"Trying heroin was like falling in love. I knew immediately I would do it until I died." Faces Of Recovery: Kaitlyn Arneson

Some of my earliest memories are of feeling innately uncomfortable with myself. I felt “wrong” and couldn’t tell if everyone else felt like that and just hid it well or if I was the only one. My parents divorced when I was in kindergarten and I began therapy a few years later. I remember that at around 14 years old my therapist told me that I didn’t have anything diagnostically wrong with me. I felt like a fraud because I was so sure that something was wrong. The lack of any diagnoses felt like a defeat; there were no words for that something that felt wrong and it made me feel like it was all in my head since no one else could see it. I felt really alone.

My drug use began in high school. I was in advance placement classes and a dedicated student, but I was also really restless and compulsive. I had a lot of friends and was liked by most people. Yet, I still frequently felt “wrong” about myself despite what others said, how good my grades were, or how many friends I had.

In the beginning I used mostly stimulants to “help” get through school. However, I was always very curious about drugs in general. I remember going through a drug unit in health class my sophomore year of high school and even though the instructor discussed drugs in a negative way I was drawn in by the idea of using drugs. I kept thinking, “Those could change how I feel” and that was my ongoing struggling: dealing with my feelings and never feeling comfortable with my emotions. So my drug use started in high school, but the drive to avoid my emotions began much earlier.

In high school I was never satisfied with myself or my drug use. I wanted to be cooler, more interesting, more likeable, and I dabbled in a number of drugs hoping they would be my answer. I tried psychedelics and club drugs and smoked weed when nothing else was available. I was always disappointed with my drug experiences. I’d look forward to partying all week and as Saturday came the anticipation would well up inside of my gut. I’d take a hit of something and feel a nice high and then eventually it would mellow out or perhaps not get me as high for as long as I imagined it should and I’d inevitably come down and feel a deep depression in the middle of a party. I was always disappointed but never dissuaded - it would always be different next time.

During this time I began to live a dual life. Many of my friends did not like that I drank and I was not going to let them know that I was using all sorts of drugs too. At the same time I was developing friends in my using circle and I wanted to prove myself to them. Of course my parents could never know what I was up to either. So I tried to balance seeking out and using drugs and partying with showing up to football games and family dinners sober. I began to live a very private life within myself and not a single person truly knew who I was.

I graduated high school in the top 10% of my class, with honors, and went to a private college on a full academic scholarship. I felt excited to “start over” somewhere else. I wanted a new identity because I didn’t like myself. I never felt cool enough - I was too emotional, too high maintenance, too high strung. I wasn’t one of those cool, relaxed girls. I obsessed over things and dwelled on every interaction with friends and acquaintances - Was I too needy? Too clingy? Did I reveal too much? I was determined to be cool and more relaxed. Without putting much thought into it, drugs became a part of this fresh start too.

I stopped using stimulants because my anxiety was getting out of control and I turned to mostly weed and alcohol. At the same time I began to be very controlling over what I revealed about myself. I put up walls and calculated every word. I remained on my perpetual quest to escape how I felt. I partied hard my freshman year, but I also worked very hard at my academics and got on the dean's list for both semesters.

I went through phases of wanting to stop partying and I’d stop for a few weeks or a few days. Eventually I’d end up partying again and I’d rationalize to myself, “Oh that’s just how college is.” Sometimes I’d use by myself and I’d tell myself, “Oh at least I’m not partying like all those irresponsible burnouts.” This pattern continued into my sophomore year.

When I was 19 years old I tried heroin for the first time. I had just gotten out of a bad relationship and gone through an even worse breakup. I was in the midst of another identity crisis and was feeling too “known” by those closest to me. I was still balancing my using friends and my non-using friends. Life was really messy and I felt like I was falling apart. Trying heroin was like falling in love. I knew immediately I would do it until I died. I knew immediately that I would wake up longing for it the next day. I knew that if I wasn’t careful I would die with a needle in my arm.

I didn’t immediately start using heroin regularly because I did not have a lot of access to it and I didn’t want to be someone that used hard drugs too frequently (because I wasn’t an addict). I was just someone who regularly drank, smoked pot, tried whatever random pills I could find and occasionally dropped acid. But as long as I only infrequently shot up heroin I was not an addict. I (somewhat) functionally used heroin until my senior year of college.

Through this time I vacillated between using many drugs, using only certain drugs, quitting everything cold turkey for several days, trying new drugs, going to NA meetings, going to AA meetings, getting into recovery, getting out of recovery, and overall uprooting my entire view of drugs and myself every few months.

