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.