Living proof that the human spirit can overcome the toughest of obstacles

Over 23 million people in the U.S. are directly affected by addiction, and 90 percent of them have no idea what to do about it, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. Addiction may not be curable but it is treatable. 
 Millions of people around the world have managed to live clean and sober lives. Doing this may be difficult but it is certainly not impossible. The Art of Recovery Expo is proud to share the story of Brenda Combs and her road to recovery, which led her to becoming a successful Grand Canyon University doctoral graduate. 

Fifteen years ago, Brenda called bridge in the rough, industrial part of downtown Phoenix home. During the brutal summers and dreary winters, Brenda had to scrape by and continued to live as a shell of the person that she truly is. Getting hooked on drugs including, crack-cocaine led her to put up with, and undergo the worst and most difficult phase of her life. 
Her addiction trapped her and slowly took her further and further down. For ten years she lived an existence that sent her to a place some people think of as impossible to be redeemed from. But even over a decade of hard times, bad choices and substance abuse can be overcome. Brenda broke free and she is proof that anyone willing to walk the road of recovery is capable of finding a path that works for them. 
Change is never easy but when someone decides to seek recovery and they are willing to achieve this, nothing will hold them back. Brenda is a symbol of perseverance and proof that this drive and hunger for a better life is rewarded with success. 
Founder of the Art of Recovery Expo, Barbara Nicholson-Brown, wanted to bring Brenda’s story to the public during Recovery Month as a beacon of hope. The Expo is a place where people hoping for recovery and their loved ones could go and find resources that would help them understand the process. This annual event provides support and presents attendees with information on treatment options along with positive solutions. 
Everyone is encouraged to come to the Expo, this venue can be especially important for families affected by addition, as it is may be easy to shut out a loved one who has fallen into the hands of addiction. With appropriate information and knowledge families and friends can be a key in the recovery process. Brenda’s family is a huge part of her new sober life. 
Brenda grew up in a middle-class family in Arizona; she was not born into a drug filled environment. As a mother, her experience has given firsthand knowledge of what kids are confronted with. Youth are now facing a vast and growing drug landscape. It is important now more than ever for parents to keep up with society and understand the dangers children are up against. But not all parents or family members know how to help prevent substance abuse or know how to support a loved one that has just arrived home from rehab. 
The Art of Recovery Expo is a safe, non-threatening venue for everyone to get the answers, support and resources they seek. Barbara is a passionate individual who believes being an addict and seeking help shouldn’t be a shameful process. The Expo offers an opportunity to learn without judgment. 
As a preview to the Art of Recovery Expo on September 21, Together AZ brings you a special Q & A with Expo Keynote Speaker: Brenda Combs.
What was your family life like growing up? 
I was blessed that I was raised in a very spiritual home with both a mother and father. I think this was very significant in my later years having both parents. I was a single mother for 9 years and I can really appreciate the fact that I was very blessed with my parents and siblings. 
I had and still have the best Dad in the world and all through my turbulent years I never found a man who was like my Dad. No one compared to the sweet gentle soul of my Daddy. 
My brother and sister were very close in age and in their relationship, but I often felt detached and lonely. I dealt with issues of discrimination at school, bullies on the way home and feelings of insecurities within myself. My younger years were very difficult in terms of inner peace and happiness. These feelings followed me into adulthood. So it is not surprising that I would turn to drugs to mask my feelings. 
Was there a specific issue that led to your downward spiral? 
I felt like I didn’t really fit in with anyone or any group. I struggled with my self-image, self-esteem, and a lack of self-confidence. I wanted to be liked and loved. And perhaps I was but I either could see it, or didn’t recognize it. I was in and out of relationships both good and bad. In and out of rehab. In and out of jail. Everything changed when I developed a long term close relationship with cocaine. Crack cocaine. This relationship led to a 10 year love affair that left me homeless living under a bridge. 
When you left Flagstaff for Phoenix, what was going through your mind? 
I was homeless in Flagstaff when I came to Phoenix with a gang that was not only selling and using drugs but also running a credit card scam. I was so delusional about my addicted lifestyle and homelessness; I looked at this as an adventure until the leader of the group was murdered. Shortly after that I was shot in a drive by shooting. Over the course of next few years I was stabbed, raped, beaten, overdosed, attempted suicide and lived under the 7th Avenue bridge. 
