Finding Your Spark: The Only Way Out Of Anything Is Through

Sunday, December 2, 2018

I decided to start the "Finding Your Spark" series to shine a light on different types of people who are following various paths – their OWN paths, whatever those may be. The whole idea is that there's no single way to live life and a person doesn't have to be "famous" to inspire others. Whether their circumstances were a choice or not, these individuals have found what inspires them, motivates them, makes them happy. And they've run with it.

Read all posts in this series here.

I don't want to play favorites, but this miiight be my favorite Finding Your Spark story yet, and I want to keep the intro short so we can get right into it.

Haley was a very good friend of mine for most of our middle and high school years. We first met in orchestra, where it felt like she was some sort of celebrity because everyone somehow knew she had been playing the cello since she was very young, years before the rest of us. She was talented, and it was impressive. Throughout high school, we had AP classes together, and she was in the top five students of our graduating class. She was a part of a lot of different social circles. She was smart and she was popular. She was a dork and she went to parties. Yet there were dark parts of her life that a lot of people, including me, weren't aware of.

She battled drug and alcohol abuse, as well as an eating disorder, for years. Now, she has been sober for three and a half years, since July 2015. She's engaged, owns a house, and is living a richly beautiful life in Louisiana. I reached out to her sometime last year about sharing her story but nothing really came of it until she messaged me about it last month; she was ready to share.

Reading through what she wrote made me cry. Ultimately, it's a story of recovery. She is one of the most inspirational people I know. I'm so grateful that she was willing to open up and talk about her experiences because you never know who needs to hear it.

Let's start at the beginning. When did your struggles (with drugs, alcohol, and an eating disorder) first begin?

My first foray into my eating disorder was the Special K diet. I think a couple of my friends at school were talking about it. They had seen it on TV. I asked my mom to buy Special K cereal and each morning I secretly portioned exactly one serving of dry cereal into a Ziploc bag to pack in my lunch for school. I remember the advertisement said that you could lose 10 pounds in two weeks by replacing two meals a day with Special K cereal. I was 10 years old.

My struggle with alcoholism began the first time I picked up a drink. The first time I drank I blacked out, and I continued to do so almost every time after that. I had multiple drinking and drug-related hospitalizations before I graduated high school. I never drank normally.

I picked up drugs for the first time as a result of the eating disorder. I knew certain drugs could aid in weight loss. That kept me in denial for a long time and was the main excuse I told myself and my family to rationalize that I didn’t have a drug problem. I wasn’t using drugs to get high; I was using them to lose weight, so that meant I did not have a problem, which, let me tell you right now, was ridiculous and untrue. No intellectual justification for my drug use changed the fact that I was using drugs daily and in large quantities because I liked the effect. Whether the effect was weight loss or a temporary high was irrelevant.

I don't want to dwell too much on the negative parts, but could you talk a bit about that progression? Was there anyone who knew you were struggling, or were you battling it all on your own?

The progression of my disease can be summed up in three words: worse, never better. The details are unimportant, though I am more than willing to share those details if I think they can help another person.

I kept drinking, and things got worse. I kept acting out in the eating disorder, and things got worse. The more I tried to control my addictions, the less control I had because I was spending all my time and energy obsessing over them. I sold my soul absolutely to chemicals. I hurt every person who still cared about me. Every value, moral, and goal I ever had for myself was cast aside in favor of substances. By the end I was just... dead inside, ya know? I thought not caring about anything or anyone made me strong. I thought I knew the truth about life – that it was purposeless, and the best thing we could do was numb the pain until we died. I pitied people who believed otherwise.

Almost everything involving my eating disorder was a secret. I wasn’t open or honest about that until I went to treatment in 2013. But people could tell; they’ve told me as much throughout the years. My hair was falling out and my skin was graying. My weight fluctuated dramatically and often. People knew, but that was never something we talked about, first and foremost because I knew if I openly acknowledged I had a problem, there would be some level of accountability among friends and family for me to stop. And I wasn’t ready to stop. Secondly, although I knew I had serious “food issues,” I couldn’t bring myself to relate to the term “eating disorder.” I would look at myself in the mirror and, with a warped mind, tell myself I was far too fat to have an eating disorder. As if I wasn’t even worthy of that. People saw the behaviors and the results of those behaviors, but no one knew how big of a warzone it was inside my head.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about how things were and what I experienced. The eating disorder was torture, it truly was. But at the time it was just my life. It’s easy to look back now and pinpoint certain situations, thoughts, and feelings and think, “Wow, I was really sick,” but at the time that’s just how things were. That was my normal. My diet was a handful of almonds, a granola bar, and three liters of vodka every couple weeks, mixed with a cocktail of other drugs. At some point I got so sick, I never considered there was another way to live.

