“I was never a nice girl, but I’m a good woman. I always wanted to be delicate but you know, I’m sturdy. ‘I’m a good broad’ as my grandmother used to say.”
I came into this world in a perfect situation to be an addict. My folks were babies having babies and I was born November ‘67 when the drug culture was really starting. Honestly, from what I remember – and I have some pretty early memories – it was fun. I always got a lot of attention. I was very smart, scary smart, and I was more comfortable speaking with adults.
I was the only kid, and this was the late ‘60s and then early ‘70s, so there was a lot of drinking, a lot of drug use [mainly pot]. And through all of that, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was important, that I was loved, that I was smart, that I was talented. I’d been told that my whole life. And yet there was still a glitch in the brain that told me I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t talented enough… that I just wasn’t enough.
In addition to drinking, smoking pot, speed – I loved speed – I felt normal when I was under the influence. I didn’t have to be shitfaced drunk, just… drunk. And of course most people would look at what I consider “buzzed” as being shitfaced drunk – but there’s degrees. I felt pretty enough, I felt smart enough, I felt talented enough. But when I found amphetamines, I think I was maybe thirteen, that’s when I felt normal for the first time. I had energy to do what I wanted to do. I just – it made me feel normal.
In high school, even through my addiction’ I managed to keep just about a 4.0. Things got a little bit hinky when I found out I was about to get into some serious trouble. I ended up moving to Georgia – Forsyth County, Georgia – and I managed to find my drug of choice within a week. In a dry town, I found crank.
At one point, things were getting pretty bad. I met some girls and I shot cocaine for the first time in my life. I was, I think, sixteen. I found a twelve-step fellowship and I went to a meeting and figured, “Ah, this isn’t for me.” And then I got arrested – I [was] smoking pot behind a store – by an off-duty police officer. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. And I went back to the meetings and I got a little piece of paper and I had someone sign for me. And when I went back to court my parents refused to get a lawyer. I was under seventeen when I got arrested and I was seventeen when we went to court. And they handed the judge this little piece of paper and said, “We believe this is a medical problem, not a criminal one.” This was in 1984, so the rehab movement was just starting. There was no court-appointed twelve-step attendance, so the judge dropped every charge.
I continued to stay abstinent, and I say “abstinent” because I didn’t do anything that was required for actual recovery. It was a place to live, it was finding men to buy me things. I just turned seventeen, newly graduated from high school – yeah, I graduated from high school two months after I turned seventeen – and I had people to buy me things.
After about a year and a half of being abstinent, I had convinced myself I had just been going through a phase. It’ s funny, I don’t look at alcohol or marijuana as a gateway drug that you hear a lot of people talk about – I went straight for the crank! I went straight for the speed! And the alcohol was part of it but I only drank when I didn’t have drugs. I always preferred either street or pharmaceutical drugs. That was my thing. We used to call Valium a “calorie-free six pack.”
That went on for quite a while. There was a time when things were getting bad. I was living with people that were dangerous and there was always the potential for violence and always the potential for felonies. I just wanted a reason to have a better life and I couldn’t do it for myself. And again, the drugs stopped working. That not feeling like I’m enough was pervasive. I just needed a reason to stop living the life I was living – and I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. The obsession, the compulsion, the need for drinking or drugs was gone.
She was born perfect. But it wasn’t long after she was born, I had to get off that baby weight, so I stopped nursing when she was about four months old so I could do drugs. [I] ended up coming back to Pennsylvania and the drug use continued. And then I got pregnant with my son. I figured, “Wow. Unmarried and pregnant for the second time; I better get married.” So I did what I’m supposed to do, and again, no drinking, no drugs the whole time I was pregnant. But I think he was about a week old, I would just go get my drink on and then pump milk and give him formula so that I could drink every once in a while.
But this time I was married with children so it had to look okay. If I did too much speed I would take something to calm me down. If I did too many painkillers I’d use a little speed so everything looked okay. No one could know. I cut my hair short, I drove a mini-van. I looked like a soccer mom. I went to church. I found out when guilt and shame and remorse are too bad during a church service, the little old lady next to you will grab you water so you can take Vicodin. I was popping pain pills in church. I didn’t want to feel the way I felt, I didn’t want to live the way I was living, but I didn’t feel worth having a better life.
