Kari Taylor, right, is the project coordinator for Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative, an organization dedicated to helping people with substance abuse disorders enter recovery. She and her husband Justin, right, are both in recovery. Supplied photo

REGION — Kari Taylor of Naples is originally from the Midwest. She made her way to New York City in her late teens. Living there with her boyfriend, she was already heavily drinking. By the time she was 20, the two had a baby boy.

One day the boyfriend brought home heroin and encouraged her to try it. She did, thinking it was his first time using as well. She found out later that he was already well acquainted with the drug.

“It was a toxic relationship,” Taylor recalled. “I was looking for a way to feel normal. I (somehow) knew something was not right and I was always looking for a place where it would be okay. Heroin instantly helped with that.”

As they used more and drank more Taylor found herself in a spiral she did not know how to escape.

“I had the ability to put a face out to the public to appeared one way, that was not really what was going on,” Taylor said. “I was able to do drugs and drink a lot of the time without having consequences.

“In some ways that really hurt me. As long as I was able to pretend to the outside world that I was okay and doing the right things, I couldn’t be that bad. But I was engaging in extremely risky behavior. I would shoplift and then return items I stole for money to buy the drugs that I needed. I put myself in situations that were dangerous and I was lucky, in some ways, to not face legal consequences for them.”

She, her boyfriend and their baby were homeless at times and living in their car. She felt alone and isolated herself from family and friends. She was struggling not just with physical addiction, but the emotional aspect of it, maybe the most important thing for her.

“Whatever I had to do,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t let people know me and get very close because otherwise they’d know what I was doing and what a bad person I thought I was.

“I had experienced a lot of trauma growing up. I had all these things that happened to me, situations I didn’t get help for. There was always this feeling of anxiety and of not feeling comfortable with who I was.”

Drinking and using drugs made her feel more comfortable, and helped her forget things that she had experienced.

“What I didn’t even realize until my second recovery was that I thought I was an addict and alcoholic because of what I experienced,” Taylor said. “I thought it was the only way to escape those feelings. It perpetuated itself. The more I used, the more I drank, the worse I felt about myself. And then the more I drank to cover up how I felt about myself.

“I didn’t realize I had the ability to control it and to live any different. I felt, ‘I am damaged, this is what happened and this is how I deal with it.’”

The image of how people saw Taylor as was very important for her, even as she was absolutely dying inside. She was able to fake it as if it was an instinct; as long as she could convince others she was okay and not as bad as she felt, she could survive.

“It was a vicious cycle,” she said. “I thought I would die an addict. I could see no way to get out of it.”

The bottom fell out when she was 24 and living in her car with her boyfriend and child. They paid a visit to her family in Boston where her sister lived. Her brother flew in from his home overseas. Taylor had not seen them in more than a year, although they kept in touch by phone.

“We drove up there like it was just a normal family visit,” Taylor said. “My family knew I had a problem but they didn’t know how bad it was. They didn’t know I was living in my car.”

Taylor’s brother and sister were shocked at what they saw, even though she thought she was doing a good job hiding it. She did not realize they could see how underweight she was, how sunken her eyes were or the track marks on her arms.

“I have an amazing family. I am very, very blessed.” Kari Taylor with her brother Daniel D. Jordan (center) and her sister Shannon Farrelly. Jordan and Farrelly have always been first in line to support Taylor and her struggles to get sober. Supplied photo

“My sister and her husband, with my brother, made a plan without me knowing and came to me,” said Taylor. “I’d probably only been there a day and they said, ‘you need to go to treatment.’ They showed me their concern, but they also threatened me. That they would take my son out of my life.

“For whatever reason, I was done. I had tried to detox myself at times and stop, but I didn’t know how. At that moment, I felt that they really cared and I saw their concern. I just agreed. I was exhausted, it was just so hard to live every day. It was the right time. And the threat of taking my son was a huge motivator.”

Her boyfriend left and she never talked to him again.

She followed the plan her family had set up. They stayed at her side, helping her take the next step. She went into a detox program to kick the physical addiction and withdrawals that came with it. Then she entered into a 28-day program and started counseling and reintroduction to life skills and maintaining responsibility.

