The recent passing of my mother this year has got me to thinking about many things, one of which is how our relationship changed during my continued sobriety.
My sobriety date is December 30, 2006 and I came into the rooms of AA in 1999, so that should tell you how I struggled to get this thing. Like many of us, I did not come into the rooms willingly. And perhaps like most of us, it is interesting now upon reflection to see how a mother always knows what’s going on long before we do.
Nothing is as precious as a mother’s instinct and my mother always knew when I was lying or trying to hide the truth, even when I didn’t know myself. Uncanny, really, how she could coax things out of me. As a matter of fact, she was the one who sent me a copy of our Twelve and Twelve with the inscription “Maybe this will help you, Love and Good Luck, Mom.” I still chuckle over that.
To give you a brief history, I was born in a small town in Newfoundland with four other siblings and am the youngest twin to my twin sister. (My twin sister never let me forget about that one!) Both of my parents were alcoholics and I swore I would never drink!
I never knew what I was walking into at home and life was very unsettled and unpredictable. I don’t remember a lot of family time or hugs and kisses and certainly not long discussions of what was going on at the time, or even how I was doing. It may have happened, but to be honest I really don’t remember it that way.
My father died at the young age of 53. Prior to that, my folks had split up. My mother felt she had to take control of the situation and place us in a healthier environment so she decided to leave dad and start over. At that time and being in such a small community, my mother had a lot of courage and strength to do this. The funny thing is that this is when my mother’s drinking really kicked in. I won’t go into the sordid details, but I think you get the picture.
The good news is that my mother managed to get a number of years of continuous sobriety herself (she never disclosed) and died sober. Not living in the same province as my mother made it difficult for me to see how she was really doing. She struggled, I do know that much, and I remember at least one intervention by one of my sisters in the States. To be honest, I was so busy doing my own drinking that I really never totally understood what was going on or how serious this disease can be.
But things changed in our relationship when I got sober. First things first, I was actually picking up the phone to call my mother on a regular basis. After making a thorough amends to her, I was able to share honestly how I was feeling or, better yet, get her to share how she was feeling.
Unfortunately my mother’s choice was to isolate and she never attended any AA meetings. To this day I think this would have eased her loneliness, her depression and her anxiety. It has been my experience that when I get to a meeting (even when I don’t want to go) or help someone else, I definitely get the benefits of participating more in life.
In my sobriety, instead of asking for money to bail me out of my own financial dilemmas as a direct result of my own drinking and lack of responsibility (of which there were many times during my drinking, trust me!) I was able to have money in the bank and fly home and see my mother on four occasions before her death and see where I could be of service and, frankly, be the daughter and grown woman my mother so deserved.
Interestingly enough, my mother was able to make amends to me for the neglect that her drinking career caused, and for that I am very grateful. Our relationship not only grew as a daughter and mother, it transformed into a solid loving relationship. Forgiveness and empathy for another human being are the greatest gifts of this program, simply by one alcoholic sharing with another. It is truly a powerful, magical thing that I hope I will never take for granted.
During my last visit at home in December while my mother was in hospital, I shared with her that it was my AA birthday of eight years that day. A calm moment of silence. Then my mother told me that I had helped her. Bewildered, I asked how? She said that she told herself, “If Joanne can do it, I can do it” and that was what had kept her sober for the last eight years of her own sobriety. With that, she fell into a peaceful sleep and I was left in a world of amazement. I still am. Mom passed away three weeks later and there was nothing left unsaid between us.
We just never know where we are going to get or give the message and how we can be of service to others. In this case it came full circle. Amazing Grace, to be sure.
