I was born into an Army family. We grew up all over the U.S. I was really good at adapting. I would be whomever I needed to be for someone to like me. As a child, I remember watching commercials about depression or loneliness, calling the 800 numbers, and ordering the packets. I didn’t realize they were about medications. I thought they were going to send me the answer to why I didn’t feel right. My mom would ask, “why did you order this?” I would blow it off. Looking back, I don’t think it was depression. I didn’t understand why I didn’t have inner peace. I was always restless and impulsive. Even as a nine year old kid, I was looking for the next high. At the time, it wasn’t drugs. It was other stuff – getting into trouble and being known in my family as “the wild one”. I was okay with whatever got me attention. When I was nine, my parents got divorced and my dad moved away. We moved back to New England. My mother had to work a bunch of jobs just to get by. My mom is a saint. I know she blames herself because she wasn’t home a lot. As a teenager, I didn’t have someone over my shoulder watching what I was doing. I started experimenting with drugs. At first it was pot, acid, cocaine, and drinking. I used those addictively right away. I can clearly remember friends saying, “okay, it’s time to go home now”. I would be like, “what do you mean? Let’s keep the party going!” I was filling the void.
When I met my daughter’s father, he was extremely stable. He wasn’t an addict, he was a family guy. He got a great job as soon as I got pregnant. I thought that would calm me down. The inner peace would come. I was going to be a mom – and moms don’t do drugs. Moms are content. They’re happy. Through my pregnancy, I was clean. I had this big thing happening. It was the first grandchild of the family. Everyone was excited. But then I had her. After the excitement wore off, I was just a mom cleaning the house. The emptiness came again. I wondered, “is this it?”
I knew I liked Percocet and Vicodin. I went to the doctor and manipulated him to start prescribing them to me. My daughter was probably nine months old. I got hooked fast. This was before the epidemic, so it was really easy to manipulate doctors. I would be on them for awhile, tell him I might be addicted, wean off, and then go back a month later and say I needed them again. It wasn’t like it is now. I remember saying, “why don’t they use this as an antidepressant? I take it and I get this warm, fuzzy feeling. I love the way it makes me feel”. And he was like, “yeah, it’s a happy pill,” and prescribed it.
Throughout my daughter’s childhood, I was stuck in a cycle of detoxes, rehabs, and clinics. I substituted one drug for another. My late twenties and early thirties were a blur. I knew I had a problem but I didn’t know abstinence was possible for me. I remember laying in bed, detoxing, and thinking: “What kind of mother am I without this medication?” The medication gave me energy and made me happy. That’s what I had been looking for since I was a child. But I had to take more and more to feel the same way.
I got so bad that my doctor started to see it. It wasn’t as easy to go to the emergency room and get more. So I ended up switching to heroin.
Before that, I thought getting my real estate license was going to fill the void. I thought: “Realtors dress up. They wear suits. They’re not a mess”. So I went to school and became a realtor. I worked at Century 21. I was on Suboxone the whole time. I decided, “I’m going to get off these medications and be a nurse. Nurses have it together. Nurses aren’t a mess. I can help people”.
The entire time I was in nursing school, I was on Methadone. I aced nursing school and became a nurse. But the void was still there. Nothing filled it. Eventually, I got into heroin and soon after that – because I had needles at my disposal – it became IV heroin. That’s when I started to crumble. I started not coming home at night. I was lucky my daughter’s father was so stable. I never had to worry. I knew he was home. But we also lied to my daughter. Any time I would go to jail, detox, or a 28 day program, we would tell her I was going to a nursing convention, or the doctor gave me a medicine that made me sick. She never knew the truth… and she was growing up before my eyes.
I would hold it together for a couple weeks – maybe a month. I went to meetings, but it never crossed my mind that I could stay clean and not use any substances again. I thought I needed to learn how to use like a lady. The bottom line is that nobody uses heroin like a lady. I just didn’t think it was possible for me to completely abstain. I thought I was different. I thought I had an emptiness no one else knew about. I could never get completely honest with another addict so they could say, “yeah, me too!”
