“It’s been the great joy of my life to surround myself with other broken people. It’s not just about recovery from drugs and alcohol. It’s recovery from life, it’s recovery from trauma, it’s recovery from everything that everybody told me that I needed to be that I never felt like I was.”
My name’s Jess, and I’m an alcoholic, and an addict, and a mom, and a wife, and an employee, and a student, and a sponsor, and a survivor, and a warrior. My recovery journey started about seven years ago. I came to Mississippi for a reason unknown to me, and I got caught in Mississippi. The Mississippi Department of Corrections decided I would stay in Mississippi, and I became a participant in one of their diversion programs. I was mad, and I didn’t want to be in Mississippi, and I didn’t want to be sober, and I didn’t want to be in their program.
I thought, “Well, seems better than prison. If I’m going to do it, I might as well give it a shot, and at least try to stay out of prison.” That was the commitment I made. I didn’t make the commitment to be sober. I didn’t make the commitment to change anything. I made the commitment to stay out of prison, which, looking back, was a good decision.
“I thought, ‘Well, seems better than prison. If I’m going to do it, I might as well give it a shot, and at least try to stay out of prison.'”
I went to rehab, a forty-eight day program for eighty-four days, and then they made me do a ninety in ninety. I was like, “Okay, I’m doing this. I’m going to stay out of prison.” Somewhere in that time, there was a … I don’t know what she was. Maybe she was a therapist, maybe she was just a counselor, at the rehab center. I went in to talk to her because I had to, and I gave her the usual victim story, and song and dance, “This happened to me, and I did this, and woe is me.” She told me to leave. She said, “Go. When you’re ready to tell the truth, you can come back.” I thought, “Hm. Doesn’t she know what a victim I am? Doesn’t she know who I am?” All those same things that everybody says. I was mad.
I came back the next day because it was court-ordered. I had no intention of going back, but, you know, staying out of prison… She handed me a book called, “The Courage to Heal,” and I thought, “Oh, great. Here we go. It’s some psychoanalyzation. This’ll be fun. I can trick her.” That’s really what I was thinking. It was her book, her personal book, and it had her notes in it. I thought, “Oh. Wait a minute, maybe she knows something.” That was really the beginning of my recovery journey.
I’d been sober for however many days I’d been in rehab, at that point, plus jail. It was at that point that I was like, “Wait, maybe somebody else does know about how to live life without numbing everything there is to feel.” I did that, and I did the rehab, and IOP, and all of that. Went to meetings, got a sponsor, and really had a hard time doing my fourth step. It was long. It was very, very long. When I did my fourth step with my sponsor, I read for almost five hours straight, without talking.
The only thing she said at the end of it was, “Wounded people heal, too.” That was all she said. I was like, “That’s all?” We went outside, and we burned it. I was kind of like, “That took so long,” but it was the most freeing experience. I think that’s really when I began to do some healing, and I was like eighteen months in. This was not a quick process. I was not one of those people who did twelve steps inside a rehab program, and then got out, whatever, and I was good.
Then, it was around that time, too, that I heard somebody say… it’s funny, because I can hear them now, in my head, because all those cliché things people say in recovery, they stick with you. Sometimes you can’t process long, big thoughts after being out there for twenty-two years. Sometimes you’ve got to just go with catch phrases. He says, “Relapse doesn’t have to be part of recovery.” It had never occurred to me that that would be the case, that I would actually never pick up again. I thought, “Oh my gosh, why not?”
“He says, ‘Relapse doesn’t have to be part of recovery.’ It had never occurred to me that that would be the case, that I would actually never pick up again. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, why not?'”
At that minute, right after that, though, I thought, “As long as I’m thinking like this, I know that it’s true. I am an addict. I am an alcoholic. As long as I’m questioning, ‘Why would I live without drugs and alcohol?’ Then I know that’s a problem.” It turned out that I had a lot of problems. You develop a lot of problems over twenty-two years of active drug and alcohol use, and I had started using when I was eight. I started drinking when I was eight. I started using drugs when I was right about eleven. I was almost twelve. I thought I was grown.
It was really just a trauma response, I guess. I remember the first time I ever took a drink. Other people remember, like if you hear somebody talking about their best Christmas ever, or something like that, I remember [taking my first drink]. I can see myself, and I know exactly what I was doing, and where I was, and I know exactly how I felt. I was eight years old, and I was standing at my father’s desk, and I knew that he kept it behind, because he was an alcoholic, too. He kept it behind a file cabinet drawer. He had actually cut it so he could fit alcohol back there. I was like, “It seems to work for adults, so let me see if I can do this.” I was like, “I can’t imagine surviving past eight years old if I don’t do something.”
The first thing I ever drank was vodka, and I was like, “This is disgusting, and it works.” From that point on, that was what I did. I went to school. I got a good education. I went to college. Every single day, I was tore up. I had a regiment of things I could do. I knew what time to quit drinking, what time to start using cocaine, what time to smoke marijuana, all of these schedules. If I had put that much effort into anything else, I would probably be the president of something.
