The moment we stand up and admit to ourselves, “I have an addiction”, the burden of secrecy and deception is broken. This is most definitely the first step in taking your power back and working towards overcoming your addiction, permanently.
As a part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview René Michele, Founder and Principal of Renemichele.com.
René established herself as an entrepreneur in 2017 after spending the majority of her life trapped in a cycle of substance abuse and addiction, stemming from significant childhood abuse and neglect. Today, she is an international speaker, published author, coach and consultant, and was named one of eight female Changemakers of 2020 by YMAG, Australia’s leading women’s empowerment magazine.
Rene’s remarkable story is powerful and inspiring, and continues to encourage, empower and equip people from around the world with the tools to transform their own lives from victim to victory.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
To say my childhood was lonely and chaotic is quite the understatement. Following the break-up of my parent’s marriage when I was ten years old, my mother and I moved from a very small country town in New South Wales Australia, with a population of approximately 200, to the large multicultural city of Sydney with a population of approximately 3511,000.
As a young child, I struggled to cope with the drastic change in environment and lifestyle, which was significantly exacerbated by my mother’s inability to provide me with adequate emotional support due to the decline in her mental health. She became depressed and began to take large doses of sleeping pills and drinking both heavily and regularly. By the time I was eleven years of age, she was leaving me home alone on the weekends so she could go out partying with men at the local hotels, and within a few months of this new lifestyle, she began bringing these men home.
Unfortunately, these men not only enjoyed my mother’s intimate company, but sought out mine also. My childlike innocence was forever shattered by the cycle of sexual, physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon me by my mother’s many occasional partners. These men were predators who hid their depravity well. They would wait until my mother’s back was turned to reach out and grab at my pre-pubescent body or purposely rub themselves up against me as they walked past. It made me feel dirty, and with each and every assault, I froze with fear.
The most difficult struggle I faced with what was happening to me was my inability to confide in my mother. I was already terrified of becoming yet another burden for her, as the collapse of my parent’s marriage changed her. I could visibly see the strain on her face, her features once soft and gentle had become hard, fixed, and she was unemotional and unaffectionate towards me. I felt partially to blame for the stress she was clearly under, and I was determined not to make her life even more difficult. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my mother’s love all together. She was all I had in the world and I was fixated on safeguarding that.
The secrets I carried bore with them immense shame and guilt, and as a result, I fantasized about suicide constantly. My first suicide attempt was just prior to my eleventh birthday. Every day was a psychological and emotional struggle for me. On one hand I despised my mother for bringing these disgusting men who violated me into our home, yet on the other hand I felt fiercely protective of her and craved nothing but her love and affection. I would close my tear-soaked eyes at night and envision her coming into my room to hold me in her arms and tell me she was sorry for what was happening to me, that she was going to protect me and that everything was going to be alright. Unfortunately, I craved something that was never to become my reality.
The abuse I experienced continued until I was sixteen years old, which was the legal age a child was permitted to leave home and the care of their parents at that time in Australia, so that is exactly what I did. I packed my belongings and moved out as soon as I found a job to support myself, and I never looked back.
I felt free, and I truly believed that the worst years of my life were now over, that I was finally safe. I could never have imagined that the years of abuse I had experienced would continue for many more to come.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
I was exposed to addiction and substance abuse in early childhood. My mother was initially a binge drinker, which later turned into full blown alcoholism. We routinely had parties at our farmhouse when my parents were together which was where I observed the adults in my life getting drunk and partying well into the morning hours. They were always laughing and dancing, so as a young impressionable child, I made the assumption that alcohol went hand in hand with having a good time.
It was at one of these very parties when three of my older sisters encouraged me to snort crushed up paracetamol through a straw when I was only nine years old. I wanted nothing more than to fit in, and I looked up to my sisters more than anything at that age so if when they said I would be “cool” for snorting paracetamol, I didn’t hesitate. My sisters also showed me how to steal and swig cans of beer while the drunk and preoccupied adults weren’t looking. Such behavior became normal to me, which is why in my early adolescent and adult years, drinking to the point of vomiting and passing out never dawned on me as excessive or necessarily bad in any way, I considered it to be a regular part of life.
By the age of thirteen I was getting drunk occasionally when my mother herself was too drunk to notice, and by fourteen I was sneaking out of the house and meeting friends in local parks where I got paralytic drunk to the point of unconsciousness most weekends. Getting drunk was my way of coping with the shame and self-loathing I felt towards myself as a result of the sexual abuse I experienced for six horrendous years. I told myself that because I automatically froze during each assault, that I was in some way to blame for the abuse. This belief haunted me for the majority of my life.