“You have to learn how to go through each day as yourself,” Taylor explained. “It’s like reprogramming, and this was my experience. If your life revolves around getting, using, getting, using, everything else is secondary. You have to relearn how to function as an adult and a human being without putting substances in your body.”

Finally, she and her son moved into a sober house with other families in recovery, what she terms as a “mommy and me” program. The house was staffed with recovery coaches but peer support was the main focus in sober living.

“This idea of addicts and alcoholics helping addicts and alcoholics, it is the most successful way to get someone into recovery,” she said. “We understand it completely. Others can related to their own experiences in life, but it’s truly another addict or alcoholic that gets it and can lead the way to recovery.”

Sixteen months later, Taylor was sober and on her own with her son. She married and had another son. Her sobriety lasted four years, until she made the decision to drink again.

She continued recovery, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and sponsoring others. But she had begun to feel resentful.

“I had expectations of what I thought my life should be,” Taylor said. “My marriage wasn’t going very well. I was having issues and I didn’t realize I was kind of building a sense of entitlement, I had these feelings that I had never had in sobriety.

“It’s hard to explain what happens when you relapse. It’s insidious. You lie to yourself. I thought I was okay and I deserved to have a drink every now and then. I was surrounded by people in AA and I knew about relapse, but in my mind I justified it. I thought, ‘maybe I don’t have a problem anymore, maybe I’m not an alcoholic.’”

The slide was gradual, which helped Taylor justify it. The message she had been given going into recovery was that if she drank again, she would die. But she started drinking again and she did not die. She felt okay and in control. It fed the delusion that she really was over her addiction and could have a drink when she wanted.

Taylor’s marriage ended about a year after she began drinking again. Her relapse went on for six or seven years. She joked that she was a functioning alcoholic, except it was not a joke. She was still destroying herself and causing harm to her loved ones.

“I kept a job, I’d gotten promoted. I was doing well, I thought,” she said. “My kids were what I considered well taken care of. You appear to be functioning when you’re actually not.”

She gradually began trying to recover on her own but could not get any traction as she continued to delude herself. When she quit a job she rationalized that since she hadn’t been fired for drinking it didn’t matter. She continued with occasional AA meetings even as she drank.

As Taylor’s ex husband’s concern for her grew, she too began to realize she was in trouble and needed to deal with it. But even having gone through an extensive recovery she could not grasp how to do it again. Her physical addiction was much stronger than when she was younger.

“If I chose to not to drink for one night, I would immediately go into withdrawals,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep, I would shake. So even when I didn’t want to drink, I had to drink.”

She entered a psych ward to medically detox but started drinking when she came out. She attended AA and still drank. She resisted what she calls a “real detox.”

“If you don’t have the money to pay for private treatment – to go into a free or state-run detox, that was really scary for me,” she said. “I thought I was better than that. It was a really hard step for me, to start the whole process from scratch again.”

She tried an intensive, therapeutic community program, something between inpatient and sober living, for five months. She managed to find a great job in Boston and was ready to leave. But within two or three weeks she started drinking again.

“At that point I realized I was going to die an alcoholic,” she said. “I’d been through all that and still couldn’t stay sober. I was binge drinking and not able to function. All of a sudden alcohol didn’t work.”

In 2017, at the age of 38, she turned to drugs as a way to control her drinking. She began doing heroin again, occasionally at first. She had fought with herself and everything she was using, and in a way gave up.

“The last five weeks before I got sober, I was in the emergency room four times. I called 911 on myself three times. The last time, I was talking to my sister on the phone and I passed out. She thought I was dead and called 911. I woke up in the hospital the next day. My sister drove from New Hampshire to Boston to get me and told me I was going to treatment.

Unknown to her, Taylor’s family had started calling new treatment facilities before that last 911 call. Her brother-in-law dispatched a sober friend to stay with her. Her brother and sister raised the money to send her to a private facility in New Hampshire.

“It was life changing,” Taylor said. “That my family raised an enormous amount of money, and the facility gave me a scholarship to help with costs. I would not have been able to go with out that.

“I have an amazing family. I am very, very blessed.”

She stayed there for four weeks, focusing on a what she calls a hardcore 12-step-based plan and from there moved to a sober living house for two months, this time in Maine. It was a women’s home in Portland, the Walton House.

