Women do incredible things. This section features the stories of women who are a part of the Southeast Missouri community by way of living here, being from here or passing through. We hope these stories inspire you to connect with others and that they encourage you to be who you are in the world. We need you and your unique gifts.
This story was first published in the Survivor Stories special section of the Southeast Missourian on Oct. 13, 2020. Hear Jennifer tell her own story at 6 p.m. on Oct. 22 at One City, 610 Independence Street in Cape Girardeau, at the Survivor Stories event. Seating is limited to 50 people; to be in the live audience, reserve your complimentary ticket at survivorstories2020.eventbrite.com. If you prefer to watch from home, tune in to the Facebook Live stream at facebook.com/rustmedia.
By Missy Nieveen Phegley
From ages four to six, Jennifer Abernathy was sexually assaulted, setting her up for a life of low self-esteem, no self-worth and a lack of trust in people. Eventually, this led to a long history of abuse and chronic addiction.
At age 15, the age when she became sexually active and the age when she began to remember her past trauma, Jennifer began using meth. Describing herself as a binge user, she started on the path toward cycles of use and recovery and cycles of abuse. Even though she has now accumulated more clean time than addiction, she was in and out of recovery for 20 years. For her, unhealthy relationships were triggers, and drugs filled a void.
Jennifer worked hard to get her life back on track, going to school for social work. After nearly four years clean, she had a tubal ligation. The procedure brought up the emotions connected to her past trauma, so she took prescribed painkillers and relapsed again.
She began using nearly every day between 2014 and 2016. During this time, she was also in her most physically-, emotionally- and mentally-abusive relationship ever, both of them using very heavily together. Because she had been only a binge user in the past, this was the first time she became physically addicted. She says during this time, her body was doing weird things, causing her to become sick. While dealing with this, she was also trying to end the relationship, which caused even more trauma. In 2016, she went to jail, got out and started using again. On November 21, she was picked up in Nashville and went to treatment again. But this time, it was different.
When Jennifer relapsed, she was so ashamed — a shame that kept her sick for many months.
“In my mind, I kept telling myself I was just having fun, but by the time I realized I was lying to myself, I was physically addicted,” she says.
The length and severity of this last relapse scared her. Even though she had been to treatment several times before, the focus had always been on how to not do drugs. This last time, she came to understand her drug use was a symptom of a bigger issue. Her treatment at the Gibson Center in Cape Girardeau focused on self-care, the understanding that everything is a balance and that she was there to work on more than substance abuse. Her treatment plan included EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy which allowed her to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress from childhood trauma. Using these resources provided by the Gibson Center helped Jennifer save her own life.
While in treatment, Jennifer came to understand why she was comfortable in horrible situations, helping her to get rid of the idea that she deserved what had happened to her as a little girl. Jennifer focused on acknowledging her triggers and worked on her response to them. She spent a lot of time working through the shame, learning to understand that she had been protecting herself by thinking the abuse that happened when she was young was her fault and that she did something wrong. When she understood she was surviving the best way she could when she was a child, Jennifer began to understand the difference between accountability and shame.
Out of this process came the experience of being able to look closely at her patterns to realize she had become comfortable in unhealthy and unsafe situations. She was able to recognize there are unhealthy people in this world, but she doesn’t have to allow their unhealthy behaviors to hurt her.
As Jennifer began to embrace her recovery in body, mind and spirit, she saw how much trauma there is in her community. She also understood she needed to heal herself before she could imagine being able to help others around her. She went to her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting 17 years ago and, despite setbacks over the years, she has found the unconditional love from the AA and Narcotics Anonymous community invaluable in supporting her through this process because they motivate her and have taught her to be accountable for her choices. “Cape has a beautiful recovery community,” she says, and this gives her hope for healing in the local community.
Jennifer’s work on her recovery is a daily process. Life is not easy, and she has to be ready to recognize triggers and respond in a way that is healthy for her. However, a big part of her continued growth is being able to help others. She has done public speaking for the Safe House, Recover Out Loud and the Overdose Awareness Walk where she shared more than 50 names of community members we have lost in the past few years. She advocates for her community and works with various groups to provide resources to those who need it.
“Recovery is not just about one thing,” she says. “We are all recovering from something.”
While Jennifer sees the shame of addiction — a feeling of it seeming nearly impossible to live any other way — as something that keeps many folks sick, she encourages people to reach out to others, to utilize the resources that are available and accept the help others are able to give.