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ERIKA'S STORY

I AM ERIKA SANDOR-ZUR: believer in second chances, courageous dreams, and achieving the impossible.

I went from beyond rock bottom–living only for my next hit of crack cocaine–to a sober, thriving professional athlete and loving mother to my two boys. It took over twenty years to get the second chance that so many in my former situation never got to see. So, as I fight for a one-in-a-trillion chance to compete on the Center Court at a Grand Slam Tennis Final, it’s my wish to be a beacon of hope to all those I meet, (including people/especially those) who find themselves in the throes of addiction with seemingly no way out.

Second chances may feel daunting, impossible even, but when that potential is met with the honesty and determination to follow your dreams?

Watch as the impossible comes true. 

IN THE BEGINNING,

I had a beautiful childhood. Raised in an upper middle-class suburb of Cleveland, Ohio by my Hungarian/Romanian immigrant parents, the American Dream was a notion that shaped so much of our identities. America was my parents’ second chance, a land of opportunity and prosperity as opposed to Soviet-occupied ruins of their homeland.

 

My parents worked hard, but it was still clear that this didn’t stop them from loving my sister and I with everything that they had. They did everything in their power to provide for us; not only everything we needed, but fulfilling all of our wants and desires too. They shared their culture with us, teaching me Hungarian from a young age to keep our heritage alive and thriving in our home.

 

Even with this nurturing environment, I found that insecurities and doubts were still able to creep their way in as I started school. I was a bit of a late bloomer in reading, the solution to which was distance from my peers and placement in remedial classes. At that young age, when all that matters is getting good grades and making friends in the four walls where you spent a majority of your time, it was easy to begin to fall into the negative feelings I began to have about myself. 

 

They bounced around in my head, a cursed mantra of my own design.

 

I am not smart enough. 

I am not good enough. 

I am different. 

I need to prove my worth.

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IT DIDN’T START WITH CRACK.

I’d argue that it never does. My feelings of inadequacy haunted me and it wasn’t long before I found myself dependent upon the validation of others in order to get by. I couldn’t find a way to be confident about what my mind had to offer, so I dove into the social aspect of school, always looking for opportunities to prove that I was worth being around. The problem with this particular addiction is that it serves as the foundation for others to follow. It would never be enough to completely bury my insecurity and self-hatred, acting as if I was completely fine and living for the approval of others is just a temporary distraction from the pain that becomes less and less effective over time. 

 

To anyone else, I appeared popular among my peers with a nice group of friends. As I grew, what I felt that I lacked in book-smarts was made up for on the tennis court. From as early as 12 to the end of my high school career at 18, I was ranked number one in tennis in northeast Ohio. I was strong. I was ambitious. I was full of potential and promise, set to graduate from my prestigious private high school and continue my tennis career at Ohio State University.

 

But to me? Nothing I did was enough. As my future drew nearer and nearer, all that I could focus on was how everyone was one step from catching on to what a disappointment I thought myself to be. My confidence came from pushing myself into the spotlight, I fixated on the few things that I could control and ruled over my body with an iron fist. If the greatest amount of compliments and affirmations towards me came from my looks, then I would be the perfect image of mainstream beauty standards. My first highs of social acceptance fueled my first lows in the throes of an eating disorder.

 

Restrict. Binge. Hate myself. Purge. Repeat.

 

So many of those years feel like a blur now, but I remember my first encounter with the drug that took hold of me.

I WAS SEVENTEEN.

At a neighborhood party in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, I had my first encounter with the high that would hold me hostage for decades. I had a general idea of drugs from things I had heard or learned, but no concrete understanding of what I was about to walk into. It’s simple to hear that you should never do drugs, to learn about stereotypes of junkies that trusted adults say are the dregs of society. It’s not simple to walk into a party with very little knowledge and a desperate need to prove that you are worthy of everyone’s time and attention.

 

I knew about alcohol. I knew about weed. I knew about heroin. I even had a general idea about cocaine, but…the kind that we see in movies. The white powder that people arrange into neat little lines and snort. 

