“She’s got friends in recovery, and at one of the gatherings that we’re at, one of her friends slips me a piece of paper and said, ‘If you don’t want to live like this, call me.'”
I’m Kerry. I’m a person in long-term recovery. My sobriety date is September 4, 1990, [the] day after Labor Day, after a weekend bender. I’m going to go back further, which I think lays the groundwork out for what led up to that point.
Nine years old was the start of the isms. At nine years old I was a very inquisitive child, [and] thought that the two large people running my house were my real parents. Then got the sit down to say, “We’re getting ready to have a baby.” They knew I was going to ask a lot of questions. Then that got followed by, “We’re not your real parents.” That’s when I found out I was adopted. My sister found out she was adopted. I was nine; she was seven. Very hard for little ones to take in that kind of information.
Here’s what I’m aware of now as an adult, was that receiving that in the manner in which I received it was really shattering. It would be the place that I would anchor onto for all the reasons why I should drink. It began first with pretending that it was all okay, because as any good alcoholic does, we’re really good at dishonesty in every form. I remember going to my third grade class, and telling them how special I was, that I was chosen, and making this really fantastical kind of story out of my adoption, and I realized I was really just trying to save myself at that point in time. Then the pretending started turning into exaggerations and lots of stories, and then all the bold-faced lies. I’m not even in high school yet, and this is all happening.
I’m really aware that what I couldn’t process and I didn’t have language for then, was an inherent belief that I was discarded. That I was unlovable, unwanted, and I don’t even know any of that. I know nothing about my adoption process. I went on to create those stories that were also not based in truth. It was really based on the delivery. That will now take me into where does the drink come in, and what happens with what I do with all this.
Very first thing is I get good at a lot of things because I want to over-compensate for all my unloveability. I excel at sports. I join every extracurricular activity that can be had, and I just want to know that I’m loved. I wasn’t attractive as a young person, and I also had something else that fueled the perfect storm that was about to happen, which was I knew at age six that I liked the girls like the boys liked the girls, and growing up in the 60s and 70s, you did not utter that whatsoever. I also should mention that my father was an alcoholic.
I’m in a house where there’s an active alcoholic, who can be unpredictable. We sit in the pews at church every Sunday and look like a God-fearing family, and we are not to speak about what goes on in the house. I have nobody safe to tell anything to. My insides and outsides don’t match from the time I found out I’m adopted, and I think these are my real parents in church, and an active alcoholic, unpredictable, and then holding inside of me the truth about my orientation. That makes for a nice combustion.
At the ripe age of sixteen, when my very best friend and I start hanging out, and her father is a well-off banker, and they have a well stocked bar—I will never forget my first drink. When I describe my first drink, it will describe every solitary time the way I drink, which was, we were trying to make a Tom Collins, and we opened up the bartending book, and we couldn’t figure out if we had all the right ingredients. We put a whole bunch of things in a shaker. Here’s the difference between my friend and I. I don’t understand this until much later, when I really understand alcoholism, about what made me an alcoholic, and what did not make my friend an alcoholic. The normal person, drinks our concoction, and says “ooh, that’s really gross,” spits it out, and doesn’t touch it. I drink it, and say “ooh, that’s really gross,” and I drink mine, and then I drink my friend’s.
I have my first DUI on my bike, which was going down a long hill back home, hit a gravel patch of stones that were off, and I was off. I go flying over the handlebars. I have stones embedded in my face and in my hands, and I’m a bloody mess, and I’m also quite drunk. That would describe every drinking episode that I have. They were always messy. Many of them landed me in emergency rooms, and often I was in a blackout. Now, I wasn’t in a blackout then, but it doesn’t take long for me to do blackout drinking.
So this happens at age sixteen. I am working at a McDonald’s to make my way into college, because I’m not getting any support to go to college. I’m basically told by my parents, “You want to go, miss smarty-pants, off to college, you figure out a way to get there.” I missed out actually, in all the partying that friends were doing, although they would pull up to the McDonald’s drive through while they were stoned, and I would give them bags of fries. I didn’t partake in that scene. The moment I landed on the college campus, I was introduced to the red Solo cup, and the red Solo cup would be where I had every beverage from the time I started until five years later, because it did take me five years to get through college.
