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One Woman's Journey from Drug Addiction to Successful Therapist

Denise Hill, IOP Therapist. M.A.,C.A.P.

Author: Shernide Delva

In recovery, it is important to learn from those who have been successful in their journey. Everyone has a different perspective to offer. That’s why Palm Partners is starting a series called #JourneysThroughRecovery to honor those who have overcome the adversities of addiction.  This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Hill, an IOP therapist at Palm Partners Treatment Center. Since 2002, Hill has been in the addiction and substance abuse field. Hill started at Palm Partners as a tech while earning her Masters degree. She quickly was promoted to Crisis Intervention Coordinator, and soon after became Residential Manager.

Still, Hill knew that her purpose was to be a therapist, so she earned her credentials as a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP) and became an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) therapist.  Working in recovery has allowed Hill to remain humble and aware of the disease of addiction. Throughout the interview, Hill’s bubbly and confident personality shined through. It is hard to believe the journey that Hill has overcome, but it is a testament to the possibilities that recovery has to offer. Hill shares a compelling story that those struggling in recovery can learn and benefit from.

Journeys through Recovery: Denise Hill, IOP Therapist and Recovering Addict:

Tell me a little bit about your addiction story and life before recovery? What was your DOC? How long were you active in your addiction?

My addiction spanned over 22 years. My drug of choice at the end was crack. I’ve done multiple drugs leading up to crack. I came from a family that was really poor. I’m the middle child, so my identity was lost and thinking back, I remember thinking, “I just want to be.” I was always intrigued by the older crowd. I couldn’t quite fit in with my friends, but I couldn’t quite do what the older people did, so I had to figure out something.  Coming from the verbal abuse that I got, the drugs was the necessary out that I needed to help numb the pain.

What do you mean by verbal abuse? Who was giving you the verbal abuse?

Well, my mom was verbally abusive because she cursed a lot. My sister was emotionally disconnected. My brothers, they just weren’t available at all because they had their own issues coming up. I had a lot of dysfunction in my family so we didn’t get the regular talking to trying to figure out or identify what different roles we could be, set goals, dreams…you just kinda fend for what you had and kinda hoped that you became somebody different.

So growing up in school, they weren’t really pushing you to like pursue a career or anything?

Oh no, growing up was terrible! Oh my goodness! School years were terrible for me [laughs] because I went in with low self-esteem, and the teachers were as motivating as they probably could’ve been, but I wasn’t at a place to draw to them because I was so withdrawn from all the pain and embarrassment of things going on.  And not having the best clothes like, it just didn’t put me in that spotlight of this “popular kid” […]. It set me up to be this person to get taken advantage of.

Would you say your childhood definitely played a role in your addiction?

Oh, most definitely! It was one of those… it was so painful. The first chance I got to escape, I loved it. I come from a gambling and drinking family so we could drink for holidays, and I could remember the first day I drank.  I was like eight. I remember drinking alcohol and getting drunk the very first time, and I loved it.  Even though I threw up, I loved it! Like I couldn’t understand; how could people not want to be like this? Even at eight, because I knew there was so much pain inside, and it took away the pain, so it made it seem better.

Do you think childhood typically affects an addict?

I don’t know that childhood does… I don’t even know that it’s just limited to having a bad childhood. I think the lack of coping skills, the lack of enforcement could’ve encouraged me to do something different. I was already seeking something, because what I was getting was painful, so I was already in searching of something of a disconnect.

What’s one memory that stands out to you when you think back to your childhood that made you maybe feel like you should turn to drugs?

Well, it was a combination. By the time I was ten, I was being molested by my brother. I was stealing, and I was already given permission to drink. So by that time, it numbed me. It took away the feelings that the secret was harboring.

What was that turning point that made you realize that you might have a problem?

