Living proof

Addiction does not discriminate. One in 10 of our neighbors lives with drug and/or alcohol addiction. It’s not a choice — it’s a disease that changes the brain, and it can happen to anyone. Odds are you know someone suffering from addiction. But you might not know the personal impacts of the disease. Here are a few stories of the many faces of addiction and recovery in our community.

Awakening to a new life

Alcohol was the root of everything. The first time I got drunk, I was 14 years old. By 15, I noticed I was drinking differently than my friends. I was so ready to open that bottle. I just wanted to repeat that feeling again.

Soon, I was drunk every day. I dropped out of high school because it was keeping me from drinking. I found out Listerine had alcohol in it — it didn’t taste good and my stomach would swell, but I couldn’t stop drinking it. I was getting tickets as a Minor in Possession of Alcohol left and right. I was out of control.
I got another ticket when I was 18, and the judge sentenced me to six months in jail. After the first couple of weeks with no access to alcohol, my head cleared. I thought I was cured. I didn’t know anything about addiction.

I stayed away from alcohol after I got out of jail, but I started doing meth — I figured at least I wasn’t drinking. Meth seems great at first. It raises your dopamine levels. You’re super nice, talkative, confident. I was going above and beyond at work. But meth fries your pleasure centers; you can’t find pleasure in the normal things in life anymore. I went from using once a month to weekly to daily. I became paranoid and got fired. At 19 years old, I was living in my car. Everyone I knew did meth, and I stopped spending time with my family. I had no motivation.

Then I relapsed on alcohol. I’d replaced my alcohol addiction with meth. Now I was back to alcohol, and it went absolutely downhill. When I was high on meth, I’d have to drink more to feel it. When I’d get too drunk, I’d do meth to even out. It was an endless cycle. My main goal in life was to stay drunk and high. I was living in bathrooms, under bridges, at drug houses. Addiction just takes the soul out of you. All your mind focuses on is your addiction.

My turning point happened when I got sentenced to Community Corrections. At approximately 3:45 p.m. on December 5, 2017, I did my last line of meth, finished my last bottle of liquor and turned myself in for incarceration. Day by day, my mind started clearing. And then I had a spiritual awakening. I had a sense that maybe, just maybe, I could change my life. And this desire kept growing stronger.

After 90 days, I was going to be put on probation. But I knew I’d just go back to my old life. Instead, I decided to hold myself incarcerated — stay at Community Corrections voluntarily — until I could get into the New Life Program at Harvest Farm in Wellington. It was hard, but it gave me 6 months to contemplate what I was going to do. I came to the conclusion that if AA works for millions of people, there’s got to be something to it. I had a plan.

Once I got to the farm, I did everything to the best of my ability — working, going to AA meetings, doing the steps, attending church. I was following the rules for the first time in my life. It felt good, and I started getting ambition. I applied for a job at Fort Collins restaurant Ginger and Baker, and I was hired on the spot. I became involved at Genesis Project, a Fort Collins church focused on new beginnings. There, my chaplain encouraged me to tell my story at schools. Now I have a fire in my heart for helping kids. I speak at as many schools as I can and volunteer at the Youth Ministry every week.

There’s a Bible verse that says, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” I use all the bad situations that happened to me for nothing but good now. I love telling my story because it makes me remember where I came from. I’m really blessed to be able to share my experiences and help people.

Finding purpose through recovery

My addiction blossomed when I was 22. I come from a long line of alcoholics, so drinking was always a normal thing. It was never MY thing though. But when I first tried methamphetamine, it felt like all the weight was lifted off my life and I had found the missing piece. Emotionally and physically, I felt like I could take on the world.

Right away, I was using all the time. In a few short weeks, I went from smoking meth to injecting it, then smoking heroin to IV use. Soon enough, I was using anything I could to get high. It happened so fast and I found that I just didn’t want it to stop. I used for three or four years, but all the things that happened in those few years make it seem like a lifetime.

I regret using heroin more than anything because of all the terrible things I did when I was on it. And because I overdosed on heroin and died — I was legally dead for two minutes before the paramedics were able to revive me. I woke up in the hospital two days later and thought, “What have I done?” That’s when I started to think about my family, my kids, anyone I ever cared about in my whole life. I couldn’t imagine them getting that phone call saying I was dead from an overdose that was 100% preventable.

