Editor’s Note: This is a true story about a recovering addict who wanted to share the struggles of her journey to sobriety. Her name has been changed to protect the privacy of family members. If anyone would like to contact “Natalie” please contact Darlene Cullen at firstname.lastname@example.org, all inquiries will be forwarded to “Natalie” and will be kept confidential.
SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – It’s been a little over seven years since Natalie Smith* has touched a drink or illegal drug. The recovering addict and lifelong New Jersey resident first started getting high when she was just 12 years old and, over the next 17 years, sampled dozens of different drugs, overdosed once, was arrested 11 times, and entered rehab close to two dozen times. Now 37 and sober since 2008, Smith hopes that by sharing her story she can inspire others to turn their lives around.
Smith was just 2 years old when her parents got divorced and during the first year lived with her mother in Plainfield. At the age 3, Smith’s dad took her to live with him but three years later he moved to Maryland and she was sent back to live with her mother and stepfather in North Plainfield. “I remember him leaving and even though I wanted to go live with my mom there was a lot of hurt surrounding that,” said Smith. “I still remember him driving away.”
At age 8, her family relocated to Flemington and for the next six years, Smith led a pretty ‘normal’ life even though she always felt ‘different.’ “I was pudgy, had weird hair and felt very different for some reason. I also had a lot of anger,” said Smith, admitting that growing up, neither parent offered a great deal of verbal or physical affection and that her relationship with her mother was strained. “We didn't get along and there was a lot of emotional disconnect at home – a lot of screaming and banging.”
When she was 12, Smith, whose maternal grandparents were alcoholics, began experimenting with inhalants and, by 15, she had started to drink and smoke pot. It was during this time that she got involved with a guy who was heavily involved in the New York club scene. Wanting to be accepted by him, Smith would sneak out and head to the city on weekends, hanging out at clubs and experimenting with ecstasy, acid and Special K.
“I liked the look and I wanted to be accepted by him because I thought it was a really cool lifestyle,” said Smith. “I found my comfort in guys, sought their acceptance and affection, and drugs. Pretty soon, I started using constantly because it was fun. Everywhere I went I had to be under the influence and wanted to know what [drugs] we were getting before we went.”
By senior year of high school, Smith had stopped using but then met another guy who, like her last boyfriend, was into the club scene and also heavy into heroin. “I was obsessed with his guy and couldn't understand why, if I had just stopped using and was fine, he couldn't just stop, too,” she said. “So I bought heroin, did it and hated it. I puked my brains out the first time.”
After they broke up, Smith, now 19, moved back to Flemington and got her own place. During a party at her apartment, a friend convinced her to try heroin again and, from there, it became a problem. “From that point on it became a weekend thing. At first, I did it once and a while just for fun but then I started doing it everyday,” she said, adding that she typically snorted the drug but one night was shot up by a friend. “I didn't know what I was doing but one thing I did know is that you are a really bad addict if you shoot up,” said Smith.
Freaked out and scared, Smith spent the next five days alone in her apartment detoxing, vowing she would never touch heroin again. But in a short time, the now 20-year-old went back to using and started smoking crack as well. “At first, I felt if I did it back to back days it would become a habit so I tried to control my use,” said Smith. “For a year, I would do it every four or five days, then every three days. I’d come up with a million things to try to control it but the time between kept getting shorter.”
In 1998, Smith was arrested for the first time, getting thrown on the floor and cuffed during a raid at a Philadelphia crack house. “Since I had bought all the drugs and had them on me I was pinned as a dealer. I spent three days in jail that time,” Smith said.
Rather than coming home and cleaning up her life, Smith instead started using more heavily. “I was tired of controlling it and said f--- it, why not do it all the time,” she said.
At that time, Smith and her friends began hanging out in inner cities, socializing with gang members in the Bronx and Newark, among other places, robbing people and businesses. If it wasn't money, Smith admits, it was anything she could sell for cash to buy drugs.
Over 10 years, from the age of 19 to 29, Smith was arrested 12 times. She checked herself in and out of rehab 23 times, contracted Hepatitis C, lost a boyfriend in a car accident and got pregnant. She smoked crack the entire time she was pregnant, losing custody of her daughter shortly after she was born. Despite entering a mommy and me program, Smith said her baby’s paternal grandparents refused to relinquish custody so she left the facility. Although she maintained sobriety for a short time, Smith said she went back to using, and in a moment of weakness, signed her parental rights away. “She will be nine in January and I still haven’t gotten her back,” said Smith.
It wasn't until 2008 that Smith made the decision – and stuck to it – to get sober. “I was sick and tired of going to jail,’ she said. “I never wanted to go back.”
She enrolled in an intensive five-year drug court program and worked to clean up her act. During this time, she also took on two jobs, attended a 12-step program three times a week and went back to school to earn a degree in Ophthalmic Science. These days, she is working to obtain her optical license, has a job as an optician and is busy raising her six-year-old daughter. Smith also donates a great deal of her time sharing her story with others, including young people, in the hopes that she can help people prevent or overcome their addictions.
“I shouldn't be standing here. I should be dead or in a federal prison for the amount of drugs and illegal stuff I did. I shouldn't be walking right now,” said Smith. “I know what happened to me and the life I lived and sometimes I don't give myself credit but deep down I am blessed and lucky and grateful for the things I have.”
Each year, approximately 44,000 people in the Unites States die from drug overdoses. In fact, in 36 states, more people died last year from drugs – narcotics and prescription – than in car accidents and, in half those states, drugs were also the leading cause of injury-related death. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.org), the rate of heroin overdose deaths in New Jersey has nearly tripled since 2010. In New Jersey, 740 people lost their lives to the drug in 2013 and, last year, there were seven heroin-related deaths in Middlesex County alone.
According to Smith, the drug problem – and especially heroin –in the United States is horrible and an epidemic. Not only is the drug coming in all over the place, including areas such as Trenton, Newark and nearby Philadelphia it is cheap, making it much easier for people to get their hands on. It’s so easily accessible and much cheaper than it used to be. People are mixing stuff or buying stuff that is laced with other stuff. And that’s why so many people are dying,” she said.
Although she has been sober since 2008, Smith admits she still struggles with anxiety and depression and feels others using may have turned to drugs, like she did, as a form of self-medication. ‘We all feel pain, have low self-esteem at times, and feel hopelessness. There are always underlining issues,” she said. “It’s those things that bring it out and you have to learn to cope with life on life’s terms and not by turning to a substance. The substance is nothing but a symptom; it’s your attitude and emotions that have to change.”
While it is important to support and stand by a loved one struggling with addiction, Smith said it’s just as important to not become an enabler. “Giving them money, bailing them out or letting them move back home isn’t going to make them stop. By doing these things you are enabling them, turning a blind eye and allowing it to continue,” said Smith. “Through everything, my family never left my side; they visited me in prison and always came to see me in rehab. They were there through it all but they didn't enable me by giving me money or bailing me out.”
Ultimately, said Smith, getting and staying sober is something you must do for yourself. “I stay sober for me. You’re not going to stop for anybody but yourself and you aren’t going to stop until you are ready to stop,” she said, adding that the key is to take thing day-by-day. “People think ‘how am I going to stay sober forever’ but what they don't realize is that all they have to do is stay sober one-day-at-a-time. Do it in 24-hour segments and it is 110 percent possible.”
Smith said she knows she is lucky to be alive and hopes others struggling with addiction will strive to make the necessary changes in their life. “I thought I was going to be in and out of jail and a drug addict until the day I died but then I grew tired of the fight. I realized I spent a lot of time and energy trying to get drugs when what I needed to do was put that time and energy into my sobriety,” she said.