Working on Creating Recovery-Ready Communities
Cortney, 26, is the national Program Officer of Young People In Recovery (YPR) where she helps develop and sustain volunteer chapters across the country with other young people in recovery. YPR is a national grassroots advocacy organization focused on creating recovery-ready communities throughout the nation for young people in, or seeking, recovery. Formerly, Cortney was a substance abuse prevention coordinator on a national contract with Accenture Federal Services. She has also worked as a New York State addictions clinician focusing primarily on young people with opioid addictions.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Cortney, and I’m a young person in long-term recovery from addiction. For me, that means today I get to be the person I was always meant to be. Today, because of my recovery, I am a 26-year-old looking forward to a lifetime of possibilities. Yet, a little less than seven years ago, I was sitting inside a county jail with nothing but cold concrete walls, metal bars, and the harsh reality of what opiate addiction had done to my life. In only a few years it had taken me from my honors classes, varsity sports, and hopes and dreams and brought me to devastating lows.
When did your struggles begin?
I grew up in suburban upstate New York. My mother and stepfather raised me. We were the disadvantaged family in a privileged town, and I was aware of that very early on. Unfortunately, I internalized things like shame, disappointment, and ownership of others’ feelings, all of which would translate into a debilitating addiction later. I remember many defining moments in life that would reinforce those defeating belief systems. Those lessons followed me throughout early childhood and into my teenage years. I never quite felt like I or we were good enough for the world.
Adverse experiences early in childhood helped to cultivate self-hatred and shame within my core. Without any interventions from school or at home, I developed an eating disorder by the age of 12. When starvation didn’t provide the release that I needed, I began to cut myself. I had a serious suicide attempt at age 13 and continued to suffer in silence, never knowing how to ask for help.
As a child, I truly felt that if I could just convince the rest of the world that I was “normal” and okay, then maybe I would be. I spent a great deal of energy creating a facade to bury my pain. Despite all of the intrinsic turmoil bubbling under the surface, I still managed to make honors classes in school. I played a varsity sport, wrote poetry, and went on a missionary trip to Africa. No one knew the battle I fought every day. No one saw the struggle I was losing. No one stopped to ask if I needed help because I did my best to cover it all up.
How did you start abusing drugs?
When I was 15, I turned to alcohol and drugs as a way to escape from all of the emotional pain I was hiding. I’d grown up very anti-drug, ironically, but the more insecure I felt during those awkward adolescent and teenage years, the more of a need I had for social acceptance. I was with a group of friends when I first tried alcohol that was snuck from the liquor cabinet of someone’s parents. Soon after that I was introduced to marijuana. Before long, I was experimenting with prescription medications and opioids. I didn’t use every day in the beginning, but I used when it was around. Eventually I was using heroin, breaking every taboo and limit I had ever set for myself. I had gone too far, but I didn’t care anymore. Eventually my parents knew of my use and fought with insurance companies to bring me to detox and rehab programs, but I would just sign myself out. I was too afraid to stop.
My first real withdrawal was at age 17. Opiate withdrawal is the worst thing I’ve experienced in my life. Seven days into withdrawal, I shot up for the first time. Soon after, I was raped when I was most vulnerable and became passively suicidal through my drug use. I would mix any substances just to make my feelings numb. I don’t remember much of the next couple years of my life. I was determined to never experience such pain again. My life had become something from a movie — not the type of movie with a fairytale ending.
What motivated you to make a change?
I was arrested when I was 19. I was forced into detox in jail, and there is no doubt that it saved my life. After waking up for the first time from the four-year-long nightmare that I was living, I finally saw what I was doing to my life. Call it a spiritual awakening, an epiphany, or just my neurons finally starting to fire again, but suddenly I knew that I didn’t have to live that way anymore. I didn’t have to be defined by addiction or pain, and I was determined to find a new way.
I spent the next two years of my life in different treatment programs learning how to live life. I wasn’t rehabilitated, I was habilitated. Before treatment and recovery, I had no template for how to deal with emotions or life, and it took a long time to learn what it means to really live.
How has your life changed since getting sober?
At age 19 and nine months sober, I was healthy enough to hold my mother’s hand when she passed away from cancer; I was able to be present with my family when they needed me most. Sobriety gave me that, and recovery continues to give me strength and a life beyond measure every single day.
After facing my fears and becoming willing to accept change, my life has become a fairytale after all. I started my own beautiful family, began a career that I love, went back to school, regained the trust of my loved ones, and have a positive impact on the lives of others. Through my work with Young People In Recovery, I get to spend my free time helping other young people who are struggling the same way that I once did. I truly understand the importance of giving back what I was blessed with because so many in my shoes don’t get the chance to walk a different path.
Do you have any advice for others dealing with addiction and substance abuse?
There’s nothing special about me; if I can do it, anyone can. I encourage any young person struggling with addiction to not be afraid to ask for help. I spent too many years hiding and had to hit a brutal bottom before I reached out. You don’t need to go through that. Recovery is possible. Millions of Americans are in recovery from addiction today, you can be too! All it takes is that first step, that decision that you can do something different today. It might be difficult and scary, but you are strong and beautiful and capable of living a life free of that pain. A new life starts with that first step — a life that can take you anywhere you want it to go.
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