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Life After Addiction….{Colstrip Photographer}

Life After Addiction:

Wow…this is harder to write than I thought…

I have reach a milestone. Maybe the most important milestone of my life.  I have been sober for one year.  I can hardly believe I am writing this.  Most days, I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to do this. I have cried more tears than I ever thought myself capable, suffered more pain than I thought imaginable, but here I am….one year.

I think I have finally reached a point in my recovery where I want to talk about this…not for my sake, but for the sake of others like me. Unless you have suffered from addiction, you will never understand what it is truly like to be where I am.  And that is okay.  I don’t need people to understand me or my pain. I don’t want sympathy or pity. I don’t care if people judge me, talk about me behind my back, say hurtful things.  It is truly irrelevant.  But here’s the thing, you most likely know an addict, whether it is drugs or alcohol.  Maybe a grandparent, a parent, a child, a cousin, a friend…. One in ten Americans suffer from addiction.  And of that percentage, more than 40% of addicts suffer from mental disorders.  Most commonly diagnosed are depression, anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.  My hope is simply this …. maybe by sharing my pain and experience, it will help someone like me.  Someone so lost and alone that death often feels like the better option.  Someone that needs hope and help.  So…. here goes nothing.  This is my story, not nice or pretty, but mine.

Something about myself, I suffer from depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. These behaviors began to shape my life at a very early age.  I remember being plagued with thoughts of worthlessness and hopelessness. That voice was always echoing in my head.  I remember hurting myself to relieve pain. I used to cut my skin.  I still wear the scars both inside, and out.  I never thought I was good enough, pretty enough, or smart enough.  I often wished I were dead.  I made multiple attempts at making those thoughts a reality, but luckily, never succeeded.  Back then, people thought of these behaviors as a need for attention, not a mental disorder.  These types of issues were most often ignored… as if they didn’t exist.

I started drinking when I was 15 years old. I remember the first time like it was yesterday.  I still remember the feeling of relief that alcohol provided, the feeling of numbness.  It quieted my very overactive brain.   And what a bonus!  It was “cool” to drink.  I finally found a way to fit in.  People seemed to like me more when I was drinking.  All of us sudden, I was invited to do things, be a part of the group.  Thus, begins my long, winding path of addiction.

The unfortunate part of my story is that my family experienced a fair amount of tragedy during these years. My brother died at 18 in an alcohol related car accident, which had horrible effects on my family. I think anyone that has been through something like this understands the aftermath. Bluntly, it is a whirlwind of pain, with everyone doing what they can to get through.  Then my father was diagnosed with cancer a few years later.  He lost his battle when I was 16 years old.  We watched him melt away to nothing during that year.  Again, anyone who has experienced this knows how devastating it is.  These items added to the existing depression and anxiety I already had.  I lived in a world of darkness inside my head, one I hid from everyone else.  I often wonder what would have happened had someone actually treated my mental issues early on.  Could I have saved myself at an early age?  Could someone else have saved me?  I guess I will never know.

This was a turning point for me. I had not learned any important coping skills for dealing with pain.  All I knew how to do was hide it, cover it, drink it away.  I went on a downward spiral of drinking.  I probably drank 4-5 days a week…. hid it in my locker at school, kept it in places I knew my mom wouldn’t find it.  And let’s face it, she was in her own pain and didn’t notice anyway. And I guess I never believed there was anything wrong with this behavior.  Everyone drinks, right?

I had good grades in school. School was never very hard for me. I put in the bare minimum and still graduated with a high GPA.  I received a scholarship at Montana Tech, which I completely wasted my first semester.  All I wanted to do was escape…. drink, party, do drugs.  I failed that first semester of collage and dropped out.  While in the midst of all this partying, I found out I was pregnant with my oldest daughter.  God steps in with my first miracle…. Alex.

The one thing my family had taught me growing up was the value of human life. This is a very personal choice, and I am not here to argue it either way.  The point is that I am pro-life.  There was never a moment that I considered abortion, even though I was only 18 and my life was in shambles.  Even if I couldn’t figure out how to do the right thing for myself, I was somehow going to do it for her.  I quit drinking and smoking once I found out I was pregnant.

I wasn’t going to receive the “mother of the year” award, but I took good care of her. She gave me a second chance at life.  I went back to school, worked three jobs, and kept my partying to a minimum.  During this time, I made new friends…probably the best friends anyone could ask for.  They not only accepted me, but accepted Alex, too.  They were our second family.  Hillary and Amanda…. you know I am talking about you!  I would say I did better during this time, but I still didn’t possess the “off switch” for alcohol.  Once I started drinking, there was no way to shut it off.  I never had a drink or two, I would drink until I was a sloppy mess.  If something went wrong, I hid in a bottle.  Most of my memories while drinking were jumbled or unclear.  If I have them, it is only parts of them…. they just seem dreamlike.

