“For me I’m really excited to not have to define myself as being ‘Melissa the addict.’ I am a woman in long-term recovery and I have my whole life ahead of me.”
I am in long-term recovery and for me long-term recovery means I will have twenty-three months on March 11. I’ll be celebrating two years on April 11. I never thought I would be able to say that. I never thought I could get even twenty-four hours under my belt, so for me this is a really huge. It’s a brand new lease on life. I know a lot of people say that, and sometimes you think it sounds so cliché, but it’s really where I’m at. I feel very grateful and very fortunate and very honestly lucky to be alive because rightfully I shouldn’t be here.
My drug of choice was heroin—opiates—mixed with benzos, which is a lethal combination, which is why I say I shouldn’t be here. I overdosed a few times. I remember one time I woke up and my sister was giving me CPR. As crazy as that is and was, that didn’t even come close to stopping me.
I guess I had kind of a typical nuclear family—maybe not so typical—up until the time I was nine years old. I had a mom and dad, my sister and I, that lived together. My sister was a year-and-a-half younger than me. I felt like there was a lot of secrets in my family. There were a lot of things that couldn’t be talked about or shouldn’t be talked about. For example I found out later in my life that my mom and dad were never married, but they never told me—neither one ever told me. I always wondered what was so shameful about not being married, but it was a different time and a different generation so I guess it’s not for me to understand.
My dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I really didn’t know that until they split up—they split up when I was about nine years old. There wasn’t any outright abuse or anything like that in my family. I didn’t see anything that wasn’t normal for a little girl to see. My dad was a musician. He was always [in] a band—a local band—and we always had a jam room and a practice room—so there was always music involved in my life. I felt very fortunate for that. My dad was a great, great dad. He really was. He gave my sister and I so much attention. He was like a house dad. He worked on and off, but mostly he did the music thing. My mom worked, so he spent a lot of time with my sister and I and took us places, took us to the parks all the time. He really gave us a lot of culture in our lives and encouraged us artistically and intellectually, too. I have a lot of respect and love for my dad even though he had his issues with drugs and alcohol.
So my parents split up when I was nine. My sister was seven-and-a-half or eight. Like I said, we’re a year-and-a-half apart. I had this aunt, my maternal aunt, my mother’s sister. She was just one of these neurotic, kind of last minute, would do this on a whim type of person. The next thing I know my mom and dad split up and we’re taking a vacation to the Midwest. It was in the summertime so I knew I was going to be away from my friends and family for little while and I was okay with that even considering the recent split-up of my mom and dad.
Well, we ended up staying out there for a long time. By long time I mean five years. I didn’t have any contact with my dad the whole time other than a couple letters and cards and things like that. [I had] minimal contact with the rest of my family. I was really close to my grandmother. I practically lived with her when I was little. [We had] a very, very close bond.
There were a lot of things that went on in the Midwest. We lived in Sioux City, Iowa for a while [and] South Sioux City, Nebraska. It was like a tri-state area all revolved in the area of Sioux City. My mom [got] remarried, [to] my stepdad. She ended up marrying him and having a baby, so I ended up with a brother who is ten years younger than me. At the time I was eleven and it was cool, but it was different. I felt like I lost my mom. A lot of her attention was on the new relationship and on the new baby, which I completely understood—that part didn’t bother me. She started working two jobs and I really wasn’t seeing her at all. My sister and I, we had a real solid bond that I felt like nobody could break. We went through a lot together and we had each other no matter what. We were very, very close.
The guy my mom married turned out to be an alcoholic; a pretty severe alcoholic. Again, not a conventional, abusive, ‘I’m gonna kick your ass’ type of guy. He just would get sloppy drunk, say really inappropriate mean things. He would make comments about my sister and I being fat, homely [and] ugly. So I guess between my mom and dad not talking about things like not being married, and him telling us things like, “You’re not good enough,” that’s really when my shame started to perpetuate. The seed was planted and it just grew from there.
In the midst of being out in Sioux City, we moved around a lot. I don’t really understand why. I still don’t to this day. I don’t know if it was because of financial reasons, but I know I went to five schools in one year. It was really really hard. I was a really shy child. I was very quiet, I was awkward, chunky, introverted—so it was very difficult for me to form new relationships. I felt a sense of insecurity wherever I went even when I did form those relationships because I felt like we would move again, and inevitably we usually did.
