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Recovery Happens
Personal stories of hope, resilience and recovery

Article Tihanna McCleese, BHRS Communications

As we honor both National Recovery Month and Suicide Prevention Month in September, it’s important to acknowledge the intrinsic link between the two epidemics. Mental health and substance use disorders are two of the main risk factors for suicide – the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S in 2016 and 2017, according to the National Institute of Mental Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Even for those in recovery, dealing with life’s difficulties can remain a challenge.  That’s why in San Mateo County we support consumers with programs and resources to help them not only stay committed to recovery but also to manage their physical, mental and emotional well-being and to help reduce stigma – which stops many people from seeking treatment.  Voices of Recovery San Mateo County (VORSMC) and their Wellness and Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) groups is one example of a program where a growing number of consumers are taking the opportunity to add their voices to the growing call for recovery and to share their personal story. 

The sharing of a personal story can be self-reflective, educational, de-stigmatizing and incredibly empowering. The following stories of hope, resilience and recovery are from those who have experienced mental health and substance use issues. These individuals are sharing their stories of survival with the hope that others will be inspired to seek help and join them on the path to recovery. 

Melissa 

I am a woman in long term recovery. Growing up, I succumbed to peer pressure and smoked my first joint at the age of 13. I tried cocaine at 16 and then progressed to try crank/meth at 22. My “friend” suggested to me she knew how I could lose weight. I was so desperate to lose weight and fit into society’s standard of what a woman should look like as well, that it wreaked havoc on my self-identity and I developed a very low sense of self-esteem and had no self-confidence. 

This overall sense of low self-worth was the perfect combination to lead me toward becoming an addict. Through addiction, I lost myself for years. Using drugs helped me numb my feelings and emotions for most of my adult life.  

It wasn’t until I was 48 years old that I finally came into recovery. Now, I am an overcomer. I have overcome addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, low self-confidence and low self-esteem. There were times I almost died, and my life was threatened on several occasions.  

Today, I embrace life. I value myself and am grateful for everyday that I wake up. Today I value myself and am grateful for the people in my life who are also my supporters, co-workers, adopted extended family members and sisters in sobriety. Today I love to give and receive hugs and in recovery I have learned that my mistakes and my past do not define who I am or where I am going in life.   

William 

As a father, a husband, a brother, a homeowner, a retiree and a volunteer, I wear many hats and I carry great responsibility. What many people may be most surprised to know about me though is that I’m also a consumer of mental health services and I’m a suicide survivor.  I spent five decades with an untreated mental illness and throughout much of that time, I actively chose to self-medicate. You may be asking yourself, “how did he survive?’ “How could he live like that for so many years and never seek help?” I often wondered the same thing myself.   

I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression for as far back as I can remember; at least since I was 6 years old. However, you would have never suspected this because I was able to succeed in school and I behaved well enough to fly under the radar and not call too much attention to myself. Hiding my emotions became a skill I mastered but inside, I knew about my difficulties, particularly with establishing relationships. I quickly developed a defense mechanism to protect myself by never admitting  there was anything wrong. I was living in denial. In those days,  I believed parents didn’t want to hear about their kids’ problems.

As a boy, I feared my father might see my mental health and emotional problems as something to beat out of me; or a reason to send me away to a special school.

 It was a different time back then. I recall my sister saying they gave people like me electric shocks, or cut out pieces of our brains. I believed these things and was frightened that it may have been true! So, I took matters into my own hands to dull the pain and attempt some feelings of “normalcy”.  

I discovered alcohol at the age of twelve. When a kid carries disturbing thoughts and emotions the way I did, it is a mighty revelation to discover a substance that can change the way you feel. It was the 70s, so marijuana and other drugs followed, but alcohol had the dual effect of blocking bad feelings and creating good ones. I thought I was cured!  

As young man, I became very driven to succeed and get ahead. This carried me through much of my life although it was often fueled by a fear of not having enough, insecurity and resentment.  I added a workaholic lifestyle into the mix of intermittent alcohol and substance abuse.  There were many times I’d be riding high; seemingly cruising through life but then I’d come crashing down. During the low periods that followed, those close to me and observing this cycle would call me “manic.”  At my best, I could be thoughtful and helpful; at my worst, moody and withdrawn. To some, this made me “schizo” but I didn’t internalize that label and instead, I persevered. I never stopped believing in my ability to be “healed,” so I was always looking for the next thing that might “fix” me.  It didn’t matter what it was, but it was always something and when I found it, I’d latch on to it. The next thing showed up as the next job, the next promotion, getting married, having a child, and so on. None of it “worked.” None of it changed the suffering I was experiencing. In fact, it may have all made things worse because I would build, build, and overbuild until one day I found myself living a very compartmentalized life on a foundation of unsustainability.   

This life I built over the course of four decades collapsed all at once. Like one big tower, my life came crashing down. The trigger: the demise of a relationship I was in. I found myself looking at a life without love, without the family I helped create, without a job, no place to live, and so forth. I felt I had outlived my usefulness and was too old to rebuild. So, I decided to go for the permanent fix and tried really, really hard to kill myself.   

I didn’t die but I was hospitalized against my will. From there, I went into an intensive outpatient program where a fateful meeting with a treatment coordinator pulled me back from the depths of hopelessness and despair and set me onto a true path of healing. Up until that point, the decision to kill myself had seemed like a logical one. But my case manager talked to me about the general concept of “dual diagnosis,” and convinced me to read a couple of books. I was shocked that one, written in the 1930s, so well described things I had been feeling for as long as I could remember.  After this, I spent nine months in a sober living environment. I never knew such places existed until days before I moved into one.   

