“I was really ashamed of myself. I was thinking, ‘What if I’d been drunk when he was hit by the car? What would that have been like? I need to start thinking about this.'”
My name is Sue and I’m an alcoholic. I have been in recovery since January 2 of 2007. I have a sponsor. My sponsor has a sponsor. I have several sponsees and I have several people in various phases of recovery living with me at any given time. They kind of come in and out.
I was born in Maryland. I was the third of five children, five girls. The day before I was born my sister died. My mother was dealing with grieving her child, who was six and died, a toddler, and my father was gone. This was a woman who didn’t have a lot of time for her children, understandably. A couple of years later she did meet and marry somebody else, had two more girls, and not long after that he was gone and then we moved to New York. This sets the stage for, “I don’t belong anywhere.”
Moving from Maryland to New York I immediately felt I’d want to fit in anywhere. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. Then we moved out to Massapequa, which is even less forgiving than Brooklyn, and I was desperate to fit in. At six years old I was already in trouble all the time, more so than my sisters. I was smoking cigarettes by eleven and pretty well into drinking by thirteen years old, smoking pot. The next couple of years I got into other drugs. A lot of drinking. They deposited me on my front lawn multiple times from a blackout from drinking at a very young age.
When I was fourteen I think I was cutting out of school and drinking so much that my parents had me put into a children’s shelter that they have on Long Island, I guess it’s like a juvie hall, for several weeks. It was that whole pattern. So I got in with one crowd after the other, one being worse than the last. At sixteen I got pregnant and married in that order and dropped out of school. My husband at the time was in the army. We moved all over the place. We were in Alabama, Kansas and then in Germany. Now throughout my pregnancy I didn’t drink, but as soon as that child was born I was drinking. He drank a lot and so we fought and he was violent and he beat me up a lot. We moved to Germany where I continued doing a lot of drinking.
In Germany I think that’s where it really took off because he was out in the field a lot and I was lonely and I was so young. I was seventeen, eighteen years old by then. He would go out in the field for days at a time and I would leave that baby in her crib and I would go to the bar. Now sometimes I asked my landlord who lived upstairs to babysit and sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I just left her, and once or twice she would ask me, “I heard the baby crying, did you go out?” I’d lie of course because that’s what we do.
I left that man in ’77 in Germany and returned to New York. I did the same stuff basically. I drank, I manipulated people to get them to watch my child or to do different things so that I could drink, so I could party and go out. I did that for the next, I don’t even know how many years. Yet throughout all of it I had the big picture in mind, too, so I was going to college. I’m working two and three jobs to keep up whatever apartment I was putting my child in and I went to college. At twenty-three I got my first real job. I worked for the home office of Wendy’s and continued my drinking career of course.
To get an idea of how selfish I was, one of the fellows that we worked with had had a stroke and he was literally dying in the hospital. My sister’s husband worked for us also and they were close. My brother-in-law wanted to go to the hospital to see the friend who was dying, and she called me and asked me to babysit. I said, “Yes,” at first, but then we were having some kind of thing at the office and we were drinking, and once I started I couldn’t stop. There was no way I was going to stop. I just kind of blew her off and I didn’t show up. I did that stuff a lot. A lot in my twenties and probably later. That’s just how selfish I was. I was very selfish.
At the end of my twenties I took that child who was by now thirteen and we moved here to Charlotte, North Carolina. Now I have a job with ADP, a company I’m still with today in fact. Moved here with them and when we got here it was hard. It was very hard. My daughter was lonely. She was acting out in horrible ways. It turned out later that she was actually sick. She had thyroid disease, but it was months before they figured that out. In the meantime she did a stint in the mental hospital. It was just exhausting and I was such a bitch throughout. I didn’t really care what she was going through. I was more worried about how it was affecting me. Clearly I was not a very good mother. I took care of her physically. I’d take her to the doctor, I’d feed her, I’d clothe her, I housed her. It just was all about me for a long time.
We’re here now and she had surgery after they discovered that she had a thyroid disease. That helped everything. She was eating huge quantities of food. She wasn’t throwing it up, she was growing because she was eating so much. She was compensating for her appetite that was in high gear from the hyperthyroid. All of this, it damaged our relationship, but at the same time I was also seeking help for myself. I never attributed my issues to my drinking because we don’t. I was doing inner child therapy on myself. As part of that process I was now looking at my child like, “Oh my god that’s me, that’s her, and that relationship.” I finally started to look at her like a child instead of like a burden.
