“This is the very beginning of an amazing journey. I share my story in hopes of somebody seeing that they’re not alone.”
My name is Hillary Belk. I am a woman in long-term recovery. For me that means I haven’t drank or used drugs since July 10, 2008. It makes me a better daughter, a better sister, a better member of society, a better mentor. I love being a counselor and all the wonderful things that I’m able to do because of being a woman in recovery.
My story starts here in Charlotte, North Carolina. I come from a big Irish Catholic family. Drinking, and dancing and eating food was definitely tradition. As some time progressed and it went from more of having fun to experimenting with friends, my relationship with substances changed.
It went from this amazing family tradition to something that was a coping mechanism, if you will. As I went into my teenage years, that’s a time when you’re truly trying to seek your identity, figure out who you are. I went to Catholic school through ninth grade and left Catholic school, and went into the public school system. When that first happened, I was really, really excited about it because I had tucked in my shirt every year since I was in kindergarten. It was very boom, boom, boom. I wanted something different.
I ended up going into public school. I realized I could skip school because in Catholic school, especially when I was in my freshman year, the building that we were in school at, you were just in one building from class to class. That was a brand new thing for me. I started to skip school a lot. With the skipping school comes other friends that are skipping school.
When making that change it was a big change for me. One of the ways that I embraced that change was by identifying with a group of people that didn’t see education or studies to be a priority. For me, that was a brand new world that was opening up. I enjoyed the rush I got when I left campus to go smoke pot and go hang out in the park, and all the different things that we did when we weren’t in the classroom. I guess you could say I was learning from a different type of class. That started I guess, pretty much my sophomore year. I started hanging out with an older crowd, mostly males.
From that point, I started getting into trouble and started experimenting with hallucinogens and ecstasy, cocaine, and just really testing the waters, trying stuff out. With all that happening in my life and I am now identifying with this lifestyle, I end up going to Meyers Park, making it through my sophomore year of school. My junior year I started school at Meyers Park. By the third week of school, I had skipped all my classes and had really gotten off on the wrong foot. I went to my parents. I told them if I don’t straighten up my act, I’m going to end up not being able to graduate with my class. That was something I definitely wanted to do.
With that being said, I ended up going to a school called South Park Academy. That was a private school that focused on effort and not so much your grades. There I just learned how to continue and progress in my addiction. There were a lot of amazing experiences I had while I was there. I learned a lot from specific teachers I had. I met one of my very dear friends that’s still one of my close friends today while I was at school there. With that it was pretty much just me progressing in my addiction and not taking advantage of the resources I had at my disposal. I got in a lot of trouble. When we got in trouble, we had to exercise, so I did a lot of exercising.
I’ll never forget dropping some acid. I had work crew all day. They had me plant a garden. I planted this big spiral garden. That paints you a picture of what I thought about what I was doing, just a part of the process and you making it fun, finding different cool ways to make it look like it was all right. That progressed. I ended up being able to do okay there and go back to Meyers Park for my senior year. I was doing all right my senior year. I was still drinking on the weekends. I think when it really started getting bad was towards the end of my senior year. I was in the chorus. We were invited to go to Cosmo, Mexico on a cruise to sing on the ship. That’s one of the main reasons why I was in the chorus was to go on this trip to Mexico.
Some of my buddies on that cruise wanted me to get them Valium at the pharmacy. I did. I’ll never forget it. I got ninety pills for fifty dollars. I was never a big pill person. I had given pretty much all the pills back to my friend that wanted me to get them. He gave me a ten-pack in return. After this happened, we had access to alcohol. It was very cheap in Mexico. We were really excited about that. I’ll never forget it. It’s just once again, just glorifying these experiences. We got some liquor. We had a whole plan, of course. That’s everything in my addiction. It all had planning around it in one way, shape or form. Our plan was to get some non-alcoholic daiquiris and put our liquor in it.
I didn’t really know about the pills that we had, but I decided to take them. Before we went up deck to hang out and drink these daiquiris with our liquor in it, we did grab some of the empties from the guys’ room to throw overboard. The next morning, because it was pretty much my first huge blackout, I had urinated on myself. We had the resource officer in our face and our teacher in our face. It was a really bad situation. I had taken the pills and totally, just conked out and came to and was in that situation. You got to understand there was a lot of chaos going on. Nobody realized I still had those pills.
