Madeleine Ludwig wasn’t thinking about hitting the bars on her 21st birthday. She didn’t need alcohol to celebrate. Madeleine spent her entire adolescence searching for happiness in the bottom of a bottle of booze or pills.
She never found it in the bottles. She didn’t find it in needles either.
At 21, she was finding happiness in places she didn’t expect. She found purpose when she helped victims of domestic violence find shelter. She found joy when she connected people with addiction treatment.
“As soon as I realized I was passionate about helping other people, my life changed,” Madeleine told DrugRehab.com.
“My story is brutally honest. My lows were pretty low.”
On her 21st birthday, there were a lot of reasons to celebrate. It was a stark contrast from her 20th birthday, when her father bailed her out of jail. That day, she went home and used. During the following weeks and months, she sold her body for drugs.
“My story is brutally honest,” Madeleine said. “My lows were pretty low.”
They were so low that Madeleine didn’t want to talk about them for months. She didn’t want to think about them. But she talks about them today, and it helps her overcome the shame felt. It also helps others who relate to her experiences.
That’s why Madeleine leads group therapy every week. It’s why she wants to become a certified substance abuse counselor. She’s confident that she can make a difference in someone’s life.
It wasn’t always that way. Madeleine used to look in the mirror and see someone she didn’t like. So she used alcohol and other drugs to escape. Today she looks in the mirror with pride. She sees someone with a promising future.
Madeleine never felt like she fit in. A self-described misfit, she struggled to connect with others. Chronic migraines didn’t help. A doctor prescribed Vicodin, a drug that contains an addictive painkiller called hydrocodone, when she was 13.
“It started at 5 milligrams,” Madeleine said. “It went from the 5 milligrams to the 7.5s and so forth. Within a year, I was trading them for Dilaudids and fentanyls. It was way more than any 13- or 14-year-old kid was typically exposed to.”
Madeleine was taking Vicodin a few times a week in middle school. By her freshmen year of high school, she was using fentanyl or other painkillers up to five days each week.
She started hanging out with older students. They lived in Virginia suburbs, but they’d go to downtown Richmond to hang out with a 35-year-old heroin dealer. He’d sell them pills and marijuana.
“I really wanted to fit in, and I was already in pain,” Madeleine said. “Here was something that could make me feel better, and I thought I was making friends. I was really just being taken advantage of.”
Meanwhile, her mom and dad were near the end of a rocky relationship. During her sophomore year, Madeleine was expelled from school after getting caught with drugs. That night, her parents decided to divorce.
“One thing led to another,” Madeleine said. “I came home, and my mom and I got into it. Then my mom and dad got into it, and then it was over. A week later, I was gone.”
She moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia with her dad. Changing schools didn’t make anything better. She lost access to the pills that she had used to cope with negative emotions.
“I decided to start coping with other things,” Madeleine said. “I got into self-harm. I started cutting. Bath salts were starting to pop up around the area. As a 16-year-old, I would walk into head shops, and people would just sell them to me.”
The next year, she was expelled from the new school. She moved back to the Richmond area. She lost access to bath salts, but she knew where to find other drugs.
Despite his daughter’s problems in school, Madeleine’s dad missed the warning signs. She was using drugs almost every day, but he was oblivious.
“I think he just didn’t want to admit that something was wrong,” Madeleine said. “My mom knew that this was going on the whole time, and she insisted that he do something. But he said, ‘She’s fine. Don’t worry about it.’ He didn’t have a clue.”
Her new school cautiously accepted her. Administrators said they would drug test her regularly. They made her sign a contract.
“Well, they never drug tested me,” Madeleine said. “I drank the entire time. I must have been getting drunk at least every day.”
A neighbor would buy her alcohol. She partied at his house a lot, but she managed to graduate. A week after accepting her diploma, a guy at a party introduced her to heroin. Within a month, she was addicted and living with a new boyfriend.
