Hi, my name is Jennifer Flory, and I’m a Recovery Advocate

People often ask me what this means and ask, “What do you actually do?”

Let me explain.

If someone had told me when I was younger that my passion in life as an adult would be to fight addiction, I would have said, “Who, me?  Not a chance!”

If someone had told me when my daughter was a child that she would one day become an alcoholic and drug addict, I would have said, “Who, my daughter?  No way!”

If someone had told me that, someday, my firstborn child would die from an accidental overdose, I would have said, “How could you say that?  I would never let that happen!”

If someone had told me that only a small percentage of addicts recover, and the rest end up either dead or in prison… wait, someone did tell me that.  And I didn’t believe him.

NOT MY CHILD!  Or so I thought.

My daughter DID become an alcoholic and drug addict and she DID die from an accidental overdose.  It DID happen to my child, and it COULD happen to yours too.  Addiction does not discriminate.

So, what does it mean for me to be a Recovery Advocate?

Being a Recovery Advocate means that my passion in life is to fight addiction and that I will do everything in my power to prevent another mother from losing their child like I did.

Being a Recovery Advocate means that my daughter’s death was not in vain and that sharing her story will hopefully help others avoid the same fate as hers.

Being a Recovery Advocate means that I’m not afraid or ashamed to be transparent about what my child went through in the hopes that others will follow my example and share their stories too.

I was an Advocate long before I even knew what the label meant.  I was an Advocate the moment I found out that my daughter died.  I was an Advocate the first time I decided to speak up and get involved.  I was an Advocate as soon as I refused to be shunned and silenced by the stigma of addiction.

Battling a Stigma

The STIGMA of addiction and behavioral health disorders may actually deter people from getting the help they need.

According to SAMHSA, “…those with mental or substance use disorders often experience stereotyping, negative attitudes, and discrimination from the people around them, including their communities, families, and friends. Internally, they may start to believe these stereotypes and negative attitudes about themselves, harming their self-esteem and their chance for recovery.”

I had a personal experience with another type of stigma many years ago:  The stigma of teen pregnancy/parenthood.  I carried Alison for the entire second semester of my senior year of high school, yet nobody knew that I was pregnant.  I was embarrassed.  Ashamed.  Afraid of what people might think.  After all, I wasn’t known as “that” type of girl. I thought that if I told any of my friends I was pregnant, they wouldn’t believe me and that they would think I was joking or lying.  Honestly though, I hadn’t ever thought it could happen to me.  Once it did happen, I wasn’t prepared for the negative attention I knew that I would receive.  And I sure wasn’t prepared to be a full-time parent.  But I made my mind up that I was going to make it work.

Feeling Like an Outsider

Fast forward about ten years or so.  By this time, I realized that parenting was definitely NOT an easy task, especially when I was basically still a child myself (my parents will gladly attest to the fact that I was severely lacking in the maturity department well into my twenties)!  In other words, my daughter and I literally grew up together.  There were pros and cons to this, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Alison had trouble fitting in when she was in school.  She could never quite put her finger on what about her was different from the other kids, but for some reason she had a problem connecting with them.  She said she always felt “different” from everyone else.  That is, until she went to Florida… but more on that later.

I knew early on that Alison was different.  She thought about things on a deeper level than others and from a unique perspective.  She was extremely intelligent, witty, and charming and could strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, about anything.  She was an avid reader and writer, and she could spend hours at a time at Borders or Barnes & Noble lost in a pile of books or writing in her journal.  She had a passion for music and used songs and lyrics to identify and express who she was and what she was feeling.  She had a clear sense of things she loved when it came to personal style, music, food, hobbies; however, she was always willing to try new things!  She had a brilliant, contagious smile that anyone who ever met her will never forget.  She had a quirky sense of humor and enjoyed pointing out the irony found in everyday life.  She was generous and kind to a fault, nonjudgmental and accepting of everyone, and always willing to help anyone in need.

She was also overly sensitive and emotionally vulnerable.  She struggled with self-image and confidence.  She often pondered the meaning of life and yearned to know and find her place and purpose in the world.  She had trouble coping with stress and letting go of past resentments.  She felt different from others and like she didn’t “fit in” anywhere.

Clearly, her strengths outweighed her weaknesses, though!  How could addiction touch her life, let alone take it?  Why did this happen to her, of all people?  Where did things go wrong?

The Beginning of the End

I first discovered that my daughter, Alison, tried drugs when she was 15 years old.

Nothing could have prepared me for what transpired over the ten years that followed.  That is, the last ten years of her life.

