The following is the first in a two-part series of an undocumented story being given debut; bringing the inside to the outside, in courage and with grit. To be an onlooker of this testament is privilege. To be a companion in it, even more so. Whether or not you find your own self laced within these words, we recognize that humanity, after all it's differences, has common blood running through its veins. We each have a story.
There's room for all of it. And it's a beautiful justice to finally say it. "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." // Maya Angelou
Here is Amanda, telling it:
Even today, my first thought is still, 'Where's the pill?'
I was sick pretty much from the moment I was born. I was born prematurely so, like, eight weeks early. I was a tiny little kid and my first memories are hospitals and doctors. When I was four I was diagnosed with a disease called pancreatitis. Essentially your body is just digesting itself. It's really rare in kids - most of the time you get it because you have gallstones or you’re an alcoholic. So it’s really weird a kid got it. The first time I got diagnosed they said, “Oh, you’re never going to have it again.” Six months later, I had it again. And that became the pattern.
I'd get really sick, go to the hospital, couldn’t eat, go on pain medication for a week and then it was done for six months or so and I got to have a decently normal childhood. That was how it worked until I was in about 6th grade. My life was pretty normal, just every six months I’d be in the hospital for a week.
Things changed the night before I went into 6th grade. I got sicker than I had ever been.
I went into the hospital for 8 weeks that time. Looking back now, that time chunk I missed was really significant. In the town I grew up in, 6th grade is when the nine elementary schools in the town merge together and I missed literally the first 8 weeks of the 6th grade. So this merging process, this new school for all intensive purposes, I missed. It was the first time that being sick really affected my life and it’s the first time that I like, I don't know, that I can mark when things started really shifting.
My liver shut down. I got life-flighted to another hospital. And it was weird and crazy and that was the first time I had ever realized it was affecting anyone else. It was the first time I had ever seen my mom cry in that situation.
It got serious.
From that point on, the disease got worse. It went from something I dealt with once or twice a year to having to be hospitalized every few weeks. When that would happen, the whole world would shut down. I couldn’t do sports. I couldn’t do tae-kwon-do anymore. My friends, it was hard to explain to them. I felt isolated. I felt different. I knew that my life functioned different than theirs did. Junior high was weird.
I have a little brother. He is 2 1/2 years younger than me, and I’m starting to see the affects of this on my family. He’s starting to make these comments like, “I hate that Amanda is sick” and “I get treated differently because Amanda is sick.” And so my family starts to pull apart and in my head it’s all around my illness.
For me, the ‘why’ question was always attached to my little brother. “Why am I sick and he's not?” Because everyone always said it had to be some sort of weird genetic thing, I had it in my head that it was genetics. But he didn’t have it and none of my other family members have it. Except, I do. It wasn’t an existential question. I was mostly just angry. And confused. There was this angry part of me that was like, “Why is this happening?" I would wonder if I'd done something wrong. I'd ask, "What have I done to deserve this? Am I more broken than everybody else? What is it?”
Today, I'm working through the fact that it isn’t my fault. Like, me getting sick isn’t my fault.
My freshman year I started to get sick every single day. I start to make friends and I join clubs at school and everything felt pretty normal. I make this big declaration to the doctors that I can’t do this if I'm in the hospital all the time. I can’t have a normal life like everyone is telling me I need to have if I’m in the hospital all the time. So the doctors and my family and I make the decision that we’re going to make pain medication available to me at home, which is a huge huge shift.
Pain medication my freshman year becomes really easy for me to get access to. Looking back now, I can see that the start of that summer, the end of freshman year, that's really where my use of the drugs went from, “Wow I’m in pain” to “Wow I'm really nervous” or “Wow I’m feeling any kind of emotion so that means I need to take something to take my mind off of it.”
And I think you could argue that it started before the drugs became available to me at home. Even now, when anything happens, and I’m like “How am I going to handle this situation?” My first thought is still “Where is the pill?” So I think that had been such an easy out, an easy answer, to all of the health problems - which had been my biggest questions in life up to that point. It was like this makes sense. This makes me feel better and nobody was telling me, "no." In fact people were saying, "This is great, this is helping. We need to up the dosage? Let’s up the dosage. Whatever we need to do, let’s do it. To keep you normal.” So it was easy and everyone was praising the fact that I was living a normal life and people are like, "Wow, you’re doing this, Amanda! You have this disease but ahhhh! You're living!" And I’m like, “Okay, we can do this. This is fine.”
And then things get crazy.
