“I told myself that because I was so young that I could probably handle a beer today. That was in 1997 when I had ten and a half years clean.”
My name is Carmela. I am an addict. I grew up in a family of thirteen. I have six siblings, two stepbrothers, two stepsisters, a brother and a sister. We had a great family life for the most part. My mom is Italian [and] my dad is Irish, so we had lots of fun parties, and drinking was okay for a young person, drinking wine, once in a while having a beer, as long as you’re home.
However, my love for alcohol became a problem, and once I learned that alcohol made me feel different and better about myself, gave me confidence, gave me more friends, that’s what I continued to do—get drunk, and smoke weed, and all those things that I started with. The first bit of trouble I probably got into in high school was smoking weed in the smoking lounge, getting caught, getting suspended for a few weeks, [and] having to write an essay about why I shouldn’t smoke weed on school grounds. I had to see a therapist [and] got out of seeing that. I remember manipulating my mother out of so many things.
The summer before my junior year, something else happened. I was introduced to a church other than the one I grew up in. I grew up in the Catholic faith. I started going to a Baptist, then a Pentecostal church and was saved, so in eleventh and twelfth grade in high school, I was deemed a Jesus freak because I’d bring my Bible to school every day. I started a prayer group in high school called GLAD, God Loves All Denominations, when we were still allowed to pray in school.
I remember dating a man in the church, but right after I graduated, he wanted to have sex and I didn’t want to. He wanted to go to the beach and I said, “No.” We ended up breaking up because I found out he was cheating with someone that I went to school with. That broke my heart, so I went to the beach for senior week with a friend. Although I had brought my Bible to read, I started getting attention from men, and by the fourth day, I was back getting high again.
I should probably also mention because this is part of something that’s going to come full circle, is in my senior year, I worked at a fitness club and I fell in love with it. I didn’t stick with it because my parents said, “You’re not going to get anywhere with it.” The same way with my art. I’m an artist. My parents wouldn’t help me to go to arts school, so I let that go to the wayside also.
I ended up getting a DUI, using again. I ended up meeting my first husband. I was nineteen years old when I married for the first time. I was introduced to crack. Our marriage lasted for six months. His father helped me get the divorce and then wanted to marry me, but that didn’t happen. Thank goodness. I was ordered by the court to go to twelve-step meetings and in that I learned more about disease.
My mother had a drinking problem, so she took me to my first meeting. It was difficult. I stopped drinking but continued to smoke weed. Eventually, I stopped smoking weed, went to a different twelve-step fellowship, found my home there and got really involved. I loved my life, went to my first rehab, got involved with service work—GSR of home group, literature committee, literature chair, regional type positions—and this was all in the 80s.
I met my second husband in the rooms. Him and I were together for quite a few years [and] we decided we were never going to have children. At this point we’re both pretty successful working individuals, and we played all the time. Most of the playing was either on a motorcycle or at car shows, but when I turned 28-ish, I said, “I’m ready to have a child. It’s time to give up some of our toys.” He wasn’t too happy about that, but I did it anyway.
[That was] probably the worst thing I could’ve done, because our marriage was already in trouble. It got worse. He had stopped going to the rooms years before me. I continued going to the rooms after my daughter was born, but not for very long because I was working. I didn’t know how to juggle everything. [I] got disconnected from everyone. [It] took about four years of not going to meetings, and him and I fighting constantly, that when I was offered a beer, I drink it. I told myself that because I was so young that I could probably handle a beer today. That was in 1997 when I had ten and a half years clean.
My disease took off in a whole other direction and I was introduced to a whole other line of drugs—crack cocaine, shooting coke—and dragging my daughter around to places [where] I had no business—different men—all those things that go along with using. That lasted about two and a half years, and I almost lost all of my material things. I almost lost a great job that I had had for ten years.
My mom bailed me out. My mom has been my angel my whole life. She understands addiction so she helped me out, paid all my bills and said, “The only way I’ll help you again or help you is if you go to rehab,” so I went to my second rehab. I was there for eleven days, came back, kicked out the boyfriend. At this point, I’m living with my daughter in a mobile home by myself, very lonely, so I moved in with my mother. Eventually I’m diagnosed with bipolar illness and hepatitis C, so I went through treatment, applied for disability because I couldn’t work [and] couldn’t focus on anything I was doing, [and] went through different rounds of medication to figure out what worked for me.
