Some things in life have to be personally experienced in order to be understood. I have never been hooked on drugs or alcohol. In fact, while I’ve enjoyed the occasional alcoholic beverage (hey, I’m a writer) I’ve never even smoked a cigarette. So although I may have some ability to empathize with those who have battled addiction, I know I cannot truly understand the struggle.
Over the past two decades, huge portions of the population throughout Appalachia (including my hometown of Huntington, WV) have found themselves in the middle of a prescription drug epidemic which has evolved to include heroin and other narcotics. The origins of the current crisis (which are too complex to adequately address here) can be traced to economic problems, irresponsible pharmaceutical practices, as well as the emergence of drug pipelines from Detroit and other major urban areas. Obviously the disease of addiction is not specific to any region, but it was the Appalachian epidemic that inspired me to use the theme of addiction in my novel Measure Twice.
As I’m not equipped to speak intelligently on the subject, I decided to seek out and interview three individuals who I knew had suffered from addiction in the past. These individuals have been very forthcoming about their histories with substance abuse and their subsequent recoveries. While their full bios are listed at the end of this posting, I’d like to briefly introduce these brave people.
- Rachel Bledsoe (RB) is a mother who lives in Appalachia. She is extremely open about her experiences and blogs about them at The Misfits of a Mountain Mama.
- Mark Matthews (MM) is a recovering addict and author. He blogs at Running, Writing, and Chasing the Dragon.
- Kristen Gray (KG) Is from Huntington, WV and her journey toward addiction started with pain pills and ended with a vicious attack by drug dealers. She is now clean and is in training to be recovery coach / peer counselor.
My purpose in posting these interviews is to “humanize” the epidemic as well as to develop my own understanding. As Rachel mentions below, labels are often placed on people who are going through this crisis, but those labels do no define the individual. Rachael, Mark, and Kristen all fell hard and each has found his or her way back to more solid footing. If anything defines them, it’s their will to continue the fight – every… damn… day.
Can you tell me a little bit about your battle with addiction?
RB: My addiction began in a legal and justified method. At 23 years-old, I needed to seek mental health treatment mainly for anxiety issues. My treatment was pills, mainly benzodiazepines. After my first meeting with the psychiatrist, I was given Klonopin. On the next meeting, Xanax was prescribed three times a day. I took three a day for several months. However, I noticed a tolerance building up and I wasn’t achieving the initial euphoric feeling. I started taking a couple more throughout the day. It was a snowball effect, a few more pills in a single day turned into 20-30 pills in a day. Since I was waitress and graduate student at the time, I qualified for payment assistance for my medication. This meant I would receive a three-month supply at a discounted price. There were times where I would have about 300 pills in my possession.
MM: Well, I have been sober for 23 years, but my mouth still waters when I think of beer, I still feel an electric jolt in my spine when I see someone snort cocaine on TV, and I’m still having dreams where I’m drinking and drugging. But thank God being sober has become my natural state. It didn’t happen easily. I was in and out of detox for a couple of years, at times drinking on my way home from the hospital. It was only when I went to treatment for 28 days straight, got on Antabuse, attended meetings, and started finding natural ways to get high that it clicked. It’s certainly the most important accomplishment I have had, but at the same time, I didn’t do it – I just got out of my own way, and let it happen.
“I was in and out of detox for a couple of years, at times drinking on my way home from the hospital.”
– Mark Matthews
KG: My addiction started in 2006. My doctor prescribed me pain medicine for my two slipped discs and my sciatic pinched nerve. I was on Loratabs 7.5s and was eventually increased to Percocet 10s. About 1 year later I was taking more as my body was getting immune to them. A couple of years later my doctor left the area so I had a three month supply. Unfortunately I did not find another doctor so I was buying them everyday. Pretty soon Loratabs and Percocets were hard to find. I finally found a doctor at a clinic in Charleston WV. At the time, I didn’t know it was a pill mill. I walked in with my MRI and 10 minutes later walked out with 180 Roxy 30s and 90 Roxy 15s for a breakthrough..I really didn’t need all of those pills and I still didn’t think I had a problem.
How long were you hooked?
RB: Almost three years from the time I was given the initial prescription.
KG: I started on pills that were prescribed in 2006 and I started using heroin in 2014. A total of eight years.
MM: I started drinking in the seventh grade. I drank every weekend in high school. By my senior year in high school, towards the end, I was drinking daily. This extended to college.
What did your addiction cost you (financial or otherwise)?