She found a “get well” job and moved to an Oxford House. Peer-run, an Oxford House is run by those in recovery and rented as a group, which elects officers and sets the rules all residents have to follow in recovery, from behavior to attending meetings.

As part of her recovery she “made amends” for shoplifting, one of the AA steps. She went to each of the stores she had stolen from to admit what she had done and offer to do what they felt was appropriate to make up for it. Almost 15 years later she accepted responsibility for what she did, which she still found terrifying after all that time.

“This time it really felt like the first I was ever transitioning into life,” Taylor said. “And I stayed there [at Oxford House] for eight months.”

Taylor fell in love with Maine and laid down roots once she emerged from Oxford House. Her younger son, who is now 16, was able to move in with her. She remarried last fall; her partner Justin is also sober.

“I worked in hospitals, doing administrative work for a couple of years,” she said. “I’d been wanting to start working in the field of recovery. This opportunity with Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative presented itself, the nurse director at Stephens Memorial Hospital’s emergency room came to see me in my office and told me she had found the job for me.

“I absolutely love it. It’s the next step for me. My way of giving back. One of the most important things in supporting your own recovery is to help other people. There are different ways that people do it and this is the one that felt right for me. It is incredibly fulfilling.”

Kari Taylor, left, with her sons Triston and Colin and husband Justin. Supplied photo

As a single mother who struggled with addiction Taylor decided that an critical part of her recovery is to tell her story, to help other women in her shoes choose recovery.

“It’s important to let people know that I am a mother,” she said. “There is a lot of shame for women who have children. They’re afraid to seek help, in some ways it’s different than for men. The idea of being a mother and the stigma of using alcohol and drugs, it’s important for women to know that they are alone and can get help no matter the circumstances.

“It’s hard for people to understand this, it’s hard for me to even understand it.”

What Taylor does understand now is that she is undeniably an alcoholic and she is committed to helping others take their first and final steps toward sobriety.

Taylor is WMARI’s first employee. The mission of WMARI is to provide compassionate support to residents of Oxford County seeking help for addiction recovery.

Established as a 501c3 non profit in 2015 the organization, WMARI then launched Project SaveME (PSM), a program where public safety officials refer substance abusers to a designated recovery coach. It is Taylor’s job to build PSM’s network throughout Oxford County and raise public awareness about addiction and ways to combat it.

One upcoming event that highlights recovery is the 5th Annual Western Maine Recovery Rally in Norway and South Paris on Sept. 19. The rally starts at Longley Square at 11:30 a.m. with a march that will end in Moore Park.

“Our community events are geared toward bringing people’s attention to the problems of substance abuse, reducing the stigma of [asking for help] and aggregating the available solutions to get people into recovery,” said Taylor. “It is evidence-based and modeled after other programs. PSM is based on the Angel Initiative in Gloucester, Mass, where police assist in recovery. The police department came up with the idea and implemented this program.

“The Angel Initiative has been so incredibly successful and they have data that shows it’s reduced the overdose rate there and increased the number of individuals getting into recovery. We’ve taken that model and adapted it to a rural county environment.”

Taylor only joined WMARI as project coordinator in July. But it is as if she has spent most of her life preparing for this moment.

Sober and clean after completing two intensive recovery programs that she credits with saving her life, she is passionate about her work and mission of WMARI.

“Last year there were 504 overdose deaths in Maine,” she said. “That’s a 33% increase from 2019. Oxford County accounts for 7% of those deaths, but only makes up 4% of the state’s population. It’s a real problem for Oxford County and there are limited treatments available here. If people want help, they have to go to Portland, or New Hampshire.

“With Project SaveME, I am revamping the program. We want more recovery coaches available. When police encounter someone, or they end up in the hospital with substance abuse disorder, they can contact us. We send out a recovery coach. We’ll hold their hand and help them through the process to recovery.”

For Taylor, she is a different person in recovery, and a grateful one. She says her husband Justin and her two boys are her biggest supports since getting sober.

“I no longer want to drink,” she said. “It’s probably the most amazing gift I received this time around. I have no doubt that I am an alcoholic.

“When I think about alcohol or I am in a setting where there is drinking, most of the time I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. When I think about drinking my mind goes immediately to the terrible experiences I had. I don’t have the urge to drink and that’s an amazing gift.”

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