From addiction to recovery to successful lives

Suburban couple share their stories with LaMoille students

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LAMOILLE — A Lombard couple who are years in recovery were invited to LaMoille High School on Wednesday to share their personal stories of drug addiction with students.

Brad Gerke and Jessica Alvarez have both struggled their way from the depths of addiction to today where they hold professional careers that aid others in recovery.

Alvarez is an intake supervisor at Banyan Treatment Center in Chicago and speaks at public forums, schools, jails and treatment centers throughout Illinois.

Gerke is director of operations at Banyan Treatment Center in Chicago and speaks around the state on the drug issue. He also serves as an advocate for needed resources for those struggling with addiction.

The two share their stories and experiences in hopes to help just one person in their audience, as their presentation offers guidance and education about the ongoing drug epidemic.

It started with alcohol and pot

Gerke shared how his drug addiction started with smoking pot and drinking alcohol in high school. This habit lowered his ambitions and eventually led to trying harder substances like cocaine, ecstasy and heroin.

He faced homelessness, ended up in the hospital for overdoses and detox and spent stints in jail. When he was kicked out of his parents’ home, he said the safest place he ever felt was sleeping in their backyard.

“There’s nothing more humiliating than waking up in the morning and watching your parents let out the dog and let the dog back in and you realize the family dog has more privileges than you do,” he said.

While Gerke said he never expected life to get to such a low point, it was drugs and alcohol that got him there. He said the friends he started doing drugs and alcohol with are all dead from addiction today.

What eventually led him on the path to recovery was the feeling of uselessness, and being an inactive member of society. It got to a point where no one, not even immediate family, could rely on him or believe in him anymore.

Gerke has been sober since September 2010.

“You never know which way your life is going to go if you just take the correct action and go the positive way,” he said.

He urged students to realize there is a power of choice.

“If there is ever a substance put in front of you, choose not to use it,” he said.

Growing up in a family struggling with addiction

Alvarez was the youngest of four children and grew up in a home where both parents struggled with addiction. The family moved around a lot and lived in projects.

Alvarez said she remembers moments of being hungry and no food in the house and feeling lost and scared. The worst part was that she didn’t know how to reach out to anyone or what resources even meant, let alone what they offered.

When she was 10 years old, the state forced her and her sibling into a foster home. This led to not knowing how to talk about her feelings and not feeling comfortable in her own skin. She turned to smoking pot, because it helped relieve her of these feelings, and plus, it’s what her cousins did.

Alvarez’ mother eventually worked to get her children back, but continued to struggle with addiction. She spent most of her time smoking crack with her boyfriend, while Alvarez got into drinking and eventually turned into what she called a “party girl.”

That image quickly escalated into trying acid, heroin and crack, and partying on weekends turned into weekdays. At the age of 18, Alvarez was in full addiction and found herself either in jail, a hospital or an institution.

She served her first prison sentence at age 20.

Today, she considers herself a Hispanic professional. She owns her own home and is working toward her bachelor’s degree. She said she shares her story to give people hope.

“My life and the way I grew up didn’t prevent me from being successful,” she said. “I have the ability to say, you can make changes, but you just need to have resources to do it.”

Help is out there

One of the most important pieces of their presentation was sharing that there are plenty of resources out there to help addicts on the path to recovery.

One of the key resources that helped Alvarez and Gerke was sober living, which is a drug-free environment that provides structured living in a community setting. Alvarez has run a small-scale sober living home for the past five years.

Alvarez said addiction centers in the mind. She asked the audience things like: “Are you uncomfortable in your own skin? Do you have trouble expressing yourself? Are you full of fear? Do you hold onto things and think it over and over to where it becomes an obsession?”

These sort of feelings are the ones where people turn to a substance to try to find relief. Alvarez said drugs became the solution to the problems she struggled with.

“I wanted to stop feeling the way I felt in my own skin, and I sought out drugs to recover from that,” she said.

What helped her was looking at the emotional barriers she struggled with, and finding ways to overcome them without the use of drugs or alcohol.