One day in my early 20’s I wound up in a parking lot with a drug dealer, getting my first stash of “roxies.” At $15 a pill, oxycodone was pricey. At the beginning, I’d break each pill in half and it would last me through the day. Towards the end of my addiction, I was using close to eight or 10 of those pills daily, which required working two jobs—one of which existed only to fund my addiction to opiates and (later) meth.
I loved opiates because they helped me numb my pain. Eventually, adding meth (a stimulant) in combination with the oxycodone allowed me to feel productive as well.
As for the question of how I ended up in that parking lot? That takes a bit longer to answer…
I grew up in the small Southern town of McDonough, Georgia. It’s a place where people still say “Hello, Sir” and “Thank you, Ma’am.” The friendly, wraparound porches and quaint, 1920’s store fronts convey a carefree and sheltered life.
Meanwhile, behind that façade lay a tumultuous early childhood that harbored painful and traumatic memories and secrets. These would become the roots of my substance abuse and eventually a full-blown addiction to opiates and meth.
When I was 2 years old, my biological mother signed over her parental rights. She was an alcoholic. This meant I was raised by my father and stepmother. The arrangement would prove difficult, characterized by frequent tensions in our life together.
Things became especially hard at home when, at the age of 5, I was molested by a family member. At the time, my school had a “good touch, bad touch” program, so I told my teachers and was able to relinquish some of the shame I had been feeling—that is, until my parents found out. After a school counselor contacted them to report the molestation, my parents never spoke a word about it to me.
Such a response taught me not to talk about my traumatic experience, but instead to go inward and stuff my emotions. Poor self-esteem, guilt, shame, rejection and abandonment would thus become major themes of my story in the ensuing years.
Emotional pain would also become the biggest driving force behind my later efforts to numb my pain with substances—first alcohol, then opiates and even meth. It didn’t help either that at the age of 16 I was diagnosed with a very painful, chronic, physical condition: interstitial cystitis, in which the lining of the bladder erodes. Interstitial cystitis is one of a number of chronic diseases known as painful bladder syndrome and causes bladder pressure and pain ranging from mild to severe.
In my case, I was always getting urinary tract infections or worse, kidney and bladder infections. On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was a “five” on a daily basis, but flare-ups would be a “10.” In fact, Oxycontin prescribed for kidney pain at the age of 15 was how I was first introduced to the numbing power of opiates.
If trauma was a major part of my story, so were substances—starting with alcohol. For as much as I told myself I would not become like my mother, I found alcohol’s spell intoxicating. The drinking began my junior year of high school at the prom. My friends and I were all sipping on Mr. Bostons with cranberry juice, and when everyone else passed out, I just remembered that oblivion and kept drinking more and more.
By the time I was in college, my drinking had escalated. It was also what I planned my weeks around after I got pregnant and dropped out of school to raise my son Liam while working full-time in my parents’ restaurant in McDonough. My stepmother would watch Liam one night each week, so that I could get away for some weekly “me” time. I religiously and obsessively would plan my week around that night out, which would always involve binge drinking with friends.
As a first substance of abuse, alcohol became the gateway to experimenting with other drugs, whether it was pot, cocaine or opiates. Opiates would become my addiction, however. Having taken them first as a prescription and then once recreationally at a party, I got hooked on their miraculous, euphoric abilities to numb my painful emotions.
So, despite my best efforts to avoid replicating my biological mother’s mistakes, I did so, anyway. And I did so in especially poignant circumstances: just hours before I bought my first stash of roxies, my stepmother had had a massive heart attack while caring for my son and had been rushed to the hospital. (She would later die in the hospital after spending weeks in a medically induced coma.)
When I had gotten the crushing news, I rushed to the hospital—but not without first taking that fateful detour. I knew the drug dealer could give me a pill to quell my overwhelming panic. That’s how I found myself in a random parking lot with a stranger who was selling me drugs. I remember not wanting to have to feel in those moments. I had also convinced myself that the drugs could allow me to be present to my family in a time of grief and fear. It was warped logic.
Over the next four to five years, my life would revolve around opiates—and then, in the later stages of addiction, opiates and meth. The worst part of those years was when Child Protective Services got involved.
I remember one day in particular when my dad came to visit, having been alerted by Child Protective Services that I could be a danger to my child on account of my using. My dad met me at a restaurant for lunch. When he first saw me, I could instantly tell based on the look in his eyes that he knew I was not okay. By this time, I was so skinny and emaciated, my body covered in scabs, I was far from okay. I also remember asking my dad for money. He had the pained expression of a parent who knows their child is far from well.
The hair follicle tests that Child Protective Services required me to take in order to have custody of my son are also among my most cringe-worthy memories of that time. I was so delusional at the height of my addiction that I would use meth immediately prior to one of these tests, thinking this way my drug use would not be found out. (I had a prescription for opiates at the time but was hiding my meth use.)
Things came to a head when I was arrested for a non-drug charge. I even spent some time in jail and shared a cell with a woman who was detoxing from crack. After my release, I decided to confront my addiction and begin the long journey to recovery, thanks to the encouragement of a case worker and therapist from Child Protective Services. (They had visited me shortly after my release from jail.)
My first challenge on the road to recovery was to find a safe place to detox. As it turned out, the only place available was my biological mother’s home. She was still drinking, so my first day of so-called detox from opiates and meth involved doing fireball shots with my mother (a daft and dangerous idea). I soon discovered that was a mistake and spent the remainder of withdrawal smoking weed, until I was well enough to travel to a rehab center in Florida for intensive residential treatment and therapy.
Now I live and work in Florida and am thankful for more than three years of sobriety, thanks to the grace of God. Today I live a life I never thought was possible. I can sit alone with myself. Whereas I used to hate who I was and could never look in the mirror, today I can look at myself with love and compassion.
This does not mean there aren’t days when I don’t struggle with insecurities or am not hard on myself, but I am learning that I am not alone. When you’re isolated because of a chronic illness, it’s easy to think you are all alone. But the more we as a society can openly talk about these issues, the more those who suffer can reach out and discover a community of support.
For me, other women in AA have provided that supportive community. As a member and sponsor in AA, I’ve been blessed by the reciprocity of relationships with other women who are at various points in their recovery. In the process of mentoring others, I grow and mature in my own journey of recovery. In this sense, 12-step recovery is a gift that keeps on giving.
There are other reasons why life is good now. I am able to be a mother who is present to her two kids and provide for them in a job I love. I am accountable, responsible, loyal and reliable, and I have a relationship with my family.
This past weekend I visited my brother and dad in McDonough. It’s freeing to be able to love them where they are and to be a sister, daughter and mother. One of the best things my brother said to me was, “I’m so proud of you for being such a great mother.”
And, if things couldn’t get stranger and more amazing, my mom is finally in rehab for alcoholism. Better yet, we’re friends and I’m one of her biggest supporters in recovery. It’s both funny and beautiful how life can come full circle.
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