The last time I went to jail, my daughter was thirteen. I ended up on the front page of the newspaper. Her father said, “you’re not seeing her. I’m not giving her any letters from you. You’re not calling her until you’ve been in a program for awhile”. He was true to his word. That was the first time my daughter was told I was a heroin addict. I’m grateful for it now but, at the time, I thought, “how dare they tell my daughter. She’s too young”. Meanwhile, I was the one doing it. I was angry. I had never had her kept from me. I did my time and, when I got out, instead of going to a program and doing what he asked me to do, I felt bad for myself and kept using.
There were moments in active addiction that didn’t keep me clean but stuck with me. One of them was when I was homeless and running with an awful crowd. I called my daughter – before I couldn’t – to say goodnight. I remember getting off the phone and thinking, “I should never call her again. It would be easier for her if I never called again”. I really believed she would get over it. I really believed I was such a bad mom there was no hope. Why keep dragging her along? My daughter is my world. But I didn’t think I could ever get better.
Another moment occurred when her dad and I were still together. I had to hurry back from detox and be a mom instead of going to further treatment. My daughter’s grandfather pulled up – I was waiting outside for her bus – and said, “get in the house”.
I said, “What?”
“You look terrible, Michelle”.
“I want to see her. I haven’t seen her in five days”.
“Get in the house. I’ll pick her up. You go to bed. She doesn’t need to see you like this”.
I started to walk away and he said, “Oh, Michelle – we’ll make sure you have the prettiest grave in all the cemetery”.
The third moment was when I overdosed in my mother’s house. The dog woke my mom up. I was stiff, I was cold, and I wasn’t breathing. My mom called 911 and the operator told her how to revive me. When they informed her I was breathing again, her first thought was: “Great. Now I get to do this again”.
She was waiting for me to die.
I ended up going to the Salvation Army on August 15th, 2016. I remember sitting in this crap motel in Worcester. It was the beginning of August, so it was hot. The AC didn’t work and I was doing my thing. I said, “I can’t keep doing this. They’re really not letting me talk to my kid”. I had an important court date coming up. I had no intention of staying clean, I just wanted to talk to my daughter again and stay out of jail.
They were super strict. It was a hard program. We couldn’t wear our own clothes, talk to men, or have cell phones. I didn’t like women, I didn’t trust women, but I ended up in a house with 20 women who saved my life. I learned how to go to work every day. We had to work in a warehouse. There were no sick days. We got $15 a week. I learned how to pray and how to have a connection with God. I was basically on restriction the entire time because I was still very impulsive. But I learned there are consequences for every action – and sometimes consequences are okay.
After about two months, I started talking to my daughter again. She read my letters and came to visit. The judge said, “let’s see how Michelle does, let’s continue”. I was forced to stay. Before I knew it, I wanted it. I woke up one morning and my stomach muscles hurt. It was because I had been belly laughing the night before. I hadn’t done that since I was a child. I would go hours without thinking about getting high.
We had a house mom whose only son died of an overdose right before I got there. She had been through the program nine years before. That was a huge reality check for me – watching her mourn and stay clean. I couldn’t sit there and complain about not being able to talk to guys or not being able to wear name brands. I couldn’t complain to a woman who lost her only son and was staying clean, showing up every day, and helping other women. I didn’t feel bad for myself anymore. My daughter was coming on Sundays. It was limited but it was happening. She never got to see her son again.
I have so much respect for my daughter’s father because he did exactly what he said he was going to do. The minute I had been there for awhile, he started letting her take my phone calls. Then he started letting her come to visit. Then he started letting me go on my passes and have a sleepover at my mom’s. He never tried to hold her back from me.
The Salvation Army saved my life. I always tell people to go wherever is open, and that was the only bed that was open for me that day. I don’t know if I would have stayed clean without the strictness. I needed to be accountable for my actions and own up to my decisions. By the time I left, I wanted to be clean. I had hope. I wasn’t obsessing and I knew I could be happy. I graduated the program in March of 2017 and went right to Rise Above sober living.
