Sarah’s Story (Polly Brown)
I don’t really know why I’ve struggled with mental illness and substance abuse much of my adult life. Perhaps the trauma of growing up in an alcoholic family and of childhood sexual abuse by neighbor boys had something to do with it. Perhaps, also, I inherited a genetic predisposition to both mental health and substance abuse issues. In any case, I have had to deal with both these things my entire adult life. I don’t regret my journey or the cards I’ve been dealt. I have learned a lot along the way and today, I am a basically content 61-year-old who loves life and all its richness and glory. I am clean and sober, in recovery from several addictions, and I am relatively stable when it comes to my mental and emotional health. Indeed, I serve as a Peer Support Specialist and Counselor with my business, Athena Support, sharing my experience, strength and support with individuals who are struggling in their journeys towards recovery. I love this work and find it richly rewarding!
Given all this, I would like to tell you a little about my story, how I got here, and how I have been blessed with a family that has supported me and guided me, enabling me to be where I am today.
My father was a pioneer in the computer field, going way back to the early work of the 1940s. He and my mother got married during World War II, a match made in heaven. In those days, there wasn’t any alcohol in my parents’ relationship—that came later. My brother, the first, was born, followed by my older sister, then me (the middle daughter) and then the baby of the family, my younger sister. I think we were a pretty healthy family, full of love and togetherness, the first few years of my life. My mother tells me that her drinking became alcoholic around the time I was six years of age. This is also the time that I was molested by three neighborhood boys while our family lived in Honolulu for a year where my father had a temporary assignment. That sexual molestation was a turning point in my life. That’s when my dissociative disorder was born.
I excelled in school, being a bright and highly motivated child. School was always a safe, comfortable place for me, a place that was familiar and where I could shine. But by the time high school rolled around, my family was in pieces. My mother’s drinking was practically around the clock. She was unpredictable, sometimes warm and generous and other times an absolute, very scary terror. I pretty much raised myself throughout adolescence, having very little to do with my parents. I hardly went to classes in high school, dropping in to class just enough to do well on the tests. I hung out in the parking lot, across the street at Stanford University, drinking wine and smoking pot. On weekends, we’d drop acid or mescaline. After high school, I was truly lost. I worked as a waitress. I remember believing I was Jesus Christ for some time, able to heal people with my presence. But I was hurting, very troubled. I had no boundaries with men and was extremely promiscuous. I actually had no boundaries, period, and had a lot of frightening experiences where I didn’t know where I stopped and someone else began.
My father suggested college after a couple of years of aimlessness and I jumped at it. I went to a small, private women’s college and, as usual, was a star student. I was celibate through undergraduate school and stopped drinking and drugging, except, that is, during the summers where I resumed my drinking, drugging, and promiscuity. Even though I excelled academically in college, I was very ill mentally, looking back on it now. I was so frightened of everything and everyone. I holed up in my room with my books where I was safe and secure, living in a wonderful world of new ideas and concepts. Upon graduation from college, I got a job in Chicago. It was like a light turned green: I resumed drinking big-time and proceeded to gain weight from all the beer and poor eating habits. I began my career as a cutter, cutting my arms and sometimes my legs with razor blades or whatever I could get my hands on. I was suicidal at times and would call my parents in the middle of the night sobbing and threatening to kill myself. It makes me cringe to think of what I put my family through all those years with my drinking, drugging, cutting myself, and suicide attempts. Around this time, my mother joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober. That was the beginning of some healing in our family. She began to change, to transform before our very eyes. Because of me, my parents and a couple of siblings went to Al-Anon and learned about detaching with love and not enabling me.
After working in Chicago for a couple of years, I drove cab in California for awhile and then went on to graduate school in cognitive psychology at the University of Denver. My parents would visit me and take me on camping trips while I was living in Denver. For the first few years of graduate school, I was drinking a lot. Then, I went to AA myself and experienced sobriety for the first time in many years. That was a Godsend. It was the beginning of recovery for me. Although I didn’t stay sober for the rest of my life, my drinking was limited to a short relapse every couple or four years or so. For the most part, I lived life clean and sober, that is, until 1993 when I smoked crack cocaine in the middle of a blackout from alcohol. To support my crack habit, I stole from my parents and was convicted of a felony. Despite that huge transgression against my parents, they still loved me and welcomed me back into their lives. And they walked through the court process with me, even picking me up from jail late one night when I was released on my own recognizance. It was around this time, I believe, that my mother began to realize how my mental illness was playing a role in my problems, not just the drinking and drugging. She began to read and study PTSD and dissociative disorder. That’s how she is, not just loving, nurturing and always my Mom, but wise and educated too. Because of that, she has been able to be there for me in ways that have been of immense value to me. She has saved me many a night when I have been in the depths of despair, terrified in the middle of a psychotic episode or imagining that an intruder was stalking me in my apartment. My younger sister has been there for me too. I put her through a lot of hell, calling her once when I’d taken an overdose of pills. She has been through thick and thin for me, as has my entire family.
After receiving my PhD at the University of Denver, I had a two-year post-doc in New York. After that, I returned to California for a job. I was drinking at the time and, shortly after moving, entered the chemical dependency inpatient program at Stanford. It was there that I met a gentleman who was become key to my recovery. This man was assigned as my psychiatrist. We worked together for the next 12 years and then via phone for a number of years after that. He was a Godsend. I had seen dozens of therapists over the years, but no one like him. I believe that the EMDR he did with me helped me tremendously. I no longer sat paralyzed at home, imagining an intruder was in the house, right around the corner. I no longer worried that some disaster was about to occur to me or someone I love. Today, I think normal, everyday thoughts, like a normal person.
Every one of my siblings came with me during sessions at this psychiatrist’s office. I am so blessed to have this loving family who cared enough about me and my life to participate in it the way they did. And, of course, my parents came to regular sessions at his office. My brother remembered that night in Hawaii when the three neighbor boys attacked me. He and I share a special bond because of those memories. And I remember being so impacted when my older sister exclaimed how I was just an innocent little girl and to have that happen to me. I had never thought of myself as an innocent little girl and it made me look at things in a different way. I had seen myself as evil. Indeed, I have had to fight this obsession that I am essentially evil—it is an obsession I have let go of today, and that is, in part, due to my loving family who only wants to very best for me.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, I am basically content and happy today. I cherish my sobriety and freedom from cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and the worst of my mental illness. And until recently, I have been relatively stable emotionally and mentally. A couple of years ago, I experienced some severe stressors in my life. Because of that, I have struggled to function and have wrestled with a return of some depression and suicidal ideation. I had been free from all that for over 15 years. I have also developed an abusive side that is very ugly. I know today, however, that there is hope. I understand that the meanness in me is there only because of the trauma I have experienced in my life. I am working hard to become a better person, to nurture all the positive things I have going for me. I have returned to sessions via Skype with the one psychiatrist who has been able to help me. What’s life for anyway but to continue the journey and to better ourselves? One baby step at a time.