I spent a while sober and living with a group of Christian girls only to relapse a month before the lease ended, stealing from everyone, and unceremoniously moving out without a word to any of them. I went through several jobs and several groups of friends. My life at this time was characterized by long periods of stability punctuated by short bursts of complete insanity. This all culminated in disaster my senior year of college. Over the course of just a few months I failed out of school with only one semester left until graduation, was fired from my job, was arrested and charged with a felony, alienated myself from my only non-drug using friends, and lost much of my contact with most of my family.

During this time my drug use increased dramatically. My mental health was failing and I didn’t have the ability or the resources to pull myself out of the hole I had dug. I embraced my identity as an addict wholeheartedly and felt like perhaps there was something beautifully tragic about my predicament. I realized that I was going to die and probably very soon. At the time it all seemed very fitting.

This is when I began to work in the sex industry. This is something that I’m still not altogether comfortable sharing about and I won’t go into great detail, but I quickly found that everything came with a price and if I was going to die with a needle in my arm then why not? Long before my addiction I had felt a low simmering emptiness and darkness. As I fell deeper into the recesses of addiction I felt a certain sick satisfaction that my insides were finally matching my outside. Now everyone could see what my therapist all those years ago could not: there is something wrong with me. Selling myself allowed me to outwardly present to the world the internal degradation that had haunted me for so long.

I don’t know when I hit my bottom, but I continued to use long past any feelings of “bottom” that cropped up. I had long let go of any dreams or hope or future. Then one day I went for a drive and I passed through my old neighborhoods and drove by my old school. I was struck by how different life had been then. I noticed a sign pointing towards some kind of event at my old high school and there were people waving flags to usher me in. I don’t know why I turned in, but I was largely just curious. I walked into the doors and was greeted warmly and told, “Welcome to Church”. I felt deflated. How many wrong turns in life does one need to make in order to find themselves at a Church? What a horrifying turn of events. I had dabbled in and long ago disposed of any notion of Christianity.

Unfortunately I felt obligated to stay because people kept talking to me and ushering me further into the building until I was somehow seated in the front row. I stayed from start to finish and then left vowing never to return. The following Sunday, against my better judgment, I came back. Not long after I was on the early coffee team and suddenly I was a regular attender to church. I was still using drugs and still working in disreputable ways. But I also felt less alone. I told a few people that I was trying to get clean and they encouraged me. I started going back to NA meetings with the hope that I’d find something there to help me too. I was slowly starting to feel human again.

I never meant to become a Christian. But one Sunday, after coffee team, I wandered into a service; something I had successfully avoided after my first visit. It felt strangely intimate and I felt incredibly desperate. I had a few days clean, but I could see the relapse on the horizon and like a crashing wave it would always take me back out to sea. I heard the pastor mention the parable of the lost sheep. It struck me then that these people would probably see me as a lost sheep. I wondered if God saw me that way too. I didn’t actually know if I believed in a God at all. Yet it seemed fitting that if this God was real perhaps he had led me here, through all the darkness and through all my demons, he had guided me out like a shepherd. Perhaps my entire had been leading up to this moment.

I couldn’t understand why a God would do that. Why not bring me here before all the drug use and all the bad decisions while I still had things of value? What not get to me while I still had my future and hope and dignity and humanity? More still, why not find someone else with money or power or marketable skills? Why go so far for someone so incapable? The world had already told me in so many ways that I had and was nothing worthwhile. It seemed impossible to me that there would be a God like that. Still I thought, “God, if you’re real and if you really want me and if you really brought me here then you can have me. But I don’t have anything for you”. Right then I felt His presence and the reality of my situation - my addiction, my mental health, my profession - didn’t matter anymore. I felt enveloped by the God that had created me and had orchestrated my rescue. I didn’t know if I would get clean or become employable or finish my degree or repair my failed relationships. All I knew was that I had come home and that I was going to be OK.

It took a while for my life to change. I began to pursue recovery in ways that I was not capable of pursuing before. The addiction that had run my life for so long had finally met it’s match. In God I found a power greater than my addiction. I had hope. I firmly believed that God did not want me to die in addiction which meant that someday, even if I couldn’t see it then, I would be free. I continued to go to 12-step meetings, I built relationships at church with people who held me accountable, and I became authentic. I still had a lot of fear, but everyday the Lord taught me what it meant to truly be created in His image. He is the overcomer and part of living as a being created in that image is embracing the power to overcome. Slowly one day clean turned to sixty and eventually I was getting my one year medallion. That was 3 years ago.

Today, I am clean. I am a mother. I work a full time job in the mental health field. I am finishing my degree. I have a better understanding of my own mental illness and with the help of medication and therapy I can live normally. I am a productive member of society with friends and a family who love me. I am still on coffee team at church and I finally know my creator. Life is not perfect and there are still things that happened in my addiction that haunt me. But for today, by the grace of God, I don’t have to live like that anymore.