Natalie’s Recovery Story: ‘I didn’t plan to be an addict’

Treatment staff and her peers not only taught Natalie how to live a happy and rewarding life without using drugs and alcohol, but also how to be a responsible and caring mother to her son.

 “I want other people to realise that there is hope of overcoming addiction. Anyone can do it, as long as they want to do it. Nothing is too immense to sort out, but the hard part is reaching out and getting the help. People need to realise that they don’t have to do it on their own – there are people out there who can help. ”

I first met 'Natalie' over 12 years ago when I lived in South Wales. I will never forget how she emphasised the importance of providing online support for people with substance use problems. She had been desperate to find helpful online information when she trying to overcome her drug problem. Natalie has always been such an inspiration to people around her. Mind you, many people had to first get over the shock of finding that such a lovely lady had once been a heroin addict.

I first met ‘Natalie’ over 12 years ago when I lived in South Wales. I will never forget how she emphasised the importance of providing online support for people with substance use problems. She had been desperate to find helpful online information when she trying to overcome her drug problem. Natalie has always been such an inspiration to people around her. Mind you, many people had to first get over the shock of finding that such a lovely lady had once been a heroin addict.

1. Early years
I was very happy in my early childhood. My family was well-off financially, and I can remember having holidays that would last for months at a time. My parents would give me anything I wanted and I remember being very popular at school. At this time, I did not realise that there was a darker side to my family life.

When I was about eight years old, I discovered that my parents had a serious drug habit. The reason why my family home was always busy, with people around all hours of the day and night, was because of drugs. Over the next year or so, I began to resent my parents’ drug use. I would say to my mother, “How would she feel if her mother did it?” I think my mother stopped using drugs because of my nagging, but my father carried on.

My family moved area when I was 11 years old. One week later, disaster struck! My Dad was arrested for a drug offense and was given a long prison sentence. I had just started a new school and suddenly our names and house were in the paper and on the news. It was a horrible, horrible time in my life, having to go to school knowing that everyone knew. I felt a lot of shame.

I started using cannabis and alcohol when I was 14. It felt like something I knew. I really liked the way that cannabis stopped me feeling. I could do something and not feel guilty about it. I started dating a guy called Richard around this time. He used to steal a lot of money from his parents and we would go out and have great fun. I began mitching off school, going to score with Richard and then just spend the day doing whatever we wanted.

When I was 15, I became pregnant. Richard and I split up four months into my pregnancy. I hadn’t been going to school, I didn’t really have any friends, and I found life really boring. On top of that, I gave up all drugs while I was pregnant. I even gave up cigarettes. 

I didn’t start smoking cannabis again until four months after my son Joshua was born. When I was 17 or 18, I discovered the rave scene and took my first ecstasy tablet. I began using ecstasy every time I went clubbing. When Joshua was two years old, I took speed in front of him for the first time. At this point, I didn’t think that I was addicted to anything, even though I was regularly using drugs and getting hammered on alcohol at the weekends.

I began dating a guy called John, who was dealing speed and hash. I didn’t really like John because he was an alcoholic and used to get in some right states. However, I could phone him up any time and he would come and take me out and he had loads of speed on him all the time. During this time, I really got into the clubbing scene. I lost loads of weight and got myself into a great deal of debt.

To begin with, I thought my speed use was controlled. Speed made me feel confident and happy. I also had to take lots of valium and temazepam to come down off the speed and to look after my little boy.

2. Life with heroin
Dad was released from prison when I was 19. Whilst he had been inside, he had developed a heroin habit. I think that this is when things started to go pear-shaped for me. Dad was dealing heroin to John, who had also gotten a habit whilst in prison.

I ended up trying heroin for the first time when I was 21. I didn’t think much of it. In fact, I was wondering what everyone had been going on about. However, at the same time it made me feel really chilled out and calm. I tried heroin again a week later, but after that I didn’t use it for a while.

My drinking, and speed and ecstasy use, escalated. Joshua was spending a lot of time with my Mum and Dad. I ended up in hospital because of my drug use and I lost my job because I was caught drinking while working. When I was about 22, I decided that I had had enough of using ecstasy because I couldn’t be bothered with all the paranoia. My logic at the time was that I would just use speed.

