Recovery

Jam Alker -Breaking Barriers

Photo by Bill Whitemire courtesy Jam Alker

When musician Jam Alker entered treatment in 2014 he took his guitar with him and began writing songs about his struggles. He discovered the creative process allowed him to lean into his feelings instead of trying to numb them. Now Alker takes his message of music's healing powers across the country, playing concerts, speaking to students, and leading workshops. He also works with Recovery Unplugged. You can learn more at www.JamAlker.com.

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The feeling produced by heroin was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before.

It is not a high like smoking a joint or having a few glasses of wine.But it is a euphoria. At least in the beginning.

There is a rush of pleasure, warmth, contentedness. Everything feels like it's going to be all right. It feels like a mother's love.

That's how it starts. But it doesn't last

I grew up everywhere. I was born in England, moved to the States when I was three. A lot of violence, upheaval in my childhood. One of my first memories is my father walking towards me, sort of staggering, wide-eyed with blood gushing down his face, and my mom breaking a whiskey bottle over the top of his head to stop his violent advances.

Shortly after that, my mom picked me up on the way home from a friend's house one day when I was five years old. We got in the car. The next thing I knew we were in Las Vegas.

She then married another violent alcoholic. Spent a few years with him until he, in a violent rage, destroyed the house.

I thought my mom would grab me and my brother, put us in the car and take us somewhere else. Instead, she stayed with him, put us in a bus across the country to go live with my father.

Stayed with him for the next eight years, moving around the country. In that time I saw my mom two, maybe three times, till I was in 10th grade and my dad couldn't be violent towards me without me retaliating. So he sent me to go live with my mom who was in Chicago.

Moved in with her in 10th grade. Was on my own by 11th grade. Finished out high school and moved down into the big city, deciding that I was going to become a famous musician.

So I started playing in bands. Had some success. Did some touring, made some albums. And in that lifestyle there are certain things that are accepted, if not celebrated.

I'm talking about the distracting behaviors, the numbing behaviors, the desire to find comfort on the outside that I now know only comes from the inside.

My addictions were more my ego. Chasing after fame, after power, after prestige, after love, after relationships. Wanting people to love me to make me feel important because I didn't feel important inside.

I had that thing inside of me that so many addicts and alcoholics talk about: this hole in their soul, this hole inside of them that they've never been able to fill. This discomfort.

And we're taught that the answer to that hole inside, the way to fill it, the way to find that internal happiness is through external means.

And so I bought into that. I didn't know any different.

So then I thought it would be money. And I made a ton of money.

From the outside world looking in, you would think at that point that I had everything.

I was well on my way to becoming a millionaire. I owned a recording studio and a record label. I had toured the country, signed autographs, had music that had been played on the radio.

But I was miserable.

And then I was introduced to heroin, to opiates. And opiates are physical painkillers, but opiates are also emotional painkillers.

So that thing that I had been trying to fix, that hole I've been trying to fill it that I never been able to. I would not been able to fill that hole, but this at least numbed me to that pain.

It wasn't long before the money was gone. The property was gone. The recording studio was gone. The record label was gone. Many of my closest, dearest relationships were gone.

And I gave all of these things away, for heroin.

I didn’t lose half a million dollars on a couch cushion somewhere.

I didn't misplace that recording studio or that record label in the back of a cab in a hurry one day in downtown Chicago.

And I didn't misplace some of my dearest relationships.

I gave those things away.

In that 10-year period, I gave all of those things away because heroin, opioids, became all that mattered in my life.

So that's where I was.

And four years ago, I finally surrendered and checked into a treatment facility and I brought my guitar with me, honestly thinking it was just going to help me pass the time. I hadn't picked up my guitar almost at all over the decade in the deep dark hole.

I began writing again. I began writing about all of the experiences that I had been through, and all of the discomfort that I was going through there in early recovery.

I decided I wasn't going to get high anymore. That meant all of those things that I had been burying my whole life, all of the things that I had been numbing myself to, I was going to have to start to deal with those things. I was going to have to start to process those things.

Or I was in danger of going back out and I knew the next step for me was death. I had no doubt where I was headed.

So I picked up the guitar, and it's just my own form of therapy, I began writing. And I finally felt connected spiritually.

And things started to happen and I continued to cultivate that contact with the creative source -- whatever that thing is -- and I began to heal some of my deepest wounds.

I wrote a few songs. I started to share them with some of my peers in my unit, and some really significant, impactful moments started to happen.

You know, addiction is about isolation. Recovery is about community. And community can happen on a large scale coming together, but community can happen one-on-one as well.

It's empathy, when I feel what you feel, when you feel what I feel -- that connection, that is community. And that's what recovery is about.

And these guys in my unit with me started to come to me and say, "You're able to put into words some of the things that I'm feeling. Thank you.”

And I realized at that moment, that the only thing that ever truly filled that hole inside of me was helping others, being of service to others who had no way of repaying me.

I knew that this was my path.

I started a therapeutic music program using some of the music I had written in recovery where we do a lyrical analysis of one of my songs called Crows.

And the song, Crows, is a story-song about a broken man who's sitting outside of a church, sort of reviewing where his life went. He doesn't know how he ended up where he is.

But it's very open for interpretation. It's metaphorical rather than literal.

When I do the group, I'm trying to get the clients to start to touch on what their own traumas are, the reasons why they ended up there in treatment.

So I'll play the song, and I'll hand out the lyrics to the clients and we'll do a lyrical analysis.

So we'll read the first stanza, the first verse, which is In the front of the church on a concrete step, a low paid man rests his head. He sat down to catch his breath, can't quite figure where it went well.

And then I'll say, “Let's talk about that. Let's make up a narrative of what's going on. Why is he sitting on the step? What does the church represent? Why is he resting his head? Why is it a concrete step?”

And people will start to talk. And in order to create the story, to create the feelings, to create the images behind the story, they have to touch on their own experience.

They’ll say, “He's there because nobody loved him.” “He's there because he was kicked out of the house.” “He's outside of the church because of his resentments towards the church.”

Well, where are they getting these ideas from? They have to get it from their own experience.

“Why is he resting his head?” “He's tired.”

“Okay. It's a low paid man. Does that mean that he has to be poor monetarily? Okay, how else could he be low paid?”

“Spiritually?” “Nobody loves him.”

All of these things, and then people start coming out and they get excited about it and we create this entire narrative behind the song.

And at the end it's a very cathartic experience for these folks. And they love it and I let them know at the end that they just did their own form of therapy.

Now, if I were to have walked in and said, “Let's talk about when you were at your lowest and you were sitting there thinking, What is the point of life? Why am I doing this?

Nine times out of 10, they're going to shut down and they're not gonna to want to talk about it.

But by doing it this way, it almost tricks their trauma into putting down its guard a little bit. It doesn't realize that it's what's coming out.

Oh, we're talking about that guy that poor broken man sitting outside the church. We're not talking about my experience.

And so it takes down the barriers.

And that's what you have to do in recovery.