I remember meeting people at my dorm. There were guys in a pickup truck. They had a keg in the back of the pickup truck. “Would you guys like to go to a party?” “Sure.” Got in the back of the pickup truck, and away we went, and that would send me on my way. I’m eighteen when I arrive there. I think it’s important for me to just say this out loud. It’s always a reminder, the progression for women is so significant. Within one year I’m a daily blackout drinker. Within one year. At age nineteen, I’m in my sophomore year in college, and I got to college partially on a field hockey scholarship. I’m now putting that scholarship in jeopardy. My teammates are concerned about me. I show up to practices and games drunk. I was an all-star goalie in high school.
That’s when I have my first intervention. They come to my dorm room. They want me to see a counselor. They want me to get help. The notion that they did that, while inside I was terrified, on the outside I basically had an attitude of, “There is nothing wrong. I don’t understand why you are doing this.” I went to that counselor for one appointment. I lied about everything. When I got asked all the traditional questions, that lovely, I think it’s the twenty-one question survey. I lied about it, and right there, at nineteen, was the smallest, smallest of seeds that got planted, which was, “Is there something wrong? Am I really an alcoholic?” What went on for me was, “No, no, no, my father, he was the alcoholic. He was the one that came home from work and drank beer after beer after beer, and was obnoxious and unpredictable. I’m having fun. This is fun. I’m partying.” I used all the euphemisms that you could use for it. I couldn’t accept it at that time, but I will say that there was a little seed planted at that time.
I can’t play field hockey the following season. I now, and I didn’t know what I was having then, I’m now having panic attacks. I remember sitting in the back of a room, in an evening class for psychology, and all of a sudden something washed over me like, “Oh, my God, I’m losing my mind. Oh my God, I think I’m going to faint. Oh my God, I think I’m going to throw up. What is this?” I was utterly, utterly terrified. What was my solution? The bottle. That was when drugs entered the picture. Drugs to bring me down. Then because I had trouble getting up for class, drugs to bring me back up. I had one semester on Dean’s list, when I was daily taking Black Beauties, speed, and was like, “Wow, drugs aren’t bad. They can help you. They’re your friend.”
That was one of the few semesters where the drinking wasn’t as pervasive, but the drug use and the coffee intake was ridiculous. Once I proved that I could get on Dean’s list, then the alcohol came right back into the picture. Alcohol was always the common denominator for my troubles. There was never a question. That was my lover, my best friend. That was what I went to. Alcohol to me was my solution to the panic. I didn’t understand until I actually got sober, that there was this very viscous cycle going on, that the panic disorder was basically dormant, and then co-arose. The alcohol use was kicking up those symptoms. I was using the alcohol thinking I was addressing the symptoms. I was self medicating. It was just a constant vicious cycle.
My senior year, this is an important thing to also say out loud, about understanding the insanity of alcohol. The dangerous places I could put myself in, and knowing how hostage I was to the alcohol. In my senior year we would have parties, and I lived in off-campus housing with a bunch of people that were pretty heavy partiers. One of the ways we paid for our utilities was to have Thursday night keg parties. One of these Thursday night keg parties, there were a number of students that were there from Bucknell, and they all came to our party. I lived with very attractive roommates, and I think one of them knew some of these guys, that I believe they played sports. The party’s going on, I’m drunker and drunker and drunker. They all decide they’re going out to the bar. I stay behind with two of the guys. I’m not in my right mind. I have a very blurred recall of that evening. Very next morning my roommates find me with bruises on my wrist, and blood everywhere. I lost my virginity. I basically was held down. We can only assume from everything else that it’s very clear that I was raped. I was in a blackout.
