It is my great pleasure to introduce Susanne Johnson – today’s Face of Recovery, who has graciously agreed to share her story of addiction and addiction recovery.
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.
Please Meet Today’s Face of Addiction Recovery – Susanne Johnson
How did your addiction start?
Growing up in Germany as a daughter of an alcoholic mother and a very strict father was not always easy. I used alcohol already at very early age of about 9 or 10 old. I took my share of hidden bottles, that were scattered all over our big house. My mother was working at that time, and it was a thing I did being home alone in the afternoons after I returned from school, playing ‘find the bottles’ throughout the house and take a swallow of each. I liked the feeling, suddenly I didn’t feel alone anymore or bored. In Germany the legal drinking age is 16 and by looking a bit older as I was, I had access to buy my own really early. I was probably an alcoholic at the age of 13 or 14 already. Some pubs were open during the afternoon were I played pool with friends, public drinking while being there. We stole bottles from well stocked house bars our parents and meet at night somewhere to get drunk skipping out of windows. By age of 18, I would have sometimes a fifth a day, going to school, living on my own and working at nights and on weekends at a club to support myself. My sweet mother died when I was 14 at the young age of 46 having a heart failure due to an enlarged heart most likely caused by her alcoholism.
What was the turning point for you – what made you want to get sober?
After meeting my current American husband in Egypt, Africa, during a vacation in 1996, I left all I had in Germany and moved to Egypt, where he was working as an Engineer for an American Company. By this time I was as well addicted to Cocaine already from Germany. Alcohol and Cocaine were hard to get in Egypt, a muslim country. I had to find new sources to feed my cravings. Smoking Hashish and Marijuana came into play at that time, easy available and cheap, and I was addicted to both at first try. We moved from a small town near the Suez Canal to the capital Cairo. My health, physically and mentally, was going downhill fast and throwing up became a morning routine. The life for an expat overseas is filled with locations and occasions to drink and somehow every evening ended at a club of the American Air Force, one of the Embassies or at a friend’s house party.
We decided that in order to preserve my health, we need to be relocated and it brought us to California. I made the decision at the airport never to touch any illegal drugs anymore. It was hard, but possible, but I could not let go of the alcohol, no matter what I tried. Since I lived over 10 years in a real 3rd world country, I had zero knowledge about addictive medications or anything else. I went to a doctor in the hope he could ‘fix’ my alcoholism and give me something so I won’t have to drink like that anymore. All I wanted was to drink maybe one glass a day. I fought it for days or weeks at a time. I was given Xanax and the bottle said ‘Take as needed’ and I did! I was less drinking, more sleeping and taking more and more pills to cope with the craving and my feelings, washed it down with whisky coke. I went to the Mexican border every couple weeks to get more for a very cheap price, but I did not know how dangerous it was, what I was doing. I really thought, that I will help my liver, my general health and will get a hand on my alcoholism if I take enough Xanax. Of course they work better, if you take them WITH alcohol, so ignore the warning on the bottle.
It took a couple more years and another move to Illinois due to my husband’s work before I got really sick the first time and had almost an internal bleed out caused by varices in my esophagus. I was rescued in the last second, just to come back home and start drinking again. I did this a total of three times until one day my heart stopped pounding and I stopped breathing, having severe seizures, blood in my lungs and lots of other complications, which almost let me die.
Today I believe that the old ‘Susanne’ successful died that day and a new one was brought back to life. 22 rubber bands were holding my esophagus together, which appeared to look like a swiss cheese, and after being released from this nightmare in the hospital, I could not help it but to have the next drink just a week after I came home. I knew that was it, and I needed to do something. It took me a few more weeks to assort my thoughts and finally pick up the phone in pain and tears and called for help.
What was your initial treatment?
My desperate call for help brought me three days later to Palm Springs, California, where I was detoxed and received 6 weeks of intense treatment at Michael’s House. At this point I was far from willing to stop drinking, but I was full of fear, anger, shame and guilt. My blood results were so bad, that the treatment center almost admitted me to a hospital, but I felt pretty good and could stay. I became willing to give recovery a try during my treatment as I saw other people managing their lives without alcohol or drugs and seemed to be happy with it. The willingness increased as I saw, that it wasn’t as hard as I imagined to be sober. My days were structured and filled with activities non stop. The classes, meetings, therapy and groups I attended switched from being a burden to a chance and I started soaking up all information and help I could receive. I am forever grateful to Michael’s House for flipping that switch in my brain, turning fear into hope.
