Women have a unique journey in recovery. We have an innate instinct for caregiving, which often leads us to put the needs of others before our own. It can drive us to present ourselves as perfect and devote our energy to taking care of others. Whether professionally, personally, or with our families, we may keep secrets that destroy us if we don’t get the help we need to be truly heard and respected. We need to learn to love ourselves first and unconditionally and respect our true paths.
For me, recovery was about honoring my voice. It’s about being content living my life in an authentic way. Every decision I made for more than 50 years was based on how I could take care of someone or something else. Now, I know how to honor my own needs as well. Caron taught me how to nurture my life, heart, soul, mind, body and spirit.
I thought perfection would make me lovable
I survived my childhood by being the textbook “perfect child” and a caretaker from a young age. My father was an alcoholic who abused my mother and then abandoned us. And because of my mother’s journey, and not having the skills and the knowledge that we do now, I became the victim of her trauma.
I was a child and yet, due to the circumstances, I became an adult far beyond my years. And so, my journey from the time I was four was about overachieving and perfection. I looked for acknowledgement, love and affection from a family that couldn’t provide it.
My alcohol use took over when I met the man who would become my husband. He was going through a divorce, he was in debt, he had two young children and he was a heavy drinker.
As I look back, I can see that I made many important, life-changing decisions drunk. I had the opportunity to audition for the Metropolitan Opera, but while drunk I decided to choose a role as a caretaker for my husband’s children. Later, I found out I was pregnant, and, instead of rocking the boat in my marriage, I decided while drunk to end the pregnancy and have a tubal ligation. And the list goes on.
At 26, I was hospitalized for nearly overdosing with alcohol, although I didn’t know it at the time. After that, my ex-husband and I made a conscious decision to not drink, but we also didn’t get help.
I didn’t yet think of myself as an alcoholic. That was always someone else, not me.
For the next 30 years I raised two children, stayed in an unhealthy marriage, and tried to forget about my childhood trauma – all without drinking. I wasn’t abusing alcohol, but I still wasn’t emotionally well. Whenever difficult issues surfaced, I would bury them by working harder. I strived to make everything appear perfect, but I was deeply unhappy.
On the brink of death
When I reached my 50s, I started to look at my life and all I had missed while taking care of others. What about that audition I never went to? What about the child I never had? What about my hopes and dreams?
I divorced and became involved in a relationship with another man. On February 1, 2008, I was with him at the Nassau Inn Yankee Tap Room, and in a split second, I decided after 30 years without a drink, to have a glass of wine. I could not stop drinking.
Eleven days later, I was hospitalized with a blood alcohol level of 0.5, which is enough to kill someone. Even then, I could not stop drinking. If I had to testify on a witness stand about what 2008 and 2009 were like, I would have difficulty. During those two years, this disease nearly took me down.
The perfect patient
I started seeing a psychiatrist, who told me I was an end-stage alcoholic who was one drink away from death. If I didn’t get into treatment, I would die. So, I agreed to go. The day before I was scheduled to begin treatment, I couldn't stand it any longer, and drove myself dead drunk to Caron with a case of beer on the front seat of my car.
When I got to Caron's doorstep, I felt like a lost little girl. I remember one of the detox nurses coming out and ushering me in. And I felt safe and secure and warm and automatically cared for. I realize that Caron provided the nurturing and the love that I was seeking from the time I was four years old.
But I still wanted to present myself as perfect, and I was the perfect patient. I would do the recovery sheets like an attorney, thinking up the perfect answers to present in groups. When I finished my first time at Caron, I literally drove myself right to the Beer Barn and went home with another case of beer on my front seat. Three days later, I was back at Caron. And that cycle repeated itself.
At one point when I was in detox at Caron, Father Bill Hultberg came to visit me. He would soon become a major father figure in my life. He communicated very directly that it was time for me to get out of bed. He told me “God wants you here for something, because you should be dead.”
I got sober in May 2009, but I started my recovery journey around Christmas that year. I always separate sobriety from recovery. Sobriety is what you don’t do; recovery is what you do. I’m now in my eleventh year of recovery.
Honoring my voice
Now that I volunteer regularly at Caron by mentoring those who are beginning treatment and entering recovery, I see so many women fall into the same caretaking, nurturing, and perfection-seeking loop that I did. Even in treatment, women assume caretaking roles, automatically. They will be the ones to rally everybody else to come into the meetings. As I come to the groups, it’s the women who ask me what I need. Do I need a cup of coffee, would I like some water?
But even in conversations, I see the different experiences of men and women in addiction, treatment, and recovery. Men talk about their disease and how it affects them externally, particularly in their professional lives. Women share how it affects their relationships, especially with their children. No matter how high achieving they are in their profession, they tend not to think in terms of how the disease affects their life, their work, their desires, their wants, or their needs beyond the impact on those they love.
I believe that no matter where we are – whether it's in treatment, in the professional world, in our personal life – we must make sure our message is clear and forthright. We need to make our voices heard, to say we are important and we count. Women must be fearless to honor and respect our own lives as individuals – separate from a caregiving role. We must make choices that prioritize ourselves.
I'm thankful I’m now able to support other women as they change their trajectory. Those of us in recovery who have worked through guilt, shame and trauma can now make a healthy, deliberate choice to champion the wellness of others.
By Erin Goodhart, LPC, CAADC, CMAT, CSAT, ACRPS, CCS, CPT Provider