You have to bring down those barriers and allow yourself to open up, be comfortable being uncomfortable.

Be comfortable being vulnerable and allowing these things out because these things, these traumas, are the things that we bury.

And that discomfort becomes unbearable.

And there's only so long -- particularly those of us who have substance use disorder, those of us who are sitting early in recovery, trying to figure out a way to manage all of this discomfort --there's only so long you can sit with that or try to bury it before that voice will come up: This is too much. We're just going to go out, just today. We can deal with it again tomorrow, but just for today, it is too much. I can't bear it. I need a drink. I need a hit. I need a shot.

And eventually that voice will convince you.

Or the other option is to learn how to process these things as they come up.

I'm Jam Alker and this is my story.

Yana Khashper -Filling the Void

Photo by Luke LaPorta Photography, courtesy Yana Khashper

As a social worker, Yana Khashper knew how to connect people struggling with mental health and addiction issues with the resources they might need. But for many years, there was a disconnect when it came to helping herself. Now in long-term recovery, Yana and her partner run ROCovery Fitness in Rochester, New York.

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I came over from Russia with my family when I was 6 years old in 1992. I didn't speak the language. We were refugees so there was some hardship. And it took me a while to kind of adapt to American life.

We were living in New Jersey at first. And a couple years later we moved to Staten Island, New York. That was a challenge for me. I was about 10 years old. New school. I didn't dress like the other kids. There was some kind of bullying or I was made fun of. I just wasn't someone that really fit in. And I felt really awkward and kind of out of place. And just didn't know, you know --there's some nuances with language or humor that I didn't quite understand.

My parents didn't have much involvement in my kind of school life just because they didn't quite understand. They worked evenings. And so when I came home from school, I really was on my own, to do my homework, to, you know, do the right thing.

But it left me a lot of freedom. And I didn't do the right thing.

You know, I would go and hang out in the neighborhood when I wasn't supposed to leave the house. In my neighborhood there were folks that were older than me. And they saw this weirdo little kid, you know, kind of on her own walking around. So they sort of took me in. By twelve is when I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol with them, you know. And really from there my addiction kind of took off.

I did okay in school. I wasn’t a bad student. I sort of went under the radar, kind of unnoticed. I didn't get into trouble. I didn't excel. And I was able to really go through the motions, of going to school and continuing on to college, and then later grad school.

And there was a good period of my life where even though I wasn’t making great choices, I was really functioning, and I was doing well.

I went to school for social work. And I was really drawn to that field for a number of reasons. One of it was that I wanted to help people, and help people kind of find their voice, understand themselves, and, and heal. And the other part is I really wanted to understand human behavior and relations, and what makes people tick, how they function, how they adapt. And really it related to my experience in learning this new kind of the world and new culture.

In 2009, I got the opportunity to work for the New York City Fire Department in their Employee Assistance Program. And it was a program primarily working with World Trade Center survivors and those affected by the tragedy.

It was an amazing job. I felt purpose. I felt like I was really making a difference. And I, you know, met, you know, such incredible, courageous, strong individuals, men and women. You know, I’m left speechless by the folks that I met there.

You know, I didn't quite have the coping skills to deal with the things I was hearing on a daily basis. I was there for about 3 years, and it got harder. It got really hard to hear the stories and the experiences. And when I left work, and when I went home, I just didn't know what -- I don't know how to process it. And that's where alcohol and other drugs became really a huge part of my life.

You know, it was this double life. I went to work. And I do believe I was effective. But when I left work, I became this other person that needed to just numb what I was feeling, what I had heard.

There came a point where I couldn't contain it anymore. And I felt that I was no longer effective at my job.

I didn't know what to do. I didn't understand that addiction was taking over my life. You know, it’s something that I did in the professional world where I helped other people and I connected them with resources and helped them through their addiction. But it was such a huge disconnect, really a disconnect from reality of what was happening to me.

So really out of desperation, I decided to kind of start fresh, get away from my life – well, to get away from, from me.

So I decided to move. And in the process of one of the very first trips up to Western New York for a job interview, I got my first DWI.

And I remember the New York City Fire Department, they find out about these things. And I remember talking to my supervisor and then the supervisor for the clinic about it, and really trying to hide it, you know desperate to believe that it was a one-time experience.

I couldn't stop drinking. I couldn’t stop taking pills and using cocaine. I really became this really shell of a person, without coping skills.

So in the process of that move, I got another DWI, and I was facing legal consequences, you know, from the very first one. I was able to get out of it kind of unscathed. And so I relocated to Western New York in 2012.

I had gotten a job. I really thought I was going to be okay. Even right off the bat I really couldn't function. I wasn’t a functional human being really. I drank every day. And my alcoholism really kind of progressed because I wasn't using drugs but I was using alcohol in much, much larger quantities and much more frequent.

And within that first year I got another DWI. And with this 3rd DWI, I was facing really serious consequences. I was looking at prison time. And I was scared. I was really scared and I somewhere kind of understood that I wouldn't be able to drink anymore.

I didn't know how to live without alcohol. I didn't know how to even function. So that was such a scary thought for me. That took me to a place where I didn't want to live.

I attempted suicide. And I ended up in the emergency room in the hospital. And from there I-- really I advocated for rehab. It was 2013. I learned about recovery in a way that I could finally apply to myself.

I was able to abstain and I was able to start to have some hope. But there was still something missing, you know. I was in my late twenties, and I just couldn’t see my life being, you know, going to work, going home, going to a meeting, and that's it.

What do you do to fill that void? To fill the isolation? You know, when I got out of treatment, I looked at my phone and I had nothing but phone numbers of people that I drank and drugged with.

I didn't have hobbies. I didn't know how to socialize. Everything I knew revolved around alcohol.

So in recovery, I found exercise and fitness, and really the outdoors. And it really just changed my life. That was something I learned -- that when I was anxious or afraid or lonely, or I wanted to drink or I wanted to use, I could get outside. I could go for a run. I could go for a bike ride, and it would go away.

And then I met a person. I met my partner in recovery. An athlete through his whole life. A service member, he's coming up on 20 years in the service. And he really helped to introduce me to this world of health and wellness.

Right before I had about a year in recovery, he and I were -- it was a record-breaking cold winter up in Western New York, and he and I began to isolate. We weren't going outside. We weren't connecting with our recovery supports. And we were headed towards relapse. You know, we’d both been there before, and we just didn't want to go there again.

So we decided to go on a hike. And we posted this hike our personal Facebook page. And it was just a kind of open invite, you know – We’re going hiking on such-and-such date, at such-and-such time and Join us!
And people came. And we had a great time! We weren't thinking about our depression. We weren't thinking about using drugs or alcohol. We were just having, you know, pure fun.

And someone asked if we could do it again the following weekend. And we did!

It just, you know, blossomed from there-- from weekly hikes to park workouts to kayaking and bike rides, to peer-led retreats to the Adirondacks.

The possibilities felt endless.

