My Journey: 5. ‘Start Telling Recovery Stories’

When I first met Natalie back in 2000, I didn’t realise that she would play a role in my decision to change career from neuroscientist to addiction recovery advocate, researcher and educator. Her words also contributed to my decision to write a collection of Recovery Stories. Thank you, Natalie. (1,746 words)

I remember vividly to this day Natalie saying to me back in 2000 that if I wanted to help people overcome serious substance use problems, I needed to start telling stories of people finding recovery.

She also emphasised to me that when your life has fallen apart and you are physically and mentally unwell, you have become isolated in your addiction, feel shame and disgust about yourself, and know that others think of you as nothing more than a ‘worthless junkie’, you give up on trying to change. It’s all too difficult; you see no escape. The easiest thing to do is to kill all the pain with more heroin, or more drink.

The conversations I had with Natalie have always stuck in my mind. They have had an enormous impact on me even today, over 23 years later.

I had spent all those years as a neuroscientist trying to understand brain function and its role in addiction and had never considered such things as those described by Natalie and other recovering addicts. That people would continue to use heroin use because they had no hope and saw no escape (no-one else they knew had escaped), and so they could kill the shame and guilt they felt, and the feelings they experienced from knowing their life had fallen apart.

I asked Natalie whether we could tell her story. She agreed to be interviewed by Becky Hancock, a former psychology student of mine who was now working with me on the Welsh Drug and Alcohol Treatment Fund (DATF) evaluation at the time. That Story, first ‘told’ by Becky, has appeared in various forms over the years, including in the first and second editions of Drink and Drugs News. Here is a summary of part of Natalie’s Story.

When Natalie was eleven years old and having just moved to a city from the countryside, her father was arrested for a drug offence and eventually sentenced to 22 years in prison. The impact of this and related events on this young girl’s social and emotional wellbeing must have been substantial.

‘I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was having to go to a new school not knowing anyone, but feeling that everyone knew about what had happened to my family. Every single day, I was extremely anxious about someone finding out that I was the daughter of the ‘evil drug smuggler’ who was written about on the front page of newspapers. It was one of the biggest drug busts in the country at that time, and the papers kept saying that my Dad was the evil mastermind behind the whole operation. To me, my Dad wasn’t evil!

I got so anxious that I used to wake up and pray every morning that no one would mention my Dad or anything about prisons. The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life was to enter my classroom, walk to the back, and sit down at my desk, not knowing who knew what and whether anyone would say anything. As it turned out, nothing was ever said, but I wasn’t to know that then.’

Natalie’s anxiety did not lessen over the next two years. She would experience what she would later learn were panic attacks when a teacher would say something like, ‘We’re going to be discussing a case that happened some time ago…’

In addition, Natalie had to regularly visit her Dad in prison whilst he was on remand over a two-year period. She had to live through two trials, the first being abandoned just prior to completion. She regularly visited her Dad in a prison on the other side of the country once he was sentenced. The nature of these visits was not easy. Natalie missed her Dad and could not come to terms with the media’s portrayal of him.

When she was fourteen, Natalie started to hang out with people who were a little wilder than her previous friends. She started to smoke cigarettes and cannabis, and skip school. For the first time in years, she started to fit in somewhere. The cannabis helped her deal with her ongoing emotional pain.

She became pregnant and had a son (Joshua) when she was sixteen. The father had disappeared by the time of Joshua’s birth. Natalie then started using amphetamines and drinking alcohol more. She started going out with a dealer (John) who ended up going to prison.

Natalie’s Dad was released from prison early, when she was nineteen years old. When he came home, he was very different to the man she remembered. After about a year, the family discovered that Dad had picked up a heroin habit in prison. He started dealing heroin to Natalie’s boyfriend John, who had also gotten a heroin habit whilst in prison. Not long after, she started using heroin.

The family dynamic was now all over the place. Natalie’s Mum was struggling with the situation—no wonder, with her husband and oldest daughter addicted to heroin, another daughter playing up, and a grandchild to look after. All those promises about being a happy family after Dad’s release had not come to fruition.

Is it any surprise that Natalie turned to regular heroin use given all that previously happened to her, life as it was at the current time, and once she had experienced the psychological pain-killing effects of the drug? Here are some excerpts from Natalie’s original Recovery Story, I Didn’t Plan To Be An Addict. The first quote relates to a time after she had started using heroin regularly:

‘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 [Natalie’s 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….’

The following quotes are from the time Natalie was attending her treatment service:

‘When I went for my appointment, I was offered a place on the pre-treatment programme. The treatment agency 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….’

‘… I was still using heroin when I first attended the agency. There were about fifteen other treatment agency clients 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. It was a Light Bulb Moment. From that moment on, I didn’t feel so alone. For the first time, I was with a group of people who understood me and my addiction, and I understood and related to them and with what they were saying.

You have to realise my state of thinking prior to that first group meeting in the treatment agency. Once I had become addicted to heroin, I did not see that there was any alternative to the life I was living. I didn’t know anyone who had overcome heroin addiction. I had never heard of anyone who had done so. I could find no information on the internet on how to give up using the drug. That was it! I just had to carry on doing what I was doing….’

‘… 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.…’

‘… 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 seeing the damage I had caused to myself and others by 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….’

‘… 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.…’

‘… Whilst in treatment, I began to do non-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.’

Natalie is now over twenty years into her recovery. You can read her full Story here.

Many people with a serious substance use problem know what they want—a valued and meaningful life without drugs. They just do not know how to achieve what they want, and they lack the internal and external resources to take the journey to recovery and the life they want.

> My Journey: 6. Drug and Alcohol Treatment Fund (DATF) Evaluation

> ‘My Journey’ chapter links (and biography)