My relationship with John was really volatile. We would argue all the time, but for some reason I just kept going back to him. One of our most common arguments was over his heroin use. One day, I just thought, “Oh my God, I might as well join him, rather than arguing with him the whole time.” I started using heroin with John in the evenings while Joshua was in bed.

For me, heroin use became normal very quickly. My Dad was doing it, John was doing it and I just accepted it – there seemed to be no problem. I remember thinking, “What’s everyone on about, you can get addicted straight away. That’s bollocks.” I honestly thought I could take it or leave it, but for some reason I still kept taking it. 

I still can’t believe how fast my heroin use escalated. I never ever thought this was going to happen to me. I began using heroin at an earlier time in the day, and was soon using it all day, every day. My Dad would sometimes give me gear as his way of showing that he cared. He didn’t want to see me in pain and withdrawing.

I reached a stage where I was using heroin in front of my son. All of my ‘friends’ would be there, as well as my brother, and because Joshua lived in the room with me, he saw what we were doing. However, the gear blocked all this out and numbed my feelings. I was totally oblivious, on a different planet.

Things got really out of hand. I somehow managed to hold down a job, but I would come home from work, gouch out in my work clothes, and then go straight to work the next morning. There were times when I didn’t even take a bath for two weeks. My hair would get really greasy, but I would just put talcum powder on it. At times, I tried to do ‘normal’things with Joshua. John and I would take him camping or to an amusement park. But wherever we went, the bong would come with us and we would smoke heroin.

My heroin use escalated until I was spending about £130 a day on gear. There came a point where I could no longer even take Joshua to school, as I couldn’t get out of bed. I would just set my alarm for ten past three so I would be up and dressed by the time he came home from school. My Mum started taking a lot more responsibility for Joshua.

The only reason that I stayed with John was to support my habit, as he had a good supply being a dealer. I couldn’t stand him, but I was so addicted to the drugs that I just couldn’t leave. John knew this and as a result could get away with treating me awfully. He spoke to me like shit and would walk out all the time. When he wasn’t there, I would be on the floor looking for the tiniest bits of heroin. I’d be smoking all kinds of crap, dog hair or anything. If it looked like heroin and it was all stuck in dust, I’d be smoking it.

At this time, I was completely lost. I remember thinking, “I’m scared,” but I couldn’t see a way out. I felt completely trapped. I absolutely hated using gear because of what it was doing. I felt totally controlled by John and heroin. My heroin use was taking its toll on my body. I collapsed twice from using too much, once in front of Joshua. I would be sick most days and it got to the point where I just used to vomit into a plastic bag in front of whoever was there, including my son. I was too afraid to go to the doctor for help because I thought they would take Joshua off me. Even though I was addicted to drugs and they were my priority, I still loved my son and no way did I want to lose him.

This was a really difficult period for my mum. She was nearly having a nervous breakdown. I was on heroin, my brother was on it, and my dad was on it. One day, my mum threatened to kick me out of the family house unless I got help. This was the kick up the backside that I needed, as I couldn’t imagine having to live with John. 

3. Accessing treatment
I phoned up a local treatment agency and for the first time admitted that I was a heroin addict. I was crying on the phone and when the lady told me the date of my appointment it felt like ages away. It was three or four weeks, I think.

When I went for my appointment, I was offered a place on the pre-treatment programme. The drugs’ worker kept saying to me, “You’ll do this, kid” and I was like, “Oh my God, do you really think so!?” I really honestly couldn’t believe him. I just didn’t think I would be able to get out of my situation.

The treatment agency that I went to uses an approach that is based on the Minnesota Model of addiction, where addiction is viewed as a medical disease that can be treated with one-to-one counselling, family therapy, group therapy and involvement in 12-step groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA). As I was so nervous on the first pre-treatment day, I asked my mother to walk up to the agency with me. It was first thing in the morning, about 09.30. I thought that was punishment in itself!

I was still using heroin when I first attended the agency. There were about fifteen people in my first group session, one of whom was an ex-heroin user who had been clean for about 16 years. She came over to talk to me and I was in awe. She had done exactly what I was doing and she had gotten through it. From that moment on, I didn’t feel so alone. 

The agency suggested that I attend NA meetings. I went and sat there listening to other people’s stories and I couldn’t believe that people were saying they were now clean. I thought, “Oh yeah, they’re just saying that. They’re bound to have a smoke.”

