“I called and they said, ‘We don’t have any beds. We won’t have beds for two weeks.’ I hung up the phone and just felt completely helpless, so I decided it was time to kill myself. I was just done doing this.”
I’m Kirsten. I am a person in long-term recovery, and for me that means that I have been clean and sober since October 18, 2010. I was born in Pittsburgh. My parents divorced when I was a year and a half. I have a brother—an older brother—and then a bunch of different stepsiblings. From an early age, I wanted to look up to them—I mean I did look up to them—I wanted to get their approval. I wanted to get everyone’s approval. I was always a people-pleaser. Since I had two different families, I was two different people from a really young age. So when I was with my mom I acted a certain way, and when I was with my dad I acted a certain way. And I always knew how to act around different people so that they would like me and so that I would get their approval.
Like so many people’s stories, I felt like I didn’t fit in from a really early age and I had a lot of anxiety and a lot of depression. Some of that was from trauma, and some of it I think was just who I am and my family history. So when I was ten years old probably, I had to get a few teeth removed. I went to the dentist and they gave me laughing gas, and that was when it was like, “This is it. This is how I want to feel.” I remember I had headphones on and they let me listen to music, and I was listening to this band Stroke 9— and it was heaven for me.
So a year later, when I was offered alcohol, I said, “Yeah,” because I thought it was going to be like that and I wanted that feeling again. And from the very first time I drank I drank to absolute excess. I drank Mike’s Hard Lemonade [and] I drank to black out. I mean I didn’t drink to black out—I didn’t know what blacking out was—but I did black out. And if you know about Mike’s Hard Lemonade, you have to drink a lot of Mike’s Hard Lemonade to black out. Then a year later I was offered pot, and I smoked pot and I loved it—and it was just like that.
From the get-go I just wanted to do anything to escape who I was and these feelings of feeling empty. I felt like drugs and drinking gave me a whole new life. In middle school I changed schools. My mom had remarried and it was really hard—the adjustment of moving from the city to the suburbs—and finding new friends. So when I said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve smoked pot,” or whatever, these other kids thought it was – well, not all of them – but the ones that were into that thought that was cool. So it was an immediate clique for me to get into; it was an immediate group of friends; it was an immediate shared bond that we had.
So for the next few years I really tried everything. And I’ve heard people say, “I never planned to be a drug addict.” And I never planned to be a drug addict, but I thought it was cool. I looked up to Kurt Cobain and these idols that were heroin addicts and that overdosed—and I thought that was cool. I thought there was an aura about them. So I didn’t plan to be a drug addict, but I idolized that lifestyle. I idolized the whole “live fast, die young” type of thing.
By fifteen I was really into drugs especially. I had tried painkillers for the first time because an older family friend had offered me painkillers—and that’s where the initial laughing gas feeling came back. I was like, “This is how I want to feel all day, every day, and I’m going to do what I can to make that happen.” I remember being in high school and I would plan that I was going to get something. I was going to get high that weekend. And if it didn’t happen it was the end of the world and everything was over.
So by fifteen I had done many different substances and was pretty into painkillers at that time. I think my family especially noticed things were different. I had always been a real people-pleaser, so I made sure that my grades were up and I used this double life I had as a kid to dupe my parents. I remember—my mom was a pharmacist—so asking her about Oxycontin, and saying, “Oh that’s horrible that people would abuse them”—while I was doing them every day.
But my grades started to drop. I was an A/B student [but my grades] started going down. My weight was really fluctuating between high and low because of these different things I was doing. I was sleeping all the time and so I started seeing a psychiatrist and they recommended to my mom that she drug-test me, which I was obviously furious about. I got caught smoking pot a few times, but I don’t think that she had any idea that anything else was going on. So she drug-tested me and a lot of stuff showed up, and I went to my first rehab a month after my sixteenth birthday.
I went, I said what I was supposed to say, I acted like I was supposed to act, and I got drug-tested afterwards by my parents until I graduated. When I was there, I was scared and I knew I was in trouble, and I knew I had let my parents down, and I wanted to do what I was supposed to do. But as soon as I was out—within two weeks—I was drinking or doing drugs that didn’t show up on drug tests, or sneaking around and doing whatever I could. That was kind of my story for the next few years—being scared, asking to go to rehab, or getting sent there and then coming out and just doing the same thing all over again.