My parents were poor—my mom and my stepdad were poor—so I would babysit or try to do things on the side to make money. I would buy my own school clothes and things like that because let’s face it, you’re a teenage girl, you got to look nice. The school I went to was—I wouldn’t guess this if I was still living in New York—but the school I went out there was a higher social class. Everybody dressed nice and had money and I felt like very inferior because I didn’t. I didn’t have Guess jeans and I didn’t have the designer clothes and the hair. I was poor and I looked like I was poor.
I wanted nice things, so I started babysitting when I could and I babysat for my stepdad’s cousin and her boyfriend. They would go out on weekends and they would give me money and take me shopping to get clothes, so it worked out pretty good. I always had this weird, bizarre feeling around her boyfriend that I couldn’t pinpoint. It was an intuitive thing back then at the age of eleven or twelve. Of course I didn’t know anything about intuition back then, but it was just a feeling that I had.
My feeling ended up turning out correct. One night when I was babysitting I remember I fell asleep on the couch watching TV like I usually did waiting for them to get back. I woke up in the middle of the night and it was like that period where you’re half awake and half asleep—you know what’s going on but you’re still in a little bit of a dreamland. I felt somebody touching me and in my weird sleeping state I thought it was this kid that I had a crush on—until I woke up fully and realized it was him. It was this guy that I had the really weird feeling about.
So the next day it was really awkward. I was crying and I remember they kept asking me what was wrong and I kept saying, “I just want to go home. I just want to go home.” I was scared. He said if I told he would deny it and make me look like I was X Y and Z, so I didn’t tell. I remember she insisted on taking me out to lunch that day before she took me home. I don’t think it was to make me happy; I think it was because they were hung over and wanted something to eat. We ended up going to Pizza Hut and it was just so disgustingly creepy. He sat across from me and he had mirrored aviator sunglasses on and you couldn’t see his eyes. I’ll never get that vision out of my head.
I went home that day and I was afraid to tell my mom and I remember they asked me to babysit a couple of days later and I actually faked an illness. I faked it to the point that I had my mother take me to the emergency room. This is really weird, but I ended up having appendicitis. It was almost like I brought it on myself. It’s just really weird. It was at the point of almost bursting. I never babysat for them again. I just always found an excuse after that. I didn’t end up telling the mother either until I was probably seventeen or eighteen and we were living back in New York at the time.
We stayed there until I was probably fifteen or sixteen the way we moved back to New York—I was elated to see my family again [and] go back to the small town that I have come from and went to school and stuff. It was really exciting to me. I soon learned that there wasn’t much to do in this small town. There were a lot of bonfire parties, a lot of school skipping, a lot of drinking, a lot of casual drug use–marijuana, things like that.
I didn’t really touch marijuana until I was sixteen. It started because I was going to parties with my friends and drinking and I tried it here and there and thought it was all right. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but I did it because my friends were doing and I thought it was still the thing to do and if you didn’t smoke then you weren’t cool or whatever.
I met this one kid. He was from a different county and a different city and stuff. He was kind of like typical bad boy I guess. He was only sixteen or seventeen and he had tattoos and he just seemed to live a life that I had not even thought about living yet. I was talking to him one night and we ended up smoking weed together. The next day, I don’t know how, but he got my number and he called me and he asked if I wanted to smoke a joint with him and I said, “Of course.” So we started seeing each other shortly after that.
Our relationship started out doing a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking weed. He ended up moving in with his grandmother, which is in the same county I was in, so he was closer to me which is really cool for both of us because we fell in love pretty hard. We were both really damaged and really insecure and just looking for love.
I got pregnant five months into the relationship and I just noticed things started changing with him. He started getting really jealous, possessive [and] mean. I can remember I was pretty pregnant and he pushed me and I fell and he acted so sorry for it. I just didn’t think much of it. I was like, “Okay, maybe it was an isolated incident.” I didn’t really invest too much time or thought into it because I was pregnant and I was scared and I didn’t want to be on my own and I found love and it felt good. So I pushed it away.
Anthony was born and shortly after he was born—I’m talking like two days after we got out of the hospital—we moved in together. We moved into a completely different town than where we were both from. So again I was away for my family and away from my friends. I felt very isolated and secluded. I ended up having postpartum depression really, really, really bad. I was literally sitting in my bathtub just sobbing and I didn’t have anybody to call. I didn’t even have a phone. He was working; he had picked up a part-time job. He continued drinking. He really never stopped, but it got worse and I kind of knew he had an alcohol problem after a little while.
There was an incident when Anthony was about two or three months old and he had been drinking and he just completely flipped out on me and he beat the shit out of me in the apartment. He held weapons to my neck and threatened to kill me and my family if I told anybody. Somebody in the apartment building had called the cops because the cops showed up. As soon as the cops came he put on his Prince Charming act and he told me of course not to say anything and I didn’t. I was just still trying to protect him and protect what I thought was our relationship and our family.
