My Journey From Homeless Heroin Addict To College Graduate
I slept on park benches in the middle of the winter and spent most of my waking hours in pursuit of money to buy my next bag of heroin. In a little under a year, I will walk across the stage with my doctorate in education. This is not to brag… well, maybe a little. With relapse rates of approximately 90% among opioid users, I feel as if I have earned some bragging rights.
Before we get to where I am now, I guess we need to go back to where I was and how I got there. I had a suburban childhood in the 1980s; my parents were divorced but amicable, and most of my childhood is what you picture when you think of ’80s childhood. No seatbelts, time sleeping in the back of station wagons, no structured playtimes — just a free-for-all in the neighborhood from morning until the street lights went on.
And then I was molested by a friend of the family, and I withdrew and got angry. Mostly at my mother, who I blamed for bringing my molester into my life. And no, she still does not know… but that is for another day. The anger eventually turned inwards and I began to self-harm at the age of 12. The self-harm manifested in cutting, alcohol and marijuana abuse, and sex at too young of an age.
In the blink of an eye, I was a heroin addict living on the streets. That was my life for five years. There were stints in detoxes and some time in rehabs where I strung together enough clean time to get my orange NA key tag. I lost count of how many of those I had — and then once I had that key tag in my hands, I went out and used.
When I became pregnant, I did not know what to do. I was essentially homeless, having now moved from a park bench to crashing on someone’s apartment on the floor while bedbugs chewed me up. I had been cut off from my family and friends for so long that I did not even know who would be willing to help me. After all, they had already helped all the other times I promised to get clean.
In the pursuit of doing the right thing, I went to the methadone clinic. At the clinic, there was a group of women who met regularly to discuss their struggles, and I was graced with being introduced to the director of a treatment program that accepted pregnant women. I would like to say I took advantage of the offer right away, but why lie at this point?
I gave birth to my daughter on a hot summer evening in 2015, and I went back to using the next day. See, she was my only reason for staying clean, at least from illegal drugs. What you do not realize is that methadone still needs to come out of the baby’s system … well, at least, I didn’t realize that, and watching her detox was so painful that I did the only thing I knew how to do. I covered it in drugs. And then child welfare took her from the hospital.
It was at that moment that I knew this life was not just about me anymore. It was about her, and being thrust into a world she did not ask to be thrust into. I finally made the call, and by the next day, I was in rehab — and a couple of weeks later she was with me too. I detoxed off the methadone while in the program and stayed there for 13 months. I made friends I will have forever and watched my daughter take her first steps, say her first word, and move from being a baby to a toddler while in the program.
When I left the program, I decided to go to college. I had no marketable skills and a child who depended on me. I was scared to death when I went to drop off the application. School was never a place I thrived, and starting over seemed so overwhelming, but I registered for my first classes, and then my next semester, and then the next one after that. The funny thing is I eventually registered for enough classes that I graduated. Something that seemed impossible when viewed through the lens of me sleeping on a park bench and begging for change only a few years prior.
In the time since I strung those classes together to form one degree, I managed to string some more together to get another degree and then decided to go for a terminal degree all while managing married life — yes, I was blessed to marry a wonderful man who was able to see past my physical and emotional scars — mommy life, worker life, and friend life.
As I count the years I have collected free of drugs — 16 years to be exact — I have learned a lot about myself and others that I have carried with me:
People are more empathetic and forgiving than we sometimes give them credit for. I hurt a lot of people in my addiction, but most, if not all, have welcomed me back into their lives. My oldest friend who went through hell during my time of drug abuse is still my closest friend regardless of my history. Most people can see past your history and your scars. And you know what? If they can’t, well, they weren’t meant to be in your life anyway.
You cannot change the past, but every day you can wake up and be the best version of yourself that you can. Make amends if you need to. Learn to say sorry if you have wronged someone. Learn to say sorry to yourself. Give back if you are able. Volunteer your time to a cause. Help someone who needs your help.
There is no cure for this disease, and I had to accept that. I cannot drink socially or relax in the face of my addiction. I must fight when the demons come knocking. I have built a life for myself that is well worth the pain and tears of facing my past and being confident of my future.
I have learned to be open and honest. I talk to my daughter about my addiction because I am an addict; my father is a recovering alcoholic, as well as my grandfather. It is in our genes, and it is out there just waiting. She needs to know that taking a drink at a party or experimenting with drugs might not be the same for her as it is for others. She knows my struggles, but also sees my victories. My ability to be honest is what saves my life every day.
And lastly, there is hope.