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Giving It Away to Keep It

Ellen V, Georgia

I am an alcoholic, and my name is Ellen.

I was born the fourth out of five children. Maybe that is why I have always felt like I was lost or that I didn't matter very much. My father was an alcoholic, and I have no memories of him being sober. Everything I remember about him has to do with when he was drunk. I know that I always wanted him to notice me and thought that by being "perfect" I would be able to get his attention; but it didn't work that way. It seems as if the only time he noticed was when I had done something wrong.

I was afraid of him because he was mean and violent. He was not like my friends' dads. I never wanted to bring anyone home because I never knew what he might do. He killed himself when I was thirteen. I remember being glad that he was dead because I thought that I really hated him. Of course, I did not understand anything about alcoholism at that point in my life. It took many years in counseling and treatment before I could accept the fact that he was not a bad person; he was a very sick person, an alcoholic who never got help.

About the age of ten or eleven I developed a severe eating disorder. I turned to food for comfort. Food seemed to take the place of the hugs and touches and emotional support that I was not getting from my family. I couldn't get enough junk food. I even hid it under the bed so that I could eat at night without anybody catching me. I started getting fat and lied to everybody about my eating habits. I didn't want anybody to know that I was stealing food and hiding it … just as I would do with alcohol later in life.

My father and brothers really started making fun of me then, and I would just pretend that it didn't bother me. I would go to my room and cry and stuff my face with as much junk as I could get my hands on. This was a pattern that followed me for many years. Whenever I was unhappy, I would turn to food as my friend. People always compared me to my older sister who was beautiful and skinny. They would tell me that I could be like her if I tried. I know they were only trying to help, but it made me feel fatter and uglier and more insecure than ever.

In high school, I didn't drink or do drugs like my friends and my brother, who graduated with me. I did not want to be like my dad. Not long after we graduated, my brother was killed in a wreck that was alcohol-related. One more reason for me never to drink.

I wasted three years and a lot of money in college. I never studied. I just wanted to have a good time and fit in. But I never did fit in. I was still fat, so I didn't date; I just had a lot of "friends" because I had the money and a car and would take them wherever they wanted to go. I bought happiness.

Until age twenty-one I stayed away from drinking, still not wanting to be like my Dad. On my twenty-first birthday my friends took me to a bar and "convinced" me to “try it.” I attempted to drink twenty-one Harvey Wallbangers, one for each year of my life. That was a Friday night in Statesboro. I came to in Atlanta on Sunday morning. I had no memory of driving to Atlanta or what we did when we had gotten there. I had brought a whole carload with me. Nobody said that I had done anything unusual. I thought that maybe that was just what happened when you drink. That was the first of many blackouts.

At the end of my junior year I quit college. I intended to take a year off and decide what I wanted to do. Actually I just wanted to party. I moved to Tallahassee and got an apartment and lived on my own for the first time in my life. I was really not prepared for that. I had no knowledge at all of how to take care of myself or manage money or anything. I had never had to do any of that. I didn't even know how to wash my own clothes then. (I had sent my dirty clothes home from college. Mama would wash them and send them back to me.) I was pretty much useless. I got a job and managed to keep it even though I would party every night with groups of people.

Then something happened that would change a lot of things. I still felt like my family was ashamed of me because I was so fat. I weighed over two hundred pounds at that point. I soon found out that I was right about what they thought. I had gone to Thomasville one Saturday and was downtown. I saw my brother and his best friend walking toward me. They crossed the street to avoid speaking to me in public. I felt humiliated. That same night I overheard him arguing with his fiancé about their wedding. He didn't want me to be a bridesmaid because I was so fat.

I went back to Tallahassee that night determined to lose weight and became obsessed with doing so. I quit eating, except for boiled eggs and lettuce, but didn't quit drinking. I still partied every night. Four months later I was in his wedding in a size five dress and weighed one hundred and five pounds. But, as with all my obsessions, I had overdone it. When I tried to eat, my body wouldn't accept it, and I had to be hospitalized until I could hold food in my system. After the hospital, I still was obsessed with weight and continued to diet, eating just enough to get by.

For the first time in my life I attracted attention by my looks. I took advantage of them. I discovered sex. Nobody had wanted me before, and I made up for lost time. I went out with anybody and everybody and had sex with most of them. Of course, that was in the 1970s when everyone else seemed to be doing that, too. Still, it was another example of the way I had always overdone everything in my life. Then I met someone and fell head over heels in love for the first time in my life. There was absolutely nothing I would not do for him. We partied every night. Life was the best it had ever been.

