Episode 45: Shelby, Recovering Pill and Alcohol Addict
In this episode, Shelby, a recovering pill and alcohol addicted person, who after seven years of addiction is now sober, will share her journey through addiction, sobriety, and professional success as a social worker for special needs kids.
Intro Voices 0:05
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Intro Voices 0:31
This is “You Matter”, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:01
Hi everyone and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion, and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety operations at the Department of Public Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today, I welcome Shelby, a recovering pill and alcohol addicted person who after seven years of addiction is now sober. Shelby will share her journey through addiction, sobriety, and professional success as a social worker for special needs kids, Shelby, welcome to You Matter.
Thank you so much, Karen, I'm so happy to be here speaking with you.
Karen Ortman 00:50
It's my pleasure entirely. If you would not mind, share with our listeners who Shelby is today.
You know, for me, I think that today I am someone who feels a sense of pride and gratitude for the struggles that I went through in my addiction and the abuse that I survived. And, the fact that I went from being somebody who didn't expect to live to somebody who is excited to wake up in the morning and see what's going to happen.
Karen Ortman 01:33
Wow, that gives me chills. I'm so happy for you too, what a what a an amazing story. So, tell us, where does your story begin?
Well, I grew up in Texas, I grew up in a family that was, I had a large family, but my household was filled with abuse. My father was an alcoholic, he was incredibly abusive. From a very young age, I experienced just constant discomfort in my own skin, and fear. I just felt incredibly alone and isolated. In other words, I didn't think that I got to be happy. Like, I just thought...
Karen Ortman 02:34
...that you didn't deserve to be.
Yeah, I think part of me thought that some people in life just inherently got to be happy, and I wasn't one of them. That I just had drawn the short stick with the life that I was given. And that was as far as it was gonna go.
Karen Ortman 02:51
So you kind of accepted it.
Yeah, I don't think that that really occurred to me as something I was actively thinking until I was a little bit older. As a kid, you know, like I said, I was very anxious. I didn't have a lot of friends. I felt very different from people for reasons that I didn't fully understand. I thought most people's homes were like mine, but I didn't know that people had, you know, a father who loved them or that they didn't feel like they were the outcast all the time. I thought everybody kind of had that feeling.
Karen Ortman 03:32
Sure. Sorry. How far back does your memory go to recognizing how different you felt?
Pretty early probably when I was about five or six. I remember at school, it was like I was looking at everybody else living and looking at them interacting and feeling like other people must be faking it. I felt so different because I felt like I couldn't fake it, there was part of me that felt so different. And then there was the other part of me that didn't know that everybody else didn't feel this way. I just felt like everybody else was somehow faking their interactions with people and it was all a show. Right? And I that I wasn't good at being a part of it.
Karen Ortman 04:34
Gotcha. Do you have any happy memories from childhood?
Yeah, yeah, for sure. My father, that is what I explained is what it is, but um, my mother loved us very much and throughout her life has done everything she's done for me and my siblings. But, addiction and abuse is is a family issue,. It is something that impacts everyone across the board. I played softball, I was really good at it. That was like my little like reprieve from the world when I was growing up.
Karen Ortman 05:17
So when you were playing softball, was it from a young age?
Yeah, I started playing softball when I was six.
Karen Ortman 05:23
So was your dad supportive of your athletics? Did he come watch you play? Was he loving in, you know, under certain circumstances?
He would come sometimes, he was less invested in my athletics. More so, he was invested in my brothers. I mean, I obviously knew that he didn't come to all of my things the way he did. My father is a very smart, successful man who had done really well for himself professionally and for me that meant that he must be amazing you know? That meant that all of the other things must have been my fault. So, he would come but it was it was a very high expectations household too. So not being great at whatever you chose to do, was not an option. Like, if you were going to do something, and it was going to be something that we invested in as a family, then you needed to be the best at it.
Karen Ortman 06:40
So I'm, I'm safe to assume that translated into academics as well?
Yes, even more, so probably. Academics were very big part of my household; straight A's, the whole deal, private school.
Karen Ortman 07:02
Sofrom the outside, I'm sure that people looking at your family from the outside thought it was that stereotypical sort of successful happy Brady Bunch, if you will.
Family of six, three boys, three girls so literally like the Brady Bunch. Yeah from the outside and even in so many ways the experience was that my childhood was very privileged. I was well taken care of, I had the material things, I had the education. In many ways, it was idyllic and I'm sure that it appeared to be so to other people.
Karen Ortman 07:43
And did you have these thoughts when you were younger? You know, wow, if people only knew?
Sometimes, when I was much younger, probably before I got to about high school, I thought that everybody's family, it was kind of like that when people weren't around. So for me, it was just kind of like, oh, this is how everybody's parents act. This is how everybody's father acts. You know, this is how everybody's family functions.
Karen Ortman 08:15
Did there come a time when you recognize that your family was not the usual family that you thought it was? Yeah. How many years later?
