“I turn trash into treasures the same way God did with me.”
Hi. I’m Kat Nicotera and I live in Connecticut. I’m here to share my story of experience, strength and hope, and the miracles since I have quit using drugs, drinking, and radically changed my life around. I have been trying to get this sobriety thing since 1988. That’s when I started going to meetings and seeking like-minded people to help me out. I started in, like I said, 1988, but I kept relapsing over and over and over. There was such an insatiable hole in my soul to fill with things so I didn’t have to feel. So I just kept relapsing and I wanted what everybody had—I just wasn’t willing to do the hard work it takes. And, evidently, I wasn’t done. I had people praying over me and begging me, threatening me, the intervention thing, and it wasn’t enough because I wasn’t ready. And then, I had lost everything. I met my husband and his story and my story, although our addictions were the same, our recovery is very different. We’ve been together for twenty-four years. So our stories blend together sometimes.
I met him in a meeting and he was going through a hard time. We started going to meetings together. I was looking for the sickest man in the room as he was looking for the sickest woman and we found each other. We stayed clean for a couple of years together. Then—I had never done heroin ever, never used an IV needle—and when he relapsed, I was so codependent on him. I went down that path with him and my eyes were wide open. And so, we were relapsing in and out, in and out. Just a mess. We lost everything—everything—people, places and things. We lost our souls and we were very broken, but we never left each other. My reservation and my deal with myself was, if he ever asks me because we’re so strung on heroin and sick, if he ever asks me to go out and pull a trick, that’s it. I’d have to leave. We were so sick. I surely wouldn’t blame him because he was doing everything for us that he could, whether it was legal or illegal. But he would never ask me that. And that’s how I knew deep down in his soul that there was a good man down there somewhere. So anyway, in and out, in and out, and we finally decided to—after six years of living together—get married. It was one of our bouts of sobriety. Probably two years and then we’d relapsed for a year and go back. It was just crazy.
So we finally got married and it was wonderful. Then as soon as stuff got hard, we’d pick up. I was so afraid—this is on me and I understand that I own it—I was so afraid that if I got and stayed sober without him, we wouldn’t work and I’d have to leave. That’s how co-dependently sick I was. That’s how lost I was to myself. So we tried and we ended up staying sober.
September 3rd, 2003, I was very, very strung-out and I had burned all my bridges with every agency that offered a bed or treatment, and I didn’t have insurance. So it was slim pickings out there for me and there was no way I could do cold turkey. I was probably using maybe fifteen to twenty bags of heroin a day on a good day. I had never heard—I mean, I had heard of Methadone—I didn’t know what it was. Somebody said, “You need to get help. You need to get in there.” And I was like, “But, but,” you know, “I’m gonna get addicted to methadone.” And like, “Really?” It was crazy. I kept saying, “Well, I don’t trust those people. I don’t trust those people and groups or any facility.”
I remember writing in one of my journals and I was writing about that very thing—about trust—and I thought, “You know what? I go into the worst dope houses. I give money to a hand—a hand. They give me something back. I’m praying to God it’s not rat poison. I do all these high-risk behaviors—crazy things. I use with people that not just had HIV but full blown AIDS. I use with them for three months and I never ever tested positive.” So for me to come in when someone suggested help to me, and I’m screaming about I can’t do it because I don’t trust people, that’s a load of garbage. I had to own that. This time I really wanted help.
My son at that time was sixteen. He was my youngest and he sat me down right before I thought about the Methadone. He helped me. He said, “Mom, I’m sixteen years old. I have two more years to live with you legally and you are dying. You are killing yourself in front of me. If you think I can’t see your arms that are bleeding and infected with the makeup over them, you’re wrong. I know what you are doing. I don’t deserve not having clean clothes. I don’t deserve not having food. I have to go to Gramp’s house for a shower because we had all our utilities shut off and I don’t deserve the landlord begging me for rent. I’m sixteen.” He said, “Mom. I’ve got to tell you…” and he started crying. My son—I have never seen him cry since he was a little one. He said, “If you don’t find help by the end of the business day today…” I’m like, “What are you reading?” “I’m gonna call DCF,” Department of Children and Families, “and, I’m gonna try to get myself into a foster family because they may not care, but I’ll eat and I won’t have to watch anybody die and that’s my biggest fear.”
He walked away crying and I was crying for the courage that that took for him because I was so unpredictable in my addiction, my behavior, he took the chance, but he cared enough about himself and he cared enough about me. When I realized that he still cared for me, that was a seed, that was a mustard seed of hope that I hadn’t had in years. Although I didn’t seek treatment for me that night, I sought it for him and his brother. I called—I didn’t even have a phone—I had to go to a neighbor’s house and be embarrassed and call. They needed $60 for an application fee for my husband and I and they couldn’t see us for four days. So here we are with $120 behind us. I don’t even remember how we got it, but it was either be sick, you know, or wait and I could not—I couldn’t use that money I had to get help. So I told my son that night that I did call and I had an appointment for an intake and a physical at the Methadone clinic and he believed in me.
