Friday, July 3, 2009

Look Back, But Don't Stare

As I mentioned, I am not wistful about birthdays. At least, not about getting older. Today is the eve of my 40th birthday, and I am thinking about things despite myself.

I'm sitting here in Bermuda - a surprise gift from my husband Steve. It is beautiful - peaceful, sunny and completely relaxing. My kids are having a ball with my parents for the week. Life is good. It is really good.

It is impossible for me to take all this in, however, without my mind pinging back to where I was just two years ago. Even though I am very open about my recovery, I don't talk often about the specifics of a darker time in my life, but now I feel compelled to get it out - write it down and move on.

I don't remember the eve of my 38th birthday. On July 3, 2007 I was seven days from falling apart completely, but I didn't realize it then. I was the last to know how bad things had become. This is how it usually works with addiction - you have worked hard for years to construct what you think is a perfect veneer. All around me, family and friends could see the desperate shape I was in, and I thought everything was just Fine, thank you. The reality of my life was this: I was in late-stage alcoholism. I hadn't eaten solid food in eleven days. I couldn't stand for long periods of time. I couldn't go more than an hour or so without a drink. Instead of having a wake-up call, I dug deeper and deeper into my addiction - clinging to it, thinking it was the only thing keeping me afloat, when in fact it was steadily dragging me down... drowning me.

To someone who has never suffered from addiction this seems unfathomable. My husband, family and friends were watching this smart, funny, loving person slowly kill herself. No amount of pleading, threats or illness could make me see how bad it was. Denial, the cornerstone to addiction, is a powerful, powerful thing. I don't think I can find words to describe what that kind of denial is like. It is like your mind builds itself a beautiful castle - you decorate it with all the trappings of life - ornate and shining. You put your family, your children, your life inside it. You want the world to see this shimmering testimony to your success, your emotional well-being, your normalcy. As things get darker and smaller in your life, you add more trimmings - like movie props - hoping that nobody will notice you have built this castle on quicksand. Addiction enables you to ignore the truth. If, on occasion, a glimmer of how bad things are bubbles to the surface and you see how tenuously you are holding on, your addiction tamps it right down.

And, before you know it, your addiction owns you. It calls all the shots. You don't want to think about that too much, so you drink more, or you use drugs more, and your addiction gets stronger and stronger. You are its slave.

I was completely desperate, scared and alone when I turned 38. Sure - I had friends - plenty of friends. I hid my secret dark world from all of them. The people closest to me were beginning to wonder why they never heard from me anymore, why I was always 'sick' and couldn't make it to events. I didn't leave the house because I couldn't hide it successfully anymore, and I wasn't about to stop. I thought it was the glue that held me together.

I am one of the lucky ones. My husband and my family got together and intervened. I ended up in long-term treatment. I left my family, my children, my friends for essentially the whole summer of 2007. I went into treatment absolutely terrified. I wanted to stop, I didn't want to stop. I could not fathom living a happy, rewarding life without alcohol. It was my liquid courage, my steadfast companion.

When I emerged from treatment, I had no idea who I was anymore. I didn't know how to return to my life. My husband, who is one of the most amazing people I know, stood by me, but he didn't enable me for a second. He was very clear that this was a one-shot deal to turn my life around. We made a pact that we weren't going to dwell in the past, only look to the future, one day at a time. And for the first time in a long while, my future was up to me. The idea scared me half to death.

I didn't know what my friends would think - would they accept me? Would I have any left? And my children - oh, my children - what do I say to them? How do I make it all better for them when I am terrified to the core.

Little by little, though, we healed. I went to meetings and met the incredible people I know today who hold me together like glue. I healed. I learned that I don't have to make it all better... I just have to be better. That my actions speak a thousand times louder than my words. I learned from my kids how to live in the moment, be grateful and joyous about the little things in life. How to forgive. How to love myself just as I am, with all my imperfections. It takes time - it takes a long time - and a lot of hard work, from everyone. And more than a little patience, understanding, acceptance and love.

If someone had shown me a snapshot of me, sitting here in Bermuda on the eve of my 40th birthday, relaxed, serene, grateful and free I would not have believed it. Since getting sober I have built a beautiful relationship with my husband, my kids. I have more friends in my life than I ever could have believed. I have started a little business that brings me great joy. I am sitting here writing about my recovery with pride, honesty and determination - talking about the very things that nearly killed me. It is an important lesson I try to remember every day. Running from the things that make me afraid only makes the fear chase me harder. Turning around, planting my feet, squaring my shoulders and facing them down makes them shrink, or disappear altogether.

A good friend of mine in recovery said a beautiful thing the other night. He said "in recovery, you get to write your own endings". In the throes of alcoholism, once you put a drink into your system you no longer have control over what happens to you - alcoholics react differently to alchohol than 'regular' people ... for alcoholics it seeps into our core, our identity, and it takes over. I get to write my own endings now. This doesn't mean I have control over what happens - far from it. It means I get to be present for everything life has to offer.

In some parts of the country, they call your sobriety anniversary (your sober date is the first time you went 24 hours without drinking or using) "Birthdays". I understand why. Because you get to be re-born. You get to begin anew. You look back at your past, but you don't stare. You look just hard enough to be grateful for all you have now.


  1. Bravo Ellie.
    -Karin in CT

  2. Wow! Thank you for sharing that amazing story. Good for you! I hope you celebrate the HELL out of your birthday!! :-)

  3. Elegantly said, as always! Just finished "cleaning up" and I think your book will be much better.

    Happy Birthday my dear friend!! so happy to hear you're having a blissful time YOU SO DESERVE IT!!!

  4. Wow. While it is, as you say, unfathomable to me in some senses, you have conveyed a sense of the mountains you have climbed. So glad the view is worth it from the top. May all your endings be sweet.

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Enjoy Bermuda.

  5. Happy Birthday Ellie. Celebrate it all everyday!I love your blog,your willingness to share is amazing.Thank you.

  6. It is the biggest accomplishment in your life, overcoming your addiction. It is the biggest and most wonderful gift you have given those around you and your family. It is a wonderful thing to be in a whole new place than you were.

    Happy Birthday!!


  7. Congratulations, Ellie! Happy birthday to you, and enjoy Bermuda! Happy 4th!

  8. Happy Birthday, Ellie! I am so proud of you!

  9. Congratulations Ellie!
    May this year bring you many wonderful days ahead. You deserve all the best that life has to offer!!! You are a wonderful, caring person. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the world.
    Anne M.

  10. Happy Birthday, Ellie! I am so proud of you!

  11. Hi Crafty Mom! Happy Birthday! I too have been in recovery..for 29 years now :) It is truly by the grace of God..thank you for sharing your story..