I slowly lifted my index finger parallel to my eyelash and blinked. My auburn lashes were clean. No leftover mascara remained. That meant I had washed my face and possibly pulled it together before falling into bed. The perfectly appointed midnight blue monogram on my J. Crew pajamas, wrinkled against my tired body, was a positive sign that my faux façade was in place. The bow on this sloppy package was neatly tied. Thank God I gave up wine for Lent. Substituting vodka seemed to be going swimmingly.
The light peeked into my bedroom through the half-drawn shutters. It was deafeningly quiet, which meant it was early on a Sunday morning. I squinted to see across the room to the quiet cove that is my safe haven. It’s adorned with two nailhead trimmed, plaid club chairs, acquired from The Oklahoma Theta House—a purchase I was giddy about, given their sentimental value. Layered under the chairs is a vintage Turkish rug that I dream has a mysterious past life from a faraway land. It’s an inviting spot to read, journal, and daydream plans for the future. This morning, that delightful space looked anything but warm and cozy. It was cold and empty. Even the poised karate-chopped accent pillows were lonely. The spring sunshine spilling through the windows faded into muted tones like a bleak winter’s day.
I was desperately searching for the time, already wishing I could turn back the clock. My antique crystal timepiece sits among a trio of treasures. My most precious memento resides there, the last penned note from my late father where the cursive black ink dances effortlessly across the pure white paper: “Lindsey, I love you. Dad,” along with his childhood Bible. Things I would save from fire.
How disappointed he would be if he could see his little red-headed light laying in a puddle of shame and guilt.
I savor good memories, sweet keepsakes and especially sacred treasures, but I seemed to be leading my children to a treasure trove of quite the opposite left behind of my life. I was putting them on a fast track to a dismal future on a therapist’s sofa talking about their washed up mother.
I slid my foot over to touch my husband’s and could instantly tell by his lukewarm reaction that he was disappointed. Disgusted. And then there was my face. My face was sore, so sore. I opened my mouth and it felt like I had been hit by a baseball bat. I had no recollection of the night before.
I desperately needed to check my phone. It always helped me be the smartest detective in my own investigative series. Certainly I could piece together the end of the day with my device.
All the previous times I had made a fool of myself—and there had been many—I could mitigate my way out. If I was dumb and drunk, there was always someone dumb and drunk with me. I didn’t typically go at this rodeo alone. I knew the drill: I would drink some coffee, make some apologies, laugh it off with friends, and it would all be okay.
But this day was different.
How Did I Become This Woman?
I felt empty. I was scared. I had blacked out. I was a shell of myself, desperately wanting it all to be different. And on this particular Sunday morning, I didn’t have the energy to devise a plan out of this mess. And damnit, I still couldn’t figure out what the hell had happened the day before.
That Saturday morning, I had very respectably layered a Ted Baker blazer over a dress paired with heels and stacked on all my sentimental, shiny jewelry. I traveled downtown to celebrate my childhood bestie and the anticipated arrival of her precious daughter. I was a wife and a mother of two young children going to a sophisticated wine bar for brunch.
Nothing illicit was going on. To my knowledge, there were no bar fights. This should not have ended in remorse and regret.
My nearly 40-year-old self was everything my 20-year-old self despised. I had done all the things I pitied. I was dishonest, had no self-worth, drank excessively, didn’t contribute anything financially, was a sorry excuse for a stay-at-home-mom, and blamed it all on suddenly losing my dad as a teenager. I was self-indulgent, self-centered, and barely faking it through the days. I was a wounded bird. I had become someone I didn’t recognize, everything I pray my daughter never becomes.
In my younger years, I had been so confident, genuine, honest, faithful. When did I quit? When did I lose myself? Who was this woman pretending to be something she so clearly wasn’t?
That morning, my most precious five-year-old son asked what happened to my face. He wanted to know why there had been blood. I didn’t have an answer for him. While my husband had gone to pick-up dinner, my son found me by my nightstand covered in blood, and after deductive reasoning, I think I tripped and hit my head. I had no recollection of any of these events. All I knew was I had a cut and bruises on my face and for the first time, the mirror reflected what I could no longer hide behind my lipstick and big red hair.
But I was confused. I wasn’t a bum under a bridge, drinking out of a paper bag. Why had this become a problem? I was a sophisticated, college educated woman that enjoyed dirty martinis, wine, and beer on game days. I didn’t drink in the morning. I didn’t drink every day. Sure, I had some embarrassing moments under my belt, but I hadn’t had my children taken away, never gotten a DUI, and didn’t lose a job. I had never been arrested or hospitalized, and for the most part, I was doing what other moms around me were doing. Drinking a lot. Drinking a whole lot. Despite any reason I could have used to explain this episode away, I had just looked my innocent child in the eyes and could offer him no comfort as to what happened to my face.
