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[ Personal Narratives ]

A Note To My Younger Self


“Humility is the ability to give up your pride and still retain your dignity.”  ~Vanna Bonta~

Every Friday night, I leave work at 5pm and I make the 30 minute trip across town to the women’s prison. When I arrive, all of my personal belongings are confiscated. The every day items that I’ve become dependent on (cell phone, car keys, purse, watch, jewelry) are placed into a locker and I am given a key with a large piece of blue plastic dangling off of it. The key reminds me of the bathroom keys gas station attendants used to give with rulers or clipboards attached to them so that you wouldn’t accidentally forget to return them.  I slide my Drivers License through a tiny metal opening within a window, and wait while a guard confirms my identity. I am then lead through a heavy door where the literature I have brought with me is thoroughly inspected. Finally, I walk through the metal detector, sign into the visitors log and start heading towards the cafeteria. 

For anyone who has never set foot in a jail or prison, there are few sounds more unnerving than those heavy metal doors closing behind you. I enter the facility voluntarily, but I still get anxiety at the sound of those doors closing; as if they might never open again. That loss of freedom, though mine is only brief,  gives me a glimpse of what my life could have been and what it could still be if I ever lose focus and walk away from my recovery. 

The walls are solid concrete and I can hear my footsteps echoing all around me as I make my way to the center of the room. There is a tiny corner to my right that is filled with children’s toys and books with a sign taped above it that says, “Visiting Children,” and my heart sinks a little bit every time I pass it. 

I am one of the few people I know in the Milwaukee community who actually tries to get into prison! Most people are trying to get out, or avoid it altogether, but not me! I want to get in! Why, you might ask? Thats simple, to carry the message to the still suffering addict. To give to these women what was so freely given to me. 

The truth is many of these women are there because they got caught doing what thousands of people in society do every single day; drunk driving, possession, intent to deliver. To me, that is the only difference between those women and me, they got caught when I didn’t. 

The women who gather for our meetings don’t strike me as criminals, bad people or social degenerates. They are always respectful and polite. They are always on time, and more often than not, they are there before I walk in. We generally move the square tables out of the way and form a circle out of the maroon plastic chairs. On nights when the women prefer to read out of the literature, we push the tables together and place chairs around the exterior. One of the ladies always provides a pitcher of ice water and a glass, even though they cannot drink it themselves. They are eager, they are hopeful, they are broken and beaten down, and they inspire me. 

Chairing meetings in the correctional facility has been one of the most profound things I have ever done for my recovery. If you would have told me a few years ago, that I would be spending my Friday nights in a prison and that I would actually look forward to it each week, I probably would have laughed. It’s certainly a far cry from how I used to spend my Friday nights. But this is a part of my routine today, the structure that helps make my life manageable, and I enjoy every minute of it. 

There is something so compelling about women when they are in their most humble state, stripped down to the bare essentials. They see me in my business casual clothing and understand that although I may not know exactly why they are incarcerated, I do know that they have broken the law in such a manner that required a prison sentence.

Any status they may have held outside of those walls is no longer relevant to their current living situation. It does not matter if they are black or white, if they are Christan or Athiest, gay or straight, rich or poor.  Within those walls, they all have to wear the same green jumpsuit, eat the same meals, go to bed at the same time and ask permission to use the same phone. There is no makeup, expensive clothes or fancy jewelry. 

Humility…

At the most recent meeting, the topic we discussed was self-acceptance. A few of the women spoke about their regrets, about what they wished they would have done differently, how they feared they could never be forgiven for the things they had done in active addiction. One woman talked about wishing she knew then what she knows now. There were tears, laughter and nods of agreement, but on this night mostly tears.

I could sense that these woman were hurting, that they were feeling lost and questioning how they ever let their addictions take them so far down the scale. I could relate…I can still feel that despair like it was yesterday.

And so I shared my feelings on the topic

“You know, I spent a lot of time in early recovery wishing I could go back and change my past. I played that tape through so many times. You know the tape I am talking about right? The one that contains every mistake we have ever made in our entire lives? We all have them, it’s just some of us have learned not to watch them anymore.”

“I often wondered what I could have said to my younger self that would have made me choose a different path? What would have convinced me to turn right instead of left? What could I have said to make me LISTEN?”

