My Story: Getting Clean Young

getting sober young

I’m a person in long-term recovery from addiction. What that means to me, is that I haven’t picked up an alcoholic drink or drug since October 1981. I know to some of you that seems like eons. But to me, it still feels like yesterday. The pain of the end of my use was so acute that I couldn’t imagine surviving it. I had lost everyone — friends, colleagues, family — and the consequences of my use came down on me like a dump truck of bricks on my head. The onslaught of consequences was as relentless as my use had been. Unstoppable. Unforgiving.

I’m writing this because I think it’s important to talk with people, especially youth, about my experience of getting sober at age 18 – and staying that way. It’s a unique experience in that so many people don’t even realize they have a problem until they are well into their adulthood and have experienced more severe consequences that involve the criminal justice system. For some of us, it takes more than a few “2 by 4’s across the forehead” before we get the message.

Yes, I was lucky that way. My criminal activities were all committed under the age of 18, so I don’t have a criminal record to fight against daily in my adulthood. The hurts are still there – with the victims — the property I stole or the automobiles I destroyed that were usually not my own. Most importantly, the hurts I committed against my parents who cared so deeply for me, and of course, the many ways I hurt myself.

I had been a theater kid from age five; performing eventually in professional theater groups around town, including what was then Chimera Theater and the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). I had studied with Andahazy ballet from ages 5 to 16, then furthered my study of dance at CTC. I paid a price for this with my peers – and was relentlessly bullied in private, catholic middle school for three years straight, never telling an adult about it. Just internalizing it. I focused instead on honing my singing, acting and dancing skills, and my entire family system supported me through this passion. This included late night pickups at 2am from my bleary father after a rehearsal ended; my mom taking an overnight Wall Street Journal paper route to help pay for private lessons; supporting me in the performances and fighting with the school systems to allow me to basically check into homeroom daily, then get all my credits from the theater companies I was involved with.

The sacrifices were many from my parents, let alone myself, but this was something I was so totally, utterly dedicated to, that it was like breathing for me.

So imagine what it felt like after studying to be at the top of my craft at the young age of 17, to have the artistic director tell my mother that they were planning for an Asian tour with some portions of a production, but that, even though I had a leading role, he was not opting to take me as part of the tour as he “couldn’t trust me in front of a camera.” My behavior had become too erratic – too drug infused for him to be able to rely on me as a performer.

Around that time I decided it was a good idea to shoplift if I saw something I wanted. It wasn’t because I was in need – it was because I enjoyed the thrill.

One day I heisted a wallet from the old Sears store in the Midway area of St. Paul. I was spotted and the undercover cop was young enough to give chase. I ran like an Olympian down University Avenue until he tackled me. Once hauled back into an office in the bowels of the building, they called my mother, to which she said, “Lock her up. I’m not bailing her out of this one.” (She had wisely started attending Al-Anon to try to keep her sanity…). That was my first experience within the juvenile justice system.

I had gone from a Catholic school girl, to a hard, hitch-hiking, burn out. I had no fear of anyone or anything, and had, in fact, placed myself in the foster care system so that I could get away from my parents who always seemed 10 steps ahead of me and my using patterns. I was exhausted trying to keep up with my addictions while also fending off my mother’s ‘sixth sense’ of where I was and what I was doing. Easier to put myself in the homes of strangers who most often didn’t care about me or my wellbeing. I faced attempted rapes, assaults, neglect and a facelessness that I had never known, now that I was in the “system.” I rarely stayed in one foster home or high school for more than three months at a time. I became one of those hard girls. The kind with the black inner eyeliner and burned out smirk. The kind of girl to be afraid of.

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Suffice it to say, I neglected to show up for a matinée performance at CTC after I had gotten on a tour bus of some punk rock band whose show I had gone to see the night before, then decided to go with them to New York City that night. Not my best decision-making. I was evicted from the show I was performing in and evicted from CTC altogether. Now it was really over. Everything I had studied and worked so hard for – done. Now I had a choice – go stand in line in NYC for a bit part in a soap commercial with 1,500 other girls, or do something different.

I also had to graduate from high school. I watched my boyfriend (and drug supplier) get sober, then my best using friend walked into an AA meeting. She was two years younger than I and wasn’t able to pass her fake ID at the bouncers. We had left her out in the van, freezing, on a cold February night, while we drank, danced, and drugged at First Avenue until the wee morning hours. She didn’t say much to us that night on the way home, but she clearly had a lot of time to think her life through that night. That week, she walked into a local AA meeting she had looked up, and never turned back. She’s been sober since April of 1981, and we are still best friends. It didn’t look good for me at that point, as the first thing her AA group told her was that she “needed to get rid of that friend, Molly”. I had walked with her to that first meeting, pleading with her to just smoke one more joint with me. I was desperate. I was losing everyone.

