From Hiding to Seeking

There is something personal that I’ve wanted to share for a few days now but I’ve been too scared. I’ve been scared of judgment, even though I know this is something to be proud of. Scared of others mocking me or diminishing my efforts by whispering behind my back, “it won’t last.” Scared that by posting this publicly I’ll be seen as an attention seeker, or even worse, a fake. Scared that it hasn’t been long enough for anyone to consider my words worthy. Scared, truthfully, of how my honesty on this issue could potentially effect my credibility as a counselor in the past and make people weary of me practicing in the future (even though I KNOW that this journey has truly strengthened my mental and physical health in the long run.)

All this fear has made me cautious and hesitant to publicly celebrate and announce something I’ve been itching to announce days ago. Something I’ve been really damn proud of myself for.

I’m done being scared. I’m done living in hiding. I’m done holding back expressing my truths for fear of what others opinions may be. I’m done feeling like I can’t celebrate my own story, including the shadow times. I’m done fearing, and ready to trust my own process. So here it goes..

This past New Years Eve (12/31/2019) I celebrated 2 full months of sobriety: specifically abstinence from alcohol, cigarettes and Adderall (the three substances that collectively *almost* stole my spirit right out from under me.)

Many of you may not know this about me, but over the past ten years I’ve struggled on and off with addiction and substance abuse, mainly alcohol and cigarettes. It started when I went to college and things got real crazy real fast, and it honestly never fully stopped. Over the years I’ve lost jobs, relationships, friends and many other opportunities because of my substance abuse. I’ve been arrested, violated, embarrassed, betrayed, depressed and ridden with anxiety because of it all as well. I always found a way to play it off and power through and still be somewhat “functional” in society, (or at least convince myself I was.) I spent years associating substance use with confidence, happiness and popularity- I genuinely thought that I was a better version of myself when I was under the influence of something. I knew deep down that wasn’t a smart mindset, but I was trapped by my own illusion for so long that it became my reality.

There were many times throughout these past ten years where I would temporarily take “breaks”- maybe a few days, weeks or even the occasional month off. It was rare though. Things would hit a new rock bottom and I’d quietly go into a dark depression and then slowly get myself to feeling better through temporarily abstaining from substance. Yet, like clockwork, the moment I started feeling better again I would inevitably go back to the bottle and packs and pills because I felt like “I could handle it again.” The same cycle kept repeating over and over again. I could see it destroying me slowly, and always knew returning to using substance would cause another inevitable downfall, but I didn’t have the power and strength yet to stop it. The booze, cigarettes and other forms of toxic “releases” were always around, always accessible, always enjoyable in the moment. I had gotten so used to living in the darkness that the light sometimes hurt my eyes.

Part of the reason I was extremely nervous and fearful to post all of this is because of the reality that smack dab in the middle of this ten-year substance abuse spiral I also somehow found myself in graduate school for Clinical Mental Health Counseling. It felt like this huge cosmic joke that I somehow became the butt of. I can’t tell you how many days I woke up depressed and overwhelmed with imposture syndrome and self-doubt, asking the universe why the hell I was studying Mental Health when own mental health was a shit-show. I saw myself as this complete failure/fuck-up trying to wear a million hats and masks of all these healthy, well-balanced, perfect personalities that didn’t feel like me yet I was trying so hard to embody them all at once. I truly hated my life and myself at this point. This type of self-defeat was more toxic than any substance I ever put in my body.

Inevitably I crashed. As some of you may recall I wound up taking a break from graduate school for a bit. I do want to add a disclaimer that my choice to take a break was not solely because of substance. I had endured some other major changes in my life that left me extremely fragile and ungrounded. I felt very alone at this point and had lost a lot of support and was sinking even deeper into depression. So I decided to put my graduate experience on hold and take a step back. (Reminder: therapists/healers/medical professionals etc are also human beings and also sometimes don’t know what the heck is going on either.)

I retreated during this break and allowed myself to travel and reground. The joys of exploration helped and I found myself healing from the wounds that initially influenced me to take a break. I was able to pull myself together enough to get back into school, but I’ll admit it wasn’t perfect or pretty. At this point I was seeing my own therapist twice a week AND for the first time ever in my life I was seeing a psychiatrist who eventually diagnosed me with mild depression, generalized anxiety and ADHD and put me on medications. One of these medications was Adderal, which *can* be a helpful aid for ADHD, but also is an EXTREMELY addictive stimulant. I knew I was taking a risk by getting on an addictive medication, but at that point my only goal was to finish school so anything that helped I agreed to.

I did have some positives that came from all of this. A major one was being accepted as a clinical intern at a Wilderness Therapy program. I genuinely credit a major part of my ability to battle my own struggles and make it to the finish line of graduation to this internship and the support I received both from my supervisor(s) and from the woods themselves. I truly don’t think I would have returned to school had I not been placed in this specific internship. It was a godsend. I also still had my art. Throughout this whole damn 10-year battle I always had my art and nature and I thank God for both of them. (Fun fact: my ELEMENTS series was actually created during my final semester of graduate school as a personal coping mechanism for my intense anxiety. That series, among a few other art projects, truly kept my spirit alive.)

