Addiction snuck into Mandy’s life. She had grown up around alcohol being an accepted way to handle pain. When her mother had a faulty surgery that brought opioids into the home, Mandy didn’t hesitate to use them for her own migraines. Pregnancy caused her to back off of the opioids, but the dependence on alcohol continued. Even while in rehab, Mandy didn’t believe she was addicted to substances. However, immediately upon getting out of rehab, she went directly to purchase alcohol. At that point, she recognized the scope of her dependence and realized that she had developed an addiction. After an unsuccessful attempt to take her own life, Mandy made some changes, and with the help of her grandfather, her Lord, and a lot of hard work, she not only began a journey of recovery from addiction–she got her son back as well. This is her story.
While Mikey was growing up, his parents both had two to three jobs; they were doing their best to support their three children, of which Mikey was the youngest. Because his sisters were five and eight years older, Mikey began staying home alone when he was young—to his recollection, he was only six or seven years old. He learned to only rely on himself, to solve his own problems. While this sounds good in theory, young Mikey’s way of dealing with problems wasn’t to address them or talk about them with someone—it was to bury them and ease the pain by self-medicating in the form of drugs and alcohol.
Mikey was introduced to alcohol and cannabis at the young age of 13. By the end of high school, he had also used cocaine and meth. He even tried acid at one point. A year after high school, he was playing in a local men’s basketball league and blew out his ACL and meniscus in his right knee. That led to his introduction to opiates.
Already primed for a substance misused disorder due in part to his early introduction to drugs and alcohol, Mikey developed an opioid addiction quickly. A year later, Mikey blew out his other knee. That led to a series of three major knee surgeries across three years, and Mikey was on opioids the entire time. When his prescriptions were gone, he obtained opioids from others. Whenever he couldn’t get opioids, he turned to heavy alcohol use.
Addiction Tightens Its Hold
“Even though [the drugs and alcohol] are the things that are screwing you up in the long run, you don’t see it right there in the moment,” Mikey explained. “It’s a social thing at first, like you’re doing it, you’re having a good time and as time progresses, you don’t notice it becoming a problem. You don’t notice that you’re not doing it to have a good time, you’re doing it so you don’t have to feel things anymore. You’re doing it as a daily routine. It’s not even fun anymore, you’re just doing it because you need to do it. You don’t really need, it, but that’s what addiction does to you. Your body starts relying on it to feel happy and feel normal. Your brain starts being tricked to thinking that is normal.”
Already feeling rather isolated, Mikey then experienced one of the worst weeks of his life while he was in active addiction, when his father unexpectedly passed away in Mikey’s arms. In that one week, Mikey attended funeral services not just for his father, but also his best friend, who had passed away previously from an overdose.
“My dad and I had a very up and down relationship my whole life,” Mikey said. His father, being a teacher and a coach, was tough on Mikey, to the point where the son felt he couldn’t live up to his father’s standards. For example, after a game, his father would give a general compliment followed up by a slew of bluntly honest feedback and criticisms about what mistakes were made and what could have been done better. Mikey’s father wasn’t demonstrative or verbal about his love for his son. “I can tell you how many times my dad probably told me he loved me or was proud of me or one to two hands my entire life,” Mikey said.
Regardless of how tough his father was on him, however, Mikey was devastated when his father died. “When that happened, it destroyed me,” Mikey said. “I had nightmares of him dying. I couldn’t go into our living room of our house. I drowned myself in alcohol and as much opiates as I could find. There are so many things you want to say when you’re not expecting to lose somebody. All these things you ever wanted to say come back to you, and you don’t know how to deal with them.”
“It wasn’t really until after he died that I realized like my dad didn’t tell me he loved me, but he showed me my entire life,” added Mikey. He recalled his father coming home after long days and still taking the time to go play basketball outside with him.
The Endless Cycle
About a year after his father died, Mikey got his first DUI. When he went to hospital, his blood alcohol content was a life-threatening .312.
“You’re extremely selfish human being when you’re an addict,” he said. “You don’t think about anyone else except for you and the good time you’re trying to have. It’s such a [lousy] way to live. I can see it now, but when you’re in it you just you don’t know. You don’t see the people you’re hurting or see the chances you’re taking that can hurt other human beings.”