I continued to struggle with a negative self-image for decades, and I attempted suicide by overdose at age seventeen and then again at age nineteen when my addiction was in full swing. My first introduction to recreational drugs however was when I was seventeen and homeless, which led to couch surfing at various friends’ houses. I was always moving around and living out of a suitcase which I was embarrassed and ashamed of, then one night while out partying at a club, I was introduced to a group of people who said they all shared a house that had a spare room which I could move into if I wanted. I felt like I had won the lottery, finally I was going to have a stable home and a fixed address, I was excited to say the least. Unbeknownst to me, the oldest guy in the house, who was forty-five years old, was both a tattooist, and a drug dealer. This new arrangement I had found myself in was the perfect recipe for destruction. I was an extremely vulnerable young girl, in a house with practical strangers, estranged from my family, broken and depressed, and all of a sudden, I am surrounded by a never-ending flow of drugs and alcohol. My new life was nothing like I could ever have imagined it would be.
We partied hard every weekend, and one night not long after I had moved in, I was offered some acid and amphetamines by my new housemates, which I hesitantly accepted. Inside I was terrified, I must have been physically trembling when I put the tab of acid in my mouth as one of my housemates hugged me and said, “It’s okay, we are here to look after you.” Strangely, hearing those words meant the world to me and all I could think was, “I am so lucky to have found such kind people.”
This is how messed up I was, I actually thought they were the nicest people I had ever met because they said out loud the words I had always wanted to hear. They told me they were going to look after me, and I wanted that more than I wanted air to breathe. For me, drugs were both an escape from the pain that I carried with me every day, and a way to become someone else for a few hours. I became a “fun” person who wasn’t afraid of anything, who could laugh without fear of judgement, and when I was high, my walls came crashing down. Drugs turned me into someone I wasn’t, they made me bold, loud, confident, and that in itself was intoxicating. They provided a temporary escape from the René I hated, and before long, they took over my life and ruled every thought in my mind. They became all I wanted as the temporary escape from reality became an addiction all of its own and wanted to be anyone other than myself more than anything in the whole world.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
Shame — plain and simple, for me, it was shame. The shame that I carried around with me was so deep, so devastating that it stopped me from seeing myself as a person with any type of value and worth. I believed I was nothing, a waste of a heartbeat, not worthy of living. When you hate yourself that much you have no ability to see beyond that. You have no way of believing things will get better because there was no one in my life that was healthy or living any kind of life that was positive and good.
I had zero role models, the only people I had in my life were drug dealers and drug users, so I became exactly what I surrounded myself with. Broken, sad, lost and lonely, this is who I became, this is what we all were deep down inside. We were a group of shattered individuals desperate to belong and to be loved. Drugs and alcohol numbed my pain and covered up the deep loneliness within me, however they were only able to make me forget that I hated myself for hours at a time. Each time I woke up, I hated myself even more, and the high I chased was never as effective as it was initially, so I needed more and more drugs to achieve a state of oblivion. I was on an endless rollercoaster than I had no idea how to stop.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
The lowest point of my life was at age nineteen, when I woke up in the emergency ward after my second failed suicide attempt, with my entire body wracked in pain. No one tells you that overdosing is actually acutely painful, and in my case, I took enough codeine, antihistamine and paracetamol that if someone hadn’t found me and called an ambulance, I would be dead today.
Not only was overdosing painful, it caused severe damage to my body and my organs began to shut down. In my case, my liver pulled the short straw and the doctors had to act swiftly to ensure I didn’t require a transplant or die of liver failure. At one point I flatlined and had to be resuscitated, the very thought of which to this day, causes me to shake my head in utter disbelief, I had come so close to dying.
When I woke up, I was in the hospital all alone, covered in vomit from the doctors attempts to pump my stomach, and writhing around in extreme physical and emotional pain, so immense that I have consistently failed to adequately articulate it. It was a terrifying and dark place I found myself in, and I hated myself even more, for being the one who put me there.
In my addiction, my lowest point was most definitely the day I stood in my father’s bathroom at age twenty-three, snorting lines of amphetamines off the surface of his bathroom sink. It was my stepbrother’s birthday and all my extended family were just outside the door celebrating and laughing. Little children were running around playing outside and I could hear them through the door. As I finished inhaling my first line of powder, I caught my reflection in my father’s bathroom mirror. In that moment I was disgusted in the person looking back at me, so much so that I couldn’t bear it, I had to look away.
