*Dan's Note: This piece is much longer than I usually put up on Transformation is Real. (Much, much longer.) However, I decided to leave it in its entirety because it's so good. Anna shares a detailed review of where she was, what happened, and what it's like now. And I gotta tell you—I was sucked right into her story of remarkable resilience and transformation. I know you'll like this long-form piece as much as I did too, so . . . enjoy! -- Daniel D. Maurer
by Anna McWilliams
When I was a child, I developed a fantastic imagination and was a gifted daydreamer. I had to be. It was how I survived, even though I didn't know it at that time.
What needed surviving? My childhood.
I was born in poverty in Russia. My mother was an alcoholic and addict. All I can remember of my father is his continual absence. I was estranged from my older half-sister, Oksana, and since our mother was incapable of fulfilling her parental responsibilities, I was in charge of caring for my baby half-sister, Julia. Over the years, my memories of Russia have grown foggier but I still believe that my mother was a prostitute. Maybe she did her best, but either way, I remember neglect, being cold, being hungry, and being scared.
Eventually, my grandmother revoked my parents' parental rights in court and put my little sister and me up for adoption. Although other children who live with their own families ostracized orphans and made fun of them, it was a big improvement to living with my mother. For a change, I consistently had hot meals, a bed, toys, and I was no longer responsible for Julia's livelihood. However, she was put on a different floor with the younger orphans.
(Oksana had the fortune of living with my grandparents when Julia and I were living with our mother and then the orphanage. When it was time for me to go to school, however, I moved in with my grandparents and Oksana was displaced to a resort town on the Black Sea. She was forced to live with her father, who, like my biological father, did not have many admirable qualities. A deep-seated resentment inside Oksana grew toward me. I was unaware of it until about 10 years later when she moved to the U.S. on a student visa to live with my parents and me.)
In 1995, a family from Connecticut adopted Julia. In ‘96, I was adopted by a different family from Washington, DC. (Julia developed an addiction to heroin, but by the grace of her HP, she is now over a year sober and has a baby girl.)
America! I was going where every other kid on my block only dreamed of going.
I was going to the land of Donald Duck cartoons and the soap opera Santa Barbara. I had no qualms about leaving Russia. I remember being a little nervous but had no sense of longing to stay where I was born. I knew my new life was going to be perfect. And it was...for a while. I went from being Anna Chenenova Vasiliavna to Anna Mary McWilliams and that was fine by me. I had two amazing parents, two animals, my own beautiful bedroom, and so many material things like toys and clothes. I was loved and adored.
I was wanted.
Before my final adoption in 1996, however, there were several couples who showed interest in adopting me but having met me, decided they did not want me after all. I was old enough to be aware of what was happening. My fear of rejection and abandonment grew so large and so irrational; I would do anything to keep what I had and to keep the people who did accept me.
And since all these wonderful things had been given to be me, I thought I had to be perfect or I'd lose it all. I was sure of it. Even with this amazing life (which ironically caused anxiety because I thought I had to remain perfect to keep it), I continued to daydream . . . which later I learned was more about disassociating from reality.
Emotionally, I had a few things going against me. I basically had no parents until I lived with my grandparents, there were several outright rejections of me as a potential adopted child, and even my grandparents gave me away (which I know now was best for everyone). Then, I was dropped into a perfect life that I could not put in jeopardy. I was convinced I had to be perfect and the stress that came from having to keep that façade of perfection led me to constant fantasies of living in a different world.
I had the bizarre combination of simultaneously feeling small, but also a distorted sense of grandeur. For a long time, I wanted to be—and sometimes believed I was—that girl who was secretly a princess. I have two, small parallel lines on my left pinky finger that I was convinced was a secret birthmark of royalty. But my royal heritage had to be kept a secret—it couldn't be known that I existed because it would put me in danger. At the same time, I had secret hopes that I would be discovered, too, so I could go on a dangerous and wondrous adventure . . . like on TV.
Deep inside I knew it was nonsense, but my craving for it to be true trumped that reality.
As I grew older, I realized that the likelihood of being a princess who needed concealing (or the later version: a spy whose heightened senses and ninja skills had not been yet activated) were not very probable. Still, I held onto that fantasy through high school. Keep in mind that I didn't know I had any kind of fear or rejection, abandonment, or disappointing people important to me. I didn't know that my fantasies were a disassociation from reality from my constant, anxiety-causing fears.
