Growing up, society taught me that I should not disclose that I am an alcoholic or an addict; that my addiction is something I should be ashamed of. I heard this message every time someone described someone’s behavior to be that of a “crackhead,” every time someone talked about what a “drunk” someone was or called someone a “junkie,” and every time politicians on TV talked about the War on Drugs and promised every addict would be locked away in prisons for life.
I believed in this stigma for most of my life. I thought, as many people still do, that alcoholics were homeless people, living under bridges with nothing but a bottle in a paper bag. That drug addicts were criminals who only knew how to lie, cheat and steal. That is until I became one myself…
It’s because of this stigma that I refused to acknowledge I was sick. I spent the next decade of my life trying to control something that was uncontrollable.
I always smile when someone tells me I don’t “look like an addict.” Not because I blame them for thinking this way, but because who they see in front of them today is certainly a far cry from the person I was in active addiction. When I was sick, I was unrecognizable.
The reality is, I look exactly as an addict does. We are your neighbor, doctor, teacher, co-worker, caretaker and child. Addiction knows no boundaries. If society wants to paint an honest picture of what an addict looks like today, maybe they could start with me.
Here is what I can tell you about my life. I grew up in a loving family, with successful parents and a happy childhood. I never wanted for anything. There wasn’t any abuse or trauma that I could blame my addiction on. There was no neglect, poverty, or addiction in my home. I have searched my life, with a fine-tooth comb, for some pivotal moment that changed everything, and all I can tell you is that the first time I used I knew I wanted more. And not just in the “Hey that was fun. I think I will do that again sometime” kind of way. But in the, “I want more. More! Give me MORE!” kind of way.
It’s important that I share this piece of my story with others; that I acknowledge the lack of chaos in my upbringing. Many times, society wants to blame the parents. My parents had absolutely nothing to do with my addiction, but I can tell you their unflinching love and support have had a tremendous impact on my recovery.
I was just a normal teenager, seeking acceptance from my peers and wanting to grow up too fast. Just a normal teenager experimenting with friends. That experimentation, though harmless at first, lead to full-blown addiction by my late 20’s. That little girl, with all her hopes and dreams, disappeared. I did some deplorable things in the name of my addiction. I abandoned my family, I was violent and spewed hateful words, and I often times put my addiction before my own daughter’s welfare. I lied, I manipulated, I self-harmed. And at the end of my active addiction, I was reported missing. Poof!
As sure as I am sitting here writing this, I can tell you that I didn’t grow up and suddenly announce I wanted to be a professional addict on Career Day. This was learned behavior by a person with the disease of addiction; a sick person, not a bad one. That does not in any way excuse my behavior, because believe me I have worked for years trying to forgive myself for the damage I caused, but it does explain why I lost control so quickly. Because, you see, I am not that woman anymore. There are times when it seems like a different life altogether.
For years, I tried to “figure out my addiction.” I tried to dissect my life to find some moment in time that turned everything upside down, that made me act the way I did. Something that made sense of the chaos I had created. Always telling myself I couldn’t possibly be an addict, until the day my disease almost left my daughter without a mother, and I couldn’t hide from it anymore.
When we are broken, we become willing change. And I was broken. Thankfully, I had recovering women in my life who had been waiting for me to wake up. They took me under their wings, they held me up when I couldn’t stand on my own and they taught me how to live. They taught me how to take care of myself, how to be honest and what it means to have integrity. These women have never left my side yet, and I am forever grateful to them.
One of the most important things they taught me was to carry the message to the still suffering addict, and I have been doing my best to honor this commitment throughout my journey. I take my story into women’s prisons, treatment centers and into my community.
Addiction is a shame based disease. I choose to recover out loud because I firmly believe that no addict should ever have to suffer in silence, that no addict should ever have to die from this disease and that there is nothing that compares to the magic that happens when one addict helps another addict find a new way of life.
My name is Vanessa, and I am a woman in long-term recovery. What that means is that I have not had a drink or prescription drug since October 16th, 2014, and I pray that I never forget the despair I felt at the end of my active addiction.
Every morning, before my feet hit the floor, I make a commitment to myself to stay sober for another 24 hours, and with that one simple task, a beautiful life was created.
We do recover.