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The thing about suicide is to make sure that it is an airtight thing no one who feels worthless and insignificant enough to take their own life is going to tolerate being disabled for the rest of their life. It happens too often, leaving the survivors burdened with the shame and the responsibility and stuck caregiving the thankless suicide for life. What a horrendous thought. So I researched it well. I would not be alive today if I didn t have Bill McLaren s phone number in my pocket that day. When I woke up in the hospital it was the only phone number I had. I also would not be alive if he hadn t answered the phone. I was on a treadmill of pain medication, averaging 80 pills a day. I had lost my family and everything I owned was left back in Hawaii with my ex-husband. It was his now. I was penniless. I was unemployable. At 51, I was now living with my mother. I was a loser. I saw no way out. On a Thursday night, I walked around the corner to one of the biggest AA meetings in Los Angeles. Celebrity speakers draw attendance that pours out of the doorways of the church and spills onto the sidewalk. I was there to find the familiar faces of friends I had known for nearly 30 years in AA. I finally admitted to myself that I needed help. I was looking for it. I was simply desperate. After 27 years sober, I lost my way. It was chronic pain that took me out. I had tried everything, but the back surgeries, the years of compensating, the stress of life everything combined opened the door. I walked into the Pain Management Clinic that day with all my defenses down. When that doctor offered me 5 prescriptions, I took it. Four back surgeries and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on every alternative method I could find had not relieved me of pain. Maybe this would do it. And maybe, deep in my heart, I just wanted relief from the pain that was my life. Although it may sound odd to someone who is not in a 12-step program for recovery from addiction, I actually did not realize that I was loaded or strung out on pain medication for nearly two years. I was taking the medication that the doctors had prescribed. I was obtaining them all legally. No doctor shopping, no alternative pharmacies and no other drugs. It was strictly by the book. My medications were As Needed, which was a license to go full board on everything. Having had chronic pain for years, I felt entitled. Right? Who wouldn t? So I dove in to my medication with gusto. At first it made me nauseous. I also got itchy, and scratched so much that I opened up wounds all over my arms that bled when I scratched. I thought it was a skin disease and I sought treatment from dermatologists throughout Oahu. Not one of them ever mentioned that it might be from the drugs I was taking.
But of course, that wouldn t stop me. I was taking Percocet, oxycodone and oxycontin. Those were my main drugs. I learned to chew the oxycontin to bypass the time-release coating. It was bitter but the relief was amazing. I was constantly cycling through prescriptions to keep from becoming too dependent on one or the other. I added Xanax and Soma and a myriad of other, lesser drugs. At first, I was sleepy all the time, what junkies call, On the nod. I learned however, that the more you get used to that stuff, the more hyper you get. Without pain I could run miles. One day I rented a carpet cleaning machine and cleaned my entire 4-bedroom house, every sofa and mattress, and my three Golden Retrievers in about 6 hours. Painlessly working throughout the night, I returned the machine at 6 am the next day before work. On the way, however, the cops stopped me for falling asleep behind the wheel. Instead of arresting me, they called my daughter to come and get me. It was the first time I publicly felt the sting of shame as a result of my behavior. Yet still, I didn t connect my drug use with the shameful behavior. To me, I was simply tired from being up all night doing the cleaning. Finally, the day I was divorced, I stood in the courthouse and tried to understand what was happening. I was ending my marriage of 27 years; my whole adult life- in a courthouse in Hawaii. No trial, no attorneys, nothing. I didn t understand how that had happened.I was agreeing to walk away with nothing more than two Golden Retrievers and whatever I managed to take with me when I flew back to the mainland. I didn t even get to say goodbye to my daughter, Eliza. I was totally alone; all my resources and all my people had become disengaged. I arrived the next day in Los Angeles.I was done. I needed a drink. The game was over; I knew I was loaded and what was more, I didn t care. That daughter wasn t speaking to me. She was tired of my ranting and raving. I had seemingly insurmountable problems that she couldn t solve. But worse than that, I had given up trying. All I could do was complain. Now I was at a crossroads. I felt real despair. I was going to commit suicide. There was no one left to care. My mother was sick of me. My family had nothing to do with me. I was never going to work again. I was done. I went to that Thursday night meeting hoping to find an old friend from AA to talk me out of it. Funny thing about sobriety is that the more time you have, the further away from the beginning you are. My friends had all been sober forever. I walked up to my friend Al and asked for help. I told him I was suicidal. He suggested that I call his wife. So I moved on to my friend Richie. He said the same thing. I told both of them
