Christina Love's Story
Christina Love's Story.
Christina Love needed to come home.
She had just learned that the woman who took her in and raised her for 18 years — a waitress in Fairbanks who took pity on Love’s mother, an Alutiiq woman with developmental disabilities — had cancer.
Love fondly refers to her as grandma.
“She wanted me to come home, but I felt like I couldn’t until I was off drugs,” Love recalled during an interview at AWARE, Juneau’s emergency women’s shelter, where she started her career as an advocate for people who have survived domestic violence and sexual assault.
Love’s father, a convicted pedophile, was out of the picture by the time she was 2. Life wasn’t easy for her growing up, and by the time she was in her early 20s, she was stripping for money in Anchorage to feed her addiction to alcohol, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and Benzodiazepines.
When she learned about her grandma, Love was down to 100 pounds and her liver was failing. Her arms were so damaged from shooting up she couldn’t raise them in the shower to wash her hair. She was in an abusive relationship and had already been sexually assaulted throughout her life too many times to count. She had also tried to take her own life multiple times.
"I just wanted the pain to stop, and I couldn’t quit using drugs,” she said. “I had a lot of shame, and I also had this incredible criminal record. I didn’t want to go back to jail and I didn’t want to detox in jail again. In my mind, I had all these different things that I knew that I was going to have to overcome to get home.”
But she had nowhere to turn for help. She had already been kicked out of all the treatment centers in Anchorage. One she sold drugs in. The others, she just couldn’t follow the rules.
“I had a huge problem with authority, and that just goes with trauma responses to violence and how many of us learn to survive,” she said.
Despite her own doubts, she flew back to Fairbanks, still on drugs. Her family took action. They drove her out to a cabin in the middle of the woods, many miles outside Fairbanks, for her to detox.
“They figured that when I started to freak out (detox), I wouldn’t try and leave because it was 60 below,” she said. “And little did they know, I still wanted to leave in my high heel boots and tiny leather jacket. That’s the insanity of it. That's addiction — you will risk your life and everything you have for that next shot, drink, or hit. That's why addiction is a brain disease. A disease that takes away the ability to choose.”
Though the intervention was well intentioned, her family didn’t know that withdrawal from alcohol and Benzodiazepines can be life-threatening. She started having medical issues, and they immediately drove her to the hospital.
She would end up having a seizure and spending the next two weeks there, detoxing under medical supervision. It was one of the most awful experiences of her life. She couldn’t hold a pen. She didn’t want to be alone. She didn’t want to be with people. She didn’t have the energy to get off the floor.
“I’ll never forget that,” she said. “I just wanted to lie there.”
“I told myself that if I get into recovery, then there is nothing I can’t do. If I overcome this, there’s not going to be anything I can’t get through. This has got to be the world’s most difficult thing. And to this day, I haven’t encountered anything as difficult as that.”
A clinician at the hospital encouraged her to get a Vivitrol shot, a once-a-month shot that Love described laughingly as a “giant pudding cup that they inject in your ass.”
“It’s the world’s biggest shot, and it hurts so bad,” she said. But it blocks the effects of alcohol and opiates like heroin and helps with cravings. And if a drug user uses drugs while on Vivitrol, they don’t feel any of the illegal drugs’ effects. And those who do use illegal drugs while on it could become violently ill. Love was scared of getting sick and never tested it.
“They said that you’re level of disease is so progressed, you’re going to die,” she remembered the doctors saying. “’You can’t stop using, and if you continue to keep using, you are going to die.’”
Love made it through the ordeal, and had a bed date scheduled at an in-patient drug addiction treatment center a few weeks out. By the time the bed date came, she was still off drugs but no longer interested in seeking treatment.
“I ended up going back to work as a stripper because I didn’t know what to do for money,” she said. “I had to work under the table because I had these warrants out and all these criminal charges.”
She went to face her grandma and to explain her new plan.
“I told her that I had it all figured out,” Love said. “I had this apartment that was attached to a bar, and I had a car again, and it was going to be fine.”
Her grandma looked her in the eye and insisted she needed professional help. The deal was that we would both seek medical help.
For the first time, Love really listened. She said she researched centers she could go to, and picked the one with the nicest sounding name: Rainforest Recovery Center in Juneau.
Love almost made it through the 28-day in-patient program Rainforest offers. She was kicked out on day 26 because she met a guy, who was also in treatment. He would later become the father of her daughter.
But she never did drugs again. And to keep herself on the right track after doing Rainforest’s program, she said she enrolled herself in “the school of recovery.”
“I went to every single meeting, conference and opportunity that I could find,” she said. “That’s all I did every single day.”
Today, Christina works from the top down and the bottom up. She is an activist and lobbyists for legislature at the state and federal level. She helps people who are in active addiction and people who are in recovery. She works at ANDVSA as a senior specialist for Alaska's statewide coalition on domestic violence and sexual assault.
As a state and nationally recognized leader Love is often a key note speaker. Her colleagues referred to her as one of the biggest movers and shakers who is always advocating with her whole heart for individuals as well as systems change.
Christina envisions a community where people are more accepting of those struggling with trauma, addiction, and mental health concerns. A community that has more compassion and provides meaningful services to help those on their journey to long-term recovery.
“We need to do a paradigm shift of acute-care to long-term recovery care, just like other illnesses,” Christina said, adding, “This is a chance to transform all systems, especially within public health and social services.”
Love stresses that heroin, alcohol and methamphetamine addiction, and all the rest, are the same thing: addiction.
Love often shares education about addiction, homelessness, mental health, incarceration, domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty, and the effects of trauma. She also shares her own personal story. "Our stories have power, and sharing it with others emboldens listeners, and helps fight the stigmas society attaches to people who have felons and people who use drugs. We really do allow others to define us when we’re silent," Love said.
Christina wants to show the world that people who struggle with addiction are lives worth saving.
It’s also inspiring for others struggling with addiction to hear. "Seeing and believing it's possible is what makes it possible," Love said.
Love celebrated her 8th year in recovery on March 3rd. She wants people to know that not only can people like me “make it and survive, but they can thrive beyond their wildest dreams.”
Her last drink of alcohol was March 3, 2013. She began volunteering at Juneau’s emergency women’s shelter, AWARE as part of her amends in a recovery program.
“Shelters have kicked me out in the past, and I was so angry because not only did they not help me they also caused a lot more harm,” she explained.
At AWARE, she was welcomed as a volunteer, and ultimately offered a job.
“I am so grateful that AWARE took a chance on me. They are so incredible,” she said. “They didn't just accept me. They celebrated me, and the path that I’ve been on. And they do that for every person who works there, and for every person who walks in the door.”
Love, she did end up being able to spend some time with her grandma before she passed away.
“Its devastating that we both agreed to get medical help but only one of us survived our illnesses but I am so grateful that we got to spend one last Christmas together,” Love said. “My grandmother told me that she was always proud of me, and that she always loved me. And that there was nothing that I could ever do to change that.”
That level of acceptance and unconditional love was crucial to Love’s recovery. She said that’s how she treats others in her volunteer efforts as an advocate, peer, and coach.
“There’s no judgement, and there’s an absolute level of acceptance, and that compassion is where healing starts for ourselves, and for other people.”
“And if anything,” she added, “that’s the component that is the missing component of agencies. That level of compassion, and that level of hope that people so desperately need. It is all of our job to believe people are worthy of life and services and to hold hope for people until they can hold it for themselves because each and every person has the ability to recover no matter what.”