Four days later I was on the Methadone program in Hartford and I know it’s highly controversial. I’m not here to debate or argue. This is my story. I’m not suggesting anyone else do this. I just can’t. Everybody is different. I can’t tell anybody how to stay clean and sober. I can only tell you and share my story. So when I went, I decided that this had to be it. This had to be it with me because there was no other solution for me. I was afraid to go on a high dose, so I stayed on a low dose and I went to every single group. I pumped every counselor in there for information or stories or people for references who would inspire me. I don’t want any lies. I just want the truth. I don’t wanna die.
I went to every group and the director of the Methadone clinic—she was a woman—and she knew I was trying. She took me aside and said, “If you agree to come into my office and talk at seven every Wednesday morning for six weeks—if you pull it dirty, we’re done. If you miss any of the groups besides this, we’re done. I believe in you.” She said, “God was calling me, like I had a calling to reach out to you because I don’t see the willingness in a lot of people, but I see it in you.” She wasn’t paid for this. She came in an hour early every single Wednesday, and those six weeks turned to three-and-a-half years—every single Wednesday. It was because a woman believed in me—a woman who believed in me.
I had post-traumatic stress. I had, you know, depression issues. I had—gosh, I was a mess—and didn’t even know where to start. She’d say to me, “Who do you like? Who are you?” I’m like, “What do you mean? I’m Kat and I’m, you know, I’m an addict. I’m in recovery.” She challenged me and she said, “You’re more than that. What else are you?” It broke my heart to myself because I didn’t know. That’s all I had. I came in and I got clean the first time at the Methadone Clinic. I was forty-five years old. I was a latecomer and I didn’t know anything about me. I didn’t know if I was a Republican. I didn’t know if I was a Democrat. I didn’t care. She asked me what I’d like to do. I didn’t know. I used to like to shoot dope. I used to like to hang with seedy people and I was afraid that no one would care enough about me to form a friendship. I knew I was afraid of women. I didn’t want them to be smarter, prettier, tanner, funnier, you know. No wonder I was lonely. It only left me with me. So she gave me homework and she gave me homework to look for either in the program—the program of Methadone, or in meetings or church or wherever—to meet someone, a woman, a healthy woman and have a friendship. I hadn’t had that since I was little.
I was embarrassed. I felt like I was gonna ask somebody to go steady with me. You know, it’s like asking someone to be your sponsor. It’s very difficult. And I came in rough. This was about maybe two months since our meetings and she looked at me and she said, “Oh my God. Give me a hug. You’re getting better.” And I’m like, “I didn’t know I was getting better. How did I get better?” I was wearing toenail polish and a toe ring and I hadn’t worn toenail polish or cared enough about my physical appearance. I couldn’t believe it. And she’s like, “You feel girly. You wanna feel girly. That’s a good thing. You know who you are now. You are girl recovering who likes toenail polish and toe rings. Keep going.”
I had gotten my hair cut. I started buying makeup. I remember the first time I bought my first set of sheets—clean sheets—I never thought I deserved them. They didn’t have holes in them. They didn’t have tears because they were thin or because they were so dirty. These are the little things that I was learning about this new life. I thought it was gonna happen big—you know? I thought the car was gonna come and the evictions would stop. Oh, no, no. That didn’t come until later, but it was these little things.
This woman who believed in me—I felt like it was the first time she had ever offered anybody her time and her therapy. She was a therapist. I was so afraid that I would ruin it for the cat behind me, that I couldn’t mess this up. I couldn’t. Even the days I wanted to use so desperately, I could not disappoint her because I’m sure she would do it with someone else. If I blew it, she would never give anyone the next time of day. That was an incredible responsibility to me, but it also showed me I cared about somebody beside myself. I cared about that woman I didn’t even know that might get help from this woman Karen.
So, things just took off. I was very afraid to leave the Methadone Clinic. I heard horror stories. Now I’m getting older, so I’m getting into, you know, midlife. I’m getting into like menopause. So when every time I tried to come down on a dose, it wasn’t that it was I was sick or dope sick or Methadone sick. I was feeling something that women feel in their late forties or early fifties. It wasn’t good and I was afraid to get off of it. But, no one ever shared how women in menopause mistake their physical aging. They think they’re getting sick and so they stay on the Methadone. I figured that out all by myself. So I was on methadone a really, really long time and I’m not gonna say I’m not proud because it took what it took and slowly. I respect people who choose—if they choose to stay on, they call them lifers—that’s none of my business. I’m my business and it was my hopes and dreams. I did wanna try to detox safely and come off of it—and I did.
