Sometimes the stories don’t go just as people plan them out.
Sometimes life can be hard, and you can take the wrong paths on the way to adulthood. But, in the end, that doesn’t mean you can’t find your way back to a good place.
The story of Athens graduate Mariah Conrad’s journey from high school star to 30-year-old adult is a hard one to tell, but it is a story with a happy ending.
In high school it seemed like Mariah Conrad had it all.
Multi-sport star at Athens. School record-holder in the high jump, a state qualifier, and a soccer standout who had the opportunity to play two sports at the Division II level.
But, looks can sometimes be deceiving.
While it may have looked like life was perfect from the outside, Conrad was struggling.
By the time she was 15 she was dabbling with drugs. And, by the time she got to college, it became a big problem for her.
For years the high school star athlete was struggling with a drug addiction, more than once hitting what she thought was rock bottom.
These days Conrad is willing to tell her story. Hoping that others see there is a way out. See things can get better.
“I would really like to get into a CRS line of work, certified recovery services, or recovery counseling,” Conrad said. “Right now I am a nutrition specialist, I work with animals. I work with a very large pet store and help people take care of their animals. As an end goal, I would like to give back to the people and the program that helped me get out of that black hole and would love to be that person for someone else.
“I think that’s why it’s so important I speak out and go every avenue I can on this and break the stigma on this. I think that’s partially why it took so long for me to seek help. There was this stigma I’m not a good person. I am a mess and no one wants me around, it’s why it took so long to reach out to someone and tell them I needed help. I thought everyone hated me. I think it’s important other people, and friends and family that don’t understand, instead of pushing an addict away it’s important to wrap them up and tell them ‘I am here for you.’”
Conrad knows there is a stigma with drug addiction. She knows that some people see it as weakness. She also fully believes it’s a disease, and that people need support and help.
“I am fully a believer an addiction is a disease,” Conrad said. “There is a reason someone can be prescribed Percocet and come off it and never go back on. And someone like me can take it and end up on a full-blown bender. It is in part who you hang out with, that’s where you get started. You can make an oath to never start it. I never thought it would be in my life still in 13 years. I thought it will be fun to experiment. It’s something I was going to do spontaneously when I feel like it and that’s not how it ended up. It has a lot of different layers to it. Addiction is a complicated thing to sort out.”
A DOUBLE LIFE
In high school, Conrad appeared to be the All-American girl.
“Definitely making it to states the two times I went (in track and field),” Conrad said of some of her best memories. “Even though I kind of bombed at states it was still awesome to go there. It’s still awesome to have those moments at districts, the last event, sitting there, waiting, the anticipation building because you are at 5-4 and because you don’t know if you can do it, and then you do it. Going to states and you are one of the best in your state is pretty incredible.”
Conrad reached that mark of 5-feet, 4-inches in the high jump, at the time the Athens school record.
And, then it was on to Lock Haven.
“I went to Lock Haven,” she said. “I originally was in the physician’s assistant program. I went to soccer preseason and was going to do soccer and track. I got through two weeks of soccer preseason and I didn’t want to do it anymore, I kind of got burnt out. I had a new found freedom. It was a big world coming from the Valley and it was a shock to me. I decided I didn’t want to do sports and wanted to have more freedom. The requirements were three-a-day practices starting at 6 a.m., the next one at 1 or 2 and the next at 6 and I wasn’t ready to make that commitment, I was ready to experience college.”
Looking back, Conrad misses soccer, but knows that part of what led her away from sports was her addiction.
“I miss soccer horribly,” she said. “That was the grip of my addiction too was the start of college. It brought me to the point I am now. Even though it did introduce me to the addiction I had, I feel I am stronger for it and better for it, at this point in my life.”
Conrad doesn’t dwell on decisions like leaving sports, because she knows she was an addict at the time, and playing sports wasn’t going to change that.
“I don’t know if I would have done anything different, because I was an addict and I’m not sure I would have changed anything,” Conrad said.
The addiction actually started in high school and Conrad was already living a double life of star athlete, and drug addict.
“It started when I was 15,” Conrad said. “Kind of dabbling here and there. I was able to maintain that double life, in sports, and maintain my grades. I lived the life everyone thought I should live. In college, there was no one to watch me, no one to check on me, as much as my parents tried. The freedom and lack of people there who could hold me accountable, it was all gone. The freedom that had allowed the addiction, it had already kind of started. I already knew I liked it and I went wild in college because there was no one there to stop me.”
What followed for Conrad was nearly half a lifetime of drug addiction.
A LONG-TIME ADDICTION
She turned 30 this year, and has been clean and sober for a year-and-a-half.
That came after right around 13-and-a-half years of addiction.
