A banner with a picture of two women. text reads: Lives

“I am me. I am not just my addiction. There is a lot of other stuff to love,” a gentleman shares on Facebook. Another individual adds, “Sometimes you honestly don’t realize what you’re doing, and who you’re hurting until you look back months later. I wish people could understand the suffocating guilt.” Countless others who have struggled with addiction share similar cries for support, understanding and compassion.

Addiction has long carried a heavy stigma and an unjust perception. While it’s an illness that requires adequate treatment, society has continued to view the disease as a weakness, a moral failing, a choice. Public messages of the past have even, unknowingly, strengthened this perception; they advised people to “just say no,” as if that was an option, and eluded that a brain is as good as fried if a person tries drugs. With these outlooks, it’s not hard to imagine the guilt, shame, isolation and fear that ensues for someone, directly or indirectly, struggling with addiction.

Sadly, at a time when people need to feel encouraged to seek treatment, they feel stuck in the shadows, afraid to ask for help. In fact, many people struggling with addiction don’t receive treatment — and stigma is the second largest barrier.

In hopes of reversing these numbers, Recovery Brands took action by launching the LIVES (Leveraging Impactful Videos to End Stigma) Challenge, a three-month long national video contest in search of a new, inspirational public message around addiction. Individuals across the nation joined together for one cause — end the stigma associated with addiction and encourage those in need of help to speak up. The winners, Tori Utley and Sydney Johnson, are passionate about bringing a new, positive message to the public’s attention through their newly created PSAs. They were kind enough to share that message with me in hopes of inspiring others:

1. What was the main inspiration for your video?

Sydney: Honestly, my main inspiration was wanting to help others get through the same pain I went through. It’s never easy, but it can be done. We are all so much stronger than we realize.

Tori: Our video speaks to the heart of our organization, More Than An Addict. We see stigma as a deterrent for many people both in seeking treatment when they are struggling, as well as in recovery when they’re trying to build their lives back up — getting a job, going back to school, starting a company, mending relationships, etc. It keeps many people stuck, often feeling insecure or inadequate. The main inspiration was our desire to eradicate stigma to help those in recovery have the empowerment, dignity, and opportunities that we believe are possible.

2. Who do you hope relates to your video?

Sydney: This video is for the people that give up on their loved ones simply because they do not understand what they are going through. This video is for those who maintain preconceived notions about addiction, and it is also for those who have lost faith in themselves because of that negativity in their life.

Tori: Put simply, we want people to see they are more than their addiction. They are more than the shame, they are more than the barriers, they are human beings and their lives and the lessons they’ve learned along the way are valuable. They are capable, valuable assets to society and we should treat them and empower them as such. For people who are not in recovery and who possibly know others in recovery, the goal is the same: to convey that those who struggle are more than the struggle itself, and are deserving of the hope in recovery.

3. How do you hope your video will impact and inspire others to ask for help?

Sydney: I chose to share a success story so that my viewers can understand that they are not alone in this process and recovery is reachable for everyone.

Tori: The video will inspire individuals suffering with addiction to seek treatment by showing that addiction can be overcome, and the feeling of being labeled an “addict” can be washed away. The message of “More Than An Addict” is hope. You can become everything you ever wanted to be, you are more than your struggle and more than a label.

4. If there was one piece of advice you could give to individuals who are struggling with a substance use disorder and/or mental illness, what would it be?

Sydney: My advice would be to take some sort of small step forward, initially. Know that, no matter what, someone out there loves and cares for you. There were so many times it felt like I was alone, but sometimes one conversation can change that entire perspective. Reach out to someone, and something great can come from it.

Tori: Our advice is to keep going, keep pushing forward. As the actress in our video said in a recent blog post, “Know this is a journey. Know there is a next. Living in addiction isn’t it.” We believe recovery is possible and that hope is available to all who pursue it. Beyond this, we believe that those in recovery can be dynamite forces in our society — they are students, business owners, leaders and great employees — and we want those in recovery to understand how transformational recovery can be to all aspects of life.