That started my recovery journey from heroin and meth, and I stopped using for a while. It wasn’t until my ex-husband went to jail that I started using meth again, because I had nothing else to do with my life. I was living in Denver and started using crack. It wasn’t heroin, so that’s how I justified it to myself.

Then I got arrested — again. At that point, I had open cases in six counties. After a month in the Denver jail, I was moved to the Larimer County jail for a 7-month stay. During those 7 months, I made my rounds to all the other counties to finally get closure on my old life. From there, I went to Community Corrections, the halfway house, for 18 months of treatment. Within the first month, I found out my now ex-husband was cheating on me, my oldest daughter’s dad was moving her to Montana and my youngest daughter’s dad had no plans to let me see her until I was out of the halfway house. Every reason I had to stay sober was gone.

I dealt with it the only way I knew how. I got high. When my next substance test came back with trace elements of drugs, I was put into the IRT (Inpatient Residential Treatment) program, which is 40-48 hours of intensive treatment a week. It was like a full-time job for my emotions and all the things that I tried to run away from when I was using. I hated it at first and fought it every step of the way, but the Community Corrections staff and my therapists worked with me. They really wanted me there and wanted me to complete the program. I’d never had people support me so strongly before in my recovery.

So I put all my energy into IRT. I stopped making excuses and settling for less. Even when it was hard, I never thought, “I’m going to get high to solve this problem.” That had been my solution for so long. If I wanted things to be different, I had to DO things differently.

I started taking action. In jail, I learned that running was a good way to burn off energy and keep my emotions in check, so I helped establish a running club at Community Corrections. It started with one of the staff taking notice of the commitment from myself and a couple of the other women. She approached us about participating in a race in the community; this was unheard of at the time, to go out into the world during treatment for something that wasn’t scheduled rec time. She made it happen for us, and it became a big part of our recovery. Experiencing that camaraderie, encouragement and empowerment — knowing that you’re going to finish a race with your team — it’s cool. The running club opened doors for us and has opened doors for a lot of people since.

That staff and I went on to found a nonprofit, Strength Through Connection, to expand our work into the community at large. Through running and teambuilding, we empower ourselves and others, build relationships, give back with volunteer work and help erase the stigma around addiction.

We also started a Northern Colorado chapter of The Phoenix, a national organization that helps people who have suffered from addiction heal and rebuild their lives. We meet at W.I.L.D. Horizons CrossFit every Thursday night, and we have a lot of people on board who are passionate about recovery. We are a family there.

In my recovery, I have found a strong sense of purpose. I know what I’m doing with my life, and I’m genuinely happy. I met my husband in our advanced recovery group at SummitStone, and we work on our recovery together every single day. We are both Sober Coaches for The Phoenix and we are always working with community to build new partnerships to help others find strength in their recovery. Our daughter just turned 1, I have parenting time with my 7-year-old daughter again and I am rebuilding my relationship with my oldest daughter in Montana. I’m happy with my job, with the things I’m doing and where I’m going. I wake up proud of myself every single day. And I know I was never happy like this when I was getting high.

Living in recovery and giving back

Addiction was rampant on both sides of my family. I saw substances used and abused regularly, and I started using alcohol and marijuana in junior high. By high school, I was using all the recreational drugs: cocaine, ecstasy, the so-called party drugs. Then I got into opiates as a way to get out of pain from the weekend. Once I became dependent on them physically, I couldn’t get out of bed without them. I couldn’t even think straight. At age 21, I moved to heroin. Even then, I didn’t think I was addicted. I wasn’t homeless, didn’t lose my license, was keeping my life together.

A year later, things were falling apart. I couldn’t hold down a job and had to move back in with my mom. I was 90 pounds soaking wet — only then did it become obvious to me that something was wrong. I turned to my family, and we started trying to get help. Private rehab was never an option, and we were having trouble finding treatment.

Then I got pulled over by the police. I had four different substances on me and was arrested — it completely changed my life. I asked for help and entered the Larimer County Adult Drug Court program, which had the structure and resources I needed. I did 18 hours a week of recovery work: medication, groups, 12-Step, individual therapy and Drug Court therapy. My brain and body needed time to heal. It’s just like any physical injury — when you break your leg, it takes more than a few days to fix.

