I was fighting a rat for the remnants of a corn dog I'd salvaged from the trash. That's when I realized I'd crossed the final line I had drawn.
I had told myself, as long as I don't shoot up, I'm OK. As long as I'm not homeless, I'm OK. But now I was shooting up and homeless, and there was nowhere left to draw. I had reached the bottom line of my existence.
I was constantly searching for something outside to fix how I felt inside. My first memory of that need was when I was about 8. My parents had divorced, and I was living with my grandmother. We had a difficult relationship. I wasn't fitting in at school, and I was overweight. I went into her kitchen pantry and ate an entire container of icing. I put the lid back on and placed it exactly where I had found it. Before long, I began to make excuses so I could hide in the pantry.
When I went back to my father, we moved around. I never stayed in the same school for more than a year. I was always the new and awkward tall kid, and I learned to downplay my intelligence in order to fit in.
Drugs and alcohol helped me feel at peace with myself, and opened the door to being liked by other kids. I tried anything I could get my hands on: pot, alcohol, crack, hallucinogens, pills, belladonna seeds and household products that I could huff. Only new and stronger chemicals masked how I truly felt about myself: unwanted, unworthy, useless and ugly.
Eventually, substance abuse became the common denominator among the people I allowed in my life. If you did not use, then I didn't have time for you.
My judgment began to deteriorate. I found myself in places I didn't want to be and doing things I didn't want to do. I would get in cars with strangers and drive to another state just on the promise of getting high. It is only by the grace of God that I think I was able to survive.
When I was 17, I had a daughter, but even the unconditional love of a child couldn't coax me away from the demon of addiction. When she was 3, she went to live with her father.
I sold just enough drugs to cover the cost of what I was using. I was now living with others in a riverbed under a freeway overpass. The drainage would bring large deposits of aluminum cans, which we would exchange for money. I was now an IV meth user and couldn't fathom how my life could get any worse. I didn't have the courage to kill myself, but I also couldn't muster the will to stop using.
My 34th birthday was the worst day of my life. I remember begging whomever would listen to either kill me or save me, but don't leave me here in hell.
I remember the next day like it was yesterday. I felt like a cockroach crawling out from under the bridge that morning. When my eyes adjusted to the sun, I saw the police officers. I had already had many run-ins with the law, and for a moment I weighed whether I could outrun the police this time. But my body was just too tired.
I knew I was again going to prison. But strangely, this didn't bother me. I felt a great weight lift off my shoulders. Somehow deep in my heart I knew that I was ready to never live this way again.
I did my time and, with the help of my family, I was paroled into a residential treatment center. The day I walked in was truly the first day of the rest of my life. My mind was ready to embrace the idea of a second chance.
At a 12-step meeting at the center one night, I heard a woman talk about an insatiable hunger she felt in the pit of her stomach — a hunger that could never be filled by any food, only drugs. She called this hole a "spiritual void." At that instant, I felt like a piece of my puzzle had finally snapped into place. I wasn't alone. There were others who felt the void, and who were waking up every day to fight to stay clean.
While in treatment, I went back to school. I was 35. Within two years, I graduated from community college. I took out student loans and transferred to a university, where I graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in business administration. I went after my recovery like I did my drugs and found I was able to accomplish anything I truly wanted.
Today I work with women who serve their prison sentences in residential treatment along with their children. My path to recovery led me to a job where my experience could help others, and that is why I feel my life hasn't been wasted. I hope I can continue counseling those who share my story. I hope I can continue to build my fragile relationship with my daughter. And sometimes, I just hope.
Hill lives in Southern California, where she works with recovering addicts and fosters dogs from an Akita rescue.
This occasional series is imagined and edited by NPR editor Laurel Dalrymple. You can follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/laurelmdalrymple