Nicole Araujo will speak at the 5th Annual Western Maine Recovery Rally on Sept. 19. She celebrates three years of sobriety on Sept. 27. Supplied photo

REGION — “I think I was always going to be an addict,” Nicole Araujo declared, sharing her story a week ahead of the 5th Annual Western Maine Recovery Rally in Norway and South Paris. “From the start I was seeking to get outside of myself.”

Originally from Ashland, Mass., Araujo adopted Maine as her home in part because of how supportive she found the recovery community here to be. She plans to speak about her experiences at the recovery rally on Sept. 19.

On Sept. 27 she will celebrate three years of sobriety. She is on a committed course to support others, especially those she refers to as under served groups, live fulfilled, sober lives.

She did not always believe this. In fact, there was a time when Araujo believed recovery had to include an allowance enabling her to drink like a normal person. That she would find a way to manage her drug addiction but not have to choose complete sobriety.

“I am disciplined and self-controlled, but that only lasts for a certain amount of time,” Araujo said. “My addiction was a pretty slow progression. In the beginning I had a lot of really good times partying. I started harder drugs when I was about 19. Acid, mushrooms, coke, and molly and tripping. I would even drink cough medicine, which I think anyone who does that for fun definitely is an addict. It’s not even a euphoric experience.”

She did heroin for the first time when she was 23 with her boyfriend. She tried it once, then again about a month later. She battled with herself, knowing she did not want to use it but at the same time wanting to do nothing else.

After becoming addicted she made her own attempts to detox. Instead she ended up dropping out of college, another fight within herself that she lost. She had always been a very good student with good grades but gave up.

“I had a very strict upbringing, and school was the most important thing,” Araujo recalled. “My background was conditional and strict and I didn’t have a lot of exposure. But at the same time I was drawn to trouble. I found comfort in it.”

She did not try to hide her partying lifestyle from her family, even as it made her feel shunned and led her to seek more comfort in drugs and alcohol.

Ironically, her first overdose happened when she was visiting her parents.

“I overdosed at my family’s house,” she said. “I almost died. It took forever for the EMTs to get there and when they did, their Narcan was frozen because it had been sitting out in their car in the cold. They had to wait for someone to bring more. I turned blue.”

Araujo’s parents pushed her to get treatment. She refused for about a month, continuing to get high. But she finally agreed to go to detox again and from there she was sent to a treatment facility in New Hampshire. That was her first introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Step Program; it was not a happy one.

“I was told there that I was completely powerless over any substance,” she said. “And in order to be okay I would have to be abstinent, I would have to change everything about myself and I would have to find a higher power. I definitely wanted absolutely none of that. I stayed, though. I wasn’t on board with the idea being a true addict but I could acknowledge that things that had gone awry.

“My plan was to do some quick work on myself, do maybe one to three months in treatment and sober living and go on about my way and drink like a normal person.”

In treatment, Araujo’s counselors took her through the Big Book. She resisted but as she began reading through it she realized she did identify and could relate to much of what she saw.

“It was a deafening blow for me, I so absolutely did not think that I was a real addict,” she said. “I definitely had an experience around it [the 12 steps], despite the fact that I was trying to be close-minded and planning on drinking again. But I realized that some of the things that I thought were true about myself and the world were not necessarily true.

“I would say I was rooted in this victim mentality. I also was very owned by how I wanted others to view me.”

Once released from treatment, Araujo was sent to a sober living house in Portland. Still not completely on board that sobriety meant for good, it did not work. She was kicked out and sent to another in Boston. She hated that one too. She was kicked out.

She made her way back to Portland, wanting to start a new life away from Boston.

“I relapsed after like six months and then I lived on my own in Westbrook for maybe five months, drinking,” Araujo explained. “I was trying to minimize my drinking and trying to not be an addict. To not do heroin and other drugs, but be able to drink in a healthy way.”

Instead, she found herself doing heroin again. She went to treatment again but left. She spent the next five months bouncing in and out of treatment and detox.

“I was so deeply entrenched in needing to be high I couldn’t stay,” she said. “Leaving, getting high, going back, getting kicked out, getting high. I became homeless, which is a testament to the insanity and powerlessness of drug addiction. I moved out of my apartment because I thought I was going to the treatment center, that I was finally going to do this and go into sober living for a year or so. I really thought that would happen.

“But I wasn’t even able to stay for three weeks, so I was homeless. I would stay with friends, with people I met at treatment centers. There was this guy I’d met and we lived out of my car and got high. Sometimes we’d stay at his mom’s house or various friends. My life was a complete mess. I was overdosing and I was miserable.”

When Araujo returned to Massachusetts her parents took drastic action and had her “Section 35’d.” She was involuntarily committed to a locked down treatment facility. She was 26 and had been living in Portland for about two years.