I was twenty-three and he was thirty-two. He was going through a divorce when I met him, and we made plans to marry a short time later. Then he went to the doctor to see about a mole that had changed, was diagnosed with cancer, and died a few months later. I thought my life was over then, and I think I tried to drink myself to death over him.

I decided that there were too many memories of him there for me to handle, so I moved to St. Simons Island. My older brother was a golf professional at Sea Palms so that seemed like a good place for me to go. While there I continued to party every night. People knew that I was his sister and I embarrassed him a lot. His wife became pregnant. I managed to miss all of the showers I was invited to because I was too busy having a good time. I was at a bar drunk the night my nephew was born. A few months later I left the bar after having a fight — about my drinking — with the guy I was dating and I took off across the causeway, driving in pouring down rain. I lost control of my car and flipped it out into the marsh eight times. I was not hurt at all because I was so drunk. My boyfriend had followed me to make sure that I got home safely. He called my brother and told him what had happened. Jim came to the scene, knew the state patrolman, and got me out of it without even a ticket. But he also told me that he wanted me to go away, that I had been an embarrassment to him my whole life and he never wanted anything to do with me again. I started drinking during the day on the weekends. I just didn't want to feel anything at all.

Then I met my first husband, in a bar. We spent the first weekend together and eloped the following weekend. Of course, I was drunk but decided that it was the thing to do. I was twenty-six, all my friends were married, and I was lonely. I didn't love him but didn't think that it mattered. I got pregnant shortly after that, which is probably the only reason I did not leave him once I realized what I had done. After my daughter was born, I started drinking heavily again, especially on the weekends. I drank during the day, even at work, and soon quit my job because it cut into my drinking time. My husband and I started fighting a lot then. I was lying about my drinking and was drunk by the time he got home every day. He started staying out at night, and I found out he was having an affair. He blamed me because I was drunk all the time and had gotten fat again. We got a divorce. Then my drinking really took off because I didn't have anybody to answer to.

Six months later, I was hospitalized with acute alcoholic pancreatitis. I went into delirium tremens (DTs), and my family was called in and told that I would probably not live through the night. I did live and was moved to the psychiatric ward where I stayed for a few weeks. That was when I gave up custody of my daughter because I knew I could not take care of her.

After release I continued to drink because I didn't believe that I was an alcoholic. Six months later I was hospitalized again with pancreatitis and told that if I didn't stop drinking I was going to die. I was thirty years old and just did not believe them. I hadn’t even started drinking until I was twenty-one. It just was not possible for me to be an alcoholic! I went home and started drinking again. I wouldn't let anybody in the house and wouldn't answer the phone. My younger brother finally convinced me to let him in and he took me to my first A.A. meeting. He had been in the fellowship for a few years.

My family forced me into treatment, and I learned to play the game. I "graduated" and went home and started drinking again but tried to control and hide it from everyone. I did not want to be shipped off somewhere again. I hated everybody in my family because they would not leave me alone. I still did not believe that I was an alcoholic. I was too smart for that. I sat in A.A. meetings and compared myself to "those" people and decided that I was not one of them. I drank after the meetings. I had no intention of quitting. I just needed to figure out a way to cut down. Of course, that didn't work, and I was in and out of detox facilities for several years.

I managed to stay dry for a little while and began seeing my ex-husband again. I was very lonely and desperate at that time and let him convince me that we should get back together. I saw this as an end to my problems. I thought that if we married again and he still drank then I could drink again too.

I got pregnant before we got married and that woke me up. I knew that I could not live the rest of my life with him and did not want to bring a child into it. I refused to have an abortion or marry him. My daughter and I moved in with my mother, and I decided to straighten out my life. A couple of months after my son was born, I met my second husband — in A.A. My brother introduced us. Six months later, we married.

Again I had married a man whom I did not love. But I thought he was a nice guy and my children needed a father. I figured the love would come later. We had a son, and then my husband was busted for writing prescriptions for pain medication. We had been married three years, and I really didn't know him at all.

He replaced the pills with alcohol, and after a while I joined in. We had quit going to A.A. meetings by then. It was not hard for me to convince myself that I could handle drinking. That began a nightmare that lasted for years. When we were both drinking I seemed to bring out the worst in him. I was afraid to leave because I thought I would lose my children and I really did love them. I just didn't love me and felt like I deserved abuse. I allowed him to convince me that it was my fault. My daughter went back to live with her dad to get out of the situation. She was old enough to know what was going on.

I hated him but hated myself even more. I was afraid to leave because he said he would kill me, and I believed him. He tried several times. I was so sick and so afraid that I wanted to die. But I couldn’t commit suicide because of what it would do to those that were left behind, especially my children.