When it came to drugs and alcohol, I did not believe I had a problem. My parents did. They knew for a long time before I did, and they did everything they could to try to make me see it for myself. I was 20 when I went to treatment for the first time, so everyone around me was young and drinking heavily too. I thought I was normal. The difference was that they didn’t have the consequences I did. They would drink, have a good time, and go home. I would drink, black out, put myself in highly dangerous and compromising situations, and bad things would happen. They could stop, I couldn’t.


When did you realize you needed help? And how did you get it?

The short answer to this question is: I didn’t. I did not realize I needed help. Deep down, I knew something had to change with my eating. That part of my life was so heartbreaking every day, and I was so tired of trying to maintain it. But it never crossed my mind that help was the answer, I thought I had to fix myself (or find a man who could fix me, but that’s another story for another day).

When it came to the drugs and alcohol, you could find me, up until the very end, slurring obscenities at anyone who insinuated I had a problem. I was in the hospital under a psychiatric hold, getting shot in the ass with tranquilizers, insisting I did not have a problem and I did not need help.

Before I went to treatment in 2013, a few things happened that all lined up to allow me to go to treatment. Things had gotten really bad. I fell in love with a new drug that I thought was the answer to all my problems. The scary part was that I would use this drug, forget that I used it, use more, etc. etc. All while drinking daily. The result was a blackout that lasted weeks. I have bits and pieces of what I think are memories from that time, but for the most part it’s all black and I’m grateful for that. I was lucky enough to still have a few people in my life that cared about me, and they contacted my family and told them what was going on. There are no words to express how thankful I will forever be for those people. I don’t know if I’d be alive if it weren’t for them. My father found me in downtown Chicago, stumbling out of an office building on the phone with the police and unable to verbalize what had happened. From there, he took me to the hospital. Thanks to those friends, my family knew this was coming so they had hired an interventionist. They did the whole intervention thing in the hospital. It was exactly like it is on the TV show – they pulled out their handwritten letters and read them to me one by one. They asked me if I was willing to go to treatment. I wasn’t. Thankfully, I didn’t exactly have any other options.

I went to treatment in New Jersey and I was there for almost a year; 331 days to be exact. At 20 years old, they told me I was a late-stage alcoholic with very little time left if I chose to continue drinking and using. The longer I was there, the harder it was to stay in denial, and I eventually realized the truth: I am an alcoholic, I am a drug addict, and I have a life-threatening eating disorder. It’s amazing how much freedom and relief came when I could finally admit that to myself. It was like I could finally exhale after holding my breath for years. I met some incredible women who loved me for exactly who I was. I learned how to let them love me, and how to love them back. I went to a lot of individual and group therapy for my eating disorder. I made a connection with a power greater than myself.

I grew and learned so much in that year. But when I left treatment, I made a lot mistakes. Most of which had to do with a very unhealthy relationship with an active alcoholic who I refused to detach from. We hurt each other very badly. He was (and is) a wonderful person and it was heartbreaking to be on the other side of this disease, watching someone you care for deeply hurt himself.

I stayed sober for 18 months before I picked up a drink again. What resulted was probably the scariest two months of my life. After a period of sobriety, it’s horrifying to start drinking again because you can see all the red flags so clearly as things progress. It only took two months for things to get far worse than they were the first time. This time I knew it was a serious problem. I would wake up with the shakes, detoxing, unable to walk up and down stairs or hold a pen at work. I would swear to myself I wasn’t going to drink that night, then wake up the next morning with two empty wine bottles in my bed. I poured alcohol down the drain, only to get in my car minutes or hours later to buy more. I was terrified of liquor, so I tried to only drink wine or beer thinking that would buy me more time. It was sad. I drank mostly alone and it usually ended with me lying on the bathroom floor.