“Earth Day is an annual event, celebrated on April 22, on which day events worldwide are held to demonstrate support for environmental protection. It was first celebrated in 1970, and is now coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network, and celebrated in more than 193 countries each year.” -Wikipedia
In our journey in recovery, we will experience spiritual growth that will bring about a life of serenity, contentment and acceptance. As we move from separation toward a connectedness with our fellows and the world around us, life’s gifts become more apparent than ever realized. One of those gifts is the planet we live on. Her beauty and mysteries when looked upon with wonder and gratitude can and will bring constant contact with a power greater than ourselves and connect us to a source that brings peace.
In celebration of Earth Day, honour the Earth with the love and gratitude of committing to deepen our spiritual relationships with her and with these practices.
Shift Your Mindset
Nature is a part of you and you are a part of nature. Realize that you and nature are fundamentally connected and are one.
The water that makes up approximately 60% of your body is the same water that fills the Earth’s oceans and lakes, flows as rivers and streams and rains down to nourish the plants.
The carbon dioxide that you exhale feeds the trees and in turn you are provided the oxygen that you need to survive. Survival of both plant and animal is dependent on one another.
Practice meditation and spending time outdoors to express your gratitude in your connection with nature. Inhale slowly and deeply filling your body with the oxygen supplied by the Earth and giving back with each exhale.
Commit to Connect with Nature
Preparing yourself to listen and communicate with Nature is the first step to connecting with yourself. Our minds can be loud and busy which can take away from our ability to truly connect with nature. When you commit with an intention to connect, you allow for the power of the relationship to develop.
Spend Time Alone with Nature
Find a place where you can be alone with nature. It can be in a park, by a stream, on the beach or anywhere where you can find a place to sit for an hour. Here, you can spend your hour to relax and observe the beauty and power of what is around you and what you are a part of. Take this time to reflect inward, as well, and discover your inner nature of love and express it outward so that you can give back to Nature and those around you.
Give Back to Nature
Service and spirituality go hand-in-hand. The Earth has developed to support life. Giving back to Her can be as simple as taking the time to pick up any litter you see while walking down the street or while spending time in a park. It can be using less energy and turning off any unnecessary lights at home or at work. Taking extra time to walk or ride a bike rather than driving or taking transit can further preserve the air in service.
In recovery, we can deepen our spirituality by taking special days like Earth Day to unite with those around us and our beautiful planet. Everyday we must search and reach to connect. Everyday we must strive to grow in our spirituality. Use today as a stepping stone to an everyday of love, gratitude and connectedness.
Happy Earth Day!
How do you honour and give back to our planet on a regular basis?
Each of our stories has different details, with different people and different circumstances. But each one of us comes here broken and defeated; utterly devoid of the energy to go on fighting. My experience of addiction was just that: a fight. A fight against an overwhelming craving for alcohol and cocaine. A fight against the guilt and shame when I would give in to the craving. A desperate fight to prove to myself and others that I was okay, that I was simply a social user caught in an unfortunate series of progressively worsening circumstances. Ha. I never intended to get addicted—I was simply a sitting duck.
Up until about age of 14, I had been subconsciously attempting to soothe the troubling emotional state that defines us as addicts: a natural-born sense of dissatisfaction with life, separateness from others, self-loathing, and unrelenting fear. And then came the vodka: warm comfort serum that solved all my problems before violently tearing my life to shreds over the next 15 years.
I came into the 12-step rooms kicking and screaming. I wanted no part of this God business y’all were preaching. And I definitely didn’t want to sit in a goddamn circle blurting out catchphrases in synchronized disgrace.
By the time I got to Renascent, I was homeless, unemployable, and often suicidal. I had been through countless detoxes, treatment facilities, psychiatrists, psychologists, group therapy sessions, and a few disquieting stints in Toronto lock-ups. I was 27 years old, and I was lying in a detox bed with an ominous timer ticking in my mind. I had been previously banned from that detox, but they had allowed me back in “for 48 hours, that’s all”, due to my desperate condition. Tick, tick, tick. I had been faced with a choice: I could go to the dreaded 12-step facility that my poor mother had frantically set up for me, or face the unsettling proposition of not knowing where and with whom I’d lay my head down at night. The choice was clear. I packed my meager belongings and made my way to the front steps of the Graham Munro Centre.
