by Jo Black Sullivan
I thought the world used to be magical.
It was full of glitter, fairy godmothers, sparkles and laughter. I lived most of my life craving and seeking that finger-snappy, wand-wavy moment that would change my stars. If I could just find that magical moment, I would be transformed into something ethereal, pure and good.
I see transformation much differently now.
My first concept of transformation was inextricably coupled with the little girl who lives inside me—the one I ran toward when the outside world was too scary. She comforted me when I felt dirty or broken. She whispered stories of fairies, could speak with animals, and pranced on sunbeams.
When I was five, I was convinced I was not good enough to have been adopted by my loving parents. It didn’t start out that way. As a baby, I was safe, accepted and loved. But then I was asked by someone older than me to participate in things no five-year-old should have to do. I knew, even then, my parents could never know. So I did what I did to keep myself safe—I became a secret keeper.
Keeping secrets changes you. It changed me from a little girl who knew nothing but unconditional love and joy to a master liar and hider-of-things.
While it was happening, I did not see it as a transformation. It happened so gradually—without a lightning bolt from a magic wand—that keeping secrets, hiding, painting on a happy face and a building glass façade . . . became my normal.
I was encased in layers of a glass armor so thick that only I could see through them. But I never understood how thick this crystal suit had become. I also had no idea how far removed from reality I was. I had crafted the perfect prison for myself and had no idea I was even inside.
Then things got worse and I had to add new layers to the glass.
My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 27. My mother had already been exhibiting signs of dementia and suddenly I became the primary caregiver, parent and decision maker for both of them. It was not a role I was in ANY capacity prepared to assume. I was living in Europe, newly married, just beginning to see glimmers of cracks in the glass: I just was beginning to process what had happened to me as a child when I suddenly had to walk away from healing myself. I had to assume a new role: helping my parents exit life with dignity and love.
Over the next twelve years—throughout my Dad’s death and then the years caring for my Mom—I transformed yet again.
Without knowing it, I added layers to my glass suit as my family fell away and I was left mostly alone. I was living a double life—not new to me since childhood—and living both to the extreme.
My career was rocketing high and I was living the dream in New York City. I travelled all over the world. I appeared on The Ellen Show, and met with Martha Stewart. I was respected in my industry. Every weekend I flew home to care for Mom, manage healthcare workers, her medicine, bills, doctors and so on. Once, we had been a close-knit family in a tight community. Since I could not justify taking her away from the few things she found familiar, I came to her, and did not move her to me.
Weeks, months, and years passed and people stopped showing up. Stopped sending her Christmas Cards, calling, or being present. I became lonely and scared. I blamed myself for Mom’s situation.
If I had been a better person. If I had done things better. She would not be so alone if I'd done it . . . right.
This of course was nonsense, but I really believed that if I had been a better person, then her sisters would come see her, her beloved nephews and nieces would be there. I understood through the distorted lens of my glass armor why they didn’t like me, but I couldn’t understand how they could hate me SO much they wouldn't even come to visit her! During those years there was no question in my mind it was my fault. All of it. The truth is, a few did keep showing up and I am now grateful for them. At the time, all I could see were the many more who didn’t.
In this period of confusion and fear I finally found what I thought was my own personal magic wand, an elixir that transformed me from my glass-encased reality to the person I felt I was meant to be.
A series of events led me to having a few glasses of wine one evening before I went to see Mom. By this time, she was in the nursing home and our conversations were limited to three questions:
“Jo, am I ok?”
“Jo, where is everybody?”
“Why can’t I go home?”
It was heartbreaking. Weekend after weekend she relived the loss of family, my Daddy and her home. I didn’t know the right things to say or how to answer. I wanted to make her ok but be honest at the same time. I wanted her to be my Mom. I needed my Mom.
The grief was paralyzing. I was overwhelmed by this chaotic and fragmented life and I kept thinking if I could just go a little further, do a little more, her family would return and I would not be so alone in the caregiving. My husband was a rock, but I’d pushed him away and he took his first remote job in Houston, Texas. We hardly saw one another between my Mom and my career and it felt like I walked on a tight rope, a high-wire act to nowhere.
Back to that first night: with a few glasses of wine I felt the magic. I was no longer overwhelmed, uncertain. I knew how to handle her and how to manage her moods and mine. I made her laugh and we joked and sang hymns and everything melted away. Everything. I was transformed.
