By Amy Anderson
At 8 years old, I stared out the second-floor window of our apartment. Children my age played on the playground. The windowpane was warm. The sky was clear. I remember this day now as sharp as the edge of a knife because in that moment, I wanted to die.
By this time in my life, I had been abused by my family—sexually and emotionally—for as long as I could remember. I hadn’t even lived a decade, and I hurt so much I wished it were over already.
Twenty years later, I was an alcoholic and a meth addict.
When SUCCESS MAGAZINE asked me if I would write about my personal story of getting sober and staying sober, I agreed because I know that my rich life today—as blessed and real and challenging and joyful as it is—wouldn’t be possible without the horror and sadness and hurt that came before it. Today my life is so remarkably blessed, I probably make people sick. I’m happy. I’m loved. I’m what a lot of people would consider successful. But none of it would be what it is without the suffering—the pain caused by others and the pain I brought on myself. That kind of pain isn’t unique to me. I’ve heard stories that make my life sound like Disneyland. Some pain is soul-deep. It’s life-altering. But so is our response to that pain.
I know that my life today—as blessed and real and challenging and joyful as it is—wouldn’t be possible without the horror and sadness and hurt that came before it.
This is a story that I’ve only told in recovery meetings, a story some people who have known me for years don’t even know. I’m sharing it because I want others to see their own stories in the same way: as a starting point not as an ending.
Into the Abyss
I had my first real drink when I was 10 years old. More than just a sip out of someone’s glass, the cold beer with a lime that my new stepdad handed me was all mine. I remember lying down, getting a little woozy, and later, eating some crackers to settle my stomach. One beer was plenty for a 45-pound girl.
I grimaced as it went down, but I reveled in the layer of padding the alcohol put between me and the real world, as if someone had wrapped the block of ice constantly pressed against my soul in a fluffy towel. The pain wasn’t as acute. The constant sense of danger wasn’t as imminent.
Soon I was smuggling airline-sized bottles of booze to school and hiding them in my locker so I could sneak a sip before lunch or gym or any other point in the day when one of my two best friends, depression and anxiety, crippled me socially.
At times, I’m told, I appeared self-assured. I walked with my head up and shoulders back (thanks to years in ballet). I spoke with confidence (thanks to a love of words and theater). From the outside, I probably appeared condescendingly cool at times. But the view looking out was very different.
I was hyper-aware of other people, on constant high-alert thanks to my home life. I had a persistent belief that everyone was talking about me, plotting against me or wishing me harm. I might have looked like a turtle sunning itself on a rock, but I felt like a frog in a frying pan.
By high school, I was drinking every weekend. In my world, drinking was as normal as ordering pizza. When adults sipped iced tea with dinner at a restaurant, I was dumbfounded. How could someone over the legal drinking age not be drinking? I had no idea that most people were living a very different life from mine, a life in which alcohol did not have a daily, starring role. I had been raised to believe that adults drank just like they worked jobs, drove cars and complained about taxes. It was part of being an adult.
I now know that, for the most part, the adults in my life weren’t trying to hurt me. They were living under the same delusion that their life was normal, their insane reasoning sound, and their self-centered choices rational. They, too, endured abuse and trauma that drove them to deaden their pain. The best numbing agent they found was alcohol, so they handed it down to me.
Despite my drinking and emotional instability, I earned a full scholarship to college. I carried a flask of whiskey to treat the searing depression that gripped me as soon as I put some distance between myself and my family. I was happy when I was drunk, but I was in a crying fit at least once a week and found myself in a rage over the smallest offenses. I alternated between giving people the cold shoulder and flooding them with emotional drama. As I look back, I realize that sharing daily life with my roommate—a normal, well-loved, faith-filled human being—contrasted completely with my identity. I couldn’t help acknowledge the truth I constantly tried to run from: I was damaged and hopeless.
So I drank more. I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. I experimented with drugs. I broke hearts and had mine broken. And I lost my scholarship.
