‘I’m young. Doesn’t everyone drink?’ I chose to be homeless. On the streets, no one could hold me back.’ : Young woman gains back ‘self respect, dignity’ after overcoming alcoholism

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“I’ve always had an affliction for sugar. When I was little, I used to steal the maple syrup bottle from the pantry and sneak off to the laundry room where I would chug it behind a closed door. It always made me sick, but that didn’t keep me from going back for more. It was the sugar high. I suppose that was my first red flag.

I didn’t start drinking alcohol until I was fifteen and the first time I drank was also the first time I blacked out. I didn’t know this wasn’t normal because it became a normal occurrence for me. I had never cared to learn my limits and I never set boundaries. I’d also never been one for rules.

I’ve always strived for adventure and freedom, and at first, alcohol seemed to be the key that unlocked my hidden potential and encouraged me to throw caution to the wind. When I drank I didn’t care what others thought of me, and I didn’t care what I thought of myself. I felt released from internal constraints and free to express who I was. Alcohol masked my insecurities and my intimidating emotions. In addition, alcohol made everything more fun. If life was ever feeling dull or uncomfortable, all I had to do was put a drink to my lips and as soon as the alcohol entered my bloodstream, my world of black and white turned to color.

I used my youth to justify my behavior and negative patterns. I’d say to myself, ‘I’m young, doesn’t everyone drink?’ Perhaps. However, not everyone blacked out every time like I did. But that didn’t keep me from going back for more, which was the second red flag. There were many more red flags in the first few years of my drinking, like getting expelled from high school, kicked out of the house, suspended in college, and being in unhealthy relationships that revolved around alcohol. However, I ignored all these things, for my need to feed my addiction had far surpassed the consequences of doing so. I simply didn’t want to give up drinking, despite all the trouble it caused me.

When I was 19 years old, I decided to hitch-hike across the country. My heart had been aching with wanderlust. I stuck out my thumb in Patagonia, Arizona, an hour north of the Mexican border, with a pack on my back and adventure in my eyes. I donned heart-shaped, rose colored sunglasses with my sights set on California. In those days I thought I was invincible. I wasn’t traveling alone, but my motive to ramble and roam was to live an independent life free of obligations. I wanted life on the open road where I could leave responsibilities behind and live each day like a true adventure. However, if I was being honest with myself, a big motive for hitting the road was the ability to drink on my own volition without anything holding me back.

Courtesy of Meg Christensen

I traded in a life of steady income and comfort for a life on the streets in order to support my addiction, which I hadn’t yet acknowledged. I slept in homeless camps, under bridges and overpasses, in grassy knolls between highways, along railroad tracks, in stranger’s houses, and in the forests and deserts along our journey. I got rides from truckers, travelers, and tourists. I tried hopping a train to Texas, but my timing was off. I began the trip with some money in my pocket, but when that ran out I flew signs on the streets for spare change. Some money went towards food, but most of it went towards whiskey. One night on State Street in Santa Barbara I flew a sign that read, ‘Support our whiskey right for a frisky night,’ and we made more money off that sign than any of the other signs we made that summer. Sometimes when we were hungry we’d wash restaurant windows in exchange for meals. Despite the challenges, I was content because I could drink as much as I wanted, when I wanted, and I didn’t have to worry about the opinions of other people. I was living on the street, so no one cared. It came with the territory.

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After several weeks of traveling up and down the California coast, we decided to head east. We hitchhiked to Tennessee and snuck into the Bonnaroo Festival. Bruce Springstein headlined that summer and I had the opportunity to see Ben Harper and Andrew Bird live. I saw this as the grand finale to my time on the road. I was tired and weary after sleeping on the streets for weeks. I returned to Arizona with the same belongings I set out with, along with an additional one I had hoped to leave behind long ago, my drinking problem, which was beginning to take the form of alcoholism.

Courtesy of Meg Christensen

My addiction continued to progress for years, as did my consequences. Despite blackouts, terrible hangovers, guilt, shame, and regret, I continued to drink. Even after receiving a DUI, jail time, and probation, I continued drinking. I continued to drink although I jeopardized relationships and lost friendships. I continued drinking despite panic attacks, insomnia, withdrawals, pancreatitis, sexual abuse, and trauma. Regardless of my addiction leading me to isolate myself and live out of a tent, I continued to drink. Even after losing my sister to alcohol addiction, I continued drinking. And regardless of the fact that I was slowly killing myself, I continued to drink.