It took probably a year. I went down one or two milligrams a week and, oh my gosh, it was the worst detox ever. But I hung in there. When I got off, I started to go to a variety of meetings and I would share where I had been and how thankfully I feel the medication methadone saved my life. I had like thirty or thirty-five days clean and I was all excited. Then I had been off the Methadone clinic and the girl, there was a girl at the meeting and she’s like, “Girl, you ain’t clean. You’re as dirty as that pavement right there because you are on Methadone. So how can you say you are clean?” And it broke. I was still weak. It broke my spirit. It really did to hear that and I heard it often and kept going back. They say it’s an honest program and yet every time I was honest, I was accused of being not clean. So I stopped going to meetings for a while and I just started living life. My husband had gotten off methadone like two years before me. He didn’t have any symptoms. He was fine—maybe a couple nights of anxiety. Me, I had the leg, the leg stiffies and the restless leg syndrome—you know—nausea and whatnot.
So anyway, I got off of the methadone and I started working. I love food and so I went in to food service and it was so wonderful. It was so wonderful to be able to go and give a urine and not have to worry that they were testing for Methadone because I have lost a lot of opportunities because of that. My mom was alive when I got off of Methadone. When she passed away—when she was in hospitals and I told her not to ever worry about me because I was gonna be okay—she told me she never even thought of that because I’m such a different person today. I told her I wanted to make an amends to her for everything I had put her through. She said, “You did that by changing your life. Now, I’ve got an amends to make to you.”
That was a miracle. I was abused as a child. I was neglected. I was abandoned. Not because she was mean—she just didn’t know better. She grew up in foster care and whatnot. That night that she made amends to me, it freed me. It freed me like I couldn’t believe it. She told me I was a beautiful person and she told me that I was probably the kindest person she’d ever met because I have a history of picking up people that go through hardships. We may find someone that needs help like in a sleeping bag on my living room floor every now and then. My husband has a real hard time when I go to any kind of meeting that’s held in a shelter because he knows I’m probably gonna have company. She told me that I was the kindest person that she’d ever known. I mean, these are the things that just kept me wanting to go and do more with my life. I was starting to be so much more than Kat, the addict, the recovering addict with, you know, toenail polish.
I needed to do something. I was bored and I was struggling and my endorphins after using and then being in, you know, methadone as a pain reliever, after being on that for so many years, when I plainly became, clean of all medications and drugs, I was miserable. I was just miserable. The first year and a half, I hung on just not to use. That was it. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t joyous. I wasn’t free. I was just miserable. I was in prayer. I journal a lot and I pray a lot. I love God and I love Jesus and, you know, thank God being free from my addiction helped me, gave me the opportunity to go find out who that was, if there was. I grew up Catholic with the really mean looking Jesus and the bloody thorns right next to the picture of Kennedy and the pope at my grandma’s house.
So I went and I found a wonderful relationship with Jesus—with God—and it’s very personal. So I challenged them. I said, “Look, I am like really miserable and I can’t even imagine staying clean and sober for another month. I just don’t have it in me.” I said, “I give you six months,” poor God, “I give you six months to give me some kind of feeling of joy, anything.” Almost at the end of that six months, still nothing, still nothing. I said screw it and I had $33 in my pocket and I was gonna go to Hartford and made a lie to my husband that I was going somewhere else because I didn’t want him to go down with me, as if he wouldn’t know when I came home. I was driving to Hartford and I was justifying it in my head and all of a sudden, there was this Jo-Ann Fabric Craft store that I passed. I know it wasn’t me. It was like Jesus took the wheel—not to be funny—but I ended up in the parking lot. I went in and I started looking at all these magazines and it was like, “Wow, this was fun.” A lot of funky people in there, you know, like little Bohemian elderly women buying stuff for quilts and I saw this little white lady, she was probably in her sixties with dreadlocks. I was like, “I am home.” I picked up a magazine on doll making. My mom was a doll maker—an exquisite doll maker. I wasn’t and I brought all the fabric home. I spent $31 and I came home and for three days, I didn’t let the dog out, I didn’t cook, I didn’t clean. I sewed and I sewed and I sewed through my learning disabilities. I made this goofy little doll. It was very primitive and her name was October Annie and that was it. I was off and running with dolls. Who knew? I mean, this big tough biker girl making dolls and then painting.
I pick stuff up on the side of the road like old tables or old cabinets or chairs and I take them home and I strip them. They’re really ugly and I strip them and I repaint them and I sand them and I do a lot of work and I make them beautiful and marketable. I turn trash into treasures the same way God did with me.