Filling the Void
For the next five years, I did everything I could to blame my deep woundedness on something other than a withering soul caused by abuse, neglect and my own increasing self-centeredness. I switched jobs, apartments and boyfriends at regular six-month intervals. I tried turning to God. I prayed. I joined a couple of churches. I was confirmed one year, then dunked the next. I did Bible studies and learned to meditate. I prayed and yelled and pleaded with God to fix me, heal me, forgive me, do anything with me that would make me feel like a normal human being.
I tried therapy. It was during these five years that I began having panic attacks. Gradually they became more intense and more frequent. Ten times a day, fear poured over my being in a way that convinced me I was about to die. I got help. I got medication. And thankfully I got out of agoraphobia and back into the world. But I didn’t stop drinking.
Drinking wasn’t the problem, as far as I could see. It was the solution. It was the cleansing release that never seemed to come from on high. I drank whiskey at the bar and gulped wine in front of the TV. I started popping tiny speed pills to keep me going after an all-day bender. I ate less and slept more. I flirted with an ulcer, fought headaches, and developed chronic pain that gripped every area of my body and gave me a reason to take pain pills.
Then at 26, I decided enough was enough and I got married. Fearing my own recklessness and lack of control, I clung to the idea that settling down would slow my drinking and having a partner would ease my emotional turmoil. But of course, a person can’t fix another person. A human can’t be a higher power. One partner can’t carry the weight meant for two. So I moved out after a year, and we divorced.
I lived in an efficiency apartment for a few months after we separated. The bleak emptiness that set in during this time was unspeakable. I felt like an utter failure. No life stretched out before me as it always had. I would be no one’s wife, no one’s mother, no one’s anything. I would have no degree, no career, no purpose. I felt like one of the corn husk dolls my grandmother gave me when I was a child: faceless and meaningless, folded over and over and over on myself.
That’s when I chose to use drugs. The moment when I knew I would kill myself if I had to wake up one more day, I made the call to a friend and asked her to give me some meth.
Most people look at addiction or alcoholism from the outside and wonder, How could they sink so low? What these well-meaning people don’t understand is that sometimes addiction and alcoholism feel like a step up from someplace worse.
The first time I used meth, I thought, Wow, I’m an addict. I didn’t fight it. I didn’t care that I couldn’t control my mind and body. It was a relief, all of it, from the lightness that took over my limbs and the smile that spread across my face to the knowledge that I was, officially and forever, an addict. Because an addict has a purpose, a reason for living, a mission in life: to use drugs. Being an addict was far and away better than being a husk.
Arrival of Grace
The day I walked into my first recovery meeting, I hadn’t worked in nearly two years. I hadn’t bathed in a month. I had no running water, phone or heat in my duplex for almost a year. I didn’t brush my teeth anymore. I had sores on my head from not washing my hair and sores on my face from a relentless obsession that meth gives you for picking at anything close by. I weighed 78 pounds and experienced frequent kidney infections, seizures and voices calling my name in the darkness. I nearly died more than once. I stayed awake for three or four days at a time, getting high and drinking myself into alcohol poisoning. I blacked out often and am still missing large chunks of my timeline.
But I remember one moment as vividly as wanting to kill myself that day when I was 8 years old: I remember the second I knew I was done.
Some say that our lives change in a moment, but really, if we think about it, the actual change happened in a heartbeat.
Some say that our lives change in a moment. We might believe it took us 10 years to quit a job or fix a marriage, but really, if we think about it, the actual change happened in a heartbeat. We might think about changing for 10 years, we might tell ourselves we should make the change for 10 years, but the real change, that decision we make like a snap, occurs within us in a fraction of an instant.
For me it happened one gray morning while sitting in a room with another addict and watching what happened as alcohol and drugs shrank this larger-than-life person into a confused, quivering ball of shame. I looked at him and saw myself clearly, starkly, suddenly. I felt the strangling denial deep down inside me switch off and a light flicker on.
I’m done, I thought.
