Say It With Your Teeth

2020 has truly been one of the most challenging years for so many people in this country. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge everything that my friends, neighbors and coworkers struggled with during the last twelve months. I too faced many obstacles this year, and found myself met with challenges that I never dreamed that I would be confronted by or that I would have the tools to successfully manage. Yet here I stand, on the cusp of the new year, having had a year of tremendous growth, success, and prosperity in so many areas of my life that I would have never expected.

Amid the chaos, changes, and adversity, I hustled. I found myself thrust into a new role at work. With little practical experience and little more than a lifetime of watching my mother and aunt play this important role, I stepped out from behind the curtain and walked out to center stage in front of a packed house. I became the administrator of a multi-location optometric practice overseeing four busy locations inside of Walmart Vision Centers. It felt like every day was opening night and there I was performing for the largest retailer in the country.

I opened three new offices by myself in the middle of a global pandemic. When we started screening patients for Covid-19, the Walmart staff came to me and asked me what we should do when we got our first recovered Covid patient in for their eye exam. Had it been sufficient time? Was it safe? Nobody knew and they were asking me what to do. It was my responsibility to make a decision that could affect the safety of countless people. How had I gotten here? Six years prior, I was shooting heroin in this very same Walmart bathroom.

 Along with my promotion came a competitive salary. I started making more money than I have ever made in my life, more money than I ever dreamed I could legitimately earn by going to a real job every day. To some people, it may not seem like much, but from where I came from, it was everything. I was able to start getting my finances in order, start paying down credit card debt, and even build a $1000 emergency fund. For the first time in my life, I was able to start saying a firm “No” to my father when he inevitably asked the question he has been asking me my entire life: “Do you need money?” I have dreamed my entire adult life about when the day would come that I could say no to that question. While I am still working towards complete independence, I am so much farther than I ever dreamed I would be even a year ago. I thought I would be collecting disability for the rest of my life. Instead, I cut the cord. When I started asking Social Security questions about getting off disability, nobody could even answer my questions because “People don’t do what you’re doing. Nobody just gets off SSDI like this.” I voluntarily gave up the check in favor of working. And again I ask myself, who am I? How did I get here?

I have worked so hard over the past year to learn and grow in my role in the business world. I have earned the respect of many seasoned individuals who I look up to and admire. However, I have not forgotten my roots and the work that is closest to my heart. It pains me that due to Covid, I have been unable to reach the students who would normally hear me speak about my addiction and experience in recovery. However, we will move forward when Covid allows us to do so safely. This year I was honored to be offered a two year engagement in the Hamden School System through the Quinnipiac Valley Health Department. Both the Hamden and North Haven School systems have made a commitment to me and my mission and we will resume presentations when it is safe to do so.

Recovery has been so profound for me in the last year. I feel the furthest away from heroin that I have ever felt. My number one coping skill, much to the discomfort of those around me, is that I can always use “tomorrow”. Meaning that when I am faced with a craving to use, I tell my brain that we can’t use today, but we can always use tomorrow. Then when tomorrow comes, I tell myself the same thing. I can’t use today, but I can always use tomorrow. And you just kick the can down the road in perpetuity. However, I rarely pull this coping skill out of the bag of tricks anymore. I find the desire to use heroin happens so seldomly these days, that it’s difficult to even imagine myself back in that place.

I also have fear today. I have fear for my life. I never really had that before because I never valued my life, I never felt that there was anything worth saving or that the loss of my life would really matter. I felt that my life was a burden on those around me, and I felt that way even years into my recovery. Today I feel that my life has value, that there are people who depend on me and count on me, that my existence is purposeful.

If I overdosed and died now, after everything I have survived and been through, that would be the dumbest thing I have ever done.

I feel this most around the holidays. Christmas is such an important time for me in my recovery. Having been banned from Christmas in my addiction, for good reason, it means everything to be able to celebrate with my family. This Christmas, I received such an important gift from my aunt that was so symbolic to me. She gifted me a gorgeous emerald necklace, my birthstone. Jewelry is such a loaded subject for us, as it is for many families because of the sentiment behind it. But even more for us, because I stole and sold practically every piece of jewelry my mom and aunt ever owned in my addiction. For her to invest her hard earned money into such a beautiful piece of jewelry and trust that I will keep and cherish it, that it will never see the inside of a pawn shop, is meaningful to me beyond words.

