A week before graduating college at age 44, Antoinette suddenly felt the enormity of her accomplishment.
“It really hit me,” says Antoinette, an Ideal Option patient with a degree in addiction studies and nine years in recovery. “I was looking back to five years ago, when I was scared I would never accomplish anything. Because of my past, I didn’t think it was possible.”
Twice Antoinette had enrolled in college but hadn’t followed through, despite maintaining her sobriety.
“When you’ve been through addiction and have never completed anything, you have the mentality that you’re just never going to,” she says.
But her provider at Ideal Option pushed back, telling Antoinette, “You’re going to do it. You’re going to get yourself together.”
Antoinette took the leap. Her first semester, she earned straight A’s and realized, “This is what I want. I can do this. This is really going to happen.”
By the time she graduated — so jittery that she didn’t wear heels for fear of tripping on stage — Antoinette had earned top honors while working two jobs, at 7 Eleven and as a mentor to troubled youth. She also earned the Outstanding Student award for human service.
“My advisor put me on the college’s new website,” Antoinette says. “When you click, my picture shows up.”
It’s not a scenario she could have imagined during her active addiction, a stressful, exhausting period when life revolved around fending off opioid withdrawal.
“It didn’t matter how many pills I had,” Antoinette recalls. “Every single day I thought about what would happen if I ran low or ran out and how or where I could get more pills.”
Antoinette’s addiction began in her early thirties, when she was prescribed Percocet for leg and back pain. After a year, her doctor cut her off, and without the pills, she felt miserably sick. Watery eyes, diarrhea, vomiting, anxiety, insomnia — her symptoms were unrelenting.
“To this day, 9 years later, I can still imagine what all that feels like,” she says.
For a while, Antoinette hid her addiction, functioning well enough to provide for her three children and pay her rent and car insurance. Still, she could never quite manage.
She’d manipulate her mom into giving her money. She’d sleep too late to get her kids to school on time. She’d nod off while working as a certified nursing assistant, leaving co-workers to change and bathe patients without her.
Antoinette remembers: “One of my co-workers said, ‘I haven’t seen you in a few hours. I’ve been doing this all myself.’ It made me feel horrible inside.”
Three times she crashed her car but never connected the accidents with her drug use.
“One time I ran into a guardrail. Another time I totaled the car. Even with all of that, I told myself, ‘Accidents happen.’ I didn’t realize I was impaired.”
Overwhelmed by life, Antoinette moved out of state to live with an aunt. She continued to score Percocet off the street but felt worn down by the chase.
In church one day, a relative told her, “You’re running from something. You need to go back home.”
At first, she wasn’t ready to face her addiction and underlying mental health issues. But she knew she wanted to change her life.
“I was looking at myself thinking, I’m not going anywhere or doing anything.’ I couldn’t get a job. I missed my kids. I didn’t want to be sick anymore.”
Antoinette went home. By this time, her parents knew she was using drugs, but they didn’t know enough about addiction to recommend treatment or counseling.
“Their approach was, “Suck it up. Stay in the house. You’re not coming out. You’re not driving. You’ll get over it.’ That was my mom’s way of trying to get me better.”
Eventually Antoinette enrolled in a methadone clinic, but methadone made her feel delirious, and she felt belittled by the staff. “I felt like I was just a number. Nobody cared or really understood what I was going through.”
Soon, she enrolled in Ideal Option. Her provider recommended Suboxone, along with mental health and addiction counseling.
Suboxone suppressed Antoinette’s cravings, enabling her to stabilize and focus. Counseling helped her face issues from her past that she’d been avoiding.
“Before, I was self-medicating. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I didn’t know about therapy.”
At Ideal Option, Antoinette says, she felt seen and heard and respected.
“The providers know you by name and make you feel like a person, not someone who’s using. I felt so blessed to have that support.”
Antoinette decided to pay it forward, by studying to become an addiction counselor herself.
“There aren’t enough counselors who are Black,” she says. “Drugs don’t care what color you are. I wanted to be that person who can help, who people can relate to.”
Still, getting her life back on track was a gradual process. First, Antoinette had to cut ties with her drug-using friends. “I had to block them and delete them and tell them: This is not where I want to be.’”
She also had to regain her family’s trust.
“In the beginning, my mom was always suspicious. She would say, ‘What are you going upstairs for? Where are you going? Who were you with?’ I was frustrated with it, but I know the damage I caused myself and my family.”
Antoinette also had to come to terms with addiction as a disease.
“It took me a long time to accept that I’m still an addict,” she said. “I don’t struggle like I used to, and I don’t think like an addict. But I still have to be mindful of the people I hang around and the places I go. That comes naturally to me now, but it didn’t at first.”
Nearly a decade into recovery, Antoinette is on solid footing.
“I’ve come so far,” she says. “I will not jeopardize that.”
Antoinette has plans. She got a passport and vacationed in Barbados. She bought a nice car. She has a stellar credit score and plans to buy a house. Soon, she’ll start a college program to earn both her BA and MA in addiction studies.
Currently, with her new AA degree, she’s working fulltime as a substance abuse counselor.
“I wanted to help those who are straight off the street,” Antoinette says. “I have several patients who say, ‘Finally, someone understands me. Finally, they hired a counselor who doesn’t make me feel judged.”