Probably when I was around 13 or 14 and my father's drinking started to display consequences. He started to have consequences; losing jobs, getting DUIs, things like that. That started to kind of like...
Karen Ortman 08:46
...and how did that impact the family?
It was very chaotic. My mother was very upset, rightfully so. Yeah. Embarrassed and angry at him. There had been an uptick in his drinking behavior and she was upset and it definitely sort of, like, broke the illusion of a happy marriage or a you know, whatever I thought my parents were at the time.
Karen Ortman 09:28
Yeah, you learned that they were not.
Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah.
Karen Ortman 09:33
Did the abuse occur between your father and your mother in addition to your father and the kids?
No, I mean, there was no physical abuse. My father and he never hit my mother. Um, no.
Karen Ortman 09:53
Okay. Up to the point where we are now, where you're 13 and you recognize that mom and dad's marriage isn't what you thought it was and there's consequences to your father's drinking. Were you able to talk to anybody about what was going on in your home?
Not really. There were a few friends I had who had known about the consequences that you know, he'd been pulled over, had gone to jail and had lost a job but what I had found was that as soon as, you know, they got upset with me those things would then be weaponized against me. I got a lot of, for some reason, like, your father has to drink because you suck from people from like, "friends", quote/unquote, "friends" of mine. So I didn't talk to a lot of people about it. I didn't get help. I was never in therapy.
Karen Ortman 11:04
That must have been very lonely.
I was, yeah, very lonely, trying to hold on to some shred of normalcy. And, just, again, that contributes to the increased feeling of being othered because at that point, I definitely knew that something was different. I definitely knew that my family was not the norm. I had that proof or evidence that I couldn't tell people about it so I felt even more different from people.
Karen Ortman 11:34
Was there any part of you that actually believed that it was your fault?
Yeah. I think the abuse that I saw growing up, you know, I grew up in Texas like I said, like, spanking your kids and corporal punishment in general is considered to be fine; that was the messaging that I got. I didn't think that it would be happening if I didn't deserve it. I just knew I was also scared all the time. I was scared of him. I was scared of my father from a very young age. So I think that, yeah, I think that was definitely part the culture. It was kind of like, your parents hate you because you did something wrong ad they're trying to make you a good person.
Karen Ortman 12:34
Yeah. And that's that was acceptable. Do you have any happy memories of your father from childhood?
I do. That's something that is hard to admit, at times, but also is the truth. You know, nothing is ever fully black and white, fully good or bad, you know. Like I said, he was very successful, he was funny, he was really smart and, you know, very charismatic in a lot of ways.
Karen Ortman 13:11
I think it's a very human response. There's very few kids out there who do not want to be loved by their father or their mother. So it's a normal. It's a need that kids have.
Yeah, I just wanted to impress them.
Karen Ortman 13:28
Yeah. And in doing so you wanted him to love you?
Karen Ortman 13:35
So, I don't think there's any shame in in looking back and thinking of him with fondness, in certain situations. So you're 13 and you now have a different view of what's going on with mom and dad. What happens next?
For me, this is sort of where I feel my story starts to go into the realms of addiction, where it sort of starts mounting to where we're headed, if you will. But, um, I, from a young age, I always kind of had an addictive personality. You know, when you're young it's like you're just really into reading or, you know, you really like that specific food or whatever but I was always trying to escape and when I entered high school, I transferred schools to a school where I didn't know anyone and that was hard for me. I think it's hard for anyone
Karen Ortman 14:52
So again, the outsider thing. I had to have a surgery, I had torn the little ligaments in my elbow, I had a softball injury. I had a surgery and I was put on painkillers after the surgery. It started out like I was taking them as necessary.
Karen Ortman 15:17
How old were you at this point?
15. 14 turning 15...
Karen Ortman 15:23
...in there. Yeah. I took them as as necessary. It was a big surgery, I was in a lot of pain, it was in my arm. And then, you know, I found out if I took an extra one in the morning the school day felt easier. It blurred the edges, it helped cut that anxiety and made walking through the halls seem easier. So, I started doing that, I started taking two in the morning instead of one. My family, a big family full of athletes, we always had somebody who was injured, somebody had a surgery, there was painkillers in my home, like old painkillers. So even after my prescriptions ran out, I had access to these opiates. And, you know, people never finished their prescription, so I finished their prescriptions. And it escalated; escalated to a point where I was bringing them to school with me. I was, you know, carrying them on my person to class. I was taking them throughout the day.
Karen Ortman 16:31
So do you recall the dosage you were supposed to be consuming?
Um, I don't recall the dosage I was prescribed. I think it was pretty standard, like five milligrams, you know, whatever it was for like a teenager of medium build who didn't have an opiate tolerance, so it wasn't that high.
Karen Ortman 16:57
Okay. So how long after the surgery and presumably your recovery, which I'm sure was several weeks at least, did you then start bringing pills to school and carrying them in your pocket just to simply get through your day?
