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[ Personal Narratives ]

20 Years a Slave

I am an addict but I am many other things.  One of those things is amateur etymologist. The word addict comes from the origin “addico” and was used in Roman times to describe a person who had been “given over or assigned” to his creditor when unable to satisfy his debt. 

 A slave.

I was in bondage for a large part of my life. For certain, there is much dispute over whether I locked myself up, like Otis the drunk in the old Andy Griffith shows.  But these arguments, along with nature vs. nurture, and the questions of why i am an addict and other people aren’t, are merely a distraction.   I will never know, and it’s not important anyway.

For me, addiction took on a linear and almost predictable bent that I could not, of course, recognize except in hindsight. As a small child, I lived in constant fear. Much of that fear was more about my own temperament than any real danger, but there was some danger too. I also suffered from depression, anxiety and a myriad of other behavioral and emotional disturbances. And instinctively, I was always seeking relief from my pain. I sought out that pain relief much more aggressively than many of my peers who had some of the same problems. I had a steely determination to avoid pain at all costs from a very young age.

The first time it occurred to me that I had the power to change my own feelings was a summer night, the 4th of July, when I was 5 years old. My mother and stepfather had decided they wanted to go to party where children were not welcome. So, they did the most logical thing—they left me alone. My mother wasn’t heartless though; she sat me up in front of the window and told me I could stay up and watch the firecrackers go boom and she and my stepdad would be right back. When I balked, she pulled out the big guns-a big glass bowl and a one pound bag of M&Ms (plain, not peanut). I can still remember the way that candy clattered into the bowl and the way my eyes glazed over as I pictured myself, alone and unrestrained with this bottomless bowl of love.

They left, I sat in front of the window and ate the entire bowl of candy.  I realized that the fear and loneliness were dulled as long as I was shoving that candy in my mouth. 

And so it began.

At 18, I was locked inside of the 300 pounds of flesh on my body, a consequence of my food addiction. I shouldn’t say food, because real food wasn’t my problem. Sugar, starch, grease were my drugs. I never binged on apples or broccoli.

I had bariatric surgery at 18. The bypass surgery wasn’t as common then and I underwent a stapling procedure that would provide “restriction” from overeating. Perfect solution.  Food was the problem and this would stop me from eating it.  Right?

At 19 was a svelte 130 pounds. And a sloppy, falling down, promiscuous drunk. I hadn’t even liked alcohol in high school. I preferred the oblivion that only a binge and the pursuant coma could bring. But the surgery had taken that away from me-took the pain killer and left the pain. I had to find something else, and luckily for me, I was at the age where kids were expected to get drunk and often.  For a time, I was able to use my college girl status to camouflage my addiction. If not to others, than at least to myself.  

It wasn’t long before I began to notice, with some discomfort, that the other kids in my dorm didn’t drink every night like I did.  I was baffled when my roommate would sometimes decide to skip the frat party to catch up on homework.  I didn’t like the way that made me feel so continued to heal myself, the only way i knew how. I drank a six pack of beer every night, more when I was with a crowd. I knew I probably had a problem, but I told myself it was a phase, and I would grow out of it.  

One night, very drunk, I stumbled into my dorm room and decided it would be a good idea to heat up some leftover pizza.  Unfortunately this was before the days of microwave ovens.  The only thing I had was a hot pot, used to heat tea and coffee.  I shoved the pizza into the hotpot, turned it to high, and promptly passed out.  I woke to my roommate shoving me and screaming my name.  The room was filmy with smoke and smelled like charred pizza. 

 My roommate suggested that I might have a problem. 

Of course, she was right, and I was ashamed enough to stop for 2 days.  That was all it took for me to conclude that I was fine.I could control my drinking -I just had to be more careful.

I flunked out of college in my sophomore year. I told myself I was tired of that life anyway.  Blackouts, one night stands, memory loss, and bone crushing hangovers. It was time to settle down.  I had fallen in love with a boy who like to party as much as I did and I married him.  The next 15 years are a blur- I was drunk for most of them.  I had three children in my marriage and I drank during some pregnancies, but I was able to limit the drinking.  Pregnancy made me feel useful and whole.  But I was right back at it soon as I left the hospital, each time.  The drinking had progressed so far that I became unable to care for my children.  I had a newborn and spent much of my time in a blackout.  I couldn’t breastfeed because I was constantly pumping the toxic milk from my body.  These things scared me enough to make me take a stab at recovery.  I went to AA off and on but I never stuck around.

Still, I knew the drinking couldn’t continue.  Drinking was too messy and too obvious and besides it wasn’t really even working anymore.  The hangovers were vicious.  I needed a new drug.  Abstinence wasn’t an option–I didn’t believe someone like me could ever be normal.  A couple of years before, I was lamenting about my weight gain to a friend and she told me that her son had ADD and she whenever she wanted to lose weight, she would take a few of his pills. She told me they were so powerful, she would stop eating completely, clean her whole house and nobody suspected anything.  I asked if she would let me try one and she did.  20 minutes after I swallowed that capsule, my head exploded in the white light of euphoria.  I felt like I was completely invincible;  smart, creative and in control of my destiny.