This is an example of what it looked like for me. When everybody else was upset and talking about it, I was popping the pills. I didn’t want to deal with anything. I found comfort in not dealing with it. I got back to North Carolina from that cruise. I nearly got expelled from school. The principal sat me down and told me the only reason why he would let me graduate is because my parents cared about me. I finished all my coursework at home. I ended up graduating from Meyers Park.
I had only applied to two schools, Appalachian State and Fort Lewis College out in Durango, Colorado. I got deferred from Appalachian State and I got into Fort Lewis. Now I’m going to Colorado. I find out I got in right when I got back from the cruise. The first week after or the day we graduated high school my drinking took off. We had parties at everybody’s houses all week all the way through graduation. My June of 2000 was absolutely chaotic, just completely out of control. My parents told me, “We’re going to put you into treatment.” It was an intensive outpatient treatment. I would go for the thirty days and then leave for Colorado.
I’ll never forget it. I was the youngest person at this treatment facility, Mercy Horizons. I was with a lot of nurses that were taking Dilaudid. I will never forget. I felt very alone because I was so young, but I really enjoyed it. That month was so much fun. On the twenty-ninth day, it was my best friend’s birthday. I was supposed to be graduating the facility the next day. I had a whole presentation planned out. I stayed up all night. Then I put on a dress. I went in and I graduated that program. I started learning a lot about deception, especially when it came to my addiction.
Here we are. I’m getting ready to start college. I have been trying to get myself under control and thinking that I could do it. My parents found out I had been drinking when I was out in Colorado for orientation. I will just never forget telling my parents, “I got this. It will be okay.” Looking back, I believe I was just so scared. I had nothing under control. In my heart, I knew it.
I’m out in Colorado. My drinking has picked up. Met a lot of friends that didn’t do any drugs. They just drank. That really bode well for me. I started drinking with these friends. My studies went to the back burner. One night my friend asked me to chug a half a gallon of liquor with her. I chose to do so and somehow or another got a hold of some type of pills after I had drank half of this half gallon. Next thing I know, I woke up in the ICU the next morning. They had told me that I had flat lined and that they had resuscitated me. The next question she asked me was, “Was I trying to kill myself?” At the time, I was like, “No, this was all on a bet. I would never try that.”
Looking back, I was asking for a death wish. Things were not okay with me. They couldn’t get a hold of my parents. The first thing I did was ask for a phone. I called my family. It’s really interesting because as time passed, I’ve heard recollection of that day from them, and the detriment, and frustration, and sadness that I caused. It’s very tough. It’s a very tough reality, all the destruction I was causing around me while inadvertently ruining myself.
I came home. I went to CPCC. I got my stuff together for a little bit. Then the drinking picked back up. School was getting in the way of my drinking. Thank goodness I was smart enough to withdraw from my classes. I got into the restaurant industry. I started shooting pool professionally. I’m shooting APA. I signed the paperwork the day I turned twenty-one. I enjoyed that. It just felt like a natural phase for me. It went hand in hand with my lifestyle. I continued to live like that.
Then came my first DUI. I wrecked my car into a median. The cops were behind me. They were walking out of IHOP. That now is such a blessing in disguise and such a godsend that it happened like that. Me being very grandiose about everything, they walked up and they said, “Have you been drinking?” I said, “Do you see what I just did? Yeah, I’ve been drinking.” That night, I blew a point two- four. I was laughing, and joking, and cutting up with the police that night. I remember it. They were like, “I can’t believe you’re walking and talking, let alone cutting up and carrying on with us, able to speak in full sentences with the amount of alcohol in your system. You’re only five-feet tall.”
I just remember living and being like, “I’m a drinker.” I identified with that. That was who I was. I was okay with that. I didn’t know what to do, so I called my lawyer. He told me to get an assessment. I got an assessment and then I didn’t the rule of thumb is you lie at assessment. This is the day after I got the DUI. I was feeling a lot of remorse and a lot of shame and guilt. I gave him play by play up to that DUI. It had consisted of hanging out at my favorite bar, doing the Bloody Mary day. They had everything, all the relish and cheese and pepperoni, my favorite.
