12 People Get Candid About Living With AddictionIf this hits close to home, you’re not alone.
If you’ve ever consumed literally any type of media, you’ve probably been flooded with ideas of what it's like to be an addict (looking at you, Skins and Charlie Sheen interviews). In pop culture, people with addiction issues are often portrayed as sexy, creative, and tragic all at once. You typically see stories of addiction reduced to one-dimensional cautionary tales of drug or alcohol use gone bad. Other times, addiction is glamorized as the vice of brilliant, creative people, like in nearly every biopic where a white male character falls from grace one moment and drafts a killer song the next.
In reality, addiction can look different for everyone. In my early 20s, I started using alcohol and sleeping pills to cope with the anxiety I struggled with since I was a kid. I stopped leaving my childhood bedroom and started cracking cans of malt liquor in the dark, afraid to go outside. When I used, I wanted to be that hot drunk rockstar, but I was more like the fried egg brain from the Partnership For A Drug-Free America PSA. (Yep, in my case, they were kind of on to something with those ads).
My life revolved around the first sip each day: a flash of fire blazing through my veins, making everything alright for just a moment. As much as I wanted to turn back, I was hooked on alcohol for years and felt trapped by shame. “Many people still view addictions as simple habits that can be stopped at any point,” says therapist Jennifer Covarrubias, LMFT, clinical director at the Mental Health Center of San Diego. But, for many, addiction is a form of coping that helps people survive. And choosing to be sober can become a daily battle, she adds. “That lack of understanding perpetuates the cycle of shame and stigma surrounding addiction.”
Through the years, I began a cycle of relapses, with brief stops in hospital detoxes, and I quickly lost faith that I could ever get sober, telling myself, “Why try?” This lack of hope seeped through everything in my life: jobs, relationships, family.
In 2006, at the age of 25, I finally gave sobriety a shot, accepting that I had no clue how to live life sober but could no longer survive drinking. I sought support in self-help groups, but it took years away from pills and alcohol before I was able to brush off my shame and hopelessness and recognize my potential.
As someone recovering from substance misuse, reading or seeing more nuanced portrayals of addiction—and different types of addiction—could have helped me feel less alone sooner. And, for the people who care about me, these honest addiction quotes might’ve helped them get a better understanding of what I was going through before I was able to explain it myself. That’s why hearing the stories of people who actually know what addiction is like can be so crucial for generating more compassion and empathy around this mental health struggle.
Here, 11 people who faced different kinds of addictions share their journey and what the road to recovery looked like for them.
1. It was fun—until it wasn’t.
“When I first got into gambling in my early 30s, I loved sports already, so it seemed like an awesome source of income. A lot of people don't understand how fun gambling addiction is. It's fun to circle games in the newspaper that you're gonna bet on. It’s fun to delude yourself into thinking you have an edge. But eventually, it overtook my free time. My friends and I would be out with our girlfriends, and we’d be staring at a TV in the corner of the bar, not talking to people. I’d sneak to the bathroom to check scores. I’d wake up each morning and immediately pore over results. It got so consuming that when I was visiting my dad who was in the hospital for cancer surgery, I ducked out to the hospital’s public computer to place bets. On top of that, I was losing. I waited longer than I should have to say, ‘this is enough,’ but when I was around 34, I finally quit and did not look back.” —John B., 56
2. Pain relievers made me feel like a better mother.
“I was prescribed pain relievers to recover from a C-section, and in addition to helping the pain, it helped relieve some of the symptoms from my postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety. About seven months later, I was in a completely different mental state. I was depressed and anxious and suicidal and homicidal. And when I was diagnosed with endometriosis, doctors gave me more pain relievers, and it just made everything seem a little more bearable. I felt like the pills allowed me to be a better mother because I felt better about myself when I was taking them. The drugs didn’t get rid of my depression and anxiety, but they made my mind feel calmer, so life felt manageable.
Although my son was always my priority, I also had a job to find as many pills as possible. That meant I did embarrassing, horrible things like invite myself over for a playdate in order to search another parent’s medicine cabinet.
This past January, I celebrated seven years sober. Life has still been difficult, especially when I lost my sister to suicide in 2018, but I didn’t need opiates to get through. Instead, I tapped into therapy. I’ve been on medication to support my mental health, and I try hard to be present and to savor the moments I have with my kids.” —Jen S., 45
3. I ate when I wasn’t hungry.
“I had received mixed messages growing up from my mother and my grandmother, who would tell me I had to eat, but I couldn’t eat too much. I have been put on diets since the time I was born. I felt completely unlovable, and the only solution that I had for that shame was eating.
After my food addiction worsened, I developed high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. My doctor wanted to put me on medications, and I had adverse reactions to those medications. Then I found a community of others working on their food addiction, and for the most part, they helped me learn to eat in a much better way. I also discovered a newfound love for working out. Maybe it’s replacing one addiction with another, the way someone replaces drinking with going to Alcoholics Anonymous, but exercising has provided such quality to my life.” —Joan P., 63
4. I was missing out on real connections.
“As soon as I felt sadness or anything other than elation, I would find somebody to flirt with. Sex and love addicts can have unhealthy relationships, and we can create drama to escape negative feelings. When I’d meet someone I was attracted to, I’d get a jolt, like a cattle prod. I would assign magical qualities to them, and the moment they didn't live up to that fantasy of being there for me all the time (texting me back instantly and all those unrealistic things we put on other human beings), the high wore off, the butterflies dispersed, the bottom would drop out, and I would see the real person. It was like the drug was gone, so I’d think, Who's my next victim?
