Our featured November Alumn, Meet Kass.
Building A Life Worth Staying Sober For: A Recovery Story
From Kass’s relatively conventional Southeast Iowa childhood, few would probably be able to guess that a sixteen year battle with addiction to multiple substances would be in the cards for her. Though a family history of substance use disorder can be traced on her mother’s side, no one in her immediate family was affected, and she enjoyed what she described as a pretty good and unremarkable upbringing.
“Both my parents, still married, good caring people, two older siblings, both normal,” she says.
But Kass would be thrown the first of many major curveballs when she was raped by a family member at the age of twelve, and, two years later, her mental health took a major nosedive. A former gifted student who loved to learn, she lost all interest in her studies and virtually dropped out, instead beginning to lean on alcohol, an eating disorder, and self-mutilation for solace. At the time, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and she later received the additional diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, a disease similar to bipolar disorder that also involves psychotic symptoms.
These conditions and her traumatic history led to an emotional lability that heightened her desire to self-medicate with substance use. When Kass was 15, marijuana and benzodiazepines joined alcohol in her arsenal, and she got her GED at 17 instead of returning to school. Though she stayed away from hard drugs until her early twenties, she also began engaging in extreme promiscuity at a young age, a behavior which she considers similar to her drug use in that it served as a way for her to exert a modicum of control over her unpredictable emotions and to escape from her own mind.
“Anything that I could reach out of myself and grab…I would do that to not have to be with myself, ” she said.
After surviving another rape at 19, Kass left Iowa to pursue treatment in Florida at what would be the first of twelve rehab centers, and then became pregnant at age 20 after a one night stand with a friend. Though she embraced the prospect of motherhood, when she was five months along she was told that her son had triploidy, a chromosomal abnormality incompatible with life outside the womb.
Since she was at risk for complications if the pregnancy continued, termination was recommended. Though Kass had already had serious issues with drugs and alcohol, to the point that she’d driven away most of her former friends due to the extent of her substance abuse, the death of her son during her then-induced labor is another traumatic turning point that further entrenched her addiction.
“At that point I just totally gave up on life, I stopped trying anymore,” she said.
A suicide attempt followed soon after, and Kass was spared only because her mother found her after her attempted overdose and forcibly transported her to the hospital. A few months later, opiates entered the picture, which eventually led to six months of regular IV drug use. After her first experience of withdrawal, Kass gave rehab another shot and was able to amass 87 days clean—her longest stretch up to that point. But things took another turn when she was hit by a car while riding her bike, suffering a skull fracture, three brain bleeds, and the loss of her senses of taste and smell—while some of her ability to taste eventually returned, her ability to smell has been gone since.
The fallout of this incident led her to return to Iowa, where she resumed using drugs and was subsequently kicked out by her parents. So, for several months, she was homeless, crashing on friends’ floors and couches while living out of her car. Eventually, Kass decided to re-enter treatment, more out of her desperation to avoid being homeless in the coming Des Moines winter than because she had any intentions of quitting drugs.
“I just couldn’t understand the idea of being sober. I didn’t want to.” she said.
After spending 17 days in a Florida facility before dropping out to resume her drug use and subsequently being transferred to another facility in California, Kass engineered a third transfer to Las Vegas as a way of getting her debit card back from the rehab powers that be so that she could resume using drugs. Her plan worked, and after being spared from another planned suicide attempt by sheer happenstance, Kass surrendered and called the treatment center. However, she ended up leaving it again only a couple weeks later, a period during which she had an experience that she describes as pivotal to her eventual sobriety.
“People always talk about, you know, the inability to stop…well, most of my life I didn’t care. I wanted to get as wasted, as high as possible,” she describes. But after loading up her last shot of black tar heroin,
“I looked at it, and I looked at this girl that I left the treatment center with, and I said to her, what am I doing. I don’t want to do this. And I still did the shot. That was the most in my face example of complete powerlessness after I would get drugs into my system,” she said.
Though that was Kass’s last time using heroin, her dark years of addiction were far from over. At her next treatment center, she met the man who would become her ex-husband, entering the longest and most destructive of a series of abusive relationships she was involved in during her twenties.
“He was very good at convincing me he was putting hands on me because he loved me. And I was really broken, so I believed him,” she said.
Aside from physically abusing both Kass and her dog, he also “all but force fed” her psych meds and forbade her from having any other friends. He was also a heavy meth user, and Kass’s ensuing despair and isolation fueled her continual meth abuse during their marriage.
“I spent all my time when I wasn’t working, isolated in my room doing drugs. I would go into my bedroom . . . I would get my dog . . . close my door, and just sit there and shoot up meth all night, and that was my life. I remember watching myself suck my own soul out with a rig, And I couldn’t take it anymore. ” she describes.
After finally gaining the courage to leave the relationship once she found evidence confirming her suspicions that her ex-husband had been cheating, she stopped using meth but immediately returned to heavy drinking.
“I picked up a bottle of tequila like it didn’t matter. I thought, because I was switching substances and not shooting up, that I was ok,” she described.
