Illustration of a woman sitting on the couch, writing

I’m a 32-year-old with anxiety and depression, and I have been living in recovery from addiction for just over a year. I went into recovery without knowing much about it. Here are some of the important lessons I have learned.

1. I needed to want it more than anything.

When I started rehab, I assumed everyone else was on the same page as me. This was not the case. People are in rehab for many reasons, and some of them might not be ready to quit. They could be there for their families, legal reasons, health, et cetera — not necessarily because they want to get better. For me, there was no option other than recovery.

2. You can’t judge another person’s recovery.

I was a bit surprised to see the judgment of others within the recovery community. Some people look down on those who don’t go to 12-step meetings. Some don’t approve of replacement drugs. I’ve seen someone quit a recovery program altogether, because she claimed there was too much judgment and drama involved.  I find it easier not to judge anyone. We’re all in this together, after all, with a common goal of living free of addictions. With this attitude, I’ve made some unlikely but wonderful friends.

3. The stigma around addiction is still present.

I am lucky that I haven’t had too many bad experiences with the stigma surrounding addiction, personally, but I still see it all the time. In particular, I have noticed a lot of people in recovery do not advertise they’re in recovery. There’s still a lot of shame attached to addictions. I need to recover out loud. I feel like I have a responsibility to help others who might be suffering in silence, like I did for so many years. I believe the only way to solve the stigma problem is to talk about recovery.

4. There’s more than one way to recover from addictions.

When I was in rehab, I was told to go to 12-step meetings. These are great for some people, but they might not be for everyone. There is a lot of pressure to get a sponsor and work the steps. I like to say my sponsor is a committee — family and friends, my therapist, an addictions counselor, various doctors, a psychiatrist. I like the odd meeting, and they’re awesome for finding friends who don’t drink, but I have a bit of an issue with the concept of anonymity. I will always respect the anonymity of others, but I believe it perpetuates stigma, so I don’t go to a lot of 12-step meetings. I engage in many other recovery-friendly activities and try to live a fairly healthy lifestyle, and it’s working for me!

5. Recovery really is possible.

For a long time, I figured I wouldn’t bother quitting drinking because what was the point? I’d just go back to drinking again eventually, like always. I didn’t know any other way, and I thought I was too old to learn. I am happy to report I was wrong. It’s been a year and a quarter, and I’m still going strong. I’ve met so many people who have been in recovery for several years.

If anyone reading this is struggling and feels hopeless, I want you to know an addiction doesn’t have to be a death sentence. I never even imagined I could be as happy as I am today.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images



I’m writing this piece because I grew up with a mother who was an addict, and unfortunately have seen the way people talk about others who have addiction.

Here’s what I wish people understood:

1. It’s a mental illness.

It took me almost 23 years to realize it, but yes, addiction is a mental illness. A person doesn’t chose to be addicted — the addiction chooses them. Although a person does chose to do something they may have thought would be a one time experience, addiction actually changes the brain in fundamental ways.

2. It’s important to forgive them.

Again, it took me almost 23 years to realize this, almost 23 years of watching my loved one in and out of jail, relapsing, going through withdrawals, stuck in the couch for weeks at a time with no motivation to anything but use the bathroom, all to realize I can’t continue to live another day being bitter. It’s their illness that’s bringing them down. It was hard and I’m sure it’s hard for you, too. If you’re like me, you’re angry, upset, maybe even guilty because you feel like there is something you’re suppose to be doing to help them. For me, I could help this person by forgiving them and letting go of that bitterness. 

3. It’s important to love them.

It’s hard to watch someone you love destroy themselves in the inside and outside. It can be hard to love them after all the pain and hurt they’ve caused you — I get it. But they’re counting on your love and support. Without it, they may feel hopeless. If you want your loved one to fight their addiction, it’s important to encourage them with love. Through the withdrawals, relapses and their sobriety.

4. It wasn’t their choice.

I understand it was the person’s choice to take the pill or drink the beer. I used to believe that meant addiction was her choice, too. But it’s not. Addiction isn’t something we choose. They do have a choice to get help, but it takes time, encouragement and strength. Addiction isn’t just addiction — it’s often coupled with depression, anxiety and vulnerability. 

It’s important to dispel the misconceptions, and give people who have been affected by addiction more understanding.

The author and her mom.
Alexis and her mom.

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Ever since I was a child I knew something wasn’t quite right. I did everything in my power to get you to notice me, to see I was your little girl. But nothing I did would ever matter because you had something that would always take precedence over us.

