February 2024

My name is Michelle, and I am a person in recovery. My recovery is multi-faceted. Not only am I in recovery from my own co-occurring substance use disorder, but I am a family member, a friend, a sibling, and a partner to other individuals in recovery. I start my story with this language because language is a big part of my recovery.

Growing up being a child of someone with this disease was not easy, as I cannot tell you how old I was when my recovery journey began. I do know that my family reinforced that the likelihood of me having this disease was high. I was coached and guided in such a way that I grew up being fearful of using drugs and alcohol.

I was removed from my mother’s care when I was 7 years old after her disease got out of control and her mental state was deemed unfit to care for my sister and me. We both went to live with our dad leaving a baby half-sister with our mom while my stepbrother was with his mom. 

My mom has such a playful spirit, and when she was well; she was a good mom, and I know she did the best she could. The court ordered supervised visits which she complied with for a while, but she was resentful for having to pay someone to see her kids. My dad did his best to facilitate visits with her even when she couldn’t afford to pay a supervisor, but she eventually moved to another state and there was not a lot of contact for many years. I didn’t understand the disease, I grew up thinking my mother chose drugs over me, that I wasn’t worth the effort nor was I significant enough to stop her using. I knew my mother was sick, and I felt powerless in helping her get better. I often felt that she stayed sick because I couldn’t be with her.

The truth is, I always felt different. I was held back in 2nd grade because I transferred schools in the middle of the school year with a not-so-great attendance/participation record. I had this crazy curly hair that kids made fun of. I sucked my thumb publicly until 4th grade, privately it was probably closer to 6th grade. I had retainers and braces for what felt like a decade because of the thumb sucking and kids even made fun of the color of my eyes! It’s crazy how cruel kids can be on top of whatever internal crap a little person may be dealing with. I am also Jewish, and was always proud of it, but my sister and I were usually the only Jewish kids in our schools. It just felt like outside of my family I didn’t belong anywhere.

Growing up, my sister and I spent a lot of time at The Boys and Girls Club which shaped me to be a well-rounded individual. I thought I had become a young adult. My dad remarried when I was 13, and I was excited to have a mother figure in my life. As an adult I know now that the expectations I had for my stepmom Cindy were probably unrealistic, and maybe her expectations were unrealistic of me also. The boundaries and relationship was always up and down. Regardless of the amount of love she had for me, I still craved my mother and I know now that wasn’t fair to her.

At 16 I started what would become a serious addiction to working. Not only was I still in High School, and working, but I would sometimes take on a second job and even took extra classes my sophomore and junior year of high school so I could leave at lunch to go to work. Work was an escape for me. My aunt Amy shared with me in my early recovery that I never seemed to want to be at home. There was no real reason for that, home was good. What I learned through my recovery over the last 4 years is that I became addicted to the validation I got from working or helping someone, for completing a task. So, I over-committed, gave more than I had, and would chase that validation. This behavior followed me into my relationships with men as well. If they couldn’t afford to pay their part of the bills I would overwork to make up for the deficit. I built relationships around the fact that I needed to be needed. 

I gravitated toward the San Diego punk scene in the 90’s where I would work to go to the beach and go to shows. I may have had tried some alcohol in my late teens, but I didn’t like it and for the most part I was straight edge. I enjoyed my southern California girl life without the use of substances, but fearful that I would become like my mom, so I steered clear. 

In 2002 I had a relationship that abruptly ended which led me down a path of depression. My abandonment issues were triggered, and I was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder with mixed emotions. My boyfriend at the time was in school in Long Beach and he essentially ghosted me after 2 years of living together. What was described to me as an adjustment disorder is that I could not process the pain of being abandoned again, so I continued to live my life in denial of what happened. Part of what I had to do to overcome this was set a date for when I was going to stop living in a fantasy world and come back to reality. I set the date and began making plans to move to Florida closer to my Aunt Amy, to start fresh. This is where the geographical changes started to come into play in my life.

Once I got to Florida, I immediately regretted my decision. I missed California living so much. I thought the lifestyle was better, and I spent the next 10 years trying to make a life here. In those 10 years I began to drink and make friends, work, date, and I know now that it wasn’t that life was better in California, it was that I had to truly grow up here in Florida. I started dating a guy who ended up having a substance use disorder and found myself undergoing traumas that I had spent a lifetime trying to avoid. I never used with him, but I was trying to help him, which I learned was that I was trying to help my mother through him. The relationship ended in a restraining order, and an ultimatum with my family. Amy, and my uncle Scott helped me out of that relationship, but I still made terrible decisions throughout the process. Scott told me that I needed to focus on self-preservation and his words stick with me to this day, even if I have fallen short sometimes. After that breakup, I took to working a lot. Retail is the perfect career for a workaholic because you can work as many hours as you’d like, you get enough validation to keep you going, and the demand for more is ever present. I worked in retail and became a full-time student at Florida International University. I was busy enough to stay away from relationships and I was okay with that because I had determined that the wrong kind of people gravitated toward me. My picker was broken.

Eventually I did meet a man who was from Nebraska and also going to school. He was far enough away so if the relationship didn’t work out it wouldn’t completely disrupt my life, however, I fell in love and in 2013 I moved to Kansas City, Missouri to be with him because that’s where he was attending law school. I stayed in Kansas City for about 6 years. Kansas City is where my drinking picked up, depression went into high gear, and I found myself completely miserable. I got myself in a situation where I didn’t know if my partner even really loved me or if he truly just needed me. I paid most of the bills and worked constantly. I thought I was elevating my career, but I hit roadblocks with upper management all the time, and it truly felt like it was because I was a woman. I had good experiences there too and met lifelong friends. People who have stood by me to this day as I made the decision to end a 10 year long relationship and move back to Florida. 

