This post was originally published on July 27, 2015.
Suffering a major life-altering event directly as a result of addiction is not necessarily a catalyst for getting clean and sober for many but, in Hannah’s case, she wasn’t left with much choice. After becoming legally blind as a result of her overdose, she finally entered treatment and began a long slow journey on the path to recovery. This is her story:
My drinking in high school and college was actually pretty unremarkable. I would drink and party with my friends on weekends but it wasn’t really a problem. But in my freshman year of college in Florida, I went home on Christmas break and met this guy from my hometown (a suburb of Boston) at a party. Sean was a couple years older than me and had been captain of the football team. I couldn’t believe he was interested in me, but we started dating.
Sean introduced me to coke and I did that with him the remainder of vacation, but I didn’t really like it at the time. When I came back for spring break, though, he introduced me to Percs, Vicodin and OxyContin and I loved those. He soon convinced me to quit school in Florida and transfer to UMass so that I could move in with him, and I continued to get high on a daily basis.
It wasn’t long before I was leaving school every day sick, but I didn’t figure out until later that it was because I had a habit and was dope sick. I had also started lying and avoiding my family, and my girlfriends stopped hanging out with me because Sean was such a scumbag. My mother figured out that something was very wrong with me and called me out, so I just blamed everything on Sean and she sent me back to school in Florida, because it had to be him, not me.
I resumed my normal college life and graduated, but Sean had also moved to Florida, where his mother owned a condo not very far from where I went to school. I mostly stayed away from him, but we would occasionally hook up. I got a job in a sheriff’s office after graduation, met a cop and we soon moved in together. Things were going good and we actually got engaged, but whenever we would get into an argument, I would sneak away to Sean’s house. By now he was shooting dope and smoking crack and, while I managed to avoid sticking a needle in my arm, I started doing opiates again and crack became my drug of choice.
Things got bad fast and soon I was going into work high, which isn’t a very good idea when you work in law enforcement. My fiancé took me to AA and NA meetings, but I wasn’t into it at all. He even offered to take out a loan to send me to rehab, but I said no. Finally my employer told me I had to either go to rehab or be fired, so I just quit. I came home very high one night not long after being fired, and my fiancé was just sobbing on the couch. “I love you but I have to go,” he told me.
I rented a room with another girl who liked to smoke crack, and things just got worse. I took some babysitting gigs to pay my rent and get high, but it wasn’t enough, so I started selling my jewelry. I realized I was going to end up homeless, and that fear drove me to get my shit together and stop smoking crack through willpower alone. I got a job at a bank for a while and was living the straight life, but ended up moving back home to Boston.
I stayed reasonably straight, but started becoming a bit of a workaholic and was getting ready to go to grad school when I developed an MRSA bacterial infection. I had to have a few minor surgeries that were really painful, so they put me on opiates, which I started abusing right away. Now all of my free time was spent chasing opiate prescriptions.
One night, I went to a house party with my workmates and overdosed on booze and opiates. The people at the party just left me there because they thought I had just passed out. But in the middle of the night, my mother kept calling me because I hadn’t come home. One of the housemates finally answered the phone and told my mother that she couldn’t wake me up. They sent an ambulance and rushed me to the hospital, but I had suffered a couple of strokes and ended up on life support in the ICU.
The strokes destroyed the part of my brain that allows you to read written text (alexia agraphia) and to recognize faces (prosopagnosia), two things I can no longer do. I am now legally blind and can only recognize someone when I hear their voice.
I spent three months rehabilitating on a medical ward and then in a rehab facility, and then they discharged me back to my home. I’m now going to physical, speech, and occupational therapy to recover from my strokes, but I’m also heavily medicated because the strokes cause extreme head pain. So I’m on Percocet 30’s and Ultram (a synthetic opiate), and they add some benzos (Klonopin, Ativan) to the mix because I’m having seizures, and also because I’m so miserable that I’m getting a little out of control.
My mother started taking me to three to four AA meetings a week and I began to identify and I liked them, but I kept using more and more because I’m an addict with prescriptions and I can’t stop. I also found someone to help me set up an account to wire money to Florida to get some additional pills from one of my old connections on top of my other meds. Since I was already heavily medicated, I don’t think people knew how much I was abusing.