that I was really in trouble. They both were fully aware that my husband had pretty much kicked me out of Hawaii without a dime. They didn t want to touch this toxic mess. I took their non-reaction to mean that I was indeed, entirely insignificant and useless. I made up my mind. I walked out of there determined to kill myself. As I left the building I ran into my little sister s last sponsor. McLaren. You look like shit, Vicki. What s up? I knew of McLaren from years ago. He was the secretary of the first AA meeting I ever attended 27 years before. He wore leather and chains and drove a Kawasaki. He shaved his head and had a thick Bronx accent. He had a reputation for helping people no one else could help. I didn t think that included me. I m going to commit suicide. He wrote his phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. Then he asked me for mine; I gave it to him. I didn t think he would call me. I walked straight home and swallowed 200 Tylenol. It was a miracle that I got to UCLA emergency in time to save my liver. I spent the next twelve hours being fed charcoal and mucomystthat saved my life; nothing could resuscitate my soul. I hated them for waking me up and forcing me to drink that shit. I cursed the doctors and nurses from my stupor and vowed to try again. I didn t want to live; I didn t even want to stay sober. I didn t fucking care, either one way or the other. When morning came I was surprised to have been admitted me to the hospital. Why? The beds could be used for someone who deserved to live. I didn t want to live. Couldn t they see that? It infuriated me. However, when I finally got there, and when the noise and motion died down, I found myself in reality. I started to think. I had one phone number in my jeans pocket. I asked the suicide babysitter to hand me the piece of paper in my jeans pocket because I couldn t get there with all the wires attached to me. I called Bill McLaren. He answered the phone in a thick Bronx accent. Where were you last night? I called you right aftah the meetin. That surprised me. I couldn t believe he even remembered me. I tried to commit suicide. I m at UCLA. What room numbah? I ll be right over.
It had been a long time since anyone had cared much about me. I hung up thinking he would never show up. Alcoholism is a disease of despair. The drugs, the alcohol are the last resort we use to assuage and defer pain. When so much had gone so wrong for so long, it was almost impossible to see or feel hope. Then Bill showed up. He performed that simple act of kindness that changed my life. Maybe somewhere, buried deep, there was a tiny, insignificant spark of hope. It was so deeply buried in my despair I had forgotten it. Slowly, deliberately, that man fanned that endarkenedspark. It was imperceptible, but it was happening. Like oxygen to a flame he was stoking my life force. His very presence gave me a sense of dignity I thought I would never feel again. He was almost a stranger to me, yet he was there. And he stayed there and talked with me the entire day. I can only remember one thing that he said to me over the next five days in the hospital. He said, Vicki, yagotta make a life around who ya are, not who ya think ya should be. I was miserable in the hospital. I had not one shred of any intention to stay sober. I knew how; I had done it most of my adult life. I knew intuitively that the problems that I suffered from did not arise from a lack of AA. My problems stemmed from something that AAand sobriety simply could not reach. Some darkness inside remained so closely guarded that nothing could reach it. And as it lay festering, it grew in power until finally, it was more powerful than I. I couldn t stuff it down with compulsive overachieving, cleanliness, perfectionism, control or acts of heroism. The only thing left to do was to use or drink. And when that doctor gave me those prescriptions, I was ready. But the chemicals only worked for a little while. The darkness eventually overtook me. The respite had lasted only two years. And now, there I was, reaching for a bottle of plain, old Tylenol. I had calmly peeled the wrapping away and proceeded to swallow the entire contents at once. And now I found myself in the hospital with a babysitter and probably headed out to the psych ward. So instead of ending it, I had made it so much worse. You have to build a life around who you really are, now who you think you should be, he said. I had never done that. My entire life was a monument to what I thought you wanted me to be. You meant my children, my husband, my family of origin, teachers, counselors, employers, friends, the PTA, the police, the whole goddamned world. And yet, here I was in the hospital for committing suicide. What the hell had gone so wrong? Why hadn t I been able to please them? What was wrong with me? I had been sober all those years. My daughter had graduated with honors. My stepsons were well established in their fields. My house was always clean(when I