And I knew we had something. You know, we tapped into something that had been missing in our lives, in the recovery community as a whole.

So we -- I did a little bit of research, and I came across an organization out of Colorado called The Phoenix. They are a peer-led, sober active community. And I reached out to their founder, Scott Strode. He's mentored us. He shared all his knowledge. They’ve developed an evidence-based and trauma-informed model for their program. And, and we mimic what they do.

We created ROCovery Fitness, here in Rochester, and we are a peer-led sober active community.

We now have a gym. We have a yoga studio. We do social gatherings for every holiday, times that can be really triggering for folks. And we've created this safe, supportive, nurturing community -- really a place where shame and stigma doesn't exist, where clean and sober is the norm.

You don't see folks relapsing when they're in an out patient group or when they're at church or when they're in a mutual aid meeting. It's that time in between.

So this is such an important place because it -- it gives people an outlet. It helps them build the confidence that they need to believe in themselves to obtain long-term sustained sobriety.

It's so important to have these outlets. And it's so important to not have shame, to not feel that they are somehow unworthy or fundamentally flawed.

You know, we’re, we’re incredible people. We’re mothers and fathers and friends and children. We’re productive members of society. We’re taxpayers. We hold government positions. We’re just everywhere.

We have a disease and our disease is substance use disorder. And recovery is our solution.

My name is Yana Khashper and this is my story.

Sicily Owings -I Work at a Methadone Clinic

Photo by Lindsay Hahn, courtesy Sicily Owings

At the methadone clinic where she works, Sicily Owings hears from clients about the relationship between trauma and addiction in their lives. She also knows about it firsthand.

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In a child’s brain, they don’t know how to make sense, we don’t know how to make sense of certain things so it is imprinted in our brains as trauma.

Addiction is so based in trauma. Addiction is so -- like the goal of drug use, when you originally go into it, is literally it just makes you feel better. It makes you forget it. It makes you numb. And a lot of people who come from trauma backgrounds who have experienced horrendous things, really just have a lot of pain that they don't know what to do with.

And so we use drugs. We use drugs to cope. We use drugs to numb. We use drugs to escape.

If you’re coming from a trauma background, and you reach adolescence when the chemicals in your brain and your brain chemistry are kind of all over the place, your hormones all over the place, you're experiencing new things, and you just don't know how to deal with them -- it's kind of like a, a recipe for disaster.

When I was around three or four, my biological father went to prison. He was charged with the possession and sales of illegal firearms, and also the possession and sales of large quantities of cocaine. I think when he got caught he got caught with two kilos on him which is over 4 lbs. And pretty much spent my entire adolescence in prison in Canyon City, in here in Colorado.

So I think it was around '88,1988. I was born in 1985. I'm 33 now.

I remember knowing who we was, knowing what he did, not having a relationship with him because he went to prison when I was so young, and always saying to myself like, I'm never going to do that. Like his entire life was ruined. I'm never going to do hard drugs. Even when I started smoking marijuana and stuff, I’m like,Oh I'll never go there.

But eventually that happened. And I eventually started using cocaine, and eventually started using methamphetamines. And it was just kind of downhill from there.

I was using drugs, and I was using drugs pretty heavily in high school, and I remember coming home, and all of my stuff was in the driveway,and my mom just told me, she's like, “If this is the way that you're going to live, you can't live here.”

What was interesting about that is they kicked me out and so I left. And I ended up living with a friend in Littleton. That's when I ended up dropping out of high school. That’s when things really got worse because I didn't, I didn't really have any structure, I didn't really have any family. I was finally free. I can do whatever I want.

But I ended up getting pulled over. In essence, I was with a friend and we were parked, and a cop pulled up and I was in the car and they ran my name. And had basically told me that I had to go with them because my parents had called me in as a runaway.

And I was so confused. I'm like, They kicked me out! Why are they calling me in as a runaway?

But when they tried to get a hold of my parents, they had actually left town to go camping. And it's illegal if you call your child in as a runaway to leave the state. And so my parents temporarily lost custody of me, and I had to go to this like youth home for like 2 weeks. And I remember that as being super traumatic -- to go from like living at home and having this family to getting kicked out and then like being stuck in this home. It was -- it was really crazy.

Things took a while to change. I mean it did. I started using when I was 14 and I quit when I was around 21. I was almost married at the time that I quit. And I was with my ex-husband at the time, and him and I used together. And that's when I started using methamphetamines really heavily, was like 2002 2003, and used for about 3 years. And he ended up doing some jail time.

His dad was a pastor, and I, for whatever reason, just like really wanted to connect with his dad and his step mom. And so I remember calling them. And I went over to their house for dinner and I remember having soup. And feeling really safe there. And feeling that it was really different. And they had invited me to church and then when Josh got out of jail, I told him I was like, “I would really like to go to your dad's church. I want to check it out.”

And ended up going to church and felt like my entire life had changed. I just remember crying a lot and I just remember … I always want to cry at this part … I just remember feeling like very hopeful because I had spent so many years feeling so shameful, and feeling alone. And feeling like I could never get out of that.

You know like, I don't know how to get out of this. This is so much bigger than me. And I've burned all of my bridges. And I have no one.
But in that moment, like I finally felt like there was this glimmer of hope --that potentially I could do it.

I remember telling my ex-husband, "I want to quit. And I’m serious about it." And so we moved north pretty far north, to the suburbs, changed our phone number, and started, you know, pouring my life into going to church and decided I wanted to be a drug and alcohol counselor.

I knew how alone I felt. I knew how isolated I felt. I knew how shameful and ugly -- and all of these things that I felt and I was like I don't, I don't want people to feel that. I want them to know that like somebody sees them, and somebody cares about them, and somebody believes in them. That's all I wanted -- to like be with people in that struggle. Watch them get out of that.

I started working at a methadone clinic about a year-and-a-half ago. I love it. I love working in medication assisted treatment. I believe in it because I see it work.

Typically, recovery has focused on abstinence. And harm reduction kind of came on the scene when they realized that abstinence doesn't work for everybody.

The biggest thing with addiction is struggling with ambivalence that I know I want to feel better. I know I want something different but I don't know what I want. And the great thing about methadone is it really keeps you alive while you're struggling with ambivalence.

People are dying. People are dying waiting to get abstinent so they had to figure out another way.

I would rather have a child on methadone on medication helping them get clean then have a dead child.

And I know that there is stigma around medication-assisted treatment. I know that when you hear the word "methadone," it doesn't sound great, or it sounds scary, or it sounds like they're just replacing it with another drug -- or like, what whatever comes up for you when you hear the word "methadone" -- but I'm telling you that this medication saves lives every single day. Every single day.

And I just hope that we as a community, as a nation are willing to really put that stigma aside for the sake of saving lives.

My name is Sicily Owings and this is my story.

Isabel Landrum -Working on Myself

Photo courtesy Isabel Landrum

“This is what addiction does. It takes everything from us.” In recovery since, 2015, Isabel Landrum is working on getting her life back as she helps others at a detox and treatment center in Southern California.