The warning signs became impossible to ignore. Madeleine lost touch with family. She described herself as tall and skinny before losing 30 pounds.
“I was 95 pounds, and I would come around asking for a little bit of money,” Madeleine said. “My dad was starting to get the suspicion that something was wrong.”
She was able to hold a job, but something had changed. She had stopped using drugs to party. She wasn’t trying to fit in. She was only using to avoid getting sick.
“I tried to get clean, and I think I made it about two weeks,” Madeleine said. “Then, of course, I got involved with another guy who coincidentally was the person in high school who sold me Dilaudid. He had been clean for a couple of months, so I thought he was going to be a good influence.
“But I came into the relationship a heroin addict. No matter what he tried to do, I couldn’t get it together,” she said.
Her dad realized she was addicted. Her mom knew. Her boyfriend knew. No one could help her. Then her boyfriend relapsed on crack cocaine. He changed.
“I started noticing very violent tendencies in him,” Madeleine said. “He became very physically abusive.”
He’d try to control her. He’d get upset if she went to buy drugs without him. He’d go through her phone and get angry.
“There were so many different reasons for him to pull his gun or punch me in the face or choke me out on the bed,” Madeleine said. “Time after time after time. I was horrified of him, and he would tell me he was the only one who cared. He’d say my parents were done with me. Typical things that miserable people say to others to control them.”
Madeleine was outraged, but she thought she deserved it. She felt responsible for her parent’s divorce. Things got worse. Her boyfriend showed her how to shoot cocaine, and she developed a new addiction.
“It was a whole different ballgame,” Madeleine said. “Once I started shooting up cocaine, he and I got into a terrible fight. He nearly killed me. I called the police.”
She took him to court, but police identified him as an informant. He made a deal, and the charges were dismissed.
“He turned a couple of people in, and he walked on a malicious wounding with a gun charge and a manual strangulation charge,” Madeleine said. “That was a sad day for me. I plummeted.”
Madeleine began replacing heroin with cocaine. She didn’t feel pain anymore. She didn’t have to sleep. The drug was all she cared about.
“It was the ultimate euphoria,” Madeleine said. “That sensation makes you feel like you are about to die. I went diving off the deep end.”
She was arrested for heroin possession, but she was bailed out of jail. That night, she bumped into a man who “looked like he had a lot of money.” He took her to a hotel room and gave her the best cocaine that she had ever seen. She shot it up and overdosed.
“I thought he had given up, but he still had so much hope for me. I got out of jail and the first thing I did was use.”
“It was the scariest thing that I ever felt in my life,” Madeleine said. “I couldn’t see, but I could almost hear what was going on. He thought I was dead. He was on the phone trying to figure out how to get rid of a dead body.”
After 45 minutes, she woke up. She was disoriented and could barely speak. He had sex with her.
“I guess that’s why he gave me the cocaine in the first place,” Madeleine said. “Then he handed me an eight ball.”
She started a four-day bender. When the coke ran out, she left the house to find more. After overdosing and going four days without sleep, she was pulled over by the police. This time she stayed in jail for a month and half. Her dad bailed her out on a $10,000 bond on her 20th birthday, and she moved back in with him.
“I thought he had given up, but he still had so much hope for me,” Madeleine said. “I got out of jail and the first thing I did was use.”
The man that gave her the eight ball taught her that she could get drugs through prostitution. During the following months, she overdosed multiple times. She almost went back to jail for violating probation, and she regularly stole money from loved ones.
In early 2016, Madeleine attempted suicide.
Her dad was running out of options. He’d try to throw her drugs away. He’d try to get her help.
“It was always fight after fight about me using, but I was never ready to do anything about it,” Madeleine said. “Until one day I stole his car. I took it downtown, and I hooked up with a couple of people. I got as much heroin and cocaine as I could afford.”
That night, she wasn’t going to let her dad take the drugs away.