still had a house to clean). Freshly prepared meals were on my table. I was active in the community, the church and the schools. I performed heroic tasks for all of them to make everyone happy. What had I done for me? More importantly, what did me mean? I had no idea. What did I want? How did I define happy? I had simply no idea. I understood playing the role of mom or wife. I knew how to do them well. I was really happy doing that. I thought. Until I began to unravel the truth. For the first time I began to explore the truths.Bill asked me, in a perfect world, what did I want to do with my life? What would make me truly happy? My first answers were predictable: I wanted everything back. But was that really the truth? Did I really want to go back? No. My dream was to create a new life. I just didn t think it was possible. How could I get there? I was broken and damaged beyond repair. I had no resources and no means. I couldn t see any remote possibility for creating a life. For the first time in my life I expressed what I really felt. I began to explore painful feelings. I trusted Bill; he had shown up for me when no one else would. He came bringing a message of hope. You can do anything you want to do, he said. And I wanted that to be true so badly that I believed him. Bill came to the hospital and spoke to me every day for the next five days. Each day I was gaining just a little hope, and I was withdrawing from the massive amount of pills and booze I had been consuming. The fourth day, the doctors let my suicide babysitter go. The fifth day, they released me into Bill s custody instead of admitting me to the psyche ward. Something had subtly shifted in me, and even these clinicians could see the change. I spent the next three months attached at the hip to McLaren. His profession took him on movie locations where he had a lot of down time. He was currently on a project filming around Los Angeles, so I drove out to whatever set he was on and hung out. In the process he began to show me a new way of thinking. I had done AA for 27 years. Had AA failed? I came to believe it was not the program, nor was it the way I worked the program. I was living with a parallel set of issues I had failed to identify, living side-by-side with my alcoholism. I am an Adult Child of Alcoholics, ACA as it is named. I had an entirely untreated set of problems that coexisted with my alcoholism and ultimately, led to a catastrophic relapse in my using and drinking.
I had encountered ACA twenty years before in the early days of its inception. In those days participants arrived in candlelit rooms carrying blankets and teddy bears, often sobbing hysterically or whimpering throughout the meetings. It was new, experimental and awesome. There was only one book on the topic with the same name, Adult Children of Alcoholics. I devoured it. But it was hard to keep it up; few meetings and irregular guiding principals made it difficult. My husband thought it was nonsense. I moved away. I continued to live as I always had. I ran myself ragged trying to please everyone else, believing that was my purpose in life. I had one speed: super-high. I was running to keep ahead of the chaos behind me. Everywhere I looked, I was terrified by disorder and chaos. I ran a tight ship; my household had to stay on schedule. I had to keep a regular rhythm and predictability. I said it was to keep my children on track, but was it really? Or was the intention to keep the sense of impending doom at bay? I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. And drop it did. Because although we had met in AA, I married a practicing alcoholic. My husband was a periodic. He could stay sober for lengths of time and then he would become a debilitating, hallucinating, hibernating, abusive, horrific drunk. He would lie in bed and call for deliveries. His liver would swell and he would turn yellow. He would slur and stumble. He would argue, beg and cajole. He would puke and become violent. The first time he drank was the day before my wedding. We were in Honolulu and getting married the next day in Maui. I was young, 17 years younger than he was. I believed him when he told me it would never happen again. Two years later I stood looking at him, holding my newborn infant daughter in my arms. I cried the hysterical, deep sorrowful cry that comes when all the worst fears of your life hurtle forth into the light of day. There it was; him. All I ever wanted for my daughter was not to do to her what my parents did to me! I sobbed and sobbed uncontrollably. For me, starting out with the promise of a bright future for my cherished child, I was devastated. Yet here it was. Again, he promised. And again, he broke that promise; over and over again. Each time I learned to take my American Express and move to a hotel nearby. But the damage was distinct. It was real. And surprisingly, it was ME who had become the enemy! I was the compulsive cleaning person. With four Golden Retrievers and two cats, there was never a hair in my house. No coffee cup ever grew cold. No one could escape my need for order. I was relentless.