That was literally how I decided that my life would work. I was institutionalized a few times in there, and I just would lie. I don’t know why, whether it was, nobody ever cared, or nobody ever caught on, or they just were doing what they had to do to make their case notes and get me out of there. Nobody ever questioned what was really going on. They were all okay with me just being a drug addict, or a bad kid, or a rebel, or whatever.
Fast forward, back to where I was, in rehab in Mississippi, it was the first time that I had ever told the truth. It was the most terrifying thing and the most freeing thing. When I did that fifth step, it was like all of those feelings, when all of those years, just came back at one time.
It was at that moment that I began to really heal, and listen, not just to the cliché things that other people were saying, but just, “Who can I align myself that has something that looks like what I would want in a life?” I really thought I’d be dead, so I’d made no plans. I had made no future plans for what it would be like, living maybe to forty. I really thought I was going to die by thirty, and then I didn’t. Then I was just pissed off because I didn’t die. I was just mad.
“I really thought I’d be dead, so I’d made no plans. I had made no future plans for what it would be like, living maybe to forty.”
Part of my recovery has been going back to some places that I didn’t think that I would ever go back [to], some places where I had some serious trauma issues, and a lot of it has just been letting go of those things, and making boundaries for myself. Like, “You don’t get to be in my life if you’re a toxic person. Not today.” A lot of people, I know, do recovery all different ways, and I’m a firm believer in everybody’s recovery is their own, and there is no one way for recovery to happen. I very much had to make it my own, because I am my own person.
Thankfully, I have been surrounded by other people in recovery, and in the field of psychology, and mental health, and recovery, that have been very accepting. My recovery is based on the twelve steps, basically, which is that it’s service to others. My progress might not look like it’s huge progress to some people, and to other people it may look like, “Oh my goodness, you’ve come so far in so short of a time.”
It’s been the great joy of my life to surround myself with other broken people. It’s not just about recovery from drugs and alcohol. It’s recovery from life, it’s recovery from trauma, it’s recovery from everything that everybody told me that I needed to be that I never felt like I was. I have this great gift wrapped up in recovery, but really it’s a great gift of empathy, and a great gift of, “I know.” I really truly believe that if I can recover, if I can live this way, then anybody can. I approach life like that, and I approach people like that.
I started working in peer support, which I didn’t even know was a thing. I just needed a job. I was like, “I’ve got to pay off these fines, so somebody’s got to give me a job.” For whatever reason, an executive director saw in me that I was pretty transparent about where I’d been, and was like, “There’s this thing, and it’s called peer support.” I was like, “I’ll do it, I need a job.”
Pretty quickly, the Department of Mental Health allowed me to be an ambassador in peer support. I was giving presentations, and speeches, and lectures to professionals, which is hilarious, for me, because I know me, and I know where I’ve been, and I know the atrocious things I have told other professionals, and the things that I have said about professional mental health folks. It turns out, when I stopped lying, and I stopped hiding, that my outlook on them changed, too. Most of them. Some of them I’m still like, “Well, you know …”
“I was giving presentations, and speeches, and lectures to professionals, which is hilarious, for me, because I know me, and I know where I’ve been, and I know the atrocious things I have told other professionals.”
I had this incredible opportunity to do peer support and met all of these people whose story was completely different than mine, but exactly the same as mine. The reasons were the same, the hurt was the same, the pain was the same. Outwardly, it looked very different, where we’d all been, what we’d all done, but it is still just this connection of, “I know. I’ve been there. I get it.” Some days recovery sucks, because sometimes life sucks. At the beginning it was like, “Everything would be great now, if I could just quit doing this,” because it’s what you hear. Nobody ever really said, “You, as a human being, are the problem.” Not anybody that I listened to, anyway, but a lot of people said, “Drugs and alcohol are the problem.”
It turns out Jess was the problem. When I fixed Jess, then I didn’t want to drink or use any more. Some people have to completely stay away from any environment where there’s alcohol or anything, or other people. To each person their own. You do what you got to do. First, to not pick up, but for me, I needed to live my life. I needed to know that there’s life for me without drugs and alcohol. That’s what I do.
It was scary at first. I have a twenty-one-year-old son, and just learning to be his mom is an experience, but it’s amazing. He’s like a little me. He tells me, “Mom, I’m your brain not on drugs.” I’m like, “Thanks, son.” I just say, “Yeah, I’m glad I could take one for the team.” He’s in film school in California, and we have an amazing relationship. Throughout this recovery process, I met my husband, who’s not an alcoholic or an addict, and can actually drink. People say, “How do you have alcohol in your house? How are you around it?” I just say the same thing, “Alcohol was never the problem. It was always me.”
It actually helps me, because Josh will drink a half of a glass of something, and I’m like, “Why? There’s more?” He says, “That’s all I want.” I’m like, “How could that be all you want?” It’s always reminding me that this way that I have of thinking, that I have this disease of addiction, and that it doesn’t go away, and that I don’t need to think ever that it was better than it was, which is one reason that working with other addicts and alcoholics has helped me so much, because I’m never far from where I was. I don’t ever want to be.