As time passed, being at the agency and attending NA meetings felt fantastic. They were the right places for me. I actually felt like I belonged. It was really nice having something in common with other people. I also started to understand my addiction, and came to realise that my behaviour was part of my illness.

The agency suggested that I go for a detox at a local psychiatric hospital. I was absolutely horrified at the thought and was thinking, “There’s no way I’m going for a detox. That’s for down-and-outs, not for me. No way!” Even my family didn’t think that I needed a detox. However, the more that I thought about it, the more I realised I needed to attend the detox programme.

I began to wean myself off heroin whilst waiting to attend the programme. My Dad measured out a certain amount for me each day and that progressively reduced in size. I had tried to do this before but it hadn’t worked. However, this time was different, as I really wanted to do it. Over about two months, I reduced from using about £130 of heroin a day to about £10 a day.

When I was cutting down, I had real problems sleeping. That lasted for about two months. Sometimes, I was awake for most of the night. I was also feeling very shaky inside. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. It was like being back in the world after being locked up for a couple of years.

Once I had stopped using heroin, I became aware of the simplest things, like the taste of food, birds singing and spring time. It was really strange. The mental withdrawal from heroin was much worse than the physical withdrawals. Mentally, I was so wired up. I felt as if I wanted to rip up something. 

I started to keep a journal, which I’ve still got. Every time that I felt that I was going out of my mind, I would write in my journal or make sure that I did something to keep myself occupied. My family was really supportive, and when I felt like I couldn’t cope they would take me somewhere – to the beach, anywhere. I didn’t necessarily want to go, but it did help me.

One of the hardest things to deal with was the mental frustration. I had so many things going around my head and I was really scared. I had tried to change so many times before and I was battling with thoughts that I was going to mess up again. I had all these feelings rushing around my head, but I didn’t realise what they were because I had suppressed them for so long with heroin.

I can remember not being able to distinguish between feelings of hurt and anger. My counsellor really helped me to re-learn what different feelings stood for, which really helped. The hardest thing was having to face up to my past problems and the reasons why I had been taking drugs. I didn’t want to face up to the bad things that had happened and that I’d done. It was so difficult trying to sort all of that out raw, without using drugs to cope.

At the beginning, my drug-using friends kept phoning me. This was really hard because I still wanted to be with them, but at the same time I didn’t. I was jealous that they were still using and I was just stuck in my house. John was particularly persistent and in the end I had to take an injunction out against him. My counsellor really helped with this matter, and gave me good advice, like not to get involved, burn any letters he sends, etc. I had to keep myself safe.

One of my main memories of this time was when I was trying to re-establish a ‘normal’ life. I was so used to gouching out every night in my clothes that I had forgotten the process of going to bed. One night, I thought, “Well, what do you do? You must put your nightie on.” It’d been so long since I’d done it. And so I put my nightie on and got into bed and asked myself, “Well what do you do now?” “Right, people set their alarms, don’t they?” I responded. So I did that and the feeling was so strange, as I hadn’t done it for years. I thought, “This is what normal people do.” Mind you, it was about two o’clock in the morning, not exactly a normal time to go to bed. However, I certainly thought that it was quite normal!

Although it was strange getting used to a new day-to-day routine, it became quite easy after a while. I started taking my son to school and getting pleasure out of doing little things. I found it really important to stick to a routine and this really helped me.

4. Primary treatment
Although I wasn’t using heroin any more, I was still drinking a lot of alcohol and smoking cannabis. My life was still chaotic. To access the Primary stage of the treatment programme, which I wanted to do, I had to be completely clean. I had to stop drinking and smoking hash, which I didn’t really see as a problem. What helped me to get totally clean was just thinking about today, rather than getting overwhelmed by the future.

Eating properly was another thing that I had to get used to doing. I had been binge eating, instead of having regular meals, for a long time. My counsellor helped me to record what I ate and develop a balanced diet plan. Another obstacle that I had to overcome was being around heroin. I was still living at home and my father was still using. People didn’t think that I would be able to resist the temptation. However, although I wouldn’t advise people to put themselves in the same circumstances as me, seeing my father still using actually helped me to realise that I didn’t want to be like that anymore.