During my last semester of collage, I started to date my now husband. I had known Eric since junior high.  We started studying together and hanging out while we working on our Bachelor’s Degree.  We were just friends at first, but there was and is something special about him…. different.  Maybe I was drawn to that because of my own feeling of being different.  He was so smart, scary smart.  I remember being absolutely intrigued by the way his thought process worked.  After a while, I knew he was the one.  The only man I every have truly loved.  We both finished graduate school, and went on to build a life. We got married, had my youngest daughter, gave Alex a good, solid life, and everything was perfect (on the surface).  However, nothing is truly perfect.  My suppressed depression and anxiety, along with my growing constant need of wine and alcohol began to resurface.

I am not sure when all the stress began to compile? I don’t know if working and having my second daughter added to the situation or not.  I felt like I had to do everything myself.  I felt like everything had to be picture perfect at home and at work.  I began to minimize events just to ensure that nothing upset the household.  The stress of trying to make everything perfect began to weigh on me.  At first, I only drank a couple times a week.  A little later, it became 3-4 times a week.  Finally, it became every night of the week.  I always had an excuse or a reason why I was going to have that drink.  I had a hard day at work, being a working mom with a baby is so hard, I am under so much stress, I need to just relax and mellow out.  I also tried to force alcohol on my husband, which was fine until he had decided he didn’t want it anymore.

The problem with alcoholism and addiction is that the process is slow at first. I believe it is always there hiding, but it ruins your life slowly, a little at a time. It changes you, but not all at once.  I didn’t recognize that I was changing.  And my brain had me convinced that my behavior was completely fine.  There was a voice inside my head telling me that I was the victim… that my family didn’t love me or understand me.  Everyone took me for granted.  It told me I needed a drink.  I didn’t notice that I had turned into someone else, someone darker.  I surrounded myself with social situations that involved drinking.  I surrounded myself with people that justified my behavior.  The best way to keep a lie alive is to surround yourself with evidence that it perfectly real.  But how long can you really live a lie?

Once you start to fall, you fall fast…I believe that this is what they call the turning point for any addict. The moment when they fall off the ledge, and nothing else matters but their addiction.  I had alienated my husband.  He would bring up that I was drinking too much, and I would fabricate some reason why everything was his fault.  We had nothing left to talk about.  Why did I have to do everything myself? Why was he so self-absorbed and controlling?  And on the cycle, goes.  Then, I quit doing everything I loved.  I loved the outdoors, hiking, backpacking, photography.  I let all of it go.  The truth is, I couldn’t be hiking or backpacking without drinking, and I couldn’t be a day without my alcohol.  Even my love of photography had fallen apart.  I was just going through the motions.  My time with my daughters was minimal.  There just wasn’t time for them and the bottle.  My personality darkened, my depression grew, my need for acceptance of my behavior grew.  I used to joke, to smile, to laugh…. that all went away.  I was drinking 2-3 bottles of wine a night, smoking cigarettes when no one was looking.  I was hiding bottles of wine around the house, driving drunk, making decisions that I am now forced to live with.   I was trapped…. chained.  My addiction and my mental issues crumbled my world.  I had managed to ruin my life. The dark voice in my head had achieved its ultimate goal.  I found myself in hell … laying in the ashes.

God steps in with miracle number two.

Funny thing about life, when you hit rock bottom, there are two choices: figure out how to begin to rebuild, or give up and die.  I met a woman who was an addiction councilor.  I have no idea why, but somehow, she made me see what was happening to me.  She made me look into the mirror to see what I had become. I remember after my first meeting with her, I was driving in the car with my husband.  I remember looking at him and saying the words “I think I might be an alcoholic”.  I remember the look of relief on his face.  He had been trying to make me see it for so long, but I just couldn’t, I just wouldn’t.

Next came the hard part… getting sober and dealing with my depression, anxiety, and the repercussions of being an alcoholic.  I had NO IDEA what this would be like.   Mark this as the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life.  Recognizing the issue was the first step, but committing to change my life, that was the hard part…. actually having the courage to get help.