I truly wanted to stop drinking but found out very quickly I could not. I went on a work trip to Las Vegas and came back without a job. I had done something to upset some of my coworkers in a blackout and was too ashamed to face whatever it was that I had done. I went to treatment again in 2015 and by the grace of God and with the love and support of a fellowship of women in recovery, I haven’t found it necessary to pick up a drink since.

What is a common misconception you've found that people have about eating disorders or drug/alcohol abuse?

I sometimes hear people say addicts “can’t get sober unless they want it for themselves,” and I do not agree. I don’t think someone can maintain anything like contented, long-term sobriety without eventually learning to want it for themselves. I know plenty of people who did not want to get sober at the beginning who now have decades of sobriety. I’m a real alcoholic, and for me that means no matter what happens in sobriety, it is always infinitely better than it was when I was drinking. Along the way I learned to love this way of life, even though it wasn’t originally what I wanted. 

Another one that bothers me is that “life without drugs and alcohol is boring.” Honestly, that’s complete bullshit, and I think attitudes like that deter a lot of young people from getting sober. It’s sad. The drugs people are doing these days, what those drugs are cut with, and how people are ingesting those drugs... people are dying all the time. It’s not like it was before. Kids are overdosing and dying. People don’t have as much time now, and I think that stigma against young people in recovery and what their lives must look like can be deadly. That’s one of the main reasons I’m so open about being in recovery. I want people to know life is still very fun.

On a positive note, you are now living in Louisiana with your fiancé in your very own house (!). Congratulations! How did you meet your fiancé and how did that move end up happening?

Thank you! This has been a heck of a year so far!

I moved to Louisiana for my second treatment stay in 2015. I was there for another (almost) year. When I left, I did things differently than the first time: I put down roots. I’ve been blessed with a beautiful life here that I could not imagine leaving behind. I met David through some mutual friends. His best friend married one of my best friends. We had crushes on each other from afar. He would talk to me and I wasn’t sure if he was flirting or just being friendly. Our friends were literally no help; they said they wanted us to make it happen for ourselves. Eventually he got the nerve to ask for my phone number. The rest is history!

He’s one of the best men I’ve met in my life. I always said I wanted to marry someone who treats me the way my dad treats my mom, and I was lucky enough to find someone who does just that. He puts up with a lot of my crap, and he does it with a smile. I could not ask for anything more. It’s pretty serendipitous when I think about it. I never wanted to come to Louisiana and I almost didn’t, but the universe has a funny way of making things line up exactly how they are supposed to. If I’d never made the choice to move to Louisiana, I never would have met this wonderful person whom I get to share my life with.

Let's talk about your fitness journey, because you have a legitimate six-pack. How did you start incorporating exercise into your daily life?

Hahaha! I’m laughing out loud reading this question.

I have found recovery from my eating disorder to be harder to maintain than recovery from substances. You can’t just cut out food and start healing the way you can when you put down drugs and alcohol. I obviously had to eat and attempt to form a healthier relationship with food. Which is so hard, and sometimes felt impossible. There has been a lot of trial and error. Recovery means different things for different people when it comes to eating disorders.

All that is to say that when I left treatment, things had not gotten any better with my eating disorder. In fact, it continued to get worse. It drove me back to therapy at the end of 2016. One day I was crying in session and my therapist just looked at me and said, "You know what you have to do, you’re just choosing not to do it, so I’m not listening to this anymore." And she was right. Exercise is something that has always helped me to feel better about myself. It helps me to feel strong and empowered, and when I feel strong, I want to treat my body well.

After that session, I picked up exercise again. I started running first. It was easy and I could do it whenever and wherever I wanted. I downloaded the Nike Running app, set goals, and followed a schedule. When I started to get too rigid with that routine, I added some calisthenics and light weight exercises. That brought me back into the gym, where I fell in love with lifting weights. Absolutely no form of exercise has ever transformed my body the way lifting weights has. I’ve tried some other exercise programs too (most notably Orangetheory, which is incredible but no longer fits into my schedule). I go through phases with my routine. I try not to be too hard on myself and allow myself to be exactly where I am at any given time. I’m currently going through somewhat of a “plateau” period where I’m not all that motivated. My workouts have not been nearly as frequent or intense as of late, but THAT IS OKAY. That is where I am today.

What is your favorite part of your life now?

