Whenever I reflect upon the years that I was in active addiction, I envision this huge, neon flashing welcome sign as I walk into a smoke-filled dope house. You know you aren’t supposed to go, but you’re going anyway because it is the place you feel most comfortable, a place where you get what you need to survive the escape of reality. The neon lights began to grow dimmer and less appealing each time I showed up, yet it was the place I had to be.
Nothing in my childhood made me become an addict. All my basic needs were met, and I had most of the things I wanted. Whenever I started attending recovery meetings in my hometown, I was confused because I heard people sharing their stories and they all had terrible things happen to them during their childhood. That was not my experience, and it wasn’t until I began really working through the wreckage with a wonderful counselor and my AA sponsor that I realized, yes there were some traumatic things that occurred, my grandparents’ divorce, the death of my great-grandmother, followed by my beloved grandfather’s passing – but those were not what made me an alcoholic, nor a drug user.
Every person processes “life” differently and my parents protected me well from “life.” I went to private schools so I wouldn’t be exposed to as many behaviors as I might in public schools, I was protected from the “disgraceful” relatives that lived differently than us. They couldn’t hold down jobs, stayed out all night, were promiscuous, and always asking to borrow money, so one can probably imagine the shame and guilt I felt as my life began to resemble theirs. I watched my parents’ hope deteriorate as my addiction consumed me, and the basic needs they provided so well before, really were of no use to me anymore. My needs had changed, they didn’t understand, nor did I, but I knew a handful of folks that would understand and co-sign my tainted reality.
Fast forward to the summer before my senior year of high school. Three friends had been out partying and decided to drive home, intoxicated. The next morning, I awoke to a phone call from my friend, Melanie. She was sobbing, and I could barely understand what she was saying, nor could I comprehend it, “Anthony’s dead.”
The coming days, weeks, months, were tough but it didn’t make me want to change, in fact, it made me want more pills, more booze, more illicit drugs. Looking back, I know I wasn’t a bad person; I was an addict, trapped in some sort of tailspin, unable to choose a healthy coping mechanism to heal. It was no longer a “choice” to abuse drugs.
I felt drugs and alcohol were my pilots, instead, they were heavy anchors. I didn’t know it at that time though. In hindsight, without the aid of drugs and booze, life would have been asking too much of me. I would have to feel the pain of losing Anthony, I would have to feel the sadness others felt as we navigated this tragedy. I wasn’t willing to do that, I wanted to numb any sadness, so I did.
I thought I was controlling things, that I could outsmart things like death and overdose. I tried to control when and how much I would use: I will only use on Friday, Saturday, and maybe Sunday. I won’t visit the place with the passé welcome sign during the day, I will drink light beer instead of liquor if I am the designated driver, I will only drink after work, were some things I would try or believed would work.
Keeping It In The Family
For years, my family tried to get me to stop but my addiction continued to spiral. I thought they were crazy and I felt as if they were trying to control me, but they were actually trying to save my life. I thought I could stay sober after having my first child, but I didn’t have the desire nor the knowledge I have now.
At the time I would have argued that I was a good mother. I was not. I prayed she would fall asleep so I could drink without her seeing me, I locked myself in my bathroom begging her to stop bothering me just so I could get high. Eventually, my parents gained custody of my sweet daughter and I hated them for it.
I get emotional when I think about my daughter and me during that time in our lives. It’s not so much sadness anymore, it’s gratitude for all my family has done. My parents gave my daughter a good life, met her basic needs, provided her with lots of love and a stable environment, all the things I was incapable of at the time. Later, I married (an addict) and had 2 wonderful children. Neither of those remembers the woman their mama was. Children don’t ask to be born to a mother struggling with addiction and undiagnosed depression but I was entrusted with their three beautiful souls, yet I could not get sober to save my parents from heartache, I could not get sober for my kids. For an addict, those people aren’t enough to stop the relentless obsession to get high.
My family thought those “disgraceful” family members had a choice and were just living that way because they were bad people and didn’t want better for themselves. They thought they would never have to face their only child living that way. Knowing how they felt about those family members made me feel like I could not overcome the terrible things I had done and I sought their approval for everything, as children do. Though my parents were loving, they seemed unforgiving of others and it hindered my recovery because I thought, well I have already messed up and they aren’t going to forget this anytime soon.
In the South especially, families don’t want others to find out about the problems they are having within their homes. Many of us want people to believe we have this cookie-cutter life full of happiness and without problems, but we know that’s impossible and even if it were true, people would still have their own truths. It took years for me to open up to someone and talk about certain aspects that I needed closure on. I felt a need to protect my family name and protect my parents from being “embarrassed”. I wish I would’ve trusted another person sooner but it wasn’t until my recovery journey that I discovered it was ok to talk about things out loud. I found trust in my AA sponsor and my therapist.
