National Recovery Month: Nicole Holt’s Recovery Story 

Published On: September 25, 2023|Categories: Recovery|

September marks National Recovery Month. This national observance promotes and supports new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices. During National Recovery Month, we also celebrate all individuals in recovery as well as the treatment service providers and other individuals who make recovery possible.

In honor of National Recovery Month, Pyramid Healthcare’s Nicole Holt shares her story of recovery. Since choosing recovery, Nicole has discovered her calling in helping others and building a better life for herself and her children.

Walk us through your recovery journey.

I started using it when I was 22. I worked as a bartender and had always been a little bit of a partier, but had never used “hard drugs.”

Then I had to get some dental work done and they prescribed painkillers. The first time I took a painkiller, I hated it. I’ll never forget the feeling — like I wanted to scratch my face off. I said I’d never do it again.

Later, I started dating a guy who offered me the same painkiller. I said no because I hated them. He insisted that if you’re taking them for fun, the experience is different.

He couldn’t have been more right. I decided I needed more dental work. I kept going back to the dentist and getting more work done to get more drugs. After the dental work was done, I started buying them on the street.

From age 22 to 29, my use of prescription painkillers increased drastically.

I met my husband at age 25 and had my first daughter. I stayed sober during my whole pregnancy and for about six months before I returned to work as a bartender and began using again.

After about a year, my husband and I separated. Shortly afterward, I found out I was pregnant again with my second daughter. I knew I couldn’t go through my pregnancy using it. I got on Subutex and my pregnancy went great. My daughter was born and I was going to stay sober.

When my second daughter was two months old, my husband was locked up for prescription fraud. He went to federal prison and I lost everything — my home, my car. Any asset that we’d had was gone.

I moved in with his parents. Within two weeks, his father tried to take advantage of me. I needed a way out and I started using it again. I got together with my future son’s father. He was a drug dealer. That relationship turned out to be abusive. He introduced me to meth. The time I was on meth was the worst of my life. I didn’t sleep for days and my daughters would be in the same clothes for 2 or 3 days. I was basically having my boyfriend’s 15-year-old raise my two daughters. All I cared about was that next high.

Eventually, my boyfriend started selling heroin. At this time, I still using painkillers. Then I became pregnant with my son. As soon as my son’s father found out, he became extremely physically abusive, even in front of my kids. But I had nowhere else to go.

I knew how badly addicted I was, but I believed it was my own secret and didn’t want anyone else to know. I continued using painkillers until my dealer was killed and I no longer had access. At that point, I was six months pregnant. I started using heroin. I told my doctor and he urged me to get help. I called so many treatment centers and none could help because I was so pregnant. I felt like there was nothing I could do.

The doctor had said as long as you have your child, there are only opiates in your system, the hospital won’t call DHS.

One night at eight months pregnant, I took an Adderall and went into labor at home from the stimulant. Labor progressed quickly and there was no stopping it, so we called an ambulance. One of my boyfriend’s customers came in to buy heroin and stepped right over me as I was lying on the floor giving birth. Of course, they found drugs in my system — methamphetamines from Adderall as well as opiates.

After three days in the hospital, I was supposed to go home, but I developed preeclampsia and was admitted to the maternal ICU. While in the hospital, my boyfriend was physically abusive in front of one of the nurses. They called DHS, and three days later I was discharged. My son had started withdrawing at three days old and was still in the NICU.

When I got home, the DHS worker who came to the house didn’t know what methamphetamines were so I played her. I made up a story and she believed it. I was cleared to bring my son home. The NICU nurses didn’t want to let me take him, but they couldn’t stop me since I’d been cleared by DHS.

I shouldn’t have been able to take my son home. I was in no condition to care for him and his father refused to help.

When my son was 13 days old, we got a knock on the door at five in the morning. Cops kicked the door in with a search warrant on the house. My son’s father was arrested.

My mom allowed the kids and me to come back home. For the next two years, I lived a life of pure chaos and turmoil. I lived to get high.

As a mom, I was physically present, but emotionally and mentally I was not there. My mom was raising my children. I would leave every morning and go do what I had to do to get money to get high. I did seek treatment a couple of times but never took it seriously.

