One day away from turning 33, N had a bag of meth in her hands. Though sober for a month, N felt she deserved to reward herself.
And so she did.
That would be the last time, however, N used her drug of choice for an entire year.
Today, one day away from turning 34, N describes the surreal experience of very recently finding a bag of meth in an old box while cleaning out her garage. There wasn’t a lot of meth in the bag, but enough to do some damage to the recovering meth addict who hasn’t used in twelve months.
“I set it down and I looked at it and I thought I have to get rid of it. Those words kept running through my mind, the same words we were telling one of the members in my Relapse Prevention Group. Just get rid of it. Get rid of it. Get rid of it.”
And so she did.
N gave the bag to her mother who flushed the meth down the toilet.
N – as she prefers to be identified – is bright and bubbly with a dynamic energy that is palpably felt in the room. She speaks quickly, has her own opinions, and does not fit neatly into the general stereotype of what addiction looks like. Not without struggles growing up, N was raised by her single mother, a professor of African American and Chicano literature. N received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and has a master’s degree in Mexican American studies. N is articulate, intelligent, and a far more confident person than the girl addicted to meth who desperately sought an opportunity for help.
Last year, in a nod to the end of Walter White’s emperor-like reign and the Breaking Bad series, Sage Neuroscience Center found an opportunity to address the severe substance use issues in Albuquerque and the rest of New Mexico. Sage offered a free scholarship to its substance use Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) to someone struggling with addiction. All people had to do was write about their struggle.
N wrote an essay about her struggles with substances and difficulty with mental health issues. N’s drug of choice was meth. She had been smoking meth on a daily basis for the last 9 years. Prior to meth, N was a heavy cocaine user for 6 years, and dabbled with a variety of “party” drugs right after school. All of this in conjunction with a diagnosis of ADHD received at the age of 10.
What attracted N to drugs?
“The sense of social connection, the desirability, being needed, but most of it had to do with escape.”
The essay also reflected N’s significant anxiety about what follows sobriety. While getting sober for N was difficult, N had accomplished it in the past. It was the “now what?” question that inhibited any sustained period of recovery.
N was awarded the scholarship and began the IOP in October of 2013. Her one “slip-up” with that bag of meth happened a month later, and was a reminder for N that using meth was not what she wanted for herself and her life. She successfully completed the 12-week IOP, graduated, remains committed to individual psychotherapy and supportive group therapy, and continues to change for the better.
I sat down with N to talk about her journey over the last year.
What’s different between last year when you slipped and this year when you didn’t?
I have a lot of foundation underneath me this time. Going through the IOP, the therapy, the relapse recovery, the experiences, the accomplishments that I’ve made, the time that’s passed, the strength I’ve developed: my entire situation is different this time around. I don’t feel out of control, so lost. I’m more clear-headed, and I have this strength inside me that wants to keep doing well, keep doing right.
Because I still get these ideas: what if, what if maybe just a little…but so many good and positive things have happened for me and I can’t just consider that to be good luck. I would get suggestions to try all these difficulties I have in my life…in a different way…try doing it sober, see how it works out, and it’s working out.
I feel like a born-again Christian: I see the light and Jesus has saved me, but it’s me that saved me. My sobriety has saved me. Even the feeling of the baggie in my hand was different this time around than last year. Last year, when a friend gave me the meth, I felt giddy, like it was my little secret. I was sober for a month and I felt I deserved this. This time, looking at it in my hand, I thought “you’re tempting, but I’m not falling that way again.” It’s just not worth it.
Tell me more about all these good and positive things you mentioned.
I’ve been working at a job, consistently, since April. I get up on time, which is something I never thought I’d be able to do, and I’m good at my job.
I look at everything differently now. I try to look at the silver lining, try to talk myself out of my characteristic go-to negative thinking, which is something that never happened prior to all of this sobriety, the IOP, and Sage. I usually freak out, feel devastated, the world comes to an end. But I’ve learned ways to curb those initial fears and stress. I still get scared and freaked out, but those are the old cognitive distortions working their way in to toxify my thinking, but I can recognize that now. I’m stronger now, I’ve changed, I respond to things differently: not so negatively and impulsively. I’m really able to listen to myself, talk my way through things and believe myself.
