It’s autumn, and my two sons and I are on our way to visit my mother-in-law when I drive past my alma mater: New Directions for Women, a drug and alcohol treatment residence in Costa Mesa. Their grandmother’s home happens to be nearby, so for more than 17 years now, whenever I make the turn onto her street, my eyes land on the place I used to live, and, more specifically, on the window of my former bedroom.
It happens to be the same month and about the same day that I entered New Directions many years before. A light is on, glowing through the curtains, and a few women are outside, smoking and chatting. A feeling comes over me, something like hope and good will and gratitude, and I say, “I used to live right there, in that room.”
“We know,” says my 10-year-old.
“Didn’t you get kicked out?” asks my 12-year-old.
“That’s OK,” says the younger.
“Why did you?” asks the older.
My sons understand in a general way that the home with the green shutters is significant to my past and, even more importantly, to my present.
Four months before my 21st birthday, convinced I was an alcoholic, I committed myself to the chemical dependency unit of a psychiatric hospital. At the strong recommendation of the staff, instead of returning to college after my hospital stay, I went to New Directions.
I’d been a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where, instead of attending Ivy League parties, I was more likely to be found at Lemons or The Auditorium, local working-class bars.
I also was often at the campus infirmary, and there’d been two recent stays at the hospital: one for alcohol poisoning, and the other for a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop, my blood too thin to clot because of the vodka I’d consumed the night before while writing a speech for my “Elements of Political Thought” class on why the legal drinking age should be lowered. The nosebleed had come after a violent bout of morning-after vomiting. I never did make that speech.
When I entered New Directions, I thought my life was over. I made my bed and brushed my teeth every morning, cooked and cleaned, worked at Alta Coffee Warehouse & Restaurant, went to sleep without drinking alcohol, woke without hangovers, and learned to take “contrary actions” rather than succumbing to the sway of my emotions.
I’d guarded my secrets for years. Shame was second nature. But at New Directions, women spoke openly and in tragic detail about incest, rape, and physical abuse—things even more disturbing than what I’d gone through—so I understood that the secrets I’d spent my life protecting weren’t all-powerful. They seemed almost commonplace—and an increasingly poor excuse to destroy my life.
My college roommates came from upper-middle class families; my roommates at New Directions included women on parole, mothers who’d lost custody of their children, a nurse whose license had been revoked, and a former Vegas showgirl whose sugar daddy was footing her bill.
Detox, a stray cat the residents adopted and who adopted us in return, made his rounds, cuddling with anyone who needed it. Often, that happened to be me.
I was educated on the extent and severity of drug and alcohol addiction, and the stakes involved. More often than not, the heroin addict whom I admired—the one who looked like an angel and spoke like a guru—was the one that would use again. And the person I least expected to remain sober might surprise me.
I was discharged six days before my 21st birthday, having broken the rules (fourth offense) by staying out all night. According to my counselor, I was setting myself up for a relapse. I’d been looking forward to turning 21 for as long as I’d been drinking, and now that it was about to happen, it seemed cosmically unjust to be an alcoholic.
Although I no longer lived at the halfway house, I continued to attend the after-care program. On my 21st, the women in my house gave me cards, sang for me, and even baked cookies. My birthday came and went without a relapse. I continued to stay involved, volunteering to drive the van to take the ladies in the treatment center to and from 12-step meetings, occasionally making pit stops for snacks and candy.
More than 20 years later, New Directions still guides me. I make my bed and brush my teeth each morning as I was taught to do, no matter how I feel, knowing that discipline, self-care, and action help keep me sane. I’ve learned to ask for help (loudly if need be), rather than suffering and imploding alone. And when I make mistakes, I come clean by telling someone (eventually), and then I try to remedy what I’ve done, and move on. There are no secrets worth keeping anymore, especially the shameful ones. The impact on my life has been profound and immeasurable.
It’s fitting that I fell in love, married, and had children with a man whose childhood home is just down the street from my old recovery home. Over the years, a sure remedy for my imagined or real problems is to simply walk down that street. If my problems haven’t disappeared within minutes of listening to a newly arrived resident’s story, they’ve certainly become containable and less urgent.
I try to explain all of this to my kids. I try to be honest while avoiding gory details, and that seems to work best. I hope they understand that, because I sought help and then accepted it, I’ve had a life beyond anything I ever could have imagined. And that includes the greatest privilege of all—being their mother.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.