May 6, 2016 | Stories & Profiles

My Story: To Find Recovery, I First Had to Discover Myself

By Christina Culver

Christina Culver is a Lead Medical Office Assistant for Burlington Labs’ Patient Service Center in Enosburg, VT. 

Christina CulverWhen I was hired by Burlington Labs two years ago to open up the Patient Service Center in Enosburg, Vermont, I just needed a job. (Badly enough, in fact, that even a blizzard couldn’t stop me from driving 50 miles to my interview!) But what I found was a family. Working at Burlington Labs has allowed me to channel my own experiences with addiction to help others in treatment – which has given me a purpose far beyond just a paycheck.

The experience of addiction is woven into some of my earliest memories. My dad is a recovering alcoholic. I remember being about 4 years old at the height of his addiction, and my mom pushing me under the kitchen table to protect me during one of their arguments. He entered treatment soon after that incident, and he now has 30 years in recovery. I had a great relationship with him growing up, and still do today.

Even though my dad was a strong role model for me in terms of the dangers of addiction and the opportunity of recovery, I had my own issues with substances. I had my first drink at 13, and I did a lot of binge drinking during my teenage years. Although I stopped drinking shortly after I married my first husband, Howard – who was also my best friend -- my struggles with addiction were just beginning. 

Once I gave up drinking, I turned to food. Gorging myself at all-you-can-eat buffets and bingeing on junk food was how I dealt with my emotions, and I weighed more than 400 pounds at my heaviest point. I did lose almost half of that weight – 180 pounds – and I’m proud to say I’ve kept it off. But even after Weight Watchers introduced me to healthier eating habits, my addictive behavior was still there; I just obsessed about exercise and calories instead. My body may have been healthier, but my brain was not.

It took my husband’s sudden and unexpected death to get me to focus on my own emotional health. Howard passed away from a very aggressive form of cancer that took his life less than a year after he was diagnosed. I entered counseling to deal with my grief, but that was also where I started to understand myself.

My therapist asked me about my relationships with alcohol, food, diet and exercise. At that time I wasn’t binge-eating anymore, but I still had my drugs of choice: chocolate and soda. My thinking around those substances involved a lot of denial, bargaining, and an inability to give them up – the classic signs of addiction. When my counselor told me I was an addict, I was insulted. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right.

With that insight, I’ve found healthier ways of coping with my emotions, including journaling, which I discovered through Writers for Recovery. At the first meeting I went to, they gave us 7 minutes to free-write with a prompt of “I am…” I’m not a writer, but the words poured out of me – and what I came out with was almost poetic! For me, there’s something powerful and healing about writing down your thoughts. It takes them out of your soul and sets them free; it’s like you don’t have to worry about them anymore.

While I’ve never used drugs, and I don’t know what it’s like to be dopesick, I definitely know the battle that people with addiction can have in their brain. The hardest part of overcoming addiction isn’t the withdrawal or the diet; that’s just physical. The hardest part is pumping yourself up every single day to just live. It’s all mental.

Here at Burlington Labs, we joke that the bathroom often becomes a confessional, because so many of our patients open up to us about what’s going on in their lives. My job is about so much more than watching people pee. It’s really about listening. The job is customer service, and that means treating people like people. I think so many of our patients found comfort in drugs because they never felt loved or appreciated. It means so much to them that we remember the funny story about their daughter and ask them about it the next time we see them.

If I have one wish for the patients I see who are on long-term medically-assisted treatment, it’s that some of them would take their therapy more seriously. There’s a reason why we all turned to substances. Nobody wakes up and says “I think I’ll become an opiate addict today” – just like I never had an intention of becoming dependent on alcohol, food, soda or chocolate. Medication can help, but if we’re going to truly recover, we all have to get to the root of ourselves – which is a lifelong journey.

I’m definitely still a work in progress. But I finally understand the importance of being honest with myself, expressing my feelings, and connecting with others – and that’s the environment I want to create here for our patients. It’s really important to me that this not just be a place where patients have to come and pee – that Burlington Labs be a place for recovery.

###

This article appeared in the May/June edition of our newsletter, TheBuzz.