It was my senior year in high school when things in my dream world and my reality both started to unravel.
And when I write "things", I mean emotions, even though at the time I didn't understand what was happening. I started smoking pot and drinking. I enjoyed smoking more than drinking at that point. Unlike the rest of my classmates, I stayed home the following semester because of a delayed admission to college. That's when I started working at a local restaurant, hanging out with the restaurant staff, and really started drinking and smoking seriously.
In high school, music also started to become an increasingly important aspect, a gift really. Music taught me how to recognize my feelings. And through music, I learned to express those feelings, albeit vicariously.
Since music is still a part of my core, I will be inserting song lyrics throughout the rest of my story that I either used to listen to while those events were occurring or that pertain to those events in my life.
By the time I left for college in the spring of 2006, I was used to having a lot of fun.
When I got to another college in a small town in Pennsylvania, it seemed incredibly tame compared to DC. I did, however, manage to get alcohol poisoning the first Friday night I spent at school in PA. According to the people I was with, I had passed out and turned blue. They did not call for medical help, but waited to see if I would wake up on my own. My body pushed through the poisoning; I got up . . . and continued to drink!
That was one incident of several that I was lucky to make it through alive. I only found out recently that my body hyper-metabolizes pretty much anything I ingest. Alcohol, drugs, medications, sugar, fat, etc. As a result, throughout my years of using I developed an extremely high tolerance for alcohol, weed, cocaine, amphetamines, and benzos.
I remember one phenomenally busy night in college binging when I started out drinking, then smoked weed, then did coke, then ate some chocolate candy shrooms, then I did more coke, smoked more weed, then drank some more.
And that was the kind of fun I wanted . . . Every. Single. Night.
The next chapter of my life was . . . life altering. I met my first true love.
I had another boyfriend when I left for summer break after freshman year, but when I met Andrew, my world shifted. We met in an economics summer class at American University. It was a magical summer but also an idealized summer.
We didn't really know it but we were both emotionally damaged and became extremely co-dependent. We were on and off the next year when we were apart because we went to different colleges. The summer after, however, we got engaged. No one existed in our universe but the other. It was incredibly intense, toxic, and addictive. I doubt that many people experience that kind of intensity in love. It was cosmic. One of our songs was “Southern Sun” by Paul Oakenfold:
I still feel you
Beneath my skin
I am tempted
To throw my senses in
'Cause it's easier to fly
Than to face another night
In southern sun
And your love is all around
That summer, I was expelled from college. Not because I was caught drinking and drugging but it was most certainly a result of the "-ism" and a massive amount of self-centered fear.
My parents had an inkling that I was unhappy at my college in PA and suggested that I transfer. I had lied about my grades and was very nervous about them seeing my grades on the transcripts that I had to print out.
So I lied more.
I changed the grades on my unofficial transcript which was sent to the school I was thinking about transferring to. Eventually, the school received the official transcript and notified the college in PA.
Did I see this lie-train crashing eventually? Yes. Did it stop me from lying even more and faking emails from my college about how it was all a big misunderstanding? No.
I had a hearing and was expelled.
My relationship with my parents fell to pieces and our communication became harrowing. Andrew was there for me that awful, torturous summer. He became my sanctuary. And even though we first listened to this particular song constantly when we first met, Atmosphere’s “Summersong” became our own summer anthem:
Just a lonely summer
I was smiling hard
But I was lying
Even so, I started lying to Andrew, too. I lied because I was afraid of disappointing him and being abandoned by him. Eventually, he started to sense that I wasn't being honest at times and six months after our engagement, he broke up with me. My heart was pulverized. I remember getting out of his car and literally falling to my knees and sobbing. My mother came out and helped me get inside the house. At first I was incredibly sad and Frou Frou's "Dumbing Down of Love" spoke to me:
Jaded in anger
Love underwhelms you
No box of chocolates
Whichever way you fall
And if I tell you
Lover alone without love
What will happen
Lover alone without love
And will you listen?
