When you’re young, you feel invincible. The world is full of endless possibilities, and most kids spend a lot of time daydreaming about their future.
But no one ever says, “When I grow up, I want to be a drug addict.”
As the daughter of an alcoholic mother and heroin-addict father, the odds were against Stacy Brandt from the start. She and her younger sister were adopted by an old boyfriend of her mother’s who worked hard to keep them out of trouble.
“I was raised by a very close-knit Italian family, and I was never around drugs growing up,” says Brandt, 24, of Millville. She uses a pen name to protect her anonymity. “We were all incredibly poor. I think the reason I got on the wrong road was because my (adoptive) dad really sheltered my sister and I.”
While her sister remained on the straight-and-narrow, Brandt had an insatiable hunger to explore the world around her. She left home at 14 and moved in with her mother, who was drinking heavily at the time.
Her home life, which was once full of structure and rules, became a free-for-all. Brandt didn’t mind — she finally had the freedom she was searching for.
“I went from being sheltered to having no guidance at all,” Brandt recalls. “It was like night and day. I’d tell (my mom) I was going out and she never asked where I was going.”
Around that time, she made one of her first close friends. Her social life had always been closely monitored by her adopted father and few people were ever allowed in.
Her new friend had a rebellious personality, and Brandt says the girls fed off of one another’s curiosity. Most nights were spent out on the town until the wee hours of the morning, partying and experimenting with boys.
Brandt says she was the thrill-seeker of the pair, always wanting to push the envelope. They eventually drifted apart after Brandt started smoking cigarettes, which triggered her friend’s asthma.
Brandt shrugged it off and refused to stop smoking.
“I got a rush from being bad. I thought, ‘Ooh, I’m not allowed to do this.’ I’m a risk-taker. I had a flair for drama,” she says.
At 16, she had her first real boyfriend, who introduced her to alcohol.
That first drink is one Brandt says she’ll always remember. She found the effects exhilarating and couldn’t get enough of how good they made her feel. Alcohol made her forget about life at home, her family, her insecurities. Nothing was worth worrying about anymore.
But the temporary euphoria was shattered by a realization that Brandt couldn’t shake: When the buzz went away, so would the peace.
She immediately went into the kitchen and searched the cabinets, eventually finding a bottle of rum. She drank as much as she could before she was discovered by her boyfriend, who was disturbed by the sudden binge.
For many alcoholics, one drink is all it takes to set off a lifetime struggle with addiction.
“Essentially, addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disorder,” says Melissa Niles, assistant director of the Cumberland County Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. “As someone puts (addictive) substances into their body over a prolonged period of time, there are permanent changes in the areas (of the brain) that affect motivation, reward and memory.”
She adds that while genetics do play a role in someone developing a substance abuse problem, it doesn’t mean addiction is a guarantee. Children of addicts are only at higher risk of addiction.
“Environment is another factor: Who is raising them, where they go to school and their personal circumstances,” Niles says.
For Brandt, that night of binge-drinking was a wake-up call — she vowed the next day to never drink again. But when her relationship ended, so did the desire to stay sober. She sought out drinking again to ease a broken heart, thinking that if she just stayed drunk, she wouldn’t have to cry again.
While the path to addiction is gradual for some, hers only took one night. Brandt spent the next several years drinking daily, first just in the evening, then in the morning to get up for classes at Millville Senior High School. Even that wasn’t enough after a while, though, and soon she was drinking during school hours and abusing prescription drugs. She was caught once in her senior year and attended an after-school rehab program, but continued using and talking her way out of trouble.
Despite the skepticism of her teachers and peers, she graduated high school in 2008 and began studies at Cumberland County College that fall.
“In college, no one calls to check on you and see why you’re not going to class,” Brandt says. “I was homeless off and on by then and was living out of my friends’ cars.”
Her regular use of appetite-suppressing stimulants caused rapid weight loss. At 18 years old, she weighed just 89 pounds and would go three to four weeks at a time without eating.
Brandt’s college career ended after her first semester. With nothing left to keep her away from drugs and alcohol, she spiraled out of control and lost the will to live. A failed suicide attempt led to two stints in a Bridgeton psychiatric hospital.
Throughout the journey, she says there were occasional moments she’d wonder what she was doing and halfheartedly attempt to get clean. But there was always another friend, another bad day, another temptation to find drugs again.
At rock bottom, she was living with a drug dealer she met in rehab.
“I’d wake up next to him every morning, hold out my hand and he’d fill it with pills,” she recalls. “I’d take them and pass out for the rest of the day, and repeat it all the next morning.”
A month of that lifestyle left her feeling empty and wanting to try for sobriety once more. She quit cold-turkey, joined a 12-step support group, got a job and went back to school.
At one of these meetings, she suffered a withdrawal seizure. A hospital doctor said she’d be dead in two weeks whether she got high again or not. After her release from the hospital, she sought out even harder drugs, adding opiates and heroin to the list.
By now, people who hear her story ask the inevitable questions: Where does it end? What does it take to stop the madness?
Frankly, the answer is death for far too many addicts. Niles says that there are 27 million Americans in long-term addiction recovery, and 10 percent of working-age adults die from causes related to alcoholism according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 100 people die every day from drug overdose.
“The cravings addicts experience typically never go away. Recovery is really about craving management — learning how to cope with the constant urges you feel,” Niles says.
“When people get their addiction into remission, that’s when they’re truly able to reach their full potential.”
In February 2013, Brandt was trying once again to get clean. Haunted by the images of countless women quitting rehab and returning to the streets, she knew that staying occupied was her only option.
“I had to do something to keep my mind busy, so I decided to try to write a book,” she explains. “Ever since I could hold a pen, I’ve been writing — it always was my escape, even if it was just silly poems.”
What started off as a lighthearted project in rehab became a serious effort to chronicle her journey with addiction and recovery. She self-published “Things I Learned” in December of last year, a collection of sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes macabre and unapologetically raw life lessons.
Brandt makes no effort to sugar-coat her story — it isn’t for the faint of heart and is meant for adults only.
The book has connected Brandt to addicts of all sorts, their families and curious others. It’s brought her media recognition throughout the area, along with something much more important: 20 months of sobriety.
“They say when you get clean, you can live a life beyond your wildest dreams. I thought they were just lying to make us feel better, but they weren’t. It’s true,” Brandt says.
“The best part of this journey is helping other people. I answer every email I get, and stay up late at night talking to people who are (struggling).” Read More “the fix”…