My daughter was affected the most as a child, because although I had different lengths of long periods of clean time, I still had a lot of sick behaviors, especially with men. I worked the program to the best of my ability each time. Toward the end of the three years, the second time I was clean, I was getting extreme panic attacks and anxiety from remembering lots of things that had happened from childhood, [and] started pursuing weed again because I didn’t know what else to do with the anxiety. That helped for a little bit.
The friend that I was hanging around at the time happened to have some coke with her, and I started the process all over again. [I] ended up smoking crack again, [and was] introduced to my third husband who used to beat me. I had never been beat before. I had always said I would never be with a man that beats me up, but crack cocaine had a hold on me and I stayed with him, and our relationship was off and on. He was in jail, out of jail, but I stayed with him. He finally came back and I was in such grips of addiction, [that] I had received a back check from my disability [and] spent all of it on crack cocaine and others that were with me. [I] married him in secret because I didn’t want my daughter to know. I knew she hated him. Eventually [I] lost the apartment I was living in at that time because I wasn’t worried about paying bills.
Who comes to my rescue again? My mother—my angel mom. Instead of paying the bills this time, she said, “You have to go to rehab,” because she knew I was going to die at this point. All I was doing was drinking and smoking crack. I went to my third rehab on a scholarship and was ready to be clean. I had to go to court against him for beating me up while I was in that rehab, and when I came back a week later, I was called into their office and told that they found Buprenorphine in my system. I had never heard of that before and I said, “That’s impossible. I don’t even know what that is.” I said, “I was a coke user.” They told me what it was, and I said, “I don’t even know what that is.”
They ended up letting me go before I graduated from the program. [I] went home and my mom and daughter thought that I really did use, so I struggled with that. [I] kept getting high off and on throughout that next year which was in ’07. [In] ’08, I finally got clean and lived with my mom, [and] helped her because she was not well. She had hip replacement, shoulder replacement. [In] 2010, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. At the same time my daughter found out she was pregnant at fifteen. I was with a gentleman in the program. He was a great guy. [I] figured him and I would probably spend the rest of our lives together.
The biggest blessing in these last years that I was clean was being able to take care of my mom because she took care of me for so long. On May 27th of 2012 she passed away. I got to hold her hand and I was clean and I know she was proud of me.
However, after that, family went their own way. [They] were somewhat jealous of mine and my mother’s relationship, [and] tried to take all the things that my mom and I worked together for. [They] said I never helped her pay bills. So at this point, I’m pretty scared. I’m raising my daughter still and the baby. I’m not living with the boyfriend. We had to find an apartment to live in. We did, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was in fear all the time, because I always had my mother to lean on for finances and support. God took care of me over and over again when I didn’t think it was possible. The network of people that I had and the fellowship surrounded me with love.
Eventually, I had to get a job to supplement my disability income and I found a great job in the recovery field as a peer. I thought that was the perfect thing I needed at that time in my life. I did really well. I loved what I was doing. I loved helping other addicts find help, met a lot of great people, [and] got to work with my sponsor for a great amount of time. But [in] the summer of 2014, I don’t know, some things started happening. I apparently was in some type of relapse mode and didn’t even realize it.
I forgot to mention, in March of 2013, the guy that I was with for six years decided he no longer wanted to be with me. He didn’t give me an explanation, but when the explanation finally came out, he was messing with one of my sponsee sisters. That was probably more devastating than losing my mother, because I knew my mom was going to go.
Like I said, a year later when I decided to start dating, I said, “Well, all the men in the program are idiots, so I’m going to go outside of the rooms and find somebody,” When I did, I attracted a person that smoked weed. I thought that I could handle that. I thought that it wasn’t going to bother me. Just knowing that that person did that was enough to trigger something in me to use again, and I was no longer lonely. I was part of him, and unbelievably that took me right back to smoking crack.
Fortunately a friend of mine told on me to my sponsor, and as I’m waking up in my ex-husband’s house, who I was with, that used to beat me up, smoking crack with him, I get a text message from my sponsor saying, “I hope what I just heard isn’t true, that you’re smoking crack and getting high and drinking.” I denied it and she said, “Well, okay. Let’s go to work and get a test, a piss test, and we’ll put all these rumors to bed.” I came clean, and I told her the truth.
At this point, I’m getting caught. I didn’t want to get caught. I wanted to continue to use, but I also didn’t want to lose my job. I didn’t want to lose all these things that I had just built up over the years. I went to my job and sat with everyone who understood addiction and came clean with all of them. They had to move me to another department and they had to get me help. I got a job in a different department in the same building, just not in the recovery part and got clean again.