A year later, I got in trouble. I came home and my mom said, “Nikki, while you were away, I went to court and filed for custody of your kids. You have two weeks until your court date. If you can stay sober, then you can have your kids. But if you can’t, then I’m taking them and there’s nothing you can do.”

The two weeks passed. I went to court with my mom and signed my rights over to my mom.

Once I did this, then I couldn’t stay at my mom’s any longer. She told me, “Either you’ll get help or you’ll die.”

The night I signed over my rights was my daughter’s reconciliation. The same father-in-law, my daughter’s grandfather, who had taken advantage of me was there. He told me I should confess my sins. I knew that that was the last time I was going to ever allow anybody to treat me like a junkie.

The next morning I got up and walked to Episcopal Hospital with $3 in quarters and a couple of cigarettes. I was admitted to Kirkbride Center. At first, I thought of this as a break. I didn’t think I was truly going to get and stay sober.

November 28 was my first day completely sober. My counselor came to me and said I was going home less than a month later. When I called my mom, she stuck to her word and said I couldn’t come home. I remember being so mad at her, like, how dare you say I can’t come home? I just want the rehab for you.

Two days later, I went to my counselor and I said I needed long-term. Back then, you had to submit an essay as to why you wanted to do it long-term. It wasn’t automatically approved. I had to write down all the bad things that I had done to myself and my family. I’d always glorified the lifestyle I was living, but it hit me while writing that essay that I couldn’t do it anymore.

They got me into long-term. I hit the ground running. I was 100 percent focused on getting myself together to get my kids back.

Everyone said there would be an “Aha!” moment. I wanted there to be this big meaningful moment where the heavens come down and the sky clears up and it’s a beautiful sight. The moment never came. I just kept working on myself.

After four months, I went home to my mom’s house. I was on medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for a while. I did IOP three days a week for three hours a day. I was living with my mom and my kids, but my dad who also had a substance use disorder lived there, too. It was hell trying to stay sober while living with someone who was actively using.

I would get so angry, but I continued to focus on my kids. My daughters’ father and my son’s father are in jail, so it’s up to me to provide for these kids. And my kids had been through and seen so much. Especially my now 14-year-old daughter, who could tell me what a stamp on a bag looked like.

I was open with my kids and told them I had made some really bad mistakes, but that I was getting better and doing the right thing. I just kept telling them, “This is what can happen if you make poor decisions.”

How did you come to work in the recovery space?

For the next five years, I worked hard to be a better person. When you’re in IOP, it’s very hard to work, but I knew I had to work. Now, mind you, I have an associate’s degree in criminal justice. I was pretty smart and had some pretty good jobs before then, but now I couldn’t even get a job at Taco Bell. So I started taking on small part-time jobs wherever would hire me.

Finally, I got a job as a daycare teacher at a treatment center in Philadelphia where I was doing IOP. The other employees at the daycare hated that a current client could work there, so they alleged that I yelled at a kid so badly that the staff had to step in and hold me back from putting my hands on the child.

I was placed on unpaid suspension while the allegations were investigated. My lawyer subpoenaed the cameras at the daycare. I called every week, almost every day, and finally, after about a month they called me into the office to apologize because the claims went unfounded.

They offered me my job back or the opportunity to interview for another position. I took the latter and interviewed for an intake position. I got the job, and I’ve never worked so hard to prove somebody wrong. Within a few months, I was promoted to care coordinator and was already training other employees. It was hard because I was working with people that had just come off the streets. They were often homeless, in the grips of addiction. I was seeing sadness and devastation. All day, every day, I was seeing people overdose. I had to Narcan people and save their lives. I was seeing it all, and still, I loved what I did.

But I was doing the work of three people and I was getting burned out. The director of that program had me doing her job. She would send me home with boxes of files, and I would have to go through each file and fix all of the discrepancies. She shouldn’t have had me doing this, but she was. When I told her I was burning out, she said I was being ridiculous. I needed to move on, but this was my first “real” job and I was afraid of change. I had my kids to think about. I had a car payment. I had bills. I was paying a mortgage. I couldn’t just leave. But the nurses kept telling me not to be afraid of the unknown.

