When speakers in AA tell their story, they often end it with, “If I can get sober, then anyone can.” While it sometimes sounds like a bit of a cliché, Donna’s case is anything but. Some people just have to be totally broken to get sober. Donna believes that she got clean and sober on the day that she was probably supposed to die. Here’s her story.
I picked up a drink at 13 and began drinking alcoholically almost immediately but thought I “cured’ my alcoholism by becoming a heroin addict at the age of 19. A few years later, I had gotten married but soon left my kids for my parents to raise, occasionally blowing into to their lives like a tornado, but never being there for any good reason. During my dozen-year run, I had been to countless detoxes and gone through dozens of halfway houses but never really wanted to get clean.
The night before I got sober, I had been smoking crack in one of the ghetto sections of Boston, and had gone into a liquor store to get a crack pipe hookup. When the clerk turned to get it for me, I grabbed a fishbowl full of $1 dollar nips and stuffed them in my bag, knowing that I would need them as landing gear for when I finished the crack. I know the clerk saw me steal them, but I was just so pathetic, he didn’t say anything and just let me walk out.
The next morning, a loud pounding on the basement door of the crack house where I was staying woke me up. It was my husband, from whom I had been estranged for four years. He had left the state to go to a sober house in California and to avoid being picked up on outstanding warrants. He had returned to turn himself in to get sober in jail. When he saw me—lying emaciated on the floor surrounded by empty nips, a set of works and a crack pipe, he just broke down and cried. All I could say to him was, “What took you so long?” That was literally the beginning of my journey.
He brought me to the emergency room, and on the way into the unit, I passed a childhood friend who had been sober for a half-dozen years. I was so embarrassed. He would later tell me that when he saw the horror and desperation in my eyes that day, he knew I was done.
After they took me in, I was laying on the gurney and all these thoughts were running through my head—that I hadn’t been a mother or a wife and that I hadn’t been anything but an alcoholic and an addict, and all of this was just sinking in. And I wasn’t so much thinking that I wanted to get sober, I was mostly thinking that I just wanted all of this to stop. And there was this hulking male nurse sticking an IV in me, and he just looked me in the face and said, “Donna, you’re going to die.”
This feeling of calm just came over me, and I pleadingly said to him, “When?” Because I just wanted everything to stop and that felt like the solution. The way I felt right then was the worst I had ever felt in my life. And I had that moment of clarity. If I was going to die, now would be a really good time, because I wouldn’t have to face anyone anymore.
I spent three days in the ER going through opiate and alcohol withdrawal plus cocaine psychosis before they sent me to a detox in Brockton for five days (which I really don’t remember because I think I slept the whole time). Apparently I went through an interview to get into a women’s halfway house, which I still can’t remember 10 years later. It was February and when I arrived at the house, I only had the clothes I was wearing. I just sat there on a couch in the living room, completely void of emotion, as women came in from their get-well jobs. They were really friendly and welcoming to me because they saw that I was such a wreck and all I could think was what a bunch of idiots they were because whenever someone said something nice to me, I felt so bad about myself that I immediately got mad as my defenses went up.
The director called me in and I did the drill that I so many times before—another treatment facility, another halfway house, another program—and never did I think that this time would be different. When she asked what was going to be different, I couldn’t even make something up. But she said it was okay and that I could answer that later. She then asked if there was someone I should call, and I said no, because I didn’t feel significant enough to even call my own family. I just thought that everyone was better off without me and no one cared anyway.
She sent me upstairs to get something to eat, but when I got there, the food had all been put away and I was too weak to make anything. So the director came up and asked if I ate. When I said no, she told me, “Alright, then why don’t you clean up? You can start with the pots and pans.”
I looked at her in complete disbelief. “I just got out of the hospital and a detox and I’m going upstairs to take a nap,” I told her. She looked at me, then said quietly, “You know what Donna? You called us. We didn’t call you. And if you think you want a place to stay tonight—and seeing that you have no coat and it’s snowing—you might consider washing those pots and pans.”
I learned the difference between being humiliated and being humbled that night, and I finally realized that I couldn’t do this by myself and that I might have to start listening to people. So I did the dishes, I went upstairs, and when the lights went out, the wind was rattling the windows (we were on the ocean in New Bedford) and for the first time in a long time, I was petrified. All I could think was, “How the fuck am I going to pull this one off?” I still didn’t have the right thinking to get sober, but I was pretty much out of options. The booze and the drugs no longer worked, I didn’t even have clothes, and no one was coming to rescue me. That’s when the moment of truth came—that this was the last house on the block. So I stayed.
But I still didn’t buy into recovery right away, because I knew how to get clean (from my previous halfway house experiences); I just didn’t know how to stay clean. And I was in one of the worst halfway houses I had ever been in, in the AIDS and heroin capital of the world. I remember thinking later, “Wow, I think my Higher Power sent me here because if I ever went out again, I would just die a horrible death in this town.” So fear mixed with desperation was what kept me there.
But we had to go to AA every day, 20 girls in a van that was like a halfway house version of the short bus. Everybody at the meetings knew who we were and where we came from, and I found that so horrifyingly embarrassing, forgetting that I had been up in a Boston ghetto stealing nips and hanging with criminals to get high the month before. None of that bothered me, but now I had to walk into a meeting with women from a halfway house! Ah, the arrogance of the alcoholic.
But I stayed clean. I had this counselor who told me to journal daily, but I was so foggy, all I could do was draw a happy face on each day of the month. One day I looked down and realized I had 21 days and it floored me. That’s when I thought, “Maybe I can do this.” After a month or so, I wandered into a meeting with a bunch of old people and I won the raffle. That’s also the night I got a sponsor and the job as the greeter. All in one night. I had been to AA many, many, many times before, but I had never been in AA.
My sponsor started picking me up at the house every night, and one night she told me her story. It’s a big deal when a woman shares you intimate details of her story in confidence, and I was blown away. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow. Her?” Because I felt so awful about myself, I thought I was the worst. So I was in the middle of AA, working with women, and I think I was beginning to surrender. My counselor at the house said to me, “Let us do your thinking for you here and let your sponsor and group do your thinking for you out there.”
After three months I had to get a job, and I was terrified because I hadn’t worked in so long. And when fear visits, Donna lies. So I told the people at the restaurant that of course I knew how to cook on a grill in a restaurant, even though I was clueless, and I got hired. Unbeknownst to me, my boss had gotten sober in AA. So things were going well. I had just seen my family clean for the first time in years, and I was riding the bus to work when suddenly the circus in my head came back into town. “Who are you kidding?” my head said. “This town sucks. These people suck. AA sucks.” My next thought was, “Fuck this, I’m going to drink and get kicked out of the house and go home to Boston.” And I got really afraid.
So I went into the restaurant where my boss had left a note telling me that I had to empty the disgusting grease trap. As I was wheeling it out to the dumpster, again hating my life, sobbing and wanting to drink so fucking bad, I picked up the phone. I called my sister-in-law who was sober in AA, and that helped, but it wasn’t what she said; like the Big Book says, “There will come a time when no power on earth will keep you sober.”
I got on my knees next to the dumpster, crying to God, “Please help me get through today.” And that’s when I got that concept. Just one day. And I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve always been able to keep recovery in the number one slot, and that’s not me. And it hasn’t been easy.
When I was five years sober, the husband who had found me in that basement died from a heroin overdose after being nine months clean. My 13-year old son found him and it was horrible. But I didn’t use, although I came as close as I ever hope to. Those sons that I left behind have turned out great after some rough times, and I’m still becoming the person I was always supposed to be.