With Strong Women By My Side, I Made a Plan
I made my bed and took a shower hoping to wash the shame down the drain. My mom came over and started doing what moms do—fix things. She offers a sense of peace to all of us. She’s the strongest woman I know by lifetimes. She can put on a hazmat suit and sterilize the most infected situations. She just handles life like a boss. She takes no prisoners. Do what you need to do and move on.
She fluffed the pillows that day, wiped down the counter tops, and made my kids think what had been going on inside our home was normal. It wasn’t. It was far from it.
I sent out a desperate plea to my best friend. I need help. Not the friend I’ve known the longest, not the one I have a million funny stories where she’s the co-star, not the one that was a bridesmaid in my wedding or in the waiting room when my babies were born. But the one that was so perfectly placed in my life when I needed her most. The friend that quickly learned my preferences and vulnerabilities, alike. The one that didn’t tell me what I needed to do during the firestorm of the previous months as all the drinking intensified. The one that didn’t judge my behavior, the one that didn’t remind me how much time she’d spent cleaning up my messes and helping me stand when I couldn’t on my own.
She’s the one that so selflessly held my hand and knew I was broken. I was shattered into a million little pieces. She knew I didn’t get here by chance, and it didn’t happen over night. I had hit rock bottom. She told me to breathe, and it would be okay. She never left my side. She didn’t need time for herself. She didn’t need space. She didn’t ask what she could do to help me, she just did it.
She showed up. She prayed. She told me Christ died on the cross to save me from my sins. Yes, even this awful mess and these reckless decisions. And there had been many before this day. She meant every word. She said, “Surrender this pain, and leave it at the foot of the cross.”
Before the afternoon, an army of beautiful, strong women sat in my bed talking me through options. I wasn’t sure how to fix the problem but knew the method I was currently using to cope wasn’t working. I also knew we couldn’t afford a spa-like retreat where we did yoga and talked about our broken childhood to get to the bottom of my issues. And even if money wasn’t an obstacle, I couldn’t accept that as an option. Using my family’s money to fix my brokenness felt unfair.
I sat on my bed and cried, teetering back and forth between tears and a “Steel Magnolias” moment when Sally Field’s character, M’Lynn, straightens up and says, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.” And just like M’Lynn, a broken mother, I wasn’t fine. My heart was torn in two. My soul was damaged and hurt, and I was limping through life. Living in a fantasy land was no longer fine. I had opened the door too wide to turn back. The dark corners were now visible in broad daylight and the gig was up. No one was getting out of that bed until a game plan was made.
Then, Reality Began to Sink In
I made a phone call to The Magdalen House and secured a spot for a two-week stay in their social detox facility. Rehab. No, it wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.
It felt like a direct call to God admitting I had royally screwed up this time and was awaiting my fate. The answer was, “Pack your bags, sister. It’s time.” I wasn’t sure what it was time to do, but I accepted that I needed help, deserved help, and so did my family and friends. God had more in my plan book than riding through this life on a wave of chardonnay. It was time to break this chain and take back a fulfilling life of love, dignity, and peace.
Sarah and I stood in my closet as I cried and packed my belongings. How was I going to leave my children for two weeks? What was I going to tell them? What do you pack for rehab? What is rehab? I was so out of my comfort zone and frightened. I was still half drunk, thankfully.
I’ve never said goodbyes this gut-wrenchingly difficult. I had never been away from my kids for two weeks. They were scared. I was scared. We weren’t exactly forthcoming on where I was going, but they’re smart enough to know it felt chaotic and unpleasant. Earlier in my marriage, I had an identity as a traveling career woman. My husband and I had spent weeks apart in different countries, on opposite sides of the globe. It wasn’t that we couldn’t be apart, but leaving him with the burden of running our household on the thrust of disappointment and sadness was crushing.
My 15-year-old dog was probably not going to make it two more weeks in his ailing state. I knew that would be my last goodbye to him. I just instinctively knew. I think he knew, too. I was his person. He slept curled up next to me whether I was sober or three sheets to the wind. He didn’t care. He didn’t judge.
The guilt sat on my chest like an enormous elephant. I had let all the feelings of abandonment I carried, tucked neatly into my satchel of life, seep out like blood getting everywhere and on everyone I cared most about. My dad’s departure left me feeling like a lost soul searching high and low for answers and keys to locks that I could never find. And ironically, I had the wash cycle on repeat, abandoning my own children as I selfishly masked and numbed with alcohol.
I Uncovered My Pain and Embraced the Light
The ride to rehab felt endless. The 30-minute southbound drive felt like we were attempting a trek across the Mojave Desert. What loose ends should I tie up on my way? I was conflicted between the need to pray, call my brother and tell him it all came crashing down, and mindlessly scrolling social media one last time. Not enough time to do anything, yet entirely too much time left alone with my pitiful thoughts.
A dear friend and angel on earth offered to take me to The Magdalen House. It was a task my husband and mom couldn’t bear. My other angels were whisking away my children from the crime scene. Along the journey, Earlene and I talked sporadically. I told her I didn’t know how I got here. In some ways, I knew exactly how I got there, and in others, it all felt surreal and confusing.
