By Alexa Hope Shelmet and Laurie Kesaris
This is a story about learning to live life one day at a time.
“One Day at a Time.” That is such a familiar phrase, especially for those of us in the addiction and recovery community. It’s a simple reminder for us to remain focused in the present, because often the future can seem overwhelming, especially in recovery. However, for me this phrase took on a whole new meaning after I met and talked with Alexa Hope Shelmet.
Alexa is a luminous young woman, and a young addict in recovery. Her life has been filled with tragedy, and heartache and loss, and challenges — many more than most of us will ever have to face. Yet she is still smiling. She is still beautiful. And she is still filled with strength and faith and courage. She is the living embodiment of the saying, “one day at a time.”
Alexa is a twenty-four-year-old, dark-haired beauty, with a glowing, vibrant aura. You know that she is someone special the minute you meet her. She has huge, dark eyes, a mystically communicating smile that your own face will immediately mirror, and she exudes a vivid joy of life. Like many young women her age, she is a “girly girl” and loves to talk about fashion, and food and relationships, including the one with her loving boyfriend Jarret, also an addict in recovery. But she also has a deep, spiritual side, and wisdom beyond her years. She readily talks about more serious issues, such as her strong faith in God, and how she wants to use her struggles and triumphs to inspire others, and the things she wants still to do in her life. When you first meet her, you would never guess she has had such a tumultuous life history; you would never imagine the frightening challenges she is now facing. So, I was truly honored, and humbled, when she asked me to help her tell her story, in the hopes of helping and inspiring others to face and battle their own life challenges. So, let’s begin Alexa’s story.
Alexa was born on July 5, 1991, and was raised in in a big Italian family, including two parents and a loving sister seven years her senior. However, like so many families, there was a dark side. There was a strong history of addiction that affected many of her family members. In fact, both of her parents, and her sister suffered from the disease. Her father was an alcoholic, and as a result, Alexa spent most of her childhood living with her mother, sister and grandparents. But addiction began to take its deadly toll early in Alexa’s life. When Alexa was just 18, her older sister died suddenly of a drug overdose on Thanksgiving Day, at age 24. But that was only Alexa’s first loss. Three years later, in 2011, Alexa’s mother, filled with grief from the loss of her older daughter, died of health complications and abuse of Xanax. But the tragedies still were not over. In 2013, Alexa’s father passed away due to addiction-related health problems.
So, at the age of 22, Alexa already had lost every one of her immediate family members to the insidious disease of addiction. It was almost inevitable that she herself became an addict, starting in her late teens. She already had endured more grief, and pain, and loss in her young life than most of us do in an entire lifetime. Over the course of five years she progressed from alcohol to pills, and ultimately to IV heroin. Like many addicts, she had to lie, and cheat and do whatever it took to get her next fix. During the course of her addiction she rotated through several detox facilities, rehabs, and treatment programs in New Jersey, but continued to experience relapse. Finally, at age 23, just a year after her father’s death, she herself experienced an almost-fatal overdose. At that point she realized she needed to make a drastic change if she wanted to survive.
So, at age 23, she had lost everyone she loved, she had almost died from a drug overdose, and she had no money and no insurance. Her situation was bleak. She had nothing left, except her fighting spirit. But then, when things seemed hopeless, she miraculously received a scholarship to a drug rehab facility down in Florida. So she left everything and everyone she knew, and traveled 1,200 miles away from home to try and recover from the disease she knew would ultimately kill her if she did not fight it.
Once in Florida she had to go through detox, and then she went on to complete a 30-day rehab program, and from there she moved to a halfway house. Thanks to her powerful will to survive and her faith, and a great deal of hard work, one day at a time, today she has one year free from alcohol and drugs. She is now an addict in recovery.
However, despite the fact that addiction claimed all of her closest family members, and despite her own fight to survive and recover from the same disease, the obstacles in her life are far from over. A few months ago, in late 2015, Alexa began experiencing severe headaches, and after many medical consultations, and tests, and finally major brain surgery, her doctors delivered a frightening diagnosis: she had Glioblastoma, a serious form of brain cancer. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and will soon travel to Duke University for additional ongoing treatment with a team of specialists in the field.
The many tragedies, and the losses, and adversity this young woman has faced are mind-boggling. Any single one of them would completely overwhelm most of us. She lost every single one of her closest family members before the age of 22. She then became an addict herself, and fought her way to recovery. And now she must fight again, this time against the very frightening disease of brain cancer. As we talked I kept wondering how she maintains her will to live, and her spirit and her joy. I had to wonder how she even gets out of bed in the morning. So I asked her how she does it.
She said that what motivates her most is her desire to help others with the disease of addiction. She wants to tell her story to inspire them to fight for their recovery, for their lives. She said that she has spent her whole life fighting, and she has won many battles, and she ardently believes others can do the same. She continued to explain: “If someone were to ask me what my dying wish is, or what I want to come out of all this tragedy, I would say that all my trials and tribulations have not stopped me from doing God’s work. My work, my gift is to share my story. I believe that is my purpose in life. I want to share my experience, strength and hope with others, especially other young girls and women who are fighting the disease of addiction.” She adds, “You see, this was never really just about me. Its about all the people I believe I can encourage to fight on, no matter what challenges they face. If I can do this, so can they. ” She stopped, and then quietly added, “We are never promised tomorrow.”
Alexa’s heart goes out to the young addicts who feel hopeless. Her gentle advice to them is to “never forget where you came from, and all the obstacles you have faced along the way, because one day your story may help unlock someone else’s prison. You have the power to choose your own direction, just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy got to choose her path, down the Yellow Brick Road. Just like her, you have the power to choose the path toward a beautiful life of recovery.”
And then I asked her the question I started with – how does she do it? How does she even get out of bed each morning? She smiled her sweet, peaceful, almost Madonna-like smile, and answered, “Oh, that’s easy. One day at a time.”