I would say that escalated. It went from the doubling my dosage before school to the pills in my pocket around the building? Probably about within a month.
Karen Ortman 17:29
Okay, so that was really the beginning of your journey being an addicted person to pills. And then, at some point, alcohol was introduced. We haven't gotten there yet. So you're in school and you're in ninth grade?
Yes, ninth going into 10th? Okay. You're taking pills during the day? And was there an outward obvious difference in Shelby under the influence of these pills that you knew of? Did anybody bring it to your attention that they recognized something different in your behavior the way you carried yourself during this time? At the time? No. Um, I mean, though, people were concerned about me. I was very depressed at that point, as well. I didn't know if I was gonna ever play softball again. I was going through a lot of changes at the time. I think that people kind of chopcked my behavior up to that so I was cut a lot of slack. Nobody ever questioned if I was under the influence. My Grades dropped a bit, but nobody ever reached out to my parents. You know, I started sitting in the back of class and sleeping in class, and as far as I knew, unless it was hidden for me, there was no communication between school and home in that regard. I think people maybe saw what they wanted to see or explained it away the way that they wanted to. Nothing was ever said to me, so not to my knowledge at the time. People didn't know that I was taking the pills to that extent.
Karen Ortman 19:32
So you mentioned that you basically collected after your prescription was gone. You collected all of the extra sort of pain pills, I guess that remained in your house for everyone else who suffered an athletic injury or some other injury.
Mm hmm. How many pills would you say were laying around in your house for your use whether... Quite a bit.
Karen Ortman 20:01
Like, if you could quantify it, how many would you say?
I probably was able to get my hands on at least seven half finished bottles of painkillers.
Karen Ortman 20:21
And how many pills would you say were in each bottle?
Maybe around like 10 or so.
Karen Ortman 20:32
So how long did it take you to finish all of those?
I had the surgery in the spring, or in the early spring, and I think by the time I had run out of them it was maybe two to three months or so. It wasn't a soup. It wasn't a massive amount of time but I think that once I started collecting the pills, I probably went on for about three more months.
Karen Ortman 21:08
Did anyone at home recognize that the pills were gone?
No. I had gotten an additional prescription as well for my injury as I was going through physical therapy and rehabbing the elbow. So, I think that it was just sort of like, it was just medication that was lying around. Nobody, it wasn't like under locking key. It wasn't even in anybody's specific medicine cabinet, it is like in the drawer here, in the cabinet here, under the sink here. In in their room, wherever it was.
Karen Ortman 21:50
So how many pills did you end up taking that you would consider the maximum amount during a school day?
During the school day I probably would take about four.
Karen Ortman 22:10
Okay, and was there ever any immediate evidence of of you being under the influence of pills while sitting in a classroom?
I mean, there was the sleeping.
Karen Ortman 22:28
So you would sleep in class?
I was asleep in class. But I don't...nothing, nothing crazy. I think that like four was maybe the maximum I would take. At the time I wasn't seeking to go any further than like blurring the edges for myself.
Karen Ortman 22:51
So what did your teacher say? When you were sleeping in the back of the class or the front, wherever you were seated in the classroom?
Not much. No, not much. My grades were still good.
Karen Ortman 23:04
And you were still new.
I was still new. I had gone through, like I said a lot in that short span of time, you know, I had the injury and the surgery. I think that everybody was, like I said, trying to cut me a little bit of slack and give me some compassion and I think that unintentionally, that became a little bit of turning a blind eye to the problem.
Karen Ortman 23:28
Sure. When you were under the influence of these pills, did your personality change that you're aware of?
Yeah, I was very depressed. I was incredibly depressed throughout that period of time. It was very hard for me to find joy in anything. I felt very nihilistic almost, like there is no point to anything and that despite my own internal feelings before; feeling othered and feeling alone and lonely, that wasn't my experience with the world. It was not like, there's no point, it wasn't so like, you know, doom and gloom.
Karen Ortman 24:21
And did anybody pick up on your depression to the extent that they said anything to you?
Um, I think people did. I think my mom especially concerned. I was so worried I was never gonna play softball again and I think that was part of the depression and itself a part of the struggle. I think that a lot of my feelings were sort funneled into that, category of, you know, Shelby losing the thing she loves. I was potentially losing my escape too, you know. So I think that there was some recognition of the depression, but there was never the acknowledgement to the point where it was like, maybe this girl needs some help.
Karen Ortman 25:26
At some point, the pills ran out.
Karen Ortman 25:29
So tell us about that.
Well, I wasn't particularly streetwise so eventually, the pills did run out and it didn't occur to me that I was going to need to find a way to get more. Getting more from a doctor myself wasn't an option so basically, I just went through withdrawal.
Karen Ortman 26:00
Did you know that you were going through withdrawal when it was happening?
Not at the time.
Karen Ortman 26:05
Describe what that was like.
