I Earned My Redemption After 6 Rehabs. I’m Living an Honest Life in Recovery.

I pulled my car over to the side of the road off of Cicero Avenue right before the on ramp to highway 270 in Chicago. The West side of Chicago and this stretch of Highway was one of the first roads in America to earn the name Heroin Highway and rightly so, since before my time it has been an open air drug market for heroin. My first trip down this road was in my senior year of high school in 1994. It was now 2008 and here I was again in fact I never really left. This trip though would change my life and set me on a course I never fathomed possible.

I Earned My Redemption After 6 Rehabs. I'm Living an Honest Life in Recovery. - #VoicesProject

I made a quick phone call to my estranged fiancé at the time and before I could even get my dope out to use I was being dragged out of the car. At first I thought I was about to be murdered but I quickly realized that the two men were undercover narcotics officers. As I was thrown down to the ground face first I knew it was just a matter of seconds before the cuffs would come on. What I am describing here is nothing shocking for anyone that has struggled with substance use disorder. However, what they found in my pocket turned this into something a little different. They threw the heroin they found on the ground in front of me and then they threw my badge from my other pocket on the ground next to the dope. At the time of this arrest, I was a prosecuting attorney in Cook County, IL. There I was staring at the reality and lie of my life. My addiction was my reality and that badge was the lie I was living.

The news of my arrest and addiction broke quick. My arrest and mug shot was on every news station and paper. There was an even a gathering of live reporters at the courthouse located at 26th and California for my bond hearing. There is more to this arrest though that drove a pillar of shame right through my soul. My father who had passed away from leukemia in 2005 was extremely well known in the Chicago area as a pioneer in the addiction treatment world. He overcame his own struggles long before I was born and spent his life as a counselor and executive at Gateway foundation. So, there I was, my father’s son on every news outlet. That arrest brought shame on his name, my family, and it also was the first thing to pop up on an internet search of my full name or just my last name. I was sure that was how I would be remembered in this life. There is more than the arrest though that drove the shame and self-hatred because my father spent his life helping others that struggled with substance use disorder and every dime he left me, I shot in my arm. My mother also passed from cancer shortly after my father, so thoughts of suicide raged through me for years because I never thought I could make this up to my parent’s memory. I was very wrong about that.

I wish I could be writing about how that experience was the end of my addiction, but it was not. I also will not make this an account of my addiction because that is not important. All that matters is that I continued down the proverbial rabbit hole for years more making sure to destroy every relationship I had and hurting everyone that loved me. It was not until late May of 2011 that I woke up one day and hated my reflection in the mirror. There was nothing special about that day that I can recall except I finally accepted that I could not live this life anymore so I picked up the phone and went to one of the Gateway locations my father helped build. I entered my sixth and last treatment center on June 8th 2011.

I was still dope sick when I left treatment the first week of July but there was no time for that. I had too many things plaguing my mind. Redemption of my father’s work, my family’s name, and I had developed a case of survivor’s guilt. You see I had no insurance when I made that call to Gateway. The only reason I got a treatment bed as quick as I did was because of who my dad was. There is no doubt in my mind that if I did not get into treatment as quickly as I did I would have been dead within a few weeks. This fact did not sit right with me since millions of others out there deserve the same chance at recovery that I got. So right out of treatment I got a job waiting tables six nights a week and every spare minute I had was spent hitting the books. I starting studying everything I could get my hands on about addiction. I became obsessed and at times my apartment looked like some FBI investigation but it was all about addiction; from medical theories, treatment, history, drug policy, etc. I needed to find a way to change the way things were and to provide access to treatment for anyone that needed it. In retrospect, this was a brazen idea to say the least but I was very new to this world and I was driven to do something.

I found my first connection outside of recovery rooms with a Facebook support group. Back in 2011 there were only a handful of groups out there unlike the endless ones we have today. It is sad to see what happened with the support you used to get on social media. These days the groups out there seem to be filled with narrow minded and egotistical characters that to me appear to be looking for fame or fortune instead of just being there to help someone lost and searching for help in the social media abyss. I will say this though, there are some good groups still out there but with everything else please be careful.

In March of 2008 I caught the attention of a researchers and drug policy reform advocate in Chicago named, Kathie Kane Willis. I had been on the news a few times early about nothing to significant, just some awareness rallies about all the deaths we were seeing. I was with no real direction until Kathie took me under her wing. I knew what I wanted to accomplish but had no real strategic plan. That quickly changed with the help of Kathie and a few others as did my attitude about recovery. That is because I found recovery through abstinence and was ignorant about medication assisted treatment. That attitude of mine changed and I embrace all forms of recovery today and work diligently to change the stigma about the use of medication, which is invaluable.