Setting Sail To Recovery
I tried to get sober years before, to quiet my family, but it didn’t work because I wasn’t ready to part with the pill bottle just yet. I had to cause more wreckage, and sink my ship, completely.
On June 15th, 2013, I found myself sitting in my kitchen, holding a firearm close enough to end it all, and at that point, I authentically cried out to God and conceded I didn’t know how to help myself. I begged God that day to help me or take me because I was tired. I was spiritually broken, mentally and physically bankrupt. That day, I decided to try something different and I haven’t looked back. My journey to recovery was for me. I made no bargains with God; it wasn’t with expectations.
This may sound selfish but I told God my recovery wasn’t dependent on whether or not I regained custody of my first child, or if he helped me reconcile my relationship with my parents and family, I promised God my recovery had no buy-ins this time. My commute to living my best life started the day I had enough.
Recovery has been painful at times, it pained me deeply to look at the woman I was before that summer. There was damage to others that I thought was irrevocable which I had to make right. I had to also look at the harms made to myself and find a way to let it go. I had to admit a lot of mistakes and work to make every last one right. God opened doors I thought were nailed shut, in his perfect timing, I have been able to make amends, I have regained my parents’ trust, I am a mother, a daughter, a friend, an entrusted member of society that has recovered from a state of hopelessness. My oldest daughter will be twenty-one this year and I aspire to be more like her each day. She is my best friend and my biggest supporter. She and her siblings bless my life immensely.
I’ve overdosed, I’ve heard people talk about me, occasionally, I may hear someone saying a bit about my past, I no longer run from it. I don’t have to; I’ve been set free of the desire to use drugs. I know what it feels like to carry the weight of loss, hardships, and shipwrecks. I also know how it feels to be sober and setting sail on my journey.
Addiction took everything that made me feel like a person. I did things that made me feel less of a woman to get high. My oldest no longer respected me and wasn’t afraid to let me know how she felt. I took it because I literally deserved nothing more, however, the day came where I felt I am doing the right things, I am trying my hardest to gain her trust and love and this one morning I am taking her to school and she’s saying things under her breath and I think to myself, how can I correct this behavior towards me, and out of nowhere, I started saying the serenity prayer aloud. My daughter looked at me like I had lost my mind and when I finished asking God to grant me the serenity to handle this situation, I began a conversation with her about her feelings and her needs and what I could do differently to be a better mother. I won’t go into detail about the things said, but after that day, our relationship began to change for the better. Today, I am not afraid to speak up for myself, I am not afraid to love others, and I am able to celebrate joyous occasions I would have otherwise missed.
Today, I am an advocate for the addict, just as much as I am an advocate for recovery. It is quite remarkable that my past has put me in a position to help others in their suffering. An addict’s experiences may look different than his fellows, but the way he feels is almost identical to his fellows. We’ve felt the same desperation, the same hopelessness, the same desire to survive. Like addiction, overdose doesn’t discriminate. Neither care if you’re a mother, neither care if your mother is home praying on her knees that you are safe, and it doesn’t care whether you have to be, borrow, or steal to sabotage every part of you that makes you feel like a human being. It leaves you empty.
My journey lets me share the hope I have found in recovery with others; my work lets me put my passion for others providing education to prevent drug overdose and addiction from ever happening, and destigmatizing addiction
I am very open with my children about my past, in hopes that maybe they won’t take the same journey, or so that they can help a friend find hope in the midst of a parent or family member’s addiction. They sometimes attend open AA meetings with me, and my oldest has heard me share my story, she also attends AL-ANON meetings as part of her own recovery process. My youngest daughter says “Mom you would make, like, a good inspirational speaker”. Bless her spirit.
Through my workplace, I partner with local schools to promote drug prevention. My youngest children (on a good day) think it’s so cool that I get to come to talk to their class about drugs. I am glad they still find me “cool”.
I never dreamed I would have the opportunities I have today. I am truly blessed to be in the position I am. My goals are attainable so long as I work continuously on my recovery. All the effort I put into using drugs, I now put into staying sober.
I still see that welcome sign, but today it says “Recovery.”
Marlene Lassiter is a prevention specialist based in Alabama and manages an Alabama State Opioid Response Grant in her community. As a prevention specialist, she organizes public events and provides prevention training and resources including naloxone training and drug take-back events. She is active in her community as a volunteer in community outreach programs, and also serves as the mental health chairperson for the homeless. In long-term recovery, Lassiter is a member of the Big Book Group (AA). She is married and is the proud mother of three children.