"I was going to do whatever it took to stay sober."
Photos by Kara Counard
Nadine Machkovech | Appleton, WI
Content warning: This story contains references to substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Resources for those in crisis or seeking treatment are listed at the end.
“I was born and raised here in Wisconsin, a Dodge County native—actually Beaver Dam. My parents had three girls: me, my sister, Nicolle, who’s nine years older than me, and my sister Natalie, who’s five years older than me.
Growing up, I loved playing with Barbies, riding my bike, and just being outside, especially in the summer. We would go down to the creek and build little dams, catch frogs, and just hang outside for hours. My sisters and I would come home from school every day and watch movies until we could recite them word-for-word. We would eat ramen and watch movies until our parents got home from work.
My parents got divorced when I was about five. As a young girl, I didn't understand why they didn't want to be together anymore, or why they didn't love each other anymore. I sometimes thought, ‘Well, if they don't love each other anymore, do they even love me anymore? Am I the problem?’
After they separated, I lived with my mom most of the time. I watched her work three jobs trying to take care of us, and my dad fight to see us. But staying at my dad's house every other weekend was really challenging to understand. That was also around the time that my dad met my stepmom. When I would go stay with him on the weekends and she was there, that was really confusing.
Life at home was chaotic, and I wanted to know what was going on, because things were changing so fast.
So I would do my part in listening to the conversations, or budging in. I was kind of that kid. I didn't really check out, like my sister, Natalie. She went and read books or played with her Barbies.
At the time, my parents were both struggling with their own addictions. Because of that, it was time for me to try living with my dad, because it wasn’t working out so well at my mom’s.
I was heading into third grade when I moved to my dad’s house. I was excited to see that my dad and my stepmom actually set up a bedroom for me. It was the first time that I didn’t have to share a room with my sister. I remember them showing me the brand-new, blue dresser that they got me. It was really important that they were able to create that space for me, because things were so chaotic before then.
But still, being in my own room felt so different and weird. I remember there were nights when I would leave my room to go sleep with my sister, Natalie. She would tell me stories and sing to me, because I couldn't fall asleep.
Today it's so clear to me that my parents' divorce had a huge impact on me, and that their inability to communicate with each other affected me and my sisters so much.”
”Things settled down quite a bit when we moved out to the country. That was during fourth grade, and it was really good. I felt like I was settling into my school by then. Our family ate dinner together at night. I gained a deeper connection with my stepmom, and I was grateful to have her support and encouragement during that time of my life.
Those next few years were some of the most solid years that we had as an entire family.
My stepmom encouraged me to try sports, which ended up becoming a huge passion of mine—I played basketball, volleyball, and softball. I finally found something that I was good at, and something that I really enjoyed.
Initially, the plan was to go to the public middle school, but all of the girls that I played sports with attended the Catholic school. I decided to go, too—not just because of sports, but because I knew some of the girls that went there, and I had really strong friendships with them.
Outside of my school teams, I was on a traveling basketball team. We were running around the state and just crushing it. Our team was unstoppable.
When I find something that I'm really passionate about, I want to conquer it. I think that’s one of my greatest strengths, even to this day. When I realized that I loved sports and I was really good at them, I was like, ‘I want to be the best.’ Not necessarily better than the girls that I played with, but, ‘I want to play to the best of my ability, so when I show up on the court, I can be my best self.’
On the opposite end, I struggled a lot with perfectionism. I was trying so hard to measure up to this unrealistic expectation that I put on myself, and that society put on me. If I didn’t get the best grades or be #1 on the court or even look the best, it wouldn’t be good enough. Because I didn't feel maybe as good as, or as skinny as, or the same as the other girls I knew or followed online, I worked really hard to become that. I was conscious of things that I ate and worked out a lot.
My eighth-grade year, huge changes were happening. My sister, Natalie, left for college, my oldest sister, Nicolle, had her first baby, and my stepmom temporarily moved out because my dad was drinking too much. It was just my dad and me at home, and that became really stressful. Disruptive.
There were drastic changes happening in our family, and I was like, ‘Who's looking at me? Who's connecting with me?’ Nobody was.
I looked for that connection elsewhere, and I found it in a boy—he paid attention to me, listened to me. That was my safe place. My way to escape was being with him. So much so that we would talk on the phone till early hours in the morning. It was almost obsessive.