That relationship continued to grow and fester and it was just so completely ugly and abusive and unhealthy and horrible. With him it was like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was almost like a personality disorder—there didn’t need to be alcohol involved. He would go from hot to cold if he was sober as well. I just kept on thinking of the sweet prince that was going to rescue me because in a sense he did rescue me from my teenage years—I was miserable. But the abuse continued and it got worse and worse and it got to the point where my son was witnessing it and started being abusive to me also.
I had attempted to leave him several times. I had gotten my own apartment once. I always went back. The final time we had moved back to the small town that we had both met each other in. We were living in his grandmother’s house taking care of it and the alcohol abuse continued. The last straw was I was at home and I had my niece Monique and she was only a baby and my son was seven. It was the day after his seventh birthday. I changed her diaper and I had set it aside and I just had her on my lap and he walked in the door drunk with one of his friends. I don’t really remember exactly what had been said. It was very little that had been said. It wasn’t any kind of altercation or anything, but I just remember he whipped the diaper at my head so hard and he almost hit my niece. I kind of knew at that point that because he had a friend over and it was somebody that I didn’t really know that well, he wouldn’t try to stop me like he had done before every time.
So I took the opportunity and I left and I was right–he didn’t try to stop me. He followed me out the door yelling obscenities at me, but he didn’t physically stop me like he had every single time before that. This was the time that I stayed gone. It was really, really difficult for me to do, but I did it.
I was working at the time. I had a full-time job. In the midst of all the abuse and my son being a baby and stuff I did manage to get an associate’s degree in occupational therapy. So I did have a career. I ended up moving in with my sister for a very short period of time until I found my own apartment. I wasn’t in my apartment long and I met a guy because I didn’t know how to be on my own. I never was in my own. If I didn’t have a man, I had my sister or a friend. I’m a severe codependent. I’m working on that.
So I met a guy. Before long he ended up moving in and he partied a lot, and I took it upon myself to party with him. It was a way for me to be physically close to him and when we partied we would talk and seemed to have a closer bond and we would say things that we would be afraid to say sober. When I say party, it started off as of course drinking. He smoked weed regularly; every day. I started taking E (ecstasy), so I really fell in love with E for a while. E soon turned to other things like pills. It evolved into crack. I smoked crack for a couple months. It wasn’t really my thing. I went between crack and coke a little bit. I did it and I thought I enjoyed it, but looking back I remember coming down off of it and I really literally wanted to kill myself. That’s how bad the coming down part was for me. I’m very fortunate that I didn’t get physiologically addicted to that because I really think it wouldn’t have ended well for me.
I ended up having a lifting injury when I was at work. I was lifting a patient who was a spastic quadriplegic and he had a spasm when I had him in mid air. It was two-person top-bottom lift and he had his arms around my neck and he pulled—and it of course he had no control over it—but he pulled and I ended up getting a neck injury because of that. I had herniated disc in my C5 spine and when I went to the doctor I found out I have degenerative joint disease and degenerative disc disease, so the doctor put me on medication for it.
It started out as Loretabs and Somas a couple times a day and that quickly, quickly evolved. A year later I was taking OxyContins. A year after that I was taking Opana 40s. I was taking them intranasally—crushing them and sniffing them—and a year after that I was shooting Dilaudids—8mg Dilaudids, ten to fifteen times a day.
As you can imagine that became very exhausting, doctor shopping and purchasing them. I would have to purchase them with cash because my insurance would only pay for so much. Then I would have to go to another doctor and get more, so I was up to fifteen 8mg Dilaudids a day intravenously, up to ten Somas a day, and I was also taking Klonopin at the time, all mixed together.
I was just a disaster. I was a wreck. I was hurting inside. My relationship with the second guy—it was disastrous. It wasn’t abusive, but it was very neglectful. He withheld a lot of attention, affection, acknowledgment from me. There were instances of verbal abuse, too, and maybe some psychological abuse, but not really any physical abuse. There was towards the end, but it was mutual. I was a disaster.
I ended up getting three DWIs within three years. The first two I was under the influence of my medication. The third one I was convicted of the felony. It was a felony DWI. Even though it was prescribed meds, I was still under the influence. I was driving on the New York State Thruway all three times. My car was called in all three times by travelers because they were scared. I could’ve killed somebody. I could’ve killed myself. I drove like that with my son in the car, my nieces and nephews in the car. Nothing could really stop me.
