14 years ago this weekend, I left inpatient treatment at SAFE (back when it was located in IL) after having spent over 2 months there. I was far from a model patient – opinionated, pushy, loud, rude, judgmental, manipulative, less than honest, and VERY ambivalent about whether or not I really wanted to get better. I arrived at SAFE via ambulance from a hospital near the Chicago Lakefront after having spent over 24 hours in 6-point restraints in the hospital emergency room. I was being stabilized there after a OD on a number of drugs that nearly killed me. I suffered from both short-term and more permanent side-effects from the overdose and abuse I put my body through. I had to relearn the simplest things – talking without slurring my speech, cognitive/memory function, anything involving fine motor skills. My memories of those first days are very hazy – they seem disconnected and almost surreal to me now.

This I do know – I had been kicked out of 17 different psychiatrists/therapists in the previous 2 years due to my increasingly self-destructive behavior. Wendy Lader agreed to take me on as a patient at SAFE, and I think we both knew that was my last chance to get it together. After years of drug addiction to opiates, having been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, battling an eating disorder that left me weighing too little, countless psychiatric hospitalizations all over the country, and self-injury that was getting progressively worse, I was truly running out of time. The ER doctor told me before I left that I would either use my time at SAFE to get better, or I wouldn’t make it to my 21st birthday, less than 6 months away.

I won’t lie – the road to recovery was neither straight-forward, nor easy to follow. SAFE was the catalyst that allowed me to reach a place where I was willing to acknowledge the need to make very sweeping changes in my life, but it didn’t happen overnight. All told, I spent about most of the summer of 1997 as a resident of SAFE’s inpatient program. Upon getting out, Wendy referred me to a really good psychologist in the Chicago-area who specialized in self-injury, and I ended up seeing her for 3 sessions a week for over a year. I also attended the first SAFE aftercare support group for a couple of hours one night a week for several years, at 2 different hospitals. I spent a long time working with a psychiatrist to find medications that worked and that I could tolerate. I went through about a year of twice-monthly family therapy sessions with another SAFE therapist.

In the end, I had several minor isolated relapses, as well as 3 setbacks that ended up with me returning to the inpatient SAFE unit for shorter stays in order to reinforce the healthy cognitive behavioral patterns I was trying to establish for my life. I stopped attending SAFE programming in 2000, but continued to see my therapist and psychiatrist regularly for years, as well as kept in touch with Wendy. She was a touchstone of sorts for me during those early years. When I was having a rough time, I’d stop by to talk or we’d meet for lunch – seeing her helped me to feel validated in how far I’d come, as well as reminded me that I did have a safety net. If my thoughts/emotions became intolerable, I could always get more intensive help from SAFE again. Just knowing the option was there allowed me to feel secure enough to take needed risks in my recovery process and in the end the safety net was unnecessary.

So, 14 years later I am healthier & happier than I have ever been. If someone had told me all those years ago that one day I would find my freedom, balance, and hard-won peace of mind, I would never have believed it was possible. I spent so many days and nights feeling like I simply couldn’t go on anymore, overwhelmed by the impulses to numb out my pain with self-injury, drugs, whatever. I felt like I was barely hanging on by a thread for a long time, but over time I began to gradually distance myself from those unbearably intense emotions and feelings of neediness, loneliness, and desperation. My friends, a number of whom I met at SAFE, helped me, as did my job as a social worker, my AA family’s support, and my regular family’s unconditional love.

I had sought so long for someone who could rescue me and make everything better and was continually disappointed and disillusioned when no one was able to fill that role. I learned in time that only I could save myself, but it was one of the most difficult, painful lessons I have ever learned. I have been injury-free for 12 years now, and I will be celebrating my 14th anniversary in AA this November. I am in a wonderful relationship with my love, Ann, going on 6 years now. I have a fulfilling job as a social worker that lets me help others whose pain is much like what I have experienced. I live in a beautiful old Victorian house that we are restoring, with our three dogs & three cats. I volunteer at a 24 hour crisis hotline as a phone operator, as well as serving as a survivor’s advocate for victims of sexual assault through the local YWCA.

Best of all, I am FREE! I am honest with myself and others; I don’t feel the need to hold myself to impossible standards of perfection anymore. The intensive cognitive behavioral work that I spent so many years working on has paid off and I am able to experience powerful emotions without panicking and needing to find a way to shut down – I work through things rather than avoiding them. I am comfortable with who I am – no more hiding, blame, shame, and guilt. My life is full of love and laughter, and most shocking of all (at least to me anyway), I have become something of an optimist – lol!

For all of you who are still struggling, who want to be free and wonder if there is really any hope for long-term recovery and stability, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” In their book, Wendy & Karen described me as someone who was so severely & persistently self-destructive, mentally ill, and lacking in basic insight into my own feelings and behavior that they doubted whether I would ever show signs of long-term improvement. Even after saying this, they and everyone else at SAFE never gave up on me, no matter how frustrating, clingy, and difficult I was. Although they did not give me the protection and rescue I yearned for, they did give me the tools I needed to effect lasting change. I am profoundly grateful for them and for SAFE. Against all odds, I made it & you can too!

Peace – Kelsey