“It doesn’t care what color you are, your sex, your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion or lack of religion. It doesn’t care. It just wants to kill you.”
Today we have five years, nine months and twenty-one days clean. Never in a million years did I dream I’d be able to say that. It took me a long, long time to finally surrender completely. Relapse is a big part of my story. It’s not a requirement, but it is a reality—and it was a very large part of my reality.
From as far back as I can remember, being a small child I always felt different—different than. Sometimes I felt less than, sometimes I felt better than—but it was always different. Like I was on the outside looking in.
I come from a large family. I have three brothers and sisters. My parents are still married after forty-six years. My mother is also an addict, and she’s still in active addiction. It runs in my family. On my father’s side I have alcoholism that ran a few generations—and it hit me.
For years I battled with my mother; we butted heads so much. It’s only now that I realize after being in recovery for some time that we are the same person, and that’s why we fought so much. All I can do is love her and pray for her and try to be an example for her now, and I know that she admires what I do and she’s happy that I’m still alive. As am I.
I first found out about recovery [in] May of 2004, [when] I had a DUI. I was coming home from Atlantic City. For me, gambling and drinking go hand-in-hand. And if you’re going to give me free drinks while I sit there and spend money at the table? Shame on you—I’m going to take advantage of it.
I was by myself. I don’t know why the valet ever let me get in the car—I mean I was clearly drunk—but I did. I blacked out a couple of times. I remember coming to and seeing a sign for the White Horse Pike and thinking, “I’m supposed to be on the Expressway–why am I on Route 30?” And then I blacked out again. Then the next time I had came to, I had driven up against a curb and given myself a flat tire. And that’s not when I got pulled over. I pulled into a Wawa and I was like, “I’m gonna change my flat tire. Nobody will know the difference.”
A guy comes out and says, “Can I help you?” And I said, “Yes, thank you,” and as he was changing my tire the cops pulled in. They said they saw me run up against the curb. I wasn’t even sitting in my car at that point, but they gave me the field sobriety test. I’m a very competitive person by nature and that’s really one of my biggest character defects, [so] I was like, “Did I pass? Did I pass? How did I score on my sobriety test? Did I fool you?” And they arrested me, and I don’t think I have ever been more humiliated in my entire life.
It wasn’t because they made me feel like a bad person or an idiot or anything or a criminal. It was because I knew what I had done was so wrong and so dangerous, but I couldn’t stop. I wanted to after that happened—I wanted to. I didn’t know how.
At the time I was living in Philadelphia on Penn’s Landing—on a houseboat of all things. There was a big billboard for a recovery place down in Florida, so I called them. The guy from down there who answered the phone happened to be from Philadelphia. He went down there and he stayed. So I went there, did thirty days there, didn’t want to come home, but I did. And I was good for about eight months after that.
I came home with a taste of recovery, but still very backward thinking. Sometimes I allowed myself to be misinformed by the misinformed and I didn’t know what was what. I didn’t get a sponsor; I didn’t get a home group. I would go out with guys or friends or whatever and would be like, “You can drink in front of me–it doesn’t bother me.” And that worked for a while.
What ended up happening was that I got so resentful—Why can you drink and I can’t?” And I was like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna drink.” And I did. It was like a vicious cycle that just kept repeating itself over and over again.
Every time something happened, like that arrest or my family seeing me come home drunk or something like that, it was tears and, “I’m so sorry, please forgive me, I’m the victim.” You know how we do. And that was that.
Then after one of my relapses, which was at my company Christmas party at the Franklin Institute, another completely humiliating experience for me, a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you come to a meeting with me?” And I was like, “That’s for junkies and heroin users.” Again for me, it was that ‘better-than’ thinking, like I had never sunk that low. Even though I was trading my body pretty much, like you give me drinks? I’ll do whatever you want me to do kind of thing. But I hadn’t sunk ‘that low.
I was like, “Well, all right.” So I went. And the first meeting he took me to became my home group and to this day it’s still my home group. That home group has been an amazing source of support and direction and I’ve grown being a part of that home group. I’ve learned how to deal with other people because of our traditions—how not to commit homicide.
