Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of drug addiction, sexual assault, and suicidal thoughts that may be triggering to some.
“Growing up in rural North Dakota, which felt like the middle of nowhere, was a challenge for my sisters and me. Not necessarily because of the harsh weather during the winter, but because of my parents’ alcoholism and the unwavering cycle of abuse handed down to my dad from his own father like a timeless heirloom. Lucky for us, our great-grandparents, whom we call Papa and Nana, lived within walking distance. We spent a lot of time in their basement putting puzzles together with Papa and listening to his old records. We learned to play the piano and find our way around the kitchen with Nana. We were always fed, warm, and felt safe there.
I waited until I was 13 before I was daring enough to drink beer with my baby sitter and the high school boys she had invited over to play Truth or Dare while my parents were out at the bar. I felt cool, included, and less nervous the more I drank. I felt alive. Fast forward a year and I was snagging beers out of the fridge, sneaking out to drive back roads with friends who almost always supplied vodka, and I let an older guy show me what ‘cool’ girls do in parked cars after dark.
When I was 16 years old, I underwent surgery to alleviate the pain I had experienced all my life due to a still-unexplained spinal fracture, and I realized I was very curious about the Valium and OxyContin prescribed to me. I had fanaticized about the idea of snapping my fingers and feeling the pain melt away; now I knew what it was like to nestle into that shadow. My high school boyfriend was always putting down people we knew who used drugs. I didn’t know how to tell him what I felt like with them floating through my veins. When I recovered from surgery, I let my wild side out just a little. Our favorite hobbies included sex, cheap beer, even cheaper vodka, and having parties in his parent’s garage. Some weekends, I would drive to other towns nearby to drink, take drugs, and soak up attention any other guys were willing to give me.
When I went to college, my boyfriend and I broke up and my partying escalated. By that time, I knew I didn’t like to socialize without alcohol. It was a prerequisite to every celebration, every moment of boredom, and any feeling of frustration or loneliness. Then I walked into speech class the second semester of my freshman year and my whole life shifted at the sight of hockey hair, fitted jeans, and a perfect smile… I knew I had to get to know him. And I did.
He was controlling but I liked his confidence. I let him teach me all about nutrition and fitness—topics so foreign to me he might as well have been speaking another language. But I was intrigued. Here this guy was, teaching me about eating healthy and caring for my body, while I was mostly interested in numbing out and anxiously being whatever he wanted me to be, simultaneously. At this point in my life, I had spent such little time on my own self-worth. I easily morphed into what he wanted me to be and lost any real direction to finding who I really was.
Hockey Guy and I dated all through college and he ended up breaking it off with me when Tinder became popular. He told me he had already met someone else. My alcoholism and heartbreak were so fierce and coinciding. I ended up hitting him before I left to wallow in my own shame, embarrassment, and self-pity. 2 weeks after I moved out of the apartment we shared, he discovered he was going to be a father and I decided I was going to get my master’s degree.
Throughout our relationship, I was under a lot of emotional stress. My little sister often called late at night, sobbing frantically as dad terrorized the house, or with pleas for me to come to get her so she could escape the abuse and the drinking. To be clear, I see now it was not Hockey Guy’s fault for wanting to end things. I was emotional, dependent on alcohol, struggling with depression and anxiety and PTSD, and had no real sense of who I was, with or without him. I had so much damage and so much healing I had to do from my childhood but was blind, in denial, or played victim to almost all of it. After the breakup and the news of the new girl ‘in my shoes,’ my drinking spiraled. I needed to heal my shadows and I was, instead, focused totally on self-destruction.
In my attempt to cope with unbearable feelings of hopelessness and rejection, I amped my drinking and drug use and hooked up with some of his friends out of spite. The destruction I created didn’t stop there. I started blacking out earlier in the evenings, eventually not even noticing what time I started drinking. I started arguments and bar fights and even caused the end of friendships with both of my lifelong childhood friends over their choice of men. I now know this was retaliation over my own rejection.
I wish I could say it was obvious to others how lost I was, but I have always excelled in school, and choosing to go to grad school was a big shield I used to cover my spiraling addiction. My professors weren’t aware of what was going on with me, at least not to my knowledge, and I even was given the opportunity to teach while getting my Master’s degree, which I realized aligned with my true purpose. I absolutely loved teaching. It gave me hope for my future in a way I had never felt. I had the power and the ability to change people’s perspectives of themselves, and the people and world around them, through facilitating difficult yet open and honest conversations. I slowly began to understand what I wanted to do with my life–if I could only stop wanting to escape it.
