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WENDY: Freedom to Drink, or Freedom to Live?


At age 12, Wendy had her first drink. By 16, she says, she was a full-fledged alcoholic. It would take 10 more years for her to relinquish her daily bread of alcohol and heroin.

Wendy has vivid memories of her first real drinking experience. She was 13 and at a dance with her first date. "I remember there was a bottle of Seagram's Seven or something. So, I got very sick, [but] even that first night, my first time drinking, I was able to hold a lot of alcohol."

Alcoholism is an insidious disease, she says. "You don't just wake up one day and say 'What happened?' I mean, it just slowly takes over your life." Alcohol and drugs, she adds, gradually "replaced everything in my life that I loved."

Alcoholism runs in her family: Her mother died from it at 35, her father died at 39 from drinking, and her grandparents were alcoholics.


Dropping Out

One of those things that alcohol stripped away was her desire for learning. Wendy had always liked school and had professional ambitions, but her motivation began to wane when alcohol became more integral to her life. Her mother tried to intervene, but she was fighting her own battles with alcohol. Wendy started cutting classes at age 16. She hung out in school bathrooms and drank Wild Irish Rose whiskey. "At first it was on a rare basis. And then it became almost a daily thing that you start looking forward to." Eventually she stopped showing up for school and dropped out altogether, foregoing reading or acquiring job skills.

Drinking became her consuming passion. Once she stopped going to school, she became a regular vodka drinker. No longer just a weekend partier, she began drinking routinely. "At sixteen, to be out of school was like freedom . . . freedom to drink and freedom to party."

Wendy says drinking gave her a persona she had desperately been searching for: "I never felt like I belonged anywhere. [But] I could be whoever I wanted to be when I was drinking." Wendy had a low self-esteem and felt unwanted because she once overheard her mother making negative comments about her looks. "That kind of stayed with me for all of my adult years because in my mind at that time, if my mother thought I was ugly, then I must be ugly." Wendy says she always wanted to give her mother the opportunity to take the comment back, but her mother died too soon.

But Wendy refuses to blame her alcoholism on that incident. "I'm an alcoholic because I chose to drink and cope with life through drinking." Her desire to drink is simple to explain, she says. "I liked what it did for me, because it took me from reality and put me wherever I wanted to be."

Falling in Love with Alcohol

Wendy says becoming an alcoholic is comparable to falling in love. "You don't know that it's beginning to take a priority, except one day you wake up and you know you've got to have it, because you can't function [without it]. . . . But then it fools you, because you know you only need to take the one, but then you take that one, and, boom, you want more."

Eventually alcohol wasn't enough to satisfy Wendy's desires. She also tried marijuana, but didn't like it. At 19, she was introduced to heroin. She tried it because she thought it would "mellow her out." (When she drank, she became belligerent and angry and sometimes physically attacked others or hurt herself).

Her drinking led to several close calls with death. While drunk, she once stood on a window ledge of a Brooklyn brownstone to attract attention from a boyfriend. Instead, she fell four stories and almost died. Today, she has scars on her face as a reminder of what alcoholism can do.  While in an alcoholic stupor, she sliced both sides of her face with a razor blade. "It's insanity that happens when you're in the throes of this disease. . . . I didn't want to cut myself up; I didn't want to jump out windows."

It slowly takes over your life

Finding Help

Eventually, a former drinking buddy, Geneva, helped put Wendy on the road to recovery. Geneva had quit drinking by joining Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). One day Wendy, still unwilling to accept that she too was an alcoholic, joined Geneva for a ride to an AA meeting. Wendy wasn't interested in sobering up. Short on cash, she just needed to borrow some money from Geneva to buy more alcohol. That bus ride, however, changed Wendy's life.

What she remembers best is how Geneva sat next to her on the bus and talked to her "like a human being," although she was filthy and ragged and smelled bad. That caring contact "put me in touch with my humanness again," says Wendy. "You don't feel like a human being when you're in the throes of this disease because the things you're doing are inhuman. You're lying, you're cheating. You ain't going to have a lot of people running up to you putting their arms around you." Wendy still gets teary-eyed when describing the scene. "Nobody had done that in a long time for me," she says.

