My friends and I were trapped inside the smoldering remains of the car for hours while the first responders cut away the mangled steel to free us from the wreckage. After the paramedics pulled me to safety, they drove me to the hospital where I had emergency surgery to repair a severe scalp injury. Over the next year I would have two more surgeries. The scars soon faded, but the trauma didn’t.
Over time, I became someone who was constantly afraid something horrible was about to happen, and I blamed myself for not being able to cope. I didn’t know until years later that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And by then, I was using alcohol and oxycodone, prescribed after back surgery, to deal with the pain I carried with me.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says this about addiction: "Genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger."
Many wonderful members of my large family struggle with addiction. I am genetically predisposed. And after the trauma I experienced, I was a prime candidate.
I graduated at the top of my class in high school, college, and graduate school. I had a successful career, wonderful friends, and a loving husband. I hid what was happening behind closed doors as my addiction slowly spiraled out of control. Eventually, it took over every aspect of my life.
In 12-step programs, the first step is “admitting we are powerless over drugs and alcohol — that our lives have become unmanageable.” While I accepted that I was powerless over drugs and alcohol, I wasn’t ready to admit that my life had become unmanageable. For a long time, I thought I could fix things myself. But I couldn’t.
This isn’t necessarily "rock bottom." It’s a deep primal instinct to save your own life that wells up inside you and takes over. I contemplated treatment for almost a year. I knew it might save my life, but it meant I would have to give up the coping mechanisms that kept me safe and numb.
And then that moment of clarity came for me: What I wanted most in the world was to be with my husband, the love of my life, and I couldn’t do that if my life was over. And I discovered that recovery is not the end. It’s the beginning.
Everyone assumes it will be difficult to stop using, but no one tells you exactly how it will feel. During my first week in treatment, nothing made sense and I struggled to do the simplest things. I couldn’t figure out how to turn the water on in the shower, so I took baths. I was freezing cold and unbearably hot at the same time. I was desperately sick to my stomach. I cried nonstop for days, even in my sleep. My doctors assured me these were all normal symptoms of withdrawal, and they prescribed Suboxone to give me some relief.
Addiction is a disease that makes you think you don’t have a disease.
Despite my obvious physical symptoms and the fact that I had checked myself into in-patient treatment, my mind still tried to convince me that I didn’t have a problem. But as I looked around at the others who were there with me, my eyes saw what my mind couldn’t yet accept: I had the same problem everyone else had. And if those who had been there longer than me were getting better, maybe I could get better too.
Entering treatment was like entering a different world. Because addiction is so isolating, you come to believe that you are uniquely flawed and that no one else understands the difficulty of what you’re going through.
In treatment, I found a community of people who shared my experiences.
What wasn’t acceptable to talk about in the outside world was suddenly safe. When someone shared a heart-wrenching story, everyone else nodded in understanding. When someone cried, one of us would slide a box of Kleenex to them across the floor. No judgement, just healing.
There were ups and downs. When I found out I was required to attend a 12-step meeting each night, I hesitated. "What could a cult-like program centered around a higher power do for me?" I thought. But I had promised I would do everything that was asked of me, so I went. Surprisingly, I found comfort in the ritual, the familiar stories of suffering, grief, and regret, and the pervasive sense of forgiveness from the group. Their story was my story. We had all been there. We all craved compassion and gave it willingly.
Gradually, day by day, week by week, I realized that I could have a different life but I wasn’t yet sure if it would be a better life.
Going back to the real world was a huge adjustment. I felt exposed, like a fish who returns to its fishbowl after the water has been cleaned. Everything was the same, but nothing was the same. Life seemed too bright, too loud, too fast.
My doctors and therapists recommended that I go to 90 meetings in 90 days. As I listened to others talk about their struggles, I realized, just as I had in treatment, that I wasn’t alone. If I missed a meeting, I went to two meetings the next day. The exact type of support meeting, whether focused on alcohol or narcotics, wasn't important. But the content was.
My favorite meeting was attended mainly by people who had 15 or 20 years of recovery.
Listening to the life-changing effect recovery had on their lives was inspiring. For those in long-term recovery, not using alcohol or drugs wasn’t the amazing part. The amazing part was that if they were able to string together enough days, months and years without succumbing to addiction, they were able to do things they never even dreamed were possible. One man who spent years living on the streets had become a successful entrepreneur. A young woman who had had a number of run-ins with the law was accepted at a prestigious law school.
I began to realize how much was possible for me if all my time and energy weren’t taken up by my addiction.
When I got my three-month chip, I was astonished. Before treatment, three hours without substances was unfathomable. Now, I had three months.
Recovery is different for everyone. At first, I did everything by the book. I got a sponsor. I worked the steps. I made recovery the central focus of my life. And it worked – until it didn’t.
12-step programs can be amazing. But while this model is powerful, it is also flawed.
You’re surrounded by a community of others who have been where you are. But the wonderful people you get to know are not trained professionals and sometimes they don’t give the best advice.
There is a pervasive belief that if you use any mind-altering medications — even those that treat depression, anxiety, or addiction — you are not in recovery. Because I received a monthly injection of Vivitrol, a medication for addiction treatment, I heard many times that I wasn’t truly sober, even though I was.
My sponsor and I weren’t a good fit. When she encouraged me to make amends with a boy who had assaulted me when I was a teenager, I realized for the first time that I had a choice about my recovery. Would doing what she asked help or hurt? I trusted my intuition and we parted ways. Though I never finished the 12 steps, I continued marching forward.
I knew I needed support, so twice a week I went to a therapist who specializes in addiction and recovery.
There, I learned that recovering from trauma and addiction requires a lifelong commitment. I found out about self-compassion and acceptance. And I realized I was worth the effort.
That first year, I felt conspicuous in a way I never had before. Every holiday or special occasion was a minefield. I thought everyone would notice I wasn’t drinking beer on St. Patrick’s Day. At a wedding, I didn’t toast the bride and groom with champagne, and I was convinced everyone knew my secret. But over time I realized that no one was paying as much attention to my drinking as I was. And it didn’t matter anyway.
The first year is also when I realized that long-term recovery was achievable for me.
If I could stay sober for a year, I could make it another year, and then another. Early in recovery, I heard one of the speakers at a meeting say, “You will set goals for yourself now, but a year or two down the road you will be astounded to discover that those goals were nothing compared to all the things recovery will make it possible for you to do.” She was right. My life started changing in ways that I never could have imagined.
My husband and I moved from Arizona back to Washington, DC and I landed a job at a museum where I had always dreamed of working. I learned to advocate for myself instead of always doing what was expected of me and that helped me to address long-term issues in my relationship with my parents in a healthy way. Sustaining positive change is a lifelong process, but even after just one year in recovery, my life was more fulfilling than I could ever have imagined.
But the best part of the first year was the change in my relationship with my husband.
Throughout my addiction and recovery journey, he has been my greatest support. Our relationship deepened as we learned that in recovery, all the things we wanted for our lives were possible.
I am in long-term recovery now with seven years of sobriety. I have a wonderful job, a loving marriage, and I live in a city and home I adore. I still don’t go to meetings, but I do go to counseling, and I’ve found the courage to confide in some of my friends and family members about my struggle with addiction. No recovery journey is perfect but I’m living the life I was meant to live. I am grateful for my recovery every single day.