In that moment, the familiar echo of vile words rang loudly though my mind, words like “disgusting” and “failure” , — that was my opinion of myself. I sat on the floor with my head in my hands and cried, and I told myself what a terrible person I was to dishonor my father and my family that way. I got up, wiped away my tears, washed my face and I didn’t ever take drugs again in my father’s home. I always hid my addiction from my family, so in my mind, even my drug affected mind, I had crossed a boundary. My actions also revealed to me that I was in fact an addict because I had lost logical control over my drug taking and broken my own personal values regarding my family. Actions like these are what fueled my shame for so many decades. My inability to make sound choices again and again is what continually kept me angry at myself, no matter how hard I tried, I struggled to imagine a life without my inner rage and self-disappointment.
Can you tell us the story about how were you able to overcome your addiction?
My life became an endless downward spiral that consisted of constant drinking sessions, blackouts, repeated sexual abuse, domestic violence and heavy drug use. I looked like a happy party girl, yet I was miserable. I felt empty and dead inside and thoughts of suicide were constant. I was self-harming by way of slicing my skin with broken glass and razor blades and punching myself in the face hard enough to cause black eyes and swollen and bruised cheeks. My life was in tatters, but my heart and my soul were much worse, they were utterly decimated.
One morning after a big night out partying, I woke up in a strange bed next to someone I did not recognize. I was horrified and very, very scared. I got dressed quietly and crept out of the house, terrified of waking anybody up as I had no idea where I was, or who I had been with. I found my way outside and walked for what felt like hours to a bus stop where it took me half the day to get home. When I finally arrived home, I scrubbed my body raw in the shower and couldn’t stop crying. I still couldn’t remember what had happened the night before, and my body was covered in bruises. It was at this point that I knew I didn’t want this life anymore, that I didn’t want to feel disgusting. I didn’t even like being intimate with men, I was afraid of them, so I was so confused as to why I repeatedly found myself in situations where I could not protect myself, and even worse, situations where I ran the risk of losing my life altogether.
Deep down inside, death is what I secretly hoped for, and placing myself in risky situations was yet another means of self-harm. At that stage of my life, I didn’t care if one morning I didn’t wake up. But that morning after returning home, I made the decision to pack up all my belongings and move away from Sydney and start over somewhere else. I knew if I stayed living at that house with drug dealers and free access to whatever drugs I wanted that I could never make the changes I needed to beat my addiction.
I moved many hours away from Sydney, found a job and began the long road to rebuilding my life and overcoming my habit. I got a small apartment and put myself through college to gain qualifications in hospitality as I knew that I needed a stable income and financial security to be able to build the life I had always wanted. It wasn’t easy. While I wasn’t craving drugs anymore, drinking continued to remain an issue for another few years until I realised yet again it was cutting short any possibility I had to build a healthy, happy life for myself.
At age twenty-six I gave birth to my daughter-falling pregnant with her saved my life. I immediately stopped drinking, not one drop did I consume, and I became driven and focused on creating the life for her I never had. I was determined to be her provider, protector, nurturer, teacher and greatest supporter in life, and it was this mindset and persistence that enabled me to turn my life around and truly begin my journey of healing and recovery.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
This was one of the hardest lessons of all. Knowing that I had broken people’s trust, that I had lied to them, hidden the truth of what I was doing and the damage that I was willingly and knowingly inflicting on my body caused me to be extremely ashamed of myself, and at times was too much to bear. I sought out the help of a counselor and sought support from my local church who were amazingly encouraging and understanding of my journey. They helped me to see myself in a brand-new way, without shame and guilt, but with acceptance and forgiveness. It was a long hard process that is for sure, but it was the key to be being able to see that I had carried with me for so long a blame that wasn’t mine to bear.
Once I accepted that I was not responsible for the abuse I suffered as a child, or the domestic violence and sexual abuse I experienced throughout my life, this is when the true process of healing from my past and looking towards the future became my reality. I learned how to reframe my past and look at the strength and courage it had provided me, I learned how to rebuild my identity from a person of worthlessness to person with value, and I learned to rewrite my story from victim to victory. Trauma, abuse and addiction is not a life sentence, there is hope and healing available to everyone and it all starts with believing we are worth the fight.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
I became very active in my local church and I threw myself into reading self-development and leadership books, I volunteered in the community and threw myself into parenting my daughter. I wanted to be the best mother I could, the kind of mother my daughter deserved, and the kind I never had. I joined parenting groups to learn all the skills that had never been modelled to me and I rebuilt my life from the ground up. I also made the conscious choice to distance myself from those in my past that I knew could be a potential trigger or bad influence on me, and I surrounded myself with healthy, happy, thriving individuals.