I drank the whole afternoon. I had one of my younger cousins with me at the time, riding with me, which is so bad looking back. Then I went and I fell asleep for a little bit and woke up and went and met my friends, drank a shot of Wild Turkey. We went out to Wild Wing Café. They had three-dollar Cape Cods. I made sure I met the bar manager. I told her I wanted nothing but liquor with a splash of cranberry. She kept them coming. I was drinking Royal Flush, which is also one of my favorite drinks and with not a whole lot of peach Schnapps. I was having her serve me.
Then we decided we were going to leave and go to a place to shoot pool. That’s when I got that DUI. I gave this man all my information. I just remember him looking at me and telling me I needed help. I didn’t realize the severity of that, the gravity of what he was telling me. I really wish I would have known. Naturally, I’m working and going to school, so I don’t have to do my classes. Push comes to shove. Now, it’s I got the DUI in ’03 [and] ’05 is when I got everything and went to court. I put it off for a long time. Then I didn’t go do the classes until 2007. I continued. My behavior continued and continued until I’ve had the breathalyzer in my car for two years, way over the time I’m supposed to have it. They’re letting me just continue to pay for it. Nobody was yelling at me about it.
Finally, I was like, “Well, I want this thing out of my car.” I got into the classes. I actually went back to where I got an assessment. I sat down with the guy. I said, “I’m doing so much.” I dressed up in my best outfit. I was not doing well. I’m like, “I’m doing really well,” like, “I don’t think I need all this intensive outpatient treatment you’re saying I need.” He looked at me and was like, “I’m glad to hear you’re doing better, but you signed paperwork.” Anyway, he read through everything because people in that position know people like me. I ended up starting IOP. That was in the spring of 2007.
Then I failed a drug test because I had decided to do some cocaine. He sat me down. He was like, “God, I didn’t even know you did that.” He really got me thinking about everything, wanting to get to the root cause as to why I was the way I was. It got me thinking and really wanting to know the answers. I got serious about getting sober again, and made it twenty-nine days again. You’ll see a lot of correlations in my story. It was my buddy’s thirtieth birthday. It was just easier to pick back up than to continue my road to sobriety. Very quickly, I was back to the races. They say as time passes with this, it progresses a lot quicker and for me, it did.
The summer of 2008, I got my second DUI. I had wrecked a brand new car my grandparents had given me. I’ll never forget that feeling when I was sitting on the curb. This is through my drunken stupor because I had lost my job that morning. My sister had called me and was like, “Do you want to go hang out?” Pretty much drown my sorrows is what in essence was being asked. I was like, “No, I know I have a problem and I would really like to get up and look for a job tomorrow.” Of course, naturally, as the woman I am in active addiction, I picked up a bottle of Jäger that night, and was on the way home and was leaning over to grab a sad CD to just sow my woes. I turned the wheel into these two cars.
I’m sitting on the curb. I called my parents because it’s down the street from their home. They come. They watch me get handcuffed. That was tough. When I was sitting on the curb, I started thinking about my life and why I haven’t been able to do anything I wanted to do. It all came back to substances. It all came back to this. This thing is causing me to not be able to do anything I want to do.
In my head, I’m thinking, “If I take it out of my life, things have to change. Why not? What the hell do I have to lose at this point?” By God, if my whole, entire existence didn’t change… because I have a history of learning about addiction, I knew some of the things I would need to do when I got serious. First thing was understand spirituality as I want to understand it. I decided to go back to school. I knew of a teacher that taught world religions from a previous coworker that really enjoyed his class. I was not able to get in his class because he was fairly popular. I made it a point to meet him and tell him my story.
He pretty much mentored me, and encouraged me, and empowered me to continue on this path. That was pivotal in the beginning of my recovery. I did Martin Luther King Day of service because I went back to school in the spring of 2009. While I was doing that, I made it a point to meet people and find out how to get involved with service work on a regular basis through school. I ended up doing that as well. I was attending twelve-step recovery [meetings].