When I hit my bottom, I thought, Am I going to be on my deathbed having never fully connected to another person? I realized I was going to do this forever, and I decided I couldn’t.
There's so much shame around being a sex and love addict, especially as a woman, but I refuse to have shame over this. Today, I’m fully connected to everyone in my life. I’ve been happily married for 18 years, and I have a son that I show up for 100% emotionally with clear boundaries. I have stable relationships with my family of origin. I have no one in my life that causes drama. I am free from the bondage of my own making. It's a beautiful way to live, no longer using other people to complete me. I’m whole.” —Brianne D., 41
5. I sought validation on Twitter.
“When I was younger, I would have panic attacks when I didn't have access to the internet. One day, I was away from a computer all day, attending school, visiting Ellis Island, and going to a doctor’s appointment. I was in three states in one day, and I freaked out in public because I was unable to get online.
As a millennial and someone with autism, I get a dopamine rush from trying to speak with celebrities on social media. I often feel like I am one click away from talking with a famous movie star. … A celebrity messaged me once when my mother was dying from cancer to offer me well wishes on Twitter. Now, I’m constantly trying to repeat that interaction. Growing up with a disability was hard, and pop culture allowed me to escape. Getting validation from the people I idolized seemed to bring me into their worlds. Today, I focus on relationships with people who are part of my real life.” —Jennifer R., 26
6. I was in survival mode.
“I grew up uber-privileged in Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, California. But all of that privilege never protected me from being molested as a child. At age 15, I began selling my body for sex—not that I needed the money, but that's the way that trauma energy began to come out. I also became addicted to cocaine, going into survival mode. And at the same time, I became an overachiever, attending New York University and becoming a journalist.
Eventually, I found myself getting high in the parking lot of KTLA 5, the station I worked at in Los Angeles. One night I overdosed and was found nearly dead behind a dumpster. I was in a coma for about a week. The staff wanted to call my friends and family to come to the hospital, but no one knew about my drug use. I wasn't ready to face that reality.
I walked out of the hospital, walked down Hollywood Boulevard, found my truck, and got high. In a matter of days, I overdosed again and ended up in the same ER, with the same team of doctors. I was shown a lot of empathy and compassion by a frontline nurse who made me promise to attend an AA meeting when I got out. My recovery journey began that day.” —Brandon L., 43
7. I was going to hurt myself or someone else.
“My mother told me to stay off the streets and not to use drugs, so I used alcohol. When you start drinking, it’s hard to believe that you could become an addict. You think because you are just having fun and everyone drinks that you will never end up like whatever drunk stereotype you concocted in your head. But once I started drinking, I didn't want to stop.
To fund my addiction, I started stealing credit cards and counterfeiting money orders, selling them on the black market. After getting busted by the cops, I planned to end my life to avoid the consequences. I drank two bottles, but I couldn’t do it.
Instead, I went to a drug program. I felt like I had no other options. I needed help. I was going to hurt myself or hurt someone else. When I got to the nurses' station, I spoke up, saying, ‘I have a drug and alcohol problem.’ Vocalizing that was part of the healing.” —Douglas C., 58
8. Smoking decided my relationships.
“Smoking was way harder to quit than alcohol. Smoking permeates every aspect of your life. Your relationships are based on who you are smoking with next to a dumpster, and you have nothing in common with them except you are addicted. What’s really crazy is you don’t know how to interact in social situations when you don’t have a cigarette in your hand.
Everyone knows how dangerous smoking is, and yet we continue to smoke anyway. I wouldn't drive without my seatbelt, but my chances of dying while smoking are much higher than having a car accident. After 47 years away from smoking, I don't even think about it anymore. Unless there's a smoker sitting in front of me.” —Allen S., 73
9. I craved the rollercoaster of emotions.
“From age 14, I always had a boyfriend, and it was fabulous and fun. It wasn’t until I got older that I recognized that I'm addicted to that high you get from being in love and [going through] love’s ups and downs. Sometimes when you're upset or fighting, you feel more alive, so I would go off the deep end over anything I felt was a slight to trigger that adrenaline.
I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, but eventually, I met a great psychiatrist who [helped me]. … I did the work in therapy and treatment, and it rewired my way of relating to others. Patterns can be broken, and mine was.” —Gwen S.*
10. I had no choice but to use.
“When I first got sober in 2008, I looked for recovery books to help me, but I never found any that were written by a woman who looked like me. And any Black woman’s story that I found included drug dens and prostitution, which are really important stories to tell, but don't reflect my experience. From the outside, my life looked enviable. I was the parent association president at my kid’s school, and I was throwing dinner parties. But inside, I was dying.
I think there is a misconception that people choose addiction over something. The misconception might have been that I chose addiction over my children, yet if I had had any say in the matter, I would have chosen my kids over and over and over again. The addiction tricked me into believing that, without drugs, I was going to die. I understood fully that the longer I continued to indulge, the worse the pain would be when I gave it up. And yet, I was so terrified of the pain that I kept going.” —Laura C. R., 58
11. Rock bottom looked different than I expected.
“What I've learned through my personal experiences and through the experience of helping others is that rock bottom is when you decide to put the shovel down and stop digging. My bottom was an emotional rock bottom. My whole family had stopped talking to me. Friends had cut me off. I was alone and looking for a way out. I was thinking about ending my life when, at that exact moment, I received a phone call from my mom telling me she wished I was home for Christmas. It helped me recognize a reason I needed to get sober, because I wanted my family back in my life.” —Pravesh P., 27
*Name has been changed.
Quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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