When the pain on the inside got great, and I couldn’t talk about it. It’s one thing about stuffing feelings, it’s another thing to be able to express the feelings. Because I didn’t come from a family that would allow me to express my feelings. I was always taught, “Oh, it’s not what you feel,” or “Oh, shut up, you don’t feel that,” or “Change the way you feel,” or “Deal with it.”

Well, how can I deal with it if I can’t talk about it? And if I can’t talk about it, how do I process it? I found out now that I am a verbal processor, but back then, all it did was it just gave me a reason to want to escape, and that’s why drugs became the escape. Because they made me feel good. Then, my voice came when I started using drugs because I could really speak then [laughs]!

Tell me about your process of recovery. How did that start?

OH, that’s the fun part now! (laughs) So, I did what’s called a geographical change. Basically, I moved from one state to another in the name of trying to get something different.  So, I moved from Chicago to Rockford, Illinois, moved in with a girlfriend, and ended up getting evicted. I went to this agency for help, and they insisted I go to treatment.

When I got into treatment, I learned so many tools. They put words to things I didn’t know I needed words to, but once I understood the words attached to it; I was like “Oh, that’s what I’m experiencing! Oh my goodness, that’s why I’m going through!” I’ve only had to go through treatment one time, and that’s such a blessing. When I went into treatment, I was so greedy. I was hungry. I was like a sponge absorbent. I absorbed everything in treatment.  They talked about, “No matter what, don’t use.” That is what I still live by. I love that phrase. No matter what, don’t use.

One of the pivotal points, when I was in treatment, was this lady asked me my second day in; she said: “Tell me about the saddest time of your life.”  And I remember having to think back, because I had stuffed my emotions so much, I couldn’t identify sadness. So I had to think of a moment that I experienced “Sad,” and what I told her about was this time when I was like seven months pregnant with my daughter, and her father chased me cause he used to beat me. He chased me down the stairs, and I fell on my stomach, and I thought that would have stopped him from beating me up, but it didn’t. And then I started crying, and I realized after I had cried that I had stuffed my emotions for so long. Once I cried, and I got done crying, I remember realizing,  “If all I have to do is talk about me, I think I could do this.”  And I haven’t had to look back since.

You only went to treatment one time?

I’ve only gone to treatment one time, and never had to relapse by the grace of God.

That’s amazing. What do you think results in relapsing and many addicts going back to rehab?

Couple of things. There is so much information out there about relapse, relapse prevention, pattern of using. For me, I know God plays a big part in my story. My faith is strong so that’s what grounds me. What I’ve realized is there is work to be done, and you can’t stop doing the work. Even when you get some clean time, whether it is five years, ten years, or fifteen years, you can’t stop working on your past, because it continues to haunt you. Not being honest, whether it is fear-based, whether it is insecurity, whether it is uncertainty, whether it is financial issues; if you don’t put words to that, you eventually act out about it because you’re not talking about it. Life’s situations requires us to grow up.  If we’re not emotionally, physically, spiritually present, the disease lives in those places. It whispers, and it calls you. If you don’t do the work to stay away from it, you’ll end back in that deep dark hole.

What is your least favorite stigma around addiction? How can we go about changing that in the community?

Oh, that is a great question! “Once an addict, always an addict,” is my least favorite stigma. How do we go about changing that? I am in the process of changing that through my Ph.D. program. My dissertation would be around working with African-American children between 21 to 30, creating a group curriculum and traveling to different arenas within the community to teach coping skills, in a group setting, so they can learn how to face themselves and do something different.

Describe addiction in three words.

Dark, dreary hole.

Describe sobriety in three words.

Three words…I’m just gonna say “Trust in God.”

Why I say Trust in God is because the disease is spiritual in nature. […] If you can connect them to a source that is greater than their addiction, they have a greater chance of living in sobriety.

Learning through another person’s story  is an excellent tool in recovery. Different journeys offer a perspective that can help you make the connection. Remember, if you are struggling with addiction, there are so many people who have been in the same place you are in. They have embraced sobriety, and so can you. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135.

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