
Later on, in my working life, I was talking to a woman about the stigmatizing language she was using. When I told her I was in recovery, she instantly shut the conversation down and told my boss I had threatened to come to her home—none of which I said, and thank god my boss knew that. She was trying to get me fired from my job as an outreach worker.
Every time I posted on Facebook about my recovery, there would always be at least one person who made a stigmatizing comment or remark.
I have been told that “once a junkie always a junkie,” and have been called “junkie: more times then I’d like to say. A lot of people treated me like I was about to go off the deep end at any given second.
My dentist was the worst. She gave me shit because of the damage to my teeth and how much money my parents spent to get me braces and such. When I told her I couldn’t afford to fix them properly, she said I need to better manage my money and take care of my teeth. I changed dentists and have an awesome one now.
Generally, I was treated like I would relapse at any given second, so why have faith in me and try to build me up. I had to stop taking all that in and focus on the people that supported me, instead.
It’s taken years to get past all that and learn to navigate those that still have a stigmatizing opinion of me.
Finding Helpful Social Supports
I’m thankful for the friends and family that understood and still treated me like me. My mom knew nothing about addiction but has learned and listened to me and tried hard to understand.
My counselor at House of Sophrosyne didn’t require me to teach her, and she explained some of the stuff I was going through that I didn’t understand. She helped me find my worth and made me realize that relapse was not a failure but only a setback.
My addictions Doctor treated me like a person and emphasized that relapse is not a failure but a mental setback. He helped with other medical issues I was having as well but didn’t make my addiction a determining factor in my care. He gave me control over my program and let me do things when I was ready.
My counselor also met me where I was at and didn’t condemn me if I wasn’t ready to move to the next step. They both encouraged me to speak about my experience and helped me find the qualities that I didn’t know I had. They helped me educate my family so they could be a part of my support system rather than a hindrance.
I am super thankful to them today and still speak with both from time to time if I am having a hard time. Triggers still happen and sometimes I still want to use, but they help me to navigate that.
My counselor is the reason I want to become a counselor.
I also had some very supportive friends. My anxiety got really bad in those first months and my friends put up with me not going to birthday parties and Christmas parties because I couldn’t handle crowds. They understood and didn’t push me.
All of the supportive people in my recovery understood and met me where I was at. Those two things are the greatest things you can do for someone in recovery.
Learning New Coping Skills
Throughout recovery, I learned to navigate the feelings I was using substances to control.
I learned to not take everything personally. My counselor taught me I deserve a good life and that my past doesn’t define my future, but empowers it.
But most of all, I learned self-worth. They helped me see I was worth more than a life of drugs. That was a real turning point. Learning self-talk was helpful for this. At one point I would get up, look in the mirror, and just tell myself I was worth it.
Mindfulness was also helpful, but a bit harder for me since my mind doesn’t stop talking. The radio was my enemy at one point. I love music, but every song was linked to some memory of my ex, my substance use, or both. I would hear a song in Walmart and have to fight back tears. In some cases, I had to walk out.
I was able to “untrigger” some songs and items that used to trigger me by exposing myself to them in a safe situation. I started playing those songs while in a safe place with the support of my husband nearby and was able to change the memory attached to the stimulus. I’m still working on that but I have my radio back for the most part.
Breathing is also huge. When I get anxious I forget to breathe. Taking a minute to do that has greatly helped me process difficult feelings.
Learning to see the positive work I’m doing and not nitpick it apart is another challenge I’m working on.
Healing Family Wounds
I grew up in a home where being pushed to do better was how you were raised. I would get an A on a test and be asked why it wasn’t an A+. I felt like I was always just behind the ball and I lost motivation to try.
Once I was on my own, I struggled with housing stability and was always behind on my bills. This led me to believe I wouldn’t be able to handle life. The kids just blew that up for me because if I couldn’t take care of myself, how was I going to take care of these little people who relied on me for everything.
When using, all those thoughts stopped for a few minutes.
I’m lucky I have amazing kids, and today we are good, but in the beginning, my older three didn’t trust me. I had let so much bad go on around them. They had food, basic needs, love, and support, but the opiates damaged a lot. I couldn’t erase what they saw.
They never saw the drug use, but saw the people that came to our house and they saw us high. A program through House of Sophrosyne called “Mothers in Mind” helped me rebuild the relationship with them and earn back that trust as well as be able to talk to them about what they saw or felt.
My youngest was the worst off. When he was born it was probably the most chaotic time. I was using crack and was able to quit for eight months during the pregnancy, but in the last month, I relapsed. During that last month, I regularly used crack and occasionally used opiates. I even googled to find out what would happen to the baby if I used.
The ex was still using and bringing it home. I watched him use for eight months. I think I did pretty good going eight months at the time, since it was in front of me every day. A big part of my use was the thought, “if you can’t beat them join them.”
The day I had delivered him, I was using crack when I went into labor. This isn’t something I usually talk about.
During the pregnancy, I wasn’t connected to him like the others. He was “a thing” growing inside me. I didn’t want a baby at the time, but abortion was not an option. A program at Hiatus House specifically made for trauma damaged connections with babies helped me find that connection with him. He was about 2 when we went and now you would never know there was an issue.
Throughout this time, I wanted to stop, but couldn’t. I was in contemplation, trying to find ways to stop without having to get rid of the ex. I eventually stopped using crack, but relapsed and got hooked on opiates for two more years.
Relapse is a Normal Part of Recovery
In the beginning, I relapsed a lot, mostly with coke because the suboxone kept me off the opiates. Two years in, I went to a place I knew would have coke, thinking I could control it, but I couldn’t. I tried that experiment again three years into my recovery and had the same result.
I now know that certain places in the city are off-limits to me. Just because I’m in recovery doesn’t mean I can completely control my use. I’m always going to have that tendency to use. I have learned not to play with fire, so to speak. I stay away from people places and things that can trigger me and put me at risk
At my current job as a harm-reduction worker/peer engagement coordinator, I’m not tempted to use since I’m not around the actual drugs. I’m around paraphernalia. It can cause me to have fleeting thoughts about use, but I’m able to mentally squash the trigger by telling myself what happens if I relapse. It would be very different if I had a bag of coke and a needle.
What keeps me from relapsing is my children, my husband, and memories of what using did to me and the person I became.
My children are the biggest part though. I put them through enough already and I want to be the mom they need me to be. I can’t do that if I am using and I will lose them. I don’t have another stint in me. The next relapse will kill me. I’ll lose everything I have worked so hard for and I’ll have nothing left.
Becoming a Whole Person
During my substance use, I was a no one. I was just another substance user. Today, I’m a person.
Many people describe recovery as boring in comparison to using, but I love the boredom. I love the quiet. I don’t miss the drama. Sometimes I miss the party, but I don’t miss what comes with it.
I am happier today because every day something shows me I am worth being clean and that I have purpose like this.
I combat the boredom with things I never had in active use, such as friends, family, and my advocacy work. I am able to help people in a way that someone without my experience can’t. I have had some great experiences in recovery that showed me my voice was worth being heard.
Without being a counselor, I have helped others find recovery by telling them my story and letting them know they are not alone.
If you want to reach out, you can contact me on my personal Facebook page here.