"Recovery is a unique process for each and every individual that should be approached with acceptance and compassion."

Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse, overdose, eating disorder, suicide, and self-injurious behavior discussed. I’m originally from Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Growing up, I lived a very privileged, sheltered life. While I was growing up, I was not aware of any other way of life, and I definitely neglected how privileged I was.  Despite this, I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse for a consecutive amount of time during my childhood. I like to use the word survivor to describe my current experience because I do believe in my resiliency and motivation heal that has transformed my narrative from victim to survivor. I was not aware of what was occurring as a child, as I was only a child and did not hold the level of self-awareness that a fully-developed brain can comprehend today. As I continued to grow and develop, I believe this shaped me as an individual tremendously, but I just did not recognize it. When I entered into my older years, I’ll start with 12, I believe this is when my childhood trauma began to manifest itself. I started engaging in substance use recreationally and unproblematically when I was 12 years old. It started out with occasional alcohol and marijuana use socially with my friends, but eventually progressed to utilizing these substances within my own company. It was during this time that my journey with mental illness also began. The more my mental health symptoms presented themselves, the more I utilized substances, and the more I utilized substances, the more my mental health symptoms presented themselves. It was a vicious cycle. I started engaging in disorder eating: restrictive eating, counting calories, frequently weighing myself, obsessing over body parts, and over-working out. Eventually, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. It is something I still struggle with today and a recovery journey in and of itself. Coinciding with my struggles with an eating disorder, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. As my mental health continued to regress, so did my substance use. My overall intention with engaging in substance use was to forget and numb. I did not want to remember what happened during my childhood, and I certainly did not want to feel the way it made me feel. I did anything and everything to avoid it.

I developed this sense of self-hatred for myself. Was I to blame for what happened to me? Should I have told someone sooner? Why me? There had to be something wrong with me for this to happen to me. I began to engage in self-injurious behaviors. I truly thought I deserved the pain I was causing myself. I was good at masking my struggles. No one had a clue or perhaps ignorance was bliss. I have always struggled with communicating openly about my struggles, so it is ironic that I am sitting here writing my story to be shared publicly with strangers. I did not want to burden people with my problems, and I also thought no one care. Depression is good at making you feel like no one cares, but ultimately, that is the depression talking. I will never forget, I was in gym class during middle school, and I was changing when someone noticed the cuts on my arm. That someone went and told the guidance counselor where my parents and I were brought in for an intervention. While I despised that person at the time, I recognize that perhaps that experience was my cry for help and they recognized it. This would begin my long journey and experience with mental health care, specifically hospitalization. The first time I was hospitalized was when I was 13 years and it was because I wanted to take my own life. I just simply did not want to do it anymore. Whatever higher power exists within the world, I told my parents I was willing and capable of taking my own life. I attended my first inpatient treatment facility. The experience I had while I was hospitalized was nothing short of traumatic. You were stripped of all humanity. The things I witnessed and experienced I will never forget. We were treated like objects, not people. Medication was the solution, not talking or processing the very problems that perhaps required medical intervention. I have been to rehab, inpatient hospitalization, partial hospitalization, and outpatient programs more than I can count. It was a continuous cycle until I eventually entered into my recovery journey from substance use disorder.

While my mental health struggles continued throughout high school, I was introduced to much harder substances. I started engaging in stimulant and opioid use. To be honest, anything I could get my hands on, I was willing to take. For some reason, opioids reacted differently in my brain than any other substance. The first time I tried an opioid, something just clicked. It was instant euphoria, or so I thought. I was introduced to Heroin and suddenly, every problem I had ceased to exist. I spent the next six years chasing that feeling. I was so naïve. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Never did I think I would become someone addicted to Heroin, does anyone though? Heroin provided me a sense of coping I was not able to provide myself. I was very good at hiding my substance use. Do not ask me how, but I was. It was not until 11th grade when my parents finally realized what was happening. I went from being a straight-A student, family involved, socially involved, and athletically involved to skipping school and isolating in my room. My mom would receive countless emails regarding me not attending school or simply just walking out. It got to the point where I had to physically be walked to class. I went to rehab for the first time when I was in the 12th grade. I was there for 50 days. I had no idea I was going to graduate high school until a few days prior. What were my plans after high school? At the time, I had no idea. A girl who once had every intention of going to college and pursuing her career, no longer cared.