The twelve-step recovery model is the way I’ve been recovering. I am open to all different pathways to recovery. I respect all pathways to recovery. It’s not a one-size-fits-all way. For me, that has and continues to work for me. I continue to work in the recovery community and what it looks like to surrender and work towards developing relationships with other people that were also recovering. That was a bit tough for me because I’ve lived here my whole life. A lot of my relationships were deep and are still deep-rooted. That part came later for me. I am very grateful for all the different people that have been in my life that supported me making this decision and continue to support all my efforts and what I’ve been able to do since I made the decision to get into recovery.
From those beginning stages, it just continued. Because I put the energy out there, it was and has been, and continues to be reciprocated. I ended up getting my two-year degree. I transferred into UNC Charlotte. On the way to my two-year degree, I was not sure if I was going to be able to do it. When that became possible, I said, “Heck, I’m halfway there and I’m going to go ahead and try to get my four-year degree.” This is another thing that’s happened throughout my recovery journey is I’ve been able to meet goals and set different things for myself and been able to accomplish them.
That gave me confidence. That gave me the ability to find within myself the will to continue to move forward. In trusting God in helping me every step of the way, I turn my powerlessness over to God. Everything that I have comes directly through that channel these days. I feel it. I started UNC Charlotte. I have always been very open about my recovery because I have lived here my whole life and I’m a people person. I don’t really have the anonymity, if you will. I’ve always been really excited about it. When I went to see the nurse practitioner and the doctor, Dr. Solomon, I was telling her. She asked how much I drank. I said, “Oh, I don’t. I’m in recovery. It’s been amazing.” I tell her all about it.
She said, “You need to call my friend Debbie Ensley at the Center of Wellness Promotion.” It wasn’t the center yet. It was just Wellness Promotion. I was like, “Oh, okay.” For about a year, I didn’t have time to call Debbie. Everything I was doing was way more important. I was really struggling in my personal life, a very, very intense struggle, really trying to move into a full blown program and recovery, and letting go of some of those relationships that had continued into my recovery that were becoming pretty toxic. I needed a place to go. I was on campus all the time.
After that year passed, I found her card when things were really bad in my personal life. I’ll never forget it August 16, 2011. I decided to write her an email. She wrote me back very quickly and was pretty much like, “I’ve been waiting on you. I can’t wait to meet you,” and just completely open arms. I can’t begin to tell you how good it felt for somebody to care. I was in a really tough place. This woman who I didn’t even know was like, “Come see me.” I set up an appointment to go see her. Five minutes after meeting me, I felt like I had known her my whole life. Our passions align. We want to help people in recovery continue to strive and move forward. I needed that. She told me all about collegiate recoveries. She told me about Kitty Harris. She told me about Theresa Johnson at Kennesaw State.
She was like, “I want to create one of these programs on my campus.” She was like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “Well, I’m going to school and I’m working, and doing catering work part time.” She was like, “You’re hired.” She gave me a paid internship to work at a university. My whole life has completely changed from that point. I have had so many opportunities as a direct result of being the first graduate from North Carolina, from a collegiate recovery community, which it’s so crazy how that’s become the case.
I’ve truly just been in the right place at the right time. There are so many hands that have helped create everything that’s been possible. Chelsea Schmidt is one of my dearest friends. We’ve been able to really stand by each other and work towards new things in the recovery community here in Charlotte. It’s just been beautiful to be a part of that and to watch her grow and change through her experience at UNCC. When I left, she took the reins, and so to watch things shift and change. Carol Rose is amazing. Just, I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am to her and all her hard work and help she’s given me and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It saved my life.
I appreciated so much being a part of Wellness Promotion, which became the Center for Wellness Promotion while I was here. We were able to create the CRC. I knew things were going to take off when we got a partnership with IKEA. From that point, we talked to the governor and got a $125,000 grant and then in hopes that that will happen again this year. From that, I worked. I was able to volunteer for the recovery and wellness rooms at the DNC. Through doing that, I was only supposed to be there one day. My first day, I was working with Aaron Kucharski and Tom Coderre—amazing men. I was so very grateful to work with them and to meet them.