For three months, I stayed clean, but on New Year’s Eve of 2014, I was still seeing a therapist, and I kept telling them I didn’t want to be an addict. I wanted to drink socially, I couldn’t do this anymore. He’s like, “But Carmela, you know where this is going to go.” I’m like, “I know, but I don’t want to be an addict.” On New Year’s Eve, I went to a meeting, and then I went drinking with people that I knew from the past. Of course, that started the cycle all over again, and I started using crack. Ultimately, I ended up using heroin.
My daughter caught me smoking crack in the bathroom and she left. She said, “I don’t want to be around you anymore. You disgust me.” She left with the baby and didn’t know where she was going. At that point, I was being so selfish that I told her, “Good, I can finally live my life.” I moved a drug dealer and his family in with their three kids. [I] allowed them to take over my daughter’s room, allowed them to deal drugs out of my home, and put heroin in my hand every time I needed some.
That lasted about two and a half months, which felt like a year. I was sick and tired of feeling that way and starting to get really scared that the cops are going to be busting into my house because of the traffic that was in and out of my house. I had to come clean with my daughter that I was using heroin, because she didn’t know it. I was hiding it from her. I went to my sponsor who—thank God—welcomed me with open arms again. I said, “What am I supposed to do? I don’t know what to do. She said, “Go to this clinic and get some help, because I don’t want you to be sick.”
I remember being at home trying to get these people out of my house. They would leave, so I was in my bedroom and I said a prayer. I said, “God, please help me get out of this situation,” and my phone rings, and it was the landlord. She said, “Do you have people living with you?” I said, “Yes, I’ve been trying to get rid of them.” She’s like, “Well, you can’t have them there.” I said, “I know. I’m stuck.” I said, “I don’t mean to change the subject, but I have a plan to move out of here in about a month. What is the policy? What date can I move out so I’m not losing money?” Throughout all that time, I still paid my bills. She told me what the policy was, so that gave me thirty days, and I said, “Will you write me an eviction notice to help me get these people out?” She said, “I absolutely will.” So amazing. What a way for a prayer to be answered.
I got the eviction notice. I gave it to them. They didn’t believe me. They thought I was lying, like I was just some crazy person. They knew for a month. I had started packing my things. They wouldn’t leave. They didn’t get their stuff out. They obviously didn’t have anywhere to go. The weekend that I was moving I’m like, “You guys need to get your things.” They had the bedroom door locked so that we couldn’t get in, so we had to break in the bedroom door. They were gone. They were worried about getting married that weekend. I had to make a decision to get in the room and find out what the hell is going on in there.
Well, it was scary. There was dirty diapers, trash, blue bags, shoes, all of my towels that went missing in the room piled up this high, and mind you, three children were living in that room with them. I started, and some friends helped me, to bag the things up that were in that room and put it out all in the lawn so I could clean that place out. I was disgusted at myself. I was sick, going through withdrawal, having the runs. Although I was on some medicine to help me, I ended up going off the medicine because I ended up in the hospital from being impacted a week before that, and then after that, settled, I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom. I couldn’t stop throwing up.
I left my life behind and I went to an outpatient program for four weeks. That was extremely helpful. I was living with my daughter and my granddaughter. Her boyfriend moves in. I decided I need to go to an Oxford House, so I tried that for about a week and a half. It was overwhelming. As much as I wanted to stay, it didn’t work out. In the meantime, I started taking care of myself health-wise again, and reintroduced myself to this great program with Herbalife Nutrition. I started going to the gym again, feeling great about life. I went back to live with my daughter after the week and a half in the Oxford House.
I haven’t had my own apartment since I was eighteen because I was always with a guy. We were always living together. The apartment you’re sitting in right now, I moved in here last August. I have been on my own and it’s all because I made a decision to stay clean again. My life was spared again.
I started working the steps again, going to meetings, making sure I am not around negative people anymore, changing the way I think about everything, reminding myself every day that this is a very cunning and baffling disease and that it wants to take my life. I have a lot of fear of dying from the disease, and I pray that I continue to do the right things because of my history. I just want to stay humble. I want to help others in other ways that I don’t care what it is, just [to] know that I can be better for someone else in this life. I have lived half of my life now, and now the second half I want to be the best.
Today, I have a pretty cool life. I pretty much do what I want. I have a new grandbaby. I have a nice man in my life, a kitty cat, and I don’t feel lonely even when I’m alone anymore. I feel that God has filled this void, and as long as I’m continuing to put the right people in my life and do the right things, the right next thing will happen.
Photographs taken at Carmela’s home in North East, Maryland.