Our country is experiencing a drug epidemic. 100 people die a day from drug overdoses. Heroin is taking out entire cities. People are becoming hopelessly addicted to painkillers. Meth labs are everywhere.
But all is not lost. There is hope. There is healing. In honor of both National Recovery Month and National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we are sharing with you a story of one of our friends, a regional coordinator for the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, Amy.
Amy’s story is one of pain and destruction, but also hope and inspiration. This may mirror your life. This may mirror the life of your loved one. We want you to know that addiction can be treated and a fulfilling life can be had. Amy is proof. Read on.
What is your background? When did you begin drinking or using drugs?
I was born and raised in the Chicago area, along with my twin brother who is absolutely the opposite of me. From a young age, I started having panic attacks. I was in and out of the doctors’ offices, and eventually diagnosed with depression and panic disorder.
I experienced quite a bit of childhood trauma growing up. My parents divorced when I was about 12 or 13 years old, and that’s around the time I started drinking. It was also around that time, I started having suicidal thoughts.
I was a total perfectionist. I had to have great grades, excel in sports, and compete in art competitions. I had to be the best at everything I did. In some ways, it competing kept me from drinking and using too much early on – and sports were actually a good outlet for my anger.
By the time I was 16, I was experiencing constant panic attacks and was unable breathe and unable to cope. I was drinking, but hadn’t started using drugs yet. I was kicked out of my mom’s house, and instead of going to live with my dad, I moved in with drug dealers. I spent my time raising other people’s kids and trying to get people sober – which was pretty ironic considering I certainly wasn’t.
What happened after that?
When I was 18, doctors discovered that I had a double aorta, and it was wrapped around my trachea and esophagus, which is why I always had a hard time breathing. So, at 18 years old, I underwent open heart surgery and moved back in with family to take care of me. I was so excited to have the surgery because I thought it was really going to help me – so I could breathe normally, be better at sports, and have less anxiety.
What no one had told me was that surgery can significantly worsen depression. I couldn’t do the things I normally did to cope with it – like sports or driving. By the time I left the hospital, I was severely addicted to morphine. Everything went quickly downhill after my open-heart surgery, and I turned to pain medication.
When did you discover you were addicted?
After my senior year of high school, I moved to New Orleans for college. By the end of my first year, I was homeless. It never once crossed my mind that I had a drug addiction. I was using benzos and pain medication – and the drinking culture of New Orleans added to it. I was homeless for four months.
During that time, I experienced more trauma. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Things got really bad, I was down to about 80 pounds, and I crossed just about every line I had ever established in my life.
Loyola University in New Orleans offered free counseling at the time. Each time I went, the counselors would ask me, “Do you think you have a drinking or drug problem?” I didn’t think I did; I thought I had a life problem. Once a counselor would suggest getting off of drugs, I would request a different counselor. I probably saw three or four counselors during that time.
Finally, a friend referred me to a therapist who told me, “I can’t work on these things until you get sober. I think you need to go to a meeting.”
What happened after that?
My friend called a man who he knew that worked in outpatient treatment. That man, his wife and his family came to meet me on a 12-step call, and I went to a meeting with them. Immediately afterwards, I went out drinking – but the next day, Mardi Gras when I was 21 years old – I got a sponsor.
What inspired your willingness to accept help?
Before I went to to that meeting, for the first time in my life – I actually wanted to live. While I was there, I saw people who were truly happy. The family that took me to that meeting – they saved my life. I felt a sense of community I had never experienced.
How long have you been in recovery and what has changed since that day?
I have now been sober three and a half years. I was still in college when I got sober. I graduated college, got a job, and have experienced a lot of success.
I am now the regional coordinator for the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network and serve all 21 counties in West Tennessee, and in two weeks I will be transferring to become the East Tennessee Regional Coordinator. I bring public education to topics like suicide, substance abuse and mental illness. I’ll also be attending grad school next fall.
I used to refrain from disclosing my personal life and history, until I heard Patrick Kennedy speaking about long term recovery. I realized I couldn’t do what I was doing for a living without expressing myself and my story.
Part of my self-care today involves having people around me who are aware of my past and what I’m doing. When I speak with groups, I start up conversations about mental illness, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Some people are surprised by it, but it’s worth the risk of losing respect of potential employers or the general public.
I want people to know that not every addict looks the same; not every alcoholic looks the same; not everyone with a mental illness looks the same; and not everyone who is suicidal looks the same.
What have you experienced in recovery?
Being in recovery, I’ve experienced things I never even imagined for myself. Before recovery, I never had a relationship with a high power – I never saw my purpose. It’s incredible to be able to sit in a room with people and not even have to say anything – and to be understood.
When I was really young, I would say I wanted to become the president so I could help people. Before, I never had a way to help anyone. But now, in recovery, I have a way to be able to help people; to share and to share in the process of recovery.
What would you tell someone who finds him or herself on a similar path to what you were on when you were using?
I believe in a tough love concept. The first step is to want it. To really want it. I wish that wasn’t always the case, but it is.
The people who saved my life were nonjudgemental no matter what. When I come across people with a similar struggle to what I experienced, I try to let them know that I was there – I share my story, and let them know that there is help. I try to use my behaviors and the way I live my life today to show them that it’s possible.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself in recovery?
In recovery, I’ve learned that I’m way more resilient than I ever thought possible. I learned that I can be true to who I really am. I knew nothing about myself before recovery – but now I know who I am and who I want to be.
What keeps you sober each day?
There are a few things. But first, my higher power. In addition, I know that I have so much potential, and I want to keep that forward movement. I have no idea what is ahead of me in life, but I want to continue to live in this world of opportunities. It’s so exciting to me.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
My biggest problem in early recovery was feeling like I was different than anybody else. When I realized I wasn’t different, I realized I wasn’t alone. It’s so important to be true to yourself – which is hard to do when you don’t know who you are. But recovery will help you discover that.
It’s so important to have good sponsorship, and a willingness to keep walking – no matter how small the step – keep moving forward. It’s all about daily action.
If you or a loved one are struggle with suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-TALK (1-800-8255)