As Araujo tells it, the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center was a traumatic, even inhumane experience. She was forced to detox while handcuffed in a paddy wagon. In for three weeks, it felt like it went on for months. But when she was released she was a little different.

“I realized I needed to be less dependent on being comfortable,” she said. “And that I absolutely never wanted to go through it again. It was absolute torture. It talks about alcoholic torture in the Big Book and that kept resonating through my mind, like this was the definition of alcoholic torture.”

She also was moved by a book she read while there, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It was a story about Hmong refugees who lived in a California community. Their daughter was diagnosed with a severe epilepsy condition but differences between Hmong culture and America’s medical community made it impossible for her to get the proper care.

“It made an impact on me because I realized how much I needed to be more resilient. And to have a surrender to my higher power and dependence on something greater than myself.

“I was finally sick of trying to make drug addiction work in my life. I was finally able to acknowledge that it was not possible for me to be able to get high and drunk and enjoy myself in anyway whatsoever. I was thoroughly miserable and in extreme pain.”

Araujo returned to a Portland sober house and gave the 12 steps an honest shot. She began making amends with those she had harmed. She found footing to connect to her higher power, praying and meditating daily, and lost some of the desire to be high.

But she continued to chafe under the rules. She was kicked out after three months. And out of the next house.

“Sober living can be traumatic too,” Araujo declared. “Like the upsides and downsides of detox, there are upsides and downsides of strict sober living. They were like ‘you need to do exactly what we’re telling you to do or you will relapse.’ I was really trying to be sober, but I wasn’t able to concentrate.

“I was stubborn. I was trying to be in recovery. I genuinely wanted it but I couldn’t really get into that groove. I finally went to another house, the Chestnut House. It was that sober house where things finally started changing.”

Nicole Araujo, an alcoholic and addict in recovery, is committed to helping others through the 12 step program and into sobriety. Supplied photo

At Chestnut House she began to see how other people were genuinely in recovery and serious about it. She was shown compassion and introduced to the idea that she could have a new life and change things about herself. By then she had been through about nine sober houses over a four-year period.

“There are people who can get better from one sober house,” Araujo said. “More common is people who have been through it many times. For me, I was kind of told that I had to be this perfect Stepford wives kind of person to be sober.

“That’s what a lot of my conflict was rooted in. I was trying to be someone I really wasn’t. I thought, the way others perceived me [there] was more important than my actual recovery itself.”

At Chestnut House she found a way to continue the recovery process. She began sponsoring other women. But she still had not completely lost her stubborn mindset and after more than 10 months of sobriety she relapsed.

“It was very disillusioning,” she said. “I had reached more even footing with the program and I thought I was going to stay sober. I was doing the 12 steps and I was doing my recovery work.”

It was during this period that all the work she had done to recover started to overpower her need to be high. Her connection to her higher power was strong enough that alcohol and drugs were no longer providing her the comfort she was used to. They no longer worked; she had experienced a better option to live with and returned to sober living, staying for another 10 months only to start getting high when she was on her own again.

“And then I made the decision to go back again, knowing I’d be there for another year,” Araujo said. “It was a lot easier. My main issue before was a lack of acceptance. I had been stubborn. But I also realized that [in recovery] I needed to be more authentic and to own my truth.”

This time, Araujo found more introspection and looked within to find the things that were important to her, things that would help her find her own path. That would be supporting women’s rights and queer rights for those in need.

She returned to school, this time to the University of Southern Maine, last fall, double majoring in English and Women’s and Gender Studies. She will graduate at the end of this year.

As a sponsor, Araujo relies on AA’s Big Book, using it to introduce her sponsees to recovery the same way she was introduced.

“But it was written in the 1930s and it’s an unrealistic expectation for it to be woke and open-minded,” she explained. “It does work and it is a solution for addiction. Not just getting and staying sober and white knuckling your way through life where you’re technically sober but miserable and still thinking about getting high.

“It’s about reaching a point where you can have connections with people and lasting friendships and relationships and having a life you love, that you’re proud of. Knowing your truth and knowing your path is an important part of that.”

Araujo has a sales position lined up for when she graduates in December. It is a job that will allow her to continue helping others through recovery. She has also started training to be a grievance facilitator with the Maine Association of Recovery Residences. She will be a volunteer mediator for sober house conflicts, giving back in the area she had the hardest time accepting.

“It’s rewarding to be a sponsor,” she said. “People did that for me. It’s the entire point of the 12 steps. Addiction is so defined by being alone, being self-serving. We go through the 12 steps so we are no longer in that need. We’re connected to a higher power and we’re in a place where we are able to help other people.

I wouldn’t have been able to recover if not for the people who helped me. There are so many people locked in that cycle and suffering from addiction. I genuinely believe that every person has the potential to recover and have a life that is meaningful to them. Having been able to reach that point, it’s an obligation to help others.”

 

 

 

 

 

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