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Aug 4, 2017

A Fighting Spirit: Emily Wilson

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“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry I’m late!” Emily said as she came in and greeted me wearing a beautiful, sunny outfit of colorful pants and a flow-y chiffon shirt.

I could tell that Emily had probably spent her life apologizing, but I knew I liked her as soon as we met. She had the most truly genuine warmth to her– a little bit nervous but rightly so–she was about to share her story with someone she barely knew. Emily might not be TITLE Boxing Club’s oldest running member–she and her husband just joined in April–and she hasn’t achieved her weight loss goals just yet (although she’s made significant progress–eight pounds and six inches in only a few months!) but she knows that boxing has become a large part of her identity in just a short amount of time. The TITLE Boxing Club Clarksville family is helping her in a truly powerful way, to win a lifetime fight against a force that I can scarcely even imagine.

The word “addiction” comes from a Latin term meaning “enslaved by” or “bound to.” For an addict, life is ruled by an unstoppable urge that is hard for someone else looking in to understand. For Emily, her battle began at a young age as a teen who struggled with weight loss due in part to hypothyroidism and PCOS, she began experimenting with drugs and alcohol on weekends when she was only 13 years old.

“I knew right away, it’s something that any addict knows your first time,” she explained. “There’s this thing that takes off in your brain like, ‘oh, ok…I like this, I can’t believe I haven’t had this, I’m going to want this forever, I want nothing but this.” During high school she found herself cast into an unhealthy social role because of her weight, and after years of heavy drinking and feeling misunderstood, she pushed herself to graduate early at 16 and moved out to go to college. From there, she said, “It was all over.”

When she lived alone, her recreational drinking quickly devolved into full-blown alcoholism. “I drank to sleep, I drank alone, I drank 24/7–I even drank before class,” she said with a twinge of shame in her voice that made me incredibly sad. “I did it to fill a hole and it had all kinds of consequences, wrecked a car, got a DUI–relationships with family got rocky but it just continued.” She was sent to a halfway house in Atlanta at the urging of her family, but negative influences and self-sabotage set her back; heartbreaking-ly, she told me, right before she was set to accomplish 90 days of sobriety.
I wanted to somehow let her know that there was no judgment here at TBC Clarksville, that no one would think to blame anyone for succumbing to addiction in this safe place–to food, drugs or otherwise. Legally, addiction is classified as a disease; Harvard Mental Health defines it as a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences” and PET scans have shown how dopamine is released in the brain of an addict and how certain people even have a predisposition for it.

Additionally, studies have also shown that environment is a large contributing factor to whether someone will engage in substance abuse, and less about the chemical hook as previously believed. A study conducted by Bruce Alexander, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver showed the difference between lab rats living in different environments. A safe, happy environment with plenty of stimuli is not conducive to addiction, but in isolation–lab rats given a choice between water laced with cocaine and normal water would become addicted until eventually using themselves to death.

Emily struggled for years alone, and then became involved in relationships that furthered her depression and feelings of being unwanted; eventually leading her to abuse harder drugs. She became addicted to prescription pain pills after breaking her back in a car wreck, and from there delved into abuse of cocaine and methamphetamine–“It was just chaos,” she said. She relapsed into an abusive relationship and told me that for the longest time she never even thought that she deserved to get sober.

“There was no fun in it–using all your money, having to isolate from people, isolate from your family because you don’t want them to know you’re high but they know you’re high because they know you too well–then I found out I was pregnant.”

When her own sense of self-worth was not enough to help her overcome her disease, knowing that she would become a mother was–it gave her someone else to care for. “I know they say do it for yourself, but when you just can’t–use whatever you can.” Her daughter was her motivation; she got sober, left her ex, and went out on her own as a single mother. She would eventually go on to become a licensed master social worker and married one of her good friends from college. She and her husband Vincent now live in Clarksville with their two children (he adopted her daughter from her previous relationship last November).

I could tell that sharing her story was draining, I asked her if we needed to stop but she said emphatically no, being able to witness to others is her life’s calling. She works at an addictions center in Nashville called Next Door–a place that specializes in recovery for women getting out of jail. That’s where the name comes from: “If you pull open the door and let them out into the world, they’re going to repeat that over and over until they come to the next door.” They focus on a comprehensive approach at Next Door to break the cycle, and they do battle constantly with insurance companies to provide in-house care to recovering addicts (the alternative for many is homelessness). Emily has helped everyone from sex trafficking victims to pregnant mothers (Next Door is one of the only facilities in the region that helps detox women during pregnancy, the liability and legal risk has prevented most care facilities from even treating them).

She is able to do her job because she has been there, her advice comes from a place of humility–not superiority. “I definitely don’t have it all figured out yet,” she said, “But I can show them that I’m trying.” Addiction is not about the drugs themselves–it’s about a void; an acute dissatisfaction in this world that has to be filled. “It’s hard when you let go,” she told me, “The drugs are your best friend; even though they did a lot of bad things to you, they were still your best friend.”

After having her two kids, Emily’s battle was still not over.

“Being a wife and a mom and being sober, I found myself the biggest I’ve ever been in my life. I fell into a very deep depression which made me then gain more weight because I isolated–I only wanted to be around my kids and I didn’t have any energy, it was hard. I thought I didn’t have time to exercise because I worked in Nashville, but it got out of control and I wasn’t doing anything about it except continuing the same cycle. I saw a friend on social media posting about Title for a while so I went to a 5:15 a.m.–it was Christina’s last class. I got lucky because King was the first person I met and Storm was actually a member of the class. I came right by him for him to show me the moves, I was so nervous. I knew that I was far away from being as fit as these other people here but I was depressed enough that I didn’t care what people thought of me.”

She signed up that very same day and boxing became her new addiction. “I’ve had to accept that that addictive personality is never going to go away for me,” she told me. “But this time it is healthy–I had built up anger from different things in life and I knew I needed an outlet. Some days I even pretend the bag is someone” Just like Professor Alexander’s experiment showed, it wasn’t just enough to get sober–Emily had to actively change her environment to keep herself from going back. The community aspect of TBC Clarksville gave her the motivation to stay with it, with new friends and accountability from them on Facebook to get to class. She said that her husband has seen a major change in her, he had never dreamed that she would wake up at 4:30 in the morning to go work out before. She claims that it has transformed every aspect of her life, from her mood and energy levels to her mental clarity and she even credits boxing to her improved performance at work and a recent promotion.

Emily has been sober now for six years but she told me that the battle will never be over, there is always a chance that she could relapse. “Boxing is my self care activity, it’s a major thing as a therapist when you’re a recovering addict, to take time for yourself,” she said, “I enjoy it but also I wanted to prove it to myself that I could do it–so, I’m doing what Storm said to me that first day, I’m going to fake it until I figure it out and I’m not going to give up.”

As we finished our talk and I said goodbye to Emily, I wondered how this sweet girl could have been through so much–she had a peace and elegance about her that you rarely come across, it radiated out past her nerves, and any insecurities she still harbored from reliving her darkest days. It was the aura of a human being who had been through hell–but turned outwards on the other side, who had taken personal suffering and changed it into compassion for others.

That demon was still lurking over her shoulder, but still she spent her days helping others to escape it–and therein lies her bravery–in its truest, most perfect form.

Article by Kirsten Hall

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Janelle Richardson