YOU WOULD NEVER in a million years guess that "Diane" is a recovering drug addict. Now a friendly, athletic, mini-van-driving, stay-at-home Alameda mom, Diane has been clean and sober for 14 years.

But she started using drugs in her early teens. Living then in a city she prefers not to name — she doesn't tell people about her past — she moved from her parents' house, dropped out of high school and fell in with a crowd of hard partiers.

One day, overwhelmed by conflicts with her family, a friend offered her heroin. And she gave it a try.

"My first experience was smoking it," she told me. "It wasn't that big of a deal. But smoking led to shooting up, and by 21 I was using everyday."

Things fell apart. She couldn't hold a job and pawned most of her possessions — her stereo, camera, her car. "I was so desperate to get high," she said. "I wasn't a very nice person. I was up to four or five in the morning and then I'd get up at four or five at night and I'd spend the rest of the time figuring out how I was going to get high." She worked running drugs, doing phone sex.

Then one night she had a moment of clarity. "I was scrounging around the carpet looking for bits of heroin and cocaine," she said. "I thought I was going crazy. I didn't know much about addiction. I didn't know anything about recovery." She called a friend she used to party with, but who she'd heard had stopped using drugs. They began meeting.

"I was so impressed by her life," says Diane. "She had a job, a checkbook. She cooked for herself and ate three meals a day."

With the help first of her friend and then her mother, Diane enrolled in rehab. "I did a 40-day program because it took me that long to detox," she said. "I was a regular pharmacy."

After rehab, Diane watched lots of people she met in treatment return to drugs, and she lived in profound fear of going back herself. For four years, she attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every single day, gathering strength from the people who understood her history.

"It's just luck I never OD'd," Diane said. "I know for sure if I'd kept using I would be dead."

September is National Recovery Month, a celebration of people who, like Diane, have fought hard to change their lives.

"Addiction is like being in a speeding car and you're in the passenger seat and your addiction is driving and you can't hit the brakes," said Robert Watkins, a substance abuse counselor at Alameda Family Services and a recovering addict. "Even though you can sometimes see where you're going, you're not in control."

Each person, says Watkins, has to work hard to forge their own path to recovery. "We all have different chemical, physical, psychological make ups," he said.

For Watkins, it took two passes at long-term residential treatment to rebuild his life (now 62, he began using drugs in the late '60s, smoking pot for years, then moving to crack). "Recovery is a life- long process," said Watkins, who adds that even with more than a decade of sobriety he still goes to 12-step meetings to remind himself of how he wants to live, what he wants to preserve.

Diane says she feels lucky to be alive, every day appreciative of her family and her good life — something she feels could so easily have been lost. "I would not be here today if I had not been committed to my own recovery," she says.

For questions about drug and alcohol treatment programs, call Alameda Family Services at 629-6300 and ask for Karen Zeltzer. Both Alcoholics Anonymous (aa.org) and Narcotics Anonymous (na.org) have useful web sites.

Eve Pearlman also writes the Alameda Journal Blog. Look for news, impressions and opinion at www.ibabuzz.com/alamedajournal.