I not only have a problem with drugs and alcohol, but I also have a problem with relationships, and that started when I was in high school as well. I have some pretty serious trust issues from trauma in my past, and I found guys that were really bad for me, and I was always really attracted to a certain type of guy. Drugs and alcohol went hand-in-hand with relationships.
So my high school boyfriend—him and I did lots of drugs together. I thought that I was in love and that was who I was going to marry. He didn’t get into college and I could’ve gotten into college—well, I did get into college—but I decided I was going to get an apartment and go to the community college and live with him. Obviously that wasn’t a smart choice, but I made a lot of choices that I look back on and I ask myself, “Why I would do this?” And I can’t think of a reason why I would do it other than I was completely out of my mind.
So we get an apartment together and I had tried heroin before but I wasn’t really into it. But shortly after we moved in together him and I started doing heroin together. It increased our bond. When I would do drugs with a guy—I could know you for, I don’t know, a week—but if I would do a drug with you, it was like I was in love with you. [I would get] these intense, extreme feelings.
I was going to community college and the first semester was good, but the second semester things started to really go downhill. I had all of these things that I would be like, “I would never do this.” There’s this movie Little Miss Sunshine, and the grandpa in it—he snorts heroin. So I thought in my mind that I would snort heroin for my entire life, but when I was sixty or seventy—I would start shooting it then. Because I would want to do it before I died, but I knew it was a bad thing to start shooting heroin. So I had all these, “I would never[s].” I would never steal a certain amount; I would never go to jail. I had all these “I would never do” things—and then I started to do them. And that’s when things really started to really get shitty.
The next time I went to treatment was in 2008 or 2009 because I had a friend who overdosed and I was terrified. That was my thing. I get really scared and know I’m in trouble and I know that something big is going to happen, and so I have to take a step to get out of it and get back into a comfortable place. So I went to a rehab and I left, and then I went to another rehab—and I just kept doing this dance of going to rehab, leaving, going to rehab, leaving, for the next two years.
There were some moments throughout those two years in and out of rehab where I had these little glimpses—these little God moments—where I thought, “Okay, I have to stop it.” Even if it was just for a second, I felt like recovery was an option for me. There was one moment specifically where I was living outside of Philly in a town called Reading. I was working at this bagel shop and I had been in trouble with them because I was not a stand-up employee. They had given me two weeks where they said, “Get your shit together and in two weeks you can come back.” So I told them I was going to go to a detox and get better and that then I could come back.
So I came back after two weeks and once again I had this really bright idea that I was going to get on Suboxone and I was not going to do heroin. Instead I would smoke crack so I would have a really good work ethic and I wouldn’t be sick. For the first day I went and did this, and it was really great, and the boss was like, “Oh, you’ve really changed your stuff around. You’re doing great.” Then the second day I went and I cut the tip of my finger off with a meat slicer because I was all tweaked out—and then I got fired.
After I cut my finger I went to the hospital and a woman who worked at the rehab I was at randomly walked by. I thought she was the greatest. If I could be anybody in recovery—it would be her. She came and talked to me and for that small moment, I was like, “Okay. I want to change.” I didn’t change, but I thought that I might.
I’m going to skip ahead to my last time going to the rehab. By this point I had broken up with my high school boyfriend and I was with another guy who I met at rehab. Everything I said I would never do—every single one of them—I had done. I was in a really bad place. I had charges against me and I was sleeping on friend’s couches and was 105 pounds when I’m normally a lot more than that. I was desperate. Every drug that I said I wouldn’t do—[I did]. I had this thing against crack—I would never do crack. I thought heroin was really cool but crack was not as cool. Everything that I thought that I wouldn’t be—I had turned into this empty soul.
Things were just really horrible. I really lost everything. I didn’t have any friends left. I had one friend, but we just used together. I had this relationship that I thought was the most important thing in the entire world that I would have given my life for, which looking back no relationship is worth that. My family didn’t trust me at all. I just kept getting myself in these horrible situations.
So one day I decided that I wanted to go back to rehab. It was to a rehab that I had already been to, but I just kept doing this song and dance. I asked my parents, “Can I go get help?” They wanted to help me, but I think they just thought I was just going to do the same thing again, and they said, “If you call and line it all up, we’ll send you there.” So I called and they said, “We don’t have any beds. We won’t have beds for two weeks.” I hung up the phone and just felt completely helpless, so I decided it was time to kill myself. I was just done doing this.