It’s very interesting. It took me well into me being in my late thirties, early forties, well into recovery, when I was doing a really honest and thorough inventory, that I really got the part that I played. You know, while there was actions that happened that were the responsibility of the other party, I put myself in harm’s way. That event got me pregnant. The double whammy of, “Could this really happen,” and, “I’ll never forget this.” I remember getting sick in the morning. I had bad hangovers, but I didn’t get sick like I was getting sick. Then I didn’t have a period, and then one of my roommates took me down to the Planned Parenthood, and boom. I only told a handful of people what had actually happened.
I know this information. I’m still drinking. I am working in a hoagie shop at the college on the campus. I start taking money out of the cash register so that I can save up for an abortion. That’s what I did. I had three friends that drove me down out of the area. It was about an hour and a half drive. What am I doing on my way to do this? I’m drinking Jack Daniels. I arrive there. I have the procedure done. I am completely anesthetized, and I really get drunk on the way back. That would be something that would later haunt me in my late thirties, because I was with, then, a long-term partner, and we were doing artificial insemination, and I was the one trying to get pregnant. All the fertility stuff checked out okay. We used up our life savings. The last time I went through the process, I burst into tears because at that moment I said, “Am I being punished for my transgression?” I never dealt with that until that time period, you know? Thank God for some really good therapists and healers that I’ve worked with along the way to really do that. All that to say that these are the places that alcohol took me, and they weren’t enough for me to stop, even after that.
Now, I somehow graduate. My GPA 2.9, nothing I’m proud of. In fact, at my graduation, to the mortification of my parents, they arrive at my off campus housing. I am out of my mind drunk, and it’s 10 a.m., because I was out all night the night before. I can barely get myself together. I don’t even remember if I showered. My mortarboard in duct tape says, “The party’s over.” I sit with my dear friend, who was on the wrestling team. I think he lost his scholarship too. We were both psych majors. There we are sitting at the graduation. I can’t take anything in. We have bottles of champagne underneath our robes. In the middle of the keynote speaker, we pop those bad boys, and we continue on.
My parents collected my stuff. I couldn’t bear, literally couldn’t bear that this might mean the party’s over. I stay on campus for another four days. My panic stuff is so bad, and I have my father’s used car that I was lent for last year, and I’ll never forget this. I’m driving home, I went to school in the middle of Pennsylvania. I’m driving back home. I grew up in Lehigh valley, and I have the mother of all panic attacks, and I have to call my parents to get me at an emergency room. I get home, I’m given the you-better-get-a-job warning. I was very charming. I could interview very well. I got a job within a week, running a community group home for people who had intellectual disabilities. I move over across the state line into New Jersey.
I make lots of geographical cures, which a lot of people speak about, which was my ammo often, and I, this just says a little bit more about all the ways that I don’t have a sense of self, I don’t know how to fit in. Up until this point I’m not a smoker, but when I interviewed, I saw that the staff who worked there, all smoked. How do I want to fit in? On my way to drive to this job, where I’m going to be in the live-in supervisor, I buy cigarettes, and I teach myself how to smoke so I can fit in and be really cool. Now all of a sudden, I’m smoking.
I, within a very short time period, am a pack-a-day, and then a two-pack-a-day Camels unfiltered smoker, the grossest of the gross, and the drinking is only progressing. I now have the DTs every day. I can’t get up and functioning without vodka. Up until this point, I dabbled in everything—grain alcohol, all the whiskeys. I went through everything. I would drink things until like I got so sick, that I couldn’t drink them anymore. Beer was a standby. There was always beer in my car. There was always a pint of something in my car. Now I have moved to gut rot Banker’s Club in the half gallon plastic bottles, and that’s how I needed to get going in the morning. I had a big glass of vodka with a splash of orange juice just to take the shakes down.