I Earned My Redemption After 6 Rehabs. I'm Living an Honest Life in Recovery. - #VoicesProject

The work took off quickly after this. Myself and my best friend Robert Riley II formed our first not for profit and our work quickly took form. We wanted to fix more than just the lack of access to treatment but everything that has been done wrong in this country regarding handling substance use disorder. So, the mission went from brazen to outright rebellion and so we created the Rebel Recovery philosophy and movement. The Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery is the first child of the Rebel Recovery movement.  We shifted focus to a harm reduction model with heavy emphasis on drug policy reform at the state and federal level. In the span of 5 years we helped draft, get sponsored, and lobbied for various legislation. To date we have helped pass laws that allow first responders to carry Narcan, over the counter and lay person distribution of Narcan, a 911 good Samaritan law offering immunity for anyone that calls for help during an overdose, and a bill that prevents treatment courts, veteran’s courts, and family courts from denying people the use of suboxone and methadone. My original mission was not accomplished like I intended, but we have developed programs for the uninsured so it is not as hopeless as it was when I started. We also opened outreach center to implement harm reduction strategies and principles in our community with free Narcan distribution and a syringe access program. Our center also is one of the first reduced fee legal services center for individuals struggling with substance use disorder and a drop-in center for families or anyone that needs help.

All this work we became involved in got me on the news quite a bit. I have been very fortunate to be part of an Emmy winning story on NBC nightly news with Brian Williams about our Narcan distribution program, I have been on CNN and MSNBC as an expert commentator, and the television show Drug Wars on Fusion dedicated a few episodes to following me around the country helping individuals. My arrest in 2008 was no longer what came up when you googled me or my families name it had now been buried by all the articles and stories about the work we do. I thought when I started this work that accomplishing all this would be my redemption to my family, it was not though. I won’t lie, I sleep easier at night and it is amazing that I took the complete destruction of my life and turned into work that will save countless lives after I am gone. However, it did not give the peace of mind that I thought it would and I did not get that until November 16th, 2015.

I met the love of my life, Brittany in 2012 and in 2015th she gave birth to our first child Jayce Anthony Sabora. That day changed my life and everything I had done even the bad brought me to that point to be his father. I am sure that if my parents could see me now and all the work I have accomplished they would be very proud of me. However, now that I am a father I know exactly what my mom and dad would have wanted for me and that is just being a good man, a good husband, and raising my son with the loved I was raised with. That is how I finally earned my redemption to my parents and how I keep their love and memories alive.

I Earned My Redemption After 6 Rehabs. I'm Living an Honest Life in Recovery. - #VoicesProject

I’m in Recovery From Opioids. Today, I Find Power in Telling My Story.

I am Amanda.

I am 29 years old.

I work full-time as an Employment Counselor to adults and adolescents.

I have an awesome family and friends, an amazing boyfriend, and an adorable English Bulldog.

Between the ages of 15-20, I had a severe opioid use disorder.

September 2017 will mark 10 years of sustained remission from an opioid use disorder.

My story is so similar to many already told. I was legally prescribed opioid medication for a medical condition. At 20 years old, I sought treatment. I would be lying if I said the last 10 years were trouble free. Many years were spent alone and isolated from the world, I feared the stigma society has on those with substance use disorders.

Two years ago, I became involved with the county prosecutor’s office opiate initiative. I was tired of being ashamed and afraid. I began to tell my story to students, at public forums and anyone who would listen.

I don’t consider myself an inspiration or a hero.

I see myself as someone given a second chance at life who has the ability to tell my story with the hope of helping to educate one person. I want people to realize this disease does not have to define them.

They can overcome this and be the person they were always meant to be. Xo

I Am Not a Victim of My Past Anymore. Today, I Am the Hero of My Future.

I struggled with a severe poly-substance use disorder for over ten years. In my years trying to get clean, I was taught that I wouldn’t find sobriety unless I went to 12 Step Groups, got on medication assistance, and went to rehab. Those were the solutions I was given from professionals, from my family, and from the sober community. Those solutions though didn’t work for me, which led to more failed attempts at trying to get clean.  The constant failed attempts I had at trying to get clean only led to a deeper, more destructive addiction. The day finally came where I lost everything; my immediate family, my friends, my daughter, my partner, my home. I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do anymore, because at that point, everyone lost hope and gave up.

Losing everything was the best thing that ever happened to me. There was no more pressure to get clean, no one telling me what I had to do, and how I had to do it, because like I said, everyone had given up. The only thing I had left to deal with was me and that’s when the breakthrough happened. What did I want? What was I doing? Most importantly, was I going to keep living the way I was for the past ten years, or was I finally going to be the person I knew I was capable of? I choose the latter.

On July 20th 2015 I went to detox. I was done using and I knew it. From detox, I went into a 6-9 month mother and children’s program with the hopes that my partner would allow my daughter to come with me. I made a few goals for myself while in rehab; 1) I was staying the full 9 months, 2) I was going to go back to school to finish my Bachelors, and 3) I was going to stay sober no matter what.

In the first 9 months, I was arrested at a job I got for a past warrant, and I was served custody papers from my parents and boyfriend, and found out my boyfriend was talking to another woman for some time, but I stayed clean. I knew as long as I stayed clean it would all be okay and it was. I didn’t lose my job, I took care of my legal issues, I didn’t lose custody of my daughter, and my boyfriend and I worked out our issues and became a family again. I went back to school January 17th 2016 like I said I would. I completed rehab April 8th, 2016 in my 9th month like I said I was going to. My boyfriend and I got an apartment and started new.

