A Mad Hatter Day special post!

By Rissa Byrne – Parkville, MD

Heroin addict is not someone people strive to be. When you’re a kid, you don’t think, “Wow, I’d really like to be an addict when I grow up.” An addict is someone who lives under the bridge and panhandles for drug money. An addict is someone in-and-out of jail and has visible signs of addiction; sores, track marks, dried and cracked skin.

Growing up near the Pennsylvania line, in a wealthy school district where diversity meant different shades of white, “addict” was something to be joked about, avoided and never understood. “Addict” was to be feared. And “addict” would never be me, because I was smart, cautious and innocent.  

Rissa (center) with some of her besties during Senior Year of high school.

But addiction really doesn’t care about any of that.  Addiction picks people – sometimes through family lines, sometimes randomly – and does its best to kill them, sometimes quickly, many times slowly.  First it kills the person’s soul, turns them into something they’d never thought they’d be, drains them of anything beautiful in their lives and they become shells.  At least, that’s my experience with addiction.  

The first and most important thing to understand is addiction is not about what particular drink or drug you prefer. You can become addicted to sex, food, dieting, exercise – almost anything. What helped me identify myself as an addict was the realization that I was using something to fill an emptiness inside myself. I was using something to numb unpleasant feelings and escape myself; because I desperately wanted to be anyone other than myself.

While it’s true many people go through something like this and don’t end up as addicts, I believe this is addiction at its core. Everything else that goes into making someone an addict can be contributed to the fear of facing emptiness. Recovery means combating personality flaws – like dishonesty and selfishness – that have been part of the addict’s life for longer than the “something” they’ve become addicted to. This  usually only happens when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain and terror of changing.  

It’s sort of easy now for me to look back into my life and pick out the behaviors that show some addictive quality.  My obsession with having a boyfriend and holding male attention is the first example I can think of, and that started when I was in first-ish grade. I was quiet and awkward, so it didn’t really cause me much trouble until college. I had plenty of other troubles in grade school (depression, anxiety, an annoying tendency to not do homework), which were certainly not minor, but it wasn’t until I left the safety of my hometown for Philadelphia and college that I really went “off the deep end,” so to speak.  

“I started with snorting, but moved pretty quickly to shooting.”

When I got to college the emptiness I felt inside was debilitating, and I immediately sought the only cure I knew at the time: male attention. It became an obsession, which eventually led me to Lance. Weighed down with low self-esteem and a crushing fear of loneliness, I entered into the relationship thinking, “Well, when is this ever going to happen again?” He told me he loved me after knowing me for two days, which I recognized as a red flag, but my emptiness was way scarier than any silly red flag.

I could write so much more about that relationship. There’s so many warnings and messages I desperately want to give to young women like me, detailing the warning signs of an emotionally abusive or toxic relationship. For me, the addiction and the abusive relationship go hand-in-hand, because the alternative to the abusive relationship was being alone, and being alone meant being with myself which was far more painful than anything he could have done to me. Again, nothing changes until the pain of staying the same becomes too great.

Through Lance, I discovered the world of recreational drug use. I had already abandoned the friendships formed during my freshman year of college, and had already thrown all of my self-worth into this relationship, so what else was there? Once my money ran out and I couldn’t afford Oxy, heroin became my best friend. When we couldn’t even afford a regular supply of that, the withdrawals started.

I went through relatively constant heroin withdrawal for about three months before I decided I had had enough. That was a pretty impulsive decision that just happened to come when someone was there to help me. When I went on suboxone and kicked the heroin addiction, my thought process was, “If I kick it, my tolerance will go down and then I can back to using but just control it more so I don’t get addicted again.” Seriously. Read that again: that’s classic addict insanity –  doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

New Years 2011 – “After heroine I was drinking a lot, lost a lot of weight from not eating and trying to fill the void with sex and anything else I could get my hands on.”

Not long after I stopped using, Lance told his family  he needed help, and his father forced him to move back home. I moved out of the apartment I shared with him and his best friend, and into a house with a sort-of friend where I had my own room. Just having that physical separation from Lance showed me I really wasn’t in love with him anymore, and we broke up. So now, if you’re keeping track, I’ve given up heroin, and the relationship that I so willingly threw my soul into.   

The emptiness was still there, only now I had nothing to fill it with. I spent days by myself in my room, eating nothing but Hershey kisses (that sounds funny, until I also add that I lost probably about 30 lbs and the Hershey kisses became such an obsession I couldn’t leave the house without them) and watching “Princess and the Frog” over and over.  

Whenever I could I would go out with people I barely knew, get drunk and try to find someone to have sex with. I was sexually harassed by one of the school’s security guards, then found a guy on craigslist who would pay me to have sex with him. This all happened after I left heroin, without any illegal drugs (except weed a few times). Compared to all that, life on heroin wasn’t quite so bad. And yet, when I failed out of college and my parents made me come home, I fought them tooth and nail. I didn’t want to leave, even though most days I was so paralyzed with fear I couldn’t leave my bed. The fear of changing and facing things I had seen and done was so all encompassing I didn’t want to leave. But I left with my parents, because I didn’t want to lose them and I wanted them to think I was ok, just like I thought I was.

My mother suggested I check out an outpatient drug rehab, called Kolmac. I did it because I wanted to show her and dad that I was fine, that I could be trusted to go back to Philadelphia and not end up in the same place I was before. During the first group therapy session, everyone talked about the emptiness they felt inside, how they had tried to fill it with drugs and alcohol and diet pills, and that was what made them addicts. I more than just listened to the words – I really heard what they were saying. They were giving a name to something within me that had been unidentified my whole life, and through that simple step I was able to begin working towards recovery.

My recovery path has been windy and terrifying, but I’m four years in now (100% clean and sober) and so far I think I’m doing pretty well. Kolmac and Alcoholics Anonymous showed me how, and I walked the path with the help of other addicts and alcoholics. Recovery is simple: stop operating out of fear, and start operating out of love. So simple, yet so incredibly difficult.  

Rissa and her fiance, Jeff, circa 2014 (pre-proposal).

Right now, at this moment, I’m writing this article while my fiancé is playing video games. I have a wonderfully healthy, supportive and rewarding relationship I entered into after learning how to be happy alone with myself. I’m sitting on the couch, in the house I own, with two cats and two dogs that are spoiled, loved and well cared for. I’m up too late, so will probably be tired tomorrow when I go to a full-time job I’ve held for three years, where I regularly help people through very stressful and tough situations. Sometimes I even help save people’s lives at work.

Recovery is more than the sum of everything I own or have. Recovery is when I’m all alone at night, in the dark and quiet, and the thought comes into my mind completely out of nowhere, “I’m worth it.  Whatever it is…happiness, love, a big poofy princess gown for my wedding, I am worth it, just as I am right now.”

Recovery is when I can use all the dark and terrible things I have experienced to help someone else, therefore turning those dark terrible things into good, useful things, which can heal rather than cause pain. Recovery is being there for my family and friends when they need someone, and earning back their trust. Recovery is something I have to work at each and every day, and that I will never stop working at. And rather than it being exhausting and daunting, it’s beautiful and rewarding.  

Recovery is not always easy, or fun, sometimes it’s excruciatingly painful.  And I still, occasionally wonder if I couldn’t just have one drink and be ok. But recovery is playing that tape through, and, every time, deciding no, I will not have that drink because I could end up back in that place of emptiness and darkness.  And nothing is worth losing something so beautiful and precious as my soul again.