I didn’t want to live that way, [and] I convinced myself that if I was gone, my husband could get a real wife; my children could have a real mother. Pretty much I was looking for a way out. I have no idea what brought my car to a different town, sitting outside of a clubhouse, a twelve-step clubhouse. I have no idea, but I did everything I had on me and I walked into a meeting… high. A lot of people looked at me funny, kinda backed away, and one woman came up next to me and she held my hand for the hour I was there. And that was it. That was it for me.
I would hear stories about people who had the obsession and compulsion removed, like a surgeon cut it out with a knife, and my response was, “Fuck you!” I had people saying, “Keep coming back,” and again, my response… I was angry, I was in pain, I was sick. Again, I didn’t want anyone to know, so I had told everybody. I told my kids, “Mommy has the flu.” [I] tried to tell my husband I had the flu. And I was really, really dope-sick. I’d had multiple surgeries a few years before and was doing a tremendous amount of painkillers. I knew what it felt like to come off amphetamines, but I had no idea that it was the pills that was making me so sick until someone in recovery was talking to me and kinda laughed. It was like, “Of course you’re sick.”
I didn’t go to rehab. I didn’t go to detox. I detoxed in twelve-step meetings. I would have to run out and throw up, and there was always someone there who would hold my hair. I learned different ways I could be healthy. I will never forget the pain. I will never forget that feeling of just wanting to die just to stop the physical pain. Part of my head, you know, “the monkey” was saying, “Well, all you have to do is just a little bit and it will stop you from physically hurting.” Reality would whisper, “But if you don’t pick up you never have to feel like this again.”
And I would see signs that said, you know, “Meeting makers make it.” My favorite was “Don’t quit five minutes before your miracle!” And that’s the one I held on to. I didn’t want to look back on my life with whatever degradation and demoralization I got myself to, and look back and say, “Oh! The miracle was right there and you blew it right before you got it!”
So I kept thinking, “If I don’t pick up I’ll be okay.” I never got that “pink cloud” that people talk about which really pissed me off, because I didn’t get that and I wanted it so bad. But the feeling bad didn’t last as long and I’d have glimpses of feeling really good. Then they would come closer together… feeling all right. And it would last a little longer. I don’t remember when it was that I realized when I went to bed that night I didn’t think about getting high once all day. Honestly, I think it was around two years.
My children went from not having any rules to all of a sudden here I am setting limits, and being clean, remembering the limits I set. All of a sudden this woman that they could manipulate was being consistent and they were angry. My son was six, my daughter was nine. They were little, but they were angry. They didn’t mind when they woke mom with the toilet ring on my face from passing out puking in the toilet, because I would just let them do whatever they wanted to do that day as long as they were quiet. That wasn’t the case anymore. But as time went on they started relying on my consistency. They started relying on my honesty. Having integrity became very important to me.
When I had my first year I was so proud, and I was talking to someone who wasn’t in recovery, and they actually said, “I’m supposed to be proud of you for stopping something you shouldn’t have been doing to begin with? No one gives a shit but you!” And that was a realization that there is another world and I have to live in that world. So I have to be okay within myself, with who I am. I have to have a higher power that’s going to be there for me when I’m in upstate Vermont and there isn’t a meeting and there isn’t any phone service and, “Oh shit, I forgot to bring my basic text with me!” There are times when there is no one to answer the phone and it’s just you and your higher power. And that relationship has to be pretty solid.
I used to joke with my first husband that if we ever split up, he got the house and the kids – and he thought I was kidding. But then my daughter was of age [and] my son wanted to be with his father, so I packed a backpack and I left. That was always my thing; just pack a backpack and roll. I took nothing; I asked for nothing. Eighteen years of marriage and I walked [away] with what I brought to it – not much of anything.
I’m a firm believer in these principles and putting these principles into daily practice changes lives. Through that, through knowing that I was completely powerless over the decision to use drugs – I was powerless over drugs – I had to have a higher power that was more powerful than the drugs because the drugs were more powerful than me! And making a decision to work the rest of those steps, looking at all of the wreckage; it didn’t kill me then, it wasn’t going to kill me writing it down. It wasn’t going to kill me admitting it to someone else. And I found out that all of that horrible stuff that I had done, that I thought I was the worst person on the planet, that there was someone else who had done the same things, with the same results, where, “Oh, man, when I did that, this happened!” So I realized I wasn’t special – but in a good way. I was just another bozo on the bus.