Lover alone without, without love
And also Cary Brothers', "Loneliest Girl in the World":
You are the loneliest girl in the world
Taking your hits as they come
You are the loneliest girl in the world
And tonight you'd fall for anyone
It's in the way you fall down to bed
It's in the way you cry when he's not looking
You are the loneliest girl in the world
I'll watch you die a thousand times again
You are the loneliest girl in the world
I sank into an incredibly dark place. The darkest I have ever been (hopefully it'll stay that way). I didn't think I'd ever make it out of that pitch-black abyss; there was no hope and there was no light in sight.
For the next year, I drank by myself at night, went out to clubs, abused prescription drugs, and finally cratered with a two-week coke binge. During that time, I became incredibly angry. I realized that there were things about Andrew that I didn't like. He would get incredibly moody, jealous, and he had complete control over me. Today, despite having social anxiety, I'm not one who is intimidated easily. But I always have been—and always will be—intimidated by him. At that time, I'd listen to Linkin Park. One of my favorite's was "Pushing Me Away":
I've lied to you
The same way that I always do
This is the last smile
That I'll fake for the sake of being with you
(Everything falls apart
Even the people who never frown
Eventually break down)
The sacrifice of hiding in a lie
(Everything has to end
You'll soon find we're out of time left
To watch it all unwind)
The sacrifice is never knowing
Why I never walked away
Why I played myself this way
Now I see you're testing me pushes me away
Why I never walked away
Why I played myself this way
Now I see your testing me pushes me away
I've tried like you
To do everything you wanted too
This is the last time
I'll take the blame for the sake of being with you
Ironically, Andrew was the first person to ever tell me that he didn’t like me when I drank; I became someone different, someone he didn’t recognize, someone he didn’t love. Despite all the anger and sadness that we both felt, Andrew and I continued to talk and see each other once in a while for the next three years.
I went to my first AA meeting shortly after my coke binge and I will never forget it. This is important because the connection I made in that meeting was what kept me going back to the rooms even after I relapsed about five times.
The meeting gathered in a church basement (of course), and there were only five of us. The other four attendees had different backgrounds from me. There were two men in their sixties, a woman in her forties who had black mascara running down her face because she was crying the entire time, and a youngish, gay black man who chaired the meeting. I was nineteen-year-old white girl with no clue what was going on. They seemed so different on the outside, but when each one of them spoke, I identified. I couldn't believe that there were other people who felt like I did. I was so excited that there were people who knew my pain and frustration that during the meeting I actually raised my hand twice!
Between the ages of 19 and 22, I was in and out of the rooms. I had several bottoms—they became consecutively worse. I remember feeling inundated in shame, guilt, worthlessness, and frustration in those years. Sia's "Breathe Me" captures those feelings well:
Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And the worst part is there's no one else to blame
Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, unfold me
I am small, and needy
Warm me up and breathe me
Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah, I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe
As does Three Days Grace's "Animal I Have Become",
I can't escape this hell
So many times I've tried
But I'm still caged inside
Somebody get me through this nightmare
I can't control myself
So what if you can see the darkest side of me?
No one will ever change this animal I have become
Help me believe it's not the real me
Somebody help me tame this animal
There were glimmers of hope and happiness. In those years, I applied and was accepted to Catholic University of America and received a Bachelor's in Art History. I had stopped drinking in the fall of 2014 but I started taking Adderall because I was overwhelmed with school work and thought it would enhance my performance—and, of course, because I'm an addict and I liked the high.
In May 2010, after I graduated with my Bachelor's, I told my sponsor I had been using Adderall and changed my sobriety date to May 11, 2010. I had had some bad bottoms but there was nothing dramatic about my complete surrender this time. My way of living did not result in freedom from addiction or true happiness.
I started going to women's meetings. The laughter in those gatherings always called to me. To me, women's meetings are incomparable to their co-ed counterparts. Both types are great, but within women's meetings is where I feel the safest, where I get the best advice, where I feel the most serenity, and where I can be the most vulnerable without getting hurt. In women's meetings I learned how to be honest with myself and with others.
