It is my great pleasure to introduce Stephanie Brenner – today’s Face of Recovery, who has graciously agreed to share her story of her heroin addiction and the recovery journey she’s taken.
There is a great deal of confusion, stigma, shame and discrimination surrounding addiction and addiction treatment and recovery. Yet those who have the chronic, often relapsing brain disease of addiction and are in recovery live healthy, productive, engaged lives — the same kinds of lives as people who do not have this disease. But all the words and definitions and explanations in the world are not as powerful as the people themselves. To that end, we are grateful to the people in recovery who have decided to share their experiences so that we all may put a Face to Addiction Treatment and Recovery.
Stephanie Brenner – Sharing her story of Heroin Addiction Recovery
It is my pleasure to introduce Stephanie Brenner, who has been in recovery since 2007. She invites readers to message her on Facebook and share your story (or not) and let her know you’d like to be added to her Friend’s List. She is also active in Pinterest, with boards such as, “Dual Diagnosis,” “Heroin,” “Brain,” “Job,” “Emotional Well Being” and “Dialectal Behavioral Therapy.”
How did your addiction start?
After I graduated High School, I got my own place. I was working full time, I was going to college, I felt like I deserved to party as a means of stress relief. Boy did I have that backwards.
It started by taking ecstasy occasionally. Doing it once a week turned into doing it twice a week, which turned into every other day. I managed to get an A that semester in every class I took, so I felt like what I was doing wasn’t affecting me negatively. But, as the ecstasy abuse continued, I realized there was a negative downside. I started having a really hard time coming down after I’d gotten high, especially the entire next day. An acquaintance offered me a pill that he promised would take the come down away, even the next day. It was a 40mg Oxycontin and I only had to do a quarter of it to feel better. AND he was right, the next day was smooth sailing. Soon, I started skipping the ecstasy and doing the Oxycontin all on its own. Like the ecstasy, it started small, and gradually grew. Over the course of 9 months, I went from doing it occasionally to doing it every single day.
I didn’t have any idea about “withdrawals” or being physically dependent on something. I had my drugs every day, so I didn’t have to go without. Until that one day that I didn’t. I thought I had the flu, was positive it was the flu, it felt exactly the same. I went to school with a bandana around my mouth so I couldn’t get anyone sick or miss a day from being sick. I talked to someone who said, “You didn’t know this would happen?” I had no idea. I was even doing my pre-requisites to apply for PharmD School, and had no idea. In a couple of days, I had access to the drugs again, and I felt like I had conquered this “flu” almost immediately after snorting the pill. That was the exact moment when I knew I was an addict (and I most definitely wasn’t suffering from the flu).
I quit, only to start using again when things in my life seemed overwhelming. I did this off and on drug use for a couple of years. Always using the drugs to lean on when things got hard.
Within a year of realizing I was an addict, I lost my house to foreclosure, because getting high was more important than paying my bills. 7 months after that, I was arrested for drug possession. A year after that, I was arrested again, by the same narcotic agents that arrested me before, and this time they took my car, my paid off car, and I went to jail. I also became a convicted felon.
I had lost everything; my house, my car, my college education, material possessions, relationships, voting rights, any chance at getting a normal job, and lastly, my freedom. I didn’t feel like I had much to live for. I got clean while I was locked up, and a few months after I had gotten out, the cycle started again.
That’s when Oxycontin led to heroin, for it was cheaper and more effective, and obviously much more dangerous.
What was the turning point for you – what made you want to get sober?
I remember the night I decided to ask for help so vividly. I had gotten high, and started thinking about my future, my family, my friends, and how I was no longer the same person I was before this all started. Then I started thinking about the fact that I was only prolonging my withdrawals, every single day, by continuously using, trying to ward the withdrawals off. I could get off of it permanently and be done forever from withdrawals. Waking up and withdrawing every day was getting old, and I was sick and tired of being this person who I didn’t know who, at the same time, was myself, stuck on repeat without a life. I had a doctor’s appointment the next day, and I decided I would tell the truth and ask for help, because I knew from experience that I just couldn’t do it myself.