My first interview with Pyramid went great. During my second interview, I was at work, and a client overdosed in the lobby. In the middle of the job interview, all you could see was my cell phone jumping because I was running to Narcan for this client. It was crazy because I was trying to get another job while I was at work trying to save somebody’s life. I cared that much about my job and helping people. It’s my calling.

Pyramid hired me. It was the best feeling in the world. I’d done it. Nobody held my hand. But I was so afraid that people were going to judge me. I was intimidated by walking into a job with clinicians and doctors. I was so afraid, but my daughter was like, “Mom, you got it.” She just kept pushing me, just kept telling me not to be afraid.

During my recovery, I focused on myself and my family. I wasn’t dating or going out or anything. I was always with my kids or by myself. Then, for the first time in five years, I started dating somebody. I had known him since I was a kid. He was never into drugs or anything. We got along great. It had been about 15 years since I’d been in a sober relationship.

So, everything changed. I had a new job and a new relationship. My boss will tell you I only have one speed and that’s “go.” But I have learned to slow down a little bit and appreciate the love and the support everybody’s given me. I feel like a person. I’m no longer embarrassed. I am happy with who I am. I’m not ashamed to say I’m in recovery.

Today I live for myself and, of course, my kids. I’m grateful for where I am, and I’ll never forget where I came from. I just continue every day to remember where I could be. And even now, I’m still helping people. I think I’m right where I need to be.

Who was most supportive and influential in your recovery?

Without my mom, I’d be nothing. When you get out of rehab, you have to learn how to shower. You have to learn when to eat and when to sleep. It’s like coming out of a coma and having to re-learn everything others take for granted. You have to learn how to have money, how to pay bills. Up until last year, my mom was on my bank account because I didn’t trust myself. My mom taught me how to live again. She gave me the chance to get my children back. I have full custody of my kids now.

Although they hated the person I became when I was using, my sisters never turned their backs on me and my kids.

My children are the most amazing kids in this world. They love me unconditionally. My kids would walk on water for me and I would do the same for them. We all think our kids need us, but I need my kids way more than they need me. They are my world.

Until he met me, my boyfriend didn’t understand addiction. He’s learned a lot and he has helped me learn to love myself again.

What’s your advice for people who are just starting recovery?

Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.

It’s OK to ask questions. You don’t need to know everything.

It’s OK to not be OK. There are going to be bad days. There are going to be days when you want to go back out there and use it. But after you use it, that pain is always going to come back. So when you have those thoughts, just occupy your mind with something you love, be with people you love. You will get through it. Those feelings pass. The sickness that comes with getting sober will pass. You just have to wait for it to pass.

Is there anything you’ve discovered or rediscovered about yourself during the recovery process?

I’ve always been a hustler. I always tell people who use that if you work just as hard as you did to get drugs at a job, you will become something. That is true to the core. I love to work. I enjoy getting up every day and working at Pyramid. I worked really hard and I have gotten a promotion. I love being able to work hard at a job and know that I’m helping somebody.

I love hanging out with my kids. I love it when they ask, “Hey, Mom, can you play with us?”And I’m not too tired or too angry to play. I love that my kids want my approval now. Every time my son does something, he asks, “Did you see that, Mom?” Before, they had stopped coming to me. I love getting that back.

What do you and your family like to do in your free time?

I love to play outside with my kids. Growing up, I was a soccer player, so I love going to the field and we can play soccer or baseball or football. We go camping every year. I even rode a bike recently. My daughter got a bike for Christmas and I put it together and we rode bikes. I’m almost 40 years old and I wanted to die, but I loved it. My son was able to ride in the street with me through the neighborhood. I never let him ride in the street, so he felt so cool.

My daughter asked me to chaperone her to a Six Flags trip. All the other parents were hanging back, letting the kids have some space because they’re 14 and want to be independent. I offered to hang back, too, so they could go off on their own. And my daughter and her friends wanted me to stay with them because, as they said, I’m “a whole vibe.”

I just love being with them, whether we’re out having fun or just sitting home on a Saturday night watching movies and making them popcorn.

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