Mikey continued to work, never missing a day, no matter how horrible he felt. He used substances during the day whenever he needed to do so to feel normal. Even his girlfriend didn’t know he was misusing substances. Eventually, he was introduced to heroin. After just a few uses, he almost overdosed because it was laced with fentanyl. That didn’t stop him from using opioids, because the withdrawal symptoms—the body aches, the nausea, the cold sweats—made him miserable.
His sense of loneliness and isolation increased, and now he was also filled with self-loathing, not just for what he saw as a failed relationship with his father and the DUI, but for everything he thought he had done in his life. “When I was using all the time, I just didn’t think people actually liked me, I thought they were just for being nice,” he admitted. “I always thought everybody was so fake, but really it was the opposite. I mean, sure some of those people probably were but I was the fake one. That hatred for myself went on for years and years. There was a point where I wasn’t a big believer in God or anything else anymore, but the only thing I ever prayed for was ‘Let me not wake up in the morning.’”
By then, Mikey was tired of his lifestyle, but he couldn’t break the cycle. “I didn’t want to keep using, but I did because that’s the only thing that would me get through a day. But it’s exhausting. You wake up and you’re so tired, you’re miserable, and so mad at the world, you don’t even know what to do with the anger. You don’t know even where it’s coming from. You don’t understand all this stuff you’ve pushed down for so many years like and you just never dealt with anything.”
After overdosing a second time on a pressed pill laced with fentanyl, Mikey made a strong effort to avoid opioids. However, his drinking picked up. After his second DUI, he was offered the opportunity to enter rehab. For Mikey, it was as if someone had thrown him a rope in the middle of a freefall.
“I never would have checked myself into rehab, ever,” he said. “I’d never been offered rehab by anyone. No one ever talked to me about it before. For some reason I just was like ‘I am in.’” That set him on the path of chasing recovery.
Fortunately, an advocate helped him obtain Medicaid so he could enter Phoenix House, a rehab in Arlington, VA. “I know it was her job, but she went above and beyond. She listened to my story and had compassion. That was something that meant a lot to me,” he said.
Because it was a bed-to-bed transfer from the jail to Phoenix, Mikey had to spend an extra two months in jail while waiting. He now believes that it was good for him, providing additional time away from drugs. And he can’t say enough about Phoenix House.
“I met some amazing men there,” he said. “I met people that were younger than me, people my own age, people that were much older than me that have been fighting this thing, but it made you realize you’re not alone. There are so many other people that deal with this. Addiction wants you to think you’re all by yourself; it wants you isolated. It wants you alone so it can control you and wants you to rely on it and absolutely nothing else in this entire world. When you finally figure out you’re not alone, that other people go through this…it’s a really empowering thing.” He spoke of Chubbs, who was once a dealer on the streets of inner DC, but now stands on the corner doling out advice and hope for recovery. Of Dave, who helps run the Phoenix House, Mikey said, “He’s just super awesome. He made you feel welcomed as soon as you got there. It was the atmosphere of knowing you’re not alone, and people accepting you. They know that what you have is a problem and a disease, it’s not who you are as a person. For so many years, you think that that’s who you are, but you are not your addiction and you’re a good person underneath.”
Surrounding himself with a support system of people in recovery has been one of Mikey’s keys to his own recovery. He has made good friends within the recovery community. At the Phoenix House, he began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings via Zoom, and he was eventually asked to chair those meetings. He began repairing relationships, and is relieved to acknowledge that he treats his mother better than he did before.
While chasing recovery, Mikey began talking with a new counselor who helped him address his emotions surrounding his dad. She also diagnosed his anxiety, which was a surprise to the outgoing man. When she recommended medication, however, Mikey hesitated. He had originally been put on antidepressants while he was still misusing drugs and alcohol, which was a bad mixture. The experience made him leery of trying antidepressants again. “But she said something very powerful to me while I was in there,” he recalled. “She looks at me and she’s like, ‘Why won’t you take a pill that might actually help? You’ll sit here pumping all kinds of [stuff] into your body for all these years to try to feel better, but you won’t take something somebody’s actually prescribed?’ I don’t know why, but it just clicked. Maybe it’s because my mind had cleared over time without drugs and alcohol in my system.” With the help of antidepressants and counseling, Mikey is making steady progress in dealing with his emotions and traumatic experiences.