I Am Not a Victim of My Past Anymore. Today, I Am the Hero of My Future. - #VoicesProject

Once in our apartment, I found the art of Mosaics. This is was my therapy. Putting together the broken pieces to create a beautiful end result. What a metaphor for recovery! I also decided to go to Connecticut’s Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) Recovery Coach Academy, Ethics, and Spirituality training. I started volunteering at CCAR’s Recovery Center as a Recovery Coach. I volunteer with Facing Addiction as an Ambassador of Recovery. I will be done with my Bachelor of Science degree in Social and Behavioral Psychology in Spring 2018, and I am looking at Grad Schools.

I got a job as a Per Diem Case Aide at a men’s co-occurring facility. I am a mother today to my daughter and step daughter. I pay my bills, and paid my past debts off. I am a girlfriend, a friend, a sister, an artist. Today, I am an awesome, independent, recovered woman.

Today, I am almost 2 years clean. A feat no one thought I would ever accomplish. I found my recovery by having humility, motivation for change, putting in a sustained effort, and finding meaning and purpose in my life. I allow myself to be a hero to myself. I forgive myself. I tell myself I am awesome every day. I believe in myself. I found out what my purpose in life is and I am going for it.

I’m not perfect, and I still have a lot to do, but today I am taking the steps and putting in the work. I put myself on the front lines of this amazing recovery movement, because that is my purpose. Addiction leads us to isolation, but recovery brings us back to the community.

Treatment, Prison, Advocacy: My Journey To Long-Term Recovery From Addiction

My name is Randy Anderson and I’m a person in long term recovery. What that means to me is I haven’t had to use drugs or alcohol or any mind or mood altering substance since January 9, 2005. Because of my recovery I’m able to be a husband, a son, an uncle, a brother. I’m able to own a home, vote, have a job that I love, go to school, and even pay taxes. Today I’m able to live life on life’s terms and to be present every day in my own life.

My “rock bottom” occurred in 2004 when my home was raided by a DEA drug task force and I was arrested for selling drugs to support a drug habit that had become so enormous and all-consuming, selling drugs was the only option I felt I had left. After spending a short time in jail I was offered a lifesaving procedure for my disease and that procedure was affordable, effective treatment for my substance use disorder.

After taking nearly 10 months to complete a 60-day treatment program and finding a life of recovery, I had to face the consequences for my criminal activity. Nothing could prepare me for what would happen next. On July 6, 2005, I would be sentenced to 87 months in federal prison. As a first-time non-violent drug offender who was now on the path of recovery, I never imagined such a lengthy prison term would be given to me, even though my very expensive private attorney continually warned me that I was looking at a multiple year sentence. Even if I had not yet found recovery, more time in treatment is what I would have needed, not prison. I can’t believe our country incarcerates someone for so long with no consideration for the positive changes made in one’s life. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why me? I didn’t burglarize anyone, I didn’t assault or kill anyone, I didn’t steal from any person or businesses to support my habit and I was even paying my taxes.” On August 17, 2005, the worst day of my life, two of my dear friends drove me to Waseca, Minnesota so I could self-surrendered to federal prison and begin serving my prison term.

I did serve out my time and was eventually released in 2009. I maintained my recovery throughout my incarceration because I truly believed my life would be better without the use of any mind or mood altering substances. Upon release, like many that get out of prison, I was required to be supervised, for me that was to be a period of 48 months. Because I decided long ago to do whatever it takes to get my life back, I did absolutely everything that was required of me and because of that I was released after only 20 months of supervision.

Treatment, Prison, Advocacy: My Journey To Long-Term Recovery From Addiction - by Randy Anderson, #VoicesProject

By this time, I was working full-time as a home improvement sales person. I did that for a few years and then, after becoming unemployed, I decided maybe it was time for a career change. With great trepidation and the GED I earned in federal prison, I enrolled in college at 43 years old, with the encouragement and support of my brilliant wife. I often refer to my first day of college as the second scariest day of my life, with the first being self-surrendering to federal prison. I enrolled in college to become an addiction counselor; something that was a dream of mine since receiving the gift of recovery.

Through the journey of college and becoming an addiction counselor, I found so many causes that I felt compelled to become involved with. One that I’m most proud of is becoming a Steering Committee member for the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition. As a member of that coalition, I had several opportunities to testify in front of a variety of Minnesota legislators and legislative committees to change the drug sentencing guidelines in the state of Minnesota. I truly believe that what had happened to me should never happen to someone else. And partly because of my testimony, Minnesota did in fact change the drug sentencing guidelines and approximately 700 individuals in Minnesota will not go to prison each year.  There are many more details to the drug sentencing reform that I could probably write two more pages, those changes took effect August 1st 2016. Another major achievement that I’m extremely proud of was being ask to sit on the board of directors for the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation (SRHF). Working with SRHF has provided me countless opportunities to tell my story of recovery. I’m also responsible for training and educated individuals, including law enforcement and non-EMS first responders, about the life saving opioid reversal medication Naloxone. I’m also a volunteer for serval organizations including Minnesota Recovery Connection (MRC), Fed Up Coalition, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and the Minnesota Association of Resources for Recovery and Chemical Health (MARRCH). I did complete college and receive my Associates of Science degree in Addiction counseling and now work as a full-time alcohol and drug counselor at the very same facility where I found recovery nearly 12 years ago.