I went back to A.A. and stayed dry for five years. I didn't work the Steps but I did read the literature and go to meetings every night. It was better than being at home. By then, I wanted what they had but did not know how to get it. I finally got a sponsor, but she went back to drinking and died without making it back to A.A.

On Thanksgiving Day 1995 my phone rang at 6:00 a.m. My younger brother was dead. He died sober, but it was the disease of alcoholism that killed him. I had known for years that he was going to die. I was with him when he received the news that he was HIV-positive. His liver failed and he was not medically eligible for a transplant. I began drinking again that day and continued for another year and a half.

I hit an emotional bottom that was worse than anything I previously had experienced. I did not want to get out of bed, except to mix my drinks. I could not even look at myself in the mirror because I hated myself so much. I was an embarrassment to myself, my family, and everyone around me.

I hit the floor and sobbed and screamed at God and asked him why he let me turn into my dad. I cursed him and my life and everything. Then I begged him for help. I called A.A. and they came and took me to detox.

When I got out I went to meetings at least once a day for the first nine months. I got a real sponsor, actually two, a couple who both believed very strongly in service work. I was quickly helping set up for the meetings, making coffee, and cleaning up afterwards. I was picking people up for meetings and going to out of town meetings when anyone from my group spoke. I became an alternate General Service representative at six months sober. I read the literature, prayed, worked the Steps, and talked to my sponsors several times a day.

At home things were getting steadily worse. The longer I stayed sober, the worse things became. I began to fear for my life again. At nine months sober I ran away, literally. I went to Baltimore and stayed with a dear friend who had helped me find the courage to leave. To me, it was like being a whole world away. A.A. was different from what I was used to. It was filled with much love, warmth, and long time sobriety, which had been lacking in my group back home.

One of my sons had come to live with me in Baltimore and the other had stayed behind. That was tearing me apart. Then, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. After three months I returned to Thomasville. In Baltimore I left behind a man whom I loved very deeply. I returned to a marriage that did not stand a chance. The divorce remained pending for nearly a year.

I did not return to A.A. meetings at my previous home group. I became involved in online A.A. I got into service work in my online home group. For me, online A.A. filled a void that had been there the entire time I had been going in and out of A.A. I am not sure why online A.A. worked for me, but I will not question it. For a year, online A.A. was my rock and my lifeline. I got an online sponsor and worked with her. I lost touch with her for a while and got another sponsor, whom I still have today.

It took me a year to believe enough in myself to think I could handle things on my own. I finally ended the marriage. I returned to face-to-face A.A. meetings but traveled to Tallahassee where the meetings were what I needed.

I am not as involved in face-to-face A.A. service as I was but I still do chair meetings. I am very involved in online A.A. At just over a year sober I began doing online service work with the Online Intergroup of A.A. and have held several positions there. Today I serve as chairperson.

My daughter and two boys live with me. We are happier now than I can ever remember being. For the first time, we are a family. We still have problems to work through, but we can do that now. They know what their chances are if they drink or do drugs. My daughter has had her own problems with it already. That is one of the reasons she lives with me now.

My mother was in remission from her cancer for several years but then had a recurrence. Two operations later she is still not cancer-free. A few months ago, I had a mini-stroke and, in the aftermath, was also diagnosed with cancer. Today, I am in remission. In November, my daughter and oldest son, lost their father. He died of a massive myocardial infarction. His last act on earth was to mix a drink.

Because of A.A. and each and every one of you, and HP, I made it through all of this without the need to take a drink. Not so long ago, any one of those things would have been an excuse to dive back into the bottle.

A.A did not teach me how not to drink. A.A. showed me how to live -- not just to live life on life's terms, but to actually live. I never really knew how to do that before. Someone had always taken care of me. People had bailed me out my whole life. I had quite a network of enablers, and I manipulated them quite well.

I had to learn to take care of me, and my children. A.A. gave me the tools, and y'all held my hand and walked me through it. Y'all loved me until I could love myself.

A.A. also taught me how to handle the eating disorder. Today, that is a battle I don't have to fight.

You taught me that to keep what I have, I have to give it away. It took me a long to time to get that part of it, but it is now such a joyous part of my program.

I no longer have to hide behind the walls that I spent nearly a lifetime building up around me. Now I know that it is okay for you to know the real me. I no longer have to hide it if I am hurting. That is the way I was raised, to never let the world see the pain. Put on a smile and keep the front door immaculate, even if the walls are crumbling behind the door.

A.A. gave me life. For that I will be eternally grateful.

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