The Heartbreak and Hope of Addiction and Recovery
40 million Americans 12 or older meet the clinical criteria for addiction to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs. That is more than the number of people with heart disease (27 million), diabetes (26 million) or cancer (19 million). Despite its prevalence in society, addiction is still widely misunderstood by many. Not enough is being done to prevent and reduce addiction, and the consequences are devastating. But, there is reason for hope; many people recover and go on to lead healthy and inspiring lives.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Vicky Cook, a mom, a wife and a yoga instructor, who opened up about her battle with alcohol and drug addiction. She began using alcohol around the age of 10 or 11 and although she cannot recall a particular reason for initiating use, she reported growing up in an unsafe and stressful environment, in which there was a lot of drinking around her.
In addition to alcohol being a coping mechanism, it also acted as a gateway substance, which led Vicky to experiment with a variety of drugs and painkillers. At the age of 25 she was involved in a fatal drunk driving accident. Vicky went through physical detox in jail, and at the recommendation of her lawyer, began attending 12-Step meetings shortly after being released. Since then, she has been alcohol and drug free for 23 years and has become a mentor for people with addiction. She shares with us her journey, perspective, and her hope for the future.
How has addiction affected your life?
Vicky: It’s been the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me. The greatest challenge was going to prison for drinking and driving and all the guilt I felt after the accident. It required a lot of outside treatment afterwards. I think it took a full 10 years to feel recovered. I began yoga and meditation much later as a way of healing a deeper part of me. The recovery led to such a beautiful life: I feel whole; I feel like I am more kind and understanding of people with other problems. It’s given me a sense of purpose and I’ve been able to help a lot of people. It has definitely affected my parenting as a mother of a 14-year-old son. He has never seen me drink and I’m really open with him about drugs and alcohol and their consequences. I believe communication is important. No one spoke to me in that way.
Do you believe addiction is a disease?
Vicky: Addiction is a disease; and it’s more than just physical. I think this is helpful for people to hear in recovery. Learning that it is a disease really helped me. I used to think I was a bad person, so it brought me a lot of relief and I began to think: It’s a disease; and there’s something I can do about it.
People with addiction have really low self-esteem. This is why I think there should be more emphasis on the spiritual aspect, on it also being a spiritual sickness. When I mentor people I try and give them exactly what I got: I map out their course of recovery and empower them to take care of themselves and find their way. I lay the tools at their feet, and it’s up to them to pick them up.
Do you think people know enough about treatment options?
Vicky: Treatment information is much more available than it used to be. However, through mentoring I’ve noticed that there are a lot less government funded programs and rehabs than there were in the past. Now there are many more high-end private centers that cost tens of thousands of dollars. If you have a lot of money, you have more options. For people who can’t afford private treatment, there are fewer government funded programs now than 20 years ago when I was going through it, and the ones that exist are hard to get into.
Have people’s attitudes toward addiction changed in the last 20 years?
Vicky: The optimist in me would like to say yes. I think it’s discussed more and seems a lot more prevalent nowadays. Almost everyone is touched by it.
But the medical community is not educated enough. In my experience, doctors do not understand addiction and do not recognize it as a disease. I’ve told doctors that I’m in recovery from addiction and they’ve still tried to prescribe me painkillers. If I told them I were allergic to a drug, they wouldn’t even think about prescribing it to me. It should be the same with addiction.
There is certainly still stigma – a moral issue around it. This stigma makes it a lot harder for people to seek help. I think the best way to reduce this stigma is through education, awareness, and talking more openly about it; bringing peoples’ stories to light.
We are grateful to Vicky for bringing her story to light and for her dedication to combating the stigma of addiction and helping people in recovery.
Nina is an Intern at Center on Addiction