I never imagined the life I live today would ever be possible. I often ask myself when will I wake up from this dream? Well, the fact is this is no dream – it’s the life that I live and it’s only possible because of my recovery.

I saw the movie “The Equalizer” with Denzel Washington, not too shabby I might add, at the beginning of that movie it displayed a quote which I connected with and will forever hold close to my heart.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” -Mark Twain.

Now I know why…

My Generation’s Civil Rights Movement: Advocating For People With Addiction

I had a privileged upbringing and was blessed to have access to plentiful resources and opportunities as a child and young adult. I have always been an overachiever—achievement and validation were my first addictions, and my entire sense of self was built on my accomplishments. Although addiction runs in my family, I drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes and pot all through high school and college—with long stretches of binge drinking mixed in—but it never got out of control. I was always able to “get away with it.”  I was quite proud of the fact that I had never taken hard drugs, and looked down on those who did.

After earning far too much money in my late 20s, I moved to Europe and finally started to explore my sexuality. I started to spend a lot of time in London’s very seductive gay nightclub scene, and my binge drinking got out of control. Instead of cutting down on the drinking, I decided to add stimulants and party drugs into the mix, since they helped to make the party last longer. I very naively thought that “partying” was part of what it meant to be gay, and started to adjust my lifestyle to accommodate going out all the time.

I quit a stable job so that I could work as a consultant with flexible hours, and my “partying” skyrocketed. I went from being a career-minded overachiever to a dilettante and party boy. My finances started to suffer, which finally woke me up to the bad choices I was making and the impact of the drinking and drug use. I pulled myself together and got another job that moved me to Mexico City—far away from London, which I thought was the problem—but despite my best intentions to curtail my drinking and drug use, I quickly found the party crowd and picked up where I had left off in London.

After four years drinking and drugging in Mexico, I recognized that I was out of control and needed to change my lifestyle. I moved back to California, quit partying and started a daily yoga practice. I found a job that I loved and reconnected with old family and friends. I was convinced that I was not an addict because I had succeeded in white knuckling my way through a few years without drugs. That erroneous assumption allowed me to think I could put them down again when I was asked if I “partied.” Enter crystal meth.

Over the next eighteen months, my life became very small and very dark—lots of secrets, lies, broken promises and self-destructive behavior. At the end—after I had spent all of my money, lost my job, become HIV-positive, worried my family sick, alienated my dog, and become a multiple-times-a-day IV drug user—I still thought I was having “fun.”  Or rather, I preferred that very small, predictable life to the seemingly impossible task of getting sober and pulling my life back together. I had no hope of finding a solution, I was too ashamed to ask for help, and was basically in passive suicide mode.

Thank God my family intervened and offered to send me to treatment—I was such a mess that I missed flights to go to rehab for three days in a row. Ultimately, it was my drug dealer who put me on the plane to Los Angeles.

I spent 54 days at an inpatient rehab in Malibu, where they had a program focused on “stimulant abuse and intimacy disorders.”  I will forever be grateful to that facility—and to my family—for finding a way to quickly get through to me and introduce me to recovery. Over three years have passed since I last used, and although I feel stable sustaining my recovery these days, it took a lot of work to get here.

It wasn’t an easy road. I relapsed twice during my first year, which proved to me that I am indeed an addict. I knew how high the stakes were. After rehab, I spent over six months in sober living and attended outpatient programs. I saw a therapist for over a year and became active in my local peer support community. I began to expand my spiritual life. I had to completely re-learn self-care: sleep, exercise, and nutrition. I re-established strong ties with my family and became part of a “sober posse.” I also took my career into recovery and co-founded a start-up technology company that develops apps for the recovery community. In my free time, I ride with a sober team for the AIDS/Lifecycle Ride and I’ve gotten involved in the recovery advocacy movement.

I have found a passion for recovery advocacy and truly see it as a civil rights issue for our time. I studied government in college, but never found an issue that I was truly passionate about—my parents had the Civil Rights movement, my elder gays had the AIDS epidemic, and I was too far in my disease to participate in Gay Marriage. Advocating for the rights of addicts to receive treatment, increasing the availability of recovery support services, reducing incarceration levels, and eliminating stigma are all things I can wholeheartedly support. I am so grateful that I have found a way to take my experience as an addict and turn it into something useful.  There are so many more of us out there who need help, and I am excited to participate in making recovery more accessible and in reducing the stigma around substance use disorder.

In the end, active alcoholism and drug addiction sucked. That said, I love being an alcoholic/addict in recovery. I have found that it is possible to live a full, happy, authentic life as a sober man. I had to make a lot of changes in order to achieve sustained recovery. It was hard: I made them anyway. In the end, I had to decide that I wanted to save my life. Once I did, it was comforting to discover that there are people and resources out there that are ready and willing to help. And now I am one of them!

I Built A Life In Recovery One Rebellious Act At A Time

I still remember the first time I ever felt truly free. I was 16, going to the South Florida Fair in my friend Chris’ busted down broham. We were listening to OutKast’s Aquemini and he handed me a blunt. As I smoked, all the worry and concern I had experienced my entire life washed away.