Now, after spending more than half of his life misusing substances, Mikey recently celebrated 10 months in recovery, and says he feels better than ever. “When you’re an adult, you don’t want to admit you need somebody else’s help, but you do,” he shared. “You don’t want to admit that you’ve been wrong for 20 years, but you were wrong, and it’s okay to be wrong. What’s not OK is really being stuck doing the same thing over and over and over and over again. It’s the definition of insanity.”
Mikey now appreciates small things in life, like the smell and sight of both the rain and the sunshine, or waking up and going outside to feel the breeze on his face. He enjoys spending time with his mother, his girlfriend and her kids, and, of course, his beloved dog.
He has found joy in cheering up others and helping others, and has set a personal goal to become a peer recovery specialist so he can do both. “I want to help other people see that there is a better way, give them the opportunity,” he said. He hopes to one day be able to go into schools and share his story. Though he knows most teens won’t truly hear what he has to say, he feels that if he can reach just one person, it is worth the effort.
For now, Mikey strives to inspire others through posting inspirational quotes on his social media accounts, where he is also open about his experience in chasing recovery and celebrates each milestone. In return, people have messaged him, thanking him for telling his story. Not long ago, one of his “old” friends on Facebook reached out to Mikey to let him know that he saw his progress and was proud of him. “I told him like you don’t even understand how much that means to somebody,” Mikey said, getting slightly choked up. “It’s a powerful thing for some people you care about to start coming back around tell you they’re proud of you, when really all you’re doing is doing what you should have been doing the whole time, but because of everything you’ve done your entire life, that is a much harder thing for you to do than it is for most people to do.”
A Word of Advice
For those considering taking steps towards recovery, Mikey has this advice, which he learned from the woman who asked him to lead the NA Zoom meetings: “It’s about dealing with it in a productive manner instead going back down that same old rabbit hole. I think about it this way: if you put even have the effort into your recovery that you use to find stuff and use, you could do anything you want in this entire world. Think about all the effort and strength and determination you would use to find your drug of choice, just so you can use another day. Turn that into something productive and you can do whatever you want.
“No matter how bad it gets there can be better days ahead,” he continued. “You have to have hope. Hope is the biggest thing. Having hope and seeing a way out that can get you started. It’s taking it step by step. People think you’re going to get a rehab you’re going to go to some meetings and all of a sudden your life is just going to completely change, but that’s not how it works. It’s a lot of work, it’s work every day, but it’s worth it. You spent years digging that hole, you’re not get out of it in a matter of days or weeks; it takes time. You just have to have faith and hope.”
David started misusing substances when he was just 12 years old, nearly 13. Circumstances had left David, his three siblings with neither parent to care for them. Rather than see them split up, their grandparents stepped in, bringing the four children into their home with their own children, four of whom were not much older than David. “It was a three-bedroom house, with our two uncles, two aunts and us. Whatever they were experimenting with, I was right there trying it too,” David recalled.
Like many people of that generation, his grandparents didn’t speak about issues such as depression, or flaws in the family. To the outside world, things were great. But for David, his siblings, and even his aunts and uncles, things weren’t so perfect. “I grew up in a home where my grandparents were heavily into church, gone quite a few days, and we were left alone. We weren’t able to speak about issues we were having in house. I didn’t want to stain my family or say I was depressed,” David explained. With no outlet for his pain, David turned to substances. “I wasn’t scared like other kids. I saw it as an escape.”
David started with alcohol, because it was the easiest for him to access. He moved into other drugs during that first year of misuse. “I was diagnosed with chronic migraines and was prescribed Vicodin at age of 13,” he said, “and at the time I was still using alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes as well. I think it was the mixture that led to the downward spiral.”
David misused substances throughout his teens and into his mid-twenties. During that time, he met a special woman and married her, and they had their first child. His wife had no idea that he was misusing substances. “I lived double lives,” he said. “I masked a lot of things, until it got to a point where I wasn’t able to.”
The Turning Point
The misuse went from being an escape to being a need—David had developed an addiction. Then he got into a severe car accident. He had 86 screws placed in his face and his mouth was wired shut. He was given liquid pain medication and told he was never going to be able to work again. Also during all of this, he and his wife had a second child.