Up until then I didn’t understand why people had kids on purpose. I really didn’t want them. I didn’t care about them. It was sort of my priority and sort of not. I probably was more worried about what you thought about how I was treating her than how I actually treated her. After that our relationship started to improve some. For a period of time she went back to New York and stayed with her father. During that time I was very lonely and I was in a really horrible dark place and I was going to a lot of bars and doing a lot of things ladies would be ashamed of and not remembering. That went on for months and months.
Sometime in my early thirties though I met a neighbor and this man was sober, he wasn’t a drinker. He was very stable and I really liked that. It was very appealing to me. I married him and we had our two boys, both of whom were premature. The one who’s really hard of hearing was premature. For those years because he didn’t drink I thought, “You know, I’ve grown up and I’m done with that,” and I didn’t drink either. I didn’t smoke cigarettes. I didn’t do any drugs. I thought I had finally arrived.
We bought this house and my son was so challenging that it’s a good thing I was sober because I would not have been able to deal with his issues. We had a lot of issues with him. He’s hard of hearing. He had attention issues. We were at schools all the time trying to take care of that, and we went through a lot of stuff with him. Now as an alcoholic, of course my alcoholism is doing push-ups just like anybody else’s, and some years into that, in 2001 I was getting probably bored with my husband and I was having a hard time getting along with him. We separated and I was out drinking again.
At the end of that same year I met a man who drank every single day, so I joined him. At first I was shocked. I couldn’t believe they drank every day. They’d go to the bar right after work every day and stayed there until closing. That went on for a while. In 2003, this is a sign of how much I had regressed, my younger son who’s now seventeen was hit by a car in front of the house. He was really badly injured and he was in the critical care unit in the hospital up town. My boyfriend at the time, my fellow drinker, brought a big bottle of wine to the waiting room, and we drank the wine in the waiting room. When my son woke up in the middle of the night calling for me, I was pissed number one because now I’m hung over and half-drunk, and I was annoyed. I didn’t want to go in there. I was ashamed of myself. I was really ashamed of myself. I was thinking, “What if I’d been drunk when he was hit by the car? What would that have been like? I need to start thinking about this.” I didn’t.
Later that year in August I was telling my daughter, with whom I was very close by then, “I really need to break up with this man. We drink too much and I don’t really know what to do about it.” My daughter worked with me, at the time I worked in the office, and in September I got a call at work one day from a policeman who said, “We got a call from this house that we’re at. The lady’s name is Becky and somebody couldn’t breathe and they went to the hospital, we don’t know who.” He told me which hospital and I called the hospital. I reached a woman who said, “We’re not sure who we have. Can you describe her?” and I said, “Well she has short dark hair. She has a tattoo.” She said, “Yeah we have her,” and I said, “Well what happened?” She said, “She’s not talking but it’s serious and you need to get down here.” I went to the hospital and my ex-husband met me there. They passed the examining rooms, which is not a good sign, and they took us into a little waiting room where he told me, “She’s dead.” My daughter was dead. She was twenty-seven years old. She died from an asthma attack a couple of hours before. She had called 911 herself.
That was a springboard for me. I was still drinking at the time obviously. I just began drinking every single day for some time. That went on for another three and something years until I came into the rooms, but in late 2006 I was concerned about my drinking. I started buying books on addiction and thinking, “I’ll just fix myself.” If you look at my books they’re all self-help books. You know all the problems I have by the books on my shelves.
I know that at one point, I know I was drunk, but I remember saying a prayer that I hear a lot of people in recovery say. I just remember saying, “God help me. I don’t know how to do this clearly.” In January I went into my first recovery meeting. I picked up a white chip and I stayed, surprisingly. So that’s January 2 of 2007.
My first year was rough. I was angry, but I did get a sponsor and I worked the twelve steps of recovery. Towards the end of the second year my mother got sick. The difference between me at this point and me just a couple of years before was, when my mother got sick I was there. I was there and I was honored to be there and I wanted to be there and she trusted me to be there and I think that was the biggest thing of all, that she trusted me to do what she needed me to do because I wasn’t like that before. Usually if somebody needed something they wouldn’t have asked me because I probably wouldn’t show up. I certainly wasn’t interested. I was very selfish. “What am I getting out of it?” I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, but I know now that’s what I was doing.
My mother got sick and she lived on the coast of North Carolina. I rented a condo beside hers and took care of her and then we moved her here and my sisters all took turns coming in and helping me take care of her. She died in early 2009, in April 2009, but the significant part of that was that I didn’t drink. As stressed as I was I was relying on what I learned in recovery. I was praying and I was working a program and I was reaching out to alcoholics and doing the best I could to get through it and I was very stressed. It’s a very stressful situation to take care of a sick person, especially one you know is dying and they’re in pain and it’s really hard to deal with because you can’t fix them.