I also learned how to “be” with myself and enjoy peace and quiet. I learned the act of journaling and practiced the art of gratefulness which I continue to do today. I appreciated the sunshine on my face, my daughters laugh and waking up in my own bed, in my own home without ever having to wonder how I got there.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
I am very grateful to say I have never relapsed into addiction, and I believe the reason for this is my two children. My daughter is now eighteen and my son is fifteen. Being a parent truly tapped into a part of me that I never knew existed. I became a better, stronger more capable person when I became a parent. In saying that however, I have taken on a particular approach to life, a mindset that keeps me performing at my best.
I am very focused on healthy living and exercise which keeps my mental health strong and my mind clear. I also discovered early in my recovery journey the necessity for having mentors and accountability partners in life to help me stay on track and both challenge and support me when hard times come, and they do come, for all of us. I have surrounded myself with very strong leaders in many areas of life including business, spirituality, wellness, family and relationships to ensure that I stay motivated and honour my personal and professional values and beliefs. My trusted circle knows my journey, and they are nothing but supportive, encouraging and loving, they are the reason I am able to do what I do with such energy, passion and commitment; they keep me grounded and are my true family.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
I fell into entrepreneurship by complete accident. I had never imagined myself going into business, let alone starting one from scratch, so when my fiancé and I began contemplating how to utilize my passion and skill for writing, my first solo startup was born. I opened a resume writing and interview coaching business, acquiring my gold certification as an Advanced Resume Writer within three months of operation, an accreditation that can take up to twelve months to acquire. I hit the ground running and within twelve months of operation successfully assisted over 250 people globally acquire senior level positions. I specialized in several unique categories including law enforcement and military to civilian transition and health and community services applications.
It is strange however, when in life some doors suddenly slam shut and new ones open, which is exactly what happened with my resume writing business. I was extremely busy as the solo writer and coach in my own business as well as being a contract resume writer for another local business, and at that time, I thought writing resumes would be my permanent vocation when all of a sudden, I began to feel pulled towards public speaking and writing of another kind.
It was at this time that I began writing my memoir, Battle Scars Are Beautiful From Victim To Victory, and new opportunities and visions for the future were born. While working with my publisher on my book, I commenced sharing my story via several social media channels, and the response from people around the world took me by surprise.
Within months, my online global audience had grown into the thousands and I began to receive constant requests to feature on podcasts around the world, to share my story and how I was able to transform my life. As the impending release of my book drew near, my online tribe began requesting in depth support around how to overcome their own past experiences with trauma and abuse and it quickly became apparent to me where my true purpose lie.
In 2018 I began running online workshops and webinars and was acquiring public speaking opportunities around Australia. Unable to keep up with the demand for resumes, I phased out my resume writing business completely and rebranded myself under my own name, René Michele.
My focus had become crystal clear. To empower survivors of child sexual abuse and trauma through coaching, speaking, consulting and in 2019, as a published author
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
My addiction most definitely exacerbated a prominent negative belief I carried since childhood, one that said I was not good enough. This presented itself throughout my entrepreneurship journey as perfectionism and imposter syndrome which in business and in life, can be your demise. I always believed that I had to work harder than anyone else in the room, that I was not as deserving as others which led to extreme exhaustion and robbed me of any and all work satisfaction.
When I began my resume writing business, I would work up to eighteen and twenty hours a day because I believed this was the only way I was deserving of success. Then, when the success came and I received outstanding results for my clients, I felt like an imposter and struggled to receive it, throwing myself back to the grindstone to repeat the cycle of limiting beliefs all over again.
What I quickly came to realize, was that I needed to surround myself with amazing mentors and leaders in business that were further along the journey than myself that I could glean from, just as I had done in my recovery journey. So that is exactly what I did. I focused on networking and I fostered authentic, strong connections online, with a range of men and women from different spheres of business and entrepreneurship, and I cultivated within my own business the philosophies, mindsets and practices that I admired and aligned with, and I did so with the upmost honesty and integrity.
I transferred the same approach to kicking my addiction as I did to growing my business — I surrounded myself with healthy, strong, admirable, empathic, wise individuals who were generous and gracious enough to support and encourage me along the way.
Addiction however, also taught me the importance of loyalty, friendship and integrity, as I never had those things in my life. An addict is a user and consumer of things, and of people, and addiction is a state of pure survival, we take what we need, without considering the consequences. Loyalty, friendship and integrity have no place in the land of addiction, they are foreign concepts that as an addict, we cannot recognise or reciprocate.