Somehow I am running a community group home, but I land a part-time job as a bartender. That was just perfect. I’m bartending, I’m trying to run this community group home. I am driving people with intellectual disabilities while I’m under the influence. I’m putting them in harm’s way, and somehow falling under the radar. I have a way of getting work turned in. I have a good set of staff. I’m really immersed in the bar scene, and this is where I get involved with a coke dealer. One night leaving the bar, because he was being followed, we are pulled over. I was crossing the yellow lines. My coke dealer friend was black, and I was in a part of New Jersey that was extremely racist, and we are pulled over. We have everything thrown out of the car. I have state troopers yelling at him, calling him “boy,” “What are you doing, boy?” They have stripped everything. He has managed to put his stash in my glove compartment, and we are both arrested.
I am taken in. I am barely taken in where we’ve been taken into, and all of a sudden I sober up very, very quickly because my thumbs are being pressed into ink, and my mug shot is being taken. They know who they were after, and I’m pulled over into one of those rooms, just like we watch on TV. “We can cut you a deal, if you tell us where he’s getting the blah, blah, blah.” I say anything they want just to get me out of there. I make an agreement with them. I’m assigned a probation officer, and I’m now looking for things undercover at my bar that I’m working at. I’m supplying them with information. I’m feeling nervous as anything, and now I have some dear friends that live in Philadelphia and I start looking in the classified ads to get my butt out of there, and I do.
Now comes the next geographical cure. I still have a probation officer that I have to check in with, and I leave that job. I find a new job. Nothing has changed. I am still drinking alcoholically. I still have DTs, and I’m still working with people with intellectual disabilities. I bring the alcohol with me to the job in the 7-11 Slurpee cups. Lots of vodka, chain smoking, peppermints, because I think that will not get me found out. I remember during this time period that I have at least two or three accidents. No DUIs, no DUIs. In two cases I abandoned the cars. Finally my car get repossessed, and I have no car. I was in one job, they were starting to get on me about my work, and I knew I was going to be found out. What do I do? Move on to the next job, and I move on to the next job, and I think they’re on my trail, and I move to the next job. I am making excuses. I now can’t make it to work on Mondays or Fridays because the benders are lasting really, really long.
I’m at my final job of my active alcoholism. Now, I do have to say this part. I’m really promiscuous during this entire time, and it’s all with men. I’m sneaking over to the gay bars, and the gay bookstore, and I’m still terrified. There’s nothing about me that is living authentically, and I’m at my very last job. There’s a woman at this job that lights my world up, and she is clearly openly gay, and she pursues me. Talk about another perfect storm. She had seven years of recovery, and I met her when she was on a relapse.
Here’s me, and I do have to say this part is, it was maybe seven months before I get to this job when my car gets repossessed, that I’m living in an apartment that’s on the third floor, and realize that I can’t breathe going up and down stairs, and somehow I quit smoking going cold turkey. I often will use a reference of somebody that’s part of a healing community that I’m involved in—the term “future self.” My future self said, “Put down those cigarettes, girl, because you’ll never stop the booze if you don’t put those down. They went hand-in-hand. The smoking is put down. I’m walking twenty-eight blocks each way to work. I’m also very overweight, so I’m starting to lose a little bit of weight. I’m at this final job. I meet this woman. This is about two months before I have my last drink.
I’m regularly waking up in a cold sweat with a very annoying voice that’s getting louder, and louder, and louder that says, “You know you got to stop. This is going to kill you. You know you got to stop.” That haunted me. This woman, who I now start a relationship with, and we are a hot mess, because we, this is not a good way to like figure out, like you know, finally, I’m finally doing what I wanted to do since I was six years old, and I can’t recall most of it. It’s messy, and we’re always drunk. She’s got friends in recovery, and at one of the gatherings that we’re at, one of her friends slips me a piece of paper and said, “If you don’t want to live like this, call me.” For whatever reason I keep her number. I would have never, I would have just ripped that up and thrown it out.
