“Show yourself some grace. It’s progress, not perfection,” says Peer Recovery Coach (PRC) Heather Ziomek, 41.
Ziomek has been a PRC at IU Health for about a year and says that recovery has been the hardest thing she’s done in her life, but she hopes that her experiences with addiction and recovery can bring hope and encouragement to those who are also seeking their pathway to recovery.
“I started drinking when I was 11. When my dad passed away in June of 2018, he was very sick,” Ziomek says. “He had served two tours in Vietnam and he did not do well with the aftereffects of Agent Orange. He too struggled with alcoholism, but he was my best friend, so I took it very hard.”
After receiving a letter from her dad that was being held by a relative two months after her father's death, Ziomek threw herself into a tailspin of drinking and was taking pills, too.
“Every time I drank, I read his letter, putting me in a deeper depression each time,” she says. “I had one last big four-day drinking binge. I drank from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed.”
She woke on a Sunday feeling absolutely miserable, but went to watch some football.
“Normally I would’ve chugged three beers right away and continued drinking, but this time it took me two hours to finish one beer and after a few sips of the second, I was ready to go,” she says.
The next day Ziomek decided she was done and needed help. She contacted a friend who knew someone in recovery, who has now been her sponsor for the last three years.
“When I started my journey, I did exactly what my sponsor told me to do and I threw myself into the 12 Steps. I never went to treatment, I never went to detox, residential treatment or intensive outpatient program, which I don’t recommend doing it that way because I was also detoxing from Xanax.”
Ziomek says that 12 Steps and the people in it saved her life.
“When I lost my dad, I felt like I was completely alone, even more so than I did in my entire life,” says Ziomek. “The 12 Steps has helped me know that I’m not alone.”
With the help of a therapist, 12 Steps and her spirituality, Ziomek is proud to share that she’s been sober since Dec. 10, 2018. Since then, she’s been looking for ways to help others who are seeking treatment and recovery.
After nine months of sobriety, Ziomek learned about peer recovery coaching and applied for a scholarship to receive her training and credentialing. When she was denied the scholarship, Ziomek’s sponsor told her to be patient and if this was something she was supposed to do, then it would come to her.
She applied again in May 2020 and found out only a few days later that she received a full ride. All of her training and credentialing would be paid for.
After she received her level one credentialing, Ziomek applied for a few PRC jobs and was offered a position on IU Health’s Virtual Care Behavioral Health team, a team that virtually works with patients at 15 of the system’s emergency departments.
“We are the first person the patient talks to and sees in their pathway to recovery,” says Ziomek. “Our job is to help guide patients, connect them to resources and remove any barriers in their recovery. We’re also there to listen, give encouragement and hope.”
Ziomek says the most rewarding part of her job is seeing her patients grow.
“We do follow-up calls with our patients at 48 hours, one week, two weeks, one month, three months, six months, nine months and one year. I recently talked to one patient who was at his one-year mark. He explained to me that he was doing everything right. He was going to meetings, was receiving medicated assistance and got a job. It’s pretty amazing talking to these patients and seeing how far they’ve come.”
Recovery is not easy and Ziomek reminds us that sometimes things happen and patients relapse, but that’s okay. Not everyone’s pathway to recovery is the same and PRCs are there to help them find the one that works best for them.
When it comes to supporting those in recovery, Ziomek says, “Words hurt the most. It’s not okay to call someone a junkie or a crack head. We need to treat it as a disease because that’s what it is.”
She adds, “Be patient. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction or finding their pathway to recovery, show your support and share some encouraging words. Tell them that you’re proud of them. Again, it’s all about the words we use.”
Since Ziomek has gotten sober her entire life has changed. “The chaos that was in my head and in my world is all now peace. I was constantly in chaos in my head and I never thought I’d be able to find serenity.”
Ziomek is now happily engaged to her loving fiancé; they are getting married in Jamaica next year, and just bought a condo together.
“It’s just amazing all the beautiful things that have happened to me and it’s all because I stopped picking up that drink,” she says.