Alison started spending less time at home and more time with friends, which I believed was age-appropriate.  She met a boy through a friend, whom she said was “just a friend,” and I believed her.  As it turns out, he introduced her to smoking weed.  I talked with her about it, and she assured me that she was just experimenting and that she really didn’t like it much.

She promised not to smoke weed anymore.

I believed her.

And I thought to myself, “Well, at least it was ONLY weed and not those other harder, more dangerous drugs.”  I was clearly in denial.

Alison had her first “official” boyfriend at age 16.  They were in love.  However, he struggled with some insecurities and mental health issues of his own.  Their relationship ended with his suicide when she told him she needed some space.  He stepped in front of a moving freight train while leaving her a voicemail message on her cell phone.  Some of her peers at school blamed her for her boyfriend’s death;  others helped her cope by giving her opioid/benzo cocktails to numb her emotional pain.  She believed that if she took enough pills, she could erase the memories and the pain forever.    I found her a therapist to help her deal with her guilt.  After a few months went by, she explained that the reason she took the pills was because the initial shock of what had happened was too much for her to deal with and that she now felt better equipped to handle her feelings.

She promised not to take pills anymore.

I believed her.

And I thought to myself, “Well, at least it was ONLY prescription pills and not those other harder, more dangerous drugs.”  I was clearly in denial.

She wanted a fresh start, so she moved in with her grandma and attended a new high school for her junior and senior year.  New school, new clothes, new friends, new opportunities… same insecurities.  She graduated from high school and went to college.  As it turned out, her college roommate was dealing drugs out of their apartment, and Alison got hooked on ketamine.  During the second semester of her first year of college, she was hospitalized for sepsis and kidney failure and nearly lost her life.  She dropped out of college.

She promised not to do any drugs anymore.

I believed her.

And I thought to myself, “Well, now that she has tried those other harder, more dangerous drugs, this near-death experience surely must have scared her straight.”  I was clearly in denial.

The next few years consisted of many more attempts at “fresh starts,” all of which landed her back at square one.  Binge drinking, blackouts, unexplained injuries… led to excuses about hanging out with people who are a bad influence, flashbacks to her boyfriend’s death, unresolved resentments, fun that got out of hand, rationalizing that drinking for twenty-somethings is “normal”.  But she said that she didn’t want me to worry about her, so she would cut back on her drinking.

She promised not to drink recklessly anymore.

I believed her.

And I thought to myself, “Well, at least it was ONLY alcohol and not that illegal weed, those unprescribed pills, that or those other harder, more dangerous drugs that put her in the hospital.  I was clearly in denial.

What she ultimately came to realize was that no matter where she went or who she was with, she could not escape herself and her thoughts.  She was trying to run away from herself.  Substance use allowed her to feel comfortable in her own skin or at least temporarily masked her discomfort. Despite my best efforts to guide and protect her, she always chose her own path assuring me that she knew what she was doing.  “I’ve got this, Mom” was one of her favorite things to tell me.

I always believed her.  I wanted to believe it was true.  But I was no longer in denial.  I knew in my gut that a drastic change needed to happen and that I couldn’t fix the problem by myself.  But what could I do?  I decided that I would no longer let the stigma of addiction stand in my way of getting help for my daughter.

Alison drank and drugged for ten years, yet nobody knew that she was an alcoholic or addict.  I spent too long refusing to recognize or acknowledge the red flags, let alone speak out about my experience.  I was embarrassed.  Ashamed.  Afraid of what people might think.  I didn’t want my daughter to be known as “that” type of girl, and I didn’t want to be known as a “bad” parent.  I thought that if I told any of my family or friends, they would think I was exaggerating or blowing things out of proportion.  I hadn’t ever thought that addiction, alcoholism, or overdose death could happen to my daughter.

Now that it has happened, I am prepared to handle any attention – positive or negative – that I receive.  I am prepared to advocate for the rights and ethical treatment for anyone struggling with addiction.  I have made up my mind that I am going to make a difference.

In the summer of 2015, I reached out to a friend of a friend from high school, Tim Ryan.  I had heard that he was an addict in recovery (I had no clue what “recovery” meant at this time) and that he helped some other addicts get help.  I was hoping that he could give me some advice.  He told me to bring Alison to his office the following day and that he would talk to her.  I had no idea what to expect.  I didn’t even know if Alison would agree to go, let alone be open to having a conversation with him.  However, she willingly agreed to go – no questions asked.  Months later, she told me that she had known in her gut that day that a change needed to happen and that she couldn’t fix the problem herself.  Exactly what I had thought.

The timing was right….

However, nothing could have prepared me for the roller coaster ride over the 15 months that followed.  That was, the last 15 months of her life.

A Mother’s Story: Part 2

A Mother’s Story: Part 3

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