One of my favorite parts of life is being able to be present for all of it: the good and the bad. I spent so many years trying to numb all my pain. What they don’t tell you is that you can’t selectively numb. In numbing all the bad feelings, I numbed all the good ones too. I’m grateful for the ability to experience pain today, because it allows me the ability to experience joy and every other emotion on the spectrum that makes us uniquely human.

Another wonderful part of my life comes from the relationships I’ve developed with others. That was something lacking from my life before I got sober. I had friends, people I hung out with, but no one who really knew me. No one in my life was I gut wrenchingly honest with. I had almost no relationship with my family. As I got more healthy and honest with myself, I started developing deep relationships with other people. There is something so beautiful in the vulnerability of sharing yourself with someone else. And I’m not even talking romantic relationships, I’m just talking friendships. Letting someone see all your ugly and all your hurt and having them love you, not in spite of those things, but because of them. Sharing struggles and triumphs, crying together and celebrating together. I just don’t know how I ever lived so isolated and disconnected from other people, because today those relationships are what get me through life. I love my friends. I have a huge group of female friends in Louisiana. We get together often and it has been amazing to watch everyone’s lives develop over the last few years. We’ve celebrated weddings and births of children. We’ve supported each other through tough times.

My relationships with my family have improved tremendously. Like I said, my relationships with them were strained and consisted of mostly them voicing their concern for me, and me subsequently shutting them out of my life. We’ve done some pretty tough, heavy family therapy, and today things are so good. I call and speak to my parents almost every day. My sister will be my matron of honor at our wedding next May.

The last thing that is so wonderful about sobriety is the opportunity I have to help others. Working with other alcoholics and drug addicts is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. You can literally watch miracles happen for other people. I have the unique opportunity to take the most horrendous things that have happened to me and that I have done to help others who may be struggling with the same things. That is a gift from God.

You said you wanted to share your story because you never know who needs to hear it or know that they are not alone. What advice do you have for anyone who struggles with self-love or self-worth?

Things get better. Things get so much better. If you are struggling or think you have a problem, tell someone. Shit, tell me, I’ll talk to anyone. I’ve had people who know me create anonymous accounts because they know I’m in recovery and want to ask questions without saying who they are. Ask for help. Or if someone is offering you help, accept it. Be honest with yourself. I had a few moments of clarity during addiction and I ignored them. Don’t ignore them.

If you’re going through it, just keep going. The only way out of anything is through. All of this stuff that I’ve talked about is a process. Recovery isn’t a destination and no one can possibly achieve perfect self-love. Like I said, it’s a process. It’s still a battle for me of combating negative thoughts. When my brain says something unkind to me, I have to combat those thoughts by asking myself, "What is the truth?" When I wish I could have a drink, I have to remind myself about the truth of where a drink lands me. I have to share those thoughts with other people so they can remind me too. I didn’t get to a point of contentment in my sobriety without going through a lot of pain and discontentment first.

How can a person support a friend or someone they know who is struggling with substance abuse or an eating disorder?

That is such a hard question. I’ve been on the other side of this disease and I have to say, I did everything wrong. I think the answer to this question also depends very much on your relationship with that person. Offer help and support, but if someone refuses it, there’s nothing else you can do. I learned that the hard way. But on the flip side, if someone’s life is in danger, actions may need to be taken. It’s a thin line.

The stance I take in regards to other people is to help for as long as it’s not hurting me. If something starts to hurt me, I have to take a step back. 

What has been your biggest takeaway from all of this?

That’s a tough question too, wow. I think the biggest takeaway from addiction and recovery has been gaining a relationship with something bigger than myself. I don’t want to get too deep into this, because I know it can turn people off. I was so dead inside before coming into recovery, I truly thought I was alone. I now know that no one is ever really alone. We all have something.

Every human on this earth struggles with something; that’s part of what makes us human. All of us are bound together by this quality of humanity, of being alive and experiencing the world. We have the ability to influence one another, for better and for worse. We are connected in a way that makes us, inherently, part of something greater.

It’s not “Haley vs. The Rest of The World” anymore. I believe everyone is a small, but necessary, part of the present moment. And I believe that my purpose in life is to try to put as much good and love into the present moment as I possibly can; to add something to the universe, rather than retract. I don’t know if it matters what I believe, but I’m grateful to believe in something. 

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