The car accident turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because his deductible had been met, David was able to use his insurance to pay for a rehab while his mouth was still wired shut. The detox process brought to light how much damage he had done to his body over the years of substance misuse.
“I came home, my mouth still wired shut, but I had all this information, I had this spark of ‘I want to go down this path, I want to do better,’” he said. “I was 90 days clean at that point.”
In an effort to stay away from substances, David opted for trigger point injections instead of medication. On the surface, he was making good decisions for his physical health and overcoming the substance use disorder. But it wasn’t enough. “I wasn’t working on myself,” he said. “Being clean wasn’t enough. There were all those other issues, abandonment, anger, resentment, all at the surface, and now there’s no escape from them.”
Just over a year into his recovery, David relapsed. “It was a short relapse because I had been away from it long enough know it wasn’t what I wanted,” he explained. “Right after, I went into another treatment, an IOP [intensive outpatient treatment] program. I was fortunate in that I had really good family support, but it was still tough. I was the only one who admitted I had a problem. Other people in the family didn’t admit there were issues. They wouldn’t talk about it. They wanted to pray about it.”
The next time David entered recovery, which was near the start of COVID, he approached it differently. “This time I felt I was more intentional,” he said. “I got with the counselor. I had tried counseling before, but others weren’t a good fit. This time I was diligent, and during my IOP, I found a really good counselor. I can’t even express how much it helped. It was the first time I felt someone was trying to help me.”
David was also seeing a psychiatrist, who provided a prescription for PTSD. At that point, David was wary of taking any medication, so he never got it filled. After working with his counselor for four months, she asked if she could take her notes into the psychiatrist. David agreed, and the ensuing discussion with the psychiatrist resulted in a different prescription—a low-dose antidepressant. “It took the anxiety edge off of everything,” David recalled. “For the first four weeks, it was an emotional rollercoaster, but there were a few days where I was truly happy, and I didn’t have a reason to be happy. I realized what life could be. It gave me the hope to push forward. The medication wasn’t the answer, but it was another variable of success in my recovery.”
David also started to attend Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. The culture of complete abstinence was what he felt he needed. “For me, I abstain from everything because if I start with one thing, it’s just going to snowball from there,” he said.
As part of NA, David participated in a home group and obtained a sponsor. Then he met someone who told him about Peer Support. “I went in there open-minded with no expectations,” he said. “It was great, because I didn’t realize how biased I was to just my way. Since my way worked for me, I thought everyone had to do things this way. Going to peer support, I realized there are multiple ways to success. It opened my mind a lot.”
Upon completing the class, David was offered a peer support specialist position, but although he loved the idea, it would have been a significant pay cut from his career—because yes, during all his recovery, he had continued to improve his overall physical health, eventually proving the doctors wrong and returning to work. So he turned down the peer support specialist position.
“That was actually something else recovery did for me,” he said. “It was due to what I learned during recovery that I was upfront and honest about not being able to do peer support. It used to be that I would have agreed to it and then not followed through.”
In the Game Now
David has been in recovery for over two-and-a-half years now. He said, “The biggest difference between now and any other time, is I feel great. During IOP, I started going into woods and enjoying nature. I hunt for mushrooms, do the soundboard at church, host a home group, and I am the sponsor for two other people. Success is coming from not doing just one thing. I have a whole bunch of things that I’m involved in.”
His recovery has also taught him some other important lessons. “Not every day is the best day, but for first time in life, I can deal with life, the whole of it,” he said. “Just because everything has been great so far, it doesn’t mean it will stay that way. I have to stay diligent. There were so many years that what I was putting in my body was damaging it, and it might make just as many years to fix that. I need to remember that it’s one day at time, not all at once.”
“This is the first time I was really intentional about not just staying away from drugs and alcohol, but changing things in my life. I needed to be okay whether things go okay or not,” David continued. He explained that during his first effort at recovery, he made conditions about his recovery. “I’d say, if this happens, I’ll stay clean, but if that happens…I was unintentionally creating these reservations in my mind, excuses to use. I had to stop doing that. Life is going to happen with my permission or without it.”
David has also found that the broader perspective he has gained has provided a deeper understanding of himself and his needs. “When I need some peace, I go into nature. When I experience stressors, I see my counselor. When I have cravings, I go to NA or counselors. If I’m having a spiritual problem, I call my pastor. It’s, for me, not just one way anymore.”