RB: I can’t really say financially. I didn’t spend hardly any money on obtaining the pills. I think for a three-month supply, I only spent $24 to $30. Mainly, I feel and will always remain steadfast that I lost three years in my life. Today, there is a haunting effect that my life is three years behind where it should be. Those three years spent in a daze is a time where I could have been more productive.
Another aspect I feel like I lost in addiction was the way people looked at me. I gained the reputation as being “messed up.” I lost my identity. The woman on the pills was not the person I truly am. Today, I blame myself for not being invited to outings with friends because of the person I was seven years ago.
KG: A pill would cost anywhere from $5-45 dollars. Heroin would cost anywhere from $20-180 dollars. I was paying $45-90 dollars a day for pills and anywhere from $20-180 dollars a day for heroin. The last two months of my addiction, I wasn’t paying anything for heroin because it was given to me by my Detroit drug dealers that were staying with me.
M.M. I was kicked out of the University of Michigan. Wished I was dead. Woke up each day needing to figure out how to stay drunk or high. Became bitter, depressed. Gross. Pathetic. I had pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Always covering my tracks. Always in crisis. Bleeding from my spirit.
What substances were involved?
RB: I would combine both alcohol and pills. The alcohol intensified Xanax’s effects. When the craving heightened, I began snorting Xanax.
KG: Prescription pills and then heroin.
MM: Primarily alcohol, but I used every other substance I could get my hands on. The list, in order of preference includes crystal meth, cocaine, psychedelics (LSD, mescaline, shrooms), marijuana, opiates.
What pushed you toward recovery?
RB: I looked in my mirror, and I was a hundred pounds heavier. I didn’t like or know the person staring back at me. There wasn’t an epiphany moment. There was only a desire to not be THAT person, the one I saw in the mirror who I didn’t recognize. I wanted to feel pretty and find some confidence within myself. I missed writing. I published one article during my addiction. I’ve been writing since I can remember. I wanted to write again. I wanted to find something I loved about myself.
KG: As much as I would like to say that when my girls got taken away, that is what pushed me to recovery. But unfortunately that wasn’t the case. My addiction actually got worse. I had already lost everything including my girls. I knew they were being taken care by my mother so my addiction went out of control. About three months later is when I decided to change my life and enter into rehab. Seeing my husband get beat to a pulp by three Detroit drug dealers while holding me in a corner… is what did me in. My husband was unrecognizable. Still to this day, I thank God for us not being killed and waking us up to give us a second chance.
“Seeing my husband get beat to a pulp by three Detroit drug dealers while holding me in a corner… is what did me in.”
– Kristen Gray
MM: The pain of using. Addicts are not lazy. They work harder to stay high than most anybody does all day long. The energy, creativity and resourcefulness to get drunk or high is incredible. It is the hardest job you ever had, and without a long shelf life. It hurts. Oh god, does it hurt.
What was the first step?
RB: On the day I made the decision to stop, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist to receive more “medication.” It wasn’t just the Xanax. I was prescribed five or six antidepressants and a few other psychiatric drugs. Every time I went to meet with the psychiatrist, she added more and more pills. I made the decision to cancel my appointment. I snorted my remaining Xanax in one day and threw the antidepressants in the trash. I knew my body well enough to know the Xanax I had taken bought me two days before I crashed. I went to work for two days. Then I missed three days of work and sat alone in my apartment until my mood stabilized, and the cold nauseous sweats stopped.
KG: The first step to my recovery was admitting that I was an addict. I think that is the main key to your recovery process. I then checked myself into the Crisis Unit at the Prestera Center for detox and to address my mental health which is also important in recovery. After completing the program at the Crisis Center, I was referred to a program called the IOP program that lasted three months. After I graduated, I continued treatment and still do at an all women’s group once a week on Mondays at Prestera. I also see my therapist once a month.
MM: Humility. The more I drank, the more of an arrogant ass I had to become in order to live with myself. Eventually I started to see myself for what I really was, and only then could I learn to live.
What advice do you have for someone suffering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol?
RB: My advice for anyone suffering is to choose to live. There isn’t a quality of life to addiction. I didn’t see my best self while on Xanax. There are days I still am not my best self, but at least I tried for that one day. Tomorrow is always a new day.
The craving has never left me. I still suffer from anxiety. I hate crowded venues. Large groups of people are overwhelming to me. I have days where I am certain everyone hates me. I’ve learned to channel that feeling into either swimming or writing. Swimming mimics the sensation I felt when I snorted pills. I can channel water through my nostrils into the back of my throat. Writing gives me a voice to address people. I’m not scared or anxious when I write.