I never felt truly anchored anywhere. I always wanted to go somewhere else, and it surprised everyone that Florida was the place I wanted to go back to. When I got back to Florida my mental health was not great even though I had been seeing a therapist for over a year and made sure to have a new therapist for when I arrived in Florida. I was mourning my failed relationship, the end and outcome of a lot of goals and dreams not coming to fruition. A friend suggested I try to meet someone new on some of the dating apps, and with reluctancy I complied. I didn’t take it all that seriously as I found most guys my age not very interesting, but then one caught my attention as we liked the same music and books, and it seemed like we had a lot to talk about. He asked if I smoked weed. I told him I was allergic to drugs, but I agreed to meet up for some beers with him. It turned out that this guy was living in a halfway house and because he had those beers with me, he could not go home for 72 hours. I had no idea the mess I would get myself in. He never left my house after those 72 hours until the day I went to Fellowship RCO’s Respite. My using didn’t start right away. I endured a lot of verbal and physical abuse arguing for this man to leave my house, I felt a lot of guilt and shame that I got myself into another situation like this and was fearful to ask for help. It was fear to accept help when it was offered also. I eventually began using opiates to escape my reality and it led to lying, losing jobs, losing friends, my uncle disowned me and still doesn’t speak to me to this day. Eventually my cousin Rachel heard about the possibility that I had been using drugs, and she orchestrated an intervention with herself and my aunt. I assured them I needed to just get away from that guy, and I thought I’d be moving into my aunt’s house. My aunt found Fellowship RCO. She spoke with a manager who knew my name because of a shared employment history, and my aunt believed that God was telling her that Fellowship RCO was where I needed to go. I was told that on Sunday, February 2nd, 2020 I would be going to the Respite.

I called to do the phone assessment and Louis Somoza answered the phone. I was scared, ashamed and didn’t know what to expect. I had been moving my life into storage all morning and hadn’t used in 24 hours. I was exhausted, but this man who sounded like Tom Waits was on the other line telling me that I was going to be okay, and that I should plan to be at the respite for 3-4 days, and not to expect that my whole life will get fixed in those 4 days. I also had to tell my new employer that I had to take a mental health break for a week. I’m so grateful to her that I still had a job after the Respite, and I had her full support when I got to a place where I could tell her what was going on. She really gave me a lot of support and strength at this very low point in my life.

While at Respite, all the stigmas I grew up with about people with substance use disorders began to haunt me. I felt like I didn’t belong there, but once I got to Fellowship RCO’s Recovery Residence and was told that I had to work the steps I still didn’t think I was an addict. I did however know that I had a problem with men, living my best life, feelings of unworthiness… I needed to discover what led me to where I was at that moment. It wasn’t until I read” what is an addict” and “who is an addict” in the basic text of Narcotics Anonymous was I able to accept that I am one.

I was grateful to have the full support of my family to help me kick start my recovery, even if I didn’t act so grateful in the beginning. I hurt them all deeply. The most impactful thing Amy said to me was “you no longer get to be a victim” and I use that as a mantra even today. Some family members were skeptical that I would ever “get better,” but they all showed up. I probably hurt my dad and sisters the most. They were devastated, angry, baffled. My aunts and uncles pulled together and helped me and my life has become a living amends to them all.

I got a sponsor, I worked the steps, attended meetings, and continued to improve my life. I was able to get out of retail, and my sponsor only allowed me to have 1 job so I could no longer avoid my life with work. I started meeting with a life coach to learn how to validate myself from within instead of the need for validation from others. I still work with this life coach today. I started working for Fellowship RCO’s Recovery Center as Rick’s assistant in August of 2020, and have worked up to becoming the Director of Outreach and I also became a Certified Recovery Peer Specialist in May of 2023. I get to create programs, service projects and events for people in recovery that show how enriching our lives can be. I found that I was having a complete identity crisis in early recovery, which probably started prior to my using. With my sponsor and my step work we explored various methods of doing the steps through art and self-expression and I found it instrumental in my recovery process and re-learning what it was I enjoyed doing. One of my sponsees and I connected over music and through her steps we made a 12-step playlist. I listen to my playlist to this day and get to reflect on how much I have grown. 

Some of the gifts of my recovery have come in ways I could never imagine. When I had about 9 months clean, my brother called me asking for help. With a lot of talking and encouraging he too came to Fellowship RCO to get the same support as me. He celebrated 3 years clean in November. His wife also eventually came to Fellowship and she celebrated 1 year clean in November. I never thought in a million years that I’d have a relationship with my brother or his wife and kids. As I had seen him maybe 3 times since I was 7 years old. We get to show our sisters that recovery is possible, and it does work if you work it.

2 weeks ago, I got to spend the weekend with my youngest sister at Epcot. The experience was fun yes, but more importantly it was incredibly healing for us both, and I only hope to try and orchestrate something similar with my sister Sarah.

Next month I am getting married to the most wonderful man. He waited 2 years for me to accept that I deserved the kind of love he had to offer. The fact that we are both in recovery helps us communicate in a way I’ve never been able to with another man before. I’ve always felt that love for me came with conditions, even though I always loved without them. We overcome challenges, we confront each other’s shortcomings with compassion, and we have a common goal of walking in the solution. 

I truly believe that my life’s path led me to a place where my family can be healed, a job where I can make a true impact on other’s lives, and to meet all the people in my life today. I couldn’t imagine life without them, but also, I never would have found them without the choices I made to lead me here.

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