And I was wound too tightly. Anything could easily set me off. I was enraged but it lay just beneath the surface. It took only a small spark to set it off. But it was more than random rage; it was fear. And fear walked with me everywhere I travelled. No amount of money, property or prestige could take away that awesome fear. I was an overachiever. I was well known and liked. I was a responsible member of the communities in which I lived. But I was morbidly afraid of people. I could take hours to get dressed, worrying and fretting if I had my game-face right. I was terrified I was going to screw up. I knew that beneath the surface, there was nothing. I was empty. I was empty, scared and alone. I had nothing that anyone wanted. I was broken and different and unacceptable in a way that nothing could reach. Yet I masqueraded like a chameleon, picking out the patterns in your behavior and mirroring them as best I could so that no one would know. When my husband drank, he set off every alarm. My daughter and I would cower in the corner wondering which man was coming in the door the drunken one or the good one? Yet it was my compulsivity that caused the most damage. I judged the world in black in white; is it good or bad? Is it with us or against us? Out or in? McLaren helped me understand. I had learned all those skills to manage the world I grew up in. In a violent alcoholic home, it was essential to be good, to be below the radar. I had to learn to survive, and my survival skills were absolutely necessary to get through my childhood. But as an adult, what I had learned was killing me. I married that practicing alcoholic because the first skill I learned was to ignore my intuition that there was something wrong with mom or dad when they drank. To say anything, we risked bodily injury. If we were hungry or scared or needed something from an adult, we were inconvenient. When they had their violent fights, we were inconvenient. We hid as best as possible but my siblings and I were often collateral damage. And like I was in my own household, my mother was just as compulsive. She tried desperately to please the alcoholic husband. She ran herself ragged trying to hold on to something that was impossible to hold on to. And this was not her first, either. She had divorced the first alcoholic husband when she got knocked up by the second! I am not talking about lower income families. I am describing blue-blood Hollywood. I went to the best schools and lived in the best neighborhoods. I grew up one block from the famed Beverly Hills Hotel. But alcoholism has no limits. It affects everyone. And I was learning that its affects are generational. My father never knew his father. He was an alcoholic traveling salesman. He was the head of his household at a young age when his father died suddenly. Did he kill himself? I will never know. It is a
family secret buried with my father. Many secrets went with dad. And many of them I have discovered in my own heart. Alcoholism is a disease of shame. It leaves everyone in the family immersed in shame, fear and deep sadness. And because of it, we, the children of alcoholics, give up on our selves to survive. We give up our feelings because they are inconvenient. We give up relationships because of our shame. We give up our own needs and desires because we have no expectation of ever realizing our true selves. And we are morbidly afraid of intimacy because someone might find out. Now, my life depended on finding out who I really was. I learned, through McLaren, that I needed to know myself. I became active in ACA and AA. I found a sponsor and began reading the many texts on the subject available. And although it is impossible to reinvent ourselves 180 degrees in a second, I began to rebuild and reinvent myself authentically, one degree at a time. The significance of that phrase reverberates in me every day. You need to build a life around who you are, not who you think you should be. It runs through my life like a fugue; themes and variations. I know now that it is the essence of how to live a good life. A few years ago, Bill and I became engaged. But in August of 2010, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in January 2011. I walked through it with him, every step of the way. Before he died, Bill said, Vicki, you are my hero. I looked at his sick body, so shriveled and small from months of illness, tears welling up from within. I guess we are even then. Because you are my hero.
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