 

I had never seen crack, never heard about it. When I came face-to-face with a table adorned with little white rocks, I had no clue that the iron fist I ruled my body with was about to be replaced by something no bigger than my thumbnail and the glass pipe to smoke it in.

 

“What is that?”

 

The question that marked a point of no return. He didn’t need to answer it, he had me right where he wanted me. 

 

“Want to try some?”

 

There are so many times that I’ve wished I could go back and answer that first question. That I could find someone to tell me what I was about to do. That this little, inconspicuous rock wasn’t worth the temporary distraction or relief that it would give me. But it was too late. The next thing I knew, I was holding a stem filled with $30 worth of crack and being given a graciously free lesson on how to use it.

 

In a puff of smoke, my inner turmoil was silenced. I wasn’t the shell of a girl who needed to look or be perfect, who wanted everyone to look at me with adoration and envy…I was amazing. I was powerful. I was high, and this wasn’t the measly emotional high that I got from being told I looked beautiful on any particular day. This was an all-encompassing, consciousness-altering experience that was unlike anything I had ever tried to shut down my negative thoughts and feelings.

 

I was seventeen and I had inhaled instant confidence.

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A BAND-AID CAN’T HEAL A BULLET WOUND.

Crack didn’t break me right away. It started out amazing. It was my favorite distraction from the spiral of self-doubt that had taken permanent residence in my mind since elementary school.

 

I graduated high school. I fulfilled my Ohio State University destiny, playing tennis all the while. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t remember my coach’s name between highs and time spent in my bathroom, hunched over a toilet on one of my binge/purge benders. It didn’t matter that I was never the academic mastermind that so many other students strived to be. I had school, tennis, my job, and a little friend to turn to when I was struggling to get by or my negative self-talk was getting a little too loud for my liking.

 

But, like I said before: temporary distractions from pain become less and less effective over time. As my tolerance for crack-cocaine grew, so too did the gaping hole in my humanity. My insecurities were the bullet hole that a band-aid in the shape of a pipe, or needle, could never truly heal.

A WOMAN LOST.

My body no longer belonged to me, maybe it hadn’t for a while. A vessel for insecurity, functionality hinged entirely on my ability to get the next hit of my drug of choice, the wound in my very soul was something that followed me wherever I went. What started as the inhalation of ground-breaking confidence became a prison with no connection to the outside world of my loving family, a prosperous job, my once-adored hobbies, or any glimpse of the potential that I once had.

 

I allowed myself to endure the worst of the worst; reduced to nothing by people who called themselves my loving partners, offered my bruised and beaten body as a replacement for the money I never had, and lived among roaches in abandoned apartments with no running water or electricity. 

 

Just as my college years blurred, these years went by in a haze with only the most severe trauma and sparing moments of clarity burning themselves to my memory. 

 

I broke into houses and cars, scrambling for anything that could earn me another hit. I sold my car, your car, my parents’ heirloom jewelry, and anything I had or could get my hands on that had street value. 

I found myself in crack-dens, watching mothers trade sex with themselves and their children for just one little hit. It wasn’t long until I started on their path, selling myself too. Back then, they called girls like me ‘strawberries’. I would hide out in motels, the resident strawberry that went room to room looking for anyone who wanted to buy time with me as their plaything. 

 

My existence as a street hustler wasn’t stopped by my many arrests or the revolving doors of the 19 rehabs I had visited over a course of twenty or so years. I lost everything, including two marriages and my two sons, but…I had also lost myself entirely. I wasn’t just the wife or mother that chose crack, I was a black hole. I looked at my abused body, stringy hair, dirty face, and vacant stare and it broke me. 

I wanted so desperately to find myself again, but I couldn’t stop. 

I didn’t know how to stop. 

I was at a jumping-off place, but wasn’t ready for the free-fall into the sharp fragments of my soul that desperately needed to be pieced back together in order to heal.

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IT’S A LEAP OF FAITH. THAT’S ALL IT IS.

July 11, 2017.