The next few years are the biggest blur. I don’t know what happened. Pretty much from that summer until senior year, I don't have a lot of actual memories of things that happened. I know the wild stories, I’ve seen pictures. I listen to my brother - he tells me what happened. There were a lot of adult things that happened. Even now I think about it and I’m like “Man - that happened to a 15 year old kid? What were we doing? What were we thinking? I wouldn’t even know how to handle that situation now.”
High school was crazy, from what I hear. The mental high didn’t do it anymore. You just reach for what is next. The doctors kept upping the dosages. I was getting sicker; I was in a lot of pain. But it's hard for me now to say that it was as bad as I was claiming. I don’t know if it was. [Sigh ... ] Yea. It was just a blur and a lot of drugs.
Everything revolved around drugs. Everything revolved around getting more, feeling high. My friendships, my family relationships, my reasons for going to church - every single thing I did during the day revolved around getting high.
Hardly anyone asked any questions. Most people didn't question if I really needed the medication. I knew how to manipulate the situation in order to get medication from both the medical industry and my parents. It's been hard because I watch so many of my friends get trapped in this life of addiction and some of them aren’t here now. Like, two weeks ago ... I lost one. [Tears up.] It’s crazy to me. I get really frustrated when I think about the medical industry in this. I think addiction is a choice. I made the choice to take those pills. One-hundred percent. But it was really easy to get access to them. It was easy for all of us to have access to them. Yea. Nobody asked any good questions.
I went to church a lot, mostly to appease my parents, but it was actually a really easy place to take pills and have nobody say anything. Nobody was looking for that there.
What is significant, though, is at that point, several people started to take a special interest in me in youth group. The youth minister there would always make sure I was on trips or at youth group. If I wasn’t there, he’d call and ask why. And I know now that he knew the whole time - that I was doing all of this stuff. The church opened their doors and said, “Alright, you’re going to be stupid. You’re going to be crazy. But do it here.” It’s interesting now. There’s part of me that gets angry and thinks “Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you intervene if you thought there was a problem or you thought that was happening? Why wouldn’t somebody step in or somebody say something?” I still don’t really know what to do with that, because I wish somebody really would have. I wish somebody at church would have said “What are you doing?
I felt isolated. And I didn’t know how to verbalize that. Anytime I would ever get close to having an emotional breakthrough, I would just take pills and it would cycle back down. I mean, I have good memories. I do. I mean, my cousin got married when I was in high school and I remember I was clean during the weekend of her wedding and I remember that being an exciting time. I remember thinking, “Chrissy is getting married! Maybe there is a world where I can do this someday.” But then I was like “No, you’re sick. This is your life. This is who you’re going to be." There was a hopelessness.
I remember my senior year I went to a doctors appointment because the pain medication I was on wasn’t working anymore. He gave me Fentanyl and the dosage he gave me was so high he looked at me and said, “We usually only give this to people who are dying from cancer, who we’re just trying to make comfortable. But we’re going to give this to you.” So I was like, “Okay. This is how life is going to be. Just making me comfortable until I die.”
It was scary. I mean, the nice part about it is that I was so high that I didn’t, at the time, really take it all in. I don’t think there was ever a point I was suicidal, but I didn’t care if I lived or died. If there was a situation where I died, I would have been like, “Okay cool.” I didn’t attach myself to anybody. I was so careful about letting people be attached to me. There were rules I had, like “We can only hang out this many times a month.” And once I felt uncomfortable with how attached you were to me, you were out for a while. Because I didn’t think there was a point to anyone getting to know me or anyone becoming friends with me. Which is really sad. And it’s still playing out now.
Like, this situation. This interview. I was telling my friend today, "I don't tell people this story. I run. This is where the walls go up." And she said “You’re stopping. And you’re unpacking it and you’re being vulnerable.” Yea, no. I don’t let people get close. I let them get close enough to let them think they are close, and then I stop and put up the wall.
This is the first time in my life that I’ve really stopped to unpack the grief of all it and to unpack what all of that means for my life now. It is really hard. Because I’m starting to realize how much of my identity I have wrapped in that time of my life. This illness and the word ‘addict’ have become such a part of my identity in ways I still don’t completely understand.
Senior year I overdosed twice. The first time, nobody really knew about. I remember I was driving my car to school and I was getting really hot and, in the mind of a drugged person, I just took my shirt off. I’m in the parking lot of the school standing there with my shirt off, vomiting everywhere. That was normal to me. But I remember this time, I got scared. That I was really going to ... you know. And I remember that I woke up in my car later on and I was fine. So, did I actually overdose? It was close. I remember that it scared me. But it didn’t scare me enough to tell anyone at the time that it had happened.
