In episode 33 of The Courage to Change: A Recovery Podcast, Kimberly Russell and host Ashley Loeb Blassingame talked about Kimberly’s incredible road to sobriety. We’ve edited and condensed Kimberly’s story for a fast read. You can listen to the entire interview here.

Early Years

Kimberly Russell is 29 years old and nearly three years sober. She grew up in Anaheim, California, with her parents and three siblings. Kimberly was close with her siblings; they were all homeschooled until eighth grade. Although she described her parents as being very loving, she admitted feeling controlled growing up. She shared, “I was very aware of the fact that they were filtering everything that I was exposed to, and that was something that I did not like from a very young age.”

Kimberly enrolled in traditional high school, where she felt isolated and out of place. She said, “I had no sense of self and I immediately started to expose myself to all of the things that I felt like I missed out on.”

During her freshman year, she went to a house party for the first time. She noticed that everyone around her was drinking out of red cups and she thought to herself, “how do I do this?” She went to the liquor cabinet and poured an entire red cup full of aged tequila. She immediately felt different and wanted more. By the end of the night, Kimberly blacked out. She got alcohol poisoning, threw up all over herself, and spent the rest of the night dry heaving on the bathroom floor. 

Her partying took off over the next three years. Kimberly drank alcohol before school, and smoked weed and did cocaine in the school bathroom during lunch. She shared, “I was dealing drugs by the end of highschool.”

During her sophomore year Kimberly started deliberately hurting herself with a razor to cope with intense emotional pain. Her family took notice and encouraged her to see a therapist. They also transferred her from public school to a Lutheran school.

Volleyball

Despite her drug use, Kimberly was a gifted athlete. She played on the high school varsity volleyball team, and later went to college on an athletic scholarship. She said, “I think that’s what helped me keep it together and at least mildly functional for a period of time because I had to physically perform.”

Her parents struggled to find her the help that she needed. They told her, “you can either go away to school or you can go to rehab.” She added, “they were putting things in place to try and protect me from myself.”

Kimberly graduated high school and went to Biola University, a private, Evangelical Christian University in Southern California. She was a NCAA Division II athlete, until she was put on academic probation for drinking and selling drugs on campus. During her junior year of college Kimberly crashed her car while driving drunk with another student, and was expelled. As she recounted, the school board said to her, “we’re done. You need to find somewhere else to go.”

For her senior year of college, Kimberly transferred to California State University, Fullerton on a full ride scholarship for volleyball. She said, “by that season, I was so skinny, I couldn’t even play volleyball.” She added, “I was throwing up. I would pass out at practice and by the end of that semester, I was living out of the locker room, smoking meth and heroin.” 

Her drug use progressed and she became depressed. During spring break, she decided to take a spontaneous trip across the country with some friends. Randomly, she found herself in a “Bible belt” area in Tennessee where she was sober for three days. She shared, “I found myself in a prayer barn in a dry county. I was sober for three days and I thought I was going to die.” Eventually, she found her way back to school, where she “channeled all of the motivation [she] had into finishing school and graduating.”

Losing A Close Friend

About the time she was 23, Kimberly returned home and rekindled with an old high school sweetheart. She shared, “he was someone who had always kind of come in and out of my life.” One day, she met up with her close friend, who had just gotten out of jail and was sober. She shared, “I convinced him to relapse.” Shortly after, she received a call the next day and learned that her friend had gone on a run without her. She overdosed on heroin and passed away. She added, “losing him absolutely devastated me.”

Kimberly shared, “That was the first time I realized that this isn’t what I want for myself, and I decided that I needed to clean up my life.”

Over the next four years, Kimberly got an office job and worked nearly 70-80 hours a week. After the work day, she would come home, drink, smoke weed, go to bed, and be ready to do it again the next day. She shared, “I didn’t really have a life outside of work or an identity.” She was also still drinking and using cocaine while on her lunch breaks.

When she was 27 years old, something shifted. She began to notice the people around her had moved on from partying. Drinking and using drugs no longer provided her the same escape. She shared, “I hit that point, that inevitable point for every addict and alcoholic, when it stops working.” She added, “I couldn’t get high anymore and even when I was drunk, it didn’t shut my head off and I would go into psychosis.”

Attempting Suicide and Being Hospitalized

She shared, “I would wake up every morning and would decide whether or not I wanted to kill myself.” She added, “I could feel my mental faculties unraveling and I started getting crippling panic attacks.” One night, while out with friends in San Diego, Kimberly attempted suicide. She shared, “I tried to throw myself off of a building.” Kimberly blacked out and doesn’t remember much of this night. However, she returned to her parent’s home in Southern California and continued to drink.

Shortly after this, Kimberly went on a bender and drank for 36 hours straight. No one knew where she was, and someone filed a Missing Persons Report for her. She shared, “my brothers ended up finding me with no shoes walking down the street, seven miles from where I’d been seen last. I didn’t believe that they were who they said they were and they had to tackle me, drag me into the back of the car, and close the door.” She added, “I tried to jump out of the car while it was moving.”

Her brothers managed to take her home safely. Kimberly went to her room where she “took about 70 sleeping pills.” She shared, “there was black around my vision and I remember this feeling of panic.” Shortly after, her brothers came to check on her. They saw pills all over the room, and that she was unconscious. Her brothers drove her to the hospital where she was put on life support and placed in a medically induced coma. The doctors told her family, “if they brought [her] in even five minutes later, she would have been dead.”

Kimberly woke up strapped down to the hospital bed, terrified. She shared, “I ripped the breathing tube out, which they said did some serious damage to my throat, because I remember waking up and not being able to breathe. I didn’t realize the machine was breathing for me.” Once she settled down, she started reflecting on what had happened. She soon realized she needed “outside help.”

Seeking Treatment

Kimberly shared, “my parents have asked me so many times, ‘what could we have done differently to have prevented this?’ And I tell them, ‘Nothing. I believe I was born an alcoholic and nothing could have changed that.’”

At 27 years old, Kimberly went to a 30-day treatment center. She shared, “all of the pieces started falling together, explaining why I was the way that I was.” She added, “I pushed through the discomfort to get there, but I think, looking back, there’s just all of these little guides that were there for me and that guided me through everything. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other and things fell into place for me very, very naturally.”

Kimberly’s saving grace through each one of her experiences has been spiritual growth and dedication to working a 12-step program. You can listen to her full story here.

*Quotes have been edited for clarity.