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Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
The road ahead is a long one.
NO EASY FIX

“I have to remind myself every single day that I don’t want to throw away a decade of sobriety”

Helena Bala
By Helena Bala

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Sarah, mid-40s, Northeast US

I was going to let it go on until it killed me. From the time I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, it’s all I thought about. Every single thing I did was for one purpose alone: getting a fix.

I started getting high and drinking with my mom’s third husband. He would ply me with booze and weed because it made me more submissive—easier to control when he molested me. I knew that what he was doing was wrong, but he threatened to hurt my younger sister whenever I resisted. So, in my mind, I was sacrificing myself for her sake. I’ll never forget the moment, years later, when she told me that she used to be jealous of all the time that “daddy” spent with me. She had no idea.

My real father was drunk when he died. He must have been in his early 20s, and I was barely three. My grandparents had substance abuse issues, too. My mom was clean, though. But addiction definitely ran in the family. They say that it’s a disease—like cancer. Well, this was a cancer that was growing inside me ever since I was born. I feel like I don’t remember a life in which alcohol and drugs weren’t everywhere.

I had two kids in the 1980s, but even then my addiction showed no signs of slowing down. The guy I was dating back then—we used together. We stole and pawned things off to support our habit. We had a dealer who would pick out things from the Macy’s catalogue—back in those days, Tommy Hilfiger was having a moment. We would boost whatever he wanted from the store, and he would pay us in dope. We just needed enough money for the fix, and on good days, we made enough to sleep indoors.

We had a usual spot—a filthy motel room that only cost us a few bucks because we knew the owner. I think he felt bad for the kids. One night, we had just gotten the dope, and I was getting ready to shoot. This was my addiction at its worst—my veins were all dead, and I was bleeding from infected sores on my arms, my feet, my legs, my stomach, and my chest. I was having trouble finding a good vein; I got a flash, but then I lost the vein and wasted the dope.

I got so frenzied. I started panicking, screaming, pacing, and jumping on things. I didn’t know what to do. And then I caught a glimpse of myself in the hotel mirror, and it was horrific. I remember thinking—that’s not me; That doesn’t even look like me. And even now when I think back on this moment, it feels like it happened to someone else and I witnessed it. It helps me to think of it that way, because if I felt everything, I would crumble.

On bad days—and yes, it got worse—we slept in parking lots. I remember one night we had the kids with us, and we had just settled in a Babies R Us parking lot. My youngest child was very ill, and it started pouring rain outside. I started to get us all under that big blue awning, but I couldn’t move very well because I had open sores on my feet. My youngest was clutching on to my hand, and then all of a sudden he dropped to the ground and started having a seizure. I didn’t know what to do—I just stood there, crying, yelling at God.

What scares me is that even that wasn’t enough for me to quit. I was in and out of jail, in and out of rehab, in and out of hospitals—probably more times than I can count on all my fingers and toes. The last time I was admitted to a hospital, the doctor took a look at my toxicology report and told me that there was a little bit of blood in my drug stream. He told me I was going to die, and I believed him.

I met my now-husband when I was working nights as a stocker at a big grocery store. I bummed a cigarette from him—and eventually we started using together. Finally, almost a decade ago today, he told me he’d had enough. He said he was getting clean, and he wanted me to get clean, too. So we did it together.

You’d think that after almost ten years, it gets easier. You’d think that the draw fades a little bit, that your brain starts to forget how good it felt to float away—to be vacant, forget the past, forget the ugly—for a few hours. But it’s still difficult. I have to remind myself every single day that I don’t want to throw away a decade of sobriety.

The hardest part is my relationship with my children. I’m very close with the oldest, but the youngest and I aren’t on the best terms. They spent most of their childhoods with their grandmother, who provided them with stability and a roof over their heads. Their memories of me aren’t exactly good. My oldest told me a few days ago that he remembers me showing up to his birthday party and throwing up in the bushes in front of his friends. I have no recollection of that. How can I make amends for something when I can’t remember such a big part of it?

I wanted my children to have what I didn’t have—a safe childhood, opportunities, a steady job, and parents who love them. I probably played the biggest role in them not getting that. And I am afraid—every single day—that I passed on my disease to them. I would never forgive myself.

I’m starting to make peace with some of the ugly things I did. I’m talking to the people I’ve hurt and understanding their side of the story. I’m piecing together almost two decades of heroin addiction and seeing my life for the first time as a sober person. It’s taken a lot of work to understand my addiction and what fueled it, and to let go of the things that weren’t in my control. I’m turning it around—not just for me, but for my kids, too. It’s never too late.