Shortly after, Kass ended up moving in with a man whom she had just met on an app.
“I put myself in odd situations when I’m on drugs,” she reflected.
However, she remained in that living situation for six months. Then, she experienced her final wake up call after finding herself desperate and alone on her drug dealer’s lawn for the second morning in a row.
“The lights weren’t on, it was like 5 am, I didn’t have his number, couldn’t find him on Facebook, I didn’t go knock, because it’s not really a door you knock on,” she said.
“But the second day that I ended up back there, it just, all at once, all the delusions and lies that I wasn’t a drug addict, that I wasn’t an alcoholic, that it’s simply because of my trauma, that it’s just because of my mental illness, I can control it. . . when I ended up back at my drug dealer’s house that second morning in a row, knowing good and well that I cannot shoot up drugs and live with this guy that I’d been living with . . .I also knew, this is gonna happen. I knew that that was right back where I was headed, and I couldn’t mentally deal with putting a rig in my arm ever again. So, on the second day I ended up back at my dealers house, I knew that sobriety was hopeless. I returned to the house I was crashing out and fell asleep for a couple hours, and then woke up and devised a plan to kill myself. And I remember just being completely at peace and just content with dying. I didn’t believe there was a God or anything. . I just thought it was blackness when you died and nothing mattered anyways. But then God intervened. I was writing a suicide note to my mom, and she was upstairs. I was waiting for her to get in the shower so I could get my dad’s gun and leave the house that I had already found. But God intervened and poked a tiny hole in all the blackness that encased my soul and let a little bit of light out, is the best way I can explain it. . . So I went upstairs and I told my mom why I had really come to the house. I was sobbing, and hysterically crying, and then I said, “Please help me, I don’t want to die.” And that was my first honest call out for help that I had ever made. Every other time I’d gone to treatment to not be homeless, to give my veins a rest, because I was out of money, there was always a motive, and it was never to get better. I couldn’t stop crying and I collapsed to the ground, and my mom held me while I cried. And it was like for a second the fog above my head just kind of separated. And I said, without any thought, I have to go to Florida, and I can’t come back. And for the first time, I didn’t question it. I had no fight left in me, just none. I just knew I had to listen to whatever people told me to do if I could get down here, or else I was going to die. And I didn’t want to, for the first time, which was the weirdest thing… I’ve always wanted to die, but when I definitively knew I was so close to death, I got terrified and decided to ask for help. So I called Reco,” Kass explained.
Kass had been made aware of Reco through a close friend of hers who she had met during one of her previous stints in rehab and who now worked for the program. Through that connection, she was able to secure herself an admission, and immediately found the program and environment to be completely different than those she’d encountered at her previous eleven rehabs.
“A lot of the rehab centers I’ve been at don’t care for all of their patients like Reco does theirs,” she described frankly, then elaborated—“A lot of the rehab centers I’ve been at are not as deeply concerned about our healing as they appear to be about other things, like insurance payments. I’ve been to a lot of very impersonal treatment centers. You’re a number, you get high, there’s your suitcase. I’ve been to enough treatment centers that I didn’t know something like Reco could even exist. . . . I remember being there and thinking, how does everyone genuinely care about us. The techs care about us, even the maintenance man, says hi and smiles and talks to the clients… It didn’t make any sense to me. I felt like I was in the twilight zone of treatment centers.”
But Kass’s road towards recovery was still to be a difficult one, especially at the beginning, a period during which she was also completely unmedicated for her mental illness and experiencing severe manic symptoms.
“I hung onto sobriety for dear life, dear life dude. There’s no reason that I’m sober other than the fact that God is real,” she described.
But by the time Kass was four months sober, she was stable enough to start an online boot camp program in UX design, though this was another difficult experience during which she relied on Reco’s support.
“I remember I used to go to Reco at least two, usually three times a week. . . . I would show up with my laptop, and I would cry, and one of the therapists or the techs would help me ground myself. . . I would go to that little computer room they have and do my classes and school work, because I needed emotional support to pretty much do anything back then,” she said.
But the ordeal paid off; her coach recommended her for a job with a Chicago design agency that she ultimately landed and still holds today.
“I love my job. It’s challenging, but I get to do it at home, so if I have a rough day it’s ok cause I can just turn my camera off and step away for a minute,” she says. Though she describes herself as “generally stable” and has made great progress in her emotional regulation, “it still pops up here or there. . . I’ve been through an insane amount of trauma, so sometimes I have night terrors, where I wake up terrified and gasping for air. But I deal with it very differently now. I don’t feel like killing myself when that stuff happens anymore, I don’t think about getting high or drunk. Instead I pray, or call my parents, because I have healthy relationships with them today,” she says.
Though Kass made an effort to give her parents space at the beginning of her sobriety while she proved to them that she was serious after putting them through so much over the years, over time she was able to rebuild her relationship with them, and they now talk on the phone nearly every day. She was also able to reconcile with her sister, who she describes as one of the people she hurt most deeply during her addiction.
“We’re actual sisters now, which I feared was never going to be a thing,” she describes.
