Erin Bergner, a Penn State Abington junior, is motivated, to say the least: She carries extra courses so she can graduate early, works in a faculty research lab, and holds down another part-time job. And all the while she is managing her recovery from opioid addiction and telling her story on ShareYourOpioidStory.comto help reduce stigma and support others in the grip of addiction.
“My hope is to help just one individual. I want people to know they have support,” she said. “It’s traumatic emotionally, and I don’t want anyone to think that they have to go through it by themselves.”
Here is her story, which she shares in greater detail on ShareYourOpiodStory.com:
After suffering abuse at a young age, Bergner developed an eating disorder and began to self-harm. She didn’t talk about her distress because of the stigma associated with mental health issues where she grew up, and she turned to marijuana as an escape.
“By tenth grade, I was using heavier substances like opioid pills and benzodiazepines. I was eventually introduced to heroin. I began using heroin more and more as it was easier and cheaper to get than opioid pills,” the Schreyer Honors Scholar said. “My senior year, my parents found out and sent me to rehab.”
Bergner spent 50 days in rehab, but relapsed immediately upon release.
“I went back to using heroin and overdosed. I was revived after receiving three doses of Narcan. I began using again two days later,” she said. “I eventually went into a 9-to-5 outpatient rehab program. After failing a drug test, I became much more committed to my rehabilitation and, as a result, I have been sober.”
She is looking forward to becoming a therapist and working with those living with addictions.
“Being one step closer to helping people makes me really happy, and that’s a huge motivation for me. I’m very open about my struggles today because I didn’t feel alone after hearing others tell stories that were so similar to mine,” she said.
“We’re not just a statistic, we’re individuals with hopes, dreams, and struggles. Everyone’s recovery looks different. You have to block out the judgements of others and always remember that all you have is yourself at the end of the day. Recovery is something no one else can do for you. You have to own it.”
The Psychological & Social Sciences major coincidently works in the research lab of Glenn Sterner, assistant professor of criminal justice at Abington and an research expert on the illicit use of opioids.
“I work on the ShareYourOpioidStory.com website help to find potential candidates to share their experiences,” Bergner said. “It’s not a typical college job, but it is giving me experience and making a difference.”
She is also an eager student in the psychological and social sciences major and credits faculty, especially Michael J. Bernstein, associate professor of psychology, for fueling her love of her major.
"When you find someone as passionate as you are about your major, it’s contagious," she said.
Bernstein, in turn, calls Bergner "an amazing student."
"She takes her studies seriously and is avid thinker about human behavior and how to understand why people act the way they do so as to make positive change in the world," he said.
ShareYourOpioidStory is an initiative to share stories, reduce stigma, and come together to reduce opioid use in America. The organization is hosting a Community Conversation at Penn State Abington at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 20. Register here.