Slowly but surely, sobriety helped me feel empowered, but also develop and treasure humility. I believe that self-centered fear is the cause of all my problems. Self-centered fear, for me, is the fear of not getting what I want, or fear of losing what I have. Sunlounger's "Lost" lyrics demonstrate my development in sobriety at that point in my life,
Just let your fears go
You might find your way back home
Let your fears go
You might find that you're not lost
Honesty is now a way of life and being dishonest is overwhelmingly uncomfortable. Lies used to be my safe haven; they kept me in a safe place (for the most part), but that is no longer the case. In women's meetings I discovered my Higher Power and where spirituality also became a way of life. In women's meetings I hear and repeat things throughout the day to keep myself sober. And I believe deeply there's a Higher Power looking out for me. I don't entirely believe in coincidences. I think that many things happen for a reason. I think my Higher Power has very clearly guided me to where I am today and given me the resilience to keep going.
As Katy Perry states in "By the Grace of God":
By the grace of God (there was no other way)
I picked myself back up (I knew I had to stay)
I put one foot in front of the other and I
Looked in the mirror and decided to stay
and Christina Aguilera in "Blessed",
When I think, how life used to be
Always walking in the shadows
Then I look at what you've given me
I feel like dancing on my tip-toes
I must say, everyday I wake
And realize you're by my side
I know I'm truly
Blessed for everything you've given me
Blessed for all the tenderness you show
Do my best with every breath that's in me
Blessed to make sure you never go
With the support of my network of women, learning to let go of self-centered fear, and trusting in my Higher Power, my sobriety has blossomed and in turn, so has my life.
I was blessed with so many things: to receive a full scholarship to graduate school; to study a field I became increasingly interested in; to have a job on campus; to have a good relationship with my parents; and to get a job before I graduated with a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science.
I am incredibly lucky to not have any student debt and to not have needed to spend money on boarding at CUA because I have a great relationship with my parents today and lived with them.
I am also deeply blessed to have a job that I love. I work at the National Institutes of Health for the National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information as a journal manager for PubMed Central (an archive of open access medical research articles). I am in a place where people like what they do and care about what they do. It is a very nourishing environment and I am grateful every day that my Higher Power has led me here.
And as if to sweeten this already sweet deal, I live a few minutes walking distance from my job in a lovely condo, and I own a beagle I absolutely adore.
I've definitely had my challenges in sobriety—many wonderful things have happened but so have difficult things.
I disliked the job I got before I graduated grad school. It was boring, the people did not like what they did, and there was generally a lot of negativity. I was grateful to have a job in a struggling economy but there were times when it was difficult to keep that gratitude in check.
My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about three years ago and I’ve seen him start to fade—an unsettling experience. He hasn't forgotten who my mother is or who I am, but it throws us off when he forgets what day it is, or how to operate the dishwasher, or asks us what an email is, etc.
My mother is deeply depressed and she cries every day. She no longer has a partner. She says it's like living with a ghost. I made peace with my father's condition almost as soon as he was diagnosed and I am grateful to have that level of acceptance in my life. My mother's depression, however, causes me great anxiety.
Since she grew up as an adult child of an alcoholic father, she is incredibly self-sufficient. We are very close. She is my mother, but she is also one of my best friends. In fact, the worry and concern for her had become so extreme that I had very bad shoulder and neck pain for about four months. I had to go to physical therapy for it. During that time, I didn't know what was causing this pain because it was nothing pathological. It was all in my head.
When I realized it was anxiety about my mother, the pain left my body almost immediately. Self-awareness is most certainly a gift.
Through this challenge with my parents that I'm still going through, I've learned that my program needs to evolve to be effective.
One of my best friends in the program made an insightful and intuitive observation about the root cause of my current anxiety. She pointed out that the trauma of rejection and abandonment I went through in Russia resulted in PTSD that I have yet to address. In Russia, I had a mother who could not take care of herself emotionally or physically and an absent father. Today, I have a mother who is not taking care of herself emotionally and a father who is turning into a ghost. His absence is not physical but an intellectual one—an absence nonetheless.
I started writing this piece in January and clearly it's taken me a while. But let me tell you what's happened just in the last week. With the help of a friend who speaks Russian, I called my grandmother in Russia. A curious thing happened: she talked about my biological mother.
When I was little and in my grandmother's care, she told me my mother had died. Later, my adoptive parents told me the truth. I can see why she lied about her death. I know she was protecting me in her own way. For a long time, we didn't know what happened to her because she disappeared.