When I got out of Renascent, I had attended more meetings than I even knew existed. Against my own will, I felt a deep sense of belonging at these meetings. I heard the people there talk of things I believed were my own private hell only. They put names to phenomena that made up my miserable existence. “The mental blank spot” describes an addict’s absolute inability, at times, to recall the horror and suffering of the last binge. Not only that, some of them had found a way out of drugs and alcohol, and seemed genuinely happy. They said they had been relieved of their “spiritual malady”, the name they put to the emotional and spiritual void we addicts are born with. I knew that the people at these meetings were my people, and that this place they called a “meeting”, would be my new home. This sense of belonging, combined with the beautiful gift of desperation that crack cocaine had afforded me, kept me in the seats of these once scoffed-at meetings. My story, like many others’, is not one of immediate continuous sobriety following treatment. A few half-hearted recovery attempts, swiftly followed by several vicious relapses, ensued. It was under this misery and despair, that my lifelong rebellion and defiance broke, just enough to let the light in. I surrendered; I put up the proverbial white flag.
I did what was suggested to me by my sponsor. We call these suggestions the 12 Steps. It was on this journey through the steps, in my home fellowship of Cocaine Anonymous, that I met a girl named Carrie. I first spotted her in the church basement of my home group one Saturday evening; dishevelled, scantily clad, frantically searching for something that I don’t think existed. Aha, now there’s my kind of girl. I approached her and shook her hand, welcomed her to the group. I had 8 months clean and sober, and she was going to be my first sponsee. I had diligently taken direction from my sponsor from steps 1 to 11. I was prepared to begin other suffering addicts get the newfound sense of freedom that had been given me by following this process: working with others, the twelfth step. The feeling of being freed from my lifelong dis-ease, is indescribably amazing. And here stood Carrie, broken and defeated, a shell of what I could tell was once an intelligent and articulate woman: a perfect candidate for me. I would spend the next few months meeting with Carrie three to four times a week to take her through the 12 steps. We would arrive early at our home group to set up chairs, make coffee, and welcome new women with a warm smile. And Carrie got recovered too.
I don’t know exactly what it is about the 12 steps that works. I don’t know how following these simple instructions of clean-living and service to others somehow mingle and give rise to a completely new state of mind in the once dysfunctional and disillusioned. But they do. They did in me, and they did in Carrie, and they have in countless other grateful addicts.
Today, I owe everything to the 12 steps: my simple ability to function day-to-day, to be at peace, to know quiet contentment. Today, at six years clean, I show my gratitude by continuing to work with other addicts in the meetings, and in my job as a counsellor at Renascent. I raise my two beautiful children, and have a steady stream of laughs with my best friend, Carrie, who is now a lawyer and a mom too.
I was always an anxious kid. My earliest memories involve hopping over cracks on the sidewalk, counting out steps, tapping my foot quietly so that no one could hear and pulling the corners of my pillowcase several times before I could go to bed. Eventually I’d fall asleep and dream of death, destruction, kidnappings and roving gangs of thugs trying to hurt my family. I often awoke drenched in sweat.
There was no obvious reason for my perpetual unease. I grew up in a beautiful Forest Hill home, the second youngest of four siblings. My dad was a financial whiz who published a book on quantitative marketing when he was 26 (I can barely understand a word of it) and then ran his own marketing firm. My mum stayed at home; she later got a PhD in sociology and worked as a consultant. For most of my childhood I attended private school at TFS and Branksome Hall. When I was 12, I switched to Deer Park Public School. I remember telling a friend that the rules of private school were suffocating me. Really, I was just sad. I always felt uncomfortable in my own skin.