I’m with this woman Labor Day weekend of 1990 for three and a half days. I am somewhere on the Schuylkill in a tire at some point on the river. I think what was more toxic was taking in the river than what I was taking in [with] the alcohol. It was the bender to beat all benders. I woke up the day after Labor Day covered in mud, piss, that was the place, the culmination of loss of dignity for me. I went to the refrigerator to make my morning cocktail, and couldn’t do it. I was shaking so bad, and I went in my wallet and got that piece of paper out, and I called that woman, and she got me help.
God, I wish I knew where she was today. I just remember her being by my side for my first bunch of weeks. I detoxed on my own, which was very, very dangerous. The idea and the stigma of going to a rehab was just out of the question for me. I don’t know how I did it. I do remember having pains like I had never had before, shaking like I have never shook before, but there was something in me that said, “You don’t have another drink in you. It really will kill you.” I was twenty-eight years old. Twenty-eight years old.
Within probably two years I met my then long-term partner, who was a sober woman. Both of us, not attending to our sobriety in any way that was therapeutic of any kind, and we would quickly merge, be very codependent, doing okay for ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, we made every attempt to have a child [and it] didn’t happen. She would start her entryway into a very slow but progressive relapse that began with pills. Both of her parents got very sick. One had pancreatic cancer, the other congestive heart failure. We would end up taking care of them. I was in grad school. I was putting in extensive, lengthy work hours. Talk about substitutions. Work became a substitution, exercise became a substitution, sugar became a substitution. I was having emotional affairs with people, not acting out physically, but having emotional affairs. My then-partner would fully relapse after we lost both of her parents.
We tried to repair our relationship with lots of false anchors. “Let’s get a dog, let’s add another dog. Let’s take a trip here, let’s take a trip there, let’s take a trip there.” I continued to stay with her. I was miserable. Her drinking was really bad. We had alcohol in our home. It was very dangerous territory. I do not know how I didn’t join her. I just knew how physically addicted I was, and that was out of the question.
Finally, on our, I don’t know which anniversary it would have been, I want to say it might have been our thirteen-year commitment ceremony anniversary. We had gone to a Phillies game. She was out of her mind drunk. Somebody had seats in one of those suites where the drinks were flowing, and that evening she tried to kill herself. I put her into a rehab the very next day. While she was there, I did this very quick life in review, and I had all these flashes. I grew up in an alcoholic house. I then became the alcoholic, and now I’m married to an alcoholic. I’m done with the active alcoholism.
She got out. I had been acting out now with a person that we knew, and I just basically had a heart-to-heart conversation, said, “I can’t do this anymore.” It was a very turbulent ending. We parted ways. She kept one dog, I kept the other dog.
It took another few years until I hit what I would call my greatest emotional bottom. I had gotten into a lot of trouble financially [and] I actually got real live help. Got very clean with my family, with my friends about all my places of acting out, and I actually got super serious about my recovery. It’s very interesting. I often say that I had a very lengthy abstinence period, but was I acting like a sober person? No. In many ways I was not. I think that’s a very key differentiation for me, is there’s a very big difference between abstinence and sobriety. I finally was willing to take advice and suggestions, and get really involved in what does it mean for me to be a sober person. For me it’s a very spiritual path.
Actually this awakening co-arose with getting very, very involved in a community that studies Cabala, which I’m still very active in, and I have near and dear friends that are sober people as part of that community. That is actually when I saw all the transformation happen. When I got serious about that, stuff started to line up in my life. There were no more cures geographically. My finances started to turn around. I got the job of my dreams. I finally could be comfortable in my own skin, and be authentic, and not have to pretend.
Who you see is who I am in my interior. It’s the truth of my interior. When I meet people in one arena, they meet me in that arena, I’m the same person you get in another arena. I finally live with integrity. I can hold my head up, I can look people in the eye. For me, that’s what a sober life means today.
I’ve walked through some very painful, painful things in this part of my story—putting my beloved dog down of fourteen years, and not dying from that process, and losing people to the disease. Ending another relationship—we are friends to this day—but it was something that was unhealthy for the both of us, and having the wherewithal to end that. Yeah, I can live in my skin today. I think that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Photographs taken at Kerry’s home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.