I couldn’t be a nurse because I had too many felonies. I had no driver’s license, no car, and no money. I worked as a fry leader in a diner. I walked there every day just to pay rent. I had nothing extra. Thank God for the Salvation Army. I was humble. I didn’t care about the kind of job, the name brands, or the nice car…I didn’t care about any of that anymore. I started meeting strong women. I had a strong house manager, Michelle, and when it came time for her to buy a house of her own, she made me house manager. Having someone finally trust me helped so much. It kept me motivated for a long time. I became the manager of a couple houses. Then they gave me a job at The Process Recovery Center.
I’ll help any addict but women are my soft spot. I love seeing women come in broken and hopeless, and not being able to trust other women, because I see myself in them. I see their potential. I get goosebumps talking about it. Women have it hard. We can’t go to rehab. There’s a stigma. We’re supposed to be mothers. If you’re a father and you go to rehab, it’s not the same. “Boys will be boys”. When a woman takes the time to go to rehab or admits she has a problem, it’s looked down upon. Fighting that stigma is huge.
It’s really hard seeing women go back out – women I love because I got to live or work with them. I talk to them one on one and I know their pain. But I’ll go to a meeting and see somebody I helped get a one year medallion. That’s what keeps me going. I love seeing women kill it. It fills my heart. We need strong women in this community. There are very few. We need them in order for other women to know it’s okay. I don’t want women to feel ashamed to ask for help. So I’m really open about being an addict. I’m open with my daughter’s father’s family. I’m open with her friends. I don’t have any shame. She’s sixteen now and all her friends know I’m in recovery. They ask me a lot of questions. They’re interested in it. My daughter will never have to feel like she can’t talk to me about anything.
I always say this in my story: The biggest lie my disease told me was “you have time”. It said, “you have time, your daughter is young. You have time, you’re young. You’re just partying. You have time to get better”. Before I knew it, I was 36 and my daughter was 13. I was in those Christmas pictures, but I wasn’t THERE. I can’t get those memories back. You don’t always get everything back. There are nights my mom stayed up crying – I can’t give those back. When they say you get everything back…you don’t. But I can go from here. When I call my mom, she doesn’t automatically think there’s something wrong. My daughter doesn’t have to be ashamed of me anymore. My daughter’s father and my daughter trust me again. She knows I’m going to show up when I tell her I’ll be there.
I didn’t think – with all my felonies – I could get my nursing license back. We were talking about it in passing, and my boss, Chris DiNicola, and Process R.N., Nicole White, said, “back up. You were an LPN? What are you doing?”
“I have too many felonies, I never renewed it”.
They said, “you’re getting it back”.
In April, I went before a board of nursing directors who don’t think I’m cute or funny. I had to bring letters from people and show what I’ve done over the last couple years. One of the women finally said to me, “who better to help treat this epidemic than someone who has been through it?” And they allowed me to get my nursing license back.
Working with women and God – those are the two biggest things for me. If you come into recovery and you don’t believe in God, that’s okay. The 12 steps lead you to something bigger than yourself. Each step is clearing your conscience and making you open. I get that people have a hard time with God. You don’t have to look at a higher power as this big thing in the sky. I have experiences every day and I think, “that’s God”. God is going into a meeting and getting chills because you relate to the story. It’s not a Christian thing; it’s having human experiences that let you know you are worth more and there is something bigger out there. I think God works more through people than orchestrating from the sky. Sometimes we’re blind to it. But I can look back at active addiction and see where God was trying to get through to me. There’s a reason I still remember those moments, even if I didn’t necessarily acknowledge them at the time. Looking back, I should have been dead many times over, but I’m not. If you open your eyes and have some willingness to look around, you will see it. That’s where I think the steps bring you – to the willingness to sit back and see what the Universe is trying to tell you. You’ll feel it. That’s your inner peace. That’s God to me.