Tori Utley is the founder of the nonprofit, More Than an Addict, and Sydney Johnson is a student at Indiana University. They are the proud recipients of the Judge’s Choice Award and People’s Choice Award, respectively. Along with the $10,000 awarded in prizes, both Tori and Sydney’s videos will be featured on Recovery Brands’ flagship site, Rehabs.com, so their messages of hope and encouragement can impact those in need of help.


I got sober on February 19, 2015 when I was 20 years old. Before getting sober, I spent years drinking and doing drugs. I was convinced I was doing what all teenagers did. The drinking, the drugs, the partying — it was all normal to me.

The day I got sober, I didn’t intend to stay sober. I entered a residential treatment center for my eating disorder and I wasn’t allowed to use substances while I was there. Even though I had to get sober, I had every intention of going back to my substance-heavy lifestyle. Thankfully, while I was in treatment, I was able to work through the fact that I had a substance-abuse problem. The people there helped me realize the way I was living and how my body was responding was not normal.

Having been sober for the last year and nine months, I have grown so much as a person. I’ve had experiences I otherwise would not have had and have been granted so many gifts in life. I’ve learned so many life-lessons from my sobriety and I’ve listed just a few of them:

1. I really did have a problem with substance abuse.

Until I hit the six-month mark, I thought about using substances every day. I was so uncomfortable. I felt like my skin was crawling and I wanted to get out of it. I was so unhappy living with myself all of the time, but I did it anyways. Those days made me realize I actually had a substance abuse problem. People who don’t have a problem with substances don’t feel this way they’re not having a drink or doing a drug.

2. There are a million and one ways to spend your weekend that don’t involve substances.

When I stopped using all substances, I had to find new things to occupy my time. While I’m currently a full-time student, I was also a full-time student before I was sober. I found school wasn’t time-intensive enough. So I took up art. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I started writing again. I found out I actually can watch an entire season of a television show in one night. I started walking and running again. I went to cool coffee shops. I got a new job… and a second job. I figured out how to fill my time with activities that enhanced my life instead of activities that took away from it.

3. I have an addictive personality.

In finding the things mentioned above, I realized I also have a tendency to over-do things. I threw myself into everything I did. I made sure every minute had something to fill it. I grasped on to new hobbies and wouldn’t let go. I’m still working on the balance between over-doing and under-doing everything, but I do much better now. I make sure I have time for myself. I make sure I have time for social engagements. I make sure to get all of my work done. Balance is key to maintaining recovery and maintaining stability.

4. People who care about you now will still care about you when you are sober.

They may even be more inclined to spend time with you! I was so worried I would no longer have a social life as someone who is young and sober. I was wrong. The friends I have now have never seen me drink or use. They don’t offer me substances. They still love me with all of their hearts. I have deeper and more meaningful connections now that I’m sober. My family and I get along well and I’m actually able to tell them what’s going on in my life, instead of hiding behind substances. Everyone in my life now knows I’m sober and though they may not know why, they respect it and they love me for who I am — sobriety and all.

5. You can still be the life of the party.

Sobriety doesn’t make me boring. Sobriety is not the end of all the fun I can have in my life. Sure, the fun doesn’t look the same anymore, but for me it was never fun to begin with. Substance use wasn’t fun. It was miserable and consumed me. Now, I have fun in a different way and that’s completely OK! I still go to bars with my friends, I still go dancing for hours at a time and I still hang out with my friends when they’re drinking at house parties. But I didn’t try those activities until I was confident in my sobriety, when I was over a year sober. I also know my limits. I know when it’s time to go home so that I can cuddle up on the couch with my dog. I know when I shouldn’t go out. I’m still a person who everyone looks to for fun and excitement. I still take midnight trips to the ocean and I still laugh at 2 a.m. with my friends. Sobriety did not make me boring, it made me more authentically exciting.

6. There are many paths to recovery.

I was pushed into Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) when I left my treatment center. For a while, it worked for me. It made sense. I could understand what was going on and it resonated with me. After a certain amount of time, I realized it wasn’t the only way to be sober. I could be sober and see my therapist. I could be sober and have everyone in my life know that I’m sober as my support system. I could be sober and write about the urges I had. I could be sober and talk about the challenges that came with it. I didn’t have to be sober and be in AA. AA works for a lot of people, but it wasn’t where I felt at home. It wasn’t where I felt comfortable. It wasn’t what I needed to maintain my sobriety.