I ended up leaving the relationship because of the abuse. Like I said, it did start to get physical and I was guilty of that, too. My son was older at the time and he was seeing things that he shouldn’t. He was finding paraphernalia. So I left the relationship and I moved in with my girlfriend. Again, a couple weeks after I moved in with her, after declaring my newfound singleness and my new mission in life, I ended up reconnecting with a guy that I had gone to high school with. A really great guy; a really great guy. A nice guy. So atypical of what I usually looked for in a guy because he was actually a really great person.
He of course was a drinker and a drug addict, as most people were from that town; most people from the bonfire scene were anyway. I ended up dating him and the relationship got really intense really quickly. We were using. He had just been to a program and was recovering from Methadone. I had just been to a program and was recovering from opiates. I had been in inpatients, detoxes and rehabs, too in these time periods. I’ve just been to so many I’ve literally lost track of when I was there and how long I was there.
So I don’t know why we thought we would be okay to date, but we did and we were together for about a month and we had done a lot of drugs together and we started doing Methadone again and opiates. This one night we were staying at my aunt’s house and we were doing some Methadone. He had been up for two or three days because he was also doing bath salts. I knew he was really tired and he wanted to go in the back room and lay down. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll be in soon,” and I ended up staying up all night and talking to my aunt. She didn’t know I was under the influence. She just thought I was in a really good mood and happy to see her because I could hide my addiction pretty well.
I went in to lay down—it was like 10:30 in the morning by the time I went in to lay down—and he was still sleeping. I just remember putting my arm around him and just being grateful that he was there. I didn’t wake up until about 3:30 that afternoon and I thought it was really bizarre that I had woken up before him because that just didn’t happen. He always woke up before me. I tried waking him up and he was completely unresponsive. Immediately my worst fear kicked up, “Oh my God, he overdosed. He’s an overdose. We gotta go to the hospital.” I called 911 and they asked me to feel for a pulse. I didn’t feel one, but I thought it was because my adrenaline was pumping so hard. I began doing CPR on him and liquid came out of his lungs. By then EMS had arrived and they said he was gone. He died. He aspirated in his sleep. I knew why, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to numb my feelings. I still used after that. I used that night, the same thing.
I also lost my sister as well. She had battled addiction. She was addicted to crack. She’s actually the one who got me into my last outpatient in the county that I was from. For a while we were going to treatment together and she was very sick. She had Brittle Diabetes, she had Celiac Disease, and she also had Osteoporosis at the age of thirty. She was just very, very sick. I didn’t hear from her, which was very unusual. We were very, very close. Up until the day she died we were very close. I tried calling; no answer. She lived in an apartment in back of where I lived. It was this really cool farmhouse in the country—a remodeled farmhouse—and I had the apartment in front. It was a big apartment, three bedroom, and then she had one in the back.
I couldn’t get a hold of her. I couldn’t reach her by phone. She wouldn’t answer her door. It was in March and we had had a lot of snow and I noticed there were no footprints from her door to her car, so I knew she was in there. I knew something was wrong. I tried breaking in. I tried breaking windows and I couldn’t get in. I didn’t know what else to do [so] I called the fire department and the state troopers came and they had found her. She had died in her bathtub taking a bath. It was one of my worst fears because I knew that she was sick and I knew that she wasn’t properly taking care of herself regarding her diabetes, her diet, and things like that.
As far as I knew she was clean. That was the first thing that came to my mind, “Oh my God, she overdosed. She was using again.” So for the next six months I had waited for the toxicology report to come back. I was on eggshells waiting for that to come back and it finally did and she had been clean when she died. I was so grateful for that. It gave me a lot of inspiration and a lot of hope.
It was around six months after she died and I was getting ready to be sentenced for my felony DWI. It takes a long time to be sentenced. I had never been in trouble in my life up until these three DWIs. I really didn’t know anything about the judicial system [or] the court system, so everything I learned was by being involved in it. I had a choice of doing drug court more or six months in jail [and] five years felony probation. I had complete reservations about even wanting to stop at all. I said I wanted to stop because my family wanted to hear it, that’s what my friends wanted to hear, that’s what my coworkers wanted to hear, but I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t know how to stop. I didn’t know how to live my life anymore without drugs.
I couldn’t stand being dope sick. I couldn’t take the sickness. I couldn’t take the physical withdrawals, let alone the psychological withdrawals. The physical withdrawals I felt like I was going to die. I literally felt like I was going to die. I went to the hospital quite a few times because I thought I was going to die.