It was that day that I was re-born, given my miracle of a second chance and the shift in perspective that brought me home to myself after two decades of existing as an unrecognizable shell on autopilot.

 

I had been shot, left in a ditch for dead, and was faced with the harsh reality of my mortality and the choices that had landed me there. I didn’t want to live anymore, but—strangely—I didn’t want to die, either. This moment on the brink of death brought me the clarity that I had been seeking for so many years. 

 

I had done so many terrible things, not only to those who I claimed to love, but to myself. Betrayal wasn’t limited to my inability to choose motherhood over drugs, the values of my parents that I had forsaken, the thieving and lying–I had, first and foremost, betrayed myself. I had met my insecurity with cruelty instead of the gentle healing that I had needed all those years ago. Instead of taking care of myself and creating a home in which I could heal and nourish my soul, I had evicted every part of my being that I hated and fed only what distracted me from that all-encompassing loss of identity.

 

In that moment, I took a leap of faith and decided to trust God to help me put back together all of the sharp fragments of myself that I had been brushing aside. It would be a scary and grueling journey home to myself, but I just had this knowledge that His guidance would get me to where I needed to be. As I lay there, waiting for help to arrive, I knew deep down that someone had heard my prayer for help. With a warm feeling encompassing me, I embraced the change that my life was about to take and the honesty that would come from it.

 

People in recovery circles often call this experience a psychic change.

THE ROADMAP HOME
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If you had told me ten years ago that this is where I would be today…Well, I might have asked what exactly it was that you were smoking and where I could get some.

 

My journey to wellness was not easy, but has been so rewarding. A road of possibilities began to open for me as I re-structured my life around radical honesty and healing the brokenness that created the festering home for the disease that was my addiction. I’m not always perfect, but part of coming into your own power is realizing that nobody is. 

 

Perfection shouldn’t be that shining light at the end of the tunnel, the unreachable goal that will only serve our insecurities. My power is found in my ability to look at all of these amazing possibilities that my second chance has given me and meet them with determined effort to achieve what I had previously thought to be impossible. 

 

Radical honesty was just the beginning of my quest to completely overhaul my actions and reactions to life as I heal. I’ve found a wealth of routines and resources that help me in my day-to-day trials and triumphs that act as healthy alternatives to relieving any self-doubt while building on my foundation of faith and honesty. Pursuing life-affirming, healthy choices for myself and my family, both big and small, is something that I will continue to do for the rest of my life.

 

  • I get my nails done.

  • I changed my diet and continue to refine it today. 

  • I set up a routine for working out that keeps my body strong.

  • I’m attending weekly therapy appointments to heal my traumas and insecurities.

  • I’ve participated in supplementary programs in hypno-therapy, acupuncture, and hydro-therapy for my body and mind.

  • I continued my leap of faith and began working with a spiritual healer.

 

I have full custody of my two boys and have become the loving mother that they always deserved, growing together as a family and individuals. I support them on their journeys and work every day to ensure that they have a nurturing environment where they will never fall into the spiral of insecurities that I fought so hard to come back from.

 

I am married to Jordan, the love of my life and biggest supporter, who has shown me that fairytales can be real with the right person by your side. I have healed so many of the relationships that my actions had broken with my family and friends.

 

I have rediscovered my lost love for tennis and became a professional athlete on the US WTA Tour at the age of 41. It’s beyond thrilling to invite you to be a part of my goal to compete in the Grand Slam Finals on my road to continued recovery.

 

Most importantly, though, I have healed my relationship with myself. It’s through this that all else is possible. Knowing my self worth, believing in my dreams, and working hard to achieve my goals has been the key that has helped everything else fall into place.

 

I live my life by a new mantra, that I hope can serve as a guiding light for others who are struggling or are on their own roads to recovery.

 

If you want to feel good, you have to do good.

 

FOLLOW ERIKA:  linktr.ee/erikasandorzur_athlete

Erika's story inspires us all. If you'd like to book her to speak on your next podcast, or to speak at your next event, click the button to connect with her team.