“It is absolutely wild to look back to think I let myself get to a point where I couldn’t control myself anymore,” Conrad said. “It’s mind blowing. Half your life is a long time to dedicate to something destroying you every day. It’s the longest commitment I have made to anything and to put it into that perspective is kind of appalling really.”
Everything started innocently enough for Conrad when she was a kid.
It’s a story that many addicts can likely tell.
She fell in with the wrong crowd. She tried something new, and she was hooked in a way that many of her friends weren’t.
“I was hanging out with some people from a different town,” Conrad said. “Normally, I hang out with my sports friends and we had each others’ friends, all people that were on the straight and narrow. I fell into a friend group from another area, with a little danger. It was an allure I wasn’t used to. They introduced me to Percocet when I was 15-and-a-half or 16. I started with weed and everyone told me it was great. I watched other people do it and decided to try it. Pills was where it really began. From there it kind of branched off into a million different avenues.”
The pressures of school. The pressures of growing up, and trying to succeed, all helped contribute to Conrad wanting an escape.
“I think it was mentally where I was,” she said. “I was feeling very pressured and stifled I guess. I felt I wasn’t able to fully experience the world because I was in a sports and academics only situation. I wasn’t able to experience life around me. Whether I realized it or not, it was the life people placed on me and when I became of age I wanted to break away and rebel and that’s where it started.”
Conrad would go and party with other friends on the weekend. They would go back all week and live their lives, not thinking about the drugs. But, for Conrad there was a desire to go back and use some more.
“I had friends I watched every day and they did the same things I was doing, and they were able to maintain their lives,” Conrad said. “They were able to go through the next day thinking of it and not be obsessed. I definitely knew I had a desire and a thirst for drugs and alcohol and it kind of outweighed the other people I was hanging out with, but I never really knew how deep it went.”
College was the first time where Conrad felt like she hit rock bottom.
“I had a couple rock bottoms to be honest,” Conrad said. “In college, I went home for Christmas to visit my family and they were like you are 100 pounds soaking wet and for a person who is normally 160 that wasn’t good. My parents drug tested me and found what I was doing and that was my first rock bottom — and I still wasn’t able to give up that part of my life. I knew I had a problem but I was not ready to say this is a problem I can’t come back from. I told myself I can come back at anytime, I told myself I could stop at anytime, that was my justification always.”
After college, Conrad got a job and was living what on the outside again would appear like a perfect life.
But, the addiction remained, and it only got worse.
“After college I graduated and I had a teaching degree and taught for four years,” Conrad said. “I felt like if my life had a purpose, I would be on track and wouldn’t have to use, but nothing helped, everything I did kept pulling me back. When I was furloughed from my teaching job when the school made cuts, I hit a different rock bottom. I was a teacher and now I’m not, that was really where the second round of rock bottom was.”
“I lost the person I was with at the time,” she continued. “I didn’t have a job anymore, I lost a teaching job and I couldn’t get my life together. I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything. Even though I had a teaching degree it seemed I had nothing to show for any of it because I was consumed. At the time, I thought this is who I am as a person, it’s not drug related, I thought it was who I was as a person.”
While Conrad looks back on those times as rock bottom, she didn’t stop, and things kept getting worse and worse until she finally got to the point where she knew she needed help.
“I kept going, as weird as that is to say, in a self destructive and self loathing path,” Conrad said. “I thought I hit rock bottom and I went much deeper. I was hanging out with people doing even harder drugs than I was doing by myself at the time. That was the last rock bottom when things really got out of control. When I started doing things worse than I was doing and it took a hold of me in a new way.
“I didn’t care if I had money in my bank account, I would do anything to feel better. The other people did the same and it was a mindset thing of this is who we are, this is what we do and we aren’t going to change. I didn’t realize I went a month without contacting my family. I had people looking for me, and I had no idea. I had zero comprehension and empathy for the people I was hurting and scaring every day.
“Finally, at the end, I had gotten pregnant with the person I was with at the time. I made an oath to change my life. I stopped and I didn’t make it very long. I made it two months. My boyfriend was using and nothing really changed other than me making an effort to get off the stuff. Eventually being exposed every day, I caved. I ended up having a miscarriage at 12 weeks. It broke me. It was my for sure, rock, rock bottom. I couldn’t believe (it) all I ever wanted to be (was) a mom and I couldn’t stop for the sake of my unborn child.”
After that Conrad knew it was time to get help and she made the choice to change things in her life.
“I had a court case pending for a charge in Waverly and it was occurring in three days. I thought this is my perfect opportunity to go to rehab. I called every place I could think of. Finally, I got a call from Bradford Recovery Center in Bradford, Pa. and they said they had a bed open for me and sent a letter to the court saying I was going there. When I went to court I told them I was an addict, this wasn’t the person I wanted to be and they agreed a treatment center was where I needed to be.”
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
After being addicted for so long, Conrad knew she had to really work to get clean.