At Deer Park, my academic performance slid but my confidence grew. To my classmates, I was exotic: a private school refugee. My parents had recently divorced, and I started acting out. I began drinking and smoking pot every weekend, getting blitzed and messing around with random guys. When I started high school at North Toronto Collegiate the next year, it quickly devolved into something else entirely. My friends and I would drop acid all weekend. Soon I was cutting weeks of school and committing petty crimes—I’d shoplift, steal subway signs, and pocket CDs, clothes and books from house parties. My parents were stressed and exhausted. They would have done anything to help, although it didn’t feel that way to me. I told them I hated them on a regular basis. When they sent me to therapists, I told them I hated them, too.
I was having the time of my life. I was cool. I was outrageous. Every time I’d drink, I’d lose chunks of time: two hours here, an hour there. Booze and drugs did something to me that I couldn’t do for myself. They changed me, if only for a moment, and the promise of that moment was too alluring to resist.
I started dating my friend Adam in the summer before Grade 12. He gave me all the love, attention, kindness and understanding I’d been craving. After high school I started at McGill. We rented a place together in Montreal, on Avenue des Pins. I introduced him to Woody Allen movies. He taught me about jazz, literature and how to wear a black baseball hat with every outfit. My parents thought Adam was a stabilizing influence. They were grateful.
But they didn’t know we were doing drugs every weekend: coke, E and most of all speed. I don’t know what was in it, but the dealers called it “peaches.” We partied at Sona, one of Montreal’s first mega–dance clubs. The dealers were always sporty-looking dudes in Tommy Hilfiger, leaning casually against the walls. They’d throw me a pill for $30, and then I’d dance for the next 14 hours straight, drenched in sweat, biting my lips and chewing the inside of my cheek. After each peaches binge, I’d spend three days huddled in withdrawal—but I’d still go back for more. My weight dropped from 125 pounds to a gamine 110, and everyone told me I looked great. I never went to class, just crammed for exams, and somehow I secured a B+ average. (I’ve always had a strange talent for bullshitting my way through school.) To everyone else, my life looked manageable.
A year and a half later, Adam and I broke up. I wanted to go clubbing all the time. I wanted to wear skimpy clothes and do lines off toilets in black-lit washrooms. I wanted powerful men to want me. I wanted to feel alive. Adam wanted something I couldn’t give him: purpose and direction. He wanted to settle down. It didn’t work—six months later, he killed himself. I had spoken to him a few days before, and we were planning to get together for my birthday on October 5 in Toronto. I arrived at my mum’s to see all the lights on, despite the fact that it was 10 p.m. I thought, selfishly, They’re throwing me a surprise party. It turns out my friends had gathered at my house to tell me about Adam.
After his death, I stayed in Toronto and transferred to U of T. My dad rented me a ground-floor apartment in a house in the Annex. I would sit by candlelight reading and rereading the torn, tear-stained letters Adam had written me over the years. I started using coke more frequently. I didn’t have a regular dealer yet—my friends always had a connection, so I’d throw them some cash and take whatever I needed. I was kicked out of every bar on College Street for harassing patrons. Once, at the Midtown, I tried to request a song and the bartender told me to step back or else. Provoked, I pivoted my foot into his space, tapping it in and out again, taunting him. “Out!” he screamed. Two bouncers had to toss me on my backside. I shook it off and bounced on to another bar down the street.
My last functional period came in my early 20s, when I got a job as an assistant editor at a fashion magazine. By this time I had access to a trust fund my dad had set up. I’d used some of it to buy myself a Yorkville condo, and my dad invested the rest for me. I wasn’t supposed to touch it, but of course I did: I liquidated shares like other people take out 20s from an ATM. I was bingeing on cocaine every few nights, yet somehow I was able to get to work on time and focus. I’d cap the night at 1 a.m. and sink myself to sleep with a couple of shots of Jack and a tab or two of Ativan. In the morning, I’d drink a few Red Bulls and I was good to go.