KG: Recovery is possible but you have to want it for yourself. If you do it for someone else or because you have to, you will more than likely relapse. There is always Hope, even if you are at your lowest. Be patient, recovery is one day at a time or hour by hour. Don’t think that you will be well after detox or rehab. It will be a struggle or a challenge for the rest of your life. Stay strong, and remove all things negative out of your life. Including friends that associate with drugs. Also maintain your mental health.
MM: Wear a dog tag. That will help your family, for they already worry about you dying, and in fact, have already imagined you dead and getting ‘the call’. They’ve pictured your funeral. A dog tag will make this process easier.
Or… get sober, dammit. It is those who are most desperate and at the latter stages of addiction who are most primed to get sober. Desperation breeds action, faith, humility: all the good stuff for sobriety. People just like you do it. There’s lots of truths to those AA slogans. If you can stay sober for one day, you can do it forever. The first days are the hardest days.
Any other insights, advice, bits of information?
RB: The only labels I wear are “writer” and the Tom’s logo on the back of my shoes. I hate the term “sobriety.” It never entered my vocabulary. When I began writing about my addiction, people congratulated me on my sobriety. I know they mean well. It’s a word with a stigma attached. No, I wasn’t coherent for three years, but I live daily with the guilt from those years. I don’t want another label attached to that time in my life. I may have been an addict (another stigma word) but I am so much more than those words. I am a mother, a wife, a writer, a sister, a niece, and I am my mother’s daughter. Those are the words that define me, not the mistakes I made seven years ago.
One of the things that struck me from these responses was how the path to addiction could not only be cheap, but also assisted by those we trust with medical care. In learning about Rachael’s experience with prescription medication, I was amazed at the ease with which a physician handed out pills with what seemed like little regard for the potential consequences. Additionally, there was little financial cost to her as the medical/insurance establishment kept handing out pills like they were breath mints.
“I am a mother, a wife, a writer, a sister, a niece, and I am my mother’s daughter. Those are the words that define me, not the mistakes I made seven years ago.”
– Rachel Bledsoe
KG: A lot of people do not address their mental health and that is a big factor in recovering addicts.
MM: Getting sober doesn’t mean losing your edge. It doesn’t mean being ‘bored’. Quite the contrary. It is getting drunk and high that turns you into a cliché, and every day begins to be the same. But staying sober is the strangest buzz you’ll ever have, 24 hours a day. Just like truth is stranger than fiction, sobriety is stranger than addiction.
Several things struck me while going through these interview responses. One was the difference in the financial costs of addiction. Depending on the addiction and the personal circumstances of the user, obtaining a drug could be very cheap, or extremely expensive. The personal cost is another matter entirely.
Another item that jumped out at me was how the struggle is never over. Even Mark, who has been sober for over two decades, still has cravings. I think this gives emphasis to how important a person’s environment is, as the vulnerability is ever-present.
Finally, addicts are… well… people. They are mothers, fathers, employees, friends, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters. As a society we tend to label addicts and pigeonhole them into categories that we can better understand. However, simplistic categorization is never a solution for complex problems. This is why some law enforcement agencies are seeking alternative methods for addressing the addiction problem. We also have to understand that addiction is not simply a substance abuse problem, but often a mental health issue.
In some ways it seems America has an addiction of its own. Although these three individuals were able to avoid incarceration, many like them have not. We are hooked on trying to solve the problem of substance abuse through the penal system. This punitive approach has largely failed and may in fact do great damage to individuals and to society in general.
When it comes to the nation’s addiction to throwing addicts into the penal system, it seems number one gateway drug may in fact be a lack of understanding.
Our recovering addicts are great resources who can educate others. They are not scars to be hidden.
Rachel E. Bledsoe is an Appalachian Mama and Misfit. She writes about her adventures, heartaches, and details her life’s journey on the blog, The Misfits of a Mountain Mama. She also enjoys long walks on the beach, puppies, and Marie Antoinette biographies. Be sure to follow her by visiting The Misfits of a Mountain Mama’s Facebook page or join her on Twitter @MisfitMtMama.
Mark Matthews is a counselor, recovering alcoholic, and author. His books include: MILK-BLOOD, On the Lips of Children, and Chasing the Dragon: Running to Get High. He lives near Detroit with his wife and two daughters. Visit his blog at Running, Writing, and Chasing the Dragon
Kristen Gray is from Huntington, WV. She entered into the world of addiction through prescription pain pills and eventually ended up living with drug dealers who would supply her with heroin. She says she is proof that addiction can happen to anybody. Kristen is currently studying to be an addiction counselor.
Thanks to each of these individuals for sharing their incredible stories. Have a comment? Leave one below!
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
A 12 Step Program You Won’t Forget
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology