A 1997 graduate of West Feliciana High, Ruthie Lindsey shared her personal story of addiction and triumph with students from her alma mater and the middle school Feb. 22, as the guest speaker for an event hosted by the West Feliciana Drug and Alcohol Awareness Council and Sheriff’s Office.

Lindsey described her childhood at the family farm in West Feliciana as being “wonderful without having a whole lot of hard things to go through.”

“I was generally a very happy kid and felt like other people were just as happy as I was because I didn’t know about the hardships they could be suffering,” Lindsey said. “I was a very social teenager with lots of friends, but I wasn’t the best student. Still, I had a great time at school, lots of fun.”

As a senior, Lindsey was riding in a car with a group of friends that crashed into an ambulance going about 65 miles per hour. She suffered three fractured ribs, a punctured lung, ruptured spleen and two fractured vertebrae in her neck.

“I was given less than a five percent chance of survival and even less than that of ever walking again,” Lindsey said. “It was a miracle that I crashed into an ambulance driver because he also saved my life. I shouldn’t be here walking today or with a functioning brain.”

After reparative surgery to her neck, Lindsey spent a month recovering in the hospital. She eventually returned to school, graduated with her class, attended college, moved to Nashville and got married.

While walking down the street one day, a sharp pain shot through her neck and head, causing her to nearly faint. The pain began to occur more frequently, she said. To alleviate the pain, doctors ordered lots of therapy and pain medication.

“I took the medicine because I didn’t want to hurt all the time, and as a result, I just sort of checked out. This went on about four years, and it was a very dark time in my life. I was scared and felt helpless,” Lindsey said.

Eventually, a doctor diagnosed the problem: A wire used in her neck surgery had broken and was sticking into her brain stem. None of the specialists had ever experienced this kind of medical issue before and were unsure how to treat her, since surgery could leave her paralyzed. No surgery meant a sudden movement could cause the wire to shift and also leave her unable to walk, she said.

“I was afraid to ride in a car or walk, so I began fixing up my home, figuring I was going to be spending plenty of time there,” Lindsey said. “I just knew I wanted to be surrounded by beautiful things, so I decorated my house so that it would be calming and soothing.” What she didn’t know was that she had a knack for decorating, something that would later become her salvation.

Eventually, she opted to have the surgery. Although the stabbing and shooting pain in her neck and head were gone, she had severe nerve damage.

“My right side feels like tons of red ants are continually biting me,” Lindsey said. “I was thankful for the successful operation but still had plenty of pain, which I handled poorly by taking even more pain medication prescribed by the doctors.”

She suffered a bacterial infection while in the hospital for a minor surgery and became so sick she was hospitalized a few times. Also, her marriage was failing, she wasn’t sleeping and was prescribed even more pain medicine. Eventually, she told her family and a few friends what was happening: She had become addicted.

“I felt hopeless and didn’t know how to handle the pain, the grief and the hopelessness, but with the support of family and friends, I was able to change things around,” Lindsey said.

“Taking all those painkillers numbed my pain, my thoughts and numbed me to all the good and beautiful things going on around me,” she said.

That was a turning point for her, and she made the decision to wean herself off the medicine. It took about four months and wasn’t easy, but she had plenty of support. After about two months, she began feeling like herself once again. Lindsey admits to letting the pain define her.

“Although it’s still a part of my life today, the pain no longer defines me,” she told the students. “We can choose to look for the beauty around us, or we can choose to pay attention to pain and the things that are broken in our lives.”

Soon, people began calling Lindsey, hiring her to decorate their homes and events. Eventually, she turned a hobby and a passion for creating beautiful spaces into a business.

According to Luanne Vaccaro, of the Drug and Alcohol Awareness Council, addiction to prescribed pain medication can happen to anyone.

“Good people can get caught up in that helpless feeling when their lives are overcome with pain and grief, and we need to ask for help when we find ourselves in a situation like that,” Lindsey said. “More importantly, we need to look for the good and beauty around us because it’s everywhere.”