7. There are so many good things in life.

There is music I never would have heard, people I never would have met, places I never would have been had I not gotten sober. There are experiences I never would have encountered, smiles that never would have been plastered on my face and feelings I never would have felt. Sobriety has shown me the good in life. Sobriety has shown me that even if it is painful sometimes, living authentically as myself is worth it.

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Addiction is one of those things we do not think of when we are living in excruciating, constant pain. I have to give you some background for things to make sense. I have two food allergies, and unbeknownst to us (myself and my family) almost four years ago, they were what were causing my knock-down migraines.

Prior to this knowledge, I was taking substantial amounts of narcotic and non-narcotic painkillers to deal with the consistent searing pain I lived with on an everyday basis. I was essentially poisoning myself by eating the things I was, but I was unaware. So I would wake up in the morning, take my pills, hope to not throw up, and get my day started.

I had to get ready in utter darkness and silence. Once I was able to slowly transition to living in the light, I would put on my darkest sunglasses (even when it was not sunny) and make my way out into the land of the living. I continued this cycle for almost two years while I was in college. I would struggle. When I flipped into a particularly bad batch of migraines, I would miss class for a week or more. I could not sleep enough, could not eat, could not be in the light, and was constantly nauseous. I would only eat enough to take painkillers and sleep.

Then I found the proverbial light in the form of an alternative medicine neurologist who changed my diet radically, and I was given a new sense of purpose. I was able to go out and do things with my friends without feeling like death half way through. I had energy, vigor, and felt happier. I cried less and loved a whole lot more. But there was one problem: I was still taking painkillers.

I think people who realize they have a problem go one of two ways. One: We seek the help we need and try to take corrective steps to put ourselves in a better place. Two: While we realize there is a problem, but we cannot seem to take that first step to recovery. I hovered between One and Two. I knew I had become addicted to the
things that made my earlier life livable despite the immense pain. But I also knew if I continued down this path, it could lead me into something like a heroin addiction.

So I made a decision. I decided one morning, after running critically low on painkillers, that I was done. I was not going to take any more pills than what were necessary. I stopped cold turkey, contrary to what normal detox procedures said for narcotics addictions. I had typical symptoms of withdrawal. Nausea, vomiting, temperature regulation issues, wanting to sleep it off, and not wanting to eat, the shakiness. But after two or three days, I felt like a new (or at least renewed) person.

Addiction is who I am. It is as chronic as any other chronic illness. I resist urges every day. I have chosen to work towards a life that is sober of all kinds of substances, and I have not taken a pill willingly in over three years. But each day is a step. It takes long term commitment to want to be better.

This is not some anti-drug and anti-narcotic push from someone who “saw the light.” This is me saying, I understand. I get the pain you are in. The urge to self-medicate can often be excessively strong, and it will win on occasion. But we always have to move forward. It is within human nature to have to take steps backward, but we should always have that forward momentum.

Of all the things I have learned in my short life, I have learned it is OK to ask for help. Asking for help, no matter for what cause, symptom, or affliction is OK. Humans can fault. We have earned that right. So earn your right. Fault.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, head here for resources. You can also text 741741 from anywhere in the USA to text with a trained Crisis Counselor. 

Editor’s note: This post is based off an individual’s experience. Please see a professional for medication and/or addiction recovery guidance. It’s also important to remember many pain patients do continue to responsibly use prescribed medication for their conditions without developing an addiction.

Stock photo by Kwangmoozaa

For as long as I can remember, I have been addicted to something. Whether it was the rush of trying to steal things when I was a little kid. Or singing in front of crowds. Or gymnastics. Or starving. Or drugs. Addiction is just part of my make-up. I get intensely passionate about the things that matter to me and make me feel good because I’m constantly chasing a high.

A lot of my friends didn’t understand how when I started drinking and using drugs, I was able to eat more normally. Or why when I got clean, I all of sudden started working out more and eating less. Truth be told, I knew why. It was because something else was filling that space in me that needs to be fed. The part of me that thrives on an internal high. Of feeling like I’m invincible and flying.

