We asked Andrew Kiezulas, a young man in long-term recovery, to write about his path to recovery. Through journaling and thoughtful reflection, his story is one that recognizes the power of family support and hope.
Agony. A fall on ice. Nearly paralyzed. Doctors prescribe pills for pain.
They don’t tell you they also treat mental, emotional and spiritual suffering. Growing up I mostly keep it together, finding relief from pain and depression through rough sports, acting out, the bottle and occasional other substances. But I fall head over heels when given opioids. Once a collegiate athlete, I become a prisoner in my home and mind, unable to leave either without them. I try for years to literally get my feet back under me. Now, only the needle brings comfort. Trauma-turned-PTSD, mixed with a life-altering injury, meet severe substance use disorder (SUD). I find out the hard way: Trauma isn’t just what happens to you, it’s what happens in you.
I’m not ready for this and I don’t want it, but life happens and things change.
Shaking pains. Screaming thoughts. Smoldering bridges.
Mom picks me up from my eighth detox, drops me home in Reading, MA. Transition time. Trash bag of clothes, thrown in travel bag. Last time out, it took all of one hour before I was high, so I’ve set an all-time personal record.
Dead lost in woods of New Hampshire, as far as I can tell. Older sister driving me to a 12-step retreat. Gravel crunches under the tires in the driveway. The collar of my shirt visibly heaves with the heartbeat from my neck.
“Andrew, you can do this. You can totally do this.”
“Kathy, there’s no way I can do this.”
“What? How can you say that? Look at how far you’ve come already! And you’ve done so many incredible things. You were a football all-star and lacrosse captain. You can talk to anyone and people love you…we love you.”
Love and heartbreak in her eyes. I find a glimmer of relief in her belief.
But deafening thoughts crash and stab out the calm: “You have to be ready for recovery, Andrew. Are you? Are you done? Maybe you haven’t hit rock bottom yet and you need some more pain. Why don’t you just go back out there until you want it? Oh, you’re definitely gonna mess this up, Andrew, and you know it. So, what’s the point?”
“This is a waste of time and money, Kath. I’m only here to shut you and Mom up. I don’t want to get sober and when I get out of here I’m just going to get high for cheaper. That’s it. That’s the goal here.”
“DON’T SAY THAT!”
“Just don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
“Andrew, this isn’t you. We know Andrew, and this isn’t Andrew. We’re all right here and we want you back. You have to get help. Just give it a chance.”
We open the door. A hope of a chance is maybe all it has, Kath.
And sore must be the storm…but hope?
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
My sobriety date in recovery.
I wasn’t ready and I didn’t want it, but I was given another chance, and something changed.
Up early. Meditated. Ready for the walk.
We text every morning, or the day feels weird: “Mornin, Mumma!!! Today’s the day! Safe travels on your way up to Maine! LOVELOVELOVE!!!”
My heart pounds. Tears well. I try not to fall.
They call my name as I walk across the stage. Mom, Dad and the family in their seats. The president shakes my hand, presents a degree and gives me a huge hug. His voice melts everything away: “We’re so incredibly proud of you, Andrew, and you should be so, so proud. Thank you for everything you’ve done here at USM and congratulations! You did it!”
A college degree. In Chemistry. I cry.
I didn’t do it alone. We did it. Hell, I had given up on the idea long ago. Surely someone else’s life to live, I dared not dream that big or that far into the future. Too loud and persistent were the physical, mental and emotional components of my PTSD and SUD.
But stronger was the treatment. Bigger was the empowerment. Louder was the song of my family and friends.
Their voices choir, “Even impossible spells I’m possible. Look how far we’ve come! What else is possible, what else can we do? What’s next?” My internal monologue, the new normal.
I don’t know if I’m ready for this or if I want it, but things have definitely changed.
A deep, reflective breath. Salty-sweet summer air. Activated.
My recovery and sobriety did not come easily, nor did they happen by accident. I worked hard, but had a network and was literally afforded the space and given the opportunities to change. I had support, advocates and mentors. I knew who I could go to, without judgment, and was enabled to do so. I had a team, a family, who said, “Okay, this is happening, where do we go from here? What’s next, what’s next, what’s next? We’re in this together.” Things were not done for me, and certainly not done at me. I had to do the things, but they were done with me.
Let me be very clear: Recovery starts well before sobriety. I might even dare to say it begins with the post-trauma substance use. The actual substance use is a well-intended, misdirected effort to secure sustainable relief. It just looks like selfishness and ends up horribly damaging, convincing people they need more pain. However, people empowered to identify as being in recovery end up doing just that, engaging in “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential” (SAMHSA’s Working Definition of Recovery, 2011). That includes harm reduction, medication-assisted recovery and any action you take in the direction of progress. Trauma-informed and recovery-oriented systems of care must meet this spectrum.
A challenge to people in recovery and their allies: Stop stigmatizing each other! We must grow our circles and be a family for others. To create change, we must make recovery less shaming and more appealing. We must advocate for affordable, equitable and accessible quality resources. If not us, who? If not now, when? Can we afford to continue debating whether people are ready or want recovery, or if they’ve really “hit rock bottom?” The truth fears no question. Dare to ask the hard ones.
We can’t choose when and where life happens. I didn’t “choose” my way into PTSD, depression or SUD. What sane person would? I also didn’t just “will” my way out of them. I found temporary relief from adverse childhood experiences and other trauma through self-medicating. It was the only thing I knew would work, and it was a cry for help. Fortunately, I was asked questions and was listened to; was encouraged to explore action steps and try different things; and I was pushed and empowered, with the occasional kick in the ass. I was repeatedly told that things could change and that we’d get through this, especially when I didn’t and couldn’t believe it myself. It was a process.
I didn’t suddenly “hit rock bottom, where I found the willingness and desire to change.” I was continually engaged in recovery and kept from the only real bottom there is — the one from which we don’t come back. Why are people encouraged to “hit rock bottom” before they “really” qualify for recovery? We’re told it’s a must. This is a lie. Why do we spend so much time focusing on “rock bottom” instead of focusing on what gets people to ask for help, and the people they felt safe enough to go to?
I knew safe people, asked for help and had accessible resources. That’s what got me into recovery. Sobriety is just one manifestation of that recovery, and fortunately one of many. Although sobriety is a major piece — and I say this not to take anything away from those that focus solely on sobriety — if my recovery were just about staying sober, I’d be long bored with it by now. Recovery is so much more. It’s the daring to dream and the inspiration to take action. I found the power of possibility, can feel purpose and can foresee a future.
My name is Andrew Kiezulas and I am a person in long-term recovery. What that means for me, first and foremost, is that Mom has her son back. Our family is healing, and where you find recovering people you have recovering communities. My peers have a friend, someone who listens and laughs and shares. Our community has an invested member, an active volunteer and a passionate advocate. I’ve been challenged to dream and am equipped to meet myself there. I’ve found a community and plugged in to hope. The best part of it all? Inspired by those inspired, I am but one of tens of millions of incredible recovery stories. Now let’s find yours.