What was your initial addiction treatment?
I went to see my doctor the next day, and I was starting to have second thoughts because of the embarrassment I was feeling and the questions I started asking myself. How would she react? Would she call the cops and force me into rehab? Would she laugh at me? I felt like nothing positive could come from me telling her, all of this fear just started while I was waiting for her to come in the room.
I didn’t say anything during my appointment, but as soon as she went to walk out of the room, I burst into tears. She came back in and closed the door, and I told her, “I’m a heroin addict and I need help, I don’t know what to do, I just know I don’t want to feel like this anymore.” She sat down and listened to my story, and then she told me a story about her brother who was on heroin, and watching his struggle for 10 years before he succumbed. She vowed to not judge me and that she would do everything in her power to help me.
She prescribed some medications for me to help me with the withdrawal, as she wanted me to come off of the heroin ASAP, understandably. I was terrified of the withdrawal. So, she started weaning me off, decreasing my use a little bit each week. Then she prescribed me a weeks’ worth of Suboxone to help me get through the worst of it. It took 4 months from the time I asked her for help until I finished using, but I did it.
I broke up with my boyfriend, I moved into a friend’s house, and I got rid of my cell phone to cut all my ties with all my using friends. My friend(s) screened my phone calls (their house phones), only passing messages to me from people they knew weren’t using.
A couple of years after I had been clean, I started working on myself and my coping skills in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. What took most people 4 months to learn in that atmosphere took me 2 years; my thought process had literally changed and I had a lot more work to do than someone who hadn’t been using.
Do you do anything differently, today?
I’m completely honest. All the time, with everyone. Most of the time, when people hear my story, they look at me like I am a leper. Other times, people tell me I’m an amazing person and how they are so proud of me. When I was using, I lied about everything. I use the tools I learned in therapy, and the things I still need help working on, I see my therapist for. Talking to someone who has an objective view point on what I’m going through helps me to work through my problems and allows me to see things rationally. My emotions can be a little too intense and overwhelming, which can cause me to think irrationally. Having my therapist gives me the tools I need to move forward through whatever I’m going through.
I also exercise, most importantly stretch, which feels incredibly great. Natural endorphins aren’t harmful :). I try my best to avoid processed food items and eat whole foods. The most important so far, has been giving back and sharing; nothing makes me feel as good as helping people. Sharing my story is important to me, as well as reading and hearing other peoples’ stories of addiction and recovery. I want people to know that addiction isn’t necessarily a choice, but recovery can be.
What is your life like, now?
It isn’t perfect by any means. I still can’t find a job because of my felony. In 2005, I was convicted of a lesser charge than drug possession, an F-3 in the state of Ohio and pled down to an F-4 (since 2011 F- 4s and F-5s do not get sent to prison like they used to). I violated probation in 2006, making it impossible for me to get an expungement (your record gets clean). Actually, I did find a job after 6 months of job hunting in 2006 at a factory; unfortunately, the physical labor proved to be more than my body could handle and I hurt myself. I also got a job interview in 2013 and was told as long as what I told them in person matched with the background check, that I had a job. A week later I get a call stating that their company Legal Department couldn’t justify hiring me, as I was a legal liability to them.
Also, I haven’t had my own car in years. I still have to go to therapy. I have to have blood tests done to check my liver enzymes. But, I am blessed. I am still here. I have friends who stayed by my side, friends that believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. I have a daughter, after being told by numerous doctors I would never carry to full term, that it wasn’t in the cards for me to be a mother. I’ve got a roof over my head and people who love me.
Some people look at me as having a weakness, but I’m now able to look at this past history of mine as strength because I’ve learned so much about so many things, including myself, the people I love, and the science of addiction. I no longer feel like I need to do heroin when things get tough, another reason I believe it to be a strength. I write when I have feelings inside of me that I need to express, I enjoy art again. I am a total optimist, I try to find the good, the positive, in everything. I’m also obsessed with philosophical quotes and taking pictures of my daughter with Instagram.