I made a life-altering decision in the thinnest slice of eternity, as if in that messy room just before the sun came up, the divine reached out to the present moment like a crack of light under the door. I was struck hard with truth so profound and so filled with grace that I couldn’t look away. And I knew: I’m worth living for.
Silently, I asked, Now what?
Looking back, this is the first proof that I’d really changed. Unlike countless times before when I had gritted my teeth, determined to solve all of my problems myself, this time I asked for help. In my most shameful moment, rather than hiding or posturing or denying, I let people see me.
I asked, “Now what? Where do I go? What do I do? Tell me, and I’ll do it.” First the someone I asked was God. Then it was someone with a list of recovery meetings.
In the early 1800s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Faust, a play about a man who makes a deal with the devil for earthly satisfaction in exchange for his soul. In it, the main character says, “Whatever you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.”
That’s the only difference between me now and me on that gray morning. Grace arrived, and I didn’t just let it in. I’ve gotten up every day since and left the door wide open.
Surviving the Flood
Living sober isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. The first years of sobriety were filled with terrible realizations, paralyzing fear and daily confusion. All of the pain I’d been trying to deny, all of the wounds I’d been trying to ignore, and all of the memories I’d been trying to repress came slithering out of the darkness. Quitting drinking and using was one thing. Staying quit was another.
It reminds me of that story about the little Dutch boy who put his finger in the dam to stop up the hole. He stayed out all night, waiting for someone to come and fix it, whistling to himself to keep up his spirits. But eventually, if no one had come, he would have taken his finger out and the water would have broken through in a torrent.
For the first few weeks in sobriety, I was a whistling Dutch boy. Then the flood came. Grief, shame, sorrow, anger, bewilderment, self-hatred and random bursts of unbridled joy. I distanced myself from my family as the truth of our codependence and their own sickness dawned on me like an unwelcome hangover. Eventually, my stepdad, who was always supportive of my sobriety, died of cancer caused by his drinking. In his final year, we were closer than ever, and I asked his forgiveness and gave it in return.
As I tried to ride the waves of realization that arose in my now-clear head, I threw myself into a spiritual program of recovery that sustains me even today. This means, essentially, that I follow a path carved out by countless other sober people who have braved the same floods. I pray to a God that I now know loves me beyond measure, read books written by people who understand what it’s like to live in my skin, and write spirals full of self-reflection and stark unveiling only to share all that mess with another person. I’m guided along the way by women and men who are a few steps ahead of me on the path. And I have the privilege to guide others who come behind me.
Since getting sober, I’ve learned to love myself, forgive myself, and live as the person I was created to be. I’ve earned my college degree, married an incredible man, bought a house, become a mother, created a family of choice, won an Emmy, served on the editorial staffs of seven magazines and started a thriving business I love. My chronic pain is healed, the anxiety and depression are gone, and that feeling of shame has been lifted because I’ve also gotten more therapy, ended my relationships with toxic people no matter how we’re related, and been willing to feel the worst pain in order to find the most freedom. A life like this takes a lot of work for someone like me. Maybe for all of us.
That’s the thing about asking, Now what? I actually have to listen to the answer and be willing to act. Even if it scares me or confuses me or makes me mad. Today the next right action is to share my journey with you, even though it means I cringe as I hit send to file this story; bite my nails while I wait for it to be published; and ignore the fear in my head that tells me I’ll be judged, criticized, or even unduly praised for what I’ve done, seen, and lived.
In the end, I am who I am, and I live this life instead of that old, painful one because I was desperate enough to have enough faith in someone else’s solution for my problems. I can’t really take credit for my sobriety. I believe God keeps me sober one day at a time, but I believe my connection with this higher power depends utterly on my honest and sincere and consistent action—no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable.
This is what I want you to know: Your suffering is just a starting point. It’s up to you to move, to act and to receive the grace that accompanies even the smallest effort. I know firsthand that if you don’t know you have a choice, then you don’t have one.
Today you have a choice. You can keep asking why and allow your suffering to be the name tag on your life. Or you can start asking, Now what? You can leave the door open for grace and see what it lets in.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.