In a matter of 2 years, the negative consequences of living a double life were escalating: I gained 60 pounds, I had slept with countless more men, and I had gotten a DUI. During my arrest, I assaulted a cop, leading to a Class C felony. My mug shot was on the news and on social media which everyone, including my students, saw. I almost missed my best friend’s wedding, as I got bailed out the day before, and ended up chugging several beers on my way to the rehearsal dinner. Having to show my face at that wedding, and again in front of my classroom the following Monday, was humiliating on a different level I never thought I’d experience. I had started to think of suicide.
A few weeks later, I ended up at a concert with a cute guy I sat next to in one of my grad classes. He opened the door to a whole new world of better, faster, harder drugs. My typical ‘he’s so cool’ syndrome hit me straight in the heart for the third time in my life. I wanted to do everything and anything in my power to please and impress him. I remember contemplating if I was in love with the pills and white powder he seemed to always have on hand or if I loved him. But any loyalty I had to him eventually shifted to the drugs and I ended up sleeping with his friends, hating myself for it, and doing it all over again the next day.
My desire to be accepted and wanted under all circumstances shifted abruptly when I awoke at sunrise one morning in the basement of a familiar house. I was so hungover and dizzy from my leftover high. It took me a minute to realize what I was feeling between my legs—and then I saw my leggings and bloody underwear on the floor across the room. I was so confused and felt so stupid, dirty, and helpless all at the same time, with no memory to help me. Until that moment, I had never considered suicide so seriously. I went back to my apartment, showered, crawled into bed naked, wet, and shaking with withdrawal. I slept for 48 hours. I somehow showed up for my bartending shifts the next few days at a local hotel, albeit high and at least a few vodka shots deep before I clocked in. That’s exactly what got me fired from that hotel bar and landed me back in my bed about a week later, shades drawn, bills piling up, hopeless, and still very much suicidal.
My big sister called me the day after I got fired. I saw her name across my phone and felt a paralyzing duality of shame and dread. I answered. Instead of having a typical big sister judgmental tone, she genuinely asked me to agree to a mental health evaluation. After contemplating lying, and feeling a flood of all the emotions under the sun, I told her in a monotone voice, ‘I’ve been using drugs and I’m in trouble. I don’t want to live.’ She picked me up and brought me to the evaluation a few days later.
Detoxing and being in outpatient treatment was scary and overwhelming, to say the least. I panic-cried while I stood at the front desk on the first day. The nurse said, ‘Aw honey, don’t cry! You’re going to make me cry! You’re in the right place.’ She handed me a blue folder with my name on it and I got the first glimpse of my higher power: The nurse told me to turn right down the hallway and take a left into Connie’s room—she was my assigned counselor. My mother’s name is also Connie. The first day had me curious enough to come back, even though I was extremely skeptical of being clean and the smiling people telling me I was going to be okay. The patients who had started to heal and seemed to stay clean easily pissed me off, and the patients who were angry and couldn’t stay clean for 24 hours terrified me.
My crying carried on for several days, but it eventually turned into a series of ah-ha moments and realizations I deserved so much more. Instead of feeling totally suicidal, I realized how much support I really had and I felt guilty for not seeing it before. Sobriety was hard to hold onto for the first few months, and I did relapse a few times out of panic, emotional pain, and lack of faith in my purpose. Eventually, I began to understand that the dark side to my self or my story, what I call my ‘shadow,’ is not something to hide or to blame. It is something to learn from and to work to understand.
Since September 10, 2019, I have remained clean and I have focused a major portion of my recovery on holistic wellness. Through my multiple relapses, I understood I couldn’t just remove the negative nouns (people, places, and things) from my life and stay clean. I had to replace negative with positive. Now, I am a fitness coach and love learning and teaching ways the body and mind heal and gain strength. I am proud, and a little perplexed because I have actually built a stable spirituality. I have a beautiful circle of sober friends and family who support me in my recovery. Today, I work as a Life Coach helping others understand their remarkable shadows and to be gentle with themselves. I help people like me break their self-destructive habits and help replace them with happier and healthier ways to live.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Mariah Jeau Bartholomay. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories about overcoming addiction here:
‘I used meth right before I went into labor. The first time I saw my son was the last day I chose drugs.’: Mom overcomes addiction, regains custody of all her children with help from foster mom who ‘never gave up’ on her
‘Why bother? Nothing’s left of my life.’ I was a washed-up, homeless veteran injecting meth into my arm.’: Veteran launches organization to end veteran suicide after battling addiction, ‘Your life is worth living’
Provide hope for someone struggling. SHARE this story on Facebook to let others know a community of support is available.