Deep, dark secrets – the closely guarded, painful memories that haunt and evoke fear – can be a weight that pulls us in directions we would prefer not to go.
Liz Stephenson knows well have the corrosive effect such unrevealed knowledge can have on a life. In her case, it was the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, a horror that later expressed itself in a 20-year-long addiction to opiates.
The long-time Marco Island resident is enjoying life having robbed those two burdens of their power after a life-changing stint in a rehabilitation facility last fall. And now she wants to share her story in hopes of inspiring others who may be experiencing difficulties of their own.
Stephenson is in the process of writing a biography highlighting her journey. She has also been sharing her experiences with patients at The Willough at Naples drug and mental health treatment center.
“I think people have to be aware that they can get help and that it isn’t shameful to get help if you are a victim of sexual abuse, physical abuse and mental abuse, and that you can get off of opiates,” she said. “I couldn’t have imagined a year ago that I could have the life that I have today. I’m happy with who I am.”
The Detroit-area native moved to Marco in 1991 after meeting and then marrying her now husband here that same year. Her husband, Doug Stephenson, has been a chiropractor on the island for 42 years and she manages his office.
She is the product of a privileged upbringing, due to her father’s success as a business owner. The family had one other child, her brother, who is 17 years older.
Liz Stephenson’s descent into darkness began on her eighth birthday, April 5, 1972, when a close relative first took advantage of her sexually. She recalls those incidents occurring 25-to-30 times over the next eight years. She also recalls not having anyone to confide in about what was happening.
She attended a Catholic girls’ school until ninth grade. There were few children in her neighborhood, and she describes her childhood as being an isolated one. While her parents showered her with material objects, said Liz Stephenson, they weren’t the type to discuss matters related to sex, much less confront the fact that she was being abused by someone close to them all.
“So I didn’t understand,” she said. “There was a time in my therapy, when I first started, where I thought, ‘Am I to blame? Shouldn’t I have known that this was wrong?’ But I was a kid.”
As a result, she held tight to her secret, revealing it to no-one.
The situation weighed heavily on her as time passed, both mentally and physically. Liz Stephenson said she’s noticed that she was never smiling in childhood photos taken after her eighth birthday and that by her 18th birthday, she’d become anorexic, weighing 60 pounds less than the svelte figure of today.
“That was a sign of sexual trauma, but it was the early eighties, so it was, ‘Don’t talk about it,’” she said.
Adulthood and the success it brought personally and professionally did nothing to lessen the trauma’s power.
“I held that secret and it affected my life in many ways,” added Liz Stephenson. “I never felt good enough. No matter how successful we were, no matter what kind of house I lived in, no matter how much stuff I bought, it never filled the void.”
Her journey into addiction began as it does for so many people, with pain medication prescribed by a doctor to treat an injury. In her case, the injuries were sustained in a car accident that happened when she was 34. It was the late 1990s, a time period when awareness of the danger presented by opiate use was low and regulations were relatively lax, compared to today.
What started as means of treating physical pain ultimately morphed into something that numbed emotional wounds, and it began to dominate Liz Stephenson’s life.
At first, she was taking five milligrams of Percocet and later, when she had a hysterectomy, her doctor upped her dosage to 7.5 milligrams. Eventually, she found a doctor who wrote prescriptions for a dosage of 10 milligrams and 400 pills a month.
“I thought I really dealt with life better on opiates,” she explained. “The first opiate I ever took, it felt like a warm hug I’d never gotten in my life. So I understand why people get addicted to opiates.”
Next, an even stronger opiate entered her life, Oxycodone. She said a local doctor was writing prescriptions for her for the drug’s 30 milligram dosage and she found herself downing five of the pills daily.
“My husband’s a doctor and all these other doctors knew me and they were writing me scripts like they were candy,” she said. “It was so free here and I was never really questioned because people knew who we were and they figured I was telling the truth.”
Liz Stephenson was enmeshed in a vicious routine that revolved around staying supplied and staying medicated. It was a cycle that came to dominate her life. She even felt opiates improved her ability to cope with life.
But that all began to change a few days before Thanksgiving, 2017 when her mother passed away at age 95. She said her mother’s death opened the door to stopping “because I didn’t have to cover up and I didn’t have to numb myself anymore.”
But first, she had to hit, what for her, was rock bottom, which saw her usage spiral out of control. The situation that led two of the three adult sons she and her husband share to confront her and urge her to address her addiction. One even drove from his home in Miami to put her on a plane to Toledo, Ohio, where she entered a drug treatment facility.
“I was gone for two months and it was during that time that I finally told the truth about what had happened to me,” said Liz Stephenson. “It’s like your life is a puzzle, but there are pieces missing. And once you speak the truth of what happened to you, all the pieces come together and you no longer need the opiates to survive. I have never craved an opiate even one time. I no longer crave opiates. It just gives you all the power back in your life.”
She’s going public with her story in hopes it will encourage others caught in addiction’s web.
“If somebody reads this and it just helps one person to go get help, then I’ve accomplished what I wanted to do,” she said.