Though she now can turn to her family for support, earlier in her sobriety, she instead leaned on her recovery community: her support system at Reco, the other women at her halfway house, and the sponsor and friends she met at twelve step meetings.
“I’ve made friends at meetings… I don’t really have friends that aren’t alcoholics in Florida,” she says wryly.
“I work from home so I just don’t meet a lot of people that aren’t drunks.”
She also frequently found herself calling on God for support and comfort. Though Kass does not subscribe to a conventional religion, she takes what she feels is valuable from various religious teachings and, during her time at Reco, developed her own conception of a higher power, which she called “KEN”— short for karma, energy, and nature— that she used until she became comfortable using the word God.
“Because that’s what made sense to me as something bigger than me,” she describes.
“My relationship with my higher power has developed and grown just from the simple act of reaching out to God. Just acknowledgement of his presence, and continual communication has strengthened our connection. There have been too many miracles in my life in the last year for me to ever fathom denying some kind of power bigger than me, just too many in my face things that are obvious acts of God.”
In the most striking such incident, Kass was prevented from following through on plans to relapse when she was unable to withdraw money from her account due to the fact that she’d misread a confirmation notice about her overdraft protection, not realizing that action on her part was required to put it into place. And in yet another miracle seemingly preordained, Kass had made plans to get her tubes tied that her journey to Reco narrowly prevented her from following through with.
“I had given up any hope of having children or any sort of normal life. I couldn’t stop drinking or using drugs or both for five minutes, how was I going to be a mother.” she explains.
But now that Kass is becoming increasingly confident that she can maintain her sobriety, she has adjusted her plans for her future accordingly and is hopeful about finding a fulfilling relationship and ultimately having a family, as well as where her career in UX may take her. Though she still struggles with “normal human stuff” like learning to be patient—“I want a house and my dog down here yesterday,” she jokes— on the whole, she feels very satisfied with the places that her recovery has taken her.
“I love my life, I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I think that’s kind of the point of sobriety, to build a life you don’t want to throw away,” she reflects.
And as for advice for anyone who may be on or contemplating beginning their own recovery journey?
“I would tell them, take the suggestions. Listening to the suggestions of people that had way more time sober than me, and staying honest with people and then taking the feedback they gave me and applying those changes, I think is what saved my life. They told me to go to meetings, so I went to meetings. They told me to share so I shared, I did my step work, I talked to God even when it didn’t make sense . . .Just stop thinking you know all the answers. Not in a negative way like you aren’t intelligent, but clearly, if you’re still getting high, what you think is best for you isn’t super working out. So just trust the process and listen to people that have been sober longer, it will change your life.” she said.
When asked about her greatest obstacles in recovery, she further reflected on the difficulties of learning to trust the process and herself.
“I think one of my biggest things, and I work very hard on this, is crawling out of this hole of abuse that I lived in for so long. I had no self-love and no self-worth when I came down here, I didn’t trust anybody, like most of us don’t when we get sober, and I was so scared all the time. . . So my biggest challenge emotionally has just been to remain honest, and to remain willing and trust that what people say about it getting better is true. And it always does gets better. It’s challenging not because I don’t want to do it . . .it can just be tough sometimes to look at everything, and acknowledge my truth,” she says.
Kass has also found it beneficial to try to hold herself to a routine and practice basic self-care; along with her regular communion with God, she tries to exercise regularly and to eat as nutritiously as possible. She also showers daily—“Which wasn’t my MO when I was on drugs,” she jokes.
Kass also makes an effort to attend three or four twelve step meetings a week, and now sponsors others through the program. In addition, she remains an active member of Reco’s alumni community.
“We have the alumni meeting every Thursday, and I still go to that pretty much every Thursday. Reco will always hold a very special place in my heart. I don’t go there in emotional upset anymore, but if I went there crying they would help me, they’ve never turned me away. . . never once have I been denied by those people. Reco is family, one hundred percent, and a lot of what I’ve accomplished in the last year is because of their love and support. I know I took the action and did what they told me would help, but they gave me this lifeline to be able to do it. . .Reco is one of the greatest blessings that God has ever put in my life, and I love them always. I fought like hell, and they never gave up on me,” she says.
But, at least in my opinion, it’s Kass who deserves the final round of applause, to borrow some stagey parlance in a potentially futile attempt to tie this incredible story back to this series’ theatrical roots. In showing remarkable resilience, perseverance, and strength of character in the face of not one but a plethora of challenges that would have alone been enough to drive many an individual to despair, Kass has made herself the protagonist of a powerfully inspiring narrative, one that conveys a clear message of transformation, triumph, and hope.
And it’s definitely just as important, if not more, to listen to the stories of the real people struggling with addiction as it is to engage with their fictional counterparts. Exploring the personal stories of Reco alumni I look forward to continuing to do in the future, as is making an effort to connect more people with their sometimes life-saving services. To learn more about how our comprehensive intensive outpatient program can help you or a loved one get back on the road to a brighter future and holistic wellness, you can learn more by contacting us online here or by calling us anytime at 844.955.3042.