I somehow made it through to the finish line and graduated from graduate school with a 4.0. It about killed me, but I did it. I landed a temporary job at the Wilderness Therapy site for the summer right after graduation and spent the summer hiking in the woods and exploring this new sense of freedom not having to worry about assignments or internships or paperwork etc. My substance use naturally came to a more social and steady pace because I was genuinely feeling so grounded from being in nature working everyday. Things were somewhat falling into place and I was starting to see the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Things felt good, and I felt good. However, as I mentioned prior, when I start feeling good again is unfortunately the moment when things tend to slip all over again.

At this point in the story things get very personal. For my own protection I don’t feel comfortable sharing the full extent in this platform at this time. All i’ll say is things got REALLY dark once the joys of graduating started to fade and reality started to set in. I had been having a lot of tension with family, friends and other personal relationships, but I had been working a lot (almost 70 hours per week between two jobs) so I was able to distract myself. Eventually things changed and my jobs came to an end therefore I was no longer able to distract myself and hide behind them. I became very, very lost and I had an unhealthy amount of free time to wallow in feeling lost. I was drinking more than ever and back to chain-smoking cigarettes daily because I had nothing else I “had” to do (and quite frankly I didn’t feel capable of doing anything else.) What was worse was that for the first time ever I still had a prescription to Adderal, which I started abusing as well. I’m not going to go into my full beliefs and thoughts about Adderal at this time either; but all I’ll say is that it did more harm for me than good. It amplified my desire to smoke and drink and caused me to barely sleep and eat. My mind was constantly racing yet my body felt so sick and fragile. I felt crazy. Yet somehow I allowed myself to believe that it was helping. So as you can imagine I sank into an even deeper hole and this time it was my physical health that was starting to be effected. I’m pretty sure for a full month my body was only filled with the darkness of booze, smoke and stimulants. I was manic, moody, depressed, anxious and paranoid. It was all extremely terrifying and the worst part was I was aware that things were bad but didn’t know where to start changing them, and was too scared to. I stopped leaving my house and just started binge-watching Netflix in bed while drinking and popping Adderal to stay awake. I pretty much only left my room to go smoke cigarettes, and almost got evicted from my apartment because of how much I was smoking. On the rare times I would leave my house to actually enter society I would have to be drunk enough to manage a smile and a playful attitude, but I was basically a zombie anywhere I went. Between the adderal and the booze I was able to find a middle ground where I could be drunk yet still “functional.” I’m sure it didn’t look pretty, and a lot of this time is blurry for me, but the cross-buzz felt good regardless of how completely destroyed I felt the next day. The thing that confused me the most is it didn’t seem like anyone else even seemed to notice. I couldn’t tell if people had just stopped caring, or if I was that good of a liar and pretender that I had convinced everybody that I was “okay” even though internally I was screaming for help.

During this time, which mind you was only a few months ago, I experienced both first hand and through witnessing of others the true depth of how bad it can get with substance. I saw myself be transformed into something dark, and I saw others be transformed too. It was terrifying and sickening. But the reality is that I became taken over by something extremely dark that was deeper than depression and deeper than anxiety. Something that truly wanted to turn me away from everything good and healthy and healing. There were times I was pushing those who cared about me away, and times when I didn’t even care what happened to me. I had been in dark holes before, but never quite to this level.

Eventually things got so bad that my body did start responding. I had become so depleted, terrified, stressed and fragile that I genuinely began to loose feeling in my hands and limbs for a few days due to my circulation cutting off from tension and lack of nutrients in my body. At a certain point I became so overtaken by panic that I truly thought I was experiencing a heart attack. It was the most terrifying sensation I’ve ever experienced. My angel of a mother, and a few other really good friends, took care of me during this time and helped keep me somewhat sane to rest and recharge. It was humiliating and overwhelming at first, but necessary.

The greatest blessing that came from all of this was that I came clean about it all for the first time. Came clean that I wasn’t okay to my family, close friends and most importantly myself. Years and years of trying to “fit in” and “keep up” and pretend that I was able to use and drink and smoke and “have fun” with the rest of them clearly caught up. I couldn’t hide it anymore: substance was no longer a recreational pastime for me; it had become a source of true evil. I was reliant on it while at the same time it was literally destroying my mind, body and spirit. All I could do at this point was be very honest to those who I felt closest to, and pray.

The day I thought I was having a heart attack, when my mom drove two hours to come stay with me, I came clean to her. I told her how much I had been struggling over the years, regardless of all the achievements and accomplishments that made me look like I had it all together. I told her I needed help and that drinking was destroying me and smoking and adderall were close behind. I finally spoke my truth and didn’t hold back. She loved me the whole way through. And for that I am eternally grateful. She began helping me clean my life up, first by helping me clean my apartment, feeding me, and letting me finally sleep- then by helping me to look up treatment centers. I recognize how lucky I am because not everyone who struggles with addiction has that person to come clean to and be taken care of in return. It’s no wonder why so many people stay hidden in the darkness their whole life.

My mom and I discussed the fearful reality of how to pay for treatment, and also the reality that if I did admit myself into a treatment program I would more than likely be there through all of December, which meant Christmas, my birthday & New Years. Not to mention the utter humiliation I was also feeling of being a recent graduate with a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling looking up personal treatment centers to attend while everyone else in my cohort was looking up treatment centers to work in. The self-doubt and self-defeat were returning, but in that moment I knew I needed help to make a major change. I decided I would spend the final months of 2019, the final year of this intense crazy journey of a wild decade, in a substance abuse treatment mental health center. It was decided.

****(I want to be VERY clear for this next part that this is MY experience. I 100% support treatment and actually think that most people who are dealing with any type of substance recov