Apparently, now she's back in my grandmother's life and visits her once in a while. She has stopped drinking and she is present in my grandmother's life. Her name is Lena and she has pictures of my sisters and me. Grandmother says that Lena looks at the pictures and cries. She regrets her decisions as a young mother and wishes she had taken better care of us. But she is also happy for Julia and me because she knows we have a good life. Grandmother also told me a little bit about my father. I remembered his absence correctly. He was sent to prison for a drug dealing theft. But grandmother also said that as a person, he was a gentle man and cared deeply about me. He has since died.
How mind blowing is all that?
I have resented my biological parents for a long time and I had no interest in their lives. After that phone call, I felt a sliver of hope for the possibility of forgiveness and letting go of my resentment against them. The hoop we need to jump through is wider than we think. All it takes is a little willingness.
I am grateful that my adoptive parents arranged my adoption to be an open one so I can keep in contact with my grandmother and be a part of my half-sisters’ lives. After living with my parents and me for seven years on a student visa, my older sister went back to Russia. She did not assimilate well into American culture. She’s been back in Russia for about four years and getting in contact with her is difficult.
I am, however, very close with my younger sister, Julia. She is an addict as well and heroin was her drug of choice. Like me, she is sober today. Although our experiences with addiction are different, sharing the disease of addiction helps us understand and love one another more.
Yet another stirring experience I had just this past week was talking to Andrew about our time together. Andrew had contacted me a little more than a year ago. He asked me how I was and we started talking all day, every day after he had reached out. We told each other how much we loved and still love one another and apologies and amends were made. Then, of course, we got into a bit of a tiff and didn't talk for a long time. I contacted him a few months back asking him why he stopped talking to me. I was looking for closure. We began talking once more and have been taking time to converse every so often since.
Yesterday, I told him I was writing my story for this website and asked him who the singer was for "Summertime" and he reminded me (and playfully scolded me for not remembering). We are friends now and I'm able to ask him questions like how long we were engaged for and how long we were on and off after the engagement. We also talk a lot about our animals and both share a deep love for music.
The fact that I talked to my grandmother about my parents and talked to Andrew about our time together, and the fact that these things even happened are a result of the transformation that I've gone through in sobriety. Of course I still have my dark places and my character defects. But today, I'm able to keep them at bay most of the time. Reading daily recovery reflections helps maintain my spiritual condition and serenity.
I would like to end with some quotes that have inspired change, gratitude, and acceptance in me. Weaving these gems of wisdom into my life has helped me shift from a daydreamer to a person who lives in the dream today:
"We are sick people trying to get better; not bad people trying to be good."
"A lesson will be taught until it is learned."
"A feeling of aversion or attachment toward something is your clue that there's work to be done."
"Remember, as long as you are breathing, it's never too late to start a new beginning."
"You'll never get what you truly desire if you remain attached to what you're supposed to let go of."
"You can't give something you haven't got."
"God has better ideas for what to do with my life that I ever could. I just need to get up and do what's in front of me."
"It's hard to see the picture when you're in the frame."
"Falling down is a part of life, getting back up is living."
"Feelings aren't facts."
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return."
I have about 50 more that I can include but I won't. It's time for me to stop writing and hope that some part of this piece helped someone.
With all my love and best wishes for you all . . .
Here's a playlist with all the songs I mentioned in my post:
(If you click in the upper lefthand corner, you will be able to select the other videos.)
About the Author
Anna McWilliams just had her 20th anniversary of living in the DC metro area. She loves the place and has no desire to live anywhere else. She has been fortunate to travel to Russia, England, France, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands and hopes someday to travel to New Zealand, Germany, Belize, Africa, Scotland, and Venice — and to visit her grandmother in Russia at least one more time. Anna loves animals and is a big supporter of animal rights, especially for elephants and shelter animals. She is vehemently opposed to any kind of testing and strives to live a "cruelty free" way of life. As a journal manager at PubMed Central at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Anna strives to make a difference for people who are interested in the medical research field. Anna's priorities in life are as follows: SOBRIETY, family/pets, friendships/romantic relationship, work, music, TV shows, and art. For fun, she loves to just chill out and have TV show marathons; she also loves sober raving and going to concerts, and of course, hanging out with her sober sisters. All those activities are enough to fill her day. Keeping it simple is her motto.