Life in recovery: ‘There’s something about being out there
every day, getting stronger in front of the world’
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Public Access Journalism
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The subject of this story requested that her last name not be
used to maintain Alcoholic Anonymous’ tradition of anonymity in the media. Her real
first and middle name are used here. She lives in the same Miami neighborhood as the
reporter. The lede grafs are provided as an explanation for readers.)
Angela Lee’s sobriety date — Dec. 20, 2000 — is embedded in her memory, like a
birthday or a wedding anniversary.
It’s the day her body shut down from chronic alcohol poisoning, the diagnosis on her
charts at the South Miami Hospital Addiction Treatment Program, where she spent the
next 65 days.
It was the kind of rock-bottom moment many alcoholics describe as their wakeup
call: convulsions, teeth gnashing, a near-death experience in which she says she felt God
hold her in his palm and judge her. For Angela, 54, a well-educated woman from an
upper-middle class Miami family whose ambition at one time was to become a state
senator, it was the beginning of a difficult, dangerous journey she will be on until the day
she dies. It’s called recovery.
Now addicted to good health and exercise, Angela walks, skips and high kicks every
day through Coconut Grove, Fla., a leafy neighborhood south of downtown Miami where
the most visible sign of her recovery is her morning ritual of swinging on the hanging
roots and vines of banyan trees, pulling her petite frame up for leg lifts and pull-ups.
Schoolchildren and commuters call her the “tree lady.” A commercial real estate
broker, she openly shares her story of alcoholism and recovery with everyone she meets.
But for this story, Angela prefers using her first and middle name because she does not
want to violate Alcoholics Anonymous’ tradition of maintaining anonymity in the media.
This is how she’s made it this far:
THE MORNING RITUAL
I get up at 4:30 every morning and I drink a whole pot of coffee. I never use an alarm
or wakeup call. I have trouble sleeping. I wake up every two hours. I don’t know if I was
like that before because I was always drunk then. Wine, scotch, you name it. It was
nothing for me to drink an entire bottle of white wine by myself. Four scotches in one
evening was not unusual. Those last two months before I crashed, I had nothing else in
my system but alcohol. I was in an abusive marriage, I was deeply in debt. I drank to
calm myself … now I just can’t wait to get up. My time in the morning before work is so
absolutely terrific. I light two candles on a coffee table next to the couch. I sit in my
walled-in patio and drink coffee. I smoke. And I just talk to God.
I write in my journal for one to two hours on a company pad, longhand, every
morning. I’ve been doing the journal for five years. It’s a record of my recovery. I feel
that it’s my assignment. …
I leave my home when the sun comes up, about 7 a.m. I walk over to Plymouth
Congregational, the church I’ve belonged to since I was a child. I say prayers to the front
door. It’s usually just five minutes, but it’s a really critical part of what I call my
“survival routine.” I dance around and do high kicks in front of the church. Then I go to
the first vine hanging from what I call the Tree of Life. It’s the main banyan near the
church and it’s the tree where I played as a kid. Then I move on to other vines and walk.
When I’m there, I don’t feel so afraid and don’t feel I need to drink … I used to
worry that people would think I’m a show-off. I would walk down Main Highway and
wonder if people could see this big A emblazoned on my head: for Angela. Anonymous.
Alcoholic. But now I just can’t worry about it. I feel 12 years old now. I feel super.
There’s something about being out there every day, getting stronger in front of the world.
Those commuters going by, many of them know me, and it’s so important for me to have
them see me sober. Sometimes I’ll do it twice in one day. If I have nothing to do, that’s
what I go do because I don’t like to be bored. It’s dangerous.
A BAD MARRIAGE
Leaving my second husband was part of my recovery. In the treatment center, they
don’t recommend ending a relationship while you’re in your first year. They don’t want
you to make any big decisions because they might be the wrong one. I never told
anybody I was being abused. I was afraid he was going to kill me and, because he is an
alcoholic, too, I knew I would drink if I stayed. I had bruises all over my body. At final
checkout at the residence program, the nurse asked me, “What caused all those?” It was
mortifying. I was really embarrassed. In all the self-help groups I attend, I hear so many
other women say how it’s one of the hardest things for a woman to talk about. I’m so
ashamed of it, even more than the drinking.
I have one son from my first marriage. He’s 30 now. As a mom, I am so mortified,
so ashamed. I’m trying to give my son a lot of space. He’s embarrassed, but he’s
unbelievably loyal. He’s always treated me with respect. He is my one true, loyal love.
He never rejected me or treated me wrong. I worry about him. I feel alcoholism is a
genetic disease. He’s so much like me. He’s going to have to quit drinking some day. I
try not to nag. I don’t want him ending up like I did.
Since I left my husband I have never gone out on a date. Part of it is how good I feel.
No one is going to get in my space. Nobody is going to interrupt my momentum. I stick
to my routine. I rarely eat out at night. I feel sexy and I’m attracted to men, but I really
want to be alone. I don’t think I ever will have a relationship.
