By Shannon Egan
HI, MY NAME IS SHANNON, AND AM AN ALCOHOLIC and DRUG ADDICT.
For nearly fifteen years of my life I struggled with a disheartening addiction to drugs and alcohol, and for the majority of that time I hid my addiction from the world.
It was easy to hide because of my job. I was a world traveling, freelance writer working in faraway places like war-torn Sudan, tropical Suva, lush-green Nairobi, and vivacious New York City. Nobody could keep tabs on me, and if they tried I was Gone Girl, like Amy Dunne, the character in Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same title.
Hiding my addiction was essential to managing my shame, and it kept me from having to deal with the stigma that comes from being a pill-popping, coke-whore, and lush.
When I hit rock bottom in 2011 my life changed dramatically.
Due to my obsessive partying, I lost my fancy writing job with the United Nations in New York City, and the nomadic lifestyle I cherished so much. With broken self-esteem and nowhere to work, I moved back home to Utah. By then, I’d developed a hardcore habit of drinking and writing the night away, so it was hard for me to hide how dysfunctional I’d become. I'd showed up to parties and family events completely inebriated no matter the time of day. On Christmas Eve, I hid bottles of booze under the bathroom sink and would sneak swigs here and there while I waited with my nieces and nephews for Santa to arrive.
Eventually, I got two DUIs in a row leading to my third DUI overall and a Felony DUI. This landed me in jail for the third time in my life.
I remember waking up in my jail cell still slightly intoxicated and still hell-bent on keeping my addiction a secret. I had crashed my parent's car. Nearly killed the person in front of me. Nearly killed myself. And yet, I couldn't talk about the fact that all I wanted--needed to feel better--was just one more drink. Not for anybody, including myself.
I was so afraid of what people would think of me. I know that most everyone in our society views addiction as a moral failing. For me, it was an expression of mental and emotional suffering, and all I wanted was a safe place to get help without being judged for it. But I had no idea where to turn, so I made my family and friends swear to secrecy, and since addiction is such a touchy subject and the culture of silence is so deeply ingrained in our American culture, everyone was happy to oblige.
Secrecy. Silence. Shame. Judgement.
The culture of silence is particularly strong in Utah where I grew up. Here, the majority of the population is Mormon and religious oppression is prominent. Case in point: I’d grown up as a Mormon in a Mormon town with Mormon parents who were Mormon missionaries and Mormon siblings including three missionary brothers. We lived next to Mormon neighbors, and were taught about the world by Mormon school teachers and the afterlife by Mormon church teachers. In my free time, I read Mormon scriptures and played house with Mormon friends.
As a young girl and teenager, I had a habit of expressing my concerns about being Mormon to my family and community members. I simply wanted the chance to explore the world before I made any rash decisions about my spiritual path.
I want to find my own way, I’d say.
Like all the other freedom fighters, such as Alice from Wonderland and Alan Moore, from V for Vendetta, I experienced a great deal of opposition for this. My radically opposing views didn’t bode well with my community and I learned very quickly that the only way to survive was to ensure that my perceptions and words matched the perceptions and words of everyone else. The majority ruled and if I didn’t agree with it then I was a 'lost sheep' or worse: bad. Evil. The Devil’s Child.
This experience was terrifying and for several years, I couldn’t speak in front of people at school or church without having a panic attack. When I’d smoke a joint, I’d suddenly freeze up in the middle of conversation in a state of paranoia while my inner child yelled for me to stop talking.
Don’t share your thoughts! She’d scream. These people will think you’re a freak!
I’m happy to report that today my life is very different. I have over four years in long-term recovery, and I'm not just sober, but I'm happy, healthy, and thriving both professionally and personally. I've been able to transform my life from an experience of shame and darkness to one filled with light, love, forgiveness, and acceptance.
As heart wrenching as life was for me at rock bottom, those dark times are what catapulted me into a new adventure: recovery, and it is through my recovery journey that I found my voice, and the courage to share it out loud again. Over the years, I’ve attended and hosted many Recovery Message Trainings. Through this work, I’ve learned that there is incredible value in my lived experience and that I can use my story to help others. I speak out publicly about my struggles in order to shamelessly put a face and voice on addiction and to spread the message that recovery is possible.
If I can do it, anyone can.
Recently, I published my first book, an addiction memoir and travel story, No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan, in hopes that by sharing my story I can facilitate a positive conversation around addiction and religion around the world. I'm also a Recovery Advocate for the National Recovery Movement, the Develop and Communications Director for USARA (Utah's Recovery Community organization), and the social media guru behind Faces and Voices of Recovery and Many Faces 1 Voice. (By the way, social media is a great way to eliminate shame and the stigma surrounding addiction, and letting the public know that it is a preventable and treatable health condition!)
It’s hard to believe that at one point—not too long ago—I couldn’t bear the thought of talking about my addiction out loud. But today? Today I embrace all of my life journey--both the light and the dark, and accepting this is what healed my shame.
Shannon Egan is the author of No tourists allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan. She’s also an international journalist and advocate for the National Recovery Movement. Despite training as a writer on humanitarian issues for the United Nations, Shannon prefers sharing her personal stories of addiction and recovery to infuse hope in those still struggling and spread the message that recovery is possible. Today she works as the development and communications director for USARA, Utah’s Recovery Community Organization and as an advocate for the National Recovery Movement.