At what moment did you decide you needed to make a change? 
My life changed the day I woke up in an alley on a couch next to a dying cat and realized that someone had stolen the shoes off of my feet while I was sleeping. It was a 115 degrees and I had to walk down to the park where the rest of the homeless community were gathered in order to get a pair of shoes for my feet. By the time I reached the park my feet were burned, cut, and bleeding. That was the life changing moment for me. I fell to my knees in the park and prayed for the first time in 10 years. I later turned myself into my probation officer, who in turn gave me hope and encouragement. 
Why do you think this moment came so far down the road and not sooner? 
I think it took me longer to reach my bottom because I was fearless, and most of the time I felt like my life was a movie and that any day I would wake up and it would be over. I had lost the ability to feel. After surviving all of the trauma that I had endured, I felt like I would never make it back into society and die in addiction. I learned how to hustle and went into survival mode. 
Of all the horrific experiences you survived, which was the toughest? 
This is a tough question to answer. They were all tough. From being shot in a drive by shooting, raped several times, beaten, stabbed, burned with cigarettes, to eating from the dumpster. 
The lingering flashbacks of being raped probably took the longest to deal with. I eventually went to CASA (Center Against Sexual Abuse) for therapy. 
Re-entering society as a productive individual is something many attempt to do and fail. Many lose their life to this struggle. What was your motivation to not only succeed, but to succeed on your first attempt? 
I had been in and out of jail, rehab and halfway houses throughout my homeless journey. What helped me re-enter society was listening to someone who was clean and had been in my shoes. I made the decision to take suggestions from someone who had been through a program and completed it successfully. 
I realized that my way: was not, did not, and was never going to work. So I listened to advice and I put everything into motion. If I was told to go to meetings, I went. If it was suggested to make amends to others, I did. I did EVERYTHING that was suggested. I came to realize that others around me were clean, happy and had peace; of which I had none. Following simple suggestions and instructions helped me overcome my feelings and issues and helped me return to society. 
You are a symbol of inspiration and perseverance; you motivate others to seek a better way of life even when it seems impossible. What is the key to breaking free from an addiction? 
I believe the key is first admitting to yourself that you have an addiction. The next thing is to realize that you are not alone. Then you have to want sobriety more than addiction. You must be willing to listen and listen and listen. Take suggestions and apply them to your situation. Be honest with yourself at ALL times. You have to make the right choice daily and do the right thing even when no one is watching. 
What do you want your son, your students and those who look up to you to understand and take from your life story? 
What I want people to take away is that absolutely nothing is impossible. If you believe in yourself and your ability to do your best, you can overcome anything — including addiction. Everyone is capable of achieving greatness. It boils down to how much you want it. What lengths are you willing to go to get it? Also a big part is being open and willing to share/help others. The odds were against me to overcome 10 years of homelessness and addiction, but I did. The odds were against me to go back into society and be productive. The odds were against me to ever reach a level of success but today I, Dr. Brenda Combs, Ed.D., I beat those odds. Nothing is impossible. 
What is the message you personally want people to take from the struggles and victories your life consists of? 
Everyone is intelligent and capable of reaching their goals and making their dreams come true. I want people to look at the life they are living and if they are not happy and at peace, I want them to stop, look, listen, and then make a different choice; a different decision. People need to realize that they already have what it takes to be successful. They already have inside of them what it takes to beat addiction. They were born with these gifts and talents. They just have to realize that they can live the life they dream about— one step, one moment, at a time. They too can beat the odds and live of life of peace and serenity. 
I Believe in Myself 
I believe in myself and my ability to do my best 
I am intelligent. I am capable of greatness 
I can learn, I will learn, I must learn 
Today I will listen. I will think. I will reason 
Today I will make the best choices 
and my life will be 
A reflection of those choices 
Today I will read, I will write 
I will learn to work with it, love and value others 
I won’t give up when to give up would be easier because 
I am too smart to waste today 
People are too important to forget today 
And life is too precious to do it any other way 
So today I will make the right choice 
And I will do the right thing 
Even when no one is watching 
©Brenda Combs 2008