Learning To Love Myself At The Intersection of Mental Illness, Addiction & Beauty

words and photography by Atong Yuot

content warning: mentions of drug use and addiction.

As I approach 23, I find myself reflecting on my first few years of adulthood and asking myself what the fuck happened to me? I was a fairly good kid growing up, maybe too anxious and introverted for my own good but nonetheless “normal.” Now looking back with the eyes of a 20 something year old in the process of healing, I can see all the signs that were just not recognized by my immigrant mother or other family members. 

This is no fault of their own, as topics like mental health are so taboo, especially in families coming from war torn places like South Sudan. The notion that leaving your home country makes life easier is partially true, but no one ever prepares the first generation kids for the existential crisis we will go through. With mental health being so taboo in the Black and especially Black African communities, it’s not surprising that support pertaining to these issues is severely lacking. The refusal to even acknowledge that mental illness may exist among us makes the chances of those in the community struggling with itexponentially higher, as would occur with any group of people regardless of race. I can look to any of my aunts and see their families affected by addiction like mine has been, but there’s no community in that — it’s a secret we overlook or broadly categorize as troubled children.  This is where the problem lies. My experience with addiction, while unique to me, is not an outlier among my community. I think we need to talk about it more, and if we cannot change our parent’s mindsets,we must at least change our own before our generation disappears. 

I started smoking weed at 13 years old, and I can fully admit that my relationship to it has never been healthy. I smoked every single day no matter what I was doing, and because I was fully functional—doing well in school and playing sports—I couldn’t see an issue. My mom did, of course,and when she first found out I got grounded for the entire summer. This happened for three years in a row because I didn’t care to learn any lessons. I enjoyed smoking, so how could it be wrong? I’m fine, I’m not like everyone else.  This was always my mentality when it came to everything, but especially drugs.  

By 15 I had done ecstasy, molly and shrooms with some regularity. Honestly, I can’t really decipher what my motives were, but they lay somewhere between morbid curiosity and the need to prove to I don’t know who that I could do a drug and still be functioning. I seemed to get a thrill out of being undetectable while extremely under the influence. I even remember having a list on the notes app of my phone with all the drugs I had done and planned on doing, like it was a normal activity for a 15-year-old. 

After getting a bit of clarity through treatment this year I can see how badly I was dying for validation from everyone beginning at a very young age. Whether it be excelling in school, playing sports, or modelling it was all so others could tell me I was good enough to validate my existence.  I’m 5’10” and very dark skinned. I have always stood out in a crowd, iIt’s just recently that I am beginning to enjoy it. Despite years of bullying and seeing the women in my family bleaching their skin, I learned to fully love myself, but not before I developed an eating disorder and self harmed for years. I look back at photos of me at the peak of my anorexia and see someone very clearly ill, but at the time I was convinced I was overweight. Not only does that terrify me, but it tells me it was never about the weight, it was the need to control and make myself take up as little space as possible. 

By 17 I had already tried cocaine, so when I moved to Toronto at 18, I quickly got into the groove of the party scene. I was out every night coming home at 1pm the next day, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to rush home after the party to quickly brush my teeth and shower before an exam. So it wasn’t that surprising when I decided to drop out my second year of university. I had decided at that point that I was always going to be smart and could go back to school at any time, but the time to be validated for my looks and get paid for it, was now. I modelled with some regularity, but my main source of validation and income came from older men taking care of me, which went on for three years and brought me to places like  Prague, Paris, Spain,Greece and Poland (three times). I look back at this time in my life like it was such a fever dream because I was at the height of my addiction for most of it. 

The only way I can fully articulate the hold Xanax had on me is that it was comparable to finding God. It was the thing I didn’t know I was looking for, total and complete numbness. I first started using those pills two and a half years ago, and it completely changed the trajectory of my life. I consider myself motivated, kind, caring and understanding, but in my disease I can be the most vile person you know. I’ve ended friendships with people I consider family, broken my friend’s tooth, destroyed other people’s property on top of my own and did not give a fuck. Sure, when I was sober I would show remorse and promise not to lose my cool again, but I always did. I’m very lucky to still have the people I do in my life because I’ve put them through hell all while playing the victim. Don’t even get me started on waking up and reading texts and full-blown conversations I had that I don’t recall at all, or people I don’t know coming up to me and continuing conversations I don’t even remember beginning. The life that I had become accustomed to was falling apart around me.