I constantly check in with myself because I know this about myself. I know that just because I’m not ingesting substances, doesn’t mean the addiction is better. It means I’m not currently using those things. But it could very well mean I’m running away from things or not eating enough. It could mean I’m obsessing about anything or everything. Because that’s what addiction is. It’s wanting everything and nothing. It’s never knowing what’s too much.

If you know what I’m talking about, you’re not alone. If you don’t, be grateful. The highs are great, but the lows are a whole other story.

I have found a couple of ways to cope with having an addictive personality. Hopefully they can help you too. One way is through writing out what I’ve been doing and thinking. Usually if I put it on paper, I can see if there’s a pattern. You can’t change unless you know what’s wrong. Another way is to try and see it for the good it can bring you. If I’m constantly fighting it and denying the personality trait, I usually get lost and hurt. But if I really focus on using it for good, it can be so rewarding. There are two sides to every trait. And addiction can become passion when used correctly.

The most important thing I have found, though, is having a group of people around me who know how I act. This way they can also point out my behaviors to me. Because denial is real for addicts and can be hard to see through. If nothing else, having at least one person who knows my patterns can be so helpful. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, head here for resources. You can also text 741741 from anywhere in the USA to text with a trained Crisis Counselor. 

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Image by Rulles

I started smoking when I was 15 years old. It was an impressionable time, as I’m sure most of us can remember. It was a time when we were leaving behind the innocence and naivety of childhood and attempting to forge for ourselves a semblance of adulthood (or at least what adulthood appeared to be from the point of view of a teenager).

In my peer group, there was a rush, a distinct barreling, all of us competing with each other to be the most “grown up” or “mature.” Most of us can look back at this time of our lives and laugh. Yet, to completely dismiss it as just some wayward phase is simplistic because the habits we formed in these impressionable years tend to stay with us through our adult lives. That is until we make a conscious decision to change them.

I ended up becoming a smoker. It happened in a blur of alcohol and nervous teenage laughter. Before I knew it, my “habit” had crept up to almost a pack a day by the time I was 18. At 16, I was diagnosed with depression. It was around this time that I made the transition from being a social smoker, only having a couple at parties, to being a smoker in my own right.

At the time, it felt like the cigarettes helped. To this day, I’m not sure whether they actually did, or whether it was entirely a placebo, but that didn’t really matter. All I knew was if I felt upset, then I could just smoke and feel a little better. As time went on, my cigarettes became my “little friend,” a constant companion through the heartaches and the joys of emerging adulthood.

As the last few months of my sixteenth year went by, I went through one of the hardest periods of my life and developed a new addiction. The pain I felt seemed too strong for cigarettes to help with, and I began cutting. It was my last resort, but I was desperate to feeling something other than sadness. I had no regard for my future or for how people would perceive me as an adult with scars running down both forearms. The pain was simply too great for me to slow down.

These two addictions soon came to be intertwined. I eventually managed to overcome my cutting and stopped just before I turned 18, but the smoking continued. In fact, the scars my cutting had left me made it seem almost necessary. When seen alone, I thought I must look a “freak,” a perfectly normal teenager except for the signs on my arms, seemingly screaming to everyone around me, “I’m different!”

When I was smoking, the feeling was still there, but it changed. I felt I was the epitome of the “rebellious teenager,” dark and brooding, misunderstood. I believed smoking gave me a sense of character. When people saw my scars, they wouldn’t see me as a “freak” but rather as someone who was just “different” or “unique.” Instead of helping me deal with my pain, my smoking transformed into a way for me to deal with the consequences of the pain.

The problem is none of this was real. As anyone who has gone through addiction will tell you, whether it be cigarettes or something else, our addiction tricks us into thinking we need it. At first it was for the pain, and later, I “needed” it to deal with the scars. Yet, part of growing up is facing the world as it is, not as you construct it in your head. It took a long time and much reflection to realize this is the way I had built my own prison of addiction. It took even longer to break free.

I was worried that doing so would leave me distraught, unable to deal with the real world. In reality, the opposite is true. Now that I am no longer hiding behind my addictions, I can face the world in a healthier way. I’ve come to terms with my scars and what they mean, and I’ve stopped caring so much about what people think. At times, I even see it as an opportunity to educate others about something that isn’t often discussed due to the stigma surrounding it.