I did that and later that year I finally finished my twelve steps. I would not recommend taking two years to finish the steps that you’re working. I continued through the program and I continued reaching out to other alcoholics and helping them and watching myself evolve. Not long after that the boyfriend that I was drinking with so much left. I began seeing sometime later, a man that I knew in New York who had been in recovery for sixteen years. We became very close and we spent a couple of years together. We flew back and forth. He was going to move here, but in 2012 he got sick and in late 2012 I went up to New York to take care of him. He had cancer and we got hit by the hurricane.
I was there taking care of him during the hurricane with his oxygen running on a generator. His sisters and I took care of him. It was the most tender experience I think I’ve ever had in my life to do that. I was so involved with taking care of him and making sure he had pain meds and really little else. I tried not to worry about the hurricane coming, but you do. I did wake up one morning and the garbage can was filled with wine bottles and I remember thinking, “Who drank all that? I didn’t even see them drinking.” I was so immersed in what we were doing. I do remember thinking, “God, that would so have been me and I wouldn’t be able to help him. I wouldn’t have gotten up in the middle of the night to help him throw up, to help him go to the bathroom, to talk with him, to assure him. I would have been that girl laying over there hung over or drunk and waiting for somebody else to wake up and take care of him. That’s what I would have been doing.”
I started to feel a little sorry for one of his sisters who might be hung over and not feeling good now. It was just another marker of the gratitude that I have for being in recovery. The hurricane happened. A week later we had a nor’easter and during the nor’easter, it was right before the nor’easter hit, that we decided to have him transported to a facility because we couldn’t manage him anymore. He was now out and he needed to be medicated and in a hospice unit. The ambulance came and I went with his mother and we were with him when he died later that night. It really was beautiful. It was very hard. It was very, very stressful, but it was also very beautiful.
I came back home to Charlotte after he died and probably had some PTSD going there. I started school for substance abuse counseling that spring. I’ve been taking classes ever since for most semesters. I dropped out earlier this year last semester. I was going through a breakup of a brief relationship but really it affected me very badly. It just wasn’t proportionate to the level of the relationship. It was grief upon grief upon grief that just knocked me to my knees and I was very stressed. I never once thought of drinking. The funny thing is, I would look at drinking and think, “That’s what I would have done before. How have I handled pain before? That’s what I used to do.”
Now I knew that as hard as it was to go through that, and to feel what I was feeling, which was horrible and disproportionate, I knew that I needed to stay in my meetings and I needed to seek medical help because I knew that there was something really wrong. I reached out to the people that I know that work the program with me. I painted half my house. I did a lot of therapeutic things and I did everything that I tell my sponsees to do and I prayed all the time and I wrote and I cried and I let myself cry. I think a lot of us don’t let ourselves cry. I played games and I played with a dollhouse. I did everything possible, but none of that was really working so when I did seek medical help and after about two or three months it started to help me. I could see where it wasn’t something I could have controlled at all. It didn’t matter what happened. I could have broken a toenail. I might have been still been feeling the way I was feeling.
So medical intervention helped and I definitely recommend that people seek that when they’re doing everything that they can and it’s not helping. I never did look at drinking as an option throughout any of that time.
Towards the end of what I’ll call this year’s dark period, I had two separate women come up and ask me to sponsor them. It was perfect timing. I couldn’t have done it while I was still there, but it was the perfect time for me to get out of my own head and help them and help them in their journey.
In the meantime I’ve always had someone in some stage of recovery living with me. Sometimes I have to throw them out. I had to throw one out last weekend. Smoking crack. It’s hard to do because I love them. They come in here and they’re great people and they need help, but you’re not helping them if you don’t let them help themselves and he knew if they relapse I throw them out. I have to.
I’ve had like ten people in and out of here last year. There’s some people here now who are homeless as a result of their choices and they know it. The beautiful thing is I can help them. I sat and talked with a fellow all day today on and off and said, “You know what you need to do.” “Yeah, I know what I need to do.” I could talk to him without judging him. I can talk to him because he is very intelligent and I know that the person he is would not want to make the choices he’s made. I can help people. I didn’t want to ever help people. I really didn’t give a crap about people but I acted like I did back in the day.
Today I genuinely enjoy giving them a leg up and it helps me. It makes me realize where I was and where I am now, and it makes my life a little more meaningful to do that.
Photographs taken at Sue’s home in Charlotte, North Carolina.