I didn't really know withdrawal was a thing. I didn't consider myself addicted to pills so it didn't really occur to me that that's what it was until a couple of years later. I was sick to an extent that I've never experienced and have never forgotten. It was around the time of the swine flu coming out so I think that it was like chocked up to, I had a really bad flu, I had swine flu. Whenever it was, I was sick for over a week, probably two weeks, almost. I was hallucinating. I was watching Wheel of Fortune and I remember hallucinating to the spinning of the wheel. My brain was like, if it's not a vowel, like, then you're going to throw up and it was just like a very surreal experience that they were like, in my living room. I was having all these weird hallucinations to television shows, just like throwing up and I couldn't eat and just like the cold sweats and all of that, then it just stopped.
Karen Ortman 27:20
You never saught medical help for this?
I didn't go to the doctor. Um, you know, I might have gone to the doctor for a flu test that came back negative but I think that they were just, she clearly has so many of the symptoms of the flu, it could be like a false negative. Just like stay home, stay hydrated, you know. I'm very lucky that it was opiates, and it wasn't like, you know, alcohol or benzos at the time because that would have been fatal for me. And apparently, an opiate withdrawal won't kill you, it just make you feel like you're gonna die. Um, so in that way, I was lucky.
Karen Ortman 28:09
So you got through that? Were you done with the pills at that point?
Yeah, at that point, I found alcohol shortly thereafter.
Karen Ortman 28:21
Okay, how did that come to be?
It was like a weekend party kind of thing. Like one of my friends in high school, I still at this point didn't have a ton of friends outside of like my athletic circles, but I had a friend in high school and we had decided that we needed to start drinking so that we could fit in more. We got this guy who had recently graduated, had a fake ID, we got him to get us so much alcohol, like, an absurd amount of alcohol for two people to like, stockpile and hide, Basically, I started drinking on the weekends, like high school behavior, which escalated in a very similar manner...
Karen Ortman 29:15
...as the pills?
Yeah, I mean, it's sort of like it's something that started out with what you would expect, teenage behavior, and then became risky behavior pretty quickly; drinking excessively, blacking out... Blacking out where? Sorry? Blacking out where, at school, at home? Usually at other people's houses. Um, my household was very strict and I knew that was something that was not be permitted in my home. And so it was at that point it was with alcohol more so than with the pills, which is interesting that I started recognizing that this was something I was gonna have to manage, That I was gonna have to like figure out how to drink and when to drink in order to be able to continue to drink.
Karen Ortman 30:11
Because you wanted it to continue.
Yeah. After a school dance once, I God blackout drunk, fell in a pool, and like woke up in my own vomit. People were talking about me the next Monday, and I had this moment where I was like, people are talking about me. Oh, wow.
Karen Ortman 30:35
Which was a good thing.
Yeah, it like felt it was like, oh, I'm somebody now.
Karen Ortman 30:42
Like it validated your existence?
Yeah, I was like, I exist. I'm somebody who does things that people want to talk about. Um, so but it was, it was never something I did at school because to the extent that I would drink, I knew that it wasn't acceptable. It wasn't something that I could get away with. And I was very concerned with getting away with it so that I could continue.
Karen Ortman 31:13
So at this point you've experienced the the addiction to pills, you're now engaged in alcohol, you had spoken of being depressed. At any time, up to this point, did you seek any sort of mental health resources, medical resources? Did you recognize, you said earlier that you knew you had an addictive personality, did you recognize even if you didn't want to say it out loud, that there might be a problem, that you need my help?
I did not seek any mental health services. I didn't consider myself to have a problem at that point. Alcohol was working for me, it was working very well in my opinion. At that point, you know, it was problematic drinking, it was heavy drinking, it was a warning sign, but it hadn't impacted my day to day life to a point where I would have considered that I had a problem. For me, it was serving its purpose.
Karen Ortman 32:31
Okay. So when did that change?
That started to change in college. My drinking picked up quite a bit. When I was 17 years old, my father and my mother separated in a very dramatic 3am situation. I had to leave my home. It was very explosive, very scary, and we had to leave. We were in hotels, I was at friend's houses. It was just a very traumatic situation where the child abuse had escalated to a point and we had to leave. And I started to drink much more. That was my senior year of high school, so at 17 I went away to college, after a summer of just an incredibly dark depression. It was the first time I remember thinking like that I wished I was dead. I couldn't believe that my life had become what it was. It was even further othering me from people.
Karen Ortman 33:48
When you say you couldn't believe your life was what it was, what exactly are you talking about?
I couldn't, I just wasn't coping well at all with the fact that my father was so obviously a horrible person. I couldn't really reconcile or cope with being so abruptly faced with the person that my father really was. How abusive he was, and to what extent the abuse was taking place. I'm seeing like he had come home really drunk and it had gotten really bad. And we had to flee the home and seeing it fully, not behind closed doors, not under the guise of punishment, but seeing it fully. I just couldn't wrap my head around the reality of what was happening. I had plans for college, to walk onto the softball team at the University of Alabama and all of that was just gone. It was just gone. I couldn't do much of anything. So that was a very traumatic thing that I think really marks the beginning of the full trajectory of my mental health, my addiction. It really set the foundation for the next four or five years, that was truly the darkest period of my life.