I was already well on my way to being a full-blown alcoholic, but the glass armor distorted my actions and behaviors. I simply did not know. I thought work hard – play hard.
My antics were amusing and legendary. Like the time I tried to follow James Lipton into the men’s room at the Plaza Hotel. Or the evening I threw up in front of Mercer Kitchen. Cavorting in Amsterdam, running around London, doing lines in the bathrooms of gay bars in NYC. That was not the life of a small town southern girl. That was a glamourous life of someone who was deserving and worthy. Or so the glass suit told me.
Once I realized I could bring that feeling of belonging, invincibility and rightness into the dark world of my Mom and family—there was no stopping me.
I began to drink at the airport before flights down to Virginia. I’d stop and grab wine on the drive from the airport to the nursing home. I’d drink during the days when I was with her and on Sunday nights in the hotel preparing for a 6am flight back to New York. I’d drink and sob watching episodes of Intervention. All while telling myself, I’m not like that.
The transformation took me to the depths. I craved and coddled my hangovers. They became the place in-between. I didn’t have to look at myself or my actions because I was too sick to do so. I could push through the growing mountain of guilt and shame by slowing sipping cola to steady my jittery hands or fried egg sandwiches to soothe my churning guts. It became a science. I knew when the veil would start to lift and I'd schedule late afternoon meetings out of the office. I'd zip down the elevator to the ground floor and find a quiet, dark bar in the garment district of Manhattan to throw back a couple of drinks. That got me through the end of work where I’d join others for “one drink” and somehow find my way home and black out. After, of course, I’d carefully document the number of drinks and the time on meticulous spreadsheets. Weekends were no different with the exception of going to the nursing home.
During this chaotic and fragmented existence, the person who had reshaped my five-year-old self reappeared in my life. Back at home. And at 34, I found myself a child again. It is not worth detailing how those years went. Anyone with a background like mine will know. When I'm honest I know I still have a broken part of me I feel a need to protect.
I carry scars—many self-inflicted. Some will never fade. The damage I did during that time will take a lifetime to repair.
Then it was all done. Mom died in my arms. I had to adjust to living again and absolutely could not. I stumbled ahead for several years until at long last . . . I fell. I fell so hard and so far that my glass armor shattered into a million tiny pieces and I laid broken and bleeding in the middle of it all— bottle in hand—hoping I would never wake up again.
I did. We all do if we are lucky.
I swept up the pieces of myself and packed them in boxes and bags. I began the agonizing process of putting them back together. But this time . . . not as armor. This time . . . as art. As something I looked at, considered the meaning, discarded if I could if it didn’t serve me. Maybe I'll carefully wrap and nurture a few sculptures if they need more care. I am still doing that. And it is hard. I judge myself daily for not being as creative or talented as other voices in recovery whom I admire.
I am going back to school for a Master’s in Social Work and I feel I’m not moving fast enough, good enough. I see people making change right NOW and becoming themselves at a pace I cannot match and I dig for my five-year-old self and ask her to help me and forgive me and love me as I try. Sometimes I feel so far behind I feel it's not worth trying. I stay in bed under the covers and I cry.
But other days I feel I can shape the world in a tiny way and I run 10Ks and cook Thanksgiving Dinners. I sit in the sun. I smile.
I think that transformation isn't a magical and sudden change into something new. It's a slow, painful breaking-apart and putting-back-together. I spent so long managing the intricacies of using drugs and alcohol to NEVER feel or be me—the real me; to just be present with myself has been the most difficult process of all.
I am becoming. I am Jo, living life. And that's magical enough.
About the Author
Jo Black Sullivan is just beginning her story in recovery. Before, she was in the fundraising world for most of her career. She’s worked for everyone from the ASPCA to MADD. After she found her transformation, she went back to school to pursue an Addiction Counseling program and now works with young men who are battling this disease themselves.
Jo will be starting a Masters Degree in Social Work at The University of Maryland Baltimore in Spring 2016. Ultimately, her dream is to open a complete recovery commune tying rescue farm and companion animals with long term treatment/life building which would provide a safe place for the most vulnerable of people and animals. You can follow Jo on Twitter here.