My rebirth has consisted of three components: medical treatment, spiritual awareness, and a service-oriented attitude.  As a result of these three things, my life is much different today. I have a therapist, and I take a small dose of an anti-anxiety drug. I’ve learned to separate what I was taught about religion from spirituality. To be in God’s world, I have to stay in the present, be honest, monitor my behavior, correct mistakes, pray for guidance, and endeavor to be of service. I now work with people who have an alcohol disorder, and I tell my story at meetings and in rehabs and other mental health facilities. I am most proud of my work on the suicide/crisis hotline. In terms of suicide, I’ve gone from being part of the problem, to part of the solution.  

Only now do I understand the role mental health stigma played in my life. It silenced me.

At the earliest ages, I was programmed not to admit to anything being wrong and I internalized it. I would suffer quietly rather than admit to myself, or anyone else, that I needed help. I felt those words and the labels could destroy my credibility and consequently take away my voice.  Now, with the help of the BHRS Lived Experience Academy, I live my truth and am able to talk about it.   

Carlos 

As a person who deals with schizophrenia and bipolar depression, my road to recovery has been a long-term path. Currently, I am a mental health patient at Telecare and have been getting treatment since August of last year.  One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned on this journey is that I am an expert on myself and nobody knows me better than me. I’ve had to take back control of my life and I am having success doing just that through wellness tools and techniques that help me deal with challenges and difficulties. I am grateful for a few programs that have helped me tremendously including VORSMC and WRAP. 

Before coming to these programs, I was dealing with a lot of struggles in my life and was unemployed. Being in these programs required me to face myself and many issues came up that were unexpected. 

But, I managed to work through it all and the staff was very helpful. They gave me the reassurance that I was in the right place.  After two months of volunteering, I jumped at an opportunity to serve as a recovery coach; something I aspired to and held as goal. 

Life is much better for me today. Every day, I set high expectations and goals that are realistic and measurable.  Honestly, this entire journey has been a life-changing experience that has allowed me to persevere and move forward in a positive way as a recovering addict. My attitude has improved and I have a deep, personal desire to succeed in life.  I owe that all to VORSMC, WRAP and my peers who have been the driving force in my life; encouraging me to stay hungry and motivated.  Being a goal-oriented person and applying the tools and strategies I’ve learned has truly been a good source of health and wellness for me.  In addition, my family has been positively affected by the major turnaround in my life.   

Being in long term recovery and having such strong supporters has been an enormous upside in my life.  I am extremely thankful for the fellowship at VORSMC and for the individuals who have shaped my life for the best.   

Tina 

I share my story  with the hope of inspiring someone but more so to let those who are struggling with recovery know that it is possible to stop using and find a new way to live. I started the process of conquering my addiction to drugs and alcohol back in 2001. It has been a long road to get to where I am today.  

Over the years, I suffered so much self-imposed pain and lost so much of myself and the things most important to me.

Losing custody of my first love, my oldest daughter, was by far the greatest loss.  Child Protective Services stepping into our lives did encourage me to recover but even then, I still struggled with drugs and relapsing.  Then in 2017 God blessed me with the news that I was pregnant again. I was shocked and scared but also very happy. Although I had previously been told that I could never have any more children; here I was 6 weeks pregnant. This news literally brought me to my knees. At this time, I was deeper in my addiction than ever before and although I saw my oldest daughter whenever I could, my life was still very much unmanageable. I started doubting and asking myself how I could possibly bring another baby into this world? Not only was I still getting high, I also had gotten into trouble and was facing jail time.  

Yes, I knew where to find help but I wasn’t doing anything about getting it because I still felt lost due to my past. I felt discouraged and hopeless because of my many failed attempts to get clean and stay clean. I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel or what God had in store for me. The break for me came after being clean for a few days. I was still feeling broken and lost but a good friend invited me to a WRAP group meeting. I reluctantly said yes but once I was there, I instantly felt supported and not judged. It was such a relief. For the first time, I discovered a different approach to my recovery; one that helped me develop a strong foundation. Before long, I was regularly attending meetings several times a week. I was making progress! It felt good because I realized that I had finally found a place where I felt truly accepted and a place where I could create a plan to help keep me focused on my sobriety in those times of despair when I would usually want to just use again. My wellness and well-being soon became second nature to me.  This along with a loving, caring sponsor, helped keep me on track and develop the tools I needed to stay clean and sober for the long term.  

Last May, I celebrated two full years of being clean and sober and it is only by the grace of a loving God. Today, I have a very strong bond with my oldest daughter and although we still live apart, I am working on being able to provide a home where both she and my youngest daughter can live with me. I love being able to look back on my journey and say I went from being homeless to now having a house to call home.  

Currently, I attend College of San Mateo and am working on my AA degree.  I plan to transfer to San Francisco State University and pursue a bachelor’s degree in Sociology. I have also been an active member in the community – I volunteer in a service ministry that makes and distributes hygiene bags and bag lunches to the homeless men and women in the San Francisco Tenderloin. I also now work at VORSMC as a peer mentor.

My life has turned around in such a positive and amazing direction. I still have so much to learn and so far to go to accomplish all my goals in life but I’ve laid a firm foundation in recovery to launch the rest of my life from and I am forever grateful and internally blessed for this.   

Lamar 

Being in a six-month recovery program and attending wellness and recovery meetings has helped me   

  • Gain new life skills 
  • Learn how to better cope with triggers 
  • Increase my self-esteem 
  • Take action to build and implement  a wellness plan.  

Before getting on the path to recovery and gaining these tools, life was very different. Now, I have a safe place to open up and share my past experiences and my story. What I love most is how I always get positive feedback when I share, I am never judged, looked down upon or made fun of because of my past mistakes.  

I don’t feel alone because my peers share a similar story. What’s been even more rewarding is serving as a volunteer and helping others in the same situation. 

Commands