Tara Conner: Recover Out Loud at TEDxUniversityofNevada (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Miss USA 2006 Tara Conner’s TEDx Talk presentation: Recover Out Loud at TEDxUniversityofNevada conference.

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Tara Conner – Miss USA 2006

If you would have told me, back in 2006, that my boss would become the President of the United States, I probably would have told you you were crazy.

Most people came to know me in 2006 when I won “Miss USA,” and even more people got to know me later that year when I tested positive for cocaine. But what they didn’t know was that I had been silently suffering from a nasty addiction from the age of 14. And I want to share with you a bit about my journey with addiction.

My life was the perfect storm for addiction to manifest. I survived incest at three, my parents had a rocky relationship, and alcoholism and mental health issues were very present in my family.

I grew up in a really small town in Kentucky with a church on every corner, like the type of town where you could throw a Bible, and probably hit a pastor on the head. And what was impressed upon me was that if I drank, smoked, or had premarital sex, I was going straight to hell. And I remember thinking how unfair that seemed, because my uncle didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

So, fast forward to 14, my parents are going through a nasty divorce, my papa, my protector, and the only person that ever showed me unconditional love, dies. And the pain and loneliness that I experienced were truly unbearable. So, when I am on a cheer leading trip — it’s an away trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee — and the juniors and seniors score a gallon of vodka from some nearby college boys, I was elated when they offered me some because I desperately needed to feel a part of something.

So, I mixed my first drink. And it was 75% vodka, 25% orange juice, and I chugged it like I’d seen my family do. And then I went back to the counter and I mixed 75% vodka, 25% orange juice, and I chugged that because I wanted to seem like, “I’ve done this before.” Right?

My next memory is of me coming too, making a deposit to the porcelain gods, and I’m in the middle of this room and the room looked like this: There were two girls fighting in the corner, some sexual acts going on on the bed, and there was this poor girl in the bathroom and she was crying, and she was cutting herself, and I was just like, “Woah! I have found my people.” Because the chaos in that room looked just like the chaos in my mind.

Until the next day when I woke up with the worst hangover of my life, and I was sweating vodka from my pores. And I was a little nugget that they would throw up in the air that would do back-flips, and I was terrified that I was going to Exorcism-style spew all over the audience. And my cheer leading coach was the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, so God was there. And I was so afraid that I was going to get caught so I prayed to this God, that I truly believed wanted nothing to do with me, and I said, “Hey big guy. If you can get me out of this one, I swear, I will never do it again.”

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And I meant it. I made a firm resolution that day to never touch another drop of alcohol. And by the end of that year. I was hooked on morphine.

See, I didn’t know that by me having my first drink at 14 was making me close to 40% more likely to become dependent. I didn’t know that my brain was going through rapid development, so when my parents would look at me and say, “What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t!”

My brain wasn’t fully developed yet. Right? And they would bring officers into our school and try to scare us straight, with eggs on frying pans, and that wasn’t scary. That looked like a good time to me. The average age that kids are drinking these days is 11. They’re playing Russian Roulette with their lives and they don’t even know it. And there’s no effective government-funded prevention program nationwide.

So, now I want to paint a picture for you. If an old man is strung out on heroin, living on Skid Row, people assume that he made that choice. When Charlie Sheen is cracked out of his mind, “There goes an entitled celebrity!” Right? When Miss USA fails a drug test for cocaine, what a bad role model she is, right? But when a 14 year old dies of an overdose? Now, that’s a tragedy.

So, now I want to talk about how we stigmatize this disease. When I failed a drug test for cocaine and Donald Trump chucked me into rehab, I faced the stigma head on. And people were calling me, “Disgraced Miss USA.” TMZ coined “Mess USA” which is very witty, and I’m going to use that as the title of my first book. Thank you.

Side note: It is also my gamer tag for Call of Duty for all the gamers in the room. And when I left treatment, I had to do a media tour because that’s normal, and I had this man ask me, “Do you think you tarnish the crown?” And all I could see was that 14-year-old version of myself, who was molested by her uncle, whose parents were divorcing, who just lost the only example that she has of love, who sought refuge in drugs and alcohol, have a muzzle put on her mouth, because she just saw Miss USA be shamed on national television for being sick.

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I wasn’t a bad person, trying to act good; I was a sick person that needed to get well. And that was the fire that started my journey to advocacy. I knew that there were so many people out there that were suffering just like me. And I suffered for most of my life because I had no idea what it was that I was suffering from. I was so excited to get out there and share my experience with what I had learned in treatment, because I really felt like I’d found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Right?

Addiction is one of the top healthcare issues in this country, and it kills more people than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. There’s an airplane full of people dropping from the sky every single day, and it’s the most under-funded healthcare issue. People are being incarcerated for being sick; 80% of inmates suffer from substance use disorders, and almost half of them have been locked up for drug-related offences. They don’t need to be held captive; they need long-term recovery. Thank you.

In schools, where our children spend the majority of their time, there’s no government-funded effective prevention program out there. And addiction starts in adolescence. Science tells us that prevention and treatment work. It’s estimated that substance use costs our society around $442 billion a year. If more people had access to treatment, and if there were better prevention programs, mandatory, that were in place, we could take a chunk out of our national debt. We don’t need to lock people up or build a wall; the drugs are already here. I found mine in my parents’ medicine cabinets.

In November of last year, the US Surgeon General made an unprecedented report on drugs, alcohol, and health. And he issued a new call to action. There are currently 20 million Americans that are struggling with addiction, far more than those diagnosed with cancer, and only 10% of them will receive treatment.

We all have just sensationalized the problem. I’ve been guilty of it, right? But rarely do we hear that Miss USA just celebrated ten years of sobriety. Thank you

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy said that how we respond to the addiction crisis is a moral test for America. There are over 20 million people in long-term recovery. That’s a lot. I mean, I will share my dirty laundry, to whoever will listen. But I challenge those who are in long-term recovery and all of the families whose lives have been recreated because of recovery to join together and recover out loud. Then maybe, we can take the shame away from those who are in the shadows, and encourage them to step into the light. I know I will.

Thank you.