I’d get your smile for just a moment sometimes. If I was lucky I’d get your undivided attention too, but that was fleeting because your secret would always be number one. I heard mom crying at night after another fight, a fight over your secret, which really wasn’t a secret at all. I memorized your face while you were sleeping away your secret, afraid it was all I would have to remember you by. The memories of a once youthful face, now weathered and worn by life’s path.

I used to dream up a new father, one who always happened to have your face. One who would show up when promised, and not leave me waiting alone at another softball game. I’d envy all the cheering fathers, with faces so bright and proud, and wonder what I did wrong. Why was I always the child left waiting and wanting for something I’d never get?

But then I got older and realized what addiction really was. I realized I had a father all along, he wasn’t what I wanted, but he was what I had. I learned to love what I was given after life’s secrets were revealed. In November 2012 after 30 years of struggling with your secret, you said you could do it no more. For days I had tears streaming down my face, thinking I’d never see you again. I wanted to take back every moment in time I ever thought something bad about you, just so I could relive it and see you again. But a few days later we got a call that changed our lives — you checked into rehab and you’ve been sober ever since.

A year ago this past December I met you for the very first time. The real you, the person who was hiding behind secrets, after 27 years of wanting and wishing for something more it was sitting right in front of me and I didn’t know what to say. But I know what I can say now.

The author and her father.
The author and her father.

I’ll never understand the pain you experienced or why you made the decisions you did, but I’ve come to realize those decisions aren’t mine to understand. I want you to know I consider you a hero now. It’s funny to say, but I think I considered you a hero all along. You fought something so hard, something I’ll never fully understand and you won. You win each day by waking up, and you win each day by going to bed, knowing you lived another day without your secret invading your life once again.

Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, occupations and walks of life. You come in the form of someone battling something so intense it consumed your entire life. When I look back at this picture of the day I met you for the “first” time, I can’t help but smile. It was the first time you made a promise to me and kept it. The promise you made was to come to my sons first school concert, and you did. Talk about coming full circle. If anyone gets to experience the real you, full of kept promises, I can’t think of anyone better than your grandchildren. I can’t wait to continue getting to know you, and experience all these things I never got to before. I love you dad, and we are all here now to walk alongside you for the rest of your life of recovery.

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When you think of someone who struggles with addiction, who do you see?

Probably a stereotype, according to research. In a Recovery Brands survey, 76.7 percent of people believed addiction is fully or partially a choice. Next to cost, stigma is the second largest barrier for individuals considering treatment. And the kicker — 82.2 percent of surveyed people struggling with addiction said they’ve felt stigmatized for what they face.

There’s still a lot we don’t understand about addiction. So, talking to people who are actually affected is a great place to start. We teamed up with the Recovery Brands, an organization that provides online resources for individuals and families seeking addiction treatment, and asked people who live with and are affected by addiction to tell us one thing they wish others understood.

Before you judge, listen to what they have to say:

1. “The opposite of addiction is connection.” — Johan Harri (submitted by Nick Warren)

2. “That it isn’t a choice, it’s a disease.” — Sandra Bitting

3. “Until you have loved someone who abuses substances, don’t judge the family’s choices… the line between enabling and supporting is blurry.” — Tanya Stanley

4. “It’s not necessarily because the parent was a bad parent or the child (in my case) is a bad person.” — Amy Talcott Kennard

5. “Addiction is not the entirety of me. I am me; I am not just my addiction. There is a lot of other stuff to love.” — Ryan Sachse


6. “People who suffer from addiction do not choose to be that way, nor do they have to let it define them.” — Teresa Taylor

7. “Addiction is so much more common and pervasive an issue than society thinks.” — Sarah Hollowell

8.“I wish people saw the time that addicts spent alone. Thinking about everything they’ve done every time they’ve lied and stole.” — Thad Knisely

9. “My addiction does not define who I am or who I will be!” — Lisa Renee Barnes Lampros


10. “It’s not a matter of willpower or a lack of a moral compass.” — Brian Lewis

11. “We do recover.” — Jennifer Jones

12. “I am not the face of my addiction.” — Roxanne Logel

13. “Sometimes you honestly don’t realize what you’re doing, and who you’re hurting, until you’re looking back months later. I wish people could understand the suffocating guilt.” — Kaylee Jane Kominek


14. “Just because I am/was an addict, doesn’t make me a bad person. Deep down inside we are wonderful, loving people.” — Shelly Rice Garcia

15.Wish people would not judge others… some have no idea what is going on in their lives…” — Sarah Kelly

16. “The public needs more education on addiction. People need to know how it starts, what it does to every aspect of your life, how to get or give help to an addict, and what recovery is like for an addict.” — Sarah Kelly

17. “It goes deeper than the substance.” — Roe Brown


18. “A lot of addicts/alcoholics are the most sensitive, caring and intelligent people you’ll ever meet.” — Haley Pharis

19. “It’s not about willpower.” — Erin Butler

20. “There is hope for us one day at a time.” — Jc Harms

21. “Good people sometimes make bad choices. Not every person is bad people because they have a drug problem.” — Allie Gosnell


Do you want to join Recovery Brands’ LIVES (Leveraging Impactful Videos to End Stigma) Challenge? Click here to learn more.

