Natalie’s Story: ‘I didn’t plan to be an addict’ (Part 2)

IMG_3468I 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.

We left Natalie in Part 1 of this Story in the pre-treatment part of a 12-step treatment programme.

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!”