I’ve met people in the rooms that I never, ever, ever would have met outside. Our paths would never have crossed, or if they did we never would have spoken again most likely, and it’s an amazing thing. Addiction and recovery to me are the great equalizers of mankind because [addiction] knows no distinction. It doesn’t care what color you are, your sex, your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion or lack of religion. It doesn’t care. It just wants to kill you.
So from that point forward I lived in Oxford House. They’re worldwide really now—it’s amazing. I actually got kicked out twice; third time was the charm. The third time I got involved with the organizational part of Oxford on the state level, and that was being in service for me and that kept me clean.
Some of it fed my ego—I’m not going to lie—but I tried to keep that to a minimum while trying to remember why I was there and what Oxford did for me. A lot of growing up I did there, too. Living with other women—you were always the competition. I wanted whatever you had, even if I didn’t really want it, I wanted it. It was ridiculous.
None of us had the answers, obviously. That’s why we were there. And in the rooms, I saw women that had years clean and I was like, “Wow.” They had been through every possible life scenario you can imagine—and they got through it clean. And I thought, “Well if they can do it, why can’t I? There doesn’t seem to be a secret here that nobody’s willing to tell me or share with me. They just tell me to keep coming back.” And I did.
I don’t think it was like, “On this date, a transformation happened.” It wasn’t like that, because as I started to keep coming to meetings I was still drinking, I was lying, I was claiming clean time I didn’t have, and it came to a head about seven years ago.
I got drunk one night. I was in an extremely toxic relationship with this guy who I called my boyfriend, but apparently he had like fifty other girlfriends all around the country. We were on the phone and I was like, “Yeah, I can go to bed (or pass out is the more relevant term) at six a.m. and get up at eight a.m. to go unlock my home group because I have the key—I can do it.” And I didn’t. I was so passed out I didn’t hear my sponsor banging on the door, I didn’t hear my phone ringing—nothing. I went back to detox and from there I really started on my journey.
Some people ask, “How long are you going to go to meetings?” Well forever, really. If I want what I have now I have to keep giving it away and I have to change. I have to keep changing. A lot of things have happened to me in the last almost six years and before. I would say this is really probably an eight-year journey from start to finish—eight or nine years.
Men were a huge trigger for me—a huge part of my story. Like I mentioned before they were a means to an end a lot of times. I’ve heard this a couple times and I’ve said this for years, but I think my very first obsession or addiction was one, food, and two, fantasy.
I read so much my entire life all through school. I read the book Roots when I was in sixth grade. And I read so much because I wanted to be any of those people. I wanted that experience. I wanted to be anyone other than who I was, and books gave me that escape, and food did, too.
While food is a whole other twelve-step fellowship, in my years of coming around, there are lots of people in the program with me that have food issues. And it’s not just being overweight. It’s eating disorders and it’s bulimia and it’s anorexia. And it’s all about control, or wanting to stop and not being able to because you don’t know how.
The beauty for me is that I heard, “My problem is me. How can we help you?” And I had never heard that before, I had never thought about it like that before, but it clicked with me. Because even without alcohol I still had those same feelings, those same behaviors—just not under the influence. I was still insecure and superior or incredibly depressed or overeating or whatever, [even] without the alcohol.
I couldn’t live with or without drugs, so what is there left to do? Either go on as best as you can to the bitter ends—jails, institutions and death. I did jails and I don’t ever think I got institutionalized, and I know plenty of people that have died. Or find another way to live.
There are days when I want to drink. There are days when I see commercials for new flavors of Bailey’s and I think, “Why didn’t you have that when I was drinking?” I get pissed off at the television. There are times when if somebody else does say, “Would you mind if I had a glass of wine?” I’ll be honest with them and I’ll say, “Yes.” Most times the people that I go out with don’t even have to ask. If they’re not in recovery they know me well enough to know, and they would never put me in that kind of a situation. Because I can accept love today, and I couldn’t before, because I love myself today, which never, ever was the case before. I thought I did, but I did not.
Photographs taken at Jennifer’s home in Woodbury, New Jersey.