Karen Ortman 35:46
All the while you are in college?
Yes. While I was in college, yes. So I went to the University of Alabama, I was away from home. And...
Karen Ortman 35:58
How did that feel being out of that environment?
It was a relief but it was also incredibly difficult to be there. There was nobody there who knew me, there was nobody who I could talk to about anything. It became yet like another exercise in my life of shoving it down, keeping it quiet, trying to figure out how to get through the day. It was actually at that point right before I went to college that what I was put on medication for the first time.
Karen Ortman 36:35
Okay. Like, psychiatric medication. So you sought medical intervention at that point?
Sort of. I was not sleeping at night at all. I was afraid to sleep at night. I felt that I was in danger. I was afraid that my father was going to come and find us. So I wasn't sleeping and my mother took me to my our family doctor. I told him that I was scared, I had anxiety, I was really sad like we're in a dark place as a family right now. And so I was put on an SSRI and an anti anxiety medication but I was never fully evaluated or sought ongoing psychiatric care.
Karen Ortman 37:22
And you and your mom never talked about anything that had been going on in your life up to that point; the the addiction to pills, the depression while in high school, the alcohol abuse while in high school, the blacking out, none of that was discussed?
We weren't a family that talked about difficult things like that. Even with the separation and the abuse and everything, it was not something that we like sat down and processed together.
Karen Ortman 37:58
Sure. Understood. Okay, so you're in college now and things are spiraling in that there was continued use of alcohol or did other things come into play in addition to the alcohol?
I was drinking really heavily at first. Everybody in college is drinking really heavily. I feel like people were trying to figure out how to drink and making mistakes and, you know, just like college stuff at that point. I was pretty much exclusively using alcohol. There was like a handful of times that I would take take something or you know, use a drug or take a drink. There was a fraternity party that was called purple passion. That was essentially like Robo tripping that I would go to but I wasn't regularly using any any drugs.
Karen Ortman 39:10
What is Robo tripping?
So, it's just like consuming the cough syrup Robitussin doesn't until you are high. I was drinking heavily, then over the course of like my college career, people started to like, tone it down a bit and I never did. I didn't want to, I didn't understand why you would want to drink less. I was blacking out almost every time I drank
Karen Ortman 39:45
And how are you doing in school at this point in college?
I wasn't doing the best I could have been doing, but I was doing well enough that there was no questions that were being asked. I became really good at lying, I became really good at putting on the face. I became really good at figuring out how to manage my life around my drinking, whether I was cheating, or I was just enrolling in easier classes, I began to lower my standards considerably for my moral, my intellectual, like, all of the standards i'd previously had for myself in some capacity.Then slowly began to be lower to meet what I was capable of doing. You know, I lowered my standards to meet my drinking? I still did well, I still graduated with honors from college, you know, but I definitely didn't earn that. I definitely didn't have the experience or the education that I could have had.
Karen Ortman 40:59
So you continued with your pattern of excessive drinking throughout all four years of college?
Karen Ortman 41:06
And graduated with honors?
Karen Ortman 41:09
So at what point? Did you recognize that you had a problem that needed attention?
I do want to actually backtrack for a second to the about the middle of college where I discovered a weight loss clinic that would prescribe me, essentially speed. Phentermine is the drug name. I would see them once a year, and then I would be able to purchase the prescription through their website when I needed refills, and so I began then taking that as well to help me offset the hangover or to get through the school day or to stay up and continue to drink at night, whatever the need was. I began to then use uppers to counteract the levels of alcohol I was consuming.
Karen Ortman 42:19
And you used those throughout the remaining two years of school?
Yes. At that point I was incredibly depressed at any point that I didn't have alcohol in my body, or even when I did, but when I was drinking I was blacking, out browning out and I wasn't remembering what was going on.
Karen Ortman 42:46
The difference between blacking out and browning out?
So when I would black out I would have no memory of the things that had happened to me or the things that I had done after a certain point the night or the day that I was drinking. When I was browning out I had pockets where I had no memory and then pockets where I would recall that I had gone to a certain place, but then not remembered anything that happened at that place so it's just like a different or lesser level of blacking out. I was very estranged from my family. At that point, I was not going home often.
Karen Ortman 43:22
And where was your dad, and where was your mom at this point, they're still separated?
Yes. So my parents divorced was finalized a year after they had separated, okay. My mother was living in a new home with all of my siblings, and my father was somewhere else. I actually have not seen him since that night, to this day.
Karen Ortman 43:49
So at some point, you became involved in AA, how did that happen?
The last year of my addiction, my drinking and my using.
Karen Ortman 44:01
Which was when?