By February of last year, I had to move out of the condo I had lived in for three years because I kept spending my rent money on drugs and holding my landlord, a long time family friend, off. Through all of this, I was still convinced I didn’t have a problem. Even when I lost the job I barely remember having and moved back in with my mom, I just took it as a sign to get grounded for a bit, focus on my business—baking my StormCloud Bakery edibles—and chill. But being me, there is no way to be chill about anything, especially drug use. It seemed like everyday I had a new injury and a new enemy. I was constantly angry and so volatile. I got caught up in stupid drug beef that I never thought I would be involved in, and even allowed myself to be disrespected in a toxic relationship. In all sense of the word, I had lost myself and still couldn’t see it. It was to the point a friend had suggested I get help, and of course, I took offence to it. Who wouldn’t? But she was right.

I first called Brentwood Recovery Home in July, but couldn’t bring myself to get admitted until August 11th 2020. Even though it took me a month to get there, I stayed sober in the meantime because my withdrawals had scared me straight. It wasn’t until I was weak and helpless in my bed sweating profusely that I fully accepted being an addict. At what point did half a bar of Xanax become 10+ every day because I lost track? When did it stop mattering if I woke up or not the next day as long as I got high now? I’m six months sober now and plan on abstaining from Xanax and alcohol for the rest of my life. I would have never been able to kick Xanax’s hold on me if I didn’t get treatment. Addiction is so beyond surface level dependency and I thought I understood that, but it wasn’t until Brentwood that I truly learned. It’s an everyday battle but not because I still have the urge to get high. It’s the urge to self-sabotage I have to watch out for. In all honesty though, I do continue using cannabis, because it’s comforting to me and more than a drug. Recovery looks different for everybody and I won’t judge anybody no matter what part of the journey they’re on. Not everyone has the privilege of dropping everything and going into treatment for three months like I did, and not everyone is ready to commit to the long painful journey of healing. Both are completely valid reasons. That’s  why it’s important to not simply preach abstinence, but to teach harm reduction through drug education as well. 

Now that I’m sober and still living with my mom, I’ve decided to really focus on what it is that sets me apart and makes me feel like I’m living my purpose, and if you’re reading this thanks for helping me fulfill it. My story of addiction and struggling with mental health as a Sudanese woman is a story I don’t often hear until we’re talking about yet another tragic death that no one saw coming. I very easily could have lost my battle with addiction and I honestly fear it every day, but I’m going to continue to share my experiences because if it can resonate with even one person and help them see their relationship to drugs in a new light, then it’s worth it. I’m not cured, and I’m not claiming to be, but putting even half the focus I put into getting my hands on drugs into myself and my business instead has proved to be more fulfilling. I started StormCloud Bakery in November 2019 because I was always business-oriented but never ballsy enough to act on it. Ironically, I gained the courage due to my drug use. Being clear minded and feeling like myself again is exciting, because I can express myself creatively through food like I used to as an enthusiastic sixth grader. I love experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what I can achieve, but mostly I love to see people enjoying the fruits of my labour. I wasn’t sure I was going to continue my business after treatment, but I spoke to the director of the woman’s program, and she reassured me that as long as I could keep it professional I should be fine, and she was right. It took me a few months out of treatment to truly take stock of my life and decide what my next steps should be, but I’m more sure than ever that I want to bet on myself. 

Atong Yuot

My name is Atong but I like going by Storm. It’s a nickname that has stuck for four years and has become a part of my brand. I’m 23 and have branched into the world of recovery and finding my purpose. I always thought I had to be high to be creative, but after becoming more in tune with myself I’m realizing it’s always been in me to be expressive; I just wanted the cover of numbness because of my fear of judgment. Thankfully, I no longer care. I’ve decided to allow myself to come into my full power going forward and that means using my usual mediums of makeup and baking to express the freedom of being your authentic self.

StormCloud Bakery Information

These homemade cannabis baked goods are available on January 28th, and with an email subscription you’ll get 10% off your first order. Due to the amazing support services in the Windsor/Essex County area, Storm was able to receive life changing help after struggling with addiction for years. To ensure others in similar situations have the same opportunity to receive support, the StormCloud Bakery initiative is to put money back into these programs by continuously donating a portion of their profits to places such as: Brentwood Recovery Home, Transitional Stability Centre and the Windsor-Essex County branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.