David’s story gives hope to others that recovery is possible, and it is that hope that he reiterated as his interview drew to a close. “I used to use for less stress. To see life coming at me and still be able to navigate with the help of a lot of other people, it’s just been working. I get to enjoy this pregnancy with my wife, clean and sober, and just be present. It’s been a long road, but I feel like I can breathe. Another big thing that has happened this time around is that the driving urge to stop everything and use has dwindled. If it’s just that, that’s enough for me. You can come to a point where the urge is gone.
“It’s not that everything is the best, but I’m in the game now. I’m a part of what’s going on.”
Brandi began misusing alcohol after her husband’s death in 2015. Within three years, she progressed through a variety of drugs, eventually becoming addicted to heroin. Now, thanks to her own grit, she celebrates Recovery Month, defying the odds.
Brandi was motivated into recovery when she overdosed two days in a row. During the first, her frightened teenaged daughter found her, slumped over on the bathroom toilet. During the second, Brandi’s friend had to use Narcan to save her life. Those events propelled her on a journey of complete grit, as she entered into recovery from heroin without medication or the benefit of detox. Fortunately, Brandi had other supports, including a 12-step program, the love of her daughter, and her own love of music. The program gave her a support system of people who could relate to her struggles. Her daughter inspired her to be the best possible mom. Her love of music gave her an outlet for her emotions.
Today, Brandi has reclaimed her life and stands amazed and continuously inspired by the renewed relationship with her daughter and her grandmother. She has taken the Peer Support training and strives to reach out to others, to let them know that regardless of the path taken, recovery is possible.
When Sherri was only ten years old, she was being molested and given cocaine. The young girl quickly learned that the drug provided an escape from the horror. For more than a decade, she achieved that escape through various drugs, not recognizing she had a substance use disorder.
“I was pregnant with my son, had a job, had a 401k…I thought I was okay, because I was functioning,” she said. “But I couldn’t stop using.”
Her son was born in 2019, and after that, life became more complicated. Sherri was pulled over and the police found drugs in her car. At first, there seemed to be no consequence. However, when the police were looking for her son’s father, drug charges were brought up against her as leverage.
Her situation got worse when in 2020, she diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I was blind, couldn’t see,” she said. “I lost ability to speak, to use my hands.” Through it all, she continued to use drugs, including meth, outright rejecting her therapist’s suggestion that she attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. “I told him, ‘I don’t want to go to meetings. That’s for losers.’ I was so close-minded about the fact that it could help me,” she recalled.
The Turning Point
March 2021 brought Sherri to court. When she arrived for her pre-trial, she was high, and suddenly she found herself in jail.
“Being in jail opened eyes,” she said. “I was powerless over what happened to son, powerless over what happened to me. Going to bathroom by myself was a big deal. I was in the Winchester jail, and I met some people who helped, but was my mindset that helped the most. I didn’t want to go back to the way I was.”
Sherri had peer recovery coach while she was in jail, and when she got out, she went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting that following Sunday. She went through the first two levels of the program by herself, before she worked up the courage to ask someone to be her sponsor. The woman she asked, Alex, agreed, and then immediately made her go back through steps 1 and 2 again. Sherri didn’t balk; she was determined to do whatever she needed to do to be successful in her recovery. In her case, that included going to two home group meetings each week.
On the Road to Recovery
In March of 2022, Sherri celebrated her first year of recovery. “It was amazing,” she said. “I talked to a lot of people in recovery to learn as much as I could, because I want this to work for me. I have a family now.”
Though her family provided her motivation for her recovery, they weren’t the only relationships that helped her move forward. The people in NA became a second family to her. “When my son had birthday, all people in that room were from the NA meeting I had invited to come,” she said. “They all showed up to celebrate.” And when she celebrated her one-year anniversary of recovery, she was even more astounded, as 150 people showed up to congratulate her and celebrate with her.
Her journey has not been without difficulties. In May 2022, Alex, her sponsor, passed away from cancer. “The gift that she gave me is unmeasurable,” Sherry said. “I will always carry her with me, and she will continue to help other people through me.”