I remember that morning how many drugs I had taken. I knew the dosage I put in my body. And I remember thinking, “Okay, I gotta knock it down one.” And that was it. Easy enough. Moved on. And I went to calculus. With my shirt on.
People would always tell me, "You’re the strongest person I know. You’re so strong!” and I just wanted to punch them in the face - like, “You don’t know.” Being strong wasn’t a choice. Literally the only choices were “Kill yourself. Or do this.” And killing myself wasn’t an option, so here I was doing this. I always would struggle when people would say that. Even now I struggle with that statement. It wasn’t a choice. And the stuff I could have chosen? Well, I chose to take more pills. I didn’t feel strong. I felt weak. I was frustrated and I didn’t know what to do.
I was exhausted with the way things were. I didn’t see an end. There wasn’t anything I could hold on to like, “If you could just make it to this point, then there will be relief." It was never that. It was just, "Keep going."
The second time [I overdosed] was senior year. It's a big year, and everyone is making plans for college. Everyone’s looking forward to the future and I couldn’t get myself there. I couldn’t get my brain to have a dream. To have a plan. To have anything. I couldn't think of anything. And so first semester rolls around and it’s not a big deal that you haven’t applied to schools yet. But by Christmas break everyone’s asking, “Where are you going? What are you doing?”
I remember I would make up answers to the questions. This is funny. I was like, “I'm going to go to Hawaii to study dolphin training.” I actually applied because I was telling everyone I was going. I got in. Should have gone. But even that, I couldn’t get there. Why would I go to college if I don’t have a future? When you’re that hopeless, life is so minute to minute. Part of the reason I was so hopeless was because I couldn’t see past the minute, let alone the year, or maybe in a couple of years there would be answers. My brain wouldn’t function like that. It was just like, “This is miserable and this is now” and that was everything there was to know. So the thought of college didn’t excite me because sickness was my future. This is everything you need to know about me: I’m an addict, who's sick.
It was really tense in the house that Christmas. So the night before second semester of my senior year, I overdosed for real. It wasn’t suicidal. It wasn’t like I was trying to die at all. I knew I was taking more than I had ever taken. But it was to not feel, not to die.
I remember waking up after and I was in an ambulance. I remember the guy standing over me, really clearly. The guy in the ambulance was yelling, “Amanda, Amanda!” and he asked me if I had done this on purpose and I said, “No.” The next thing I know I was in the ER, in the trauma room, and I was vomiting blood and they were trying to stick a tube down my throat and I can remember that being the very first moment that I wanted to live. I didn’t want to die.
I looked at them and said, “Am I going to die?” and they said they didn’t know and I remember being really scared because I was like, “This is it. This is the end of it.” They asked if I wanted my parents in the room and I said no because I think I didn’t want them to see that. I don’t really remember why I said no.
Even though all of my life, death had been a thought, this was truly the first moment I had really opened that door. It's so weird because my mom never came into my room at that point in the morning. But on this morning, the day I OD'd, my mom felt weird. So she came into my room and found me passed out, naked, and she called 911. They said if it had been 10 minutes later, if it had been any other chain of events, it would have been too late. That was the first moment that I realized, even though death had always been an option or possibility, I was choosing it. Me choosing to do these things the way I was doing it, was choosing death. That was the inevitable outcome of what was happening, where I was going. Like, I didn’t need college plans because I wasn’t going to make it anyway.
I'm in the ICU and I have a tube down my throat and I can’t speak. I have a lot of angry family members. My extended family came and I remember that making me angry that my parents called my extended family. They were saying things like, “You need to get help.” But I can’t talk. I can see them, I can feel, but I couldn’t breathe on my own. They were just hovering.
All of these things are happening and all I can do is cry. It took a long time for my parents to have a real conversation with me. There was a lot of them protecting me like, “We’re not angry, blah blah blah.” But finally my dad in his dadness said, “You have a choice, but you don't really have a choice. You’re going to get help. And you’re going to go where we tell you you’re going to go. And if you don’t, then your world is about to completely change because we’re not doing this. We’re not going to extend this for years. We’re not going to play these games. You have a choice. Take it or leave it. But if you leave it, you’re just here with a tube down your throat.”
I didn’t know what that world would look like; a world without medication. I didn’t think help was possible because this had always been my life. I knew what the pain would feel like without the drugs and that wasn’t a life I wanted either. I was like, “What are you asking me to do?! I don’t understand.”
[ Part Two ]