Quite frankly, I’m not sure I could have said anything to stop me from taking that first drink or drug, and I mean that. Someone could have looked me straight in the eyes, sternly pointed their finger in my face and said, ‘If you do this, if you try it…you will become addicted, you will self-destruct, abandon your family and come  as close as you possibly can to death...’ and I probably would have done it anyway!  I have the disease of addiction. My ego would have stepped in. I would have been curious, impulsive and insecure. I would have wanted to try it at least once; just one time! I would have stomped my foot and said, with conviction, ‘That will never happen to me, because I know better. I would never allow things to get that bad!'”

Interestingly enough, all of the things I love about myself today, I learned in recovery. Had I never went through that pain and despair, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. So, I’m torn. There’s really no point wishing you could go back and change the past; what’s done is done. I guess what I am saying is, I am not sure I would want to go back and change those things, if it meant that I wouldn’t become the strong, compassionate woman that I am today.” 

I find it comforting to write myself letters from time to time. This may seem strange, but it is actually incredibly therapeutic. I admit I feel a sort of disconnect now, between who I was and who I am today. It’s almost as if my younger self is a completely different person altogether; as if she is still lost out there somewhere, waiting to be found. I don’t ever want to be that lost little girl again, and so I put in the work, I change and I grow. 

I envision myself sitting in front of the teenage me and gently taking her hands in mine, while she rolls her eyes at me. I imagine myself lifting her chin so that our eyes meet and wiping the single tear that always seems to make its way down her cheek. I would embrace her with a warm hug and tell her that everything is going to be ok. 

If I could, this is what I would say to her…

Vanessa

1. Don’t compromise who you are inside for an idea of what someone else thinks you should be. There’s no requirement ANYWHERE that says you must conform in order to find acceptance. If it makes you feel icky inside, don’t do it. Be unique, be thoughtful, have the courage to be different.

2. Mean girls, though glamorous and popular on TV, are far from fabulous in real life. People will not remember how popular you were or what you wore, they will remember how you made them feel. BE KIND. Guilt and regret are difficult to live with, and just as difficult to let go of.

3. You are not fat! So calm down! Learn to appreciate your body now, otherwise it is going to be difficult to appreciate your appearance as an adult with a body forever changed by motherhood.

4. You are allowed to say NO! Sometimes it is necessary. Self-care is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and you do not have to apologize for it.

5. Drugs and alcohol, though they seem like harmless fun when you are young, do not make you cool. No successful adult wishes they were an addict, and no addict wishes to continue a life in active addiction. Choose the right path while you still have the ability to choose, it is much harder to change that path in the future.

6. Life can be hard and often unfair, but it is also beautiful. Things will get tough and you may find yourself feeling heartbroken and lost, but those feelings won’t last forever. It’s the cycle of living a full life. There are ebbs and flows. Hold on tight and take a deep breath when things get difficult and don’t ever forget to be grateful when things are falling into place. Do not lose hope. Do not give up on yourself. Even the most tragic events have a lesson. Have an open mind, and you will never miss an opportunity to grow.

7. Do not let a man, ANY man, determine your self-worth. If a man is only interested in your physical appearance, he does not deserve your affection. Physical attraction does NOT equate to love, and believe me when I say that you do not need a boyfriend to complete you. You are already loved! Be patient! Wait for the person who embodies everything YOU love; Humor, loyalty and intelligence. Someday you will appreciate your husband for being not only your partner in love, but one of your best friends.

8. What other people say about you behind your back is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. There are certain instances where ignorance is bliss. Do not seek out resentments. The opinions of others only define you if you let them. What matters is how you feel about yourself.

9. You will make mistakes. FORGIVE YOURSELF. Don’t be discouraged. Some of life’s best lessons will come from your biggest mistakes. Walking through the pain will only make you a stronger, more compassionate woman, sister, mother and friend. Never stop trying to be better than you were the day before.

10. If you are going to make an apology, mean it! Then take the necessary actions to change your behaviors. Apologies are nothing but words when the actions are repeated. The most honorable people are those who can admit when they have done something wrong, and then change their behavior.

11. Learn to accept an apology you never received. You cannot control the actions or opinions of others, and a forced apology is just as painful as no apology at all. Learn to let go and move on. In the end, staying angry will only hurt you.

12. Learn to laugh at yourself.  Stop taking yourself so seriously! Laugh until your belly hurts, until you snort, until you have tears streaming down your face and then laugh some more! There is nothing that compares to the joy of laughter. 

13. Do not compare how you feel on the inside to how other people appear on the outside. This one is important, so listen up! No one is perfect, it is NOT possible! Accept yourself, flaws and all. You will be blessed with a lifetime of happiness if you can succeed in this one task

Vanessa Day

Milwaukee, WI

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