My hope is someone reading this will use my story as motivation for their own journey. Quitting an addiction, no matter what it is, is scary and difficult, especially if the addiction has manifested itself as a faux-necessity in your life. Addictions are complicated things, interacting with so many different parts of life. Some people reading this may not even want to quit and that’s OK!

Yet, despite how hard it can be and despite the feeling that I could never do it, here I am. 1743 days cut free and 85 days smoke free.  And you can do it too.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

When I was 22, I decided to stop drinking. Considering my history, the decision happened after a rather insignificant night.

It did not happen the morning I woke up in the hospital with hypothermia and alcohol poisoning.

It did not happen when I spent 30 days in rehab after getting into a drunken fight with my parents and chugging a bottle of mouthwash and a handful of prescription pills.

It did not happen after a 50-something-year-old bartender told me I needed to kiss him to get my ID back, which somehow led to me bringing him back to my dorm and upon realizing I regretted the decision pretending to be passed out as he pressed his naked body against mine and repeatedly whispered “Don’t fall asleep on me, babe.”

It did not happen after I had to run away from a homeless man who led me to a park and exposed himself to me after I asked him for directions in Providence.

It did not happen after I almost left a New Delhi Men’s Fashion week party with a man who said he was a model but was actually a pimp and hours later texted me trying to sell me an hour in a limo with a boy or girl for $400.

It happened after what was, for me, a rather routine, if not tame, night: I went out drinking with my friends, blacked out and had to be brought home.

When I woke up in the morning, I felt like I was reaching the surface of water just as I was about to use my last breath of oxygen. I had been so consumed by self-created chaos that I had not had clarity of mind for years.

“What if my friends hadn’t been there?” I asked myself. “What if they hadn’t brought me home?”

Of course, I already knew the answer, but for the first time I allowed myself to let it sink in: If I didn’t stop drinking I was going to wind up killing myself, either intentionally or accidentally.

And it was going to happen soon.

I had been drinking regularly since I was 15. Yet the issue with high school and college drinking is the blurry line between typical – if dangerous – experimentation and blatant drinking problems. It wasn’t that bizarre I hid a bottle of vodka beneath the floorboards in my parent’s attic, but I crossed beyond standard teenage rebellion when I’d pour vodka in my mug full of Sprite as a I did my homework.

As a gay teenager in an inner city high school, alcohol took on an extra significance. Drinking is the great equalizer; anyone can do it. Though I loved my close friends, I always felt different, apart. I used alcohol as a means to bond with classmates with whom I otherwise had nothing in common.

In retrospect, the truth was glaring and obvious. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been hospitalized three times for alcohol poisoning, completed a month-long stint in rehab and spent a night in a psychiatric center after a drug-induced breakdown.

After going to rehab – in my sophomore year of high school – I stayed sober for a few months while I completed an outpatient program, but my heart was not in it. I was convinced I did not have a problem. After each hospitalization I would have a window of time where I essentially “grounded” myself from alcohol, but within a few weeks I would lie to my parents and find my way back out.

I made myself a victim. When people tried to talk to me about my behavior, whether it be adults or friends, I would lie and if they kept pushing then cry.

My biggest blessing and curse in high school was that I was able to achieve despite all of my struggles. I was the valedictorian of my class and was accepted at Brown University.

I left for college with high hopes. I wanted to study International Relations and become a human rights lawyer. But without the structure of high school, I quickly fell apart; I drank almost every night. Where I had been admired for my work ethic in high school, in college I schemed to do the bare minimum. Though my grades were lower than high school, they were strong enough that I was able to maintain a façade of being OK. I ignored the changes happening to me. I no longer took any joy out of learning, or any joy out of much anything at all, besides partying.

I hid my past from my friends at Brown, but as time went on my troubling relationship with substances came to the surface. By the time I graduated, I had been hospitalized an additional time after an alcohol and cocaine binge and had a Xanax addiction. I’d black out a few times a week. I was aggressive and reckless. I constantly started fights I couldn’t remember, both with friends and strangers.

When I wasn’t drunk, I was hungover. My anxiety was through the roof. I had trouble sleeping, and would take whatever I could get, whether it be NyQuil, Ambien or Vicodin, just to get through the night.

