Semi-Retired Non-Profit Executive; Certified Recovery Specialist; Recovery Coach/Mentor
Living with Alcohol Addiction, Panic Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder

When Susan first admitted to herself that she was experiencing alcohol addiction, anxiety, and depression, she never thought it would be her greatest gift. Now, she feels comfortable in her skin through her openness and understanding of her conditions. She wants to share her story and encourages others to do the same to reduce the stigma around mental and substance use conditions.

Susan’s Story

When were you first aware of your condition?

I finally admitted I was an alcoholic on September 29, 1986. Since that time, I have been fortunate to not relapse on alcohol or any other drugs. However, about a year into my sobriety and at the onset of a new career, I experienced what I would call the most difficult time of my life. I didn’t know what was happening. I couldn’t sleep or eat, I felt constant terror and was ravaged with physical illness. Finally, one day I left my office with what I now know was a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe and thought I was just crazy. No one in my family had ever discussed any of these symptoms, although I found out much later that I inherited my diseases up the genetic line. I was unable to work for a period of time, but fortunately had an employer who understood. My therapist referred me to a psychiatrist who found medications that alleviated panic and provided me a pathway back to work. For the past 32 years, I have taken advantage of every tool I can access to stay sane, sober, healthy and happy. I attend and am active in three 12 step programs.  I see a therapist, psychiatrist, spiritual director, sponsor, have a faith community, women I sponsor, a cadre of women friends in recovery and keep up to date on recovery literature.  I eat healthy and exercise weekly.  The founding of The Stability Network has given me a unique opportunity to find others who are willing to speak up about our conditions so that others won’t have to suffer.

How has your condition impacted your life?

After I finally admitted to myself that I needed to seek help for my inability to stop drinking, I vividly recall the day a few years later I had to also admit that I had a chronic mental health condition – depression and anxiety. I have come to learn that for women especially, depression/anxiety is often comorbid with alcoholism.   At first, I thought it was a death knell; I never would have thought that admitting this to myself would turn out to be my greatest gift. 

What is your life like now?

One of the main reasons I wanted this movement to go forward and have people who were successfully living and managing in life with these diseases, is that for the most part, I held some really awful and useless stereotypes about who people with mental health and substance use conditions were until I became one of them.

The greatest gift from all of my recovery is that I am finally comfortable in my own skin.  I am not faking who I am. I am not hiding a secret life of alcohol/drug use and anxiety/depression. I can share my experience to help others. I mentor several women in recovery.  When I share my story, even briefly, it gives others the opening to confide in me. There is no greater joy than to see someone not feel alone anymore. Isolation is one of the hardest parts of mental health conditions.  I have people in TSN that I can call or even email and say I’m having a hard time. They are immediately there for me, providing an understanding word or hug (virtual and real).  This makes all the difference in my life today.

Who in your life or what specific strategies helped you to get well and move to stability?

As I mentioned above, I was fortunate to have an understanding employer and excellent health insurance when I first experienced panic. That has not always been the case with employers, even in social service agencies.  After an administrative colleague in a behavioral health agency suggested that I not introduce myself as having alcoholism and a mental health condition, I became committed to always telling my story.  There is no shame in stating what I live with and how I got better. In fact, it gives people hope.   I have had spiritual directors, sponsors, people in the 12 step rooms, who listen and are non-judgmental with me.  That has been a gift and a grace.  Asking for help is a strategy that was foreign to me before recovery.  I thought I could do it all on my own. I was wrong.  I still use that strategy when I hit rough spots in my recovery.  This is a lifetime disease that requires lifetime help.  Health insurance is a critical need to ensure I can get continued care both therapeutic and physical.

Are there positives that have come from having a mental health condition? If so, what?

Yes. I am able to tell my children exactly what they are at risk of inheriting so they hopefully will not have to go through the same experimentation I did in getting help.   However, even with the candid information given to my children, I found that shame is so deeply embedded in our society that even confiding in safe people like parents in recovery can be extremely difficult.  People still think they are doing something wrong, or there’s something wrong with them.  When I told my oldest that she had inherited some of my diseases, it took the shame away.  It was not her fault.  She could then carry on as if someone had given her a diagnosis of diabetes.   I find that sharing my story helps so many not to feel shame. 

What encouragement or advice would you give to someone struggling with a condition similar to yours?

That they are not alone. That I have the same condition. That recovery is possible. Recovery is possible for them, not just me.  It’s an uphill battle, no doubt. But that there are people willing to walk alongside them as they work to recover.

What motivated you to join TSN?

I was at the “founding table” when several of us met to discuss this idea of sharing our stories publicly and especially in our own workplace.  I had been doing that for years, but others had not.  There was a breakthrough in the room that day when some, who had never told anyone but a family member, told each of us their stories.   We knew something great had been born. I have such gratitude for meeting Katherine Switz, David Chow and others who have led the way toward a national movement from our meager beginnings.

Are there resources that helped and or inspired you that would recommend to others?

In the 80’s I lived with John Bradshaw’s books. He was instrumental in helping me rid myself of shame. I also attended an inpatient program at Caron Foundation in Warnersville, PA that was transformative for helping heal from shame.  Shame is what kept me from getting help for a long time. Experiential therapies (Gestalt/Psychodrama/Art therapy/Shadow work) worked better for me than talk therapy, although I found both useful. Of course, any and all 12 step literature and meetings.

Is there anything else you want to share?

We all see and hear about individuals with mental illness/addictions living on the streets, blamed for sucking taxpayer dollars through public services, which, judging by the results, are not that effective. We rarely, if ever, hear a CEO, Director, manager or even line worker share their story in their own workplace for FEAR of the repercussions, including everything from being treated differently to losing your job or promotion.

It’s time that the power brokers, rainmakers and politicians told their stories openly. Perhaps then, and only then, will much needed funding flow into the woefully underfunded public mental health/addictions treatment facilities.  That is my hope with TSN.