The word “influencer” gets thrown around rather liberally these days, sometimes to the point of being watered down. In the case of writer, podcaster, recovery advocate and self-described sober mom and addiction recovery advocate Jen Elizabeth, her influence and impact comes from painful and deeply emotional experience and hard-fought battles…insights well-earned and lessons well-learned. After years of battling addiction, which she says began the “day she was born” by virtue of childhood trauma and shame, she started speaking up nearly 10 years ago about her issues and, to the delight and sometimes lifesaving benefit of her readers, has not stopped. Jen’s writings are the products of raw, vulnerable experience, and are must-reads for anyone who is currently struggling with addiction or on the brink of relapse. They’re a reminder that while each of our stories is unique, we can’t be too ashamed of the things that happened to us to verbalize and address them.
Recovery Unplugged recently had the pleasure of catching up with Jen and hearing her inspiring story.
The Roots: Childhood Trauma
Jen says her addiction began as a way to escape her childhood: “I was born into pain that ultimately never belonged to me, but as a little girl, the only thing I knew how to do was carry it. My entire childhood was spent wanting my mom to love me, wanting to understand why she always told me she wanted to kill herself and why she told me it was my fault.” Like many others who experience this level of abuse, Jen internalized these messages, leading to a series of behaviors that she said mirrored the behavior of addiction.
The Cycle Continues…and Escalates
When Jen was five, her parents, along with 35 other families, joined a religious cult, moved across the country and cut off ties with their friends and family. Her experiences in the group intensified her childhood trauma. She saw them demonize her mothers’ mental health issues and manipulate them in multiple ways. Eventually she, herself, became a target of sexual abuse by an elder who molested her until she was 10. “I never told anyone. I swallowed everything I was worthy of saying. But at night, I would wonder what was wrong with me. I thought that I was a really bad person.”
Shame and Stigma
The shame Jen felt from her sexual trauma compounded the shame she had already felt growing up with a mentally ill mother. She left the cult when she was 10, thinking she could start over, but her mom’s mental health worsened, and she remained alone. Her experience being isolated has directly led to her advocating for marginalized groups, like LGBTQ people and even children who struggle with substance use disorder.
Jen’s mental health also worsened. At the age of 11, she started engaging in self-harm and contemplating suicide, claiming she couldn’t stand to be in her own skin. She started abusing alcohol when she was 12. “I was consumed with trauma, coming up with plans to end my life and alcohol was a coping tool to help me survive myself.“ Jen uses her own experiences of alcohol abuse as a means to talk more compassionately about coping mechanisms and harm reduction for those living with addiction.
Escalation of Addiction
When Jen started drinking, she described it as “the first peace she had ever found in her life” and told herself that she was going to do it every day because she never wanted to feel the pain that she was experiencing again. Her drinking escalated and eventually her substance abuse progressed from alcohol to other drugs. She ended up using heroin and meth for 13 years, living a life of abject pain and indignity that, while seemingly shocking, is lived by so many others: “I lived on the street. I lived under bridges. My teeth were coming out. I had track marks all over my body. I was eating from dumpsters and doing what I had to do to survive. I was also in an out of jails and institutions.”
As excruciating as these daily experiences were, Jen claims that none of them were as bad as facing her childhood trauma: “Nothing felt scarier. None of (my experiences when using) felt worse to me than thinking about my childhood.” Perhaps one of the most painful elements of Jen’s story is the judgment, scorn and stigma she faced at every turn, including from law enforcement, the medical community and others. Part of her work is helping people “honor” even what they believe to be the worst parts of our pasts because she claims that those experiences brought them to where they are. She says the people in the “before” of recovery are worth just as much as those in the “after”, a reality often overlooked by even the most committed recovery advocates.
“Giving the Shovel Back”: Beginning Recovery
Jen’s addiction eventually landed her in prison, where she began her recovery. While she makes clear that she doesn’t think prison is a good place to get treatment, she says that having her basic needs met made a huge difference: “I came off the streets and I had food, a bed and shelter. This opened up a space for me to start feeling who I was.” While she was still using as much as she could, she had a moment in which began to realize her self-worth: “A tiny spark ignited in me and I started to believe that I was worth more than overdosing in a riverbed as a transient.” She began working a program in prison, got clean in 2011, and has remained so ever since. “I gave back the shovel and stopped digging myself deeper,” she claims.
Getting clean and working the steps were only part of her healing process, however. Jen was still struggling with the trauma that gave birth to her addiction and started to doubt that she was worth recovery. She tried discussing her sexual abuse in recovery meetings but was told it was an “outside issue”. Eventually she started doing her own trauma work by sharing in online support groups. “I always say that recovery saved my physical life, but trauma work saved my mental life.” Jen is quick and deliberate to point out the importance of relationship of addressing these co-occurring conditions.
The Warrior, the Winner and the Way Forward
Ten years after essentially putting together her own trauma therapy program, and confronting decades of unspeakable treatment from her family, the people she looked up to and virtually every facet of society, Jen Elizabeth remains in active addiction recovery and more committed than ever to helping others.
Through her writing, advocacy work with the Sober Mom Squad group and her sheer willingness to share her general experiences, Jen Elizabeth brings a singular and critically important voice to the addiction recovery conversation that points out the importance of humanity, identifies improvable areas of treatment and lovingly but fiercely urges people to address their own truth, embrace their past and be comfortable in their skin. Her refreshing and candid assessment of the treatment landscape, harm reduction, the way society views people struggling with addiction and other critically important issues in substance use prevention makes her an instant and effective “influencer” to everyone she reaches.
Jen Elizabeth is a fierce addiction recovery advocate and the author of Shape of a Woman. Go to her blog to see her more of her writings and listen to her podcasts. You can, and should, also follower her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to learn more.