“I thank God that I got sober because those people that I used heroin with aren’t alive today and that would’ve been my reality as well.”
My name is Sarah Nerad. I’m a person in long-term recovery, which means I have not used drugs or alcohol since August 16, 2007. I entered recovery when I was seventeen years old. I am twenty-four now. Usually when I celebrate a recovery anniversary the feeling is a lot of gratitude, but as I’m getting older it tends to be, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting older!” I noticed that last year when I celebrated seven years, and so I’m coming up on eight and I just keep thinking, “Oh my God, I’m getting old!” But hopefully there’s still a little bit of gratitude in there to keep me going for another year.
I grew up in Houston, Texas and I love being a Texan—that’s probably one of my favorite things about me. Growing up in the suburbs of Houston was great. [My] parents [are] still married and I’m the oldest—I have two younger siblings. I had everything that I needed. I certainly always wanted more, but I certainly had everything I needed. I was involved growing up. I did really well in school, I had lots of friends—just a picture perfect suburban childhood and upbringing. [My] parents were both public school teachers and nothing about my life would have indicated that I would have a drug and alcohol problem.
I didn’t even have drugs and alcohol in the home really. My parents drank normally [and] my friends’ parents weren’t big partiers either, so I don’t know where this idea came that when I got older I wanted to do bad things and party. I always wanted to do that. My mom even had MTV and VH1 blocked on the TV, so I’m not even really sure where I got this idea from. But I use that today as truth that I am an alcoholic and a drug addict—that is my truth. When I think back to all these bizarre thoughts I had as a young kid, that’s making the case for me.
I remember looking back at home videos and again, nothing about my upbringing or my home life would have predicted that I would have a drug or alcohol problem, but when you look at these home videos, even when I’m three years old, all you see is character defects—the self-centeredness, needing to be the center of attention, it’s all about me. Literally there’s a video where my mom was like, “Sarah, do not throw dirt,” and then two minutes later she’s moved the camera elsewhere and you see me pick up a huge chunk of dirt and throw it at some kid. It’s like you’re telling me not to do stuff and I do it anyways and try and get away with it. It was just like that over and over again. I never did anything too bad to where it would warrant any extreme measure, but I was always pushing the limit and acting out—but not too badly to where I was grounded for all eternity or had to get an evaluation. Just enough that I could keep the life I had but still be pretty rebellious.
I remember I was in middle school and we had gotten out of school early because it was midterms or finals or something. I was at my girlfriend’s house and we were swimming and I said to them, “When I’m older I want to do bad things, but not right now because we’re like twelve and that would be really inappropriate.” They looked at me like I was this terrible person and I was just like, “No no no no no—not right now. I’m not gonna do bad things now. Don’t worry y’all—we can still be friends. When I’m older.” Again, where does that thought come from? I was able to articulate it to my friends and rationalize it like, “Oh no, twelve is too young. Middle school is too young to do bad things.”
There were kids in my middle school that I knew would drink and smoke pot tonight, so if I wanted I could’ve gotten it. I knew people that were using it, but I thought, “Oh, they’re bad. They’re bad kids. Middle school—that’s too young. That’s inappropriate.” But then the moment I got into high school I was like, “Oh, this is the appropriate time. We can be friends now. I didn’t like you in middle school, but we can be friends now.” So weird. But again I think it’s that rationalizing and justifying that we all do—all of my madness and I had it all justified as being okay in some way.
So I got into high school and like I said things were still good. I was dating a young man who played varsity basketball or something, but for homecoming—which homecoming’s a really big deal in Texas—we were going to a senior homecoming party and I knew there would be drinking there. So my wise decision was, “Let’s practice drinking before this homecoming party because we don’t want to look like a fool. So we want to practice drinking so that when we show up at this senior homecoming party we’ve got it.” That completely backfired because I’m an alcoholic, and practicing drinking was the worst thing I could’ve ever done. All I did was set the ball rolling to continuously be a fool in every situation I went to when I was drinking. Homecoming’s in the fall, so I had not been drinking very long and already got caught and was grounded and my parents knew. I was not successful in any way. It started out innocent. It started out like, “I want to practice so that I fit in and I’m cool at a party. I want to drink with my girlfriends on the weekends.” It wasn’t anything that I felt was bad or like ‘those kids.’
From the very beginning one was too many and a thousand was never enough. I don’t really remember my first drink, which I think is a pretty good indicator of, “You might be an alcoholic.” I remember we would make these disgusting concoctions—like absolutely disgusting. None of us knew a thing about mixing drinks. It was just whatever we could steal from our parents and what extra soda and juice was lying around that we could mix together. The other girls would drink a little bit of it and [say], “This is terrible. I don’t want to drink this.” And I would be like, “You are wasting it! That sip was wasted alcohol! If you don’t want to get drunk then you don’t get to drink at all. You drink to get drunk!” Number one, that was rude to all of my friends because I was just really crazy about, “Do not waste the alcohol!” That’s alcohol thinking and again I don’t know where that came from other than this is my truth.
