By Renée L., Renascent Alumni
September 9, 1987 was cloud-filled. Or it could have been sunshine. I wasn’t really sure. It didn’t matter.
Waking up in a granny-cottage-turned-detox in southern Ontario, I had no awareness of what lay beyond the windows of my darkened room. I only knew that they’d taken my purse. You know, the one with the mouthwash tucked inside that burned my throat. And these pink pajamas weren’t mine.
Only vaguely-blurred quick flashes of memories from the last few days. Outside a remote, dilapidated motel in the middle of nowhere at 2am, closed in by a narrowing circle of leering men, hearing a taxi driver calling my name at the last moment. Lying terrified and paranoid on my apartment floor, staring at the layers of newspaper, sheets and blankets keeping the world safely outside these windows. Standing with a knife in one fist and vodka in the other, wondering which one I should use first.
Who is that woman in the mirror? Skin gray, eyes sunken, 92 pounds of flesh on a 5’6” shaking frame. I look at the reflection, really look this time. I see her. I hate her. Fingernails leave gouges in her gaunt cheeks as I try to rake off this face I can no longer stand. A vodka for courage, and a knife to end the pain.
Staggering to the desk in the corner, I recall a voice from those AA meetings… “Don’t pick up a drink, pick up the phone.” It seems to take a lifetime to hear the familiar click that signals connection. A friendly voice on the line barely hears my croak.
I tell this story to Joan, the night counsellor at Renascent. It has been a few days since the journey from detox to my arrival at the 3-story house on Spadina. My room is on the second floor and, though the fog hasn’t yet cleared, I am present enough to fully feel the comforting energy of this place. I’m scared but relieved. It all had to end and I made it out alive. I have no idea why, but I have to trust it is all happening for a reason.
For the first time, I know the experience of overwhelming gratitude.
Reta, or “Cookie” as she would sign later in my Big Book, has made peas for dinner. My heart sinks. It has been many years since I could get a fork full of tiny pieces of food into my mouth without them flying everywhere. I shrink down into my chair, making myself as invisible as I can while attempting to maneuver the cutlery into my mouth. One attempt. The peas scramble from my shaking fork. Second try… nope. Third attempt, I’m determined. I bring all my focus to this slow-motion, vibrating operation from plate to mouth. Success! With a burst of laughter, an unfamiliar exhilaration rushes through me.
A feeling! Any feeling these days is unheard of with me. I flatlined a long time ago. Partially by choice, part from circumstance. I am surprised and afraid of this strange, welling emotion. As quickly as my spontaneous laughter erupts, a flood of tears begins to pour down my cheeks. I’m overwhelmed yet alive.
The table stops. I hear concerned voices asking if I’m ok. Again, I can only croak out the magnitude of what I just accomplished, quickly feeling stupid and ashamed that something so elementary is cause for celebration. I meekly raise my eyes to the others in fear and embarrassment, ready to run to my bed to hide. Instead, I’m completely shocked to see mirrored tears and smiles all around. Acknowledgement of how challenging that was, and honouring the significance. These women know. They get it. I’m safe.
Three weeks later, nearing the end of my 28-day stay, I am halfway through the day, sitting quietly in the back garden when I realize the unimaginable – I have not craved a drink today. Wait… what? WHAT? How…? What the…? I’m flummoxed. I heard it could happen to people like you, but certainly not me. At least, that’s what I thought.
Those days at Renascent, with the giant Toblerone bar on the mantle and Little Red Book by each bedside, set me on a path. I had no idea where I would eventually end up. The twists and turns of years in recovery. Pebbles and stones under my feet, sometimes boulders in the way. Learning to traverse steep hills, and enjoy gorgeous scents of beautiful meadows as I keep moving forward. Fighting storms. Floating on clouds. Meditating on the river’s hypnotizing flow.
From Ontario to Calgary to Texas to Vancouver Island, and so many points between.
It is Thanksgiving, and I reflect on my recovery with gratitude. Each year, I spend September 9 in introspective contemplation. This year, the day was filled with sunshine, not clouds. I was completely immersed in the warm breeze, cool nights signalling the coming autumn. Present and clear, not resentment-filled. Gratitude for the start I was given at Renascent. For the deep friendships and relationships I made through the years of sobriety, some of which have lasted all this time.
This year’s celebration, 34 years… who knew? It feels surreal, yet so completely solid in my mind and heart.
The centres are no longer in the same buildings. The staff has likely changed many times over by now. The days pass and, all these years later, I often think of those who are finding the doors of Renascent today.
Working in the addictions and recovery field now, I’ve watched the understanding of addiction change and grow since 1987. I’m constantly amazed and humbled by the largeness of what Renascent and other centres, agencies and professionals are doing to fight this horrid condition of addiction.
And I am eternally grateful for the amazing gift this one small human being has been given…life. Recovery.
I wish the same for you all.