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Being an addict is -- it’s just, it’s, it’s hard. Like people don't understand. Like, I wasn't born and I didn't grow up thinking, Oh, I’m going to grow up to be an addict --that’d be great!

No, it just -- it ruins lives, you know. It ruined my life. It took everything I loved from me. I didn't have a relationship with my family, with my mother, like I will go months without talking to my mom. And it, it was very hard for her. And it was sad.

I've been hospitalized three different times. I've been in a coma. I remember when I was taken to the hospital by the ambulance, one of the nurses there, I turned around and I looked at this person, and I grabbed this person, and I said, “Please don’t let me die. I have 3 kids and I don’t -- I don't want to die.”

And I remember when I woke up, he was there. And he said, “Oh, you’re still alive, I didn’t let you die. I didn’t let you die.”

I was tired. I was sick of doing drugs. I wanted a way out.

So back in 2015, I had somebody come to me and ask me if I wanted to go to treatment. I wasn't getting any younger. And I said, “I do. I need help. I want to go to treatment.”

So my clean date is October 10th, 2015. And that was it for me. I’ve, I’ve never looked back.

I wanted to have a life. I didn’t want to be in the hospital all the time. I wanted to have a relationship with my children again. Like, I wanted to have my kids in my life.

Now I talk to my mom every night. I have a wonderful relationship with my mom. I’m working on seeing my children again because my kids are the most important thing in my life, and I haven't been able to see them for a while now.

I have to work on myself, and I have to get myself better before I can have that chance again to be in my kid's lives. I am working towards that right now.

I never used around my kids, you know, like when they were there, I never used around my kids. But, like as soon as they would go with their dad, like I would get high just because there's so much pain there to just see my kids go. I’d just get high because it just numbs you, like you can’t feel anything. You just don’t want to feel anything with all the pain, you know.

I have a boy and two girls. And they are fun kids, you know. My girl, my oldest one, she looks just like me. And I look at their pictures and stuff, and I just, I so want to be part of their life again, you know.

I know I have to like take little steps to get there. But I am doing it. I'm doing it now. And if I was still out using and stuff, this would not be happening. I would not be on my way to see them again, you know.

It’s hard, and I know it’s going to take a while, but this is what addiction does. It takes everything from us.

So now, it's my turn to give back to people. I found what I like to do, and that's help others to recover from addiction. It’s such a good feeling when you know that you helped someone not pick up that drug, you know, like just if you can stay here with us, stay just one more day -- it's going to be okay, you know, just…

That’s what God put me on this Earth to do -- be a mom, of course --and help other people recover from addiction.

And my name is Isabel Landrum and this is my story.

Angel Traynor -Recovery Housing

From her own experience, Angel Traynor knew that if you don’t give someone a structured place to go after treatment and send them back into their old environment instead, they are at a high risk to relapse.

So she stepped in with Serenity Sistas housing, a safe haven for up to 47 people in recovery.

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The last time I walked out of jail, I was 45 years old. I had been using opiates for about 11 years. I was absolutely convinced that I was never going to use again. I was never going to use. I was never going to go back to jail. I was never going to hurt my family. And I tried to do it on my own and that never worked for me.

So what that led to was for the next 9 months I used and I got to the point where I was homeless. I had pushed everybody away from me, except for the people that were doing the same things that I was doing.

And, Labor Day of 2007, I had been using for 9 months. I wanted to die. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go. But I knew that I had to do something. I called a former counselor and said to her, “I need help.” And she got me a bed in a treatment center.

I was supposed to report the morning of September the 6th. When I came to that morning, I was so full of fear. I was afraid of failure, because I had failed so many times before, and I was also afraid of success, because if I succeeded even for a small amount of time, and then I failed, in my head, I was still a failure.

So being trapped in that fear on that last morning, my solution was easy. My final decision in active addiction was suicide.

By 7am that morning, the people that were in that room with me were reviving me.

I was just touched that day when I walked into rehab that I knew, I knew quickly within three days, I was willing to do whatever it took to never go back to using drugs.

And I’ve continued to do that for the last 11 years. I’ve not found it necessary to use drugs or alcohol since September 6, 2007.

I find it very important to share my story publicly. People need to hear that we can recover from our addictions.

I was an addict for 33 years which meant that I started when I was 13 years old. Through that time I was a teenage mom. I was a battered wife. I was a business owner. My business was successful. I owned a home. I raised not only my child but I raised two other children as well.

For the first 20 years, I really didn’t suffer any consequences. And about at year 21, I tried opiates and that was the beginning of the end for me.

The last time I walked into a rehab I had absolutely nothing. I had lost everything. I had lost my family, my business, my home. I was a three-time convicted felon. My dignity, my own self-respect. All of that was gone. So I really started from the very bottom.

I was 45 and three days later I celebrated my 46th birthday. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I had half a backpack of clothes and nowhere to go. Gratefully, I had a friend that was willing to take me in and let me sleep on her couch and quickly I had to – not only did I have to learn to live without drugs and alcohol as my coping mechanism – I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself.

I got my GED. I went into college because I wanted to be an alcohol and drug counselor. And I started my – I started my journey.

If it hadn’t been for other people supporting me, I don’t know that I would have made it because what I’ve come to find out is that there is no way you can overcome an addiction yourself.

I guess about 5 years into my own personal recovery, I saw a lapse in housing for women, in my town. There was nothing in the town of Annapolis. So I decided to start doing recovery housing.

The recovering addict, specifically women in the beginning, they didn’t have anywhere to go after treatment. And if you didn’t give someone somewhere to go after treatment and you send them back into the same environment, I already knew from my own experience, they were at a high risk to relapse.

I decided to start the houses, Serenity Sistas. I think I had about $983 in the bank and that was it. Right before Christmas of 2011 I was shopping, I was shopping at Kmart, and I saw bedframes on sale, for bunk beds. I was like, “Oh, I need those. I’ll just put them on layaway!”

Three weeks later, I got a very tearful phone call from my mom. She said, “You’re never going to believe what happened. Layaway Angels went in and paid off your bunk beds!” Which to me was, to me it was a God shot. They paid the entire amount off.

Three weeks after that, I received an anonymous check for $3,000 with a letter that said, “Go out and buy your new mattresses, and go out and buy your new sheets for your house because everybody deserves fresh linens and new mattresses when they start a new life.”

That was in 2012 and we now currently have 6 locations – single women, single men, mothers and children’s, and then I have a location that I use for crisis beds, people who seek treatment through our safe stations here in Anne Arundel county. They go there seeking help but they’re not going to get into treatment for 4 or 5 days because you just don’t get in right away. So we house those people as well.

So on any given day, we house up to 47 people that are entering recovery. And residents anywhere from 18 years old to 77 years old – that was my oldest resident.