She didn’t want to do the bare minimum with rehab, she wanted it to work, so she put in the work.
“I planned to go for three days and thought I’d be cured,” she said. “I ended up doing 30 days and they talked me into going to a halfway house. I was afraid if I went to the life I lived in the same Valley with the same people I would go back. I went to Williamsport until the bed in Lancaster opened up, and I stayed there for 4 1/2 months. I went further and decided I wanted to go to a recovery house in Lancaster, where you get more freedoms, but have counseling, and I did all of it.
“I did not want to go back to the life I was living. I followed every suggestion they were giving me, even if I didn’t want to I put it in God’s hands. I said where I am supposed to go is where you show me and it hasn’t steered me wrong since. After the recovery house I got my own place. I am living with a girl who is also in recovery and we have our own apartment 15 minutes from where I work. I participate in recovery still. I am connected with people in recovery and I have no plans to go back to the Valley anytime soon other than to visit family. I don’t venture to anywhere that might be triggering for me.”
Conrad knows that recovery takes work. She knows that it’s easy to fall back into addiction.
So, she has completely changed her life. She changed where she lived, and the people in her life.
“You really need to remove yourself entirely from everything and everyone,” Conrad said. “Until you are out of it and away from everything it’s hard to realize who your triggers even are. Everything is a trigger. Everything is a memory of somewhere you went, someone you used with. Until you are completely separate from it and can be outside looking in.
“That’s what I do even to this day, every decision I make my recovery is in the back of my mind. My family is incredibly supportive and so are all my friends. My family will drink wine for the holidays, but they will check with me and ask to make sure I’m OK with it. I am blessed with a family that is very supportive.”
The fact that her family is there, and supports her in life is special for Conrad because she knows the things she did to them while in her addiction.
“It’s incredible to think after everything I put them through they would stick by me,” Conrad said. “The things I did and said to them was unforgivable, but they have forgiven me and I am very grateful.”
A NEW LIFE
As much as she knew she had to get away from her old life, it’s still never easy to walk away from the life you knew.
“You definitely go through a mourning period,” Conrad said. “You grieve for the person you used to be and the life you used to live. It’s OK to feel that way when you know at this point moving forward is what’s best for you. The grieving will go away, but if you don’t stay sober, you will go away. I do know people who have gotten sober in the places they live and I commend them because I would not be able to do it. I knew I couldn’t go back. I knew it wasn’t the place for me to grow and thrive. I have made peace with it. My family lives there and If I want to go back to visit I have that piece of home there and that’s all I need. The people and things that set me into the downward spiral, those aren’t things that can help me in my life.
“It’s a great opportunity moving to a new area. As an adult, I feel it is so hard to rebuild and maintain and nourish relationships, especially with women. For some reason women in recovery had a hard time connecting with women and it has been amazing connecting with people here and I am proud to call them my best friends. It’s incredible to see we have this in us. Two or three years ago I had nothing, today I am a completely different person.”
There are some important things Conrad learned through her addiction, that she hopes can help others.
When she was younger, Conrad was like many people, thinking “it can’t happen to me.”
What she has learned is it can happen to anyone.
“I have lost quite a few people close to me to addiction and it didn’t steer me away and it is strange it didn’t deter me. For some people it’s enough (seeing people get addicted) to steer them away (from drugs), for others they have this thought it won’t happen to them. I think it really depends on the individual which is scary because there is no exact science with addiction. It’s so important to raise awareness and let people know what are the warning signs and what can happen and what happens when you get out of that addiction.”
There are stigmas and stereotypes of who can become an addict.
But, Conrad shows it can happen to anyone.
She was the All-American girl. She was a sports star, from a good family, who had plenty of love and support around her, and it still happened to her.
“I had such an amazing support system,” Conrad said. “I have such a big family, full of love. I had hope, all these aspirations and dreams and it still took a hold of me. It can be anybody. There are people you would never expect who go through what I have gone through and they are still afraid to reach out for help. There is no age limit, no race, no sex — it can pick anyone when it comes to addiction.”
And, Conrad learned there really is no one that can make the choice to get clean for you.
All the love and support from family and friends couldn’t get her clean.
Multiple rock bottoms couldn’t get her clean.
It wasn’t until Conrad was ready and made the choice for herself that she got clean.
“Every addict needs to find your own terms. It’s not something someone can force you into. If you do it for any reason other than ‘I want to get clean,’ it doesn’t work. Nine times out of 10 if you aren’t doing it to make yourself better, it won’t work.
“Rock bottom is where you need to be to find your way out.”
For Conrad, things got bad in her life. Things got hard, but she found her way back, she found her way out — and she hopes that families and friends see that there is still hope for people they know who are addicts.
“I am telling people ‘don’t give up on the person,’” Conrad said. “‘See past the person they are with the addiction, the person they love is still in there and don’t give up on that person.’”