When we stepped out of the car, I remember the lights and whirring sounds of the rides. They created a dreamscape of joy. For the first time in my life I was free. No feeling of constant dread, no concern for inevitable impending doom, no cause for alarm at what others must be thinking about the awkward teenager I had become. My anger and frustration of feeling isolated and alone had been wiped away by a hip-hop album and weed.

That’s the last vivid memory I can recall from back then. All the rest has slipped away into the void of my life. I spent the next 10 years chasing that feeling of joy and hope. Spoiler alert: I never found it.

As time moved on, I found that alcohol, cocaine, and pills provided a more effective escape from the reality I had come to despise. It provided a vehicle for me to contain the rage and hate I had begun to develop regarding not only the person I was, but the world around me. Most of my substance use was justified – in my mind – by my life experience. I was raised on outlaw country songs about cocaine, whiskey, broken hearts, and bloody knuckles. My father was an alcoholic and I had been in psychiatrists’ offices since I was seven. I believed I was just living up to what I was supposed to be.

By 21, I was homeless and stealing booze from the outside tables on the Ave. in downtown Lake Worth. By the end, I found myself drinking hot Steel Reserve behind a dumpster in L-Dub, scrambling to find pills however I had to. It was my last day drinking behind that Lake Worth dumpster. It would prove to be the catalyst for a life worth living. It would catapult me to commit the most shocking act of rebellion I would ever commit: recovery.

I had left my beautiful dumpster home for a halfway house with a leaky pool, a handful of street kids for residents, and a high affinity for a certain blue book and AA meetings. I hated AA and the people in its meetings even more, but as a condition of me not becoming a full-time parking lot camper again, I was forced to try the 12 Steps. I failed. A lot. These guys just kept taking me back in, though. My sponsor James had this strange love for me and just patiently held my hand through the process.

Within two months, I had completed my Steps and felt something I hadn’t felt since ah ha hush that fuss blared in my head. I felt joy. I found freedom, peace, love and hope. I was repairing relationships: the important ones too, not just with my one stripper ex-girlfriend. My life had meaning. I had found a purpose that became an obsession. I had to help as many kids like me as I could. It wasn’t just a requirement to remain free. I loved doing it. Every kid I saw whose fire for life was rekindled like mine made me relive my joy.

My purpose-turned-obsession led me to reconnect with an old mistress: rebellion. I began to work in the treatment industry, and came to find out that not everyone had an addict’s best interest in mind. I believed then (as I still do today) that addicts and substance users are my people. My job is to protect them wherever possible. It’s one of the only things in life I take seriously – that, Boy Meets World, and pro wrestling. I began to identify those I believed would harm my people, and I rebelled.

Through sheer volume of voice and perseverance, I began to develop a reputation in Palm Beach County. I made it very clear where I stood on those who would prey on my people. Eventually, I was asked to join the State Attorney Taskforce, which was intended to end patient brokering in Florida. I shed light on the worst business practices in my field. I went against the tradition of always being polite. I refused to give predators any respect or credence. Why should I? This was a life and death disease. Someone else’s greed could cost an addict his life.

I also joined a county heroin taskforce. This group had been created to find solutions to the epidemic plaguing my area. I had begun to develop some extreme ideas on how to help people using a by-any-means-necessary approach. I turned to some friends to start a nonprofit to help with this work, and Robert Riley, Chad Sabora, and I started Rebel Recovery. Aptly named.

We worked to fill needs in the community the government wouldn’t. Underground syringe exchange, Naloxone distribution, education, and legislative action. In South Florida, we were the first group to bring Naloxone into the private treatment industry. Rebel Recovery Florida began peer recovery support services program for overdose victims in hospitals, partnering with the sheriff’s office, fire and rescue, healthcare district, a major hospital, and public treatment providers. Rebel Recovery offers services to any individual with a substance abuse issue. In South Florida, active addicts are second class if they don’t want to get clean. I reject that idea. I’m willing to fight to be sure everyone who needs help has access to it.

Almost eight years later, I’ve stopped recognizing who I used to be. I rekindled a relationship that I had long believed lost with a woman named Allegra. Spoiler alert: she married me. (Sucker.) I began a relationship built on honesty, love, and devotion. She became fuel for my fire for life and provides me with a love I can’t honestly say I ever believed I deserved. She is my absolute heart.

I Built A Life In Recovery One Rebellious Act At A Time - by Justin Kunzelman, #VoicesProject

We went on to combine our magical love forces to produce a small human, who I’m convinced is a half wolf hybrid. I’m a daddy. Our son is named Kaleo Lawless. Everything I’ve ever done in life is small and inconsequential to the fact that I can show up for my son and wife. They never question where I’m at or if I’m coming home. They have yet to bail me out of jail, or pick me up from a baker act. I have never “lost” our rent money, or stolen precious moments of time from them. Now, instead of a hot can of malt liquor behind dumpster, my world is full of love. My world is my family.

I found my freedom. Through rebellion, love, passion, advocacy, and a little bit of stubbornness. I found the joy and purpose I had searched so long for. I am free: I am recovered. When your chance comes, do what I did. Rebel. With everything you have: rebel.