Treatment involved attending the agency on Tuesday each week, when we had one group session in the morning and one in the afternoon. I also had a counseling session on another day. I would not have been able to tackle my addiction without the treatment agency. They gave me a structure to my life. They taught me how to live again. After engaging with the treatment agency, I felt like I belonged somewhere for the first time. There was just something about the place. I loved the people, and most importantly they weren’t judging me and they were treating me like a human being. I was being supported in what I wanted to do and I was being treated like a nice person. They believed in me.

I still doubted my ability to overcome my addiction when I entered the Primary programme. Although I had lots of people around me who believed in me, I still struggled. Then I started to see small changes in myself. For example, on my birthday, John sent me a card with £50 in it and my first reaction was, “Brilliant!” as I was skint. However, off my own back, I sent the card back to him because I thought it would be hypocritical to take his money when I wouldn’t speak to him. I started to develop some self-respect.

There were times in treatment when I didn’t think that I would be able to get through certain situations without using drugs. For example, I had to read out my life story in group and all I was thinking was that there was no way I was going to be able to read aloud for 40 minutes without some valium. But I did it. When you do it, and you do it sober, it feels so good.

During treatment, I started to accept the role that I had played in my addiction, rather than blame others. I started to forgive people for what had happened to me, rather than blaming them. My counsellor was fantastic. I had a lot of issues to deal with and I was an angry person. My counselor helped me to work through these issues.

The treatment agency also helped me to re-build the relationship with my son, which had been damaged over the years. When I first approached the agency, I didn’t know how to be a mother. Joshua and I would argue like brother and sister because I had reverted back to being a child during my addiction. I didn’t know how to look after myself, so how could I look after my son? He wouldn’t trust me. In fact, he wouldn’t come anywhere near me, and that was very painful.

It took a long time before Joshua would kiss or cuddle me. Now our relationship is really good, although it is something at which we both had to work. Joshua had counselling to help him to learn to trust me and overcome his fear of being abandoned. Previously, he used to wake up all the time and I wouldn’t be there for him, so he had to get used to me being there all the time.

Whilst in treatment, I began to do vocational courses (e.g. pottery and dress making) and help out at the local school. This allowed me to mix with people who were not addicts. This was a big step, because I had become quite isolated from ‘normal’ people. It was also the first time that I had ever completed a course.

During the time that I was in treatment, the agency played a massive role in guiding me and teaching me how to live a normal life. However, I still wasn’t really my own person because they had been supporting me so much and making decisions for me. When I left treatment, I was left to fend for myself. I was out there and there was no counseling and I had to get on with life on my own.

However, although I was somewhat fearful, I was ready. I had learnt the skills that I needed to go out into the world and look after myself. My ability to exist independently was all the more important in that my counsellor had helped me find a flat, so I could move out of the family home where it had become increasingly difficult being around heroin users. A week after I finished Primary, Joshua and I moved into our own rented flat. It was the first time that I was doing something on my own.

I continued with aftercare sessions once I completed Primary, which were once a month. They comprised big group sessions where people could discuss any problems they were having. However, I was finding that I didn’t have any problems. That was weird in itself, because I had always had problems. But nothing major was happening in my life. It was smooth.

I began volunteering at the treatment agency. Later, when I was about to begin studying for a Social Welfare Diploma course, the agency offered me a full-time job. I thought they meant voluntary work, but they were actually going to pay me! It was like a dream come true and I never ever expected it to happen. Like most addicts, I thought very poorly of myself and I didn’t think that I was good enough to be offered a job. I thought that as I had no GCSEs or any other qualification, and I wasn’t very good on the computer, there was no way I would get a job. I was so wrong!

5. A drug-free life
Looking back now, I can see all of the changes that I have made. I have learnt to respect myself now and I have built myself a life in which I am really happy. I have found balance in my life. Working at the treatment agency really helped me to get back on my feet. I was able to pay off my debts, take my driving test, get a car, go on holiday and buy things for my son. I had the money to do what I wanted to do, and to buy Joshua things that he needed or wanted. Working has also really helped me to build my confidence, and to meet supportive and friendly people.

When I look back at my using days, it feels very far away. I shock myself when I think of the state I was in. I was 24, with no future other than my addiction, and I truly believed that I would never achieve anything. As a child, my dream of what it was like to be an adult was nothing like how I was living, and that was very sad.