Suffice it to say alcohol wasn’t my thing but drugs sure were. I loved anything that made me numb, and alcohol just didn’t do it for me. I was practiced at becoming numb and hadn’t had a real feeling in years. Getting sober was terrifying to me, as the prospect of actually feeling something terrified me. But I relented to the pleading & begging of my mother – who was really the only one to stick with me through this ugly journey, and attended an outpatient treatment program that, in hindsight, was perfect. Perfect because I was the youngest in a group of five: a mid-30’s suburban pill-popping mom; a 40-year-old alcoholic who looked about 60 due to his use; a compulsive gambler who had gambled his car and house away; and a compulsive overeater. I don’t know if they do this anymore – I see a lot of doctors only getting sober with other doctors, or lawyers getting sober with other lawyers – but at 18, I saw firsthand the many forms addiction could take – and it wasn’t just an 18-year-old punk rocker into drugs.

If I hadn’t been exposed to this, I’m not sure I would have recognized when I was transferring addictions – to food, then exercise, then relationships, then shopping. I am so grateful Hazelden Outpatient offered this full spectrum of exposure back then.

It was a long process to fully embrace recovery — that whole ‘honesty in all our affairs’ was something I didn’t quite get for a very long time. I had to keep rebelling against something, so the rules of recovery was what I took on. I hated what I interpreted as sexist language in the Big Book, and the chapter “To The Wives” just sent me – let alone the whole “God thing.”

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So I changed all the male pronouns to female when I was asked to read the preamble or the Promises at a meeting. I like to think I helped give other AA attendees a different perspective.

I like to say the first five years of recovery I got nothing but the First and Thirteenth Steps. But seriously, I had the First Step down pat, and although I may have simply been dry, not sober, I hung in there. Until I was ready for the Tenth Step. Then back to taking on Step Two. In other words, it may not be as easy as Steps One through Twelve in perfect order. But as long as you aren’t picking up that drug or drink it will come to you. You will get this. It may take five or ten years before you really start to live in full recovery, but that’s OK! There is no perfect way of doing this program.

No one is perfect, and our recovery certainly isn’t. Progress, not perfection, is what I strive for, as taught to me by so many that came before me. Being clean and sober in early youth was a blast. I found a group of others in recovery around my same age and we went out dancing at the clubs until closing time. We went to see Prince, The Time, The Clash, Henry Rollins, Gang of Four, Iggy Pop – did all of the things one does when one is young – and remembered it the next day! We guzzled water and sweat it out in the mosh pits. Then went to Embers and bugged the poor waitresses there for yet more coffee and whipped cream until 4am because we were poor and couldn’t afford much else. But we laughed and loved life with all our hearts, and learned with each other to deal with life on life’s terms, not ours. We learned to live and let live, and to let go when necessary. We stuck with the winners and watched others die in the throes of their relapses. We learned from others’ mistakes and grew to basically treat our abstinence from drugs and alcohol like an allergy – a life choice.

It has worked for me. And I am grateful. But I got over my doubts as to whether I was an addict/alcoholic or not early on. The ones I see still struggling are often struggling with that concept. Once you know you’re an addict, it’s easier to stop the gears in the mind from grinding. Know it. Own it. Then move forward. If you know what that means, you’re ahead of most.

I can’t tell you I will be this way for the rest of my life, though the odds are pretty good after 37 years that I might be able to stay sober. But not if left to my own devices! I have been ‘crispy’ in sobriety – dry as a bone — as I didn’t go to meetings for 6 or 7 years for a while. Once I went back, I realized it was the community I was missing out on that these rooms offer. Some people get that through church or volunteerism or neighborhood block parties – for me it is going to the same meeting every Friday night and investing in others around me. Caring for them and letting them care about me.

I am far from perfect. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. But I keep trying to get better.

Molly is the Director of Business Development at Vinland National Center in Loretto and Minneapolis, MN. Vinland is a 501©(3) non-profit substance use disorder treatment center dedicated to helping those with multiple disabilities live full lives.

Last Updated on January 14, 2019

One comment

  1. Sally Richardson says:

    Hi Molly!
    Thank you for sharing your journey. I feel that I know you just a bit even though we’ve not met, yet…
    Wonderful insight into your life and that of others going through similar experiences.
    I hope that you touch people with your story.
    Thanks again,

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