2013 to 2014.
Karen Ortman 44:08
And what year did you graduate college?
Karen Ortman 44:12
Okay, so your senior year, you complete your senior year, you are still addicted to alcohol and these pills, these weight loss pills that you spoke of...
Karen Ortman 44:23
...for two years at that point. And you graduate with honors. At what point you know, how far after you graduate do you make the decision to go to AA?
Actually, initially what happened was, I sought out a psychiatrist to try to get help. I think I did it under the guise of help but I really just wanted to try to get my hands on any type of different drugs. I wanted to get anti-anxiety meds or I wanted to get this psychiatric drug that would help me lose weight or give me that same stimulation, that feeling so I was seeking out psychiatrists. I had gotten to a point where there were no more psychiatrists for me to see unless I had agreed to seek out therapy. So I had to see a therapist in order to get a referral to the psychiatrist.
Karen Ortman 45:26
So you were essentially looking for just a new kind of high? Yes. Okay.
Because at that point the alcohol had sort of, like, abandoned me in a way and sort of turned on me. It stopped working. I was incredibly depressed all the time. Even when I was drinking, I was very suicidal, I was making even more reckless decisions; driving while drinking, you know, getting in fights, I was starting to ruin my family holidays, they didn't want me around and I didn't want to be around them. I didn't really have any friends left, I had hopped my way through so many friend groups at that time trying to find people who drank the way I did. People were tired of me. So at that point my consequences of my drinking had slowly over a period of time piled up to the point where that I was drinking alone and I was actively suicidal. I was actively, like, psychotic. I thought I was being spied on.
Karen Ortman 46:45
Where were you living at this point, you'd graduated university?
I was fixing to graduate so I was still in my college town.
Karen Ortman 46:52
I was living in an apartment off campus. I had blackout curtains like tacked to the wall so that nobody could see in my apartment. My mental health was really taking a turn for the worse at this point and so I sought out help for that, hoping to find a new type of high that would counteract it. It led me to this therapist who told me she wasn't going to refer me because I was coming to her sessions still drunk. I told her very plainly that I drink because I have to at this point, it's the only way that I can cope with anything. Like, I don't know how to do life without alcohol. She told me that she thought I had a drinking problem. I said that I didn't have a drinking problem, that I had a life problem, that if my life was different I wouldn't have to drink, I wouldn't have to use drugs, I wouldn't have to figure out how to escape. It wasn't my fault, it wasn't alcohol, it was my life. It was my mental health. It was my depression, you know. And, she was like, well, you might believe that but I am not going to refer you to a psychiatrist in this state right now. I want you to show me that you're going to take a positive step towards getting better, not just get the referral, ghost me, and then fall further down the rabbit hole. She wanted to see some indication that I was going to try to help myself.
Karen Ortman 48:32
And that did happen at some point.
Karen Ortman 48:36
So tell us about that.
So I went to my first AA meeting shortly thereafter in Alabama. Now, I was in Texas at this point, I had transferred colleges, okay. So I had been back in Texas, okay. I went to my first day meeting in Texas, I like drove an hour away from where I was, cuz I was so terrified I was going to see somebody I know. And I went mostly out of like a stubbornness to show her. Like, go and do the research and show and come back with all the reasons that I didn't need to be there. So I went to my first AA meeting. They were talking about God. I didn't want anything to do with that. God, in my opinion, had failed me up until that point. God had let all of these things happen to me. God had given me this father. God had given me this childhood. God had given me this mental health. I wanted nothing to do with it. They didn't really talk about alcohol so much, except that God had helped them get sober supposedly, so I was not into it. I went back and I told her that, she told me to try out one more. I did. I went back to that same meeting and I shared I had this, like, this moment where I was like, maybe if I tell people why I'm here then they can tell me I don't need to be here and I can leave. You know? I was like, everybody in the room was much older than I was and I was like, surely they're gonna be like, you don't really need to be here. You're too young for this. So I shared and I said that I was like, all I want to do is leave here and I want to go and drink. I don't fully remember everything that I said, but I'm sure that it was incredibly sad because my life was incredibly sad. I had a woman come up to me after the meeting, and because I basically had just complained and said I didn't need to be there, and my life was so terrible, and that they couldn't help me and all of the very like, whiny behavior that was characteristic of me at the time and she basically said in a nicer way, you need to sit down, and you need to listen, or you can leave, and you can die. Because you're gonna die.
Karen Ortman 51:11
Did that impact on you?
I was really mad. I was so mad at her. I was like, how dare you tell me that when you don't know anything about where I come from or what's happened to me? And she did it. And so I was really mad at hearing that so I left the meeting.
Karen Ortman 51:34
Did any part of you think that she was right.