I ended up doing the time in jail. When I got out all my stuff had been abandoned and I didn’t have anything left and I moved in with my aunt. I think it was the day after I got jail I reported to my probation officer to take a urine test and to let them know where I was living, etc., and that night I went home and I used. I started using again heavily–heavily. I remember using to the point of having seizures and cotton fever and it’s just all this crazy, crazy stuff, and just hurting so bad inside. I just didn’t know what to do. The whole time I was going to outpatient program five days a week and I was finding ways to pass the urine screen and finally it was six months down the road and I had been using and going outpatient for six months and I finally got caught bringing in fake urine. I got caught four times in a row.
I was referred to a program that was very far away–it was almost in Pennsylvania, actually. It was in Sullivan County which is down by the Delaware River. It was, from my understanding, a nine-month program, which I thought was an incredible amount of time. That was like a lifetime for me. My choice was to go there or to finish out my sentence in jail, which realistically would have been another four months. I was going to take the jail time, because again I wanted to keep using. Crazy, but I wanted to keep using.
My son, who was sixteen at the time, he knew. I have a very, very real relationship and very honest relationship with him, and he convinced me to go to the program. I went to the program and it is a long-term intensive residential program for all women. It’s a therapeutic community with behavior modification with on CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). It was a TC (treatment center) on steroids, but it was probably the smartest and hardest thing that I’ve done in my life and I feel like it saved my life.
I don’t want to give all the credit to the program because I know that if I didn’t put my share of the work in it wouldn’t have worked, but I completely had to change my thinking. It wasn’t about putting drugs and alcohol down. It was about completely changing attitude, thoughts, behaviors feelings. Everything. Completely changing everything about myself. Creating a new normal for myself. Finding who I am. I didn’t know who I was. I was complete shell of the person when I went there and it took me a long time to even find who I was; what made me tick, what things in life I enjoyed, what gave me pleasure, what made me sad.
I was identified for so long through other people that all these things that should be common knowledge to most people I didn’t know about myself. It just sounds so crazy, but it was me. Drugs were a way for me to cover that, to not feel, to feel good, to accept myself—to just be okay with being because I didn’t know how to do that.
I was at the program for seventeen months, so that’s quite longer than I anticipated being there but I did complete and I was free to go after that. I was actually going to go to an all women’s halfway house in Poughkeepsie, which is two hours from where that program was. I did a little research on Poughkeepsie and I realized it’s kind of a crappy city. There’s a lot of drugs there, there’s a lot of crime, there’s a lot of New York City leftover stuff going on there. I just didn’t think it was the right place for me. I guess I had a really weird feeling about it—a hunch.
Three days before I was supposed to go there I decided not to go there. I called my probation officer for the first time in seventeen months and I asked him to help me look for a halfway house or some kind of a supported living program. He said, “You know you’re free to go home.” And I said, “I know. I don’t think I want to, though. I think I want to keep growing and keep learning about myself and keep doing the right thing, and I think if I go home it’ll open a lot of doors for me that I might not want to walk through. A lot of memories.”
So he had mentioned a place in the Saratoga area. I had been to the Saratoga area a lot to visit and stuff and I knew I loved it out here. It’s really cute, there’s a lot of culture; it’s nice. The best part is I didn’t know anybody, so I didn’t really have a history here. So I kind of came here on blind faith and I went to a halfway house program for four-and-a-half months. I continued to do an outpatient program, which was a mandate of the halfway house. I certainly didn’t feel like I needed any more outpatient programming, but because I was in their program I had to comply with the regulations.
I just recently graduated the halfway house and I am in my own apartment now. Like I said in the beginning, I will be celebrating two years on April 11th. I’m really just amazed and completely proud of that.
Step work is a part of my story. I’m still doing step work. I am currently working on Step 7. I did all of them in great length and wrote them out in great detail. I went over the first six steps with a counselor, who I had a very intimate relationship with in my other program. It was really intense counseling and I really needed that.
I am working with a sponsor now. She’s been my sponsor for about four months and she has five years under her belt, so she’s got some good experience. She’s a professional woman, so I’ve been doing a lot of work with her. I find a lot of gratification and a lot of rewards in service work. I think that it’s imperative in recovery to not only work your program but to help others to work their program and to help them find their way.
I’m really excited about what the future holds. For me I’m really excited to not have to define myself as being “Melissa the addict.” I am a woman in long-term recovery and I have my whole life ahead of me. I’m identified by so much more than the men in my life or the unhealthy relationships or my addictions.
Photographs taken in downtown Ballston Spa, New York, where Melissa lives.