These individuals, they’re just like me. They come and they either have lost the skills that we need to get by, or at 18 years old, they never had them in the first place. And they can be as simple as doing your laundry or parking correctly in the driveway. But then there’s other things like resume-writing. You know, if you don’t have a good resume and you can’t get that out there, how will you get employed? And I think at the end of the day, that’s all any of us want – we just want to be happy, healthy, productive members of society.

Often I go out and I try to educate the community. There are things they don’t know or maybe they aren’t thought about. And I have been told on a regular basis that, “Addiction does not affect me. I don’t know anybody that suffers from addiction. Why should I care?”

I’ve had people say that to me, and thank goodness, I have gained a filter because in the beginning, it was a little -- I stated this a little differently.

But we are all impacted by addiction.

I personally went to rehab or detox on public funds, through medical assistance, so that increases everybody’s insurance rates. It puts our taxes up.

There are times that I wrecked cars and I was an uninsured motorist which means your insurance went up, your insurance rates went up.

Theft – that’s how I made my living for a while is I stole things from people which today I’m certainly not proud of that. That also raises the cost of living.

So if you are to say to me that you are not impacted by addiction, I’m sorry but you are.

You drive a car. You’re out on the road. There are people who are under the influence whether it be from drugs or alcohol. You’re, you’re at risk.

So everybody is impacted by addiction.

I got to hit my own personal rock bottom emotionally and physically. With what’s going on in our world today, people are not making it to rock bottom. They are dying and they’re dying young.

So we have young parents that are dying, so there’s a generation there, and then they’re leaving behind children that are severely impacted. I know families where the children in that family have lost both parents to the disease.

It’s a societal issue.

If I were to ask one thing of anybody that can hear me right now, I would ask that you get to know somebody in recovery because the people that I know that are in recovery are some of smartest, funniest, most hard-working people that I know.

And I think that that stems from -- I know for me that it stems from knowing that I took from my community for so long, I just want to give back. I want to balance the scales if you will, and make that right.

Terry Brent -Music Therapy

Everyone's journey of recovery is different but finding the strength, courage and hope to share your feelings is integral to living life to the fullest without drugs and alcohol.  In South Florida, musician Terry Brent leads clients through a song-writing, recording and performing process that boosts them on their personal journey.  Featuring the song, Piece of My Heart, by S.

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I think you have no idea where expression can take you. And I think approaching music from an expressive standpoint rather than just impressive will take you a lot further because people can sense that you’re trying to impress them rather than just you have something to share or a message.

I’ve kind of taken that forward into my interactions with humans, hearing their story, and seeing their hidden talents, either they knew or didn’t know they had, or maybe drugs and alcohol took away from them.

I work at a treatment facility in South Florida. I came from a recording and touring background. I was in a couple of different bands, going all over the country doing festivals, show cases for different labels. We recorded a full-length record, a couple of EP’s, had a management team.

So that, I think, prepped me for where I’m at today. I had the privilege of being able to start a program within Transformations called Soundpath Recovery. We’ve been able to see great outcomes with clients that are either in the music industry and haven’t been able to find success remaining in the music industry and staying sober or clients that aren’t musicians but they want to try something different in their recovery and they were able to go from, “There’s no way I could perform or do karaoke or share clean and sober, I’ve always been messed up,” and then by the end of their experience here they look back and are like, “Wow! I actually did it a few times.”

The way we wrote the program was to speak and cater to a client that is coming off of drugs and alcohol usage and dependence to where their mind is racing. You know, they are starting to get a little bit of clean time and they are now thinking about like, “Oh my gosh, I have so many things I have to do. I ruined this relationship. I got into this trouble. I have court, I have work, I have money – like all these issues.”

One thing that we offer first is a Quieting the Mind group to where clients can go and learn breathing techniques and grounding methods. From there they are able to slow it down just enough to be able to give their brain a little bit of a rest.

And then the next group we encourage them to go to is a writing group, it’s a creative writing group. Everyone can write. So in a creative writing group we say, “Just write the first thing that comes to your brain. If you think it, it’s the right thing to write down.” It could be “I hate writing.” “This is the dumbest exercise ever.” “My brain is out of control again.” “Why am I here?” Whatever comes to their mind. And by the end of the stream of consciousness writing, they’ll have some very succinct, trackable writing where they will be “Oh my gosh, where did that come from?” And they’ll be able to pull certain things out of it that they want to develop or work on.

We offer a songwriting group that structures whatever comes out of their racing thoughts or whatever comes out of their stream of conscious, and then after well go through and allow them to work together as a team and collaborate and say, “Hey, I have an idea. I’m a little bit foggy but I kind of hear like you know a trumpet in the background and like a shaker, and I can sing but maybe you can sing what I wrote, and then I need a guitar player.” And the next thing you know, they’re all connecting and they’re on the same wavelength and they’re like “Wow, I didn’t know you felt the same way I did about the same experience or a similar experience.”

Clients get an opportunity to go into the recording studio -- we have a professional recording studio – and they’re able to kind of sit under their own weight of anxiety and they sweat, and they’re like nervous. “How am I going to do this? I’m not Christina Aguilera. I’m not like David Bowie.”

You know we say like “Look, your whole goal here is to be in this studio clean and sober for two hours. Can you do that? Everything else is on top of that. But can you be here?” And they’re like. “Yeah, I think I can.” “All right cool, then what’s going on? Let’s do this!”

And we coach them, and get them to relax and drop their shoulders, and teach them how to breathe. And at the end they walk out, and most of them, if not all of them, say, “Wow! I feel – can I say high? I don’t know if I can say that.” And I’m like, “Absolutely! You’re experiencing life. You just enjoyed life.”

And then the last part of the curriculum is to give them an opportunity to share their expression in front of people and then receive feedback. And it is one of the coolest experiences to have someone freaking out, sweating, feeling like they’re going to throw up, thinking about man, this would be so much easier if I were drunk or high. Getting up there, sharing and then having a standing ovation of 50 to 75 people just like losing their stuff because they saw how difficult it was but how strong that person was to share in front of all these people.

I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been on lots of stages, played for thousands of people and the feeling that I get from watching that compared to being on stage myself is – it’s un--describable. You can’t buy it. You just can’t buy it.

I never get emails of clients saying, “Man, thank you so much for letting me skate by and not forcing me to perform.” Like it’s always the emails like, “Thank you so much for, like, encouraging me to do something I didn’t want to do. That changed my life. I listen to my song and I’ll never be the same again.” And those are the emails that I always get.

I’m might even start to cry thinking about it but there is, there is this hope that comes from having new perspectives and new experiences. And at least saying, “I’m afraid,” but doing it anyway.

My name is Terry Brent and this is my story.

Karen McGinnis -What God Gave Me

Photo courtesy Karen McGinnis

At age 37, after 20 years of battling the disease of addiction, Karen McGinnis found a reason to make a change and make it work: the birth of her son.

 "I’m a single, independent, fully self-supporting woman today. And it’s the most liberating thing I’ve ever experienced because there was a time in my life where I took advantage of the system. And I have overcome all of that."