I think so. Yeah. I think part of me knew. I left the meeting, it was my sister's birthday so I remember it very, very well, my sister's birthday. I went to meet up with my mom and her for lunch and I had like, a panic attack in the middle of a Chili's or something. Because there was something, like, somebody had finally seen me for what was really happening and told me the thing that nobody else had wanted to tell me, you know?Everybody up until that point that was concerned about my drinking was really reacting to what my behavior was to them. I think it was like, you know, you've ruined this or we can't be around for this, or we don't want to go out with you, or we don't, you know, want to be around you. But nobody had looked at me and really, I think, seen me as the addict and the alcoholic, and called that out from that place. I had like a delayed reaction to that I truly believe because I'd finally been seen and called out and taken to task in a way that nobody had done before. I still wasn't ready but it's another moment that I think is so pivotal in my journey because I've never forgotten it.
Karen Ortman 53:08
Yeah, you you really heard those words.
Yeah, I knew I would die eventually but I knew that I wasn't gonna die soon enough for... like, I was like...I want to be dead. I know that I'm gonna have to live this way, like this is just gonna be my life until I die.
Karen Ortman 53:29
Even at that point, did you decide that you were going to stop drinking?
Karen Ortman 53:37
You were going to continue?
Yes. I was still really holding on to this idea that if I could get my mental health in line then I wouldn't have to drink like that. If I could just address the the mental illness that I had. And so I did take a week off of drinking at that point. So that I could do it.
Karen Ortman 54:13
How did that go?
It was excruciating. It was worse, my life was worse. I quit drinking for the short amount of time in my life got worse. In my perspective, in my experience of it, it was worse. I didn't have anything between myself and the world around me. I was just it was just me and I was just like this exposed raw nerve to the world around me and I didn't have anything, any buffer, and I didn't have any tools to cope with the world around me because my whole life, you know, not my whole life, but my years leading up to that point what I used was alcohol and substances. That was like the thing that I you know, wrapped myself in to keep myself protected from what was going on. I didn't have any idea how as an adult person to face the world without that. It was at that point that I had been able to get a full psych eval for the first time actually and a diagnosis, and a medication regimen around that period of time. It was helping, but it wasn't really helping. You know, it was helping in the realm of I was almost even more awake because of it. Yeah, you were now had to face... I was then like, mentally stable, but I still suffering from the disease of addiction. So at that point, I was like, you know what, I'm gonna go back, and I'm gonna see if that woman is still there and if she is, maybe I'll try this. And I did, and she was there. And she was there in that room? And...
Karen Ortman 56:10
Was she surprised I see you back?
I don't think so. She told me later, when I saw you in that room, I saw myself at your age when I came to my first day meeting and I didn't stay and I wish that I had. Because, she was like I could have saved myself another 10 years of of exactly what you're feeling right now. I don't think she was incredibly surprised, because she was like, you know, I was a pretty broken person, I think it was pretty obvious to anybody who knew what they were looking for. This just happened to be a group of people who are very, very well versed in what I was experiencing, and they saw themselves in me, and over time, I was able to see myself in them.
Karen Ortman 57:01
I think that's why a is such a great resource for people who, you know, were experiencing what you were going through, and I'm so glad that you went back and stuck it out
Yeah, I mean, it's absolutely saved my life. I owe so much so much of my life to that program and the people that that helped me in that program. So, I just celebrated six years...
Karen Ortman 57:35
...of sobriety and that's crazy to me and my relationship with that program and my sobriety has changed so much since the beginning. I didn't go back to drinking after that but that wasn't like my plan. My plan was to start drinking again when I moved to New York. I was moving to New York for grad school and so I was like, I'll take this summer, I'll give this a try, but I'm not I wasn't committed to changing my life fully. I just wanted to feel better and nothing I was doing was working. I didn't figure I had anything to lose. I was back, I was living with my family. I didn't have any friends. I wasn't playing softball. I had given up on that dream, years before. I didn't have anything else in my life to do essentially. I like de facto went to rehab for a summer. You know, I just kind of did one thing different every day or every week and I saw my life change.
Karen Ortman 58:44
It was it was gradual. It was over time, it was something that I found that I wanted but I didn't know that I wanted or needed. I remember waking up one day for the first time in five years, probably and I didn't wake up with the disappointment that I was still alive. Like, I woke up and I was like, oh, I'm I'm excited to live today.
Karen Ortman 59:14
Oh that's awesome.
And I never thought that I would get that back. That's when I realized that this program and this way of life was working for me and if the solution was working, I probably had the problem. And then, like I said, my relationship to this has changed so much even even from that point. I was committed to my sobriety but I was I was young and part of me thought that there was no way that somebody in their 20's got sober and stayed sober. It felt like it was inevitable that I would relapse, that I would go back and then maybe come back and get sober again later. I didn't think young people were really doing it because I didn't see any other young people doing it. I moved to New York and I found a very, very large network of sober young people; incredibly large network of sober young people and I realized that there are young people getting sober, staying sober, and like living the lives that they couldn't have even dreamed of. That has been my experience.
