Growing up, I never imagined that I would ever experience the things I experienced—and I certainly never thought I’d deal with alcohol and drug misuse. But now I know that addiction can happen to anyone. Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that 1 in 7 Americans will suffer from a substance use disorder at some point in their lifetime.
This is how addiction happened to me.
I was raised in northern New Jersey, in a suburb about 10 miles from New York City. I had as much of a normal childhood as anyone could have. I have a mother and father who love me, and brothers who are the best friends anyone could ever ask for. I went to private school my whole life, participated in various sports, and had lots of friends. But even from a young age, I always felt different in one way or another. As a child, I had such bad separation anxiety that for a while my mom would have to walk me into school and stay until I started playing with friends and forgot she was there. To my parents, that was a sign that there was something wrong with me. So therapist visits started at the age about 5 or 6, and continued throughout my teenage years.
As soon as I could read, I’d devour books and imagine the storylines were my life—even trying to make my life match the characters’. I remember for so long trying to get through to Narnia through my bedroom closet with no avail. Another behavior I noticed was self-centeredness and the inability to accept no for an answer. As I got older, all those behaviors of escaping my reality in order to create my own delusional one only grew, right along with more toxic and unhealthy ways to not feel what I was feeling.
That brings us to my first true form of addiction: cutting.
I remember the first time I did it so clearly, as though it was yesterday. It the day my father was moving out of the house because my parents were “separating for a short time.” I just remember feeling as though my whole world was falling apart. I was overwhelmed and I just did not want to feel what I was feeling.
I remember seeing girls cut themselves on TV, and thought, “there must be a reason people do this.” And so I did it, and it worked. I was able for a brief period of time to escape the pain of my heart breaking, and for the first time I felt relief. Something I would keep searching for, until it almost took my life.
Cutting became a way for me to be able to escape my outside world. If I was anxious, or overwhelmed, something about taking a blade to myself was immediately calming. I talk about this not to make you squirm, but so you can understand what I was looking for that eventually led me to drugs. In high school, I remember always feeling less than, or not good enough. It was something that cutting could resolve, even if it was only for a short time. In some ways I was desperately crying out for attention, and in others I had this secret way to deal with the world around me.
I got through high school somehow without misusing any hard drugs. Honestly, I think that’s because I had cutting as my main addiction. But I did I drink. A lot. Almost to alcoholic levels some years in high school, but so was everyone else in my class, so obviously it wasn’t a problem for me at that point, right? Wrong.
For so long I kept thinking, addiction could never happen to me. I was taught in school through the D.A.R.E. program that it only happens to certain people, in certain situations. I was ignorant, but I was also so young when I was taught this, so how could I know addiction could happen to me? Thankfully there are better school prevention programs for today’s youth.
Sometimes I try and figure out why it is that I didn’t have the coping skills I needed to have in order to deal with that pain, but it’s like trying to count the stars in the sky. There is no definitive answer to that. I definitely knew I had mommy issues, coping issues, anxiety issues, and low self-esteem—and entering high school with those was like laying out a welcome mat for drug addiction to start making room in my mind.
Stay tuned for the next part of my story, when the drugs would take hold of me, and lead me down a path I didn’t think I would make it back from. Until then, my name is Steph. And I’m a person in recovery from addiction.
Stephanie Maitner is an owner of MGMT Digital, an addiction marketing company and The Real Addiction, a non-profit that encourages education, prevention, and treatment for the younger generation. In her personal life, she is a passionate member of the recovery community and volunteers much of her time to help people in the most vulnerable situations find a glimpse of hope in recovery.