In orientation, what they shared was if you want to solidify a recovery, get involved. By God, if I don’t want to solidify mine. I was on the verge of graduating with a PR degree and really did not see myself working in a PR firm. That just did not appeal to me. When I was at the DNC when I met Tom Coderre and Aaron Kucharski, I was able to work more closely with Aaron. Aaron is amazing. We became friends so quickly. I learned about Faces and Voices of Recovery. He taught it. He told me what advocacy was.
I was only supposed to be there that one day. Aaron texted me and was like, “You’re a rock star.” It was like, “You can be here any day you want to be there.” I was like, “Well, I’m going to be there everyday.” I met Greg Williams that week. Greg Williams, this is before the documentary came out. I got interviewed by Greg Williams and had a little cameo in Anonymous People. He told me that twenty-three million people are in recovery. I was like, “How can I meet them? How can I get involved? How can I join this group of people and how can we help?” and so he connected me to Devon Fox, Sarah Nerad.
From that point a couple weeks later, I was invited to LA to help pretty much start the beginning of YPR. It had been in the stages where it was a lot of volunteer stuff. Actually, it became a 501C3. I was very grateful to be a part of that. That once again solidified my recovery. I went from the DNC to that. I lost both my grandparents, one in October, the beginning of October, one at the end of November, so seven weeks apart in the middle of all this. There is a lot of roller coaster in my story.
Then I ended up graduating from UNC Charlotte in the fall 2012 with a degree in public relations. I truly love the communications department and all my many professors and everything. It was an amazing journey. I worked for the university. I went from an intern to a student worker. Then I was an employee at the university. Really, I had money from graduation. I really wanted to work at the university. I used my graduation money to live so I could continue to work there. Right as that money was running out, I inherited money from my grandparents. I was able to pay off my student loans and get a couple of things that I really needed, a new laptop. It’s just there’s been a lot of amazing manifestations in my life.
From that point, I got involved with, let’s see… Heroes in Recovery has been absolutely awesome. Carol Rose referred me to them. I applied for a position. I’ve been with them for two years now. That is a movement to help break the stigma of addiction through sharing your heroic journey of recovery. I really, really appreciate all the work that we’ve been able to do as advocates and everything that’s been able to be possible and being able to do the races and see people come out for these races and other things we’re trying to develop for the communities.
Every time I’m graced with the influence of heroes. I’m very awe-inspired, and then was able with I Am Not Anonymous, with Kate and Tom. They’re frigging amazing. They’ve made me feel like, oh my God, just so welcoming and like I’ve known them forever. I stayed and hung out most of the day with them and being able to get close to all different types of people and being able to be part of the community here at Hope Homes and everything I’ve been able to do as far as being a counselor is concerned. Truly all my history has culminated into me being able to share everything I have to help somebody else see what they have within them.
There is so much to say about watching that process, seeing somebody’s perception shift from “Oh, not me,” to, “Hey, yeah, me and I can actually work on this and I can do it. Not only can I do it, I can also help somebody else.” Through sponsorship, I’ve had amazing sponsors. I’ve sponsored wonderful women. Now, I have grand sponsees, which is the coolest thing ever. It’s really, really awesome. I am so excited.
I used to fear change and the unknown so much. I can be a little bit apprehensive about it, especially now. I have a lot of change coming my way. My partner is eight-months pregnant. We’re moving into a really big shift. That’s a big change for me. There is just a lot going on. I’ve been able to work with so many amazing women. My heart is completely in recovery and providing resources for people, connecting people, giving somebody a helping hand, finding ways to help other people help other people, showing people that this is not the end. This is the very beginning of an amazing journey. I share my story in hopes of somebody seeing that they’re not alone.
Not only are they not alone, but they are surrounded by so many people that pray for them everyday, that care about them, want to see them grow and change and succeed and find that light within themselves. There is something to be said for that void we feel when we’re in active addiction. This fills that hole. Whatever way is possible to get to a place where you can admit your truth, I definitely encourage it. I’m here to grab your hand at any point.
Photographs taken at Hillary’s home in Charlotte, North Carolina.