Do you do anything differently, today?
Being in active addiction caused me to isolate. Today I don’t have to do that anymore. I have the freedom to live a life that exceeds all my expectations. Instead of wasting days at home drinking, I go out and meet with sober friends, go to meetings and enjoy the present moment. I started Yacht Sailing Racing in recovery on a friends 38′ boat and it is a wonderful thing to do for somebody that loves the water. A race can be filled with excitement and sportive activity and an evening sail can be the most peaceful and serene moment you can imagine. Since my physical condition improved drastically I am not restricted in anything anymore. Any activity that sounds like sober fun is within limits today. If it is running a 6K with Heroes in Recovery or going white water rafting on a wild river in the Appalachians, if it is gardening in the hot sunshine or going on a bicycle, I’m free to choose today my activity.
What is your life like, now?
I spend a lot of time learning and learning. I am one of those persons, that like to understand what is going on in order to accept it. I could truly accept my addiction as I satisfied my need to know all about it. Then came the day where I was asked by somebody from Foundations Recovery Network to apply for an open position as Lead Advocate for Heroes in Recovery. I was accepted and my passion became now my daily activity. I collect stories like this one here for our website HeroesinRecovery.com to help others to relate and support the movement at our 6K run/walks, that are held all over the country. We discovered that while 23 million people each year need help for addiction, only 3 million actually seek treatment. We are looking for the other 20 million, those who may not be seeking help due to the overwhelming stigma that often surrounds substance use and mental health disorders. My passion is to eliminate the social stigma, that keeps those individuals from seeking help. Recovery is fun and getting involved leads to a healthy, active lifestyle.
I also became a Certified ARISE Interventionist to help families through their struggles from addiction into active recovery, guiding them through the process step by step with my experience and the best practice, evidence based ARISE model, that was developed by Dr. Judith Landau. This profession let me work my enthusiasm for the treatment field on a very personal base with the individual and his family. I also became a certified Sober Coach to help those who struggle to stay in sobriety for different reasons.
My life today revolves around recovery and you meet me at conferences, conventions, meetings, at school prevention days, at 6K runs, facebook and the internet or in somebody’s living room helping others out of the dark and complete families into recovery. I speak at meetings, events, schools and in jail, anywhere I feel a need to be. God saved my life for a reason at the hospital and I believe that I follow that call today with my work.
Do you have anything you’d like to share with someone currently struggling with a substance abuse problem or an addiction? How about anything you’d like to share with their family or friends?
Addiction is a process, so is recovery. Both are unique like a fingerprint and each person has different needs. There is no ‘one fix all’. Each little step in the right direction is worth taking and we don’t have to wait until we hit bottom to turn around towards a better future. Setbacks are frustrating but not the end of the world. Keep moving into a solution and reach out for help, if you feel overwhelmed or helpless. You may be helpless at times, but should never be hopeless.
Family support plays a key-role in recovery. All need to work together to get best results. Addiction is a disease and the addict needs to be treated without blaming or shaming while solutions for recovery are found on an individual basis. The support network of family and friends has a major impact on the positive outcome of the treatment. I like to encourage families not to turn their head from the problem, but to actively address it and find professional help for the one in need. Learn the difference between helping and enabling. Offer your help and support and be active in the recovery of your loved one.
What is the best part about your recovery?
The best part of my recovery is the knowledge today, that I never have to go back. I can live in freedom from substances a healthy, active life and help those which didn’t manage to make that step yet into sobriety and those that need support on their path stabilizing it. My obsession to drink and drug was lifted and I love to give this feeling to more people in this world.
Thank you, Susanne, so very much for sharing your story, and CONGRATULATIONS on 4 years RECOVERY!
Today, Susanne is a Lead Advocate for Heroes in Recovery, and a CAI (Certified ARISE Interventionist) and Certified Sober Coach, for which she asks you connect via her FB page. Susanne also invites you to contact her by phone, 618-309-3187, or email at Susanne. Johnson.USA@ICloud.com
You may also wish to “meet” others sharing their recovery stories with BreakingTheCycles.com by clicking on this link, Faces of Recovery.