Embracing Recovery

Bethany O. discovers how beautiful life can be when you get out of your own way.

"I just want to shout it from the treetops: It works for me!"

That's not quite the sentiment Bethany O. felt when she arrived at Hazelden in Center City, Minnesota, five years ago. Then 35 years old, the corporate consultant saw addiction treatment as an opportunity to challenge what she viewed as tired old ideas.

"I thought the Twelve Steps were hogwash. And the peer support model? No thanks. Just give me 24-hour access to my psychiatrist and I'm good," she recounts.

Determined to disprove her Hazelden treatment team, Bethany decided to do everything exactly as advised, thereby showing the clinicians how very wrong they were.

"And that's how I got out of my own way. I followed directions. I did what I was told— but it worked."

Filling the hole inside

Bethany grew up in a high-pressure, deeply religious family environment where there wasn't much room to make mistakes. Academic achievement was of paramount importance, and Bethany excelled despite struggles with depression that set in during her teens. She had vague knowledge about alcoholism in her family history, but knew better than to ask about it. Alcohol and other drugs were bad. Period. No questions. And all throughout high school and her undergraduate years at Harvard University, Bethany stayed away from alcohol.

"Even though I was a high achiever, I never felt I fit in. I never felt I was good enough." Bethany compensated by overdoing everything to fill "the hole inside"— grades, dating, shopping, working.

And eventually, drinking.

Happy hours and cocktail dinners became part of Bethany's corporate climb into a prestigious consulting career. By the time she enrolled at Harvard Business School at age 25, much of her social life buzzed around alcohol-filled activities. Returning to New York City to relaunch her career after graduate school, Bethany's drinking escalated, turning the corner from being fun to becoming a liability. There was the time she drank alone at a bar and blacked out, only to be nudged awake at the end of the subway line by a transit officer telling her she couldn't sleep on the platform. And there was the night, after heavy drinking, when her cell phone died just as she was leaving a voicemail for her sister in San Francisco that she was walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge and didn't really want to live anymore.

"My sister was terrified. She couldn't reach me. No one could reach me. Hours later, when I plugged in my phone, I heard from frantic family members that my sister was on a flight to New York to find out whether I was alive."

Holding her life together

Still, Bethany didn't recognize her alcohol use as problematic. Drinking helped her calibrate her moods, along with an assortment of prescription medications. At age 34, Bethany "pulled a geographic," taking a job in Minneapolis where she knew no one. That's when alcohol became Bethany's best friend.

"It's interesting how the alcoholic mind works and how I minimized the extent of my alcohol problem. When I talk about these things today, it's like, Are you kidding? How could you not see what was going on? But I honestly didn't recognize alcohol as a problem. I drank to save myself from depression, from my thoughts about wanting to die, from all of the negative feelings consuming me."

The ultimate humiliation came when Bethany was arrested in Minneapolis for driving under the influence. She spent the night in jail, orange jumpsuit and all. Hung over and mortified, her walk of shame from jail to her apartment complex the next morning took Bethany past her place of employment precisely as several colleagues arrived for work.

When her sister suggested rehab, Bethany wasn't convinced.

Part of something bigger

It was only at her psychiatrist's recommendation that Bethany eventually agreed to inpatient addiction treatment at Hazelden. Her initial skepticism about treatment gave way to curiosity when she listened to other patients describe what their lives had been like. She was struck by their vulnerability, their compassion and their sincere efforts to change their lives. It felt like something she wanted.

"I told my story for the first time to a group of women. I talked about the most shameful things in my life that I'd never revealed to anyone, not even in therapy. I believed no one could possibly love me once they knew the truth about the things I had done."

When Bethany finished speaking, the entire group of women embraced her in a big hug. They told her they had one wish: That she could love herself at least as much as they loved her.

"Here was a group of wonderful, capable women who had full lives—careers and families—who were out there in the world doing their thing. But alcohol and pills and other drugs had insidiously scraped away at their lives until they were left to balance on the thinnest little wire."

Bethany had found her people.

"I wasn't alone! These women understood what it was like trying to fake yourself through life, and they weren't going to live that way any more."

Beyond her imagination

So far, so good, Bethany thought when she completed treatment. She was ready to follow more directions. She moved into a sober house, got a sponsor, found a home group, worked all the Steps, including Steps Four and Five, and slowly began to clear away the wreckage.

"I was able to remove some the weights I'd been carrying, weights I didn't realize I'd been dragging around with me. There was a new lightness to me and to life; I was able to see more clearly for the first time."

Nearly two years into recovery, Bethany was asked on a date by a man she'd come to know from her recovery circles. She admired him and wanted to get to know him better but felt conflicted about developing a relationship.

"I didn't think I would ever find love, and I was pretty closed to that possibility. My experience was that relationships caused pain. Plus, my identity was so tied up in being a single woman, doing my own thing. I felt like I had missed the boat on love, marriage, having a family—all of that."

Once again, it was time for Bethany to get out of her own way. When she did, she fell in love. Today, Bethany describes her life as beautiful beyond her imagination: Married to her soul mate, raising two boys and a dog, involved in her recovery community, and working as a corporate strategist.

"My Higher Power has a quite a sense of humor," Bethany offers, "and, fortunately, it mainly revolves around proving how wrong I can be."

The importance of translating recovery

One word stood out to Bethany O. as she filled out her admissions paperwork at Hazelden: recovery. She had heard of "alcoholism" and "addiction" and even "Alcoholics Anonymous," but "recovery" was a foreign concept.

Considering your word choice

Today, as a member of the recovery community, Bethany recognizes the importance of fostering wider understanding about what it means, and what it takes, to live in recovery from addiction. Word choice is a starting place.

"Within the recovery community, we have our own vocabulary," Bethany observes. "For us, being 'a recovering alcoholic' is a term of hope, endurance and optimism. It means you're beating this thing. That's not necessarily what it sounds like to people outside the recovery community. They might think, 'Oh, so you're still an alcoholic. You're still in the throes of addiction.' The message they hear has more to do with the problem than the solution, and that reinforces stigma and negative stereotypes."

Reframing the conversation

A few years ago, Bethany took part in a workshop with the Minnesota Recovery Connection, which featured a presentation by Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's William C. Moyers, vice president of Public Affairs and Community Relations. She learned how to reframe conversations about addiction and recovery in meaningful ways. For example, when Bethany tells someone she's a person in long term recovery, she explains what that means to her as a wife and a mother, as a corporate executive and neighbor, as a taxpayer and a voter—in whatever context seems most helpful in connecting with the other person about the hope and possibility of recovery.

Using your influence

"I believe there are multiple paths to recovery, but if we don't talk about whatever path we've found, those doorways to hope and help won't be open to others. People won't even have the chance to explore what might work for them." By simply having the conversation whenever the moment presents itself, Bethany knows she is putting hope within reach for others.

Learn more about how you can help to promote the power and possibility of recovery with the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy.

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