Truly this has been a year of purging addictions. I also quit smoking most recently in anticipation of having major surgery. That was one of the hardest things I have done in a long time. I have been a smoker for my entire adolescent and adult life, about seventeen years. At the end, I was smoking close to a pack a day, despite pretending I was only a half a pack a day smoker for years. When I speak to the students in the schools, the teachers always ask me to touch on vaping. I always tell the kids that I was able to get sober from heroin- arguably one of the most addictive drugs out there, yet I was still a smoker. What does that tell us about nicotine and the addictive nature of the hand to mouth motion associated with smoking and vaping? It took me six years into my recovery to let go of smoking, and only because I was highly motivated by my upcoming surgery.

My addiction brought me many consequences: Some criminal, some material, some emotional, some familial, some cosmetic. While I cleaned up my appearance in many ways, there was something that pained me to look at every single day that affects so many people with Substance Use Disorder, and that was both the cosmetic and functional state of my teeth.

Many people never noticed the state of my teeth because I took great pains to hide them. I had already had a great deal of expensive dental work over the years, trying to preserve my natural teeth. My front upper six were already crowns. Ultimately one of those became an implant. My bottom teeth were decaying into nothing. As for my back teeth, they were long gone. I took great pains to speak a certain way so as not to reveal the worst of it. I never smiled with my mouth open more than a crack. I tried never to genuinely laugh in public, I was always conscious of what my mouth was doing. I lived this way for a decade. I never really talked about it because that would draw attention to it. Most people never knew I was dealing with this problem and how much it affected me and my self-esteem. In addition to that, I couldn’t eat certain foods. Increasingly more foods got added to that list as time went on. And worse still, I was in pain.

I dreamed of getting new teeth and starting over. I prayed for a miracle. I played the lotto, hoping to win enough money to buy myself new teeth. I would’ve bought teeth before I bought a house or a new car, that’s how much it meant to me. I had nightmares regularly that my teeth had fallen out of my mouth or broke into pieces. Every morning the first thing I’d do before I even opened my eyes was check my mouth. I’d run my tongue over every sad tooth, checking to make sure everything was still there. As time went on, and the pain got worse, it became all consuming. All I could think about was my teeth.

In my addiction, I had no faith. I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in only when my drug dealer didn’t pick up the phone. Today, my God is so good to me. On December 16th at 10:00am I went into surgery for full mouth restoration. A few hours later, when it was all said and done, they handed me the mirror. I burst into tears.

It has been 12 days since my surgery and already it has changed my life. Without the help from my parents and my grandmother, I could’ve never done this. But for once, I am paying my own way, too. These teeth are not a free ride like so many things in my life have been. I have seldom been prouder than when I made those first two payments on these teeth.

 I am proud of myself, but I am also proud of the people I have chosen to surround myself with in recovery. My partner is excelling in her field and on her way to a great career herself. She has excelled in her internship as I knew she would and is maintaining a very impressive GPA. My bestie is the best mommy to my sweet little nephew and made it through one hell of a pregnancy and delivery. She is a superhero. I am so proud of these two incredible women in recovery.

I am also eternally grateful for the APT Foundation and everything they have done for me over the last six and a half years to facilitate my ongoing recovery and keeping me accountable. In January, I will celebrate six years in recovery and I owe much of that to methadone and the APT. For anyone who thinks methadone is trading addictions or is just “another form of heroin”, I challenge you to tell me how that could be true based on everything I have done over the past six years. If I was just trading addictions, I would still be a liar, a thief, and a deadbeat. I’d still be collecting those disability checks. I’d still be untrustworthy. I’d still be unproductive. I’d still be everything I was while I was shooting heroin everyday. Methadone is not “liquid handcuffs”. Quite the opposite. Methadone is freedom. It’s given me the life I never thought I could have. I don’t care if I’m on methadone for the rest of my life. If the rest of my life is going to be as good as this, sign me up.

Though this year has been full of challenges, both large and small, both new and old, it has also been a year of joys. It has been a year of progress, and of growth. A year of learning and adapting. I am another year older, I’ve got some fine lines now to go along with my ever fading track marks. Life leaves its mark on us in many ways, and my addiction scarred me in both mentally and physically. Today I can say that I am proud to be in recovery, I am proud to be working in a career job, I am proud to be off disability, I am proud to be on methadone, I am proud to be who I am, and I am proud of where I came from. My past brought me to exactly where I am supposed to be today and I am not afraid to say that.

And now, I can finally say it, with my teeth.

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