In early May 2018, I found myself with a garbage bag of dirty clothes in one hand, and my deceased mother’s carry-on bag filled with books in the other. I had just been dropped off at a sober house I’d never been to, in a town I’d never heard of, completely alone. The previous 20 days had been a whirlwind — the rehab I had checked into in Worcester couldn’t keep me any longer due to insurance issues, despite my protestations that I wasn’t ready for the “real world” yet. I wasn’t terrified of what was out there, but what was in me — I had spent the better part of a decade filling my body with opioids (pills, heroin) and the last three years exclusively using fentanyl intravenously.
I never wanted to get clean, and I would get annoyed with my friends who did. While I thought it was anger I felt, it was really jealousy. They still had hope that they could be normal, while I had accepted that it was my fate to die with a needle in my arm in a gutter somewhere. Not a pleasant thought, but after years of degradation, humiliation, and failed attempts at getting clean, I knew that I was destined for an early grave.
When my mind finally cleared from all of the drugs, I became a sponge. I hoarded every book the rehab had. My counselor noticed my insatiable hunger for knowledge, and she off-handedly suggested that I go into research, since I loved to learn so much. I scoffed at the idea, but a small part of me longed for the sort of life where that could be possible. I reminded myself of who I was, and that applying to college at 26 years old, with a criminal record, no family support, no job, no home, and no money was a fool’s dream. I considered myself anything but a fool, so I focused on the task at hand, and tried to stay clean.
When I went to live in that sober house in Taunton, I did just about everything wrong. I snuck out past curfew, went to 12-step meetings late and left early, didn’t get a sponsor, and didn’t do the steps. It’s no surprise that months later I started drinking again. I found myself faced with an indisputable fact: I could not put narcotics or alcohol into my body and be a functioning member of society. I finally surrendered, went to a 12-step meeting, and asked for help. I was showered with unconditional love. I chased my recovery with all the energy I had used to chase the drugs.
After a few months, I signed up for school at Bristol Community College. I spent the first year (before the coronavirus pandemic) with a book open on the counter at the restaurant I worked at, and made flashcards or did homework on the bus to and from my job. I was so racked with insecurity from a childhood reading disability and poor high school grades that I felt I needed to give everything I had just to be average. After that first year, with a 4.0 GPA under my belt, I knew my best was not just adequate but could possibly lead me to that dream I had dismissed in rehab — maybe, just maybe, I could get a PhD one day.
Armed with the knowledge that my hard work would pay off, I spent the next year with my nose in books and my spirit/heart/mind in 12-step meetings. My adviser suggested that I cast a wide net when applying to transfer to a university, and though I was still racked with self-doubt, I didn’t want fear of the unknown to hold me back anymore. I applied to 16 universities, and I was accepted to 12 of them. Out of a pool of 20 students with perfect GPAs, I was chosen as valedictorian at Bristol Community College. I became one of Glamour magazine’s College Women of the Year. I met Jill Biden, who referred to me as “Doctor Katherine.” My family is not embarrassed by me anymore — in fact, they’re quite proud. That may have been the biggest adjustment of all.
For at least the next two years, I’ll be at Brown University. I’m excited, but the “imposter syndrome” hasn’t gone away just yet. At a prestigious school, it’s no longer my addiction that makes me feel inadequate; it’s being low-income, almost 30 years old in classes with teenagers, and being a first-generation college student with no connections within the Ivy League.
I still believe what my inner voice told me years ago while in active addiction: I will never be normal. But after everything I’ve learned and experienced over the last three years, I have to ask: Do I really want to be?
Katherine Haley will enter Brown University in the fall.