The universe throws curve balls at me to see how I react and I’m trying to stay focused, positive, mindful, and present. Which is difficult, especially because of my ADHD. I’m on medication that helps me significantly, and I’m terrified about the thought of not being on them, which is also confusing. I’m not self-medicating anymore, but I am medicated. In a way, I’m dependent on my meds and that’s interesting. I think of it in a way that I’m just as dependent on my ADHD medication as a diabetic people are dependent on their insulin. It helps them function. I have to take certain medication for the rest of my life and that’s okay because certain things don’t function as well without it. I’m so happy it’s finally being managed. My provider takes me so seriously. She listens to me; she’s just very real and I need that. I can be honest because there’s nothing to lie about.
How does being honest feel?
It feels really good. Liberating. I’m more confident. And that’s another positive change. My sense of independence has also grown. I’m not as scared to go out and do things. When I don’t feel like going out, I’m more confident expressing that and pushing myself to do things that are uncomfortable, but that will ultimately be beneficial for me.
I’ve been experiencing strength in vulnerability, finding spaces to be honest with that’s going on with me. Some people, I’m cool with telling them everything. With others, I’m feeling them out more, seeing if it’s the right decision. That’s new for me because it’s always been everything or nothing for me. I’m enjoying the confidence I have of putting myself out there with people I’m comfortable with.
Going through this new cognitive awareness about everything and my place in relation to everything. How I respond to things. Contemplating how good of a fit I am in all roles. I’m paying more attention to things I really enjoy, things I’m good at, things I’m not so good at, and knowing that’s okay. Maybe I’ll look at something else that might be a better fit.
This point in my life is just a stepping stone to figuring out what I’m really good at. I’m making money and I’m managing it. I’m paying for my own car repairs. I’m in a better place financially. Instead of buying dope, I buy music and things I enjoy. It’s still a struggle to be an adult, but I don’t have that excess weight dragging me down.
What was it like writing the essay?
I wrote it high. It’s easy to describe where you’ve been and what you need versus where you are and where you’re going. The assignment was to write about my relationship with drugs, and I knew that really well. I knew what I needed. Now that I’m passed that point, it’s hard to organize and articulate what I’ve changed into. It’s a lot of non-linear ideas and the path is unsteady, but it’s exciting. I have a lot of guidance, but it’s on me to make the right decisions.
I know that while writing it, there was a sense of desperation. It was my only chance. Finding help is so difficult. If you’re not on a drug that causes fatal withdrawal symptoms, sometimes you’re not really that important. I tried to find help. I wanted to do it on my own. My mom wanted to help, but maybe it was my resistance to getting help and wanting to do it the hard way. I had looked into various programs. I called different places…the ones with yoga and hot spas. I thought it was all fantastic, but what do you when you get home? That’s always been a big factor for me when considering treatment. You can always get clean somewhere else, but what happens when you get back? There are everyday issues that cause you to use. You can’t permanently fix them when you’re still not in them.
What were your feelings starting the IOP?
I was shy. Nervous. Excited. Skeptical. Hopeful. In my essay, I specified I need mental health care. I didn’t just need to get sober. A lot of the places I called only had one or the other: sobriety or mental health care. Not many had both, especially with a medication component. I couldn’t just take away meth without controlling everything else. Inpatient settings were an option, but we couldn’t afford it.
New things always scare me, but I didn’t want to let that deter me from my “Do this or die” mentality. I knew I just had to get through it. It was going to be hell, but I had my mom, and that is one relationship I’ve never wanted to burn. She’s the one person who has been in my corner regardless of what I’ve done to her or her to me, so I couldn’t burn that bridge.
If you’re always doing drugs, people don’t expect much out of you. Getting clean helped me. I slowed down. I’ve seen it and other people have seen it. And that’s rewarding to me.
How much of that is attributable to the IOP?
Almost all of it. I try to give myself credit, but how much can you attribute to what you know at whatever you do to school? Yeah, you can be good at what you do, but you wouldn’t know the tricks of the trade without getting that education.
The IOP was class. It teaches you how to function, how to cope, how to feel better, how to look at things in a different light, how to distract negative thoughts. I learned so many tools to help me function, to just get through it. I’m still figuring it out. I’m still far behind, but I’m so less handicapped now than where I was before beginning the IOP.
