Face of Addiction, Face of Hope
Note from Dr. Junlei Li, Co-Director and Associate Professor: This blog post is written by Abbey Zorzi, an undergraduate psychology student at Saint Vincent College, the academic home of the Fred Rogers Center. Abbey was in my Child Development class in the fall of 2014. In her class essays, she relayed tidbits of her powerful personal story about addiction and why she’s chosen to become an addiction specialist. I invited her to join Incubator 143 (the Center’s student research and development lab) to continue her study and reflection with archival materials of Fred Rogers’ work. This blog post is the product of her study.
Everyone knows what a drug addict looks like, right?
I used to picture an addict as someone under a bridge with a needle in his arm. The end of addiction might look that way, but it sure doesn’t begin like that. I never pictured myself as a drug addict until I became one as a teenager.
I’m 22 now, and I’ve been clean for a little over two years. My experiences inspired me to become an addiction specialist, and I came to the Fred Rogers Archive to learn what Mister Rogers had to say on the topic of addiction.
I found a 1971 article by Fred Rogers called “Children and Magic and Drug Abuse.”* While reading this article, I felt emotionally connected to his words. My struggles mirrored much of what he wrote. I’m sharing my story to help adults and young people understand that addiction doesn’t always look like we think it does.
“Our job as adults is to find ways to help our young people grow in the conviction that they can achieve self-realization without having to pour it in or sniff it in.” (Fred Rogers)
A Bright Future
As a child, I had a loving family, a love of competition and sports, and good grades. My future was looking bright. What could possibly go wrong?
Like any teenager, I wanted to fit in with kids my age. Going to parties and drinking alcohol was the norm in high school. Everyone else was doing it. Why shouldn’t I? During my freshman year I discovered that the euphoria from alcohol beat the adrenaline rush from making a game-winning shot in basketball. Alcohol became a security blanket for me. It covered up the self-confidence problems that I had secretly felt my whole life. I didn’t think alcohol was a problem. Life continued to go on as I drank it away. This was just the beginning of a long, miserable journey.
When I had my wisdom teeth removed as a sophomore in high school, the doctor prescribed Vicodin for the pain. I didn’t know much about drug addiction or what drugs could do to a person’s body. I took more Vicodin than the doctor prescribed. I went through two bottles of the stuff in just one week. When I ran out, I started to have frequent headaches and cravings.
The Face of Addiction
Friends of mine told me where I could buy narcotics so I wouldn’t have to keep going through withdrawal. I started to buy Vicodin off the streets. I continued to chase the high because I loved the way it made me feel. As my tolerance for the Vicodin increased, I needed more and more to get the effect I wanted. I started to use stronger narcotics such as Percocet, OxyContin, Opana, and Morphine. When the pills on the street became too expensive, heroin became a viable option.
When I found heroin, I told myself that I’d never inject it because the needles just scared me too much. (My mother used to have to hold me down at the doctor’s office when I needed a vaccine.) But my addiction told me otherwise. Not more than two weeks into using the drug, I switched to injecting it.
I thought to myself, “This is what falling in love feels like.” Heroin became my best friend, my significant other, and, ultimately, my abusive domestic partner. We had a love-hate relationship. After a week or two of using, I felt trapped and scared. I experienced a moment when I knew in my heart there was no turning back. Heroin had total control over my life, physically and mentally. Once that drug was in me, it told me what to do. I didn’t take heroin; heroin took me.
“What I wonder is if those who do take drugs might feel that they can’t be or do anything of value except by magic. Because in the final analysis isn’t that what drugs are: a kind of magic? A magic that will resolve discomfort and will give a sense of being important, perhaps omnipotent?” (Fred Rogers)
I didn’t know how to stop. I tried quitting on my own multiple times, but I never succeeded. This dark time lasted for about two years. I went from being a star athlete to a heroin junkie. I pleaded with myself and cried on a daily basis because I wanted to stop using, but my addiction would not allow me to stop. My hatred for myself was so strong and deep. Every day was dark and morbid in my world. My life began to slip away right before my eyes. I have never experienced a more desperate and hopeless feeling than when I sat on the cold, hard bathroom floor getting ready to use once again.