It’s about 7 a.m. on Friday, February 26, 2016. I haven’t shed tears over him in a really long time; until today. It’s sad not because a high school relationship didn’t work out — plenty of those are over before they began.

It’s sad because addiction doesn’t discriminate.

Mental health issues are stigmatized. Warning signs fall through the cracks. It’s hard to help in the right way when you don’t fully understand. It’s hard to help when you’re a kid yourself. Addiction can change people. It can make them do things they would never even think of doing normally — make them say things that are ugly, hurtful and completely untrue. At times and for a very long time, it seemed I was the only one who truly knew and understood Stephen’s struggles, insecurities, dreams and eventually demons.

He was captain of the high school soccer team. Popular. Well-liked. Fairly good grades. Eventually a college soccer player. From the outside looking in, he had it all. On the inside he was fighting a constant battle of self-acceptance that eventually manifested itself in a heroin addiction.

A year or so into our relationship, his behavior was off. Our relationship wasn’t what it once was. He was angry, irritable and his moods were constantly up and down. Sitting in his car one day, I begged him to tell me what was wrong; to tell me what had changed. He broke down in tears and confessed he had made a mistake. He tried something with his “friends” and he was trying to stop. He was withdrawing from heroin.

This has been something I chose to not fully address for years. I’m not sure if it’s because it was too painful, taboo, too much hurt had happened to both of our families or because I thought maybe I was “over it,” that I moved on, I was stronger, I overcame. I think I hadn’t fully processed what happened until today. Until I read a post that his younger cousin wrote today, on the 6th anniversary of his passing. Truth is, I haven’t been to a wake or funeral since. Not when a good friend from college took his own life, not when my step-grandfather passed, not when close family friends passed from muscular dystrophy related complications. I’ve avoided dealing with death ever since; I’ve ignored it. I’ve only let myself be upset for a day or two over loss of life. I haven’t allowed myself to drag out the mourning process ever since.

When he passed, I don’t think I ate for two weeks. I was in my second semester of sophomore year in college. Luckily, the people who cared about me weren’t going to let me dwell in my sadness in my dorm room. Our romantic relationship was long over as I had decided to cut ties a few years prior. Constantly worrying about someone else’s drug use, safety and erratic mood shifts was far too much for me to handle as a teenager. I didn’t know enough, I was so young and that cross was far too heavy to bear. I tried to help him for years. My family tried to help him for years. That fight was taking my life away.

Now, I see posts from the people he used to hang around with. His best friends and teammates that he drifted away from as the drugs took over. The “friends” that he used with that seem to be living normal lives now (except for the ones who also fatally overdosed). I’m not sure if they’re clean, sober or still using. Some of them were my friends too before they used drugs.

I spoke to him just two or three weeks before he had passed. An out of the blue, very unexpected phone call came from him. He had recently gotten out a rehab. He was off the drugs. He was so proud of himself. He felt good. He was gaining the weight heroin had taken away. He wanted me to be proud of him; he said I would be proud of him and he wanted me to see that he was turning his life around. He was letting me know that my efforts to help him in the past weren’t useless and that he was going to finally be OK. He wanted a friend to congratulate him.

He wanted me to know he was sorry for the things he had done and for the pain he had caused for everyone that loved him. He kept me updated on his progress after that. Suddenly, the updates were less often and eventually he stopped updating me. I figured that he was using again. I wasn’t allowing myself to be emotionally invested at this point; so I didn’t think much of it. Within two weeks of no contact, a mutual friend had asked me if I had heard what happened to him. I said, “No, what happened?” He had overdosed and this time he was gone forever.

I’m sharing this to shine light on addiction and mental illness. To demonstrate that bad things can happen to good people. I used to think addiction was a choice. That he chose to do drugs and continue doing drugs. That he chose to cause hurt. I’ve never used heroin. I never had the slightest urge or interest. I hated the thought of it. I’ve never been addicted to anything; I couldn’t fully understand and I’ll never be able to say I know how an addict feels. I had immense trouble accepting that addiction is a disease; but it is a disease. It doesn’t discriminate. Yes, it was most likely a choice to try a drug in the first place. A choice and a mistake. When someone is fighting an inner battle, sometimes the clearest solutions are clouded. Their judgement is clouded. They make a decision they wouldn’t typically make. They fall into the wrong crowd to feel cool, accepted or to have some fun. They decide on the most convenient and readily available escape.