So my message for me, I hope with other women and men, is that we need more than the label of being recovering alcoholic, alcoholic, you know, crackhead, dope fiend—you know. We’re so much more than that. I’m not saying that, you know, my husband needed to take up crocheting or painting, not that that would happen. But he did find his own love and his passion and that’s in wood burning. And he does the same thing. He’ll pick up a table on the side of the road, come home, do the same thing, strip it, whatnot and then burn a beautiful motorcycle, a Harley Davidson on it or skulls or Ed Hardy designs or whatever and we market them and we sell them like crazy. And we get private orders. Because it’s all secondhand stuff, I have decided to start a small business and I’m gonna call it “The Recovering Attic” because these are repurposed. I do this and so they are re-, getting recovered. And, you know, attic as in A-T-T-I-C, things that you find in an attic.
It filled a part of me inside that I never thought I’d feel. I have grandchildren today and I’m able to, you know, make them things and personalize things with them and spend time with them and teach the little girls crafts. It’s amazing. It’s a life I would never give it up. I know it’s just for today program and I can assure I’m not using today. I’m not gonna use tomorrow. I know that. My life is too rich.
I get worried sometimes because I see so many women. I’m not a man hater. I love men. But, in this program that is very, very serious, I have a lot of brothers in sobriety and Christian brothers, but I’m a woman. And I can relate really well to a lot of women and my sisters. My message, I mean, I have been through so much and it’s not like my ego is like, “Oh, go save the world.” It’s just to give someone hope that there is a better life out there. There is a better life. Do something. You were given a gift. If you stayed clean today or stayed sober, you are given a gift. And for me to take my doll making and my marketing and my writing—I’m published writer—to take that and say, “Oh, thanks God. Dude, you did good,” that’s just such a step in the face I believe to the universe, to God, to myself.
So for me, I know I need to give back, and whether it’s going to sober houses and teaching the girls how to do a little stitching, or painting—not jamming religion down their throat or jamming any kind of twelve-step program. Just spending time with women in hope that my life speaks for itself. I’m certainly not of the norm. I have a lot of tattoos. I love my crazy fierce badass hair. I have a lot of piercings and whatnot. I’m not about to change. I can’t conform because there’s a lot of sisters out there that have that gift, that wear dresses and speak softly. They can touch those women. But when we come in, we’re pretty crispy and pretty dirty and we’re lost and we’re broken. I know I didn’t wanna feel judged, and like that woman who told me I was about as clean as the pavement, I let that resentment go because she taught me something. She taught me to go back out there, hopefully whether it’s in a meeting or church or grocery store and if someone has gifted me or blessed me or [is] sharing with me some of their pain about addiction, for me not to ever make that woman feel the way I did. That was horrible and it’s not true. I hate labels.
My husband and I have been together twenty-four years. Somebody said, “Oh my God, share it. How do you stay together? That’s wonderful.” Please! We’ve been together twenty-four years. We have to stay together. We have ruined each other for other people. No one would want us alone. We really, we are hot messes. I made sure and I take pride in just banging him and damaging him because I have been with him for twenty-four years and I’ve done a lot of work with him as he has with me. I’d be dumb if I let some little hot blond or redhead come in and reap the benefits. So we stay together because no one would want us. And that’s a beautiful thing. I say that and I kid, but we are blessed. We are a couple who came in to recovery. We relapsed. We’re in and out for years. And usually the odds of both people coming in after a horrible, horrible addiction and they come in and they stay in and they give back and they still love each other and respect each other and make each other laugh and they don’t separate—that’s a miracle. Not many couples have that. Sometimes, as we come in to sobriety, we don’t like the people that we’re with when they are sober. They are like, “Who are you? Ew.” We’ve been blessed with that, you know. And our community really likes us. If one of us goes in somewhere without the other one, oh my God, the world is off its axis. Everybody is, “Where is she? Where is Kat? Where is Ron? Are you guys all right?”
It’s a beautiful thing because I know that only thirteen years ago, the bodega saw us coming—a little convenience store—and they locked their doors. I always tell people I live in paradise even when I have really, really hard days when I cry myself to sleep. I am living in paradise to wake up not dope sick. Oh my God. Without the sweats and the shakes and not having to worry about getting on a bus and literally having diarrhea on yourself because of being dope sick or smelling or not eating or… it’s a miracle. And if that is as good as it gets, I think I would have been okay. But I’ve got so much more.
God’s not done with me yet, you know. I’m fifty-six years old and I can even imagine. He is a trip and I know that he knows my heart and he has cleansed my heart, and sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough. My husband and I will make like thirty peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookies, soda and two generic cigarettes and we bring them to the homeless people in attics in Hartford. We can’t do that all the time. We do it about once a month. We wish we could do more. I just got to slow my role and know that I’m enough and God is not done with me.
Photographs taken at Kat’s home in East Hartford, Connecticut.