I was in eighth grade, and he was a sophomore, so two years older than me. It was really unhealthy for sure, especially when we became sexually active and I lost my virginity. I knew I was doing things that I probably shouldn't have been doing, but I also was like, ‘I got it under control. I'm okay.’
It was a few weeks before high school when we officially broke up. It was because he cheated on me. I thought he was my first love. I was heartbroken. That connection that I was so desperately searching for was broken, and I didn’t know where to turn.
Then my freshman year, homecoming weekend, I got invited to my first high school party. I remember one of my best friends at the time, she's like, ‘I got invited to go to this senior party later. Do you want to come with me?’
I questioned whether or not I should go because I knew there was going to be drinking, but growing up in Wisconsin, it didn’t really seem like that big of a deal.”
“I remember this feeling of, ‘It's exciting that we're getting invited to a party with seniors,’ but also being scared and anxious, not really understanding what was going to happen. My friend and I were the only freshmen there.
I ended up having a blast, though. I loved it. It was so much more than just going to a party or being able to use [drugs and alcohol]. While that was exciting, it was more, ‘These are my people. They get me.’ The guy that invited my friend to the party actually ended up being my boyfriend all through high school.
When I was in middle school, I constantly felt like my family was just so different. So when I got to high school, it was like, ‘Oh, wow. There's more people out there that are like me, that have gone through similar family challenges.
That initial homecoming weekend was just the beginning of this path of hanging out with my new friends, using, and experimenting. It quickly led to not just drinking on the weekends; I was drinking during the week. I was smoking weed and experimenting with different sorts of prescription medication.
In the winter, things got a little bit crazy. That's when I quit playing basketball, mid-season. That should’ve been a big warning sign, or red flag. Basketball was always my release, my safe space, my go-to when I was having a rough day. But most of my teammates got moved up to the JV team, while I was stuck on the freshman team. Once again, I didn’t feel good enough. Little did I know, they were about to move me up to the JV team if only I could’ve stuck to it. Quitting basketball is one of the only real regrets that I still have to this day.
Instead, I started getting more serious with the guy that I was seeing at that time. I also started dealing with different rumors that were being spread throughout my school, like I quit playing basketball because I was pregnant, or being called promiscuous because of the boy I was seeing. This made me even more self-conscious and completely disconnected from the people I thought were my ‘friends.’
I started partying more and more. My friends had cars, and I could go wherever I wanted, when I wanted. By sophomore year, I was getting high every day. Before school, after school, it was just a regular thing. It was just my dad and me at home, and my dad was really heavy into his drinking.
In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘I still get good grades. I'm an A, B student. I have my license and my own car. I have a job. I'm doing everything that I'm supposed to be doing.’ And just partying on top of it, constantly.
Throughout my high school years, nobody ever really reached out to me. I can't even tell you how many people saw me spiraling, but didn't say anything. Mostly because I still got good grades, and from the outside I looked like I had it together. I felt like I put myself in that position, too, because I pushed everyone away. I was becoming so destructive.
I also started getting in trouble with the law. I got some possession tickets. When I got my OWI, that's where all the shame started to bury me super deep. It was really scary. I was like, ‘Man, I could only imagine. What if I had gotten into an accident? I had three other people in my car. What if something would’ve happened to them?’
I was so shook up about it, and so upset that this is what it was leading me to. Me getting out of control, spinning out of control. It got to the point where I was like, ‘I don't want to be here anymore. This is it. I don't think I can deal with this.’
I contemplated suicide multiple times. One night I was sitting in my car on the edge of the lake. I just wanted to go. I was going to drive it right into the lake. I just sat there sobbing and thought about it forever. I had so many questions, like, ‘Why was I put here in the first place?’ I didn't feel like I had any sort of greater purpose and meaning in my life.
I drove away that night. I didn’t want to do that to my family, and especially my nephew, who was just a little baby. I was like, ‘There's got to be more to life than this—than to feeling this way.’
But all of the shame and guilt I carried almost buried me, and instead of asking for help after that night, I continued to use and got even more out of control.”
“In the beginning of high school, I was like, ‘I'm never going to do oxys [opiates]. That's not my thing.’ But then fast forward to my junior year.
I was doing a lot of Adderall. All sorts of uppers. Especially because I was taking honors and AP classes already. I stuffed my whole junior year with really hard classes so I could get done with high school early.