I was able to let go of those patterns. I was able to see in black and white the patterns of the people that I had hurt. It was the same thing just different people. The situations I would get into, it was the same situation, different people. When the shit was about to hit the fan I learned that I could step to the side of the fan. I was able to truly make amends to people that I had harmed so I didn’t have to worry about walking down the street who I was going to run into. That person I used to be, I was able to completely bury. She has the potential to be resurrected, if I choose. But I have put a lot of things between me and that bad decision. We’re all one bad decision away from picking up our lives where we left it. But I have worked since March 17, 1996, to put a lot between me and that bad decision.
Drugs, they were my best friend for a while. They got me through some really scary situations… but then they started to try to kill me. And life’s too short to be miserable. Life’s too short not to pursue dreams. You know someone told me once, “You don’t get to go back and take a chance.” You don’t get to go back and tell people how you really feel. If the absolute worst that is going to happen when you’re honest is someone is going to walk away, well, then they walk away. I would rather have something honest.
So as I’m helping my mom [fighting stage 4 breast cancer], that’s when I met my current husband. We were great friends. We developed this amazing friendship, we had so much in common and… well, he’s a one-night stand that went horribly wrong.
I was living in North Carolina and I was coming back to see my mom and our relationship got stronger and stronger. My mother was my best friend and I kind of feel like Brian was her parting gift. [With] his support, I was able to leave my job and be my mother’s primary caregiver for the last [month] and a half of her life. I was even able to dispense my drug of choice to my mother for relief. As she was dying I got to be there holding her hand. I got to be present. I wasn’t running away, getting high, not dealing with the emotions. I was going through the emotions. I was going through the feelings. I mean, the only way to the other side is through.
I put things in place: the people in my life, the circumstances of my life. I put everything in place so that when I had that one moment, when my mom died, I did an “eenie-meenie-miney-moe” between an ice-cold beer, a bottle of morphine sulfate and a pack of cigarettes. And I picked up the cigarettes.
My plan was when my family got shit-faced drunk, that’s when I was going to start drinking, [be]cause that way they wouldn’t notice. And they called Brian, and they told him to get me out of there. So God did for me what I could not do for myself. There was nothing between me and that bad decision, and my higher power provided a way of escape. And I’m so grateful. That was not me. I did nothing to stay clean that day. Brian took me to his condo and I slept for three straight days. And then, the principles I’d learned, the recovery tools I’d learned, started to kick back in.
He took care of me. He really did. And my commitment to my own recovery was strengthened going through that. Since then I’ve helped with hospice with my grandmother, with my best friend who died from breast cancer, and just recently my husband’s stepfather.
So two recovering junkies found friendship and support in each other, and now our home is a place of peace and music and laughter – lots of laughter. Our relationship is based on the principles that we’ve learned in recovery. You know – how to be honest. I’d always lied. I would turn myself into the person that I thought someone wanted me to be. Then I would come out – and they didn’t like me! In this case I just figured I was too old to go through that crap and I was me. And if you didn’t like me then that was fine. It would be based on the truth.
Through practicing steps, through living a life based in spiritual principles, I’ve also been able to employ discernment. So when there are those soul-sucking, emotional vampires in my life, I don’t call them. And I found that when I don’t instigate relationships with people who are out to do me harm, they tend to go away.
When I live a life of rigorous honesty and I’m honest with people who lie, they tend to be very uncomfortable and they go away. Really, the only people left in my world are people who share the same spiritual principles that I do. Some are in recovery, some aren’t. But what we all have in common is empathy, and being caring and being open and being genuine.
I have a home group in recovery that I’m active in. I have a sponsor, I have sponsees. I try to be in service – whether it’s helping someone through Reiki, helping someone just through listening. When I’m having a really bad day, there’s always somebody who, just being there to listen for them, being selfless, will help me stay right-sized. I’m still just another bozo on the bus. And if some of the pain that I’ve lived through can help another human being, then it’s worth it.
I was never a nice girl, but I’m a good woman. I always wanted to be delicate but you know, I’m sturdy. “I’m a good broad” as my grandmother used to say.
Photographs taken at Virginia’s home in Lincoln University, where she lives with her husband Brian and dog Layla.