Recovery, Redemption, & Real Stuff: One Woman's Story of Substance Use Disorder

By Sarenka Smith



Hi, I’m Sarenka, and I’m an addict.

I’m also a writer, a comedian, a Johns Hopkins honors graduate, a recovering codependent, a skincare connoisseur, a voracious reader, a public policy nerd, and a cat and chocolate lover. Today, I am many things.

Whenever I speak at meetings on my own recovery journey from drug addiction and alcoholism, I’m always careful to begin with behaviors that began long before I ever took my first drink or drug: pathological lying, people-pleasing, codependency, and an overwhelming inability to sit with myself. Recovering addicts often call it a “hole in the soul:” a profound emptiness that manifests as a lack of connection with others but is actually a lack of connection with oneself. Seeking approval, praise, and recognition to prove we are “good enough.”

They say that alcohol and drugs are merely the symptoms for alcoholics and addicts, and it’s true. The real, deeply-rooted stuff is much harder – and far more uncomfortable – to tackle.

It’s worth noting that my own recovery journey was neither linear nor graceful. I remember eating dinner alone on Thanksgiving several years ago. Although my family lived only a few miles up the road, they didn’t invite me for the holidays. The truth? I wasn’t even allowed to enter my childhood home: the place in which I had spent most of my life with my two younger siblings and parents. I was also jobless and burning through my limited savings. I had hurt people I loved and acted in ways that inevitably pushed people away; I had found myself in scenarios that were once unimaginable: without a place to live in Baltimore City, relying on sometimes terrifying contacts to feed the beast within me.

I often find it difficult, if not impossible, to explain what addiction feels like to non-addicts. The disease is completely devoid of logic, and the ways in which we act often verge on insanity. The fundamental things become non-important, including food, water, shelter, family and friends. Addiction causes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to crumble into dust; the only thing that becomes important is the drug itself.

Very few people — only addicts and the people who love them unconditionally — are familiar with the self-destructive behavior of addiction. As my addiction progressed, it systematically and unrelentingly expedited my free fall from the “apple of my parents’ eye” and top-notch student to an untrustworthy, lonely, and self-loathing individual.

What my parents did not know for many years is I was an alcoholic and a drug addict. As each year passed, I became increasingly reliant on drugs — unable to conceive how much they would ultimately ravage my life. Living in active addiction not only drains you of any semblance of rationale and reason, but it also robs you of agency. It means that your life merely exists as the space between crises.

When I stole money from my younger sister to fund my opioid addiction, it was a step (in ever so many steps) too far. I subsequently hit my bottom – a messy, terrifying series of months marked by crippling physical withdrawals and staggering desperation – and began my ascent into recovery. Progress took Herculean effort, but by Thanksgiving of 2019, I was reunited and reintegrated into my family. I began to reenjoy meaningful and close friendships, earn a very healthy salary, and advance my career at lightning speed.

There’s a line in a recovery-related text that reads: “You can’t stay clean if you live dirty.” While I could stay abstinent from drugs and alcohol, there were a host of other issues to tackle. It was only when I began to work on deeply ingrained insecurities, character defects, mental health comorbidities, and an array of cognitive distortions that I began to truly live. The difference was not merely being off alcohol and drugs; rather, it was the ability to fully show up as a daughter, friend, sibling, partner, colleague, and more.

My recovery from addiction did not only bring me back to a healthy baseline: it made me transition into a more evolved, purposeful, and hardworking individual than I otherwise would have become.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to distill the lessons of recovery into any mode of communication, or effectively articulate how my perspective was profoundly and permanently altered. Suffice it to say, my life has been forever changed with a sense of purpose, commitment, honesty and service. These are the fundamental concepts of recovery that I carry into my personal and professional life.

The core concepts of commitment and service now infuse every element of my life. In addition to volunteering in various ways within the community, I apply all that I’ve learned—and continue to work on—in recovery to my career. Because I have learned to be unselfish, I am able to constructively put myself in others’ shoes. At work, this often translates into understanding the needs of colleagues, as well as remaining confident and calm when anyone acts out under stress. The emphasis on service to others leads to flexibility, and an ability to take up the slack, even when the responsibility is not actually on my plate. Complete honesty means I am straightforward in my communications, accepting responsibility for mistakes, and clearly expressing ideas, needs, and goals. And because the work of recovery is arduous, constant, and without short-cuts, I apply that work ethic to all my pursuits: from my career trajectory to physical exercise to working on all types of relationships.

October 30th, 2017 was the last day I used any mind-altering substance. In some meetings, we discuss how the principles of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are indispensable for recovery. And as we begin the long and sometimes laborious journey of recovery, we recognize the truth in that.

Recovery has given me my life back and has provided additional tools for success: both personally and professionally. Today, my secrets have become my story – and the stigma has shifted into something that often resembles pride and courage.

Written by

Sarenka Smith

Sarenka has been voraciously reading & writing since she was a small child. For the past half decade, she has worked in marketing & communications for healthcare-focused organizations and…