One morning, I was extremely hungover and sick. I didn’t want to go to school—in fact, I didn’t want to go back to school ever again. I wanted to be done with it so bad. I took a prescription opioid painkiller that morning. At that point I'd tried everything, and had pretty much done it all. But that painkiller made me feel really good. It got me up, it got me to school. I felt like I was on top of the world.
I quickly got wrapped up in that, and just continued to use more opioids, and was also dealing drugs on top of it. Constantly dealing to get my fix.
By the time I graduated high school, I was already living on my own. I technically graduated early—I got done in December. I was taking a few college courses that spring, and I had already moved out and gotten a place with my boyfriend.
I ended up going to outpatient treatment later that year because my habit became too expensive. I was like, ‘Well I need to get some help.’ It was right before I turned 19. I was getting prescribed Suboxone and doing outpatient treatment. For about six weeks I stopped using pills. I think I did pretty good.
Then I lost my insurance, and I couldn't afford to go to treatment anymore. I couldn’t afford the Suboxone anymore.
Then I found out that heroin is so much cheaper. That's when I started doing heroin, and it quickly spiraled. My boyfriend and I lost our apartment and our jobs. We were getting out of control.
Some of the only people who were semi-stable in my life at that time were my sister, Natalie, and her husband, Zac. They had this newfound life in Christ and were going to church a lot. My sister was this changed woman that my family wasn’t familiar with. She and her husband kept their distance from all of us, because we were all so unhealthy. We didn't have any real relationship or connection until I came around to see them a few times. I was like, ‘Wow. They're really happy. That's so weird. I wonder what that would be like?’
I remember going to their house in Appleton for Thanksgiving. It was 2013. I just kind of brought up the question, ‘Would you help me if I needed it?’ Natalie was like, ‘Of course.’ But that also came with tons of questions. I started to describe my situation of losing my job, using heavily, and having nowhere to go. They let me move in with them, but under some serious conditions. They said, ‘You've got to get sober.’
I was like, ‘Well, that's not going to be possible. But at least if you let me move in with you for a few weeks, I’ll get my feet on the ground and find my own place.’
I did heroin for the last time the day before I moved up to Appleton to be with my sister and her family. I didn't bring any needles with me; I didn't bring any dope. I brought Suboxone and whatever else I thought I would need to help me detox.
My sister and her husband didn't really understand what I was going through, but instead of shaming me, or making me feel worse than I already did for all the mistakes that I made, they just loved me.”
“I think people are afraid to try and detox, because they’re afraid of what the withdrawals are going to be like. That's why most people don't ever stop using. I was afraid, too. But it didn’t last forever. I got through it, and the best part is, I didn’t go through it alone. Detoxing in my sister's basement was never the plan, and not something I would recommend, but at that point I didn’t have any other choice. There was no other support out there for me—or so I thought.*
It helped so much to be surrounded by my sister and brother-in-law’s family. Especially having my little niece there, to see her little smile and play with her. Finding a stronger faith and journaling also really helped me get through those first initial few weeks. Once it was over, it was so worth it.
It's one thing to get sober, and go through detox. But to actually accept love and connection from people that you care about—that's even harder, especially when you feel so unworthy and undeserving of that love.
After I moved in with my sister and brother-in-law, they just kept digging. They were like, ‘We're here for you. We love you.’ They kept asking questions. I’d never had people open up and have such honest, raw, and vulnerable conversations, and that led to that connection I was so desperately searching for since middle school. For once, they saw me for me, and not my addiction or my problems.
After a few weeks of living with my sister and going through detox, my friend, Justin Haase, passed away. Justin was somebody that I had known through childhood. He was somebody that I also used with. When I found out that he passed, I remember I posted something on Facebook like, ‘Why would God take somebody that has such a beautiful heart and soul?’
It was hard for me to understand why I was still living, when just a few weeks before that, I was doing the same dope that he was. There were many times that I was so close to overdosing, and I didn't. That's all I could think about. ‘Why didn't I die? It could have and it should have been me instead of him.’
It was so eye-opening to see how this had impacted somebody who was so close to me. It was the first time that I had lost somebody really significant in my life, or someone that I was that close to, to drugs and alcohol.
