Satya had the fortune of conducting a Q&A with an alumni student about her recovery from substance abuse. This young woman has nine years of sobriety to her credit. In this written interview, we learn more about her journey with recovery.
Please tell us about your history of substance abuse…how old were you? What triggered it? What substances did you abuse?
I first experimented, somewhat unknowingly, as a very small child. It was with alcohol and inhalants. I believe I was born an addict, although not everyone is. It got really bad around the age of twelve. I used everything under the sun, whatever I could get my hands on, including hard drugs and over the counter drugs.
When did you realize you had a problem?
I always knew I had a problem, but I didn’t want to give it up. I had to try quitting on my own for a long time before I was willing to accept outside help.
When did your parents realize you had a problem?
My mother always knew I was crazy and off, but never knew I was using drugs. It wasn’t until I confessed to her while in treatment that she became aware of it. She still doesn’t know the total extent, which is ok, I think.
What kind of therapeutic support did you receive for your substance abuse issues?
I was given the gift of listening and acceptance. I had a very violent childhood which I had never really been able to talk about before. Treatment allowed me distance from my abuser and someone who believed me for the first time in my life. Lots of family therapy was also very useful, since my relationship with my siblings and mother was so bad. I don’t think I could have stayed sober without either of those things.
What valuable teachings did you acquire in treatment that resonated with you?
The main thing I was taught was other-centeredness. I was so wrapped up in myself that I loved drugs more than my family, although I never knew it. I didn’t think about how my actions affected others, and treatment taught me to get outside myself. I was also taught the importance of honesty. I used to never think lying was wrong. Honesty gave me relief from secrets, sickness, and loneliness. I was also taught the power of good communication, of not rolling over and letting people abuse me, but also not being aggressive or manipulative. Good communication allowed me to be a different person, so I didn’t have to drink anymore.
What was your commitment to sobriety when you were in treatment?
I wanted to be sober more than anything, and I also didn’t want to be sober. My soul wanted relief and my disease wanted relief. Alcohol and drugs at one time gave me relief, and it was difficult to face the idea that I’d never get that relief again. But they hadn’t worked in a really long time and I’d been beaten into submission so many times that I had to give it up and try something different.
When you returned home after treatment, what was it like to try and stay sober?
I think I really underestimated the power of my disease and my own powerlessness over it. I did stay sober, but depression slowly crept back into my life after about three months of not going to meetings and not dealing with my stuff or working to help others.
Were you able to keep your sobriety?
I’ve stayed sober since treatment, but this was my third treatment center, and obviously, I didn’t stay sober after the first two. Not maintaining a 12-step program made things a lot more difficult. Surrounding myself with people who didn’t value sobriety or personal growth made it difficult. But mostly it was not dealing with things, with trying to bury stuff and tell myself it was all ok.
What supports do you think you needed in place to help you maintain sobriety?
A regular 12-step program is absolutely essential. This means having meetings I go to every week, people I have real relationships with, a sponsor, and sponsees. I continue to work with other addicts/alcoholics on a regular basis and it keeps me from even wanting to drink/use, while at the same time allowing me to give back. I think continued therapy is also a very good idea, whether it be individual, family, or whatever. Spirituality is also very helpful. I myself don’t attend church or anything like that, but many people benefit immensely from it, and I do read lots of books on the subject or try to go out into nature.
If you could go back in time and give your parents advice on how best to support you when you returned home, what would you tell them? In that same respect, what advice would you give the younger you?
I needed my mother to trust me more and give me more autonomy. I was eighteen, so this may be different for younger graduates. But I really wish my mother had understood the nature of my illness, that there was really nothing she could do about it, and that drugs were really only a symptom of a greater problem. I also would tell her I had to talk to other alcoholics, people who understood. I would tell my younger self to get my freaking butt to a meeting, and to be more willing to confront my grief head on.
How was the transition to college?
I turned to another addiction when I first went off to college. It had been coming for a while, with all those months of not going to meetings or dealing with my issues (grief). At that point I thought about using almost all day, every day. However, I don’t think my external circumstances had much to do with it; I think that would have happened had I not gone to college. I think I just forgot how different the real world is than treatment, and to keep being honest and thinking about other people instead of getting sucked into my own head. Eventually the new problem and the obsession to drink was lifted again, but only after I did some serious catharsis about the things I’d been bottling up inside me.
Were you able to maintain sobriety during college (even for short periods of time?)
I went through college without ever taking a mind-altering substance. For that I am very grateful and proud.
During those times, what helped you abstain?
I surrounded myself with other people in recovery, some in college and some not. For those peers who weren’t in recovery, I made sure they at least knew that I didn’t drink, even if they didn’t fully know why. Usually the instant I told someone I “used to do drugs” and was now sober, they were completely supportive and even asked me about it from time to time, like, “Are you ok? Do you want me to not drink around you?” Stuff like that. I also listened to my instincts – if I felt uncomfortable in a situation I removed myself from it.
If you could do the college years again, how would you set yourself up for success with your sobriety (what would your plan be, who would you involve, etc.)?
I don’t really think I’d change anything, but let me repeat myself: a 12-step program with a home group and sponsor, living in service of others, continued therapeutic support, friends who know you’re in recovery, honesty honesty honesty, and daily gratitude. Remember that drinking is a symptom – it doesn’t come out of nowhere, and if you just don’t drink, the problem hasn’t been resolved. Resolve whatever’s bothering you, learn how your actions affect others and change them accordingly, and never forget sobriety is a privilege.