The IOP provides you with the tools and teaches you how to use them. How difficult was it to pick them up and start using them?
I was hesitant to use them. I think I was delayed in picking them up. But you know me, everything the hard way. I’m still working on make them innate. I make it a practice to tell myself I don’t always have to feel a certain way. I have a healthy way to not feel those negative emotions. Breathing has become more of a habit, but I’m working on getting all my tools to that level. Taking all the tools, thoughts, and behaviors and making them instinctual. Just like it was a habit for me to wake up and pull out the meth.
I can form new and healthy behaviors. I am more cognizant of my patterns, things I’m doing, my ways of thinking.
How did you develop that awareness?
Being sober helps. I think a lot, and that’s partly why I used. I had nowhere to put my thoughts. It was like throwing a stack of random papers under your door and you wonder what the hell you’re going to do with them.
The IOP taught me how to categorize them…the papers, my thoughts.
I was so skeptical about everything presented in the IOP. How things were explained to me, though, especially biologically, psychologically: it’s not just a change of behavior. It’s literally changing your brain and how it works. That really spoke to me. Literally saying things out loud can redirect blood from the anxious part of my brain to another region and that makes me feel better. I’m doing surgery on my brain without cutting it open, and knowing I have that control is liberating. Remembering that I have that control is still difficult, but utilizing it really does work.
What was the best part of the IOP?
Graduation, but that’s a cheap answer. The best part for me was the family sessions. They were so rewarding and so helpful in the sense that my mom could be there and get an idea of what the dynamic of the group is. She was able to get her own verification and validation about what I’m experiencing and sharing. She could go to the meetings and see what I was doing was helpful. We learned to communicate things I couldn’t articulate as well without having that translator there for us. It helped our relationship.
What was the greatest challenge?
Getting up and getting there. Once I was there, it was okay, but getting myself there was really difficult.
Also, the rest of the day was scary for me. I valued the IOP. Those were the hours I was learning things and not doing meth.
What’s the most challenging aspect of sobriety?
Occupying free time is always a challenge. I valued the IOP. Those were the hours I was learning things and not doing meth. The rest of the day was scary for me. While I was in the IOP,
I would go home and sleep. Stay close to home. Now I watch movies, try to go out and do stuff, go to the museum, and do things with my mom.
What’s the best part of sobriety?
There are so many best parts. I have the freedom to be honest with everybody, which is such a relief. I enjoy not being a slave to something anymore. I enjoy no longer believing that I can’t do anything unless I do drugs first, because I don’t. I can do things on my own. I’m able to get up in the morning, not feel like crap. I still think about getting high, but I know I can’t just peek into Pandora’s box. Especially with meth. You just get sucked in. I’m not willing to do that again.
My life is so much better now.
What would you today tell yourself a year ago?
DO IT. This will be the best decision you’ve ever made. It just wasn’t getting clean. This process has taught me how to heal, how to cope, how to function. I got exactly what I asked for. Mental health care and learning how to survive without using.
How important was therapy in your process?
Huge. Incredibly huge. I feel I would probably fall back into a lazier state of being if I wasn’t consistently going to therapy. It keeps me in check. It would be so much more difficult without the therapy.
I recently considered stopping attending my Relapse Prevention group because I feel like I’ve moved beyond it. But my therapist told me that it isn’t just me that is getting something out of it. People can benefit from me being there. That same day, I went to group, and so many examples just hit me in the face of why I still needed to be there.
There are people who have surpassed my progress so I can always learn something from others, but now I recognize that people can learn from me too. Just because you’ve been clean longer than someone else doesn’t mean that you are more successful than anyone else.
Sobriety is not cookie-cutter. Everyone is different. I’m lucky enough to have support in my life so I don’t have to do everything on my own.
Everyone goes through difficulty on the journey. I show up with positivity and people can benefit from that. It’s how you find hope.
If you could give your addiction a name, what would it be?
What would you name your sobriety?
What would the title of a book or movie about your life be called?
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
Where do you see yourself a year from now?
Sober. I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing, but I know I’ll be sober. That’s the one constant I want to be sure of and I can say that confidently.