I Moved Forward

Nearly ten years ago, I stood in a doorway with nothing but a couple trash bags of clothes, a Jeep on a car title loan, and a decision to make. Behind me were fourteen years of obsession and insanity surrounding drugs and whatever I had to do to get them. Fourteen years of putting those things in front of my family, my daughter and myself. In front of me was an opportunity for help that I wasn’t sure I even wanted. It was a small office, with a large, loud man trying to talk to me when all I could think about was the withdrawal that I knew was coming. But I was at a point of absolute devastation and desperation. I had been evicted from my apartment and didn’t have my daughter. I had nowhere to go and no one left to help me if I didn’t take this offer. So I picked up the trash bags of clothes, and I moved forward.

My first experience with drugs was at twelve years old. I was a hippie chick who tried weed and loved the way it made me feel. I progressed to alcohol and LSD at thirteen. After five years of parties, concerts and experimenting with the way these substances made me feel, I discovered my favorite escape of them all: heroin. I was seventeen years old and had no idea that that feeling, that drug, and that lifestyle would completely consume and control my life for the next nine years.

The life I had started to go down hill pretty quickly. Nothing was important to me except using drugs. I was surrounded by darkness, and I believed that heroin was my light.  My family found out about my drug use when I overdosed. They tried everything they could think of to help me. I rotated through various medications, therapies, and 12-step meetings. Never really grasping on to anything. I thought I knew everything and that I had my life under control.

For nine more years, I was addicted to heroin and other opiates. During this whirlwind of using and being sick and looking for help and using again, I became pregnant with my daughter. I hoped that my pregnancy and caring for her would be the end of my struggle. I really thought God had given me a gift, a way out of the endless battle with heroin and opiates. However, even my daughter growing inside me could not keep me from using, the pull was too strong. She was born addicted to heroin, and I thought witnessing her go through that pain and discomfort would be the final straw. I told myself over and over, “This is it. I can’t do this anymore.”

However, my resolution to change didn’t last long, and I continued my cycle of using, treatment centers and pain. I could see my parents and family starting to give up after countless years of trying to “fix” me.  They were exhausted by my desperate phone calls, lies and manipulation. Considering the hell I put them through, especially my daughter, I didn’t blame them at all.  All I cared about was using and finding ways to get money to use.  No one could stand in my way of doing so.

In the end of my addiction career, I was evicted from my apartment, in a relationship that revolved around drugs, did not have my daughter, and was completely hopeless. My step-mom showed up at that apartment with one last offer to help me.  She had a friend, John Shinholser, who was the President and Co-Founder of The McShin Foundation in Richmond, VA.  I had no clue who he was or what McShin was all about.  I went to meet him and I thought, “What in the world, this dude is a trip.” He had the biggest personality and said exactly what I didn’t want to hear. I had never met anyone like him. I left after a day because I still wasn’t ready.  Heroin withdrawal was my enemy and I couldn’t even attempt to hear what recovery was without being out of withdrawal.

I returned the next day and found myself standing in that doorway, faced with the decision to return to the mental, physical and spiritual pain I knew, or to choose to have a different kind of life. I moved forward.

John helped me access a doctor so I could detox without the full symptoms of a heroin withdrawal, and I started my recovery journey that day, May 27th, 2007. McShin took me back in with practically nothing. No daughter, no money, no hope, no life worth living.

McShin is Virginia’s leading peer-to-peer Recovery Community Organization (RCO) that helps those with substance use disorders and their families.  John and his wife Carol McDaid opened McShin in 2004 when they got frustrated that an addict/alcoholic had to wait at least sixty days for a bed anywhere to get help.  Before meeting John, I had no clue what an RCO was and how it could save my life.

I moved into a recovery house where I lived with other women in a structured environment with an intense, daily focus on recovery. The house became my safe haven. Instead of the negativity and darkness I had grown accustomed to, I found myself in a place of hope and change. The women in the house were discovering the freedom that came from a life without drugs, and it radiated from each of them. That atmosphere changed my life. Seeing people just like me trying to stay drug free every day was so powerful, and I wanted to follow their example.

I lived in the women’s recovery house for five months, learning how to live day to day without drugs and about who I was underneath those years of use. My family could see the change in me. I wanted so badly to do anything it took to stay in recovery, so I did whatever was asked of me. Eventually, I took the huge step to get my daughter back. I moved out of the recovery house and in with my sister, where I was able to raise my daughter and begin rebuilding that relationship.

I stayed involved with McShin and became a peer leader to the women who entered the program. John saw something in me, took a chance, and trusted me enough to give me a job. The years of torment and agony I so badly wanted to forget were the exact experiences that qualified me for the job. I grew in my recovery, reaching out to women around me to ask for help and suggestions. I was making the right decisions, being a productive member of society, and developing a sense of spirituality for the first time in my life. I discovered that my lived experience I had in addiction along with my growth and determination in recovery is crucial to the McShin model of peer-to-peer recovery. From starting my job at McShin with five months in recovery to now almost ten years later, I have turned my lived experience into a rewarding career helping people.

