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HPR Hero Suzanne Nistelberger

“It was just plain stupidity. It all started from relieving myself from my excruciating menstrual cramps.”

What began as medication to help Suzanne Nistelberger out of chronic pains, slowly became an answer to every pain in life. The more pain she was in, the more relief she sought from pain medication. The more medication she sought, the more addicted she became, until she came to a point where all the medication stopped to have any effect on her. So her next obvious answer?

“I just upped my dosage,” she said. Being dependent on a ‘doctor’ who had many criminal cases against him, didn’t help her to come out of her situation either. “As I got older, I also discovered I had several chronic pain issues including Fibromyalgia, lower herniated discs and was in 2 minor car accidents.”

The higher drug dosage to Suzanne meant an immediate answer for all her pains, physical and emotional.

“I had no father till I was about six years old. My mother worked 3 different jobs, leaving me to the care of a babysitter.” Who was to know that the same babysitter’s son was to abuse her? Who was to understand the void created by her mother passing away at just 40? The happiness that Suzanne found in marriage and motherhood was not to be permanent either. “When my son was 7 his father left us for Austria. Things got more out of control and by the time my son was 15, I sent my son to Austria to live with his Dad.”

Suzanne by now was left hollow. Unable to stop herself from walking an old and forgotten path, the use of drugs took her right back to its arms again. “I was an empty shell of a person. I would just walk around with no feelings, no energy and no lust for life. I had absolutely nothing left to live for.” The helplessness on Suzanne’s face comes back to her as she remembers the saddest days of her life.

Her only ray of hope were her father and her step-mother. “They loved me dearly, but they started to shut me out after years of trying to get me help to get off the opiates. In October of 2010 I finally decided to do something about it”

Suzanne made a call to the distress line, that being the first turning point in her life.

“Yes, I was sexually abused as a 4 year old. Yes I never had the caring and nurturing environment that every child deserves. But having said that, I can also tell you now, that every emotional scar is reversible. That things can be changed, and nothing should be an excuse in life to not change your life for the better.”

That glimmer of hope, a sparkle, the rainbow at the end of tunnel, however one may describe the end of a roadblock, finally came into Suzanne’s life the moment she said ‘enough is enough’.

“I had to try just that one time to seek help from a source other than drugs. I was 46,” says Suzanne. But it really is never too late, when one decides to be a fighter and live for oneself and for others. She finally made that one call to a distress number to ask for help, and that changed her life forever. “I’d like to think that I am a good human being. I have always been a good person,” Suzanne thinks out aloud. “But a lot of the choices I have made were bad choices. It's just that at that time I didn’t realize I was making bad choices. Now I can see, when you start making one bad choice, it just traps you into a series of bad choices thereon.”

The first bold step for Suzanne was to accept that she was responsible for her actions. The second was to seek help in the right place.

“Recovery in the rehab centre wasn’t easy though. When I sat there for my first session and saw the people around me, I had an attitude that I was better off than everybody, and I didn’t need to be there. But I stuck around and realized slowly that I needed to be there just as much as everyone else in that room seeking help. I was in the exact same boat as others. We all had a story, and we all needed help.”

Fate brought her to Gabor Mate’s ‘In the Realm Of Hungry Ghosts.’ For the first time, she seemed to come face to face with a lot of her own reality through the pages of that book.

“I learnt how certain parts of one’s brain shuts down after any kind of trauma.” The book seemed as though it had been written just for Suzanne. So many things made sense to her about her own actions in life and about the decisions she took.

Lines from the book jumped out at her, explaining so many of her internal conflicts that had so far remained unexplained to her:

Endorphins are released in the infant’s brain when there are warm, non-stressed, calm interactions with the parenting figures. Endorphins, in turn, promote the growth of receptors and nerve cells, and the discharge of other important brain chemicals.  The fewer endorphin-enhancing experiences in infancy and early childhood, the greater the need for external sources. Hence, the greater vulnerability to addictions. Distinguishing skid row addicts is the extreme degree of stress they had to endure early in life. 

Almost all women now inhabiting Canada’s addiction capital suffered sexual assaults in childhood, as did many of the males.

Childhood memories of serial abandonment or severe physical and psychological abuse are common. But what of families where there was not abuse, but love, where parents did their best to provide their children with a secure, nurturing home? One also sees addictions arising in such families.  The unseen factor here is the stress the parents themselves lived under, even if they did not recognize it.  That stress could come from relationship problems, or from outside circumstances such as economic pressure or political disruption.  The most frequent source of hidden stress is the parents’ own childhood histories that saddled them with emotional baggage they had never become conscious of.  What we are not aware of in ourselves, we pass on to our children. Stressed, anxious, or depressed parents have great difficulty initiating enough of those emotionally rewarding, endorphin-liberating interactions with their children.

Later in life such children may experience a hit of heroin as the “warm, soft hug” my patient described: What they didn’t get enough of before, they can now inject.’

– Excerpt from: Gabor Mate’s ‘In the Realm Of Hungry Ghosts.’

It was as though she had found a friend who understood her and spoke to her through the chapters in the book.

Over time, Suzanne got a grasp of life without being dependent on drugs and her new found freedom made her realize how badly she wanted to spread her story to all those who needed to hear it. "I have done public speaking on several occasions in churches and different venues on addiction including on TV. I would go and do public speaking for nothing. Anything to help others in this position. Anything. For they need to know.”

Suzanne’s life has come a full circle since the day she made that call to the distress centre. She works as a peer mentor, trying to humanize the clinical process at the same referral centre she had first walked in as an addict. “It is now my turn to give back. I work at the same place I went to at the start to get help – I get to give back every single day,” Suzanne says with a passionate heart!

She has dedicated her life to helping others get off the drugs. “Ever since I recovered, I knew this is what I am supposed to do.” Going out of her way to help comfort patients who walk into the centre, trying to make them feel at ease, Suzanne knows nothing in her life has felt this strong as much as her desire to help an addict recover. “I’ve been there, done that. I know the other side of the story only too well, and so I can help others for I have been in their shoes almost all my life and I know what’s at stake,” she says.

Of the many, many lives that Suzanne has touched till date, a recovering addict is only too grateful to have her in his life. “I finally feel someone is listening to me, someone understands me,” he says. Another recovering addict voices her opinion, as she says she never felt she was being heard. But now things are different with Suzanne around!

While another chapter in her life is yet to come to a full circle, that of mending broken bridges with her son, Suzanne hopes that the good choices that she has now been making in her life will help her achieve that. “No matter what my son feels for me today, no matter how much anger he has for me today, I love him deeply,” says a heart-broken mother. Until that one last chord is tied back, she is going to continue to selflessly mentor and help those who need her.

Suzanne Nistelberger, you have shown to the world around you that no matter how painful one’s life is, we ultimately make our own choices. That no matter how our past may be, we can shape our future, and that it is in us to help others. 

A public speaking guide for people with lived experience of problems with prescription pain medication was published with the help of a number of people like Suzanne Nistelberger, who as a person with lived experience generously gave their time and expertise to review drafts of the document. More on that here:

Inspired by Suzanne's story? You can share it on your wall and pass on the inspiration!


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