The peak of my addiction was in the summer of 2015. ​I lived out of a tent high up in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado because camping would allow me to afford my alcohol addiction and dismiss my trauma, the same trauma caused by my drinking. I drank to numb. I drank to suppress. I drank to check out. And I drank to survive, although it was the very thing that was killing me. I was in a vicious, relentless cycle. I called my living situation ‘camping’, but really I chose to be isolated and homeless. I didn’t draw a sober breath for three months. I fought off a bear trying to get into my tent. I bathed in the creek every day and lived off of Luna bars, booze, and coconut water. Alcohol became my best friend and my worst enemy. I was in a perpetual state of panic and I was constantly shaking from either terror or withdrawals, depending on the day. I struggled to breathe because my continuous panic attacks would overcome me. I had a terrible sense of impending doom I just couldn’t shake. It felt like death was breathing down my neck and I had a chronic chill in my bones. My stomach ached in pain because I had developed pancreatitis from drinking too much. I couldn’t trust my senses because I began experiencing delirium tremens (DT’s). I was seeing and hearing things. I thought I would die, and that didn’t seem so bad. I was alone, lost in the fray, and the edges of my reality were fading.

Courtesy of Meg Christensen

I existed in this state for another year. How I survived is beyond me and a result of something much greater than me. DT’s are a serious side effect of alcohol withdrawal. Only about 5% of the millions of people who experience alcohol withdrawal each year suffer from DT’s, and it’s one step away from the ICU. I was experiencing vivid hallucinations and delusions. I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. In addition, I was having partial seizures as a result of my withdrawals. I was knocking on death’s door, and part of me hoped he would welcome me in. I didn’t think I would live through my withdrawals, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

Courtesy of Meg Christensen

During one extremely difficult night, I trudged down to a pond I lived by, navigating through the darkness by the light of the moon. I fell to my knees under the stars and threw my head back and my arms up. I yelled. I pleaded. I surrendered. I waved my golden ticket, begging, ‘Here I am. If you’ll have me, I’m ready.’ I had contemplated suicide, but I knew I couldn’t do it. You see, my older sister, Trudy, had also struggled with alcoholism. She took her life one dark night following a relapse a few years before. I had seen and felt the damage left behind in her wake, and I couldn’t do that to my loved ones. I couldn’t be the reason they went through something like that again. What I didn’t know at the time was that even though I was alive, I was still causing them the same suffering while I struggled with the same battle that took Trudy’s life.

I had lost my will to live. I lost my self respect and I lost my dignity. Very few people knew of the darkness I was immersed in because I wore masks and I went to great lengths to hide my suffering. I dug myself a deep, dark, lonely hole and I was well on my way to digging my own grave. The thing is, until you put down the shovel, you never truly stop digging. And I always had a shovel in hand. It took a considerable amount of pain and suffering for me to finally put the shovel down, and in 2016 when I was 27 years old, I entered recovery with the support of my loved ones and the support of a 12-step program.

Courtesy of Meg Christensen

My rock bottom then became fertile ground in which to plant seeds. My recovery has allowed me to water, grow and nurture those seeds, and it is this growth that sustains me. The growth I have experienced and continue to experience in my recovery makes all the trials and hardships from my addiction worthwhile because I gained valuable insight through my battle with addiction. Someone once said, ‘Rock bottom will teach you lessons that mountain tops never will.’ I honestly wouldn’t trade the lessons I’ve learned for anything, not even if I could turn back time. Those lessons helped me grow into who I am today. Those lessons helped keep me sober. However, not everyone needs to reach rock bottom before they stop digging.

Recovery is a second chance. Through my recovery, I’ve gained back self respect, dignity, and joy. My recovery has allowed me to step into my power and live with integrity to myself, my purpose, and the world around me. I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the world, and when I entered recovery this actually seemed possible because I now had a clear head and integral intentions. However, what I’ve come to realize is ‘change begins with me.’ Change begins with me doing my work so that I can become who I’m meant to be and show up my best self. In order to help our fellows, we must first help ourselves. In order to grow, we must nurture our conditions. In order to navigate the darkness, we must first cultivate the light. True change begins within. Because in order to change the world, we must first change ourselves. ‘Para el bien de todos.​’ For the greater good of all.

One in 7 people struggle with substance addiction, or 21 million people (in America alone). Only 10% of these individuals receive treatment. Addiction kills thousands of people every year and impacts millions of lives. Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990, and the number gets larger each year. Likely, you have lost someone to addiction, or you know someone who has. This is why recovery is crucial. If you are choosing recovery, you are choosing life. Remember this on the hard days. Remember this when you want to give up and give in. Remember this when it doesn’t seem worth it. Because I’m here to tell you it is. Stay strong for the ones you’ve lost. Stay strong for your brothers and sisters, family and friends. Stay strong for your children. But most importantly, stay strong for yourself.”

Courtesy of Meg Christensen

This story was submittted to Love What Matters by Meg Christensen. Follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here. For our best stories, sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter and YouTube channel.

Read more amazing stories about overcoming alcohol and drug addiction here:

‘You need help.’ I got her from preschool, pulled over ‘to rest,’ and woke with officers knocking on my window.’: Mom-of-4 finally gets sober after being institutionalized over 20 times, learns she is ‘not alone’

‘I found his gun while blacked out. I held it to my head, trying to pull the trigger. His roommate ripped it away.’: Woman’s life has changed ‘drastically’ since becoming sober, turned her ‘nightmare’ into a ‘blessing’

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