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Coming Full Circle: A Reflection on My 25th Recovery Birthday

By Heather Venegas, Director of the King County Recovery Coalition

This May, I celebrated twenty-five years of long-term recovery on Cinco de Mayo. Cool, huh? Everyone parties on my recovery b-day! Right around then I had taken my daughter Bella to get her hair cut at our favorite salon, Tousle, in Wallingford. I went in search of coffee and headed up the street, suddenly finding myself on the corner where my former bank, from 32 years ago, still stands. Today it has a different name. As I looked at the building and waited for the light to change, it all came flooding back to me…

1986 was a big year for me: I moved up to Seattle from San Francisco with my boyfriend, excited, full of dreams for our future and a month later experienced heroin withdrawals for the first time on my 26th birthday. This wasn’t my first rodeo: I had been in recovery and relapsed after I saw a doctor about migraines I was experiencing. He prescribed opiates and sedatives to me after I told him I was in recovery, and one thing led to another. In October of that year, I went to my bank one afternoon with my boyfriend to make a deposit into our account. It was a family company check that we banked every month, asking for less cash each time. This day was different: the teller said no we’d have to wait for the deposit to post. My boyfriend got angry and left the bank in a huff. I walked to my car and began driving home.

Half a block from our house, I saw him walking up the street. We went inside and there in the kitchen my boyfriend began pulling wads of cash out of his leather jacket. More and more dollar bills landed on the kitchen table – it was one of the most surreal moments of my life. Time stood still, everything slowed down, and I knew without a doubt that our lives would never be the same.

Michael had gone back in the bank, you see, and asked for his money. The teller reacted by giving him a bunch of cash. We frantically stuffed cash into cereal boxes and spent as much money as we could at our dealers. Several hours later, around 10pm, we were woken up by pounding on the front door. Down the stairs we went and opened the door: 10 Seattle Police officers and FBI agents stood there with their guns drawn. They took me to the kitchen and my boyfriend to the living room and questioned us. I was threatened with aiding and abetting. Michael went to federal jail in Tacoma and I went to treatment again. My boyfriend became the first person in the state of Washington to do no prison time in connection with robbing a bank, which was ultimately reduced to larceny of a bank. The judge sentenced him to a year at the treatment center. I stayed in recovery for 6 years, however I later relapsed again and went to treatment a few more times before 5-5-94, the first day of my 25 years.

As I drove off when the light changed, my heart welled up with so much gratitude and appreciation for the incredible life I am blessed to live. Today I am a woman in long term recovery, with a safe home to sleep in, a 15 year old daughter who has never seen her mother loaded, friends and family who accept and love me for who I am, a job I love that gives me the opportunity to help others on a daily basis. I begin each day with the freedom to choose, just like others in recovery, and know that all of this could be taken away, in a single second, if I made the decision to use.

My name is Heather and I am in long term recovery, which means I haven’t used drugs or alcohol for over twenty- five years, twenty-four hours at a time, and I practice a program of recovery to live my best life full out.

I’ve been to treatment at least 7 times since I was 23 – inpatient, outpatient, twenty-eight-day programs, 4 ½ months my longest stay, put on Trexan, Methadone and even Antabuse in the 80’s. I’ve overdosed and used again that same afternoon. I’ve let go of all of the dreams for my life and the values I once held dear, I’ve betrayed friends and family, lying and stealing and begging, in the course of my addiction. I came from a family that loved me and provided all that one could hope for in life – financial security, support, a safe home, great education, opportunities to travel the world and yet none of it filled the empty hole in the very center of my being. None of it made me feel enough, lovable and worthy.

The last time I put narcotics in my body was in April of 1994. I was intervened on and flown to my childhood home in California, where I made a choice to choose life. Since that day I have walked through many things in my recovery, learning to ask for help, to develop a relationship with a Higher Power and to trust the process. I’ve filed for bankruptcy, gotten divorced, moved from one state to another, then married, became a mother, got divorced again, got sick with Hepatitis C, did Interferon and have been undetectable since 1997. I’ve done the Artist’s Way and left the corporate world to make my living with my creative expression, went back to school and got my Master’s Degree, became a minister. I’ve had the honor of marrying people, blessing babies and burying people and traveled the globe once more this time including service work when possible. I have worked on myself with other women’s help, and can meet anyone’s gaze, know that I belong and have value and that my greatest joy comes from being of service, from sharing what has been so graciously given to me. I begin and end each day in gratitude.

What I know now is all of these are gifts of my recovery, that each moment, each interaction, each situation is a gift and I am given the freedom to choose as long as I don’t put chemicals in my body and I practice the principles and suggestions of my program. I know recovery is possible, for each and every one of us. We DO Recover!

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