Rehabilitation: A Choice
When I was freshman in college, I had the opportunity to go to a rehabilitation facility for a month. About 99% of my mind was telling me not to go. My disease didn’t want me to leave. It wanted me to suffer and ultimately die. But a small part of my mind told me to take advantage of this chance. I took a good look at myself with tears rolling down my cheek and said, “I never want to feel like this again.” This desperation was a precious, lifesaving gift. It was the hardest decision I’d ever made, but I went to rehab.
In rehab I felt safe. It was tough for the first two weeks, but it gradually became easier. Detox was by far the hardest part. The medical staff provided comfort medications to ease the pain, but the process was still difficult. I was drained, both mentally and physically. I felt like I didn’t even know the person who was inside of me.
If it wasn’t for the counselors, I don’t think I would have stayed more than a week. They left their doors open all day in case I needed to talk. They listened to me and comforted me while I blurted out all of my problems. I didn’t trust myself, so I trusted them and the advice they gave me. The counselors in rehab filled me with confidence and hope. I owe them my life.
“Every person has hopes beyond his present capacities, and it’s our job, it seems to me, to help children to strive for what they want and not to go on trying to get it by drugs or any other kind of magic.” (Fred Rogers)
What I did in rehab was practice for the real world. The day I left rehab was one of the scariest of my life. Getting clean is much easier than staying clean. I was no longer in my comfort zone. I was terrified of relapsing, but I learned that I had the freedom of choice. I didn’t have to act on my thoughts. It wasn’t easy, but I did what my counselors suggested in order to stay clean. They told me to stay away from the people and places that I associated with drugs. They also suggested that I go to 12-step meetings and find people who had what I wanted.
Recovery & Support
My desperation to stay clean was stronger than it had ever been, so I listened to their advice. I experienced painful moments in recovery, but I was able to get to the other side with the help of others who are also in recovery. Being in recovery from addiction means I must treat my disease daily by attending 12-step meetings, bonding with other recovering addicts, and helping others in need. If I decide not to do any of the maintenance work, then my disease will overpower me and lead me to a relapse.
I have cravings and thoughts of using almost every day. There is no cure for addiction, but the disease can be arrested and treated. I know that as long as I don’t pick up the first drug, everything in my life will work out just fine. As an addict, I know I don’t have a moral deficiency. I’m sick, and I need to treat my illness, or else I die.
Here’s what I want you to know: It is possible to recover. Any addict can stop using, lose the desire to use, and find a new way of life. I have been clean since August 16, 2013. If an addict like me can stay clean day-by-day, anyone can.
The Face of Hope
So, what does an addict look like?
I am the face of addiction. I am also the face of recovery and hope.
This is why I share my story. I believe, just like Fred Rogers wrote, that:
“Our job as adults is to find ways to help our young people grow in the conviction that they can achieve self-realization without having to pour it in or sniff it in.”
What good is recovery if I am not speaking out and helping others? As a volunteer, I speak at schools, prevention programs, juvenile detention centers, jails, and mental hospitals because the gift of recovery should not be kept to myself. It is a message of hope for those who are suffering from addiction, and it’s an opportunity to educate anyone who will listen.
Drug addiction is a highly stigmatized disease. Many victims of the disease remain silent because they feel guilty, embarrassed, confused, or powerless. I speak out to give a voice to those who don’t have one yet.
Through my journey of recovery, I have figured out what I want to do with my life: work in a facility that helps people just like me. My purpose in life is to help others who struggle with addiction and to show them that there is another way to live. No addict should ever be turned away from society. I want them to look at me and know that they don’t have to struggle anymore.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the sense of feeling worthwhile, the sense of being able to make a difference by who you are inside is essential to living.” (Fred Rogers)
Being in this line of work is about saving lives. The impact I could make in just one person’s life will mean more to me than anything.
*Fred Rogers’ article “Children and Magic and Drug Abuse “was adapted from the fourth program in a television series called “The Turned On Crisis: The Shade of a Toothpick,” which was produced by WCET, Cincinnati’s public television station and aired on February 1971.
Photo: Author Abbey Zorzi playing basketball as a high school junior.