My Battle With Addiction: I First Tasted Vodka at Age 8 and Was Drinking Daily By 16
This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
My mom got sick when I was 3, and passed away by the time I was 6. My dad was an alcoholic. My three siblings and I grew up in a bit of chaos. We didn't have a lot of structure in our lives. We were pretty much allowed to run wild, and I started drinking early. I snuck some of my dad’s vodka at the age of 8.
By 16, I had become a daily drinker. I experimented with marijuana and cocaine, and I hung out with a crowd in high school that partied. Drinking helped me deal with the chaos around me; I found a lot of comfort in alcohol.
Around the time I graduated from high school, opioids had come into our community. I tried taking pills, but I had a bad reaction. I got violently ill. Around 21, I moved, on a whim, across the country from Pennsylvania to Las Vegas with two friends. That’s where I was introduced to other drugs I could do in a social setting, like methamphetamine.
Over the next three years in Las Vegas, I started spiraling down. I had a pretty bad eating disorder; anything I would eat, I would evacuate expediently. My friend caught me vomiting in the bathroom and told my sisters. They showed up on my doorstep with a suitcase, and brought me home two days later.
I stayed with one of my sisters and got a job–but the job was as a bartender. I was drinking two fifths of vodka a day at that point. My tolerance kept getting higher and higher. I don’t remember much about the years I was 26 and 27.
One night, I went into a restroom at a bar, blacked out, and fell backwards, breaking the large porcelain piece of a toilet tank. I had a seizure and was still twitching when my friend came in to help me. I ended up hitting her, and she got cut.
I really stepped in it that time. People were getting sick of me passing out, sick of worrying about me.
I decided it was time to get treatment. My sister said I couldn’t stay with her anymore, so I decided to try a halfway house. But first I had to detox. I had to detox in the emergency room because my blood alcohol level was so high. All of my teeth were rotted. I couldn’t even stand to look in the mirror.
I was doing really, really poorly. But I remember this nurse, her name was Cathy. I don't remember her last name, and the hospital isn't even there anymore. But she saw what a mess I was, and she had such compassion and empathy for me anyway. She turned the lights off, left my door open a sliver, and asked the ladies outside my room to be quiet because I was really sick. It was a profound moment in my life–and I decided I wanted to be that person for someone else.
I successfully completed the process at the halfway house and stayed there for six months. Three months after I was discharged, they called me to come work for them as a counselor’s assistant. That started the fire in me to move forward in this field, to help people who were like me, and to try and break the stigma of what we think of addiction.
I went to a 12-step program meeting every day for the first two years of my recovery. When I was 30 years old and two years sober, I decided to go to school to get my nursing license. I thought it was a backdoor to being able to treat people for drugs and alcohol. I was so focused on what I wanted to accomplish. I finally found value in myself. I felt that I was capable, and worthy of making something of myself. My one desire became to never go back to that woman I used to be.
I finished my RN program in 2013. I got a job in a psychiatric facility helping to detox people with co-occurring mental health disorders along with an active addiction. I got familiar with medications like buprenorphine and suboxone that are used to taper people off of opiates.
When I started looking into the stats of people getting clean and sober, the success rate was very low. When I got sober, I had a good group of people around me, but eventually–inevitably–they would fall off the radar. You wouldn’t see them anymore, and you would hear that they started using or drinking again.
Medication-assisted treatment can really elevate patients’ ability to have a successful road to recovery. So I started my company, Positive Recovery Solutions, to be part of people's success stories. And in 2015, when we realized the lack of access to addiction treatment in different patient populations, we launched a mobile unit. We provide naltrexone (Vivitrol) in rural populations, to make that medication accessible to people with opioid or alcohol addiction, regardless of their location.
The mobile unit is the exact same thing a family would buy if they wanted to go camping–it’s a pull trailer. We repurposed it to fit a waiting room, a restroom for specimen collection, an assessment room, and an injection room.
We started with seven patients; now our mobile units operate in 28 counties across Pennsylvania serving between 425 and 450 patients a month. We’re planning to expand to six more states.
We collaborate with behavioral health entities in each county. They can provide information about our services to patients. And we know medication alone is not the answer, so we can in turn refer patients to entities in their community for the counseling piece.
Positive Recovery Solutions started with just me, and now we employ 20 individuals. Some of them are former patients. One gentleman who was one of our first seven injections in 2015 is one of our drivers today. He’s pushing three years clean, his wife just celebrated two years clean, and they just had a baby.
We try to hire as often as we can from the patient population. It can be hard to get your foot back in the door of the working world at the tail end of an active addiction, to put down on an application that you have no work history in the past few months or years.
And when patients walk through our door, they see continuous success stories, to provide examples of how life can get better. When patients come for the first time, they often look completely defeated. Usually either a spouse or a probation officer or someone else made them come to the appointment. They’ve had to deal with people looking at them like they’re a waste, or a bad person. In our setting, they experience the exact opposite.
It’s so rewarding to me to see them every 28 days. By month two and month three, they’re coming back to life, starting to regain that confidence and fire in their eyes. They’re so proud of themselves–and rightfully so.
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I celebrated 12 years sober on May 6. I can honestly say never once in 12 years have I ever wished I could have a drink. I remember very vividly the physical symptoms and the pure self-loathing when I was detoxing in that ER.
I want people with active addictions to know that you’re worth getting well. There is help available. Society tends to think of the actively addicted population as a throwaway population, or that it is a willpower disease. It’s not–it’s a medical, chemical imbalance. They’re not bad people; they’re sick people trying to get well. It’s doctors, lawyers, and dentists. It's your neighbor, your son. It’s not selective. If we can foster more compassion and empathy, there would be a whole different face of this epidemic.