My First Time: The Unexpected Path from Addiction to Recovery

By Re’nesia Mills

Kristen Renbarger, sophomore marketing and public relations double major at The University of Tampa, became a drug addict as a way to cope with familial issues and life stressors.   

She was born and raised in Miami, Florida, but later moved to Louisville, Kentucky where she attended Sacred Heart Academy for high school. 

At 15 years old, Renbarger began smoking marijuana recreationally.

“At first I was just smoking with my friends,” said Renbarger. “As I was smoking more, I realized that it was making me depressed. It was changing who I was, so I stopped for a while. Once I started hanging out with my then-boyfriend and his friends, they smoked a lot of weed, so I picked up smoking again.”

Her health was impacted by the use of marijuana more than she had anticipated.

“My eating patterns and my sleeping patterns were all out of whack,” said Renbarger. “[Marijuana] makes you want to eat, so I didn’t eat unless I had smoked, and I couldn’t sleep unless I had smoked. I couldn’t fully wake up unless I had smoked. It may not seem like it the first couple times you try it, but that stuff is just as powerful as [opioids] or alcohol.”

Her path to addiction didn’t stop at [marijuana]. She decided to introduce alcohol into her life as well.

One night, Renbarger was in her parents’ basement with one of her older friends who lived in the same neighborhood. Her friend had gotten drunk before, but she wanted to accompany Renbarger for her first time getting drunk.

“We took alcohol from my parents’ cabinet and drank it,” said Renbarger. “My first time getting drunk was very innocent just because after that one time, I realized what alcohol could do for me and I started using it to suppress feelings that I was experiencing in my life.”

According to Renbarger, her first time drinking caused her to make it a regular habit. She began inviting boys over to her house and they would sneak in through the window and party in the basement with her and her friends.

At 17, Xanax was added to her path of addiction.

“I was with my boyfriend at the time and a couple of his friends and they said they had these pills that were fun and we wouldn’t have to drink as much,” said Renbarger. “So, my friend and I ended up trying it and I absolutely loved it and things just escalated from there.”

Xanax also had suppressed her feelings while dealing with familial issues.

Taking Xanax throughout her teenage years and early 20s began to take its toll on her life and she was not prepared for the downward spiral that her life would take.

“It caused me to skip school,” said Renbarger. “I started smoking cigarettes, I was skipping classes to be with my boyfriend. We smoked [marijuana] on a day to day basis and we drank heavily as well. It just opened the door for all those other things.”

She would take Xanax every time that she drank.

“There’s already a high chance of not being able to remember anything from the alcohol, but mixed with Xanax, you don’t remember a single thing and I liked that,” said Renbarger. “I soon realized it was not my friend because I had a lot of trauma happen to me when I was drinking and using.”

The trauma she experienced while under the influence of alcohol and drugs drove her to want to use more to forget about the things that happened to her and numb the pain and emotions that she felt. Her health began to suffer.

“I had four seizures from Xanax and I was hospitalized for all of them,” said Renbarger. “My first seizure was a grand mal seizure and at the time, I was on campus at the University of Kentucky. I slammed my head on a desk in school and I had to get about 10 stitches on my eye from that and I had a pretty bad black eye as well just from trying to stop using on my own.”

According to Renbarger, Xanax is a very dangerous drug to try and stop abruptly and it can potentially cause seizures when users try to stop on their own.

“Those were some of the scariest moments of my life and I truly did think that I was going to die from it,” she said. 

It came to a point where she was afraid to stop taking Xanax because she did not want to risk having another seizure and potentially lose her life, so she stayed on Xanax for about five years.

“I thought that I was confined to that life forever and I didn’t think there was any chance of recovery,” said Renbarger. “I didn’t even know what recovery was. I thought AA was just for people in the movies.”

Renbarger felt that the seizures were her wake-up call and when she returned home from school, she had decided that she would have one last hoorah before she sought help.

“I just started calling places,” she said. “I was so desperate for help at that point and I knew that there had to be another way out that wasn’t continuing to use drugs and having it ruin my life. I checked myself into treatment at River Oaks Treatment Center in Riverview, Florida and I went through detox.”

Once released from treatment, Renbarger lived at Opal Recovery Home, a halfway house for women recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction, in Tampa. She remained there for about a year before moving out and transitioning into her apartment.

After a year and a half clean, Renbarger ended up relapsing in July this year. She has now been clean again for three months.

“It’s one of those things that you’ll never truly recover from,” said Renbarger. “The addiction is a disease and it’s something I’ll have the rest of my life and I will just have to continue doing whatever I can to stay alive.”

While trying to stay clean, Renbarger has taken time to do some soul searching and reflect on her past self.

“There’s a reason why I was using those things, but once you take away drugs and alcohol, you’re left with yourself,” she said. “The 12 step recovery process has saved my life because I was just using because I was scared of myself.”

She now serves as the vice president of the UT Recovery Community, involved with Live Well UT, and she continues to attend meetings to help remain clean and sober.

“I get emotional because I could have died and it really didn’t have to be this way for me,” said Renbarger.

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