As my drug use skyrocketed, I began to get paranoid. Every night at the bar, I’d wonder if people were talking about me. Did my colleagues at the magazine know what was going on? Did the police know about the drugs I had on me? As the sweat crept up my neck, I’d drown it with more shots.
I began to think about leaving the magazine and going back to school. In retrospect, I was probably worried, if only subconsciously, that my bingeing would catch up to me at a 9-to-5 job. I became convinced I belonged in academia, and, in September 2005, I began a master’s degree in political theory at U of T. In the academic world I was on terra firma—I was writing papers, reading Rousseau and even attending half my classes, which was a big improvement from my undergrad days. The rest of the timforeigner lead singere, I was partying.
It was during this period that I first met Javier. (I’ve changed his name and a few others, to protect their identities.) He was my age and portly, with a sibilant Spanish accent. We would see each other at parties and I’d buy a gram of coke from him, sometimes two. Most users make two grams last a couple of days. I went through it in a few hours. I started buying two eight balls at a time, or seven grams of powder, for around $400, which I would snort in a 24-hour period. I used compulsively and immoderately, and I wore it on my face like a clown mask. My skin was pale grey, my pupils perpetually dilated. I was jittery, my mannerisms were spastic, my dialogue was jumpy and curse-laden. I was calling Javier all the time. And finally, after a month, he told me I was too high maintenance and never to bother him again. I had been fired by my drug dealer.
But he’d introduced me to a number of other dealers—and, because addicts always find a way, I soon had a regular roster, so that there was a steady supply and no one dealer would ever know how much I was using. I don’t know exactly what that amount was. I just know I never bought less than an eight ball, and often I would re-up several times over the course of a binge. I was snorting so much coke that I burned holes in my nose.
A typical day went like this: I’d wake up from a binge, sometimes in the morning and sometimes at night, and call one of my dealers—D’Angelo, for example. In the hour it took him to get to my place, I’d go to the LCBO and buy a couple of 26ers of vodka, a few bottles of prosecco, maybe some Jack Daniel’s. D’Angelo would arrive, we’d slam back some drinks, do some coke, play some music, joke around and have a few other people over. He nicknamed me Hollywood because of my appetite for massive lines. Eventually, D’Angelo would leave to go sell to other customers, and, if I ran out (which I always did), I’d call the next guy on my list. And so, for a while, everything was great—a shallow and reckless parade of party people. I thought I was Holly Golightly and that my life was Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Some days I wanted to stop, but I didn’t think I could.
I finished my degree, just barely. And that’s when the partying ceased. My paranoia got so bad that I was convinced the police were coming for me. I shut everyone out of my life and refused to speak to my parents for months at a time. The only people I talked to were my dealers, and even they were desperate to get away from me right after selling me the blow. I was alone most of the time, except for the pigeons that used to fly into my apartment when I left the balcony door open. And so I just used—all day and all night. It was all I could think about.
My body started to deteriorate. My skin bruised easily from lack of sleep and I had deep circles under my eyes. My hands and feet swelled to the size of balloons. Once, I mistakenly applied pink nail polish under my eyes thinking it was concealer. I chopped my hair off into a white-blonde pixie faux-hawk, and wore tank tops with men’s ties, booty shorts and Vans. I’d stay awake for days at a time, sometimes for a full week. I never ate when I was using, and I drank only alcohol—water, juice and pop made me sick. I guzzled olive oil for calories, and sometimes, to clear my clogged sinuses, I would drink Frank’s RedHot straight out of the bottle. It burned my mouth and eyes, but the shock would do the trick: I could stop blowing my nose and blow lines instead. By this time I weighed 102 pounds. I kept thinking that I would spontaneously return to my previous self—when I was using less, when I felt validated and happy, when my life seemed exciting and glamorous.