Karen Ortman 1:00:27
So if there's a listener out there, who is a young person or a middle aged person, or an old person who is seeking help for addiction, whether it's drugs, alcohol, what advice would you offer them particularly if they are in the same sort of state of mind that you were going to that first psychiatrist, looking for ways to get a different high, you know, for people who maybe recognize on some level that they need help, but haven't quite crossed that line?
Yeah. I think I would say you don't have to change your entire life right now. I think that there's a large narrative around addiction and sobriety that you have to do a full one at and like, be totally committed to living entirely different or it's not going to work. And like, that was not my experience, as I've kind of said. You don't have to be entirely ready to get clean and sober to try something new, to ask a question, to ask for help. You're not going to change it all overnight anyway, so you don't have to be ready to change it all overnight. For me, I found that I was in just enough pain to have just enough willingness to try something different than all of the things I tried before; than the drugs, than the alcohol, than the geographic changes of I'm gonna live here instead, all of the things I thought were gonna make me feel better and none of them worked. I was in just enough pain and I was kind of out of other options. I didn't want to change it. I think that the the smallest bit of curiosity or willingness is enough to make a beginning. My experience has been that you often need to see the impact before you fully understand what you need.
Karen Ortman 1:02:50
Sure. What guidance would you give the family members of an addicted person to help them cope with their loved one? Who may be like you were, you know, unwilling to recognize there's a problem when in fact, it's obvious to everyone who's observing the loved one, there is something going on, you know? How can you help them, or what tools do you think you can offer to help them address this?
I have experience with this as well. I'm not the only one of my siblings who has experienced addiction and alcoholism issues, but I am the only one who is currently sober. My experience as being on one end of that, and then the other is that if you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, I would say to remember that they have a disease; you didn't cause it, you can't control it, you can't cure it. They have to help themselves. First, they have to have that little bit of willingness. There is no level appealing to emotion or I love you or I'm scared for you. Those things don't matter in the depths of the disease. They didn't matter to me because I didn't love myself and I didn't care about myself, so no level of loving or caring about me was gonna save me. The best thing that you can do as their loved one is to help and take care of yourself. First, setting your boundaries, maintaining your boundaries. Find people who understand to talk to you, set up a support system, let them know that you love them, but that you can't do the work for them.
Karen Ortman 1:04:50
Got it. Has your opinion changed regarding not God necessarily, but a higher being?
Yes. My, my feelings around a higher power have definitely changed. I grew up religious, it wasn't an ideal experience for me. Now I feel that I have a higher power of my own understanding. I don't always know how to quantify it, I can't really put it in a box, I can't explain what it looks like. What I feel it is, is this collective energy of the people who have loved and carried me at times, when I couldn't walk, when I couldn't do the next thing, and there have been many times like that in my sobriety. All I know very, very deeply is that I am somebody who did not die when I should have died and for me that is proof that there's something out there that has a bigger plan, that there's a bigger purpose for me even if I can't always fully explain what it is.
Karen Ortman 1:06:05
I agree with you. I think that you're an inspiration...
Karen Ortman 1:06:10
...to everybody, regardless of their situation. You know, anytime somebody survives an abusive situation, a struggle in their life, they're stronger for it. I think that translates to other people who might be going through something similar and gives them strength. So for that, I thank you for sharing your story.
Karen Ortman 1:06:41
You're an amazing person for for having the strength to do that and really open yourself up, so really, thank you so much.
Of course, of course, happy to be here.
Karen Ortman 1:06:57
Is there anything else you'd like to add that I've not asked you?
Yeah, you know, I have been thinking about this a lot recently. I consider myself very lucky, or have previously considered myself very lucky and I do believe that, I am a very lucky person to be where I'm at today and to have the life that I have, that I've built for myself. But also, it wasn't entirely luck. I've been very privileged in so many ways that I had access to help and resources and safe spaces to go to access support. My mental health and my addiction and alcoholism were never criminalized. I was given a lot of leeway. At points where I could have been arrested, or you know, institutionalized, I was not, and I am offered a lot of respect, when people find out that I'm a recovered alcoholic, an addict or I'm recovering, and I'm now sober. People respect that and there's not assumptions made about me and I have the the ability to share my story without fearing of there being like a consequence for me. I think that that is something I'm really grateful for. I hope that that's something I can continue to use to help support peoplem and be a part of somebody's journey the way that so many people are a part of mine. I feel like, you know, I saw that woman in that meeting - I made a deal with myself that if I saw her, I would talk to her. So I just try to be that person and the meetings or in the community who tries to be there consistently, in case that somebody is looking to me for that same thing.
Karen Ortman 1:08:58
That's wonderful. Thank you again, thank you so much.
Karen Ortman 1:09:03
Thank you to my guest, Shelby and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter. If any information presented today was triggering or disturbing please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999 or NYU's Department of Public Safety and their Victim Services Unit at 212-998-2222. Please share, like and subscribe to You Matter on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Tune in or Spotify.