Do you have anything you’d like to share with someone currently struggling with a substance abuse problem or an addiction?
The absolute hardest thing for me to do was to ask for professional help and to be honest about my drug use to myself and to others. Once you have that moment when you feel sick and tired of being sick and tired, seek help. This feeling is you, telling yourself the time to get help is now.
For the longest time, I felt like because I got myself into this situation, that I had to get myself out of the situation. Reaching out for help is vital to learn the coping skills you need rather than relying on a drug to lean on when things get hard. The 2nd hardest thing I had to do was get away from the people who were still using because I absolutely couldn’t trust myself to stay clean if the drugs were within grasp. The 3rd hardest (and something that can still be hard to this day because of judgment and stigma) was being honest with everyone, including my doctors.
I had ALL the risk factors for addiction: childhood trauma, mental illness, social environment, early use (which especially makes sense when you understand brain development, ages 12-25) and genetics. With intensive therapy I was able to get to the root(s) of the problem. Once I was definite I was ready to take on my past traumas head on which would allow me to move on, things weren’t as hard. The heaviness started to lift. The darkness started turning to brightness. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t nearly as hard once I started learning techniques, involving myself in group therapies, and being consistent with my individual therapy.
Do you have anything you’d like to share with family or friends of those who struggle with substance use disorders?
I’ve got something I’d like to share with everyone.
One thing most people say is that addiction is a choice; they should have never used drugs in the first place. Because they did get high, it was their choice to become an addict. Even though I knew my life was falling apart in every department, I didn’t know how to deal with the emotional pain left over from life’s accumulation of trauma beginning in early childhood, the way it shaped who I had become, and the mental illness that I didn’t understand, and the mother I didn’t know was an addict. I lacked the coping skills I needed, and the only one I had was heroin. It was my way of dealing, without dealing, which just compounds the problems even more, and it was a painful cycle.
When those people tell me it was my choice to become an addict, I try and remember how good it must feel to have never experienced it themselves, how lucky they are. Addiction isn’t anyone’s dream; for me, it was simply a way of coping with something I had no idea how to cope with.
Even though addiction isn’t a choice, recovery can be. All you need are the tools to cope, and the willingness to reach out to someone to get the help you need. Addiction doesn’t have to be a death sentence, jail sentence, or institution sentence; instead, let it be a learning experience. Grow a beautiful flower from all that sh*t life dumped on you.
What is the best part about your addiction recovery?
The best part about recovery is being proud of who I am today. I have to take one day at a time. It is what works best for me. What is also great is feeling the little joys that come along with being a responsible adult. What once felt like meaningless chores have become little accomplishments each and every day. I’m much better at prioritizing and removing unnecessary stressors from my life. I’ve learned to listen to my gut feeling, my intuition, and it is never wrong. I have a new appreciation for life and the journey. Also, when you’re in recovery, you see people you know and love struggle with addiction. You never truly understand how your own addiction affects the people you love until you go through it yourself when someone you love becomes an addict after you’ve gotten clean. I have a newfound appreciation of my friends and family; they went through hell and back watching me throw my life away.
Thank you so very much, Stephanie, for sharing your story, and CONGRATULATIONS on 7+ years RECOVERY!
Stephanie asked that I share her views on Paula Whitman, Owner/Founder of PaulasHouse.org, “an amazing place in Monroe, Michigan. It’s a house for Homeless Women to live a Sober Lifestyle while learning techniques and tools to help these women (and sometimes their children) continue to live these new, sober lives.” Stephanie continues, “She is an inspiration to me. She saw a way to make treatment better and did it. She set a goal and met it. All while in recovery. I’ve met her in person, she’s amazing. She helps these women literally rebuild their lives.”
You may also wish to “meet” others sharing their recovery stories with BreakingTheCycles.com by clicking on this link, Faces of Recovery.