In my head, and for the people I work with, we all have the same amount of time. We all have today. We all have twenty-four hours. I’m under no illusion that I’ve gone through some huge process, and now it’s over, because it’s not, and it won’t be, which is great. It’s been the most freeing experience. It’s hard. It’s very hard, and there’s days when I’m just ready to run away, and I just want to say, “I don’t know how to deal with life on life’s terms.”
It’s hard, but on those days I usually try to find a newcomer, or I try to find somebody else who’s not yet on a path of recovery. This doesn’t even have to be alcohol or drugs, just somebody who’s struggling, because I work a lot with mental health. I work with the homeless population, and do these different things, which is great, but it’s also completely selfish. Nobody says that. Everybody’s like, “That’s so nice that you do that.” It’s completely selfish, because I get so much out of it, because I always remember, “I am no better, or no worse, or no different than anybody else. Everybody on this planet has something to teach me, because everybody has had an experience that I haven’t had, which makes them my teacher.”
“I started approaching people as teachers, instead of just, “That’s a therapist, or this is another addict, or this is that.” They’re just teachers, and they all have something to offer this world, and everybody has something to offer me.”
I started approaching people as teachers, instead of just, “That’s a therapist, or this is another addict, or this is that.” They’re just teachers, and they all have something to offer this world, and everybody has something to offer me. It was easier to me to start sharing my story and my experience, and I really found that when I am transparent, when I am open about myself and what I’ve been through—appropriately open, not like I’m going to the grocery stores like, “Hi, how are you? Let me tell you a story…”—but when I need to be.
When I’ve allowed myself to be open about absolutely everything, which is a lot, it frees up the space around me for other people to be authentic, too. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. People will come to me, and you can see an unburdening of self. I’m not going to judge them for where they’ve been or anything. That’s not my place, that’s not my right, and that’s certainly not my intention.
It’s not helpful to judge somebody, or to think something about somebody. Certainly, I’ve been in that position, and I still am. People see me with the tattoos, and this and that, and they’re like, “That girl …” Especially in the South, in Mississippi. I am who I am, and today I’m happy to be that person, and I’m proud of the person that I am. That’s taken a lot to say, and a long time, that I’m proud of the person that I am. With that, I’m proud of the person that I’ve been, because I did a lot of things wrong. I did a whole lot of things wrong, but I survived. I didn’t choose to let that define me for one day longer than it did. I haven’t gone backwards.
Sometimes I kind of plateau out, and sometimes I make baby, baby progress steps. That’s why I like turtles. It’s like, no matter what, progress is progress, no matter how small. It’s still progress. As long as I’m moving forward, then … I feel like that’s the greatest gift. My life, it’s nothing but grace. Every day is just a gift of, “What can I do in this day to not forget what’s important? To keep myself grateful?” That is what changed everything—changing my perspective.
I don’t want to drink and use any more, and I haven’t for quite some time, although, that did not come overnight. I was not one of these people who was like, “I’m giving it up, yay!” I was a reluctant person in sobriety. Prison helped. The thought of prison, that’s what helped, was me thinking, “Okay, I’m going to die if I go to prison, because I will kill myself.” I had tried a few times outside of prison, so I knew in prison, that would be what would happen.
“Sometimes I kind of plateau out, and sometimes I make baby, baby progress steps. That’s why I like turtles. It’s like, no matter what, progress is progress, no matter how small.”
It doesn’t matter how you get to recovery as long as you get there. You define how you get there. There’s plenty of people who will help, and there’s plenty of people that will be open, and say, “Hey, this is what worked for me,” or, “This is not what worked for me,” or you’ll have those old-timers who will say those cliché things that you need to hear in your head, when your brain’s going at 2:00 in the morning, non-stop. You hear, “You don’t have to change anything but everything,” or you hear, “Keep it simple,” or all these things in your head. It’s like, “Okay, that’s something I can focus on. I can’t calm myself down, my brain. I can’t calm my running mind down, but I can focus on, ‘Don’t use today,’ or ‘One addict helping another.'”
Today, I’m a graduate student, getting my masters in social work, which is hilarious, again, because I know myself. I feel like the best version of myself. I don’t feel like I’m a different person, I feel like an evolved version of what I was. That took a while, too. I had to reconcile what was okay about the old Jess with what’s okay to go on today.
That’s a process, and it still happens. It was things that seemed little, at first. It was like, “Okay, can I listen to this song? Because I’ve never listened to this song when I wasn’t high,” or, “Can I go to this place?” It took me several years to go back home, to Memphis, because I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if I was strong enough. I didn’t know if I could go visit my high school and not break down. I just didn’t know. It was just a matter of surrounding myself with other people who believed that I could do it, even when I didn’t, and going and doing it. This is what it’s all about.
I didn’t plan to live this long. I didn’t think I would live this long, but now that I have, it’s like, “I’m going to take advantage of it, and I’m going to live a life worth living, and I’m going to make that life the way that I want it to be, because why not?” There’s no other way to be, not for me. There’s no other way to be, in recovery, for me, than to be 100% authentic. Take it or leave it. I don’t want to go back.
Photographs taken at Engaged Recovery in Jackson, Mississippi.