When I got out of treatment, I immediately started utilizing substances again, not heroin, but substances. Two weeks post treatment, I was at a hookah bar where I was engaging in alcohol use that without my knowledge, included a much harder substance. That night, I was raped. Once that happened, I thought that was it for me. There was no way I could ever enter recovery or stop my substance use. I was taken to the emergency room where I was met with the beginning of my interactions with law enforcement. I can say with complete confidence that my experience with law enforcement was far more traumatic than the rape itself. It was interview after interview, evidence after evidence, and discrimination after discrimination. I was provided a sexual violence protection order from the individual responsible until the district attorney determined if we would go to trial or not due to his constant harassment and intimidation. I was forced to see this individual throughout this process. The police are met to serve and protect, yet they did the opposite. I no longer trusted law enforcement. The case was dropped and the reasoning was that they did not think I was mentally fit to sit trial. I went back to utilizing heroin. While I never used Heroin intravenously, I ended up overdosing. My sister found me on the driveway, unconscious, without a pulse, and blue. When I woke up, I had been told I was in an ambulance on my way to hospital, and I had overdosed on Heroin. I was 18 at the time. I remember the paramedic saying to me, “Come on, Erin. Stay with us. You’re too young”. I was too young. Too young to had experienced so much pain. Despite my near death experience, I returned to use as soon as I left the hospital. I would make the endless empty promises of “In two days, I’ll stop using”. It was a delayed experience. I entered rehab for the final time where I have been substance free since January 9th, 2017; although, my recovery journey began long before that. For me, the amount of days I have been substance free do not matter. What matter’s are the actions I take today, because at any given moment, those days can resort back to 1.

My biggest area of support right now are my family, friends, professional peers, and most importantly, my dog Rambo. Without the support of my loved ones, I do not know if I would be here today. Despite my behavior, they never gave up on me and were always willing to help me seek treatment. Not everyone has that. Not everyone has the financial capability to seek treatment. Not everyone has the resources to seek treatment. I am thankful for that. I graduated from Penn State Schreyer’s Honors College in 2020 with a B.A. in Psychological and Social Sciences. I was an honors student and graduated with a 3.9 GPA. I continued to further my education at Chestnut Hill College to pursue my M.S. in Clinical and Counseling Psychology with a concentration in co-occurring disorders. I am currently in my final semester before I graduate withholding a 4.0 GPA. I would love to sit here and say that I am not bragging, but in reality I am incredibly proud of myself. It took awhile to get here as a result of the self-hatred, but I’m here and it feels good. My goals for post-graduation are to continue to pursue Pennsylvania’s licensure credentials to receive my LPC. I currently intern at a community mental health center in an intensive-outpatient program for those diagnosed with co-occurring disorders, substance use disorder and mental health. If I had to go through everything I have gone through to be able to help people who have shared similar experiences, I would do it in a second. There’s nothing more I would rather be doing than helping those who need help the most, yet do not receive it. To me, it is about giving people who are voiceless, a voice.

Who I am today and where I am today is something I never thought was possible. I truly thought I was going to be dead by now, at the age of 24. I think everyone in my family did. Today, I am able to participate actively in the relationships that I neglected while I was utilizing. My oldest sister was one of the relationships that was impacted the most. Today, I am aunt to her son, and she is one of the closest people to me. That would have never happened if I did not engage in my recovery journey. Recovery looks different for everyone. Recovery is not a one size fits all. What works for me may not work for someone else. I think for me, my ultimate professional and personal goal is to advocated for a more inclusive and accepting recovery community. Embracing medically-assisted recovery and harm reduction are two of recovery aspects I have my energy directed towards. Who am I to tell someone they are in recovery or not? That is none my business, and I need to focus on myself. I am focused on providing a supportive environment to help an individual determine their own personal goals to achieve their personal well-being. In addition, we as individuals, and now as a mental health professional myself, need to put less emphasis on the substance use and more emphasis on why the substance use. People utilize substances because they are hurting. These are people who have experienced significant trauma. These are people who exist within our society, yet continue to be ostracized.

This is why I am sharing my story: so others know that they’re not alone and there are people out there that care; me being one of them. We are ready when you are. You are valued. You are loved. You are supported. You are worthy.

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