Throughout all of my drinking and drug use there is a consistent theme of there being a boy, and that boy always changed my drug and alcohol use and the social setting that I was in and the way we did certain things. So as I started to progress in my addiction, these men progressed, too in theirs. I realized that the people I chose to be around were the people that could help me get what I wanted and needed. So as I started off high school with this great group of friends and was in honors classes and played the violin and was in student government and on the swim team—like Miss Perfect had it all together, did well, just mainstream suburban high school kid—I had this other life where I hung out with a very different crowd of people, I behaved very differently, and it started to get exhausting maintaining these two different worlds.
Eventually I cared less and less about my daytime life and more and more about my after-school and evening life. Things for me progressed very quickly in my addiction. I had a boyfriend go to rehab. I think we were sixteen, and normally when your boyfriend goes to rehab that’s probably a good indicator that you may also have a drug problem. My parents knew about it and it was this big deal. I was supposed to stay sober those three months and be a good girlfriend and get sober with him and I could not stop. That was the first time that I had experienced the inability to stop drinking. Once I had that first drink I wanted more and I obsessed about it. At the time I knew that’s what was going on, but I didn’t care enough to do anything about it. But that was scary because here I was and I had some really good reasons to quit drinking and try and get it together and I couldn’t.
So at this point in my addiction I don’t really remember too much because I think it really picked up. That boyfriend came back from treatment and I had to fess up like, “I couldn’t stop drinking and I wasn’t a good girlfriend.” I think I just threw myself even further into this new group of friends and new ways of partying. I don’t remember what happened the next few months. I know by my spring break of my sophomore year of high school I overdosed on ecstasy. Somehow my parents found out about it and obviously that usually throws up some red flags and my parents called me and they’re like, “You need to come home right now. We need to talk.” So I know, “Oh my god. It’s gonna be something.” They were like, “We found about this and all your other drug use and all of your other illegal activity that you’re engaging in. This is serious. We need to do something. Maybe rehab.” It wasn’t, “You’re going to rehab,” it was, “Maybe rehab. We’re considering all of our options.” But in my head I heard, “You’re going to rehab. You are not done yet so you should run away because you’re not done.”
So I waited until the coast was clear and I took off running. I didn’t even have shoes on, I didn’t have money, but I grabbed my mom’s phone that was on the counter and just took off running—and I had the best and worst week of my life. For so long, especially with my drug use, it was very controlled in the sense that I knew I had a curfew and my parents might still be awake, so I should stop using certain substances [during] certain periods of time so that if I come home and they’re awake I don’t seem really messed up. So everything was very controlled and sometimes that meant, “Hey, sorry guys. I can’t do whatever this weekend. I gotta go home. I can’t be up the whole entire weekend. As much as I would love to do that, I can’t because I have to go home and see my parents. And if I choose to do that drug with you, I’m then going to be really grounded and then I can’t do anything.”
It was always about protecting my use even if it meant not always using and not always drinking and maybe not getting to do everything I wanted to do. Some drugs you come play off; some you cannot. When you’re rolling on ecstasy you cannot play that off—you just look like a fool. I had to plan it all out and I learned that that’s a really good skill that I have—the ability to think through things and make plans and stick to them. I just wasn’t using that skill very well back then—or for the wrong reasons.
So I run away and eventually I get detained by the police and I go into an adolescent psychiatric hospital to detox and then I go away to Dallas for rehab. I understood that I had a drug and alcohol problem and that my life was a mess and I was experiencing consequences—I got that. Intellectually I understood everything, but again I knew that I wasn’t done. So I went through the motions. I did my 30 days and I went to outpatient, [but] I did not go to any recovery meetings, I didn’t make new sober friends, I didn’t change my people, places and things, and I really didn’t do anything different. I was just dry for a couple of months. What happens is I met a boy, we go to a party, they are drinking, someone puts a beer in front of me, and before I know it I drink it. So I really relate when people talk about not having any power over picking up because there was no thought process; there was no pause. It was just this natural instinct to just reach out and drink it. That kind of scared me a little bit that despite having just gone through this huge ordeal about my drug and alcohol use how quickly I was able to pick back up.
At this point because I’d been to treatment and I’d run away and everyone knew about it, I felt like I was now labeled a ‘bad kid.’ I felt like being in rehab I was exposed to all of these other kids who did the things that I always wished I could do. When their parents said they couldn’t leave? They would just leave. Their parents were making them mad? They would just start cussing. They just did whatever they wanted—they didn’t care. I was like, “You know what? If they can do it, I can do it. I’m gonna stop trying to be a little bit respectful and I’m not gonna be respectful at all. I’m gonna have no regard for rules, for my parents’ rules, society’s rules. I’m just gonna start doing what I want because if you guys all already think I have a problem, then let me show you a problem because trust me, it was not as bad as it could’ve been.” That was my mindset when I went back out and things did get a lot worse.
I experienced consequences like [problems at] my job, and I would get kicked out of parties because they’re like, “Oh no, we don’t want you here because you’re talking about using heroin and we don’t want people here that use heroin.” So I’m like, “Oh, that sucks. Guess we’re not gonna be friends anymore. I’m gonna go hang out with the kids that are cool with that.” The positive supports that I had in place all started to fall away and it was happening really, really quickly.