After college, I moved to New York without a job. My low point: After drunkenly breaking up with my ex-boyfriend at a party, I tried to run into heavy New York traffic while two friends walked me home. They pulled me back. I was in a complete blackout. They tell me I sobbed for an hour and passed out. I awoke the next day at 2 p.m., completely disoriented, and barely remembered anything from the night before. I stopped drinking for a few weeks, and sulked that I had to. Within the month, I decided I was going to try drinking again with strict rules in place. I would drink only during the weekend and would have no more than three drinks spread out throughout the night.

Needless to say, I was soon drinking during the week and blacking out routinely on weekends. And so on the Sunday morning of the second weekend, I woke up and decided that the only way I might ever be happy is if I never drank again.

If you’re a heavy drinker, that decision can seem impossible. I always ran with a hard-partying crowd. For someone young, the thought of losing access to the social situation they’ve always known is terrifying. Whenever I would try to become sober – which happened at least 10 times before it actually worked – the voice inside my head would incessantly shout: What if I’m less funny when I’m sober? What am I even going to talk to this person about if I’m not drunk? I can’t dance until I’ve taken a few shots! Sleeping with someone without alcohol?!

I told myself that drinking is what made my world feel magical. My first couple of drinks gave me manic energy and a sweeping sense of happiness, and I would spend the rest of the night trying to not only maintain that feeling, but to make it grow. I remember sitting at my kitchen table during senior week at Brown. It was around noon and I was incredibly hungover. I felt completely flat and empty but as soon as I chugged a beer I came back to life. My depression temporarily subsided and I was bubbly and talkative and vivacious. I gleefully proclaimed, “Wow! I love drinking!” I was convinced I’d lose my true self if I gave up alcohol, because at that point it was rare that I felt happy when I wasn’t drunk.

Alcohol felt like my lifeline, and it was only on rare occasions – during common morning panic attacks – that I might even briefly acknowledge it was actually destroying my life.

One minute I would be drinking and dancing with my friends at the bar and then my next moment of worldly awareness would be when I woke up completely disoriented, panicked, unsure of where I was. Whether I found myself in my dorm basement in my underwear, naked in someone’s bed or on a beach in Costa Rica missing my shoes and a wallet, I was never really that shocked.

More times than I would care to admit, I woke up in a pool of my own urine or with vomit splattered against the walls as my phone repeatedly rang or a concerned friend pounded on my door. I often didn’t ask questions about what happened the night before, because I didn’t want to know the answers.

For me to admit I did not remember the insults I hurled, or that I did not mean what I had said, would have meant acknowledging I was out of control.

For me to admit the sexual situations I found myself in were scary or shameful would have meant reevaluating my own habits and addictions.

Alcoholism has taught me you really can convince yourself of anything. Instead of recognizing I needed help, I convinced myself that my outlandish behavior was what made me interesting. Deflection was my weapon of choice. If I woke up frightened, I would tell the story for a laugh. Though people would occasionally confront me, most acted as if I were entertaining. Besides, I quickly realized, if my “partying” pushed a friend away, there were always five more people who wouldn’t notice, or frankly care, how many drinks I had or how drunk I got so long as they didn’t have to physically carry me home.

It was only toward the end of my 22nd year of life that I was finally able to admit to those I loved – but most important to myself – that drinking wasn’t worth it if I would one day wake up seriously hurt.

If I woke up, at all.

Learning to live a sober life, in many ways, has been like trying to walk when you’re used to crawling. I still remember how easy it was drink and how much more effort it has taken for me to reach an emotional place where I’m strong enough to choose against it. Besides, whatever problems or feelings I would drink to escape came back, tenfold, the morning after.

For me, the hardest part of sobriety has been learning to be comfortable with myself all of the time. Every day, it gets a little easier. I’ve had to teach myself how to communicate thoughtfully without poisoning my speech with the fury of alcohol. I have had to learn how to flirt and pursue romance without being a histrionic drunk, lacking both grace and inhibitions.

I understand I have a long way to travel before I achieve self-acceptance or real serenity. But what I do have, finally, is the peace of mind of knowing I can wake up every morning remembering all I did the night before – for better or worse – and knowing, in the end, I will be OK.

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