During treatment, you’re healing physically, mentally, emotionally and psychologically, all while doing what “normal” people are doing — working, taking care of children, keeping up the house. I still spend 10 or more hours a week doing recovery. But I am very grateful that I’m alive and I get to do that. I graduated from the Drug Court program, and I helped start a nonprofit that directly benefits clients who are in the system like I was — helping people however we can to help them succeed. Being in recovery gives me a chance to show people what’s possible. I volunteer my time and share my story every day. I want people to understand the reality of addiction and not false beliefs, to educate the upcoming generation so change can start to happen and life overall as a community can get better.

An addiction care professional gets personal

On my 18th birthday, I bought a six-pack of beer. As I cracked open the second one, all of a sudden this wash of wonderfulness came over me that I now know was a dopamine rush. My switch was flipped. Right off the bat, I started into heavy drinking. But there weren’t really any consequences. I got a DUI, a little slap on the wrist in college. Then off to medical school I went. I did well — graduating near the top of the class — but alcohol was already starting to take over.

I got into my professional life and started using drinking as a tool to help me sleep after a big shift. Instead of a fun reward, alcohol became a coping mechanism. I was an ER doctor at the time and had taken care of hundreds, if not thousands, of people with addiction by that point. You see the fallout of addiction nowhere more than in the Emergency Department. But even when I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as part of a residency requirement, I didn’t identify with it.

By the time I realized I ought to limit my drinking, my marriage was in shambles. But I was a doctor — who could I ask for help? Shame and guilt and ego all came into play. Even though I knew about the effects of addiction on the brain, I couldn’t internalize it. Finally, my wife left me, and I thought, “That does it.” I went through detox, started going to AA meetings and started feeling better.

Ten months later, I was at a neighborhood party and grabbed a margarita to celebrate my divorce being finalized. Guess where I went after the party? The liquor store. And then there I was, in the loop again, after not drinking for 10 months. I went into a 2 and a half-year relapse that I couldn’t escape — I was stuck around the bottle 24/7, most of the time wishing for death.

I lived like that until my family and friends staged an intervention. Off I went to a residential treatment program, believing it was my last chance at recovery. After 60 days, I realized the treatment wasn’t about not drinking — that was done. If I never picked up a bottle, that wouldn’t happen again. Instead, everything I’d done was about building balance within myself and having the best possible relationships and life I can have.

Ever since then, I’ve never looked back. It’s not bad or good that I have an addiction. It’s just a fact. Instead of “I can’t drink” — I know I can. And I know exactly what will happen if I do. So I can drink, I just don’t want to. If a human being gets their mind set about something they don’t want to do, you can’t make them.

I’m on year six of not drinking now. I experience joy on an all-day, every-day basis. I go to meetings regularly, I have a sponsor and I have a ton of sponsees. I care for patients suffering from addiction for a living. And I cannot believe how lucky I am.

“If I can help one person with my story, I’m in.”

Addiction has been part of my life since the day I was born. Both my parents suffered from drug and alcohol addiction. I went into foster care at age four because we were six kids and two parents living in a station wagon. In high school, I drank beer and wine coolers and partied with my friends. As I got older, I would buy beer on my lunch break and leave it at home; that way I’d be sure it would be there after work. I’d hurry home so I could drink it, and then I’d drink until I passed out. I was productive, but I had an addiction.

Then one night I tried meth. One hit and I was hooked. That was it. Everybody uses the word euphoria to explain how it feels to be using meth. You don’t have common sense, but in your eyes, everything is perfect. You lose your inhibitions; everything seems so fun. Except you’re not in control. You think you are, you tell yourself you are, you tell everybody else you are. But you’re not. Nobody experiencing an addiction thinks for themselves.

Even after I watched my boys getting taken away — watched them being driven off and waving from the back window just like in the movies — I didn’t think I had an addiction until I started treatment through Family Treatment Court. Once the cloud began to lift, I could start to see clearly. Three months in, I realized: wow, I’m changing my life. Treatment is a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

Recovery has changed me as a person. I’m a better dad, fiancée, employee, human being. Everything has completely turned around. I have control now, not pretend control. I make choices and it’s all me. Whatever happens, I can handle it. Things just keep getting better and better because I keep making good choices.

The biggest part of my therapy is that I can help other people. I can contribute a lot to a room full of people by sharing my story. As part of the Larimer County Trauma Team, I help families that have been separated get through the system — I mentor them and watch them graduate. It’s so rewarding, one of the best things in the world.

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