Now, I am so happy and that dream of adulthood is far better than I ever imagined. I feel free and very fortunate. Most people who come here [to the treatment agency where I work] are really shocked when they find out I’m a recovering heroin addict. I remember being shocked by discovering the past of some other recovering people.

I’d also look around at fellowship meetings or in a group session and think that everyone was different to me, because they could recover and I never would. I believed that I was a different type of addict. I wasn’t a ‘together addict’, whereas they were. I thought that there was no hope for me, and I used to think that I probably wouldn’t succeed in anything I did. Now, I know I’m no different from anybody else, definitely not. I think that anybody can achieve recovery. The important thing is that you have to be ready to do it because it is tough.

Since leaving treatment, I have had to learn to deal with the s**t that life throws at you. Rebuilding my relationship with Joshua was really hard work but I stuck at it. To start with, it felt like I was given this child and I just didn’t know what to do as I had been off my head for so long. It was a major power struggle between us, and we both had to adapt to new roles within the relationship. I think that I would have really benefited from parenting classes that could have helped me to deal with those issues.

There have been other tough times. For example, I had to cope with the death of my father, which was really difficult. However, not once did I consider using. I’ve also been in a relationship for three years, which is a huge emotional turmoil, but I have been learning how to cope and adapt as I go along. I learnt a lot of tools while in treatment, so I just have to make sure that I keep on applying them to my life. I still stick to the mantra, “One day at a time.”

I’m still in regular contact with my sponsor from NA, although our relationship has changed a lot. It is now more equal, with both of us providing support for one another, rather than just me off-loading my problems. Having supportive relationships has really helped me adapt to my drug-free life. Before I came into recovery, the only relationships I had had been dysfunctional. I had to learn how to have positive relationships, and that was quite hard and trying at times.

For me, the most important things in my recovery were my son, the agency and my family (and the support they gave me), and NA meetings. Recovery hasn’t come easy and I have had to work at it. I have read recovery books and I still go to meetings and speak to my sponsor regularly. These activities, along with short courses and voluntary work, all helped me fill my time up. It can be difficult to fight the boredom when you have a lot of time on your hands – and boredom can increase the likelihood of relapse – so a recovering person must keep busy. It is also important to avoid becoming isolated from the world.

Over the years, I have had to learn to deal with the feelings that I have towards the time in my life when I was using. A lot of that has been done through talking to other people in recovery, people who are in a similar situation. I have learnt that even though I am accountable, I am not responsible for all that happened. Before, I didn’t know about, or understand, addiction. I certainly didn’t plan to be an addict. But it happened, and I managed to turn my life around. I changed what, at the time, felt like a hopeless situation. I can honestly say now that I wouldn’t change my past. I have become the person I am as a product of my past. I am also in the position to help other people.

My life is definitely different now to how it was. The first two years in recovery I was putting the foundations down, getting to know myself, and learning how to lead a normal life. Now, I’m living the way I want to live. I am no longer ashamed of myself, and I feel confident with meeting new people and making new friends. My life is now stable, and I am free to make choices. I still live for today and I think that has really helped me over the years.

For me, it has been really important that I keep a routine in my life. You also have to be honest with yourself. Part of addiction is denial, and without even realising it people can get caught up in thinking that they are OK, and before they know it they’re not. It’s important that people in recovery keep on evaluating themselves, making sure that they are using the tools and skills they have developed. It is so important to avoid becoming complacent.

I want other people to realise that there is hope of overcoming addiction. Anyone can do it, as long as they want to do it. Nothing is too immense to sort out, but the hard part is reaching out and getting the help. People need to realise that they don’t have to do it on their own – there are people out there who can help.

From my experiences, I think that drug users need support and somebody to believe in them. They need to be treated kindly because they are so often judged and criticised. It’s hard, because when you are using and it becomes too much, you want help, but you have often pushed away the people who are closest to you. That’s why it’s so important that people who want to change their drug use have support and encouragement. And a good source for this support is often other recovering people. They can help you realise that you aren’t alone, and that other people have or had the same fears as you. Seeing other people do so well really spurred me on and I would think, “I want to do that!”

Natalie’s Story (pdf)

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