Wendy went to the AA meeting, and she talked again with Geneva on the way home. The next day, she says, "a miracle" took place -- instead of finding something to drink, she got up, bathed, put on the cleanest clothes she could find, and with Geneva's help entered an alcoholism treatment center near her home. She had to start by detoxifying, being medically supervised while being helped through acute withdrawal with medication. Eventually, she switched into a smaller program sponsored by the Salvation Army, where she stayed for two years. While there, she learned typing and other office skills. Geneva became her sponsor and guide in AA. At age 26, Wendy went back to high school to get her diploma. She later won a scholarship to study at Rutgers University during summer school.

Relapse and Recovery

Wendy stayed sober for seven years, but then, like many recovering alcoholics, she relapsed. She started by smoking marijuana, which was enough to retrigger her addiction to heroin and alcohol. Wendy says now she relapsed after she began to isolate herself from her AA peers. She thought she was fine, and she stopped going to AA meetings and talking to her sponsor every day. Recovering addicts, she asserts, need to continue to seek help from other people, because they have a disease, and that condition can make a person's thinking process "very distorted."

Wendy's sister was instrumental in her return from the relapse.  Her sister was an alcoholic like Wendy, but had entered recovery and was sober when Wendy relapsed.  Her guidance and love helped Wendy return to her own sobriety.

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Relapse and Craving

She says she now recognizes that even though she wasn't drinking, something was missing from her first recovery -- she lacked what she describes as a "spiritual center." While she worked steps 1 and 12 (admitting powerlessness over alcohol and helping other alcoholics recover) of the 12 steps to recovery called for by AA, she never completed all of the steps. Consequently, she says, "that spiritual change, that conversion that they talk about, really never happened for me in my first recovery."

She went back to the Salvation Army as an outpatient, but that didn't work because she would go home and snort heroin in the evening. After nine months, she asked for more help and was sent to a therapeutic community primarily geared for drug addicts. Wendy was there for another two years, after which she got a job as a secretary -- finally seeing a wish she'd had as a teenager come true.

It took me from reality and put me wherever I wanted to be

Wendy, today a counselor at a drug rehabilitation center, says of her relapse experience that she's living proof that relapse shouldn't be viewed as failure. Wendy characterizes it more as a springboard to the future, because when a person relapses, that can push him or her a little further into that first step of recovery than the first time around. Addicts should be accountable for their recovery even though they have a disease, she says, but it's harmful to punish them if they relapse: "They already feel like losers. They don't need help getting there."

Treatment works, but sometimes you need to try different approaches to finally reach the goal of stable abstinence, she says. Addicts should be treated in the same way as anyone with a chronic illness who has a setback, she says: "We need to be given a chance."

Wendy has been in recovery for 14 years. Unfortunately, her sister was not as fortunate. After two years of sobriety, Wendy's sister suffered a relapse from which she never returned.  During that time she also contracted the AIDS virus. Wendy tried many methods to return her sister to recovery, but none worked. "I just decided that the best thing I could do was to be her sister and to love her and I did that." Since her sister's recent death, Wendy has felt some survivor's guilt. As a recovering person and a counselor to addicts and alcoholics, "I wonder whether there was anything I could have done," but she has decided that her own recovery "is God's gift to me."  Her love for her sister and the work she does to preserve her own recovery is her gift back to God.

After 14 years of recovery, Wendy still regularly attends AA meetings, talks to her sponsor daily, and relies on a support network of other recovering people. Besides going to school four days a week and working every day as head of counseling at a Hazelden treatment facility, she has an AA group that meets twice a week. To others it may sound like a jail sentence, but, to Wendy, practicing the 12 steps to sobriety of AA is her lifeline in the same way insulin controls her diabetes. "Every day I get up and take my insulin because I want to live," she says. She likewise follows each and every one of her recovery procedures every day, she says, "because I want to stay sober."

-- Janet Firshein

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