Driven by her passion for orphaned children in Zimbabwe, Regina Chari left her home in the USA and relocated to the motherland and now runs Refuge:Zimbabwe with her husband. Regina opened up to The Weight She Carries about her painful childhood and overcoming addiction.
Tell us about yourself and your family background.
I am 40 years old. I’m from the USA but have lived in Zimbabwe for most of the past 15 years. I am married and have two daughters and probably too many pets! I am a follower of Jesus and a social worker with a focus on helping children overcome trauma. I am an adoption advocate, justice seeker and a pursuer of healing. My parents were both alcoholics and battled addiction my entire childhood. I have one little brother. My parents were unable to care for us because of their addiction, so my brother and I spent the majority of our childhood and adolescence living with our grandparents.
Tell us about your addiction. What was it that you were addicted to? How did you realize that it was serious? How did you spend the days during your addiction?
I started drinking at a young age. I was willing to do anything to numb the pain I felt from the situation in my home. Although I lived with my grandparents and we were safe and loved, much of my formative years I felt rejected and abandoned by my parents. I would have done ANYTHING to make those feelings stop. I had limited coping skills and so the easiest way to get numb was through substances. By high school, I was drinking too much, too often and found that it was often easier to get away with doing drugs than it was drinking. I was willing to try anything and if I liked it, there was a good chance I’d end up addicted to it. I do not have the personality to do things in moderation.
I realized that my drug and alcohol use was a problem when I couldn’t get out of bed without a drink. I was 18 years old and in university. I was failing all of my classes and couldn’t keep up any sort of normal life. I spent the day drinking and getting high so that by the time my friends came home from class I could have a couple of drinks with them. It would seem like we were all having a good time, but my secret was that I had to drink all day in order for a couple of drinks in the evening to be enough.
I had major mood swings. I didn’t realize at the time that this was related to depression. My first suicide attempt was in that first year of university. A few months later, I would come incredibly close to completing suicide with a much more serious attempt.
What led to your depression?
Depression is a serious health issue. I had many reasons to feel sad, and that is to be expected for anyone – especially with my history. But depression is more than intense sadness. It is a medical condition that requires treatment. I think there are several factors that contributed to depression in my life.
The first is family history. My family has a history of mental illness and because of that, I was automatically at higher risk of developing depression. However, the experiences in my childhood, especially the trauma I experienced, played a major role in developing depression.
The research is pretty clear now that adverse childhood experiences lead to an increased risk of depression. When I was growing up, this wasn’t something my family doctors or teachers understood or spoke about. When I stopped crying all the time, everyone was relieved. What they didn’t realize is that I was no longer sad because I was numb. I lost the sadness but I lost everything else too. And then obviously my substance use didn’t help matters AT ALL.
Alcohol is a depressant; it slows down brain functioning, which is not helpful for people who are at risk for or battling depression. This was a perfect storm for depression. I had a family history, childhood trauma and I tried to solve the problem by drinking, which only made it all worse. Towards the end, I was abusing alcohol and drugs at very dangerous levels.
How did you recover from addiction and depression?
My story is one of everything falling apart in order for it to get put back together. I hit rock bottom right before I turned 19. My grandfather died, I had been expelled from university, I had ruined the majority of my relationships because of my behaviour when I was drunk. I found myself totally lost. I had a serious suicide attempt and survived by the grace of God. I ended up in treatment in a psychiatric hospital until I was transferred to rehab.
I learned a lot in treatment and started taking an anti-depressant and participating in counselling. These two things together are a really strong defence against depression. I also stopped drinking and using drugs, which was imperative for my survival.
After a few months, I drank again and had a disastrous experience in which I was lucky to survive. I ended up in the hospital again and the doctor had a tough conversation with me. He handed me a pamphlet about Alcoholics Anonymous with a list of local meetings. He told me in his assessment, this was my only hope.
I was brave and desperate enough to walk into a 12-step meeting that same night, January 28, 1999. I got sober and have maintained sobriety for 21 years. Through working a 12-step program, I have found freedom and joy in my life. I have a strong relationship with God. Today, I am able to manage my depression mainly though healthy life choices.
A couple years into sobriety, I was able to come off of the anti-depressant with my doctor’s support. I monitor my moods closely and a couple of times have gone back on medication for short periods of time when I needed additional support. I am grateful to know what my body needs and to have doctors who have supported me well.
Who was your support?
Well that list is far too long for one interview. Honestly, I have been blessed over 40 years of life and 21 years of recovery to have had so many incredible people in my life. My grandmother and my aunts are my greatest cheerleaders. They have stayed by my side in the most hopeless of situations. I have some dear friends that I cannot imagine life without. My BFF Natalie has known me through the worst of times and loves me in a way that still surprises me after 25 years.
I have had several incredible women from 12-step programs and church who hold me up in the dark moments and celebrate me in the victorious ones. They each mentor me in special ways.
And now, my husband. Nyasha likely had no idea what he was getting into when he married me, but through the highs and lows of the last 6 years, he has worked hard to lay a firm foundation for our family and I can’t imagine life without him.
What have your key achievements been?
My recovery is one of the most important achievements of my life; it has allowed all of the others. I hope I never tire of working hard for it or celebrating the miracle of it. I am incredibly proud of my degrees and the work I do. I graduated with honours from the same school I was expelled from; I think that is the most incredible thing.
I think the achievement I am most proud of in my life is my family relationship. I love my husband and our girls in a way I didn’t think was possible. I was afraid of marriage and being a mommy for most of my life. As a child of addiction, abuse and divorce, I knew what I didn’t want, but God has given me more than I ever could have hoped for.
What is your advice to addicts of anything?
My advice is this: Get help. Tell the truth about where you are. None of us do this on our own. Find someone who understands: a counsellor, a pastor, a doctor or someone in your community who has found freedom from an addiction and boldly tell them where you are. The solution is simple, but it is really hard work. You are worth it. And most importantly, if you feel shame, you are doing it wrong. Recovery looks like freedom; shame is the enemy of that.
How has your life changed since recovery?
There is no comparison. I was hopeless, now I have hope. I lived in the darkness and now I live in the light. My life in every way is the opposite of what it was. I have heard [it] said that the opposite of addiction is connection. In my addiction, I was incredibly lonely and disconnected. Today, my life is full of deep and rich connections.