At 27, “Hope” found herself serving three years in prison after a stint of abusing prescription drugs and later an addiction to heroin. She said she started abusing drugs because of trauma she experienced as a teenager. Unsure about how to cope, she turned to drugs. 

“I wasn’t addicted to the drug. I was addicted to the numbing,” she said. “I wasn’t using to feel something. I was using to not feel.”

Hope had never been arrested before, much less gone to prison. But it’s part of a cycle, she said, that’s become all too familiar locally.

The Madison County resident grew up in what she described as a “very loving, Christian home.” She attended a Christian academy and went to college. At 16, she was raped and Hope said she didn’t know how to handle the shame she felt. She said her lack of self-worth led her to stay in a mentally abusive relationship, which created more trauma. She said getting “mixed in with the wrong crowd” also contributed to her abuse of drugs.

Following a car accident, Hope began abusing prescription pills. Two years later, she transitioned into using heroin. While Hope stopped using drugs while she was pregnant, she said her inability to cope with pain led her back to using drugs.

At 27, Hope was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison.

“I used to look in the mirror and think that’s who I was,” she said. “I have gone to prison and have these felonies on my record, which I hated. I still hate that, but I can’t change it. All I can do is grow from it.”

Now 32, Hope is training to become a peer recovery specialist to help others end the cycle that had her stuck for so many years. She shared her story at last week’s Epidemic Intelligence Council (EpIC) in Orange County so that members of the group could gain perspective on the opioid crisis they’re trying to combat.

“I don’t like to consider myself an addict,” she said following her introduction to the group. “I did have some addiction issues, but you can be addicted to anything; it doesn’t have to be drugs. I don’t want to consider myself an addict anymore.”

Additionally, Hope said she would like to see doctors do more to warn people about the use of opioids.

“Doctors aren’t telling people once you take these pills you’re going to have to wean yourself down because of its effects,” she said. “ I think that’s where this becomes a problem. That’s where it started for me. They didn’t tell me if I stopped using it that I was going to have to feel pain.”

Created by Orange County Director of Social Services Crystal Hale, EpIC is comprised of a cross-section of organizations and departments interested in promoting awareness of the opioid epidemic and increasing resources available locally to those affected by the crisis. While EpIC began a year ago and has welcomed many guest speakers to present on issues related to opioids, Hope is the first speaker who has talked about a personal struggle with opioid addiction. Other presenters have included jail personnel from Chesterfield County’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program, Boxwood Recover Center and medication-assisted treatment centers. Personnel from the local community services board, the Virginia Department of Health, the sheriff’s office, fire and EMS, the commonwealth’s attorney’s office and the Orange County Free Clinic also participate and offer insight to the group.

Hope applauded the group’s desire to implement change, noting too many people are judging people for their past mistakes rather than trying to help them.

“I think it’s important that we try not to judge people based on their pasts and what they might currently be going through because there is an underlying reason of why they’re using [drugs],” she told the group.

She said if people are interested in helping an individual struggling with addiction then they must ask questions that will get to the root of the issue. Instead of the condemnatory “What is wrong with you?” Hope suggests asking questions like “What has happened to you that makes you feel like you have to use?” “How did you get into this type of lifestyle?” and “How can I help you?”

“When I’m working with people I tell them ‘You already know what this life is like, why don’t you try something different?’,” Hope said. “It’s frustrating to see the cycle.”

Hope credits her former probation officer with helping her turn her life around. She said he made her write an essay about what success meant to her, and he made her pick a date when she would stop reflecting on her past.

“Since I wrote that date down beside my name [my past] has been back there and I’ve been moving forward,” she said.

Her probation officer took the time to understand the “why” behind her addiction and made her realize her past mistakes didn’t define who she was, Hope told the group.

“I was making myself believe that was who I was always going to be,” she said. “It takes just one person to get to [addicts] and tell them the past is not who you are. That’s why I decided to do peer recovery; I can relate to these people.”

Hope has offered to volunteer her peer recovery services to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and probation offices so people struggling with addiction can speak with someone who has lived the lifestyle and made a transition into a more sustainable life.

Many people struggling with opioid addiction, including those coming out of incarceration, lack a positive support system. Therefore, they return to hanging out with the same friends and resume to abusing drugs, Hope explained. “When I see people from my past, I might wave and say ‘Hello,’ but I love them from afar. I don’t want anything like that in my life anymore because half of those people are still living in that cycle and it’s really sad to me.”

While EpIC strives to provide resources for those dealing with the affects of opioid addiction, Hope stressed it is vital for someone “to be open to wanting to change” in order to make a difference.

She said she is going to focus her efforts to alleviate the problem starting with children who have been affected by parents who had an addiction.

“Nothing is being done for these children who’ve seen trauma,” she said. “I’ve been there. I don’t want to look back and see unaddressed trauma causing them bigger issues. They need to know that they can talk to somebody and that [drugs] are not how you deal with your emotions or things that are going on.”

Now on a more positive path, Hope said she wishes others would see her for the person she is today, rather than the person she was.

“My mistake was a public mistake; not everybody’s are. I think that’s another thing we need to realize: Lots of people have made bad decisions,” she said.

However, Hope said she wants people to know something it took her a long time to realize. “Just because you’ve been through something doesn’t mean you can’t come out of it. Life is more than what you’re struggling in. While you may be stuck in a cycle now, it doesn’t mean you can’t become a contributing part of society.”

Eliminating the stigma associated with opioid addiction has been one of EpIC’s main focuses. April Achter of the Virginia Department of Health said everything that is treated in medicine is a continuum, including the opioid epidemic.

“We, as a society, have decided that this is a moral issue rather than a medical issue,” she said. “If you went to the doctor and they said you have diabetes, they don’t tell you that you can never eat a piece of sugar again. They tell you to make small steady changes over time that you can stick with. If you’re overweight, then they tell you to exercise, not to run a marathon on Saturday. But that is what we tell substance abusers. Just quit.”

The next EpIC meeting is April 18.

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