How Reaching Rock Bottom Helped Me Take Control

By Helen Vale | Last Updated September 24, 2016

Things that others may take for granted mean the world to me and that is because I recovered from addiction two years, six months and 36 days ago. Well, maybe I never really fully recovered, though the blessed day I stopped using cocaine, will always be present in my mind. I am a 32-year-old mother of two beautiful children – Harry, eight, and Lydia, six. I work in the financial sector as does my husband, Martin.


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rock bottom

I reached rock bottom a few years ago, when I was out partying to celebrate a big deal my team had just sealed. I hadn’t done cocaine in a few days but felt somehow entitled to celebrate, after undergoing so much stress and putting in so many long hours at the office. That night, we were at our favourite bar – drinking, dancing, and doing a few lines. At around 1am I started feeling like I was going to die – my heart began racing uncontrollably, my skin felt feverishly hot and my colleague, Sandy, became alarmed as my pupils were heavily dilated. Martin was at home with the kids. He knew that I occasionally indulged in a line or two but he did not know how dependent I had become. He stoically put up with my excuses – “I’m stressed, depressed, guilty,” I would tell him, and because I behaved ‘normally’ on a day-to-day basis, feeding and taking care of the kids without ever letting my guard slip, he thought it was all under control.

I was rushed to the hospital that night. When I came around, the doctors told me I had suffered from cardiac arrest – apparently using cocaine just once a month greatly increases one’s risk of having a heart attack. I was in my 20s, though; how was this possible? Martin was by my bedside when the doctor told me what had occurred and he was as shocked and devastated as I was. I remember my chest hurting every time I’d do lines, yet I assumed this was just a normal side-effect. I could not believe that this drug, which I believed I had kept to comfortable levels of ‘recreational use’, had potentially shortened my lifespan and could have left my children, motherless. 1, 2

I realised that cocaine had somehow taken control over my life

But had I really been addicted? When I looked back on my patterns of drug use, I realised that cocaine had somehow taken control over my life, slowly but surely becoming a necessity I would lie for – above all, to myself. When I wasn’t using drugs, I felt a combination of sensations, which I can probably sum up as depression. I used to be ultra-sporty – after I had my children, I had packed on the pounds and fought my way to fighting fit shape at a CrossFit box in my area. There, I had met highly motivated people for whom fitness was a way of life, a means of psychological release to be taken seriously, via regular exercise, supportive nutrition, etc. For a while there, exercise was my addiction. I would make my way to the box at 6:30am so I could be back home to make breakfast for the kids and get them to school and day care.

Once I had lost all the weight, though, my gym routine started slipping. I began joining my colleagues at the bar for a gin and tonic at lunch or after work, thinking that my drinking was kept to a minimum because I would only stay for a little while. Now that I look back at my behavior, I realise that addiction was always present, to some extent, in my life. Whether it was drinking, working out, or signing up for the latest fad, it was as though I was always searching for something to fill an emptiness I never felt comfortable discussing or even thinking about.

When I was 27, I was offered a job at a lucrative financial firm, paying an excellent salary and amazing commissions. The pressure was high, though – we had tough competition in the city we were located, and sealing a deal often involved wining and dining potential clients. It was during these long dinner and clubbing evenings that I first tried cocaine. I was alarmed at first when a client I admired greatly, a female CEO who was the epitome of efficiency and professionalism, pulled out her coke vial and offered me a line. The deal was just about signed and since everyone in her suite was ready to do a line, I didn’t want to seem ‘uncool’ – in retrospect, I should have given any excuse to avoid taking a drug I did not want to. I could have said I was taking medication, or I had to get up early for an activity with my kids, but no… instead, I conformed the way I always had. I was always the quiet one, the one who did not want to ruin the party, to be heard disagreeing…

It is difficult to describe why cocaine became my drug of choice. It seemed to make me feel the opposite to that feeling I could not shake off; regardless of how much I loved my family, how much money I made, how many friends I had… I felt that I wasn’t good enough. Cocaine made me feel just the opposite of all that – energetic, ultra-motivated, happy. I felt so alert and as though everything I was saying had value; for the first time in my life, everyone was listening to me, like were all equal, fantastic people. There is a good reason for that – cocaine floods the brain with dopamine, the ‘feel good’ hormone that instantly stimulates the brain’s sense of reward but when you are on a high, you don’t really care about that. 3, 4

When I eventually completed an inpatient rehab stay for my addiction, my favorite therapist, Marly (who ended working closely alongside me) said something that I will never forget: when you quit drugs, it is important to realize that your attitude to them may always be ambivalent. You will see drugs as being negative, potentially ruining your health and your important relationships, but when you are quitting, it is also important to acknowledge the things you will miss about drug taking, so you can properly grieve, and then progress.