I called somebody and decided that I was going to get a certain amount of drugs to end my life. I didn’t have any money, so I was like, “What do you want? Whatever you want, I’ll get it for you.” He said he wanted a TV, so I decided I was going to break into my dad’s house and get his TV. He would’ve put me in jail, but it wouldn’t matter, because I would be dead at that point. So I come over to my dad’s house and I have everything lined up, and then this rehab calls me back and said, “We have a new house opening and it’s not finished yet and there are no people there, but we’ll just send one person to stay with you if you want to come on Monday.” This was a Friday.
That was the real God moment in my life. That moment changed my life. So I said, “Yeah.” I still got high, but I didn’t kill myself. I went to Nashville and I made a deal that whatever I was told to do, I was going to do it. I had this history of going some place and then once I was there I would make the rules. Like, I’m still going to stay on Suboxone, or I’ll only stay here for a month, or I will only do this, or I won’t leave this relationship. And I just decided I was going to completely do whatever—that I was powerless and that I had to just give up any will that I thought I had because my way was just… horrible.
I stayed in this treatment facility. It was supposed to be a one- to three-month facility, but I stayed for four. Then I wanted to go to this halfway house afterwards, but they suggested that I go to this transitional place for three months, so I did that. I had my twenty-first birthday in a treatment facility. After that I went to a halfway house and stayed there for another six months. For the first in over a year of my recovery I was in a structured treatment-type setting, which I really needed.
I heard this one time: somebody said, “First it’s good, then it gets great, and then it gets real.” And that has been my experience. At first it was good because I was just so grateful. I remember getting to the treatment center and just being overcome with gratitude that I had a bed, and that I didn’t have to worry, and I was just so happy.
The first year was great. I was grateful for everything. Every small little thing was like a miracle to me. When these charges that I had got dropped, it was a huge thing and everything was really, really great. I remember being able to open my first bank account because I had written some bad checks, and I called my mom and was like, “Oh my god, Mom! I opened a bank account today.” And it was a miracle. Everything was a miracle.
Then life started to get real. Real stuff started happening. I moved back from Nashville to Pittsburgh to be with the guy that I actually was using with before I left for treatment. At that time, he was also sober and we had had this long-distance thing. I had been warned against it, but I really loved him and we weren’t using together. My biggest fear at that point, when I was doing the steps and I got to a part where I had to talk about my fears, my biggest fear was that he was going to relapse. And then what would happen? Could I get through that? And then he did relapse and it was really hard. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t using, but I was going crazy again. My actions were not [the] actions of a sober person.
He ended up going to treatment and now he has almost two years and we’re getting married in July. If I even think about the relationship we had over these last five years, it’s just like the last two years—we’re not even the same people. Our relationship is so different. We would never talk to each other or treat each other the way we used to because of drugs and alcohol.
Some really amazing things have happened in the last two years. We both went back to school. I’m getting a degree for social work, and that’s solely based on recovery stuff. I specifically want to work with transition-age females eighteen to twenty-five who are struggling, because somebody told me one time when I was at a treatment center that they thought that I still had another run left in me. They were right, but that should have never been said. I want to advocate and to help young people to know that enough can be enough. It doesn’t have to get so bad.
I guess the biggest thing about my recovery that I’m most grateful for is being able to get through the hard times. When things are good, I can stop doing the things that I need to do. But there are things that I thought I could never, ever get through. The hardest things in my life have been in recovery. I’ve gotten through them and walked through onto the other side. Both my grandparents died, I had a miscarriage, the relapse—some things that I thought there would be no way I couldn’t use over have happened. Having support of people—it’s really a miracle.
I don’t often think about what it was like and what happened. It’s not something on a daily basis I think about… how things were anymore. So sitting here and actually thinking about how far I’ve come and where I am today and the fact I’m getting ready to buy a house and get married? To do these real, adult things, when at eighteen, I legitimately to my core, didn’t think I would live to be twenty-five? And now doing them? [It’s] a really insane thing, honestly.
Photographs taken at Kirsten’s family’s home in Pittsburgh, PA.