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You know they say that the disease of addiction is greater than the love that a mother has for her child. I intellectually understood that, but I didn’t feel it until it was happening to me.

But at the age of 35, God said to me, “I have carried you through some storms. I’ve put angels around you to protect you all those nights that you were driving in a blackout and you were walking the streets homeless. You’ve had one DUI, you’ve had two DUI’s, you’ve had three DUI’s. You’ve lost great jobs, you’ve lost your soul, you’ve lost your family. You’ve -- you are going to kill yourself. Or you’ve going to end up in prison. So I’m about to do something for you. It’s going to be very tangible. And it’s going to give you a reason to want to live.”

So I had my first child when I was 36 years old. By the time Owen was a couple months old, DCF stepped in – the Department of Children and Families. I was an unfit mother. So he was removed from my care. And I was left with an opportunity to go into the drug courts and work on Karen so I could get my son back.

I was headed down that spiral for 20 years. I started drinking alcohol at the age of 14. The alcohol led to street drugs. The street drugs led to opioids and doctor shopping and -- I had for 10 years already been in and out of treatment centers, and halfway houses, and structured living, and jail and .. you know, so what was so different this time? Because I was still addicted to drugs and alcohol and I still loved my alcohol and drugs more than I loved this beautiful little child that God had blessed me with.

I kicked and screamed and finally went into treatment for a good solid 6 months of inpatient and a couple months of outpatient. And I did everything I could to get Owen back. I fixed the outside. I went and got a great job. I got insurance. I got a nice, fancy Camaro. And it looked real pretty on the outside because I wanted my son back.

And I got him back. But what I failed to do is, I failed to work on Karen. I failed to take a look at what was really going on. What is causing me to continually and insanely – knowing that there is going to be significant consequences, whether it’s loss of marriage, loss of child, loss of job, arrest – still continue to pick up that substance and start the cycle all over again?

I did not do a lick of work on Karen. I did not work a 12-step program. I didn’t reach out to my higher power. I didn’t build a network. I -- I just fixed everything real pretty on the outside, got my son back, went back to work, and before you know it, life started showing up. I started getting stressed out at work. I was stressed out being a single mother, a lot of resentment still towards Owen’s father, a lot of anger. Before I knew it, I found myself at the liquor store.

One is too many, a thousand is never enough. When I put that substance of whatever it is in my system, it sets off a chemical reaction within me and I start the obsession and the compulsion and I want more. Trying to fill that void, trying to find that high.

You know within a couple of days I was a no-call no-show at work. My parents ended up coming to my apartment and found me, naked on the couch with empty bottles of Crown Royal. And my father called DCF again. And Owen was removed from me.

So now we are at Owen is not quite even two years old yet and DCF has already removed him from my care twice. That wasn’t enough to stop me. How did this happen? I was so guilty and shameful, I was off on a mission to really kill myself for the next three months, drinking and overdosing and driving drunk and…

Finally, my parents stepped in and here in the state of Florida we have what’s called a Marchman Act. If you have a loved one that is using substances and you know that they are a threat to themselves or the community, you can take it down to the courthouse and get the law involved. And the law did get involved.

Judge Espinoza who is our drug court judge here in Tampa, he ordered me to go back into treatment. I knew that was my saving grace. That, hey you know what? My parents do still care about me. They care enough about me that they were willing to go down to the courthouse to save my life. They might not be talking to me right now, and I might think that they hate me but they love me. And they saved my life by doing that.

This works if you work it. Recovery is possible. There is hope.

I wanted to start from a fresh clean slate at 37 years old because Owen was the only thing I’ve ever done perfect in my life. And I refuse to let the disease of addiction take that from me too.

And I went back into treatment and I started following suggestions. You know we learn from behaviors over, over time on how to get what we want as addicts. And someone had told me, “Karen, if you could just use those skill sets in a positive way, you will be amazing.”

A large part of recovering is being surrounded by people who are like-minded; people that have gone through what you’ve gone through. Yes, we come from all very diverse backgrounds, and some of us are tall and short and fat and skinny. And some of us are Hispanic and Caucasian and African-American and Chinese but we all have one common thread: the disease of addiction. You know, I think it’s so important for us to come together and, and build those relationships with other people that know what we’re going through so we can feel like hey, you’re not alone, you’re not different, you’re not unique.

And that is one of the reasons that I work in the field that I work in. Because I can empathize with what you, ma’am, are going through, sitting on my couch in my admissions office. I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there 15 times, sitting on that couch with my mom and dad or my husband sitting over there so I understand what you, husband and mother and father are going through.

I do this because life is rich. And life is a gift. And we have to stay in the present. This is a wonderful life.

I’m a single, independent, fully self-supporting woman today. And it’s the most liberating thing I’ve ever experienced because there was a time in my life where I took advantage of the system. I took advantage of Medicaid. I took advantage of food stamps. I took advantage of my mother and father. I took advantage of men. I took advantage of people to get what Karen wanted. And I have overcome all of that.

Never did I ever think at 12 years old, that I was going to be 40 years old, a single mom, and have lived the life that I live. And I’m so grateful, so grateful I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through to find what I found.

And I believe that God will allow us to go through that, to get to a point in our lives to where we have no other choice but to cry out for Him to help us.

And, and, I’ve – I’ve made a mess of my life and I believe that there is something greater than myself that can restore me back to sanity and give me the life that You always intended me to have.

And that is something to be grateful for.

My name is Karen McGinnis and this is my story.

Kim Manlove -Surviving the Worst Loss

Photo by Rocky Rothrock, courtesy Kim Manlove

Grief is an individual experience. When the Manloves' son David died from a drug-related event, Kim's feelings of guilt and shame overwhelmed him  -- but it did not divide him from his wife and together they have found acceptance.     

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You know, we first discovered that he had a problem in late 2000. He was 16 at the time.

It started with marijuana and then eventually alcohol. There were some pills. We didn’t know what they were -- pharmaceuticals of some sort.

We got our son into treatment, and while he was getting help, we were getting some education about the disease of addiction, that it was chronic, that there was also could be a genetic component. And that it could be deadly.

But we of course didn’t think anything about that. We just concentrated on supporting our son in every way that we could.

We began 2001 with a lot of hope. About five months into treatment, he had been doing well and we had been pleased with his progress, and so he came to us on one day and asked if he could go swimming at a friend’s house. We knew the kids he was going to be swimming with, and he’d been doing well, so we decided to kind of lessen the reins a little bit, and said sure.

They swam for a while, and then the girls decided to go in and have lunch. David then and his friend went to a nearby drug store, bought a can of computer duster. David had learned somehow that he could inhale the propellant, which would give him a very brief high, anywhere from 10 to 15 seconds, and it wouldn’t show up on the drug screens. I don’t think he knew is that in some cases computer duster can cause something called Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, a disruption of the electrical activity of the heart, and can also bring on a heart attack.

