Every night, while driving home from work, I pass the same run down motel on the main stretch of 108th St. It’s the one with the golden skeleton key on the sign and a red neon vacancy light blinking on and off. Not once have I driven past that motel where the light didn’t read “Vacancy,” and believe me I check every time. It’s been over 3 years since I have found it necessary to stop there for the night, but the habit of looking at that sign hasn’t left me yet.
When I was in active addiction, I was a slave to my substance. Bound and gagged, simply trying to survive. I was no longer living, I was simply maintaining as best I could. I always thought I was so sneaky, so slick. I thought I really had things figured out. In the end, I was still convinced I was getting away with it, and just like so many things in my life, I was wrong.
At that point, everyone in my life had become aware of my addiction and the impact it was having on my family. They came to the heart-wrenching realization that if I wanted to use, I would find a way to do it, whether they were watching me or not. My husband didn’t want to have to babysit me any longer, and he shouldn’t have had to either. All of their anger, and silent treatments, and tearful pleading, had fallen on deaf ears, so one day they just stopped. They let me go and hoped I would find the strength to return to them someday.
Once I realized I had no one left to hold me accountable, my disease kicked in full-force. I would often get to a point where I was too obnoxious for my family to even stand looking at me, and it was on those days where I would simply pack up and leave. I would grab one of my giant purses, stuff it full of the liquor and pill bottles I had stashed around my house, and I would find the nearest motel (usually the one with the little, golden skeleton key on the sign) where I could use my substance in peace.
It was in these motels where I thought I had really found freedom! Freedom from judgment, from ridicule, from pity. I remember laying on top of the comforter on that motel bed on a number of different occasions, binge watching Forensic Files on the tiny television, and thinking, “This is the life…” I didn’t even have to hide my liquor bottle. I could just set on the table right next to me and not worry about anyone walking in and dumping it down the drain.
Meanwhile, my actual life was waiting for me at home…more importantly, my daughter.
I remember the police showing up on one occasion to do a welfare check on me. My family hadn’t heard from me in a few days. I never heard my room phone ring while I was passed out, and forget about calling my cell phone because I had turned it off the moment I signed the credit card slip. My husband was smart enough to know where I was, but too angry and heartbroken to come try and find me himself. He knew I would probably just slam the door in his face, but he still loved me enough to care that I was alive.
Long story short; the police knocked on the door, I told them I was “fine” and they left. The motel owner proceeded to kick me out because apparently squad cars in the parking lot weren’t good for business. So, I called a cab and made my way to the next motel, making a pit stop at the liquor store first, of course.
Sometimes I would return home the next day, sometimes it would take nearly a week for me to return to the land of the living. Sometimes, I would tell my husband I was going to work in the morning, and would then call in sick and go to a motel. Just writing about this makes me sick to my stomach. At some point, the money was going to run out and I would have nowhere else to go…but my disease never told me that! No, my disease had convinced me that I was living exactly as I wanted to. I was too sick to realize that while I was busy escaping my life and responsibilities, the consequences were stacking up higher and higher all around me. I was building my own personal prison, brick by brick.
I didn’t know that the people who loved me were losing sleep at night praying that I was ok. I didn’t know that they were hoping to hear the phone ring, and praying they wouldn’t at the same time. I didn’t know my daughter cried herself to sleep the nights that I was away, because she missed her mommy so much. She was just 3 years old, and she already knew a little too much about an illness that her mommy was hell bent on ignoring.
You see, we can escape our lives temporarily, but eventually we have to deal with all we have neglected while we were away. That is, of course, if we are lucky enough to make it back to our lives at all before our addiction steals that from us too.
I didn’t find recovery by choice. Recovery found me. Recovery found me in the psych ward of my County’s Mental Health Facility after I was reported missing for 5 days. At that point in my addiction, I would have rather died than suffer through withdrawals and I almost did…all alone in some dingy motel room where people paid in cash so they wouldn’t be found. A disease much more powerful than I am almost killed me, and it took a higher power much stronger than that to save me.
Early in recovery, I found it really difficult to drive past motels without taking a mental note of which ones had available rooms. This may seem so trivial and pathetic, but you have to understand that I was in the process of healing. I was working on retraining my brain. Throughout my active addiction, it had become habitual behavior for me to keep track of these types of things, things like hiding credit cards and cash around my house and remembering which rooms and closets I had hidden my liquor. Living in active addiction, I always had to have a Plan B and even C, because I never knew when I would no longer have a bed to sleep in at night or when my husband would come home and dump my liquor or take my keys. Even after sobering up, I was still so obsessed with my own fear of relapse, that it seemed I was already preparing for one.
I have been sober for some time now. I can proudly say that I have not picked up a substance in over 3 years. That means, at a minimum, Monday-Friday, I have driven past that motel hundreds of times and never once have I decided to give up my recovery for one night of escape. What’s more, every time I see that neon vacancy sign, I choose to keep driving and go home to my family. The anxiety is gone. The fear that I won’t make it home has left me. Every day that motel reminds me of where I was not too long ago. In the past I would have found another route home just to avoid that reminder, to avoid feeling any sort of guilt or regret. Today, I use it to fuel my recovery.
What’s symbolic about this, for me, is that the motel is always there should I choose to pick up again. There’s no shortage of dingy motels in Milwaukee, WI. If that motel someday says “No Vacancy”‘, I could surely find another one with a room available. The gift of choice was returned to me the moment I stopped answering to my disease. I am no longer willing to trade all of the beauty in my life, all of the gifts recovery has given me, for one night of escape. Sure, that drink may sound appealing sometimes and I know of a few pills that could help me forget, but then I ask myself if I am I willing to accept all that comes along with that drink or drug? For me, picking up a substance is the equivalent of abandoning my daughter, husband, family and friends, and for what exactly? Despair? Misery? Regret? Withdrawals? No thank you! There is a reason I pray every day that I never forget who I was when I was using.
The remembering is what keeps me from the doing…
I am grateful every day that I didn’t die alone in that motel room. I thank God that I was given a second chance at life. I don’t know why I was given this chance, and maybe I don’t need to understand it. What I do know, is that there are so many who were NOT given this chance, many of whom were my friends, and because of this, I am committed to making every second count. I am committed to carrying the message to others in need, because just as addicts are dying every day, an entire generation is being born.
There are some days when my mind tells me that a drink or pill would cure what ails me, and then I very quickly remind myself that one slip in judgment is lethal for me. I know that I have the ability to use again, I have that choice today. What I don’t know, is if I have the strength to recover again. And THAT is what keeps me pushing forward on those darkest days. I choose to live. And when the time comes that I do leave this earth, it will not be because I gave in to my disease, but because I have accomplished all that God has set out for me in this life and more.
Some days, I still feel the ache in my heart. The pain of lost time, especially with my daughter. It’s as if my heart was once shattered into a million pieces, and it has never quite beat the same since I glued it back together, BUT…it is beating! I can never give those days back to my child, but I can do everything in my power to make sure I never leave her again.
For any addict or alcoholic still suffering, please know that you DO NOT have to die from this disease. There is hope!
We do recover!