My paranoia descended into full-fledged psychosis. I suspected that everyone was on drugs—my neighbours, the concierge in my building, the barista at Starbucks. I saw men pointing machine guns at me from the shadows in the corner of my living room. When I watched TV, I thought the shows were trying to tell me something: characters on a kids’ cartoon would say “Jump!” and I would jump; they would say “Touch your nose,” and I’d touch my nose. One day, a dealer I was seeing told me to go out on the balcony of my condo, that a plane was coming to save me from this hell I was living. I gingerly made my way to the balcony and slid open the door, wanting to make him happy. I stepped into the cool night air and tried to climb over the railing. As I started my descent, he screamed, and rushed outside and grabbed me: he’d told me no such thing. I had hallucinated the conversation.
Seasons floated by. Over the winter of 2006, I only emerged from my condo a few times. When I left one day in the spring, I was shocked to discover the steel skeleton of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. My parents were hysterical—they were constantly calling me and dropping by, but I ignored them. I still had some of the money my father had given me, and as long as I did, who needed them?
When I was 26, I met a guy I’ll call Jesse at the Comfort Zone, a thumping after-hours club at College and Spadina. After one night, we were inseparable. Whatever I thought I knew about drug use, it was nothing compared to him. He introduced me to GHB and taught me how to do coke in ways I would never have imagined, like dissolving the powder in shots of Jack Daniel’s and drinking until we went into convulsions. Or snorting an entire gram in a single line. Or swallowing so much GHB that we were crawling around the club, salivating like animals.
Jesse moved into my condo just a few weeks after we met. When we’d fight, he’d smash mirrors and throw vases at my head, then scream at me to clean up the mess. We travelled to Costa Rica, Mexico, Israel, Italy, Hungary, desperately trying to escape ourselves. At the end of 2006, we spent a sombre Christmas night at the Comfort Zone. It was my first real moment of clarity. The whole time I was sullen and depressed, thinking about my family. I loved them, but it was buried so far beneath piles of lies and years of equivocation that sometimes I hardly remembered they existed.
Two weeks later, Jesse and I went over to his parents’ house for his birthday dinner. As soon as the door opened, I knew something was up. His dad was standing in front of us, and beyond him I saw his family waiting; my family was there too. It was a double intervention. Jesse was willing to stay, but I was furious. I gave my family members 15 minutes to read letters, then freaked out: I wasn’t going to be judged by them or anyone. I demanded that they stay out of my life and bolted out the front door. When I got outside, I took out my phone and called one of my dealers.
I knew then that I was really alone. My dealers wouldn’t go near my place, which looked more like a crack den than a luxury Yorkville condo. They made me come to them, and I had to mentally prepare for hours before I could get up the courage to go outside. It was like training for the Olympics. I once got lost walking around the old Four Seasons, trying to find the room my dealer had said he was in. A guest called security, and two thick guards had to toss me out of the hotel. Apparently guests were disturbed that this emaciated waif-like creature was walking around unsupervised, either completely high or completely mad.
My family still called every week; they tried to find out what was going on with me by asking the concierge or people in my building. Once, after holing up for days in my apartment, I found my way to my dad’s and banged on his door, wailing that I needed help. But when he tried to get me to talk, I brushed him off. I said it wasn’t serious.
I finally agreed to go to rehab in the summer of 2007. I flew to L.A. and checked into Promises, a high-end treatment centre that cost my dad $90,000 for a month-long stay. He was thrilled that I was seeking help. I hoped I might find a career as an actress—who knows who I would meet at a treatment centre in California? My capacity for self-deception would have been funny if it weren’t so tragic. There I was in Malibu, wearing a bloodstained Ralph Lauren sweater, my bleached blonde hair in an overgrown faux-hawk, hoping to be “discovered.” I had no idea how delusional I was.