They were passing the can back and forth, taking turns, going underneath the water. And then at one point, David didn’t come back up. He’d gone into Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome while he was underneath the water. His body’s first reaction, naturally, was to try and take a breath. He opened his mouth and took in all water.

The main cause of death was drowning. The secondary cause of death was Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome.

While the EMTs were there, the parents had called my wife. So Marissa drove to the hospital, and by that time, he was already gone.

I was actually a couple of thousand miles away in Phoenix, Arizona. I got the call from her saying that he was – had died. I rushed to the airport. This is before 9/11. I basically told the ticket counter what had happened. And they -- they were great. They didn’t ask for any documen-tation or anything. I mean they could tell that I was distressed, and immediately put me on the first plane directly back to Indianapolis. And so --- but that, that was -- that flight was the worst. Just so much going on in my head.

The addiction gene ran on my side of the family. I had two uncles who had -- were alcoholic on my father’s side, and I was someone who overindulged on a regular basis. I had already pledged to my wife that I would know how to help him and get through this, and I failed at that. Between the grief and the guilt, you know, I began to spiral down myself, drinking more alcohol and then I began also abusing the anti-depressants that I was being prescribed for the grief and the guilt and the depression. To the point where I began shopping doctors for the medications. I had a tragic story. It was pretty easy for me to go to another physician and share the same story and immediately get a script for Xanax.

One day, my wife and my son, my other son, my older son, came home and found me in a blackout. And I can still remember coming out of that blackout seeing, you know, my wife screaming at me and saying, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

I said, “I’m in trouble. I’ve been abusing alcohol and drugs, and I think I need to get help.”

My situation was so serious that I ended up having to come in-patient at that point in time.

Part of the recovery regimen, too, was going to 90 meetings in 90 days, and I ended up doing 180 meetings in 180 days. And I’ve been in recovery now for 15 years and I still do 5 or 6 meetings a week. That’s the medicine that I continue to take for my disease of addiction. And the dollar that I put in the basket at each of those meetings is a lot cheaper than the prescription drugs I take.

I’m an academic by training. Spent 28 years as an administrator and dean at the largest university here in Indianapolis. But a couple of years after I got into recovery, I started kind of a new chapter. I went to the CEO of the treatment center and told her that I’d be interested in getting some profession experience in this field of addiction treatment and recovery.

And so we started a parent support group. There’s no question that the death of a child is the worst loss. What we found was, you know, we didn’t have to do counseling in that group. The counseling took place just by people sharing where they were, what they were struggling with, and then hearing others sharing exactly the same things in a same way, and found comfort there for the first time.

After David died, friends, family, and even people that we hadn’t been acquainted with, came to us and often started off by saying, “Well, what went wrong?” you know. And sometimes it would be a little more pointed, you know: “Were there some things that you didn’t do?”

Our children aren’t supposed to die before us. It’s like a violation of some sort of rule. What went wrong? What could we have done differently? All that kind of mental machination is part of what led to my serious depression, and frankly, trying to find relief from the shame, and the guilt – probably more the guilt. Again, because the addiction gene ran on my side of the family. He caught this from me.

We learn in recovery that acceptance is the release of all hope for a better past. That’s become our mantra. And that then has freed us up emotionally and psychologically, and brought us to the point where we can help others, at least try, to work down that path.

I describe our mutual recoveries as kind of what a strand of DNA looks like. DNA has two trunks. I’m one of the trunks and she’s the other trunk. They’re separate and distinct but there are branches periodically that connect those two trunks. And that’s what recovery has done for us. It’s connected us in some marvelous ways.

But at the same time, if you look under a microscope, DNA kind of spirals around. That’s what life continues to do to us is that it continues to spiral us around. And we continue to have challenges and things happen to us. But there is still that tightness and structure of us together.

The most important thing recovery has done for the two of us is that it has allowed us to -- to move on from the worst loss and celebrate our son’s life in a beautiful way.

My name is Kim Manlove and this is my story.

Mariel Hafnagel -Grace & Luck in Recovery

Mariel Hafnagel is the Executive Director of the Ammon Foundation. In longterm recovery since 2007, she knows the disease of addiction well. Grace and luck and a lot of compassionate support changed her life.

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I didn’t wake up when I was 17 and decide that I wanted to be a drug addict.

The trajectory of my life and how I began to manifest addiction was not a conscious decision. Was picking up alcohol and drugs a conscious decision? Absolutely – because I was in tremendous pain and I wanted to take that away.

My addiction progressed rapidly, leaving limited if not zero time for intervention, education, primary level care.

My name is Mariel Hufnagel. I’m a woman in long-term recovery which for me means that I’ve been alcohol and drug free since May 7, 2007, after an alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine addiction from the ages of 17 to 21.

There was nothing extraordinarily dysfunctional or out of order or catastrophic that happened in my childhood. From a very young age however, I always felt less than, different, and was constantly looking for a way to diminish those feelings.

I acted out. I stole. I was promiscuous. I threw temper tantrums. Anything I could do to get outside of me and to get some attention from you.

I do remember at a very young age experimenting with alcohol, alone, and I just think that is important because the reason why I used alcohol and drugs, the reason I acted out was because I was trying to self-medicate.

It’s very clear to me there was something off in my brain, and that there were mental health issues, underlying and untreated.

I didn’t start using anything regularly until I was about 17. And in literally a matter of months, if not weeks, I went from having a seemingly pretty normal life, you know, a beautiful house, a loving family, a decent GPA in school, friends, a boyfriend, etc. – to being homeless, a prostitute, living on the streets of Norwalk, Connecticut. I had a $1500 a day drug habit.

And what comes along with that lifestyle, as a 17, 18, 19 year old female, is a lot of trauma, a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of dangerous situations. All that does is it perpetuates the need and the desire to continue getting high. There was nothing I needed to do more than numb out so I could escape from all of that.

May 7, 2007, I was arrested and I was brought to jail. That was the beginning of my recovery story.

So often we talk about someone needing to have a willingness or a honest desire to enter and maintain their recovery. I was not willing or voluntarily brought to Volusia County Correctional Facility. But what that allowed is it allowed just enough time for me to get physically separated from alcohol and drugs that I could begin to have some clarity about my life. And it was through that clarity that I became willing to be an active participant in changing and addressing some things, so that I could be sober and live a life that was worth living.

Detoxing in jail, potentially in physical danger, unlike any other chronic disorder that would be medically addressed, addiction is not ,and was not, for me. And so I’m terrified and just kind of just left to fend for myself. Which is not loving and not medically appropriate for anybody.

So I ended up being in jail for about two months. And when I was released I needed to make a lot of changes and I needed to address a lot of things that I had been shoving down and unwilling to address for years at this point.

I got accepted into a halfway house and I was there for almost 9 months. It allowed me to have a safe place to live, get involved with peer-to-peer support. It allowed me time to look for employment, apply for Medicaid and food stamps, and social services. All of this was vital for that first year.

