Disease or Choice? Insight from a recovering heroin addict

A few years ago, I made a promise to myself that I tend to break every now and again. I challenged myself to never read comments or remarks about articles or creative pieces based on my story of addiction and recovery. Not just my own story, either. Any article written about the state of addiction. I know that there are always going to be people that disagree, and even argue to hold true to their own opinions. I also know that I cannot spend positive energy arguing with each person who has a negative remark. I will accomplish nothing but getting myself fired up and pissed off. That’s part of being a person in recovery. We are awesome like that.

For so many years I was a very violent person. I used intimidation and control to get what I wanted. I would physically fight someone over a parking spot at the grocery store. When I found recovery, that was one of the big things I had to change. Changing from reacting to responding. But the biggest lesson of all was that I don’t have to respond to anything at all if I don’t want to. I don’t have to give my opinion. I don’t have to fight about anything, unless it’s something I’m passionate about. Then I’ll fight the right way.

Hello. This is how I fight the right way, today.

Lately, for whatever reason (inspiration maybe?) I’ve been reading comments.

“Addicts are weak and weak minded. They can’t deal with life so they use drugs and we’re supposed to feel sorry for them.”

If I were to respond, it would look something like this: First of all, who is “we” and why are you speaking for anyone else but yourself? Own what you say. Don’t use the excuse of this being a collective opinion to back up your own idea. Why are you judging someone and who gave you the idea that your opinion should have validity about another person’s life? Have you stopped to think about how a person developed the disease of addiction? Have you ever considered what that pathway looked like? No one wakes up one day and says, “I think I’m going to try heroin for the first time today and for the rest of my life struggle with addiction and the aftermath of it, if I even live through any of it.” What if it were your loved one?

I can only speak to how my disease developed. When I was fourteen years old, I had the first of seven knee surgeries in a five-year span. With the first surgery, Vicodin was prescribed to as a routine pain medicine - not for acute pain primarily following a surgical procedure. I received a refill every thirty-days, whether I needed it or not. I was being treated for chronic pain before I was old enough to understand chronic pain. Throughout this time of my life, I was going through some emotional and behavioral issues. I was suffering through several psychiatric medication changes. My brain chemistry was constantly being changed by different medications. It always felt like no one cared about what was happening to my brain and my body. I knew I wasn’t normal. I knew that the medication had changed me. I saw myself go through so many different stages because of all of these medications. At one time, at age 15, I was taking seven different Psychiatric medications along with opiate pain medicine. I gained over 150lbs in less than six months as a teenager. And I wasn't learning coping skills on how to change my behaviors or make different choices. It was finally me that stood up and said, No more! I’m not doing this anymore. I’m not taking these medications. They make me empty and numb.

When I stopped taking my medication, I also stopped what very little therapy I was getting for my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. By age 16, doctors told my mother that her daughter is an addict. At age 16 I had only smoked marijuana and taken my prescription medicine as prescribed. Let that sink in for a moment. How many people do you know that only smoke pot but are not addicts? How many people do you know that take Vicodin as prescribed and you would never consider them to be an addict? They live very productive lives, good parents, are never in any kind of trouble. Your wheels are turning, aren’t they? Good. Now I’ve got your attention.

The result of my dropping out of school and continuing behavioral issues lead me to a lifestyle my family had not planned for me. I quickly entered into a life of crime and heavy illicit drug use: cocaine, extasy, meth and pain pills. I chose which drugs I was using and when. If I wanted to feel happy and have energy, I would choose cocaine and extasy. If I wanted to sleep and relax, I would choose Xanax and ketamine. I was doing what I was taught to do.

I certainly didn’t choose to be a person with a substance use disorder. I did not choose to be an addict. I definitely chose the drugs that I used. I definitely made the choice to put a needle into my veins. I absolutely made the choice to live the lifestyle that I lived for so many years. With every left turn that I made, I had the choice between turning left or right. But I’m not the one that made the choice to develop the disease of addiction. That choice wasn’t given to me. That choice was taken from me at 14 years old when I was being given a dozen pills a day. There was never a discussion of what the Psychiatric drugs were doing to my brain chemistry. There was never, ever a discussion of what addiction is when I was 14, or 16 or 21 or 25. Not until I was 30 years old would a Psychiatrist help me understand what was going on in my brain and why. In March of 2012, I got the real help I needed to break the chains that my illnesses had over me.

Today I’ve been in recovery from addiction for six years and mental illness for four years. I do not take any medications, except for heartburn (Heartburn is the devil!). I made the choice to end the control that drugs had over my entire life and body. Today, I will choose anything else over taking a medication for anything I’m going through. I have peripheral nerve disease, Crohn’s disease and some terrible arthritis. I meditate, I do yoga and I take care of myself. I no longer suffer with anxiety or depression. I haven’t had an urge to use drugs in more than four years. I’m happy and I’m at peace with myself.  I’m 36 years old. I have a 3 year old, a 15 year old, a healthy marriage and an amazing career as a Peer Recovery Support Specialist for BrightView Health in Cincinnati. I make choices that are healthy for me. Informed choices that I have a say in making. I'm badass. I am a woman who gets shit done. 

Instead of debating whether addiction is a disease or choice (By the way, the science shows that addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease), start trying to understanding how people person developed the disease of addiction. What happened in a person’s life that leads him/her to the darkness and suffering of addiction? People with addiction are sons, daughters, friends, siblings. They're humans just like you and me. The real debate here should be why are we instantly grouping people into a stigma that is killing folks every single day? Saying that addiction cannot be a disease because of choices made is part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution, don’t you?

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