As CEO of McShin, I am fortunate to work around new people in recovery on a daily basis. I can empathize with them and show them compassion. I can tell them that I’ve been in that exact same situation; so desperate for a change that you are willing to do anything it takes. So broken and tired that you don’t know if you’ll be able to make it through the next hour, let alone the whole day. I can show them that from that starting point, I’ve built a life that I am proud of. I have become a woman that others are proud to know. I share my experience with those new to recovery in an effort to instill in them to just hold on, don’t use no matter what, and to develop a real, honest love for themselves.

Honesty Liller on Face The Nation

I believe my career in the recovery field is truly a calling for me, and I use my passion for the work I do to help as many people as I can. Not only am I able to be an individual in recovery, bettering my own life each day, but also my journey and my career give me the opportunity to advocate for those who have no clue what recovery is, but desperately need it.

It is my personal mission to be a face, voice, and light of hope for recovery every day I am on this earth. Recovery has changed my life around completely, and that is a message I am passionate about sharing with others.  I am a mommy, wife, sister, daughter, friend, and homeowner who can look in the mirror and be genuinely happy with who she sees.  My daughter is now fifteen years old, and our relationship is something I never even dreamed would be possible. I am very fortunate to have an amazing husband who is also in recovery.  We have been together for eleven years now, met at rehab, used drugs together, and now share our life in recovery. Having a partner in this life that I can truly be blessed and happy with is priceless.  We have a seven-year-old son who has never had to see me use.

To have inner peace and acceptance of who I am gives me the most amazing sense of satisfaction and serenity. Along my recovery journey, I have discovered how to trust in my God, love others, love myself and be present in the moment. I lived for so long not appreciating my life, so today I am grateful for each and every moment. You are only promised one life, why not live it?

Coming into recovery is my biggest accomplishment in life. Nearly ten years ago, standing in that doorway of The McShin Foundation, holding trash bags full of clothes, I could have never imagined the life I have today. This amazing, beautiful, blessed life is possible because of recovery. It is possible because of my decision to move forward.

Instead Of Heroin I Picked Up My Phone

At the end, there were only two things I cared about: the bag of heroin on my glass topped coffee table, and the cell phone next to it. They were my two life lines. After a decade of abusing opiates, I couldn’t stop using heroin. I was psychologically, physically, and emotionally dependent on it. My phone, too, was an absolute necessity. It linked me to my network – which I’d started building since I worked in the White House as a young, ambitious staffer. On the last day of my drug use, I stared down at the table. To my left, the baggie. To my right, the phone.

At the time, I had no idea that one of those two things would save me from the other. Now, my phone – and, more specifically, its social media capabilities – are an intrinsic part of my new life in recovery. It’s been more than two years since I got the call on my cell, telling me there was a bed available at a public detox. I took that call, and the chance to get sober. While I was in rehab, I communicated with my family and friends. I started connecting with other people in recovery online, through Facebook and Twitter. Through social media and articles I read, I learned that addiction is a chronic brain illness. Online, people were speaking up about their experience, breaking the silence of addiction. I’d found my tribe – and it fit in my back pocket, or right in the palm of my hand.

My phone is how I found out my friends were dying of the health problem that I had. Early in my recovery, I lost four people who were very close to me, all within 3 months. One, Nick, was an aspiring actor. He was found in his room and had died hours earlier from a fatal overdose. Another friend, Greg, died just a few short weeks after. I will never forget getting those messages, or how I realized, days later, that my friends were only four out of hundreds of people who die every day from addiction related issues. It seemed that, everywhere I turned, someone had lost a son, a daughter, a friend, or a mother or father. Addiction, I realized, was lethal. And staying silent was our death sentence.

Ryan and Greg in April 2015. Greg died a few months after this picture was taken.

Ryan and Greg in April 2015. Greg died a few months after this picture was taken.

Sitting on my bed in the Pasadena sober living home where I’d finally landed, I looked down at the phone in my hand. Statistics swirled in my head. Addiction affects 1 in 3 people in the United States. Only 10% of people with addiction actually got treatment for their disease. The wait time for access to public facilities typically exceeds 30 days. I myself had frantically called multiple treatment centers, only to be told that beds weren’t available, and likely wouldn’t be for multiple weeks. Being placed on waiting lists, knowing that my window of willingness to keep fighting for help was waning by the hour, were some of the most terrifying moments in my entire life. I knew that untreated addiction was lethal. And yet, 23 million people in the United States live in long-term recovery. People made it – but how to make that attainable for more people?

On the evening of October 4, 2015, I opened my Facebook app. And there, in my hands, was the livestream video that changed my life forever: the UNITE to Face Addiction rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It sounds like a small thing, but watching that concert, which was attended by tens of thousands of people in recovery and included performances by sober artists that I grew up listening to on the radio, changed my perception of what was possible. That was my community – my people. And they were standing up for what they believed in. They weren’t hiding and they weren’t ashamed. That was the day that I stopped being a social media bystander and got involved. I’d found my purpose – and once again, it was right under my nose.

UNITE to Face Addiction

The day I realized what could be: October 4, 2015. UNITE to Face Addiction.