I also needed to get honest about how I was feeling, what I was thinking. And one of the most important things that I have found in my personal recovery is having people around me who hold me accountable and who I can be transparent with about what’s really going on. Recognizing that part of just the human condition is that we are broken and imperfect and that’s okay. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. It’s okay to be who I am, in all its glory or in all its ugliness, and finding people who embrace me and love me and hold me up during those times. And had I not be able to kind of find that support, I don’t know if I would have been able to maintain my recovery.

I think it’s really important when we talk about recovery to talk about people being able to build meaningful, purposeful lives. Because without being crass – although I am crass -- if I can’t have a life worth living, why would I not want to be getting high?

Not saying that life needs to be perfect al of time. No one’s life is all of the time. However, when the bad times come, if there is purpose and meaning and love and connection in their life, it’s easier to weather those storms.

What happened when I was about five years in recovery is I realized there is a lot of discrimination against people like myself, and I became motivated to try to make a macro difference.

Oftentimes people ask me, what do I attribute my recovery to? And I say grace and luck.

Grace is defined as an unwarranted gift from God. And whatever you believe is your beliefs, but I believe that the universe is conspiring for our greatest good, all the time.

I believe that I’ve been put in the right place at the right time with the right people enough times to maintain my recovery and to become who I am today.

That’s also combined with luck. Luck for me is connected to privilege. It’s connected to the fact that I’m an upper middle class white female. Between the ages of 14 and 21, I was a repeat offender. I am now a convicted felon. I’m a sex-trafficking survivor, and I’m formerly homeless. Time after time, I was given second, third, fifth, a hundredth chances, by everybody – police, judges, by people who I just crossed paths with. I also experienced tremendous generosity because I was seemingly non-threatening. And, due to the socio-economic status of my family, I was able to access treatment, go back to school.

I was able to do all of these different things that are off-limits or much harder to attain than say my African-American female counterpart, my trans counterpart, my lower socio-economic counterpart.

My recovery should not be based on grace and luck. It should be based on the fact that I was given access to services, that barriers were removed, and that I was treated with compassion because I suffer from a brain disorder – and that’s why I should be able to have entered and maintained my recovery.

So since 2012 I have had the incredible ability to join what many people call the recovery advocacy movement. I have been able to work and live in a space where people are demanding what I like to consider the civil rights of people who suffer from a substance use disorder. And, you know, it started as a volunteer intern in 2012 and just six years later I have the distinct privilege of being the executive director of a foundation.

And that really is what recovery looks like, right. It looks like the fact that I got married. It looks like the fact that we rescued two dogs. We bought a house. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a taxpayer. I’m an employer and an employee.

My story is not extraordinary. I just have been empowered to share it. There are thousands if not millions of others, just like me, living in recovery, a part of society who have overcome their own struggles with addiction. They have just not yet been empowered to share their story.

My name is Mariel Hufnagel and this is my story.

Eric Whitaker -Peer Pressure

Eric Whitaker understands the destructive patterns and habits that can rule life. And he's figured out a way to break his. He's clean and he's sharing his story.

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When I was around three or four years old, my parents decided to move us from West Baltimore out to Carroll County, a very small town in Carroll County. It was a shock but it was a welcome shock.

Now, school begins and the first thing I notice is I don’t look like these people, I don’t sound like these people. And I felt different. You know, I am a black man and 2% of the population in that county, to this day, is minority.

At first I tried to work through it. However kids are cruel. For one, I had a stuttering problem. It was fueled by anxiety and everything else. So I was made fun of and I was picked on. But it was stressed in my household to read, to learn, and no one would ever be able to deny you. And as soon as my grades were great – I mean, I was a great student – I was always at the top, I won spelling bees and everything. I felt like I was part of something that I belonged to. So, one could say that like at an early age I was also searching for approval of others. What kid doesn’t?

However, throughout middle school and high school, that same need for approval had me doing things that I really didn’t even care for. I went places with people that I didn’t like or even want to be with. It was a constant need for approval. Peer pressure.

The time I turned 15, I decided to start using drugs. I started to do heroin before I did anything else. I thought that a cool guy my age did drugs and drank. And this was 1995. When I graduated there were four black people in my class, counting myself. What was happening was, I was not black enough to be around them, but I was not white enough to be around the others. That’s when I debuted selling the drugs, because at this point, my heroin habit had gotten insane. I had gone from thirty, forty bucks a week, to now I’m close to a hundred dollars a day.

No one knows what it’s like to need to put fifty bucks in your body before you can brush your teeth. No one knows what that’s like unless you’ve been through this. It’s like waking up with the flu times one thousand.

Every night, I’m not going to sleep. I’m laying down and resting my eyes for three hours, after homework, sports, social time, girlfriend, family time. Getting right back up at four o’clock in the morning. I’m being picked up from a small town in Carroll County, Maryland by older white men that would otherwise not talk to me at all so we can go down and I can get them their fix, their money can get me mine, and I can be dropped back off to get on a school bus and go to school and perform, pass tests, give speeches, and act like nothing was wrong.

One teacher my senior year spoke to me. She said, “You know, Eric, I know you’ve had some problems. And if there was something I could do to stop you, I would. Only you have the answer. Please let me know what I can do to help.“ And I looked her dead in her face, and I said, “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

What can you tell a teenager --especially a teenager that feels like he or she is in charge? When you’re not done, you’re not done. And I was out to do harm to myself. I couldn’t do enough drugs. I couldn’t do enough drinking. Everything I did was just so far off the meter.

It’s not about the drug pulling you. It’s about feeling you have nothing to live for. You have no hope.

So I began to seek the solution. I chose this self-help group. I could show up the way I was. I could be who I was. And within reason, me keeping my story as my story, someone was going to relate and get something from me, even on my worst day. It was about learning how to live again. All I knew was drugs and that’s not living.

So in ‘08 or ‘09, I checked into a sober-living situation. I put together two years clean – my first time getting clean, I put together two years living clean. But I fell again and used. And in 2010, I overdosed for the first time. It was a combination of prescription meds that I was prescribed for anxiety, pain meds that I was prescribed for a broken collar bone, and a couple of beers. So that began my overdose history.

Once you overdose once, you’re pretty much in line to continue that path until you die. And that’s just what I know based on experience. Overdose again, two more times that year. At this point, we know how it goes: I do well, and then I do not. I continue the same behaviors and I get the same results. I didn’t have enough to live for to worry about -- dying. It was as if I always needed someone’s approval to validate me wanting and needing to live. I was never good enough for me.

And I believe that’s what different about this time around. And I’m never going to say, I got this, I’m okay. But I’m definitely all right.

This time I checked into a facility. That was in April of 2017. I now work for a very prominent local hospital. My job is I link people with the help and the hope that they need to possibly seek treatment. Because I practice the principles tolerance, patience, faith, perseverance, I managed to make a career out of my story, my life, and my experience. So this has taught me to look at myself and learn myself. And when someone is speaking, truly listen, listen to learn. Because I don’t always have an answer. But I do have an ear to listen.

I’m Eric Whitaker and this is my story.