“My wife is the best thing that ever happened to me by far,” he said. “She had every right to leave, even before we got married, but she stuck it out through all the tough times. I’m really grateful for her, and it’s powerful how her never leaving my side made such a difference in my recovery.”
Kohlbrenner described why relationships — familial, romantic and otherwise — can be difficult for individuals with substance use disorders, including himself.
“When you’re using, it’s uncomfortable to have someone love you despite everything,” he said. “They don’t want to give up on you when you’ve already given up on yourself. It’s almost easier to have people leave you and fight you.”
These feelings of hopelessness and lack of self-worth are often rooted in stigma.
Change lives through changed perception
Usually an extrovert, Kohlbrenner didn’t want to be seen when he had his substance use disorder. He had scabs all over his skin and looked very ill. He cared about what others thought about him and how he was perceived by the community.
“It was so lonely and isolating, especially when it was really bad,” he said. “You’re so sick and you don’t want anyone to see you like that. I was really self-conscious and would wear sunglasses and a hat to cover my face — especially in a small town. Once people here determine your reputation, it stays like that forever. You can’t really get it back.”
Kohlbrenner encourages others to be more understanding and accepting of those in the community with SUDs. They aren’t criminals; they are people looking for solutions to their problems in the wrong places. They want to be active members in their communities, much like Kohlbrenner wanted to, but are sick and need help. Without a support system, it can be difficult for them to seek help.
“I don’t think people have much sympathy for active addicts until they are in recovery,” Kohlbrenner said. “Unfortunately, the stigma in the community will keep people sick until they’re accepted by society and within the community. You have no idea the potential these people have and what they could become if you give them a chance.”
Kohlbrenner hopes his story makes an impact in changing the stigma in Northwest Colorado. He said apprehension and judgment from others are often just signs of misunderstanding SUDs.
“I can stand by my past because of my present,” he concluded. “I think all we have is our stories. They help us and each other get through difficult times in our lives. They’re powerful tools that can change the way we look at the world. They let others know that change is possible.”