“Something always felt wrong,” Emanuela remembers. “Ever since I was a very small child, I had pain and fear inside that I couldn’t quite articulate. Some of that came from my parents and the fears that they had.”
As a baby, Emanuela had been diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer called neuroblastoma, and despite successful treatment, there was always the possibility of relapse. “My parents were so scared it would come back, and I absorbed that fear,” says Emanuela. The only way her parents knew how to navigate pain and discomfort was with alcohol, and by nine, Emanuela’s parents were both functioning alcoholics. “As I got older, my mom stopped functioning, and she started going in and out of treatment starting around the age of 11,” she remembers.
Emanuela first stepped foot inside Beit T’Shuvah at fifteen years old, to visit her mom who was there for a long-term stay. “My mom was really nervous,” Emanuela says. “She thought I’d feel scared walking into a big treatment center, surrounded by addicts and alcoholics. But I remember meeting these people and feeling like I related to them.” During that visit, Emanuela’s mom warned her that as a child of alcoholics, she was at greater risk of developing alcoholism herself. Emanuela assured her that she wasn’t destined for the same fate, but deep inside, Emanuela knew that she already had a problem.
“At that point, I was just having a good time,” says Emanuela, recounting the drinking and pot-smoking that she dabbled in with her high school friends. But soon, Emanuela was abusing pills and pretending she was sick so her dad would buy her Robitussin cough syrup. With her mom in treatment, her dad at work all the time, and her brother in college, Emanuela spent much of her teenage years alone in the apartment, luxuriating in a druggy haze. “I was depressed and drugs and alcohol were the only way I knew how to navigate the pain. The solution, which I had picked up from my parents, was to avoid pain at any cost—there’s always going to be a pill or a drink that I could take to alleviate it.”
Emanuela says she made it through high school by manipulating her teachers: “I’d tell them my sob story, and they’d let me take tests late and miss assignments. I was very good at making myself the victim.” After college, she moved up north to attend Cal State Monterey Bay, where she felt like the odd man out in the small coastal town. Now fully unsupervised, Emanuela could drink all the alcohol and abuse all the benzodiazepines she wanted. “I just didn’t want to feel,” she says.
Then, a traumatic experience that would take Emanuela years to fully process: “I was sexually assaulted by a roommate’s dad—a guy in the military,” she recounts. Emanuela left school and moved back to L.A. Her mom had gotten sober by this point but was now in the hospital undergoing treatment for liver cirrhosis.
Emanuela, in the throes of PTSD and struggling with suicidal ideation, checked herself into a psych ward. “I had no way of coping with everything that was happening,” she says. Later, she visited her mom in the hospital, and while there, took a peek inside her mom’s medicine drawer. There, she found the powerful opioid painkiller, Dilaudid, prescribed to her mom for severe pain.
It wasn’t the first time Emanuela had taken painkillers – she had experimented throughout high school – but never before did she have access to such a potent drug, in such great supply: “I took my mom’s pills, and that was the beginning of the end for me.”
Emanuela’s pill habit became unmanageable immediately: “I was stealing from my sick mom, who really needed the pills, and I was convincing her she was crazy—that was she was losing them or overtaking them. She believed me because she loved me. She trusted me.”
Soon, Emanuela was using her mom’s fentanyl patches and buying oxycodone and Percocet off the street, meeting up with Craigslist dealers at 2 am in Food For Less parking lots in South L.A. “I had absolutely no regard for my life or my safety,” she says. “I remember thinking on numerous occasions that I could have died.”
One morning, Emanuela’s mom walked into her bedroom and noticed a fentanyl patch hanging out of her mouth. “I woke up to her screaming my name—she thought her child was dead.” Emanuela’s mom understood then and there what had been happening to all her meds, and why Emanuela wasn’t making any effort to go back to school or get a job. Luckily, having been through treatment herself, Emanuela’s mom knew what it takes to get sober—she kicked Emanuela out of the apartment and told her she needed to go to treatment.
Emanuela didn’t have health insurance, so she went back to the psych ward before checking into Beit T’Shuvah, where she stayed for 8 months before getting kicked out for using in the house. “I wasn’t ready to be honest. I manipulated my program and lied to my treatment team. I wasn’t ready to do what it takes to get sober.” Getting kicked out was the best thing they could have done for her, Emanuela says.
She moved back in with her parents, and once again began stealing medication from her mom, who, this time was quick to catch on. Emanuela ended up crashing on a friend’s couch, and it didn’t take long for the friend to tell her that she could no longer enable her—she had to check back into Beit T’Shuvah. “So, I showed up one morning with all my stuff. I had nowhere else to go, no insurance, and no options at this point. I met with the upper management to convince them to let me back, and it was the scariest moment of my life. I had to admit that I wasn’t an honest person. That’s where the work started.”
Emanuela stayed at Beit T’Shuvah for 15 months. “It was a really safe, nurturing place to be able to face myself for the first time in my life,” she reflects. “There was so much work to be done, and I remember feeling like I was finally understanding what it would take to be a person in recovery.”
Emanuela joined the Partners in Prevention program as an intern, where she would go around to different schools and camps and tell her story to middle and high schoolers. “It taught me that I’m really passionate about working with kids and talking to people about what I’ve been through,” she says.
She began working the 12 Steps and even sponsoring other women. “I learned that it takes a lot of courage and bravery to continue to work on yourself and be truthful. The biggest lesson I learned was that pain isn’t something to be avoided. There’s something really special about navigating hurt, broken-heartedness, and grief with a sober mind.”
Emanuela eventually went back to school and became a Certified Alcohol and Drug Addiction Counselor (CADAC). She is close to completing her bachelor’s degree and works as a case manager at a substance abuse and mental health facility in Culver City. She’s applying to graduate school to get her master’s in clinical psychology.
“Today, my life is really big and beautiful,” she says. “I have so many incredible friends. I work the 12 Steps every year, and I continue sponsoring girls. I have a healthy relationship with my family, and I get the opportunity to show up for them.”
Emanuela is still doing the work. For her, that means constantly taking a look at herself and asking how she can continue to grow and bring the parts of herself she doesn’t truly love to the light and love those things too. “I’m building self-esteem and confidence, and I’m finding the things I’m passionate about. I have actual hobbies today; I love doing art and writing poetry, all these things that I never had the time to do in my addiction. It’s a pretty good life.”