In the beginning, after I got out, I went to 10 (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings a
week, all groups, everywhere. Now I go to about four a week. If a friend speaks across
town, I go to that. On Tuesday nights, I’m active in the women’s fellowship. They are all
addiction support groups. I also go to Bible studies, meditation workshops. I go to listen
and talk and to keep track of my other friends … I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for that
group … Everybody’s story is different, but the one thing we have in common is our
terminal disease. If we’re not bound together, we’re not going to make it. There’s that
bond of “you share your story with me and I share my story with you. Let’s hang
together and get better together.” This sort of feeling happens the minute you go to the
hospital. It’s so beautiful.
A huge part of my recovery is how warm people are when I’m out on the street. We
stop and talk to each other. “How are you?” “What’s going on?” It makes me so glad I’m
alive. It’s so comforting for me to know so many people in this neighborhood are rooting
for me. When I go to Milam’s (grocery store), people will be looking in my cart to see if I
have booze in there or cigarettes. I’ll see people looking in my cart and we start laughing.
It’s like being in Weight Watchers and they’re trying to catch you buying ice cream.
I’m very aware there are a lot of people who work in the commercial real estate
business — bankers, buyers, sellers, other real estate brokers — who probably feel
uncomfortable around me. Some (are) worried about themselves and don’t want me to
recruit them into the world of recovery, or they might be a recovering alcoholic and don’t
want me to know. Or they might suspect I’ll relapse — because the odds are I will — and
they don’t want to work with me. My clients and friends know, but I can do that because
I work for myself. Some clients are still weird about it. I don’t get invited to cocktail
parties … and I won’t ever. Coming out about my recovery is not the smartest thing I’ve
ever done in my life, but I have to, even if can’t do another real estate transaction. I
wouldn’t be here otherwise. To me, it’s a miracle I’m alive.
Some of my closest friends who I used to drink with were supportive for the first two
years, some financially. Now, some of them don’t want anything to do with me. If
somebody drinks a lot, they don’t want to be around somebody who is not drinking. All
recovery books say you have to change pretty much everything. I don’t remember cutting
ties with people; they cut ties with me. I had two girlfriends who really sustained me. One
is single and in and out of recovery. She lives in a penthouse … Right now she’s in a
treatment center in Malibu. I’ve known her since childhood. When I moved in, she had
just gotten out of treatment. I was told to sever those ties. Friends in recovery, my
therapist, everybody thought I ought not to live there. But she let me stay with her for
free. I was so beholden and I was trying to help her. I couldn’t afford rent, but here I was
living in a beautiful penthouse. It gave me a little self-esteem. It was a survival thing.
We’re still really close friends and I pray for her.
LIVING IN FEAR
I could crash and burn. Fear of relapse, fear of dying is big. I’m more fearful of
dying because I already did. I’m so allergic to alcohol, I can’t make a mistake. For a lot
of people in recovery, it’s not unusual to go for a while and have a drink and find out you
can’t do that and start all over again. I can’t do that. The doctors told me, “You can never
have a drink again.” My throat would just close up. I’m so scared of drinking by accident,
of picking up somebody’s drink or eating a dessert with liquor in it. Godiva chocolate
liqueur would be like shooting me with heroin. I love my life so much. I have so much to
give. I think I can make a positive difference in people’s lives. I can make a good
example for my son and be proud of myself. My life could be so short because the
chances of my drinking again are so strong.
The key to recovery is to get your own act together and then help someone else. It’s
the joy of service to someone else. If I relapse, it’s going to let a lot of people down.
When somebody comes to me and asks for help and I send them to a recovery group or
counselor, I really try to stay in touch with them and let them know I’m rooting for them.
FINDING RELIGION (AGAIN)
The main thing that has sustained me is my relationship with God … He never left
me. I spend a lot of time talking to God, asking for him to forgive me. I feel like my
prayers are answered all the time … So many times I’ve thought about drinking and
thought, “I miss it” or “Oh, I wish I could drink.” But I instantly picture pouring chlorine
down my throat. The minute I feel like drinking, I stop and ask God to make it go away.
THE FIVE-YEAR MARK
Five years is a real turning point. It’s a big deal to make it that long. After five years,
people drift away, you get a comfort level, you don’t go to meetings as much. I was
scared to travel out of Miami in the beginning; I relied on my daily schedule and routine.
It was a rigorous schedule wrapped around staying sober and being mentally and
physically fit. Never in those first two years did I travel once or go into a restaurant and
sit at the bar and look at the scotch bottles. After two years, I started to feel more secure.
Now, a little over five years into my recovery, I own my own company. My first two
years in business have been incredibly successful. It’s a miracle. I have my broker’s
license and a registered real estate brokerage company. My son just came to work for me.
I have a credit card and good credit now.
I never traveled until this year. I just got back from a 30-day trip. I drove to
California. I stayed in good hotels with in-room bars. I went to restaurants where I used
to love drinking with friends. It was almost like a final exam. It was like getting my
doctorate degree in recovery.
In AA, they give gold medals for each year of recovery. I carry my IV and my V. It’s
a big deal.
(Jodi Mailander Farrell is a reporter for The Miami Herald.)
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