Girls with childhoods like mine don’t live long and they don’t grow up to become doctors. They die young and if they happen to stay alive, they end up in prison or living on the streets forever. I grew up in a family infected with incest that can be traced as far back as my genealogy extends. I was not protected or safe in my own home. Like thousands of young girls before me, I turned to drugs and alcohol to escape.
By 14, I was hooked on meth. I didn’t have the luxury of wealthy parents which meant I had to commit crimes and offer my body to men more than twice my age to stay high. I spent my adolescence immersed in the child welfare system, living in and out of foster homes, juvenile facilities, treatment centers, and the streets. Every junkie has a story and I have mine. Suffice it to say that I have paid my dues in that world and paid heavily. After a violent rape that nearly killed me, I vowed in the hospital that nobody would ever look at me with the disgust and revulsion that the doctors and police officers did that day. I have remained committed and true to my promise.
Today, I stand as a woman who has risen above the darkness. I live free of chemicals and the obsession to use them. I can’t remember the last time I committed a crime or considered killing myself. I put in years of hard work to earn the privilege of being called Dr. Garrison and have dedicated my last ten years to helping others.
I’ve lived my life one step away from becoming a statistic. The question I get asked most frequently is “What advice do you have for others in your situation?” Here’s what I know about beating the odds.
1. Your labels don’t define you
I can’t count the number of labels that have been attached to me. I’ve been diagnosed with everything from schizophrenia to mild mental retardation. None of these things are true and none of these things are my experience. You are not who people say you are. Period.
2. Use what you’ve learned on the street
Life on the streets provides you with powerful tools that can help you in the real world. For example, surviving on the streets has given you an ability to read other people that can’t be learned in any book or in any class you might take. Reading people is an incredibly valuable skill to have and can serve you well. Gambling with your life in the world of addiction has taught you to think fast on your feet and to develop expert negotiating skills. Don’t let these skills go to waste. Use them.
3. Set small goals
I started from nothing. No job. No home. No education. No friends. I couldn’t focus more than a few feet in front of me or I would’ve been completely overwhelmed. You can’t look at the mountain you have to climb in front of you or you will probably never move. My goals were small in the beginning and included things like learning to set an alarm clock to wake up in the morning and making sure I ate at least three times during the day. Believe me––I didn’t start out with the dream of earning a doctorate. It wasn’t even on my radar. My biggest dream was to graduate high school and to this day, my GED is the diploma I am the most proud of.
It doesn’t matter where you start––just start. It doesn’t matter if you don’t do things the traditional way or you think you’ve blown your chance for success. It’s not true. I started my education at a community college with only a GED and today, I work at the largest and most respected trauma research center in the country. And guess what? No one cares how I got here.
4. Get help
I can’t stress this enough. I’m the woman I am because of the people who helped me get here. I can’t count the number of people and organizations that played a role in my success from the foundation that paid my first month’s rent after being released from my halfway house to the therapist who let me stay in her basement during my first year at college. Help is out there. You just have to find it. And when you find it––don’t be too proud to ask for it.
5. There aren’t any quick fixes
Changing your life and who you are takes a very long time. Just because you want to change doesn’t mean it’s going to happen simply because you want it to. You have to work at it. Drug addicts are used to quick fixes and thrive on instant gratification. This mentality has to be completely annihilated or you will never make it.
Change is often a painstakingly slow process. Sometimes it will feel as if you are walking in quicksand with concrete slabs tied around your ankles, but you’ve got to keep walking. As long as you keep moving, you’ll get to where you’re trying to go.
6. Learn from your mistakes
I wish I could say that I’ve done things perfectly, but I haven’t. You won’t either. I can promise you that you will make mistakes and keep making them until you master them. Some of my biggest mistakes have been my greatest teachers. They can be yours too.
7. Don’t ever give up
This is the most important piece of advice I can give you. The only thing that separates me from all the other people who didn’t make it out of the darkness is that I didn’t quit. I kept going no matter what. It’s the thing that will separate you from those who don’t make it. The line dividing the successful from the unsuccessful is not based on any hidden factor or secret formula other than the refusal to quit. Successful people have had just as many failures as the unsuccessful, they just kept going until they got where they wanted to be. All you have to do is keep moving forward and you will too.
By: Elizabeth Garrison Ph.D
If you interested in reading my full story, please check out my bestselling book, Wounds of the Father: A True Story of Child Abuse, Betrayal, and Redemption.
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