In determination to honor Alex’s memory, Sherri found a new sponsor and plans to continue moving forward in her recovery. “I want to try to help other people. That’s what it’s all about, is giving away what was freely given to me,” she said. “Alex helped me so much.”
On Friday, September 2nd, Sherri celebrated her 18-month anniversary. During that time, her health has improved, her MS symptoms lessening as the lesions on her brain have begun healing. She has also experienced healing in her relationships. She explained, “My family trusts me again. I’m allowed in my brother’s house. My brother wouldn’t talk to me when I was using. Now I’m able to come into his house and talk with him.”
Perhaps the thing she appreciates most is being present. “Before, I was physically present, but not really present,” she said. “My son could get away with anything, because he didn’t feel he had to listen to me. I got him into a preschool, which is nerve-wracking. I’m able to be present for that.”
Words of Advice
Sherri wants others to know that although recovery is hard work, it’s worth it. “I don’t wake up dope sick and I don’t wake up wanting to get high. I love reading now. I read a book every two weeks. The gifts that recovery has afforded me have come over time and are priceless.”
“It gets better,” she continued. “As long as you stay in it. Get connected. Get your sponsor, get in a home group, work the steps, go to as many meetings as you can. They say 90 meetings in the first 90 days. That gets you your base and then you build up.”
Although NA is the path that worked for her, Sherri encourages people to find their own path to recovery. “Not everybody’s pathway is going to be the same as mine. I work with people and say, ‘It’s what you want to get out of it, it’s your recovery. It’s yours.’”
Editor’s note: Congratulations on your 18-month anniversary, Sherri! And thank you for sharing your story with us.
Opioids are widely acknowledged as a dangerously addictive drug. This risk of developing an opioid use disorder, or opioid addiction, varies based on a wide variety of factors. These include genetics, past trauma, and environment, to name just a few. While research has provided a better understanding of these risk factors, there is still a lot to learn. What we do know is that long-term use will almost inevitably create at least an opioid dependence, which can lead to an opioid use disorder/addiction.
Think of this as similar to a caffeine addiction. If you are used to having several cups of coffee in the morning, you might find that without it, your mind feels sluggish or sleepy. Some people find it difficult to function at a basic level until after their first cup of coffee! This is because they have developed a dependence on, or tolerance for, the caffeine. Without it, they don’t feel “normal.” The same happens with opioids. The opioid receptors in the brain have adapted to that influx of external opioids. Without it, the brain registers that something is wrong.
Opioid dependence can develop very quickly. It is extremely likely to occur if you use opioids for six months or more, but it has also been recorded to have occurred after just five days of use, and there is a 13% increase in opioid dependence for people who used them for eight days or more. Again, many different factors impact whether the dependence occurs, including the strength and type of the opioid taken.
Signs of Opioid Dependence
The safest way to avoid an opioid dependence is to never take them at all, of course, but sometimes that is just not feasible. Therefore, it is important that you take them sparingly, only as absolutely needed, and never more often or in higher doses than what was prescribed. In addition, make sure that you get your prescription filled at an official pharmacy; purchasing opioids on the street is a dangerous risk, because many contain other chemicals or drugs that could be harmful, including fentanyl, which is responsible for more than 70% of opioid overdoses.
Another way to stay safe is to be aware of the physical symptoms/signs of opioid dependence. These signs may include:
Emotional indifference (apathy)
Lack of energy/can’t get out of bed
Feeling normal only when taking opioids
Feeling unhappy when not on opioids
Just as headaches are a common withdrawal symptom for caffeine, there are withdrawal symptoms for opioid dependence. If you experience these symptoms, you have most likely developed a dependence on the opioids. That does not necessarily mean that you have an addiction.
The withdrawal symptoms of opioid dependence may include:
Body aches (muscle, joint, or bone)
Elevated heart rate
High blood pressure
Nausea and vomiting
Rapid heart rate
If you find that you cannot bear the withdrawal symptoms and it is compromising other areas of your life, you may have already moved into the opioid use disorder stage. If you suspect this is the case, it is important to get help as soon as possible. Talk to your doctor or visit the Resources section of our website.
The stigma of substance misuse and mental health goes far beyond what we say. It results in withholding assistance, job loss, the denial of housing, social avoidance, and much, much more. So why are we offering yet another article about the importance of how we word things? Because awareness of the stigma begins with how we speak.