According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there is a big gap between people who need treatment for substance abuse and people who actually get it. In 2014, an estimated 22.5 million Americans over the age of 12, 8.5% of the total US population,
were in need of substance abuse treatment, but only around 4.2 million of those, or 18.5%, received treatment.1
The takeaway here is that if you are suffering from an untreated substance use addiction, you are not alone.
Not only are you not alone, but recovery is also absolutely within your reach. If you’re at a place where you’re thinking about recovery, or maybe you’re even considering a particular treatment program, here are some stories and advice from real life recovering addicts that may inspire you and show you that there is hope for your future too.
Mallory started drinking when she was 17. By the time she was 19, she was doing it almost daily, until she didn’t even know how to function without alcohol. In and out of jail and treatment over the next ten years, her epiphany came when she was in jail for a DUI (driving under the influence).
“I was talking to a woman whose bunk was next to mine. She was sharing that her sister had just been sentenced for 30 years in prison because she was driving drunk and killed someone. That instantly spoke to me because I would black out and then drive,” says Mallory. “I knew in my heart that when I got out of jail this last time, if I started drinking again, I’d end up killing someone. I could not live with that.”
With the help of her parole officer, Mallory moved into a sober home, which is a transitional step between a halfway house and living in the general public. “Since I had no idea how to live sober and my decision-making skills were very poor, it was a great way to transition from jail and not just be thrown into society,” Mallory says. “I was with a community of people who understood and I couldn’t hide my drinking anymore.”
In the sober home, there were rules. No drinking or drugs, mandatory participation in 12-Step meetings four times a week, holding down a full-time job, paying rent and enlisting the help of a sponsor.
What she learned in the 12-Step program is that the drinking isn’t the problem, it’s the thinking. “The drinking was my solution to thinking. You take my solution away, now I’m stuck with the real problem, which is my thinking. When my thinking is all messed up, I’m going to want something to numb it, which is why I started drinking in the first place,” she says. “Knowing that I can’t use drinking as a solution anymore means I have to really work on myself. I don’t have that desire to drink anymore, but if I don’t work on myself and the behaviors that I have that put me into a cycle of anxiousness, fear, anger and resentment, then I’ll start those old behaviors that can lead me into a relapse.”
The hardest part of recovery for Mallory was getting used to actually feeling her emotions instead of numbing them with alcohol all the time. “It takes time to really get to know yourself and then trust yourself and know that if you’re feeling sad, or even if you’re feeling joy, it’s not permanent. I don’t operate on extremes anymore,” she says.” If I continue to do what I’ve learned over these past five years and apply it to my everyday life, I can acknowledge the feelings and know that it’s all a part of dealing with emotions in a healthy way instead of trying to numb and not experience or acknowledge them.”
Recovery has completely changed Mallory’s life. “So many blessings have happened and that’s what recovery is about,” she says. “Now it’s learning to live. When I was drinking, I was isolated and my freedom was taken away. When I think about how I can be of service to others, my perception changes and my day goes better. I’m not living in my head and I’m not relying on myself, which is what starts the bad thinking.”
Her advice:“You don’t have to live this way. There’s a better way to live. I want to plant the seed for others through my example and my story. People were always trying to give me advice before, and I wouldn’t listen. But when I finally hit that moment where I was completely hopeless and alone, that’s when it hit me. The seed was planted before that.”
Holly grew up in a small town and started drinking and smoking cigarettes with her friends when she was 14. Soon, her nickname became “Alcoholly.” Holly graduated from college, became a state social worker and child abuse neglect specialist and even did volunteer work. “But I was also just a blackout drunk biker chick,” she says. “I was doing things drunk that I wouldn’t do sober.”
It was right before her 28th birthday that something shifted. “I’d been doing this for 14 years and there was this guy where I lived at the time who had been sober for about two years. For some reason after a big party, he looked at me and said, ‘Your drinking is just gross.’ I don’t know why, but what he said planted a seed, and I took it to heart.”
After a four day drinking binge, Holly woke up on her 28th birthday knowing she couldn’t handle it anymore. “I got on my knees and told God I was done. My life was out of control. When I was partying, I ended up in all of these crazy situations. Some were good and some were terrible and unsafe. You can’t just hook up with people or be driving or getting in cars with people. These things can cause permanent damage in people’s lives.”
That was 13 years ago and she hasn’t had a drink since. “I do it for me and for my family and so I can help others.” Holly is now an employment specialist, so she often gets to help other addicts through her work.
Her advice: “I can’t reiterate how important treatment is for people,” Holly says. “You have to literally ‘360’ your lifestyle. You have to change your entire self and get yourself physically healthy too so that you have natural endorphins to help you stop searching for that high. You need to be really present about the decisions you’re making and take it one day at a time. Be gentle with yourself.”
Jeff, a successful retiree, ended up in recovery somewhat by accident. “My issues were involving alcohol. I don’t like just one glass, I like three bottles,” he says. “I had reached a point in my life where I got tired of drinking. I was drinking in front of my kids, and my son ended up with a DUI.”
Jeff’s neighbor mentioned to him that she was going to start going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), so he thought he’d tag along to support her. “I went to a meeting, and it was so interesting. I was saying I needed to stop in my mind, so I went to AA meetings for a week, then a month. After about six months, my brain started really clearing up. I could sleep well and I was dealing with my issues better.”
He kept on going to meetings and ended up joining Al-Anon as well. Jeff has been sober for just shy of a year now—he’ll celebrate his anniversary within a week of this writing—and he’s looking forward to giving his sons his one year sobriety chip.
Being in recovery has given Jeff a new outlook on life. “I’m in my 60s now, but I look and feel better than I did in my 40s,” he says. “I don’t even have a desire to drink anymore. I’ve been drinking for most of my life, but my life is much better when I don’t drink. You look at things differently when you’re not drinking.”
His advice: “Go try [treatment, AA or another 12-Step program] for 30 days. After 30 days, do it for 60 days, then six months, then a year.” The longer you stay in recovery, the more you’ll probably want to stay in it, he says. “The one thing I love about the program is that you have to want to be there.”
In 1987, Kim was 23 years old and going to court-reporting college. Although she was a good student, her sleeping schedule was pretty messed up because of her drug use, and so she didn’t make it to school for the required amount of time. Her family stepped in and helped her find a 28-day program.
“When I first found recovery, although I stayed sober for eight years, I didn’t fully understand my dilemma,” says Kim. “I just thought that drugs and alcohol were bad. I didn’t get that they were just a symptom of the problem. My problem was my thinking.”
After eight years of sobriety, Kim found herself addicted to a new drug for a few years. She went back to the 12-Step meetings and got sober again, was clean for ten more years, and then thought she could have an occasional alcoholic drink. “Although I didn’t drink very often, every time I did, I overdid it,” she says. Once again, she found herself back at the meetings and says she can finally acknowledge that she is different than other people; she’s an addict.
Kim has now been in recovery for over 28 years and says that not being in recovery is actually harder. “Getting help absolutely changed the course of my life. If I didn’t have the solution to the disease of addiction, I’d be stuck in it for life,” she says.
Her advice: “Go to a meeting. Meetings, meetings, meetings. All the answers are there. Get a sponsor. Work the 12 Steps. And keep going to meetings. Don’t ever not go to meetings.”
Written by Sarah E. Ludwig