Lying in that detox bed, smelling myself — that combination of alcohol leaching from my pores and the rancid, stale stress sweat, I knew that I wasn’t fooling anyone.
I was hurting, wanting to jump out of my skin, but trying to maintain a facade of okay.
But I had been stripped of everything that made me look okay —my textbooks to indicate I was a student, the leather planner that proclaimed I was a busy, organized person, and the one thing that held everything in place, my Xanax.
I felt exposed, raw, and vulnerable. There was no way that I could pretend to be okay or convince anyone that the college had made a mistake in sending me to treatment.
It was 3 AM, mostly quiet on the unit, except for the guy next to me who was snoring. I envied his escape into sleep as I couldn’t even close my eyes. When I did, all I could visualize were the faces of those I loved and had harmed.
With no distractions from my racing thoughts and guilt, I did what I’d done for years; I grabbed a book. Dr. Benton had given me a copy of Alcoholics Anonymous and suggested I read it as he gave the charge nurse my textbooks and planner and told her, “She won’t need these other books while she’s here.”
Three sentences into the Foreword to the First Edition, I started crying. Those tears were for the pain—the physical, but more so because I was reading that people like me— other addicts were recovering.
I no longer questioned my assessment earlier in the month — the therapist was right; I was an addict, and I needed to find out just how I had become one.
I couldn’t eat the morning of Family Focus, the day when our families came to confront us with all we had done wrong. I was apprehensive since my parents were participating in what everyone else said was a time to air the families’ dirty laundry. I did not doubt that my mother would bring up everything I’d done wrong since grammar school.
I’d learned to dread her scathing criticism and disapproving looks. Her preferred approach was the, “Then there was the time you did…”, followed by all the slights, disappointments, bad behaviors, and wrongs I’d ever committed throughout my life.
Given that the families had permission to vent, I wasn’t sure I could endure a public rebuke from her, but I was also proud that I didn’t take the easy way out and not participate like some.
Thirty years ago, the clinical approach to curing addiction was to “peel the onion,” removing layers of denial, dishonesty, and illusions that we addicts had created to protect ourselves from criticism. While a caring clinical professional usually did this at Family Focus, all of our flaws would be exposed by angry, disappointed, frustrated family members. While I could understand the rationale for breaking down my denial and illusions, I also knew that stripping away any defenses I’d created for myself regarding my addiction would leave me feeling vulnerable.
Most of our families had tried to intervene on us in the past, screaming at us to stop using, withholding money, or threatening to take our children away if we didn’t get help.
But most of us could not or would not look at the reality of our lives.
The severity of our addictions, the harm we had caused our loved ones, the time wasted, and money squandered was too much, so we left unpleasant encounters with our families or dismissed what they had to say.
Too often, though, looking at the reality of our lives, the severity of our addictions, the harm we had caused our loved ones, the time wasted and money squandered, was too much, so we either left unpleasant encounters with our families or dismissed what they had to say.
Unfortunately, for some, this type of exposure was too much to absorb and process. The natural inclination of fight or flight kicked in, and people left treatment rather than face what they had done in their addiction.
Our group of recovering addicts started out as eight for Family Focus, but then two left, so it was the six of us who filed into the room, lining up, as one participant said, “like lambs to the slaughter.”
About twenty-five family members were sitting in the circle, with an empty seat between them to sit with our respective families.
I saw dad, who smiled, stood up, and hugged me, but mom wasn’t there. When I didn’t see an extra empty chair near dad, I realized she wasn’t using the restroom; she hadn’t come.
I was disappointed, but not surprised.
Not having my mother there that day made me realize how often she was absent, distant, or unavailable throughout my life. Mom had found ways to miss my track meets, softball games, and graduation. If I was candid with myself, besides not being there at important events, she was emotionally absent for most of my life.
I was only nine years old when I used my first drug to change the way I felt.
We had recently moved to Tennessee. I saw changes in my mother’s behavior after we moved. Mom seemed more sad and angry; although she was never the sort of person who appeared happy very often, now it seemed as if nothing pleased her. My dad finally told her to make an appointment with his physician to see if there wasn’t something medically wrong.
Her doctor prescribed speed and sleeping pills for something she called her menopause, a term I didn’t know, but heard her talk about to a friend. Now, she’d get up in the morning, pop a little yellow pill and get a sudden burst of energy. She might even smile.
In my nine-year-old mind, being busy, productive, and energetic might be the answer to my problems with my teacher, Mrs. Utte.
I snuck into my parent’s bathroom and saw a bottle of yellow pills. Downing one with juice, I just knew I’d remember the ma’am, sit up straight at my desk, and finally get on Mrs. Utte’s good side.
Instead, I nodded out on the bus. When we got to school, the bus driver couldn’t wake me and carried me to the nurses’ station.
When I woke up, there was an upset driver, nurse, and principal staring at me. In rural Tennessee, in 1956, no one thought to ask me if I’d taken any medication.
Even if they did, I would not have admitted it because I knew I’d get in trouble.
But more importantly, I liked the feeling I got before I nodded out – all warm, fuzzy, and comforting. I also knew something else; I would use those yellow pills again.
Only next time, I’d be more careful.