At the start of my—not even the start of my junior year of high school—it was a couple weeks before school started I went back to rehab. I had started using IV heroin and my parents found out about it. I don’t know why, but apparently this was like a big deal, so I went back to rehab. I was really pissed off because I had just found something that I really, really liked, and I found people that were willing to get it for me, teach me how to use it, and now I had to go to stupid rehab. That’s how I felt. But at this point I had crossed a line. Once you start using IV drugs it’s really hard to come back to social drinking and occasional weed smoking. That all seemed like lame kid stuff. I realized that if I want to continue using heroin I’m not going to be able to go to school anymore, my parents are going to kick me out of the house, I’m seventeen years old, I have no money, I have no skills, I don’t even have my own car. I’m going to have to do things I’m not comfortable doing and I’m going to be hanging out with people that aren’t going to treat me with dignity and respect—or I can get sober. That was really hard to comprehend at seventeen years old when I still felt kind of invincible. I had definitely experienced some consequences, but not as much [as I could have].
I’m really grateful that people loved me and walked me through those decisions and were really patient with me as I took time to really decide, “Do I want to get sober? Do I think I’m an alcoholic? Is this what I want to do?” And make pros and cons lists of continuing to use. I thank God that I got sober because those people that I used heroin with aren’t alive today and that would’ve been my reality as well.
I started going to recovery meetings and I started hanging out with all the other sober kids. I’m super fortunate that I’m from Houston because there are a ton of sober young people there—high school kids—it’s normal to get sober in high school there. So I had friends. People that knew what it was like to be in high school getting sober and feeling like you’re way cooler than everyone else because you’re sober. I remember just being like, “Ugh, your problems are so small. Like I’m dealing with like real stuff, like my relationship with God.” I’d bring my recovery literature to school and be like, “I have to read this. This is more of a priority than reading for English class.” I was so annoying, but I took my recovery really seriously and at that time I understood that my recovery comes before Chemistry right now. I went after my recovery was so much bravado. I was probably really annoying to everyone else, but that’s what I needed to do was just throw myself into the middle of a boat.
I knew when I was getting sober that I had a problem with drugs—I got that—but I was still kind of up in the air on alcohol, which I think a lot of young people struggle with. I was seventeen. I could not buy alcohol. I could not go into places that served alcohol, so of course I used way more drugs. I thank God for good sponsorship [and] people that walked me through, “Hey well when you started drinking, look at how you drank. Look at how often you drank and what happened when you drank.” They just loved me until I could come to that conclusion on my own. At one point someone told me, “If you don’t think you’re an alcoholic then you should try drinking,” and I’m so grateful that I believe I had a God thought which was, “You know what? Let’s get a second opinion on that.” We’re not saying that we want to go drink. We’re just saying, “I don’t know that I’m an alcoholic, but I don’t want to drink right now.” And they were like, “You know what? Just keep coming.” Over time I found my truth and I accepted that part of me that, “Nope. I can’t drink either.”
I had a really awesome, awesome counselor and I remember talking to just griping about, “You know, I don’t really think I have a problem. I’m still really young, I never paid for it, people still wanted to hang out with me.” And she goes, “That’s because you’re seventeen and you’re still pretty. But if you continue to use heroin you’re not going to be pretty anymore and then no one’s giving you anything for free.” And all I heard that woman say was, “If you keep using drugs, you’re gonna be ugly.” I was like, “Oh my god! That’s terrible! What do I gotta do to stay pretty and get sober?” Thank God for Miss Adrienne because she understood what mattered to a seventeen-year-old Sarah, which was, “Am I cool or not? What do I look like? What clothes am I wearing? Am I invited to the cool hangout stuff?” That’s what matters to an adolescent and she leveraged that with what I needed to do for my recovery. Eventually I outgrew a lot of that stuff and I really came into my own skin as far as what it meant to be a young woman in recovery and kind of moved through some of these major life experiences a lot earlier than my peers.
Recovery has definitely changed throughout my sobriety. What I do for it has changed a little bit. I’m constantly discovering new parts about myself, and stuff that at one point I believed to be true I’m no longer sure is true. I’m letting go of old beliefs and faulty perceptions about myself and others in the world and that’s what my recovery is today. It’s just continuing to get to know who I am and what do I want from life and what’s important to me. What do I believe in? What do I stand for? What can I do to pack as much goodness into life and no longer be a person that just constantly takes and is a little bit more others-focused? I’m still pretty self-focused, but I try to be others-focused more often than not.
A huge part of recovery has been going to school. I was getting sober in high school and I’m in grad school now. I have not been sober and not been in school, which is awesome because my recovery has afforded me the ability to continue in my education and to be a really awesome professional and to really hone my skills. That’s been really rewarding to not feel like my past is going to be something that holds me back. In fact it’s something that propels me forward and makes me an asset to wherever I go and to whatever I do.
I don’t regret getting sober. I don’t regret being an alcoholic and a drug addict. I hope that if I do anything in this life it’s that I use my experience to help someone else.
Photographs taken at Sarah’s home in Columbus, Ohio.