If you’re reading this, I want you to do some simple things. 
Talk to your kids.
Talk to your friends and family. Ask them if they’re OK. If you’re causing someone you love hurt; try your absolute hardest to make a positive change in that relationship. Don’t let the people you love feel alone.

As human beings we can only do so much, but the least we can do is try to help someone before it is too late or before their story begins to veer down the wrong path. You can’t save everyone, but some people can be saved. Some people can change.

I have two very close people in my life that made a change; made the change. One specifically, who I called and still call my best friend. Someone that came into my life by a series of random chances as she became my roommate and best bud. Different drugs; same demon.

I learned that addiction is not a death sentence. Some people change. I loved someone with all of my heart and we lost him to his addiction. I loved my college best friend as if she was my sister and by some miracle I can still barely grasp, that love saved her. Her will to live a better life saved her. Her determination during her recovery saved her. Someone with an addiction has to find that desire to change. If you love someone with an addiction, show your love and support, and unfortunately — sometimes tough love, very tough love. In many cases, you may even have to walk away, which we all know is much easier said than done. Some people succumb to their demons, but not all people who struggle with addiction will lose their battle. Love can win. Family can win. Friendship can win. Life can win.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, there are people and places that can help. You can call the Addiction Treatment Helpline at 888-987-8875.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Pulse.

A close up of Natalie's name tag, and a ribbon that means "earning my ears"
Natalie’s name tag.

I’ve officially “earned my ears” at Disney. That means I no longer have a red ribbon on my name tag that reads “earning my ears.” The training wheels are off. I feel much more at peace now that I’m working and know for at least 30 hours a week, I’ll be occupied and helping people.

As I have met new people, I’ve brought up my affinity for Sadness from “Inside Out.” It sounds odd… maybe it is, but since I work at Disney it isn’t that unusual to discuss favorite Disney characters, restaurants, parks and memories with coworkers. I also have a Sadness phone case so she was bound to come into my conversations at some point. What I’ve gotten from a lot of my coworkers, and what I really get from people in general, is that I am a mixture of two character/emotions: Joy and Sadness. Do I agree, yes. But it’s complicated. And Sadness is my soul sister.

The late Robin Williams once said: “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” I could not agree more. I know all too well what it’s like to feel alone in a world filled with billions of people. I know what it is like to be stuck inside my own head. I know what it’s like to feel unimportant. I know what it’s like to wallow in sadness.

So, I try to be that shoulder for people to cry on or the person to bring a smile to someone’s face. I send cards because I want people to check their mailbox, read my card and smile for a minute or two. I want to help bring a smile to people’s faces.

Why did I write a note that said: “Hello! Have a beautiful day!” and leave it on the computer screen at the end of my shift? Because I want the cast member that begins working at 6 a.m. to see it, smile and maybe start the day in a slightly better mood than before he saw the note. To me, it really is the little things that mean the most. While I was writing these notes someone said to me: “You really are the antithesis of Sadness. I love the dichotomy.” I seem to be the opposite of Sadness. I convey a personality of happiness and joy. I know I do. I don’t need people to tell me I do. And sometimes I truly feel those emotions, but most of the time I’m just floating along on the waves of emotions. I get caught in my head and worry about unnecessary things and those are moments I want other people to avoid. Therefore, I try to be happy so that other people feel happy, too.

I know that bad things happen. I know that mental illness, cancer, lost pets, natural disasters, delayed flights, car accidents, divorces and misplaced car keys are real. I try to accept these things instead of getting mad or ignoring them. We have to accept things before we can heal.

Now, I will say that there is one part of “Inside Out” where I identify with Sadness and Joy equally and that’s when the two first find themselves in longterm memory. Sadness plops onto the floor and says: “I’m too sad to walk” so Joy grabs Sadness’ foot and drags her around. Like Joy, there are days I’m the one helping a friend through a hard time. But, there are also days when I simply don’t have the energy to do much more than brush my teeth, eat some snacks and lay in bed on my phone. There have also been a couple times where I have been crying too much that I couldn’t walk to my destination without the help of friends.

So, if you think I am actually more Joy than Sadness, think again. I’m joyous so others don’t ever feel as sad as I have felt.

Natalie meeting Sadness from "Inside Out"
Natalie meeting Sadness from “Inside Out”
Natalie meets Sadness from Inside Out
Natalie meeting Sadness from “Inside Out”

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