The treatment centre was a sprawling set of lodges overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It housed roughly two dozen patients at a time. The first thing I did was collapse on my bed and sleep for three days straight. When I finally woke up, I saw two sets of eyes peering at me. “I’m Lydia,” one girl said. “And I’m Jen,” said the other. “And you’re in Lindsay Lohan’s old bed. She just left.” At Promises, I went to every meeting, talked earnestly to my counsellor, exercised, learned to meditate, and took part in group therapy and psychodrama, a technique where addicts use role-play to work through their issues. Still, I wasn’t getting better. All I could think about was getting home and getting high. Which I promptly did, the moment I landed.
The next few years were a dizzying sea of hallucinations, loneliness and desperate attempts at detox. I sold my condo to pay for drugs and went through the proceeds in nine months. My dad, ever supportive, rented me an apartment. Anytime I asked for help, my parents would intervene and send me to another treatment centre, hoping something would stick. I was at Women’s Own in Toronto, on Dundas, where I slept on a cot. Then came Bellwood, in Scarborough, where I lasted three days before they kicked me out for fooling around with another patient. I went to treatment in Minnesota, where I dismissed the notion of addiction to such a point that I was asked to leave after 10 days because I was undermining the recovery of other people. They told me they had never seen someone so deep in denial. One time, I was so high that I sat cross-legged in the middle of the intersection at Bay and Bloor, stopping traffic. The police took me to Mount Sinai, and later I was sent to CAMH. I checked myself out after a few days.
By the time I was 30, in 2010, I was on my fourth stint in rehab, this time on an island off the coast of Vancouver. It was beautiful and forlorn, with winding streets that climbed up long hills dotted with little cabins. The treatment didn’t take. With each passing day, I was getting noticeably worse—edgier, angrier, agitated and frustrated. After 30 days, I willingly and optimistically moved into “extended” care, which was the midway point between primary care and sober living in society. My family came and we went to group therapy together, but I could tell that whatever was supposed to be happening wasn’t.
I had always assumed that drugs and alcohol were my problem, and that everything would be okay as soon as I got sober. By then, I’d realized that the crux of my addiction was bigger than bad behaviour. It was my thinking: the way I made the world completely about me and my sadness and my hate and my anger, to the point that anything good was completely obscured by my narcissism. Instead of realizing I was hurting my family, I could only complain that if it weren’t for their interventions, we would have a good relationship—that they should let me do what I wanted. It didn’t matter that half the time I begged them to intervene. I couldn’t see it.
I was even more miserable sober than I was when I used. I couldn’t sit still. I was feverish all the time. Without drugs, I became addicted to controlling my weight, and developed a form of exercise bulimia, where I’d eat entire boxes of cookies and run for hours to burn off the calories. I told the counsellors I was getting worse. They encouraged me to stop focusing on the negative—that I was giving new patients the impression that their program didn’t work.
A few days before my treatment was over, I relapsed. I went to a bar in Vancouver, downed a few shots of JD and found a coke dealer within minutes. I snorted a ton that night. I missed curfew, and bought clean urine from the dealer’s mom so I could pass the drug test at rehab. The counsellors busted me the next morning, and, three days later, my dad put me on a plane home to Toronto. I thought there was no saving me.
The turning point came in January 2011. On New Year’s Eve, I got so high on booze and coke that I ran into oncoming traffic on Eglinton. A taxi slammed the brakes but still hit me, and when the driver rushed out to check on me, I punched him and blacked out. Apparently, he called the police. I woke up hours later in a hospital room, handcuffed to a gurney, my legs in iron cuffs, surrounded by my father and a few police officers. I had no idea what had happened, but they filled me in. I passed out again after a few minutes and woke up in my apartment. The police had released me from custody, and my dad had driven me home. The next day he came to my place and gave me two options: I could either live sober in the apartment he paid for, or I could sleep on the streets.
