By Rebecca Allen
“Hi, my name is Rebecca and I’m a woman in long-term recovery and for me, it’s been over 21 years since the last time I used heroin.”
This is how I introduce myself in my professional life as Director of Recovery Support Services for the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR). I am not, nor have I ever, been ashamed that I am a person with a substance use disorder. I’ve NEVER been ashamed of having the disease of addiction. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done some pretty awful things that I am ashamed of but that was disease-driven behavior, not me. Stigma never prevented me from getting help either. My addiction, defined by physical dependence, ambivalence about stopping and self-imposed isolation kept me cycling in addiction for many years. Not the stigma. I don’t know why I ended up addicted to heroin at the age of 22, but I do know what many professionals believe about people with substance use disorders.
They are victims of trauma or otherwise “damaged”.
They believe alcohol/drug use always serves as a way for people to cope or, my personal favorite, self-medicate for some random, undiagnosed, mental health condition. But this hasn’t been my experience in either my personal life, or as a professional working in the behavioral health field for the last 18 years. Yes, some individuals I’ve known either personally or professionally handled the stress of trauma, violence or drug-ravaged environments by using mind-altering substances. However, I find this to be the exception, not the norm. People usually don’t know why they started using drugs or alcohol, but most know why we continued to use…because it made us feel “good” or later on made us feel “better”. Even in the depths of my addiction, I felt good when I used and the more I used, the better I felt.
I’ve never really been a follower of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous but they do have some sayings that are spot on. My favorite is “one is too many and a thousand, never enough”. This simple quote addresses the root of addiction and helps explain why many of us end up addicted to more than just one substance. Or when we achieve recovery from one substance we can find ourselves addicted to food, sex, shopping and/or gambling. Our brains need time to heal. People who are successful in their recovery practice vigilance when it comes to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors especially the ones that fire up the pleasure center in our brains.
My 20 plus years of recovery have shown me that people in recovery from a substance use disorder, including myself, are highly capable and determined people. We overcome obstacles, adapt to changing environments and make things happen. We have an underlying strength and resilience that helps us transform our entire being. For many, it’s buried deep, but once connected, it allows us to build an incredible, fulfilling life in recovery beyond our wildest dreams. Those of us that have “been there” naturally recognize another’s inherent strength and resilience.
I believe this kinship makes Recovery Coaches extremely effective. They see you as the capable, competent adult you are. A Recovery Coach believes in you until you can believe in yourself. They offer support, encouragement and resources for you to be successful, however YOU define success.
Finally, please don’t perceive someone as damaged. Because we’re not.
Rebecca grew up in eastern Connecticut and has worked in the behavioral health field for over 18 years. She received her undergraduate degree from ECSU and a Master’s in Public Health from UConn in 2015. She identifies herself as “a person in long-term recovery” and has been drug-free for over 20 years. “I’m fortunate to work for an organization where I can share my personal story of recovery and use myself as an example that people can and do recover.” Rebecca’s drug of choice was heroin so for her, the on-going “opiate epidemic” conversations are personal.