The finale to a presentation on addiction by students from the Morris County School of Technology Academy for Health Care Science was unexpected.
Jefferson native and social work professional Susan Woomer offered to tell her story to the guests who remained after the Wellness Fair at the Senior Citizen Center in Oak Ridge.
Woomer said while there are many people who know her story, she has never presented it publicly. Health Educator Kristine Schaffhauser-Wilsusen, who arranged the wellness fair, asked Woomer to speak.
Saying she comes from an average family, Woomer said she was an only child who received lots of support, but she went down a surprising path. She didn’t realize until later she has a genetic predisposition to addiction, although she knew of a history of mental illness and addiction to alcohol and gambling in her family.
She had her first drink at age 14, but noted today young people often start as early as 11.
“It’s definite your brain is not developed by then,” she said.
Peer pressure wasn’t the villain, she said. “I wanted to be on the inside. I was always questioning whether I was pretty enough or good enough until I added alcohol and drugs. My self-esteem was related to how people saw me and I didn’t realize that.”
While she thought she would start over in college, Woomer found herself continuing to make negative decisions, and she learned consequences continue when you become an adult. By then she had become introduced to opioids.
When she found herself within the criminal justice system, she found herself stigmatized. “People look at your differently.”
As she recognized her problem, she began to see other members of her family who never sought treatment.
“I didn’t get sober based on one time,” she said. “I had to fall a couple of times.”
She noted when people see a 50-year old addict, they say “bad choices,” but when they see a 17-year old they say, “what a tragedy.”
“Each deserve an equal chance,” she said.
For herself, Woomer found support and God and discovered her own path in January 2012.
“I learned to find my own self-worth,” she said.
It still wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. “I expected people to trust me when I got sober, but I had to learn to get their trust back,” she said, adding, “One of the reasons I never shared my story is because of the stigma. People with mental illness still feel a stigma. I still have to explain stuff on job applications.”
While she thought perhaps her background would be an advantage, or at least not an impediment in getting a job counseling people with addiction, she discovered that wasn’t the case. “People still judge,” she said.
Now Woomer hopes telling her story will help with that.
“I have to recover out loud. I need to talk about it,” she said.
She does more than just talk. She advocates for treatment facilities in jails and prisons.
“About 80 percent of the people in jail have substance abuse issues, but most jails don’t have treatment,” she said, adding that if someone with diabetes is incarcerated, he or she still gets the necessary insulin.