A couple of weeks later, I was lying on the floor of my apartment, staring at the popcorn ceiling. My experience in that last treatment centre in Vancouver had made me realize that I was as sick sober as I was when using. I didn’t move for hours. I knew there might be enough change in my couch to buy a mickey, but I’d just down it in one go. At that moment, something strange happened to me. I’d never been a religious person, but I was flooded with a sense of serenity. I had no idea who I was or who I’d been, but suddenly I was convinced that God was there with me. I knew that no substance on earth could change me permanently. At some point I would always come back to being myself. It felt like the choice was simple. I called someone I knew was sober, who had tried to help me before. Her name was Margot. “I’m ready to quit,” I told her. My sober life began on that day.
Margot and I met three to four times a week to work on the 12 steps. I followed every direction she gave me. I prayed, I meditated, and if she had told me to stand naked on the 401, I would have done it. I joined her recovery group, arriving before each meeting to set up chairs and make coffee. I greeted people at the door and gave out my number to those women who were coming into recovery with even less clean time than me. I would call them and listen—if selfishness was my problem, compassion would be my solution.
I felt like I was 13 again, the person I was before I started using. I had to relearn everything—how to eat, how to sit at a table, how to have conversations without interrupting, how to speak without swearing. I slowly started to come back to life. I walked the city, often going out for two-, sometimes three-hour jaunts. My feet felt lighter. I was excited to go to sleep at night because it brought me eight hours closer to waking up again. Gone were the crippling paranoia, the self-loathing, the destructive impulses that had plagued me all my life. The LCBO seemed like a foggy memory, a distant place I used to go to for stuff I no longer wanted. I worked with other addicts and alcoholics, taking them through the steps. It wasn’t easy. They’d yell at me and sometimes steal money from me; they’d beg me to help them get sober so that they wouldn’t kill themselves. I took them to detoxes, and talked to their desperate mothers and friends in an effort to shed light on this debilitating illness.
hereAlong the way I made amends to my family. It was a brutal experience—I can’t imagine the sleepless nights I caused my parents and siblings during my teens and 20s. To them, it was as though an alien had abducted me when I was 14 and never brought me back. Most of my relatives accepted my apologies, and were relieved and excited to see how much I’d changed. Now I have a great relationship with my parents. But to some of my family members, I’ll always be a drug addict.
A year and a half after getting sober, I applied to the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. For my entrance essay, I wrote about my addiction—and I was accepted in September 2012. One of the professors even came to my yearly celebration of sobriety. During law school, I was open about my addiction, and people were curious but kind and encouraging. I was able to demonstrate to myself and others that someone can live in recovery and still have a gratifying professional and personal life.
While in Halifax, I met a hilarious, thoughtful man at a recovery meeting named Colin Hubley. We quickly fell in love. We married on August 20, 2014, and, nine months ago, I gave birth to our daughter, Nolah. She is the happiest baby I’ve ever seen. Colin and I spend our free time walking our dog, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, having dinner with our families and seeing our close friends, all of whom are in recovery.
I’ve lost a lot of friends in the past few years, people who weren’t able to overcome their addiction. Jamie, a good friend I’d met at CAMH, overdosed and died in the summer of 2014. My friends Danny and Jenn also passed away last year from drug and alcohol overdoses; both of them left small children and grieving families. And this fall I was buying a coffee at Queen and Jarvis when I ran into an ex-boyfriend who was panhandling at the corner for his next high. Most people think addiction is a series of progressively bad choices. That’s a myth: it’s an illness. In our society, we value people who can march forward and self-correct. Addiction is a stain on our ability to improve.
Last year, I finished law school and secured an articling position at a firm that specializes in social justice and advocacy work. My employer is not just accepting of my past but supportive of my decision to write about it. I want to go into criminal law. It won’t be easy or particularly lucrative, but everybody deserves a second chance. And a third, and a fourth. I believe that with a lot of work, anyone can turn their life around. Even me.
Reprinted with permission from Toronto Life and Carrie Fiorillo. The original article can be foundhere.
Carrie Fiorillo continued to be in recovery, is being called to the bar in June and wants to practice criminal law. She is married with a daughter and loves baseball!