I felt very sick. I had lost 20 pounds (weighing in at 95 lbs at 5’5” tall), my hair was falling out, my skin was chalky, my glucose levels were out of control, all my blood markers were abnormal. I had blamed these things on stress, but they were all direct results of my alcoholism.  And then the withdrawals.   Unless you have been through withdrawals, you probably can’t appreciate how this feels.  What was worse is that it lasted for weeks.  The fever, aches, pains, vomiting, blood pressure, nightmares, body pain, tremors…. I swear I thought I would die.  At this stage, I was constantly fighting off suicidal thoughts.  They honestly seemed to consume my mind. I remember one day at work, standing on top of the cooling tower, wondering if I should jump.  I kept trying to find a reason to be alive…. and there were two:  Alex and Hayden.

Then enter the endless cravings. I couldn’t go into the grocery store without fighting the urge to walk to the alcohol isle.  I couldn’t go into a restaurant without staring at the wine list. Every little thing set my brain into over drive.  I had to clear the entire house out of any kind of alcohol.  Even though I had fully committed myself to quitting, my brain was fighting me every step of the way.  Every morning required a self-driven pep talk, just to get through the day.  I would break down sobbing on my kitchen floor while trying to cook dinner because I wanted more than anything to pour a glass of wine.  The dark voice in my head telling me to give up.  I felt guilt like I have never experienced in my entire life.  Guilt was like a cancer, and my alcoholic brain, like an accelerator. I had been blocking out things for so long, hiding things, lying, living in denial.  These memories and thoughts started to come back, and the guilt seemed unbearable.  All the bullshit about forgiving yourself and trusting in God seemed, well, like bullshit.  There is nothing worse than truly believing that you are a victim and nothing is your fault, then finding out that everything is your fault.

This cycle went on like clockwork for the first three months. Then finally, it started to subside a little.  The cravings would come every other day, rather than every day.  The breakdowns only happened a few times a week… not every day of the week.  I still wasn’t sure my marriage was going to survive, that my family would stay in tact.  I wasn’t sure I was going to live through this, but maybe I could see a light?

After about 6 months, it started to get manageable. Don’t get me wrong, I would still think about it every day… but it got easier.  I replaced drinking with heavy exercise.  I went to the gym every day.  I lifted weights, I ran, I did cardio.  I took my medication.  I CONTINUED REGULAR COUNCELING AND THERAPY.  These things helped so much.  I started to find some degree of peace.  I worked and continue working the 12 steps.  The much-needed medication started to help with the depression and anxiety.  I was no longer waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. I no longer wanted to die.  I finally believed that I was going to be okay.  After feeling Godless for so long, I could see that he was here with me.  I saw happiness in the little things, and I appreciated my life more than I will ever be able to put into words.  Maybe my husband gets back the wife he deserves…. Maybe my daughters get back the mom they once had, but better.  Maybe I learn to love myself.

And now?  A year later?

My final thoughts:  I am a very different person now than I was a year ago.  I have had to rebuild my life and my family.  I am still working to rebuild trust, because addicts are liars and manipulators.  Trust is first to go and last to come back.  My ten-year-old checks my tea glass to make sure there is no alcohol in it.  My husband checks up on my activities.  Most of the friends I thought I had are no longer here.  At first this added to my depression, but now it is truly okay.  I think at this point, I need to be surrounded by people that can support my journey, because it isn’t over.  It will never be over.  Thank you to the people who have been there every step of the way, with no judgement, no prejudice, you know who you are.  My husband and daughters, who I had hurt the most, have stayed by my side.  I am truly discovering myself, and the things I love.  The fog has cleared and my mind is sharper than it has ever been.  After a full year, I have learned that I am a good person inside, and I deserve to be happy… and I deserve a second chance at life.

If you or someone you love are suffering from addiction, please know you are not alone. There is hope.  There is life after addiction.  I recognize that I have a disease.  I recognize that I suffer from multiple mental disorders.  I recognize that neither will ever go away.  But I know now that no matter what happens, I will maintain my sobriety.  I will never take my life or family for granted again.  By the grace of God, I will make a positive difference to the ones I love.  As they say “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”.

After all this time, I felt it necessary to write all of this down… another step in the process of healing.  I am no longer afraid of what people think.  I no longer care what they say.  So after this long post, I would like to share some self-portraits depicting my experience with addiction and what I have been through.  They are dark…. not happy, or bright.  After all, I did spend a great deal of time living in my own personal hell.

I want people like me to know there is a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel.  There is help, and the ones that truly love you will guide you to the light.  There is life after addiction.

Addiction 1:  Dance with the Devil

Addiction1 Dance with the devil

Addiction 2: The Fall

Addiction2 The Fall

Addiction 3: The Dark Side of the Soul

Addiction3 Dark Side of the Soul

Addiction 4: Shattered

Addiction4 Shattered

Addiction 5: Remembering What Once Was

Addiction5 Memories of Yesterday

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