I am a walking, talking, thriving example that experiencing and overcoming addiction can actually be a gift. Today, the positive that I take from my years as an addict, is that I am an exceedingly strong, resilient, loyal, real, transparent and encouraging person because of my addiction. It taught me the value of all these things and so much more, including the power of gratefulness — I am truly grateful for my past challenges and experiences because they have made me appreciate how far I’ve come and I will never forget the dark places I walked through to now live my life in the light.
I am an unstoppable woman with a powerful vision and purpose because I know what it is like to have nothing, feel nothing and believe you are nothing, that is why my clients seek me out today, because they know I understand their journey, it is what sets me apart and equips me to guide my clients from victim to victory.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
There continues to be significant stigma surrounding addiction which keeps addicts and former addicts shamed and silenced. Many people assume their professional reputation may be damaged if they were to disclose issues with addiction as unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation, assumptions and misunderstanding when it comes to the reasons why people become addicts.
There is no clear-cut answer as the pathway to addiction is as complex as it is unique to the individual. I have worked with addicts from a range of ethnicity, ages and socio-economic status, from the chronic homeless, to middle class, right up to the highest echelons of society.
Addiction is a global crisis and it does not discriminate, and like many other issues we face today, I believe there needs to be a much greater focus on early intervention and education, and we must get better at utilsing those with a lived experience of addiction as members of funding bodies, advisory boards, therapeutic rehabilitation and service centers, advocacy agencies and counseling/support services.
It is through the power of our stories, of triumph over tragedy, where shame is broken and people find hope, and that is the entire reason I speak out about my own life. When people see and hear that an ordinary person like me can overcome addiction and trauma, it can be enough to give them the courage to believe it for themselves. Rather than judgement their needs to be empathy and acceptance.
While I was once an addict, I have always been a human being, and what we all must understand is that addiction is an outworking of a much deeper problem. No child dreams of growing up to become an addict, therefore we as over comers of addiction need to be speaking out, and we as a society need to continue to educate ourselves and demonstrate empathy towards those that struggle to escape addiction’s grasp.
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
- A crucial step in getting help to overcome any life controlling issue, particularly addiction, is to admit to ourselves that we have a problem. Contrary to popular belief, there is immense strength in submission, it is not a sign of weakness, but of power. Submission means to accept or yield to a superior force, and the superior force that an addict must submit to before lasting healing and recovery can occur, is truth. All addicts live in a world of secrecy, lies, and deception; lying mostly to ourselves which we do my justifying or minimizing our actions, despite the negative consequences. If you constantly say things to yourself like, “I have it under control,” or, “I can stop anytime I want,” yet despite your best efforts you return to the very thing you’re trying to stop, it’s time to face the truth.The moment we stand up and admit to ourselves, “I have an addiction”, the burden of secrecy and deception is broken. This is most definitely the first step in taking your power back and working towards overcoming your addiction, permanently
- There is no shame in asking for help, similar to admitting to ourselves that we have an addiction, asking for help demonstrates strength and courage. The complexity of addiction and the various pathways that lead people down that road are unique and personal to the individual, as is treatment, and the road to recovery is not something that we can manage alone. Therefore, my second piece of advice is to reach out for help, even when it scares you. Consider speaking to a trusted mentor, a specialist counsellor or a help line. You can make an anonymous phone call to a crisis line if that’s easier in the beginning, and a far better option than continuing to struggle and suffer in silence. We all need help from time to time, and the reality is, the road to recovery from addiction is paved with twists and turns and requires a range of supports to be effective. As human beings we are fallible, we face struggles and times we need the support and assistance from others to be our best, and addiction is no different.
- My final piece of advice is to hold onto hope and believe that you can and will beat your addiction. There will be days you want to throw in the towel and give in, there will be days when you believe it is too hard, and that you are not strong enough to keep going or beat it, but they are feelings, not facts. Our mind is the most powerful element to overcoming addiction, therefore it is our mind that we must master if we are going to rebuild our lives beyond addiction. If you begin to doubt yourself, your ability to get well, if you become fearful of reaching out for help or speaking out, remember to take one step at a time, one day at a time, one minute at a time. Trust the process and remind yourself of your why, your what and your who. Why are you an entrepreneur? Why do you do what you do? What is your vision? Who do you want to help? Take an inventory of why you began your entrepreneurial journey and reignite the passion that is within you to make a difference in this world. Addiction will rob you of your purpose, it will steal your joy, your peace and the legacy you seek to build and leave behind. Don’t allow that to happen. Take your life back and step into your truth and your power today.
Thank you so much for your insights. That was really inspiring!