Two things occurred to me that day: 1. I would never need to drink again and 2. I was no longer free. 

Less than a year later, I was unemployable, on welfare, food stamps, and subsidized housing.   I had no car and a suspended license.  I did the very minimum necessary to keep my kids alive.  I had left their father and he had his own addiction struggles so there was no safe place for them.  My full time job was getting my drugs.  My dealers were doctors so I had to plan extensively in order to stay high.  I had at least three doctors prescribing for me but it still wasn’t enough-my tolerance was so high.  So I began to “alter” the prescriptions they wrote.  If they gave me 20 mg of Adderall, I would change the 20 to a 30 and maybe change the amount as well.  I told myself this wasn’t as bad as forgery, so I shouldn’t worry about it.    Unfortunately, (or fortunately), the Commonwealth of Virginia disagreed.  It was forgery in their books and I was busted for it. The crime, forging and uttering is a felony that carries up to 18 months in a federal penitentiary and I had been charged with 3 counts. 

I was arrested at my home on a Sunday.  I was still in my pajamas at 2pm and my kids were fending for themselves as usual.  The police knocked on the door and my 12 year old daughter peered out the window and said, “Mommy?  It’s the cops and they have a paper in their hands.”  I opened the door and greeted the officers and they advised me that they had a warrant for my arrest.  I asked them to please allow me to send my kids to the neighbor’s house and they let me call the neighbor. 

 I asked them to please not handcuff me in front of the kids and they obliged.  But I will never forget the image I saw as I looked back at my girls; the oldest was holding the baby on her hip and had the other one’s hand as they walked across the street to the neighbors house.  I felt like the lowest form of life. 

I prayed all the way to the magistrate “Please God, if you let me get back home to my kids, I will never use again.. Please God don’t let them put me in jail.”  And they didn’t.  To everyone’s surprise, they booked me, gave me a court date and let me go.  I got a ride home and before I went to pick up my children, I went into the house and took some of my pills.  I was so relieved my pills were alright and I was not in jail.  Then I went to get my children.  At this point there was no denying I was sick so I didn’t.  I resigned myself to it.  I had no plans to leave my prison cell or my master.  I would just have to work harder to not get caught. 

The DA offered me 90 day treatment in lieu of prison.  I put my children in the care of their father and went to treatment.  It was incredible being with people like me.  In the beginning, I didn’t believe I belonged there with these hardcore, needle using junkies and crack addicts.  I pointed out that I didn’t use illicit drugs.  A counselor pointed out to me that I used legal drugs illicitly and if I didn’t belong there, I wouldn’t be there.  Little by little, my denial was shattered, I was an addict, no doubt about it.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stop using, but I loved my children and I decided for their sake, I would do everything possible.  When I left treatment, I attended meetings religiously.  I did service.  I loved my new life.  I was working at a terrible job and still had no car but i didn’t care.  Being clean was incredible.  I avoided working steps and the sponsor thing because I didn’t think I needed all that.   

After several years clean, I had a college degree, owned a home, had a new husband and a new child.  I had a wonderful job.  I woke up every day just amazed and full of gratitude for my life.  My new husband was not an addict.  In fact, he’d only been drunk a handful of times and that was in college.  He was very supportive of my problem at first, encouraging me to go to meetings and events.  But I began to become complacent.  I started looking at all I had and I started thinking I don’t need meetings anymore–Im okay now.  Within a year, I had fully relapsed.  I told myself I was just taking a break from recovery and I would come back in a month or so.  I knew I would have a soft place to land.  I didn’t make it back for four long years.  And even then, I couldn’t manage to string together a week.  The end of the round found me in a parking lot of a treatment center.  They had told me I needed inpatient treatment and I was balking because it meant I would have to admit to my family what I had been doing.  My poor husband had no idea what was going on. 

This was the last treatment center in town, and they would not let me come for outpatient because they knew it was a waste of everyone’s time as I had failed at every other outpatient treatment in the area.  I sat in the parking lot with the knowledge that if I didn’t go in, I would be forging prescriptions within the week.  I had run out of doctors, and my daughter had caught me stealing her medicine.  I cried and prayed to my God to please help me in this moment.  It was not long before a  still, small voice spoke to me and I was able to hear it.  It told me, you will get caught.  You will get caught.  

Then a vision of my little son visiting me in prison came to me and my decision was made.  That day was September 13, 2011, the day of my exodus.  Since then I have known freedom from active addiction and the insanity, shame and degradation that comes with it.   I am a grateful and active member of Narcotics Anonymous. I have struggled with life and relationships and feelings but I have learned how to live.  I have learned to live in the moment and cherish what I have, which is plenty: 4 beautiful children, two grandchildren and a husband who has stuck with me through it all.  By God’s grace, I didn’t lose my house, or any material things. 

My life today is about giving back to others what was so freely given to me.  My recovery comes before anything else in my life, because without it, I won’t be around to have anything else in my life.   The best thing I have gained is a merciful, forgiving God of my understanding.  I am still an addict, but I am free just for today.