“I never thought I would be at this point,” says Heather Barrie*, a 35-year-old education professional from the Baltimore area. Barrie says so in reference to her recovery from a prolonged period of “suffering and despair,” tied in part to her struggles with substance abuse. Having been sober for more than a year, she considers herself fortunate to have gotten to a point where she can talk openly about the tumult that had consumed her life for too long.
Barrie has had her share of struggles throughout her life, but she can trace the beginning of her descent to the weeks and months following the birth of her son, approximately four years ago. She endured a bout of postpartum depression that pushed her to seek comfort from the bottle—first red wine and then hard liquor, particularly vodka. She tried to hide the problem from those closest to her, but the picture-perfect life she showed the world—a loving wife, the mother of a young son, and a successful professional with a master’s degree in education and a leadership position at her school—was starting to unravel.
“I was a functional alcoholic,” she says. “I tried to get the help I thought I needed, but nothing seemed to stick.” She sought help from a handful of inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, both near and far, but each trip ended with the same outcome: relapse. Social anxiety and depression didn’t help matters, as both conditions fueled her compulsion to self-medicate.
Her descent continued, her struggles worsened, and the relationships with the people she loved the most—her husband, her son, her parents—began to fray. At one point, she was hospitalized for a seizure resulting from alcohol withdrawal. “I wasn’t sure where my life was going,” Barrie recalls. “I was causing my family so much hurt and felt they would be better off without me. The seizure was the breaking point. I was debilitated and coming to a point of hopelessness.”
Everything changed when a family friend recommended The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, located in nearby Baltimore. The Retreat offered a residential treatment program for individuals dealing with many of the mental health problems that can derail a life, including substance use disorder.
In August of 2018, Barrie left her home in a quiet Baltimore suburb and entered The Retreat. “The Retreat had something I had never seen before,” she says. “They meet you where you are, so I immediately felt at ease and comfortable. Through the team approach they offered, I was introduced to a lot of different people who wanted to help me: a social worker, a family therapist, my primary psychiatrist, an addiction specialist. They quickly assessed me and started to give me the treatment I needed.” The assessment revealed a surprising diagnosis— surprising to Barrie, at least. Not only did she have substance abuse disorder, which she had suspected, but she also had a previously unrecognized mood disorder.
“The new diagnosis was bipolar II disorder,” Barrie recalls. “I was a little taken aback, but once the diagnosis was explained to me, it was a little less scary. Because of that, some of my symptoms began to make more sense, so in a way it turned out to be a relief. From there, I surrendered to the recommendations of my team.”
Doing the Work
Christine Liszewski, M.D., a staff psychiatrist at The Retreat, was Barrie’s primary doctor and individual therapist during her inpatient stay. An accurate diagnosis, followed by the appropriate treatment regimen, made “all the difference” in Barrie’s recovery, according to Dr. Liszewski. “It took [Barrie] a while to appreciate the depths of what she was dealing with, but she was willing to do the work,” she says. “She had been reluctant to do a residential programbecause she didn’t want to be away from her family, but ultimately she was glad that she did it. This opportunity allowed her to see things from a different perspective, and I think it also brought new meaning to the work she was doing as a school counselor.”
The Retreat placed Barrie on the co-occurring track, meaning her treatment plan was designed to address both of the conditions that had been negatively affecting her life.
“When people have these co-occurring issues but aren’t being treated properly, staying clean and sober is pretty much impossible,” adds Denise Connelly, LCSW-C, MAC, CAC-AD, an addiction counselor at The Retreat. “[Barrie] had a lot of underlying issues—shame, guilt, and a lot of devastating loss. So when a person like her gets sober and the substance they once used to medicate those feelings is gone, that person tends to have very strong feelings because they no longer have that numbing agent to tamp those feelings down. That can be overwhelming without the right help.”
Connelly, herself a recovering addict, suggests substance abuse and mental health issues such as bipolar disorder often go hand in hand, or co-occur. She suggests individual and group therapy, along with a mutual support group—particularly the fellowship of a 12-step program such as the one founded by the creators of Alcoholics Anonymous—tends to provide the support structure needed to help people who are suffering overcome their disease.
“The opposite of addiction is connection, and that’s what happens in these programs,” Connelly says. “If I could have my wish, it would be 12 steps for everybody, because it helps you change from the inside out. You’re also helping others as part of it, and helping others makes you feel good; you have to give it away in order to keep it.”
“Many of the people who come here come here thinking they don’t have a problem, but [Barrie] was an exception,” Connelly continues. “Most people in society tend to hang out with people who engage in the same kinds of behavior. When you get clean and sober, you realize you have to change your behavior and not put yourself in the same kinds of situations that led you here. You have to accept that your life will be different. You also realize that you are not responsible for your addiction, but you are responsible for your recovery.”
Barrie’s personalized treatment plan included art therapy, music therapy, and equine therapy, as well as family therapy; The Retreat brought in Barrie’s husband and parents to help mend familial relationships that had become strained. She particularly appreciated dialectical behavior therapy, also known as DBT. Through DBT, Barrie gained the skills needed to manage her emotions more effectively, cope with stress in a healthy manner, and improve relationships with those around her.
“When people are in a lot of pain or dysregulated, it’s all they can think of, and they end up acting on the problem or behavior,” says Maria Mouratidis, Psy.D., a psychologist who leads outpatient DBT group therapy at The Retreat. “DBT helps them change their thinking and develop the acceptance skills needed to manage these intense emotions. A lot of these acceptance skills come from mindfulness-based Eastern practices. Proponents of DBT would say, ‘Pain is a part of life, but suffering is optional.’ ”
One Day at a Time
Barrie left The Retreat in November 2018 and “stepped down” to a nearby transitional space known as Ruxton House. There she continued her individual and group therapy in an environment that more closely resembled daily life in the so-called real world. She stayed at Ruxton House for another three months and “eased back into reality.” In February, she walked through Ruxton House’s front door for the last time, eager to restart her life.
“[Barrie’s] willingness to try is one of her greatest strengths,” Dr. Mouratidis adds. “She has been able to maintain her sobriety in part by being mindful, tracking her urges, and accepting the fact that alcohol is no longer part of her life. She’s very aware of the urges or situations that would have urged her to drink in the past. There’s no way to ‘trigger proof’ the world, and she understands that she cannot control what’s happening in the world, but she can control her response to it.”
In August, Barrie celebrated one year of sobriety. Through ongoing participation in outpatient group and individual therapy at The Retreat, she reinforces the skills she learned throughout her stay. For example, she continues to work closely with Dr. Liszewski, her inpatient psychiatrist and individual therapist.
“She knows the hard work is not over,” adds Connelly, who is among the professionals from The Retreat who still meet with Barrie weekly. “She continues to be humble and open-minded, and she doesn’t think she’s got it made. She knows it’s going to be one day at a time from this point forward.”
Some days may have more “stress and strain” than Barrie would like, but on the whole she’s happy with where she is in her life. She’s back in graduate school, for example, working toward a master’s-plus degree at a nearby university. Her home life is more tranquil, too, helped along by regular sessions with a third-party family therapist. In fact, she and her husband have discussed the possibility of one day adding to their family.
“I have a lot more hope for the future now,” Barrie says. “I’m excited to wake up every day, and that’s something I’ve never experienced before. The Retreat really did save my life and restore my family. I’m forever grateful and indebted to them, and I think my family would say the same.”