The previous 21 years, after the loss of my dad, I wrestled with the peculiar way suicide left me feeling. Suicide is abandonment at its pinnacle, which felt very personal and directed towards me. I was the apple of my daddy’s eye, so why wasn’t I enough to stay? How could he leave this earth with me still standing in it? Taking your life is the end result of a severe mental illness that most of us cannot comprehend. But that’s rationalizing irrational behavior, which is like trying to build a sandcastle without sand. It felt like a dagger directly to my heart, and accepting my dad was very ill as the answer was incredibly difficult.
Shortly after losing my father, I boxed up all those emotions and put them on the top shelf and went off to college. With those emotions, I also boxed up my passions, my gifts, and my drive. The person that had given me approval and continued encouragement was gone. Who would I look toward now? Who was going to give me the wink to keep going? I put my head down and started the path to being an adult. In the light of day, I went on like the other sorority girls with whom I had built strong friendships, made the dean’s list, and had a boisterous party life. But in the dark night and deep in my soul was infinite sadness.
My deep, deep hurt and yearning for life to look different consumed me. My dad was my hero. I looked identical to him. He had quirky nuances, dressed impeccably, and was everyone’s best friend. He was well-liked, genuine, and kind. He went against the grain just enough to be a tad different than the norm. My father’s approval gave me self-worth. I wrote a comparison paper in the fourth grade evaluating the American-made Cadillac to the German-produced BMW. He shared it with a work colleague, and that validated it. That meant everything to me. It was good enough to make him proud. I looked for his bright smile in the stands when I nailed a tumbling pass. I ran all big ideas and dreams past him. He gave me his well-thought-out critiques. He offered sound advice. He was always my go ahead, pass go, approving nod.
Earlene told me there might be women at Maggie’s that look differently than me or have a different story. She suggested I try to be open-minded and learn something from each one of them. We all have a story, and we are all hurt in some way. Just because some of our roads have been less bumpy or more glamorous doesn’t make anyone any better or any worse.
I nodded my head in agreement and began to process what she meant. I was about to descend on a place full of women not nearly as monetarily privileged as me. These would likely be women that don’t drink twenty-dollar glasses of wine with their Wednesday lunch. They don’t go shopping to fill their excess spare time. But like me, they have seen hard roads and dark days. When we’re stripped of all the outside layers, we can get to the real sweetness of the fruit.
It was in that moment, the light went on for me. I realized that no matter how perfect it might appear on the outside, the inside can be very dark and damaged. The dry cleaning bag can be full of designer pieces, but that won’t fill the closet of your heart. My dad worked his hardest to make things appear shinier than they were. He masked and numbed in his own way.
I was desperately attempting the same way of life. I said “yes” to loads of joyless busywork. I thought that would reap happiness, approval, admiration, fulfillment, and a blinding bright light of life. It kept me from being still and uncovering what was making me so unhappy and empty. I was a banker’s wife, preschool PTO president, room mom, party hostess, church volunteer, and tried my best to do it all with a smile and perfect attention to detail. But as hard as I worked to build the picture-perfect life, I was also working just as hard to tear it all down.
My Journey Is Beautiful and Hard, But I’m Grateful It’s All Mine
I surrendered at Maggie’s, both physically and figuratively. I gave up my bag, my books, and my belongings, and laid down my hurt and shame and walked into freedom. On Monday morning, I began to heal. I didn’t just get sober and quit drinking. I began uncovering what I was running from. I confronted my fears. I identified my wrongs. I pulled back the bandage that was poorly keeping the wound closed. I began to take my selfishness out of every equation. I saw that the ways I had felt hurt and disappointed had nothing to do with me. Yes, they involved me, but how I was navigating life in a reactionary position was not noteworthy. I began a beautiful spiritual journey. I Windexed the window to God. I could see light and feel joy, contentment, and happiness that I don’t ever recall feeling. It’s impossible to take care of others until you take care of yourself. I could no longer get by pretending to be all the things to all the people without taking care of me.
I lifted my head and began living life again. I was owning my obstacles. I was embracing my hardships and also celebrating my victories. Without alcohol, I feel all of life in high definition. The sweet moments have an extra cherry on top. The hard moments put an extra lump in my throat. But each day is crystal clear and comes at me with full clarity.
Working the 12 spiritual steps has helped me tidy my moral inventory. I’m continuing to work the steps each day, which keeps my path to God clear. That doesn’t mean every day is a walk in the park. But I face each day with gratitude and thanks for all my blessings. I put my energy and focus into people that produce light. My relationships with my children and husband are stronger, happier, and more joy-filled. This journey is beautiful and hard and full of treasures, and it’s all mine.
Great trials and immense sadness guided me to the brilliant light that shines so effortlessly on my deepest passions. The journey is gradually leading me to my profound purpose on this earth and allowing my God-given talents to serve the world around me.
You’ll love this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: Why Strong Women Can (and Should) Rebuild Themselves with Molly Stillman – 125