Monday, September 14, 2020

Recovery Month 2020: Recovery isn’t just possible — it’s transformational

By KATHERINE PENTON | Certified Peer Support Specialist, Florida Parishes Human Services Authority

I thought I was going to die with a needle in my arm, all alone and empty inside.

I had fully accepted this as my fate because I had tried to quit shooting heroin so many times before and nothing ever seemed to work. When in those dark and hopeless moments of despair, I would often wonder how I got there. In those moments, I could never put my finger on what led me to that place, and it seemed like I was destined to stay there.

Abstinence alone did not work for me. I almost did not make it through my addiction to be able to sit here and tell this to others. If my story can help one suffering addict or change one person’s mind about Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), then my pain will all be worth it.

Empty and broken

I remember a time when I was 9 years old and living in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. I was outside, behind the trailer we had just moved into. I was looking up at the moon, feeling very empty and like something was terribly broken inside. I remember wondering if all other 9-year-olds felt the same. Now, looking back, I realize that the emptiness I would struggle to fill for most of my life started from a very early age. That 9-year-old girl had no idea what the next 25 years of life would bring, or that one day she would be taking any and every substance to try to stop that empty feeling.

A selfie of Katherine
Penton from the years
she was abusing substances

My story of the challenges I faced with addiction is not dissimilar from most other addicts. I was in and out of detox facilities and short-term treatment centers. I even had a few visits to various psychiatric units. I was miserable, hopeless and defeated by the time I was 30 years old. I somehow managed to obtain two college degrees during this time, but my goal of going to graduate school was soon forgotten.

It was difficult for my family and loved ones to understand what was happening to me. I was on the honor roll every year of high school and made straight As my first few years of college. Then, my substance abuse began. I dropped out of graduate school. I isolated myself from everyone I knew and loved. I began living on the streets. I did whatever it took to keep myself numb.

I was miserable and slowly killing myself, physically and spiritually.

Depression and anxiety are a big part of my story. Every time I would decide I was done using and either quit on my own or go to a treatment facility to get clean, once I would get through all of the physical symptoms from detoxification, my mental health challenges would rise up to meet me with a vengeance. The pain and emptiness I felt would bring me to a place of contemplating, and sometimes attempting, suicide. It became a regular occurrence and I knew to expect this every time I would quit using.

I began to associate getting clean with wanting to die, and this became torture to my soul. I was done with using and terrified of what I would become if I continued. But at the same time, I was petrified of what life would be like when I no longer had a substance to put into my body to make my mind stop racing or to make me feel normal.

My only experience with recovery was a time I managed to not use for a few months. I could not leave my house and sometimes even my room. I was overwhelmed with my emotions, and I was having constant cravings and obsessing over using.

True recovery

March 10, 2018 was the day that my recovery began. I did not know at that time that I would be sitting here today, almost 2½ years later, still clean and writing this in the hope that it might help another addict like myself. I could not have predicted that my life would be worth living and that those feelings of being empty and broken would rarely ever occur.

I found out that I was pregnant in January of that year and still could not stop using. I went to the emergency room one night after being in horrible withdrawal and reading that withdrawal could kill a fetus. The ER referred me to an outpatient clinic that had a program for pregnant women who were addicted to opiates. I was placed into the program and prescribed Suboxone as part of the MAT program.

Katherine Penton, in recovery, with her family

I still struggled in the beginning and had to go to treatment for 28 days but when I came out, something was different. I could go about my day without obsessing about using. I could talk about my trauma without being overwhelmed by the need to escape.

I realized that I felt normal for the first time ever as an adult.

I did not want to die, and I did not want to use. I no longer felt that there was a huge hole inside me that needed to be filled with something.

I began to actively participate in my recovery, going to meetings and doing individual therapy. I was able to focus on moving forward and healing from my past traumas. 

Of course, MAT did not fix everything overnight or make all my depression and anxiety go away instantly, but what it did do was allow me to feel relief and to feel balanced. I was able gain some tools and get some recovery under my belt for the first time ever. 

I no longer feel like I want to die.

I now have hope for my future. 

(Katherine Penton now works with people going through the same kinds of challenges she once tried to face alone, and she still can't stop pursuing even more education. Using medication to support her recovery changed the game for her, and has helped her to rebuild her life into something wonderful.)

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