“I fought him to the ground. I punched him in the face, and I kicked him. By the end of the fight, both of us had bloody noses,” Madeleine said.
Her dad left the house and told her to be gone by the time he got back. She packed her things and got a ride downtown. But she had nowhere to go. Her phone died, and it started raining.
“I was a prostitute, but no one was picking me up because I had a backpack on my back and I looked like a homeless person,” Madeleine said. “That night didn’t go very well for me. I slept outside in the cold rain and got very sick from the environment and drug withdrawal.”
She charged her phone the next morning, called her father and begged him to pick her up. When she got in his car, she saw the black eye that she had given him the night before.
Madeleine knew it was time to make a change. Her father locked her in the house. She went through withdrawal for a weekend. On Monday, she checked into rehab.
“They prescribed me Suboxone and put me on a rigorous inpatient/outpatient program,” Madeleine said.
She received individual counseling once a week and went to group therapy three times a week. Her father drove her to and from treatment, and she didn’t go anywhere else.
“There were maybe one or two slip ups — like a one night usage — within the first month,” Madeleine said. “Even though I knew I needed the help, I wasn’t ready to let go. I felt like relapse was inevitable. I was convinced that I was a failure and that I would always be a disappointment.”
As the drugs left her system, emotions rushed in. She felt shame. She thought using drugs was the only way to get rid of her guilt. She went to group meetings, but she didn’t fully participate. Then she started to relate to others. She realized they felt the way she felt.
“About a month after I entered the program, the switch finally flipped in my head,” Madeleine said. “I looked in the mirror and didn’t totally hate what I saw. It was a powerful day and a powerful moment. I started to take my treatment a lot more seriously. I would be brutally honest about what I was going through every time I came in.”
She was honest about the trauma she endured and the things she did. Others listened. They cared. They told her that her life was worth living.
Early in recovery, Madeleine was against relying on God to find sobriety. She was against the idea that somebody could love her. But she found herself praying to a higher power. She felt as if someone was listening even when there was no one around.
“I would desperately pray at night for God or somebody to help me and look after me,” Madeleine said.
She doesn’t subscribe to a 12-step program, and she doesn’t think faith-based approaches work for everyone. But she said finding a higher power was an important part of her story.
“I would be dead right now if I didn’t receive medically assisted treatment. This is something that has dramatically changed my life.”
So was Suboxone.
“The longer that you’re on Suboxone, the less you feel that ‘hole in your head’ feeling you get when you’re on narcotics,” Madeleine said. “The more that you get used to it, the more you feel like you are able to stabilize on your own.”
She credits therapy and counseling for helping her gain self-worth, but she says she never would have been able to get to that point without the medication.
“I would be dead right now if I didn’t receive medically assisted treatment,” Madeleine said. “This is something that has dramatically changed my life.”
As Madeleine made progress, one of her counselors saw something in her. She began to lead group therapy. She’d tell women experiencing domestic violence about safe havens. She’d try to help people struggling with addiction find treatment.
“Unfortunately, the success rate wasn’t that great,” Madeleine said. “Not every addict is going to come to that turning point. I’d watch a lot of people reach out for help, fail and die. That powered me through even more. It made me finally value life enough to give a shit.”
She got even more involved with helping others. Today, she’s in the process of becoming a certified peer counselor. She’s returning to college to become a certified substance abuse counselor. And she’s rebuilding relationships with her family.
“My father stuck by my side the entire time,” Madeleine said. “Through beatings and being stolen from and losing his car and picking his daughter up on the side of the road.”
She’s also working on her relationship with her mother.
“After much effort on both ends, we now have a bond that we have never had before, a closeness I have wanted all my life,” Madeleine said. “I am someone she is proud of. In my addiction, I never thought I would be able to say that with sincerity.”
Madeleine knows she isn’t the only one who’s faced tough times. By sharing her story, she hopes others will realize that recovery is possible. It doesn’t matter how low your lows are.