By Geraldine L.
November 7th, 1997. Key West Club House at 404 Virginia St. I was a 54-year-old divorced female artist, writer, and laryngectomee, speaking with an electrolarynx device called a Servox. I was picking up a 24-hour chip at an NA meeting. I had been two years clean of cigarettes and a week clean from alcohol and marijuana. Two hits in the morning, another at noon, and cocktails beginning at 5 pm and extending throughout the night had been a daily regimen for years.
So after finding myself back in Key West, a week without any mind or mood altering substances, holed up in a back room of a rental house, I was ready to end a seven-year downward spiral of 35 years of addictions. I didn’t know how. But having now been sitting in NA and AA meetings, I retraced my years of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana.
It began in 1959. Nicotine was the gateway. I was the granddaughter of N.C. tobacco farmers, so cigarettes were a staple, along with grits and country ham. Both my parents were heavy smokers, so smoking was permissible at 16 when I was emerging as a lonely and hyper, overly stimulated, sensitive, and restless victim of sibling abuse.
When I took my first drink, I felt like a bird set free from a cage. Binge drinking calmed me down, freed fears, and unleashed stifled creativity. I could catch a breath and write and draw, my two great loves. And I could dance and make love without guilt and shame. I could smile and feel real joy. I kept all the past, and unspoken sadnesses tucked away in the deepest recesses of my consciousness for decades.
Alcohol was the loving mother who hugged me, held me, calmed and soothed me as my real mother could not. Never bonding with her, I was hungry for love from my hard working but rarely present father and brutalized by an older brother. I sought after anything and everything and anyone who would fill these voids.
1963: After a year of college, I abandoned my hopes of art school and married to escape the suffocation of an overly protective and domineering Southern upbringing. I wanted freedom and excitement, but also the loving, safe nights that alcohol promised.
I pursued acting to build my confidence, and in between domestic duties I drew and wrote poetry to ease anxieties. I abstained from drinking when pregnant, but returned to it as quickly as possible afterward. Binging on weekends, and married to someone who tried hard to provide, we moved 14 times in 12 years while battling financial hardships, and spent most weekends getting drunk and shaking off life’s harsh realities. In an open marriage of anything goes, alcohol escalated to marijuana, clearly cementing a brutal legacy of addictions and cancer into my future.
The 1970’s were socially restless years for many, with alcohol and drugs the go-to response. But after the chaos of infidelities, I was emotionally exhausted. I left the marriage and redirected my energies toward security, for myself and my two children. Without an education, but with a skill-set that was finely tuned to supporting others, I found a better match.
1978: I married a businessman who was stable and well respected in his community, who could hold and keep a job. Life got good real fast. Money began to flow like water in the ’80’s. Both drinkers and smokers, we worked hard and played hard. Our children were in private schools, and global travel and prosperity set the social stage for more smoking, drinking, and partying to help manage the stress. Working in his business, traveling full-time, raising a family, constantly entertaining, and organizing and managing our affairs starting taking its toll. I was physically exhausted, creatively frustrated, and spiritually empty.
Our children started getting older and leaving home, and with my identity growing emptier, I started to redirect my energies around creative projects that brought personal fulfillment and satisfaction. I joined Toastmasters and became a public speaker on topics of social importance. I returned to community theater and started acting again. I did some television, feeling finally secure enough to shift focus from home and family to pursue lost passions. The shift in my attention away from my husband to myself produced a marital gap, and eventually my husband’s affair and a humiliating betrayal.
1990: After 18 months of hellish efforts to repair and revitalize a marriage that had fully taken its course, I fled to Key West for a much-needed sabbatical. We owned a time-share and the 4 weeks we purchased coincided with my departure.
Socially removed from the professional class of a successful marriage, and wounded from the humiliation of my husband’s affair, I had time on my hands and my hands around a drink. Happy hour turned into a nightmare as I fell into a pool of barflies, drug dealers, and alcoholics. After months of idle despair, and when there appeared to be no hope in saving the marriage, I was devastated and angry.
Letting off steam from the 2-year divorce trial increased my drinking to around the clock. Hitting an emotional bottom while consorting with a dangerous and volatile alcoholic brought me one fateful day to an article in the local paper about codependency. A new support group, “For women who love too much” was about to meet. “Hmmm,” I thought, “this rings a bell.”
I don’t think I’d be here to tell this story had I not been desperately aware of my need to change. But little did I know at the time the underpinnings of my condition—alcoholism.
1992: After a period of total isolation, I was transformed by the new and profoundly accurate diagnosis of codependent. I relived every detail of what I thought was the cause of my broken marriages, and I was able to cut back the drug and alcohol abuse to the place where indulgence felt like hope for improvement.
Various therapies peeled away truths long buried by years of numbing pain and repeating old behaviors. I had turned a corner. I was determined to let go and reinvent myself as an artist and writer, dreams I’d had barely pursued. And I wanted back my lost life. I created a live-in-performance art gallery, started painting, sculpting, and writing, and for the first time in months felt some hope. But I couldn’t stop smoking and drinking.