Marly used art therapy a lot with me, since I had trouble talking about issue from my childhood that may have created that big ‘gap’ I had always felt… I will always be grateful to the way she helped me. ‘In your face’ type therapy did not work for me – I did not want to sit in a group and talk about my experience, or ‘surrender to a higher power’… so we carried out activities I was more comfortable with – horticultural therapy, art, yoga… art, above all, was what really liberated me from my blocked emotions. Marly would ask me to draw my feelings about addiction, then we would spend time discussing my drawing – the symbolism, colour, imagery – through our discussions I discovered that my fears about quitting addiction included the fear of no longer being accepted my by peers, of being nothing more than a mom and worker, of not being able to ‘let loose’ and go crazy once in a while.

That was where yoga became truly helpful. I especially loved the mindfulness component of yoga – when I was practicing my controlled breathing or concentrating on performing a pose – I felt firmly and securely rooted to the ‘here and now’ and was able to escape the destructive string of ‘what if’ thoughts that would fill race through my mind. In many ways, art and yoga fulfilled my need for freedom. To this day, I still get lost for hours on end, when the kids are asleep and Martin is watching his favourite series… I pull out my canvas and paint, sometimes staying up until dawn on the weekends, joyful with what I have just created.

I have also joined a yoga group. We meet in the park, which I find extra relaxing, as there is nothing greater than doing a challenging asana (yoga pose) in the midst of the majesty of nature. Our teacher often encourages us to really live the moment, opening our sense up to the sounds and scents of the trees and leaves, which adds to the feeling of deep calm.

Marly helped me realize that I had a great fear of loneliness and loss of control, a fear which stemmed from my childhood. When I was three, my father passed away and my mother remarried and had three more children (my sister Bess, aged 27, and my twin brothers, Martin Jr and Zach, aged 25). My step-father, John, was a distant man. He was a successful entrepreneur but drank quite heavily, and my mother struggled to keep the peace at home, walking on eggshells lest John should shout at us or strike us. I knew that my mother loved me, but I always felt like I was tagging along on family occasions. John was sometimes affectionate with his kids but always kept his distance from me, something I knew my mother felt desperate about. She tried to make up for it by buying me expensive toys and clothes I never really had any use for.

When I was 13, I grew so unhappy I developed unhealthy eating habits. I wouldn’t say I had anorexia, but I lost a great deal of weight and was very obsessive about the calories I was consuming. I also started escaping from home at night time, hanging around the rebellious group in the neighbourhood. We wouldn’t do anything too naughty, but did indulge in occasional drinking.

One time, an older friend let me drive his car through the neighbourhood. Now that I think about it, we were very lucky to have never had an accident. Mom and John eventually found out what I had been up to, since I told them I was staying the night at my friend, Tricia’s house. Tricia’s mom had been told the same and rang my mom – they found us in the park drinking beer and the punishment was major. We were grounded for a full month, and during this time, I did the only thing I was still allowed to- paint! It is funny how even back then, art had always been an escape for me. The next year, I tried marijuana for the first time and I loved the sensation of being part of a group, of laughing until I thought I would burst, of forgetting about the loneliness I always which pervaded when I was at home.

With the help of Marly, I learned that recovery isn’t about filling an emotional gap or escaping from problems; rather, it involves accepting ourselves as we are, riding through difficult emotions and looking forward to more joyful ones. Recovery is also something that needs to be approached using many tools. As I mentioned, I love yoga and make sure to make time for it at least three times a week. I use the techniques learned in yoga, such as pranayamic breathing (controlled breathing, also called abdominal breathing) and meditation, when I feel particularly stressed at work.

Nutrition is another vital component of recovery; I make sure to consume lots of fresh, seasonal foods, to help rid my body of toxins and give me the energy and vitality I need to face my long working days. Taking care of yourself involves eating well, doing exercise and preserving your psychological health, and sometimes saying no to important business colleagues, friends and family. It also means loving your whole, damaged, imperfect self and forgiving those who have hurt you. In the past, I secretly resented my mother; I didn’t understand how she could have married John and imposed so many years of pain upon me. Looking back, however, I see that she simply did the best she could, and that is the most we can ask of anybody, including ourselves. 5

Photo credit: By Baker131313 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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