One day I went to occupational therapy and I was feeling so miserable about my life that I just kept popping Perc 30’s. Suddenly I realized that something was horribly wrong, so I went into the bathroom. I sat in front of this full-length mirror and just looked at myself. I could feel my body starting to shut down, and I had to make a decision: Was I going to rat myself out in front of all these people and admit that I was overdosing, or was I going to just die in the bathroom? I was thinking about it for a minute, then I remembered what my mom said after my last overdose: “No mother should have to bury their child.” So I told the staff and they called 911.
The fire station was right next door, so the ambulance got there almost immediately. The EMTs were screaming at me to find out what I took, so I rattled off the prescriptions and they hit me with the Narcan (which reverses opiate overdoses) and I sobered up immediately. They took me to the ER and I stayed at the detox/psych ward for a few days. When they were ready to discharge me, my stepmother—who had about 20 years clean and sober in AA—came to pick me up because my mother had become suicidal and been hospitalized in a psych unit.
And that’s when things changed for me. I knew my addiction was bad but when I heard how it had affected my mom, I said to myself, “I just can’t do this anymore.”
I don’t know how genuine that thought was but it turns out it didn’t matter. My stepmother told me to enjoy the night’s sleep at my house “because you’re going away for a looonnnngggg time.” I got yanked out of bed and dropped at a local mental health facility and she essentially told me, “You’re on your own, kid.”
There’s a guy in my group that says, “I got sober because of circumstances—not virtue.” And that’s how it was with me. The gig was up. I was on the verge of never having my mom in my life again, I had no place to live because I’m no longer welcome at my house, I have a brain injury and I’m legally blind. So I had no choice but to do what I was told.
I stayed at the hospital, got transferred to a shitty dual diagnosis program for a few weeks—where they stole my clothes while I was sleeping—and was then shipped off to a holding facility for two months while I waited to get into a halfway house. I went to lots of AA meetings while I was there and it was really strict, but I got through it.
I arrived at the halfway house on New Year’s Eve of 2011 and the residents were singing karaoke and eating Chinese food. I just sat on the steps and cried and thought, “I just can’t do this.” But like I said, it was circumstances not virtue that got me sober. I had no place to go so I decided to stay, keep a low profile and see what happened. It wasn’t easy, and the residents kept stealing my anti-seizure meds (Neurontin) because if you eat enough of them you can get high and they don’t piss test for them.
We had to go to meetings every day and people helped me get to them, including the man who would four years later become my husband (we got married last month). I joined the group closest to the halfway house and became the greeter, which was really helpful because people started to remember my name and I got to know them by the sound of their voices. I think having a job in a group and being involved is crucial because that’s how people get to know you. I also went on a lot of speaking commitments to detoxes and jails, which still helps me.
The halfway house set me up with a sponsor who was also blind (from drinking with diabetes) and while she was helpful, she couldn’t help me get to meetings because (obviously) she couldn’t drive. I got another sponsor who is pretty tough on me but it’s what I need to stay away from self-pity. I graduated from the halfway house and got an apartment and eventually my boyfriend moved in before we got married.
I started volunteering at a nearby school for the blind (which I still do today) and I began to feel better about myself. I also started getting myself to meetings by public transportation (often turning down rides) because that also gives me a sense of independence. It wasn’t a perfect life, but it was a hell of a lot better than I thought it would be.
I started taking benzos that were prescribed but that I really didn’t need and I started abusing them for a short period, but I stopped and changed my sobriety date. I had a two-day slip with booze on vacation about 18 months ago, but the main thing that I have done right is to keep to coming to AA no matter what.
Considering everything that I’ve been through, my life really is second to none. I had all these expectations of what I thought my life would be and I’ve had to change those expectations, but if you told me when I woke up blind in rehab after my strokes that I would be happily married and sober in AA, I wouldn’t have believed it. My life really is great, and I can honestly say I appreciate it a whole lot more than I ever did—even before I lost my eyesight.