What got me the most was what happened after Justin’s funeral. Thankfully, I went there with people who were sober, because after the funeral everybody was going to ‘have one’ for Justin. As much as I kind of wanted to, at the same time I was like, ‘Man, why would they do that? He just died for this exact reason, and yet you're going to celebrate his life in this way?’ I was already a few weeks into my sobriety, otherwise I probably would have gone with them. It very well could have been me in the casket next.
I had to shut myself out from so many people after that. It was just very clear to me at that point that I could never go back, and I didn't want to.
I didn't want to put my family or friends through what I just watched his family and friends go through. I was going to do whatever it took to stay sober.
I couldn’t have done it without my sister. She would be there every morning, waking me up, making sure I ate breakfast. She would force me to take a shower, because that's something I definitely wasn't doing while I was using. She taught me to take my makeup off, and wash my face every night, and make sure I was taking care of my body.
At night, I would often go to 12-step meetings. Even nights that I didn't really want to go, my sister and brother-in-law kind of pushed me to, and I would come home and be so glad that I did, because it made me feel so much better.
Thankfully, they were so consistent that I was able to move out of their house a few months later and take all those healthy habits with me to my first place of my own.”
“Justin’s passing was really an eye-opener to me. That could have been me. I didn't want it to be, and so I was going to do whatever it took to stay sober. That's why I started getting really involved with the recovery community.
I started going to meetings more often, and then shortly thereafter, I met the founders from Rise Together. They were looking for people that wanted to help mobilize the recovery community and spread a message of hope. When they told me about these big dreams and goals that they wanted to accomplish, of making a dent in the addiction crisis for the state, at first I thought they were a little crazy.
They asked me to share my story for the first time. I knew in my heart that I couldn't stay silent, and I needed to speak out.
The community that I grew up in, the people I surrounded myself with growing up, it was never something that people talked about. Because I had lost Justin, I was like, ‘No, people have to talk about this, or more people are going to die like he did.’
After sharing my story on stage for the first time, that led me to share my story online with the rest of my family, and friends, and community, even. Since then, my family members have been able to openly talk about our struggles, and even find their own recovery journey. Our relationships today are stronger than ever before. I really believe ‘the family that recovers together, stays together.’
I don't think I would have been able to find my purpose if it weren't for me being able to speak out and share my story. I was like, ‘This is something that I feel God is calling me to do. This is a purposeful mission that I'm on.’ It was really about sharing that message of hope.
At Rise Together, we’ve shifted our primary focus to adolescents. As a grassroots non-profit, we aim to prevent addiction by educating, engaging, and empowering youth to speak their truth, to find hope through so much hopelessness. To be able to really encourage them to talk about these important, volatile issues, like suicide, bullying, self-harm, addiction, and mental health.
Once, this young lady came up to me after we got done speaking; she was about 12 or 13 years old. She said, ‘Nadine, how did you learn to love yourself? Because I don't.’
When she asked me that question, my heart broke for her. Because that was me when I was her age. That was exactly how I felt. I didn't love myself because I didn't ever feel like I was good enough.
I told her, ‘At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what other people think of you. What matters is how you treat yourself, and how you take care of yourself, and the way you protect yourself. Nobody else is ever going to make you feel good enough. Nobody else is ever going to make you love yourself. You have to find that within your own heart.’
That's when I really started to dive deeper into this conversation around feeling good enough, and understanding that even though I've made many, many mistakes in my life, I no longer believed that I WAS one. I started speaking out around that topic shortly after I met that girl. I even did a TEDx Talk about it.
Last year, I think I was in 12 major cities sharing a story of recovery, sharing a message of hope, bringing light to such a dark topic.
I got a message a couple weeks ago from another young woman who is out of high school now. She's like, ‘You came and spoke at my school four years ago, and I just wanted you to know that you are my hero. That you saved my life that day. Your story made such an impact on my life, and still is to this day, that I just wanted to come back and say thank you.’
That's what keeps me pushing forward. That's why I continue to share my story and do this work.”
-Nadine Machkovech | Appleton, WI
If you or someone you know is in crisis, the following phone numbers can connect you to free, confidential support in the U.S.:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
Find additional resources here: https://www.weallrisetogether.org/find-help/
*Please seek professional advice if you or someone you know is planning to go through withdrawal or treatment. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) can help you locate treatment facilities in your area. Visit findtreatment.samhsa.gov.