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“My name is Erin and I am an addict.”

I remember joking about being an addict, saying things like, “Yup, I’m just a no-good junkie, might as well get high.” I laughed when I said it, but the first time I heard my mother say, “We’re now telling our friends that our daughter is a drug addict,” that cut like a knife. It was no longer a joke. I am the youngest of three children. I was born to a Marine Corps officer and a school nurse. I grew up in Yuma, Ariz. I did not come from a broken home and my parents never fought in front of us. I was always supported in following my dreams.

When I was 7 years old, I had my first secret. My best friend’s father had done something to her and me. It was from that time I started to believe I was not worthy of love and belonging. I didn’t say anything to my parents. In high school, I was very much that child that simply blended in. I wasn’t super-popular, but I had plenty of friends. I was a cheerleader and very active in the Cibola High School show choir. I started piano lessons when I was 3 years old and continued until I was 21.

In Yuma, there wasn’t much to do, but there were plenty of parties. I drank and most times, I drank to excess. I liked the effect it produced. It made me more popular, feel more comfortable in my skin and for that little bit of time, I could forget about that disease that was growing in the pit of my stomach.

In 1995, when I was 20 years old, I was crowned Miss Yuma County. In 1996, I earned the title of Miss Arizona and went on to compete in the Miss America Pageant the following year. During my year as Miss Arizona, I implemented the first state pageant/state government community service platform in the country. This was to educate adolescents and teenagers about the effects of violence in relationships. I was making my mark.

After my reign as Miss Arizona was over, and I no longer had to adhere to rules and regulations, I decided to stay in Phoenix to go to school. I had some deep-rooted issues regarding my self-worth and suffered from depression. It didn’t take long for me to find my escape, a solution to my problems.

Very quickly, that determined young woman was driven into an addiction that took away every hope and dream. It made me cross every line I said I would never cross and destroyed my soul. I went from the stage in Atlantic City at the Miss America Pageant to the stage of a topless bar within two years. The only self-worth came from the validation I got from the money I got and the drugs that “soothed” my soul.

I began to absolutely hate the person I was becoming, but didn’t know how to stop. My whole life, how I looked and what people thought of me always mattered. Questions like “do people like me” or “am I pretty enough” constantly ran through my mind. I got to a point where I just wanted to match my outsides with my insides and I destroyed my physical appearance. Shortly after, I was forced to quit my job as a dancer.  

From there, I decided to get a “real job” because in my mind, it was the job, not me, that was the problem. In 2003, I began working for a doctor, who, I realized, I could manipulate to get what I really wanted. I was introduced to IV narcotics and quickly had a daily Demerol and morphine habit. In 2008, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Dealing with this kept me loaded for a long time. My situation became so dark that I set aside my values and beliefs to get my fix. I was hanging out with criminals, selling drugs, selling myself, until I couldn’t even do that anymore because my habit was so bad. I didn’t care about living and was pretty sure that no one would care if I died.

In 2009, I was arrested for possession of methamphetamines. That was my first trip to jail. I took a plea deal that involved 18 months of unsupervised probation, no drug screenings and a Class 6 undesignated felony that would drop to a misdemeanor if completed successfully. I thought, “I’m not going to get in any more trouble, the probation will be a breeze.” I had good intentions, but my disease had a firm grip.   

In 2010, I had started seeing a therapist who convinced me to ask my parents for help. I had a moment of clarity. My father was going to die, go to heaven and look down on his daughter with nothing but shame. I finally broke down and asked my mother for help.

I checked in to Sundance Recovery on Feb. 21, 2010. I was angry at the world and definitely didn’t want to be sober. But I needed a break to figure things out. Days later, after completing detox, I experienced my first real laugh. It felt like there was hope.

On Day 19 of my sobriety, I got some blood work done, including an HIV test. Three days later, I found out I was HIV positive. The diagnosis made me finally realize that my disease (addiction) was going to kill me if I didn’t change. I conceded to my innermost self that I was an addict and I finally wanted to live. At that point, I committed myself to a life of sobriety.  

I stayed in treatment a total of 45 days then moved into a sober living home. At 6 months sober, I had completed the 12-step program and I was asked to manage a sober living facility. I was also sharing in meetings about my HIV positive status.

In June 2012, I was asked to return to host the final night of competition at the Miss Arizona Pageant and to share my story of triumph over adversity. After my appearance, I was asked to be the keynote speaker for an event benefiting Aunt Rita’s Foundation and for AIDS Walk Phoenix. In October 2012, I started working for the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS as an interventions facilitator. I was truly living a purposeful life.

In November 2012, I started dating someone and three months later, on Valentine’s Day, we got engaged. We set a date of Oct. 20. At the beginning of October, my father started chemotherapy, but soon after was placed into hospice care. I spent every moment of the next six days by his bedside. Our wedding officiant came to the hospice and we said our vows at his bedside. We were all there when he passed on Oct. 16.

Being there for my dad is the root of what the program of recovery is all about: being present. Showing up every day in our lives no matter how difficult it may seem. The gifts of sobriety continue to bless me daily. My life is truly miraculous. I know it isn’t always going to be rainbows and unicorns, but the beauty in that is that I have a spiritual solution that will solve all my problems today if I continue to do the work.   

I think that one of the biggest fears facing any parent is that their child will become a drug addict. If this does happen, never give up on them, but don’t enable your child, either.  

Don’t think that if your child makes it through high school unscathed, that it can’t happen to them. I was 22 the first time I did drugs. I used until I was 34. It can happen to anyone, from any walk of life. And no matter how far down the scale some of us have gone, we will find that our experience will benefit others and, ultimately, recovery is possible.