The idea that social media can create massive cultural change isn’t a new one. Because social media allows people to communicate freely and share information, it enables the creation of like-minded groups. If these groups are big enough, or driven enough, they have the potential to positively influence and shape cultural progress. Recent examples of this include the Green Revolution in Iran, Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and #BlackLivesMatter protests. And, of course, the new grassroots movement to end the stigma of addiction. Our community, once marginalized and shamed into silence, had found a way to make its voice heard – and it was loud. Feeling inspired, I logged on to Facebook messenger and found Tom Coderre, a recovery advocacy change-maker and friend of Facing Addiction, the movement whose work I admired. He immediately put me in touch with co-founders Greg Williams and Jim Hood– and I was on my way. I had no idea where I was going, or how I would get there, but I was going. I had a mission: to lift-up voices of people in recovery, and share the vital stories of our community.

Soon, I was on the road, heading to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. Hey, I’d done crazier things – now, I was doing them in recovery, and for a good cause. We coined the project Addiction Across America and partnered with Facing Addiction. We were driving 3,000 miles east to speak at the convention and advocate for addiction solutions. It was a 30-day road trip through the heartland of America – communities hit hardest by the addiction crisis. I had nothing but $20, my phone, and a $100 Google Stream notebook when I came up with the idea. But I also had a road map from the people who’d taken this journey of advocacy before me, and the stories kept coming. I published some of these stories in a digital web series. That was the beginning of what is now called the Voices Project.

It was also the beginning of my recovery advocacy. After the convention, and the 2016 election, I realized the tremendous influence that social media could have on how people talked, thought, acted, and even voted. I saw a way for us to transform the recovery movement into a campaign – one so big that it couldn’t be ignored or silenced. So I started a Facebook page, then added Twitter and Instagram. Up front, I decided these accounts would never be about me. The point was always to raise up the voices of others. The pages began to grow. People from all over the world found me. 5,000 followers turned into 50,000. Now, that number is over 200,000 people, combined across all three platforms. But it’s never been about the numbers. Each one of those “followers” has a face, a heartbeat. They are real to me. They’re people. They’re a mom in Connecticut who lost her child; an incarcerated recovering heroin addict in Richmond who’s a peer leader in his cell, helping others find recovery; a brave young man in Los Angeles who would come out as a person in recovery and tell his inspiring story for the first time.

Before the Voices Project, I never thought of myself as a storyteller. But I guess it’s who I am – and today, I’m okay with that. I’m a storyteller with a purpose. I didn’t set out to become an advocate. I had no idea that my recovery would take me in this direction, but like so many others across this country, once I became aware of this crisis, I couldn’t ignore what I saw. The injustice, prejudice, and epidemic loss of life have me mad as hell. Every day, more lives are lost; another unfair, discriminatory policy is written. So much depends on telling our stories. I can’t stop. I won’t. And while I don’t often know what to say, I do know what to do today.

And that’s where you come in. The Voices Project proves that together we can help end the addiction crisis. We can do the work that we could never accomplish alone. Together, we’ll end the silence and show this country that we are one of the largest constituencies ever to exist. We can inspire change, save lives, heal our communities, and build a digital movement like nobody’s ever seen before. This is the #VoicesProject.

Our time is now. Let’s go make some history.


Headline photo courtesy of Chris Hazel

Alcohol Almost Cost Me My Life. Today I’m Advocating For Life-Saving Treatment.

I nearly died from alcohol poisoning when I was seventeen. It was the bottom-shelf, plastic-bottle vodka from a liquor store in Portsmouth, the kind we see discarded in alleys and not recycling bins. I was hospitalized and intubated. The nurses accidentally ruptured and paralyzed my vocal cord, leaving me whispering for the next nine years.

Over those nine years I endured periodic arrests, near-misses with death, progressive drug addiction, and graduation to daily injection and suicidal thoughts. Help came later than some would have appreciated. I’m grateful to have survived as a result of the treatment I finally received five years ago. Many died on waiting lists in 2012 without linkage to services while waiting for treatment, in lieu of treatment, or after treatment. Vital supports are emerging today, but too late for 478 New Hampshire residents who died in 2016.

All told, my recovery has cost the state under $3,000. Between court costs, damage to public property, medical costs, and lost productivity, my unchecked addiction cost New Hampshire approximately $190,000.

Since working in the addiction field and advocacy arena it’s become obvious to me that most of the shame and harm that I and my family endured was preventable. Today I walk a shaky line between gratitude and rage. I live, but others are not so fortunate. I’ve found my people – survivors and our many allies – and as we find each other we toil together over a common cause of improving conditions for vulnerable Granite Staters. We also find our voices and bring our passion to the voting booths.

Five percent of gross profits from state-controlled alcohol sales is not the cure for our current troubles. Those dedicated funds are managed well, if cautiously, to grow impactful solutions to addiction throughout the state. But five percent is a dark line that advocates drew in 2000. We’re not moving that line in the age of fentanyl, at the dawn of a methamphetamine surge, and certainly not at the height of alcohol sales and problem drinking in New Hampshire.

I will be at the New Hampshire State House on Thursday, April 6th to demand a fully funded Alcohol Fund in the state budget. Because over my dead body would I be caught telling the families of 478 people that we ought to settle for anything less.