1993: It was June. My voice had been slowing and softening for months, and I was worried. With any volume impossible, my daughter, hearing me on the phone, begged me to go to the doctor. I did, a week later, and an old man in a dinky grey office diagnosed me with throat cancer, asking ” How much do you drink?” I gave him my tortured family history. A mother dead in the ’70’s from lung cancer, a father dead four years later with throat cancer. Then, after he performed a biopsy, he explained that I had a Stage III malignant tumor on my left vocal cord which required a six-week course of intensive radiation, offering a 95% cure rate if I returned to my hometown in Maryland for treatment. He couldn’t help me in Key West.
Following radiation in Maryland, I returned to Key West 30 pounds lighter, speechless, broken, and depressed. In the slow months of healing, I dismantled my gallery, sold all my life’s belongings at auction, and moved into a small apartment ready to die. I tried to bravely face my mortality. And I didn’t like it a bit.
1994: It was Jan 19th, the anniversary of my mother’s death, and in a moment of insanity I accepted a cigarette offered by a friend. I was off to the races. A week later I was making marijuana brownies and drinking Malibu Rum and orange juice. Because I knew I needed more Vitamin C, of course.
1995: The radiation treatment had successfully removed the tumor, but it created so much scar tissue that I developed what doctors incorrectly thought was late-stage asthma. Without proper treatment in Key West, I stopped breathing and was rushed by ambulance in which they did an emergency tracheotomy. A staph infection followed, and my children flew to my rescue. Within days they got me transferred to John’s Hopkins in Baltimore, where a week later, after intensive testing, on January 19th, (again the anniversary of my Mother’s death,) they removed my larynx. I had to relocate permanently to Maryland for a long and uncertain course of recovery. There were complications, and I required sixteen more surgeries over the next 18 months to save my esophagus.
1997: Two painful years had slowly passed. I used art to communicate when I couldn’t by speech, and with all the fight I had in me, I finally healed enough to stop tube feeding, and eat somewhat normally. But I had come off months of oxycodone cold turkey, and when I took a trip back to Key West to reunite with a lover, I drank again. A day later I was smoking marijuana instead of cigarettes, except now I was inhaling through a hole in my neck.
Lady Diana suddenly died and time stood still long enough for me to get my bearings. A friend put a mirror up to my life, and I hated what I saw. Defying her accusations and determined to prove her wrong, I drove back to Maryland to get clean and sober.
On Halloween night I had my last drink, and the next morning I drove back to Key West, renting a back room in a rental house, desperate to end the seven-year downward spiral of 35 years of addictions. But I didn’t know how.
A week later, while loneliness and despair held hands, there I was picking up a 24-hour chip at the 404 Virginia Street NA and AA Clubhouse. It wasn’t just a turning point. I’d had many of those. This was the final and truthful inner realization of what had been a lifelong quest. To be free of addictions I could not conquer on my own. And to understand I needed help. Surrounded by a group of 30 addicts and alcoholics telling their stories, bemoaning the rough edges of their bottoms in ways I knew, in tones I understood, in concert with feelings I’d had and still had was the gateway back home. I wasn’t alone. And I knew I would never have to feel that alone again.
2017: I hope to return to Key West this year to pick up my 20-year chip, to tell them this story, and to thank them for being there. I’d especially like to return to give a big hug to a woman who held up that mirror—who saw my pain, my desperate seeking of help, and who guided me to recovery. I’d also like to give those new in the program a little of the knowledge and hope I was given so long ago. And to gently ask them to keep coming back.
I’ve had amazing years clean and sober in NA and AA. I’m especially grateful to CODA and Alanon because their steps helped me so much to recreate my relationships in ways I’d hoped to but couldn’t on my own.
Cancer, like addiction, is an insidious disease. At seven years sober, in 2003, I was diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer, from which I’m gratefully recovered. Throughout hardships and their victories in recovery, I’ve become a published writer and public speaker, two ambitions I once hardly imagined satisfying with a voice, much less without one. I have been able to film a documentary of my addictions and recovery and be of service to others in ways only sobriety could make possible.
Recovery has restored my mental clarity. Resentments have been forgiven and relationships healed. Today my writing, my art, and my life are mirrors of each other. Every promise and more has come true. All because I have taken twelve steps and kept coming back.
For a woman who once loved too much, I’ve come home to myself and have learned the real meaning of the word that haunted me for years. Real giving has no agenda other than the urge to know itself.
About The Author:
Geraldine is a grateful recovered codependent and addict, with 19 years of continuous sobriety. Her home group is The Red Door group in Braddock Heights, Maryland. She is a three-time cancer survivor, an artist, columnist, and activist. Her published art, writings, and mission statement can be viewed on her website The Goddess Groove, it’s a work in progress.
The author’s artwork is featured in this article. “Unchain My Love,” was a ten-year sculptural healing project, and is currently owned by Daimler Chrysler and is on permanent exhibit in their museum in Stuttgart, Germany. It is also featured in the film by Harrod Blank, titled “Automorphosis.”
The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.