Names were changed.
Hi there! It’s Annie ……not sure if you remember me but I think if you often. Hope u are well. I am leaving today for a rehab facility. I was really good for about 3 months. Not so good now. Please send me well wishes. Oxygen mask on first ……😃
I saw that text one morning last week as I finished paying for gas. Of course I remember Annie … she was the single most significant person in my space the week my great Aunt M had a stroke in May.
I called her immediately.
“I’m so freaking proud of you, Annie. I love you and I’m excited you’re going to get help and I am so.proud.of.you.”
She deflected the praise, said she’d never be as strong as I am and “couldn’t believe I remembered her and called.”
Of course I remembered her.
My sweet 90-year-old Aunt M was hospitalized in late May with respiratory issues that revealed clots in her lungs. After treatment and discharge to a rehab facility she suffered a catastrophic stroke and was readmitted to the hospital. She spent several days on the neurological floor while my cousin decided how to proceed with her care.
I camped out in the hospital room (I love me a cot) and got to know Annie over the course of several days.
Our first interaction was rough; she snarked through the curtain about how loud the conversation I had with the nurse was after she was told –by the nurse– her TV was too loud. Hospital drama, dude.
Later, unable to hold back my tears as the enormity of the situation hit me, I tried my damnedest to cry quietly so I didn’t disturb the cranky neighbor. I was unsuccessful and she appeared from her side of the curtain with a box of actual Kleenex and told me I didn’t have to cry quietly. “I won’t yell at you anymore. I’m sorry.”
We laughed. I cried. She patted my shoulder. I still owe her a box of real Kleenex.
Initially she said she was admitted with ovarian issues and “maybe a kidney thing.”
The next day I did the math: jaundiced skin, the whites of her eyes were bright yellow and her hands shook no matter what she did. “You don’t have ovarian issues, Annie. You’re here detoxing from alcohol, aren’t you. That’s why you can’t close the curtain. They’re observing you so you don’t drink anything.”
She looked like a trapped rabbit and said, “How do you know?”
For a brief moment,I felt bad about my unfiltered declaration.
I sat on the end of the bed and told her the story of my mom’s addiction. And then I handed her my phone and let her read the blog I’d written a few weeks before.
When she was done reading I told her she had at least two reasons to stop drinking: her teenage sons. No matter the reasons FOR drinking, she reasons to STOP drinking.
I told her about my fractured family, how everyone in my grandma’s generation kept some sort of secret from each other. Mental illness, addiction, abandoned children, secret marriages, affairs. Hell, my aunt had no idea my mom was an addict or an ex con–and she and my grandma spoke on a regular basis.
The days passed, Aunt M slipped further and further away and Annie and I talked a lot, grew closer in that small hospital room.
I met her husband and sons when they visited. She met my cousin.
The night Aunt M was moved downstairs to the palliative care ward, Annie walked down with me. I walked her back up, since “she has to be escorted” was part of the agreement with the nurses to let her trek downstairs with me.
Aunt M died the next morning while I was using the family showers down the hall.
Pretty sure she waited for me to leave.
Annie and her husband Augustus came down to sit with me until my cousin made it to the hospital. They came to the funeral, too.
We texted for a few weeks and she stopped responding when I was in France. I was sick when I returned, and didn’t reach out. I went through a funk, tried to process the grief of losing connection to family so short after finding them.
Which brings us to the text at the start of this blog.
Of course I REMEMBERED her. In the midst of her own struggle, she gave me solace and comfort.
We spoke for about 30 minutes and I reiterated how proud I was she agreed to rehab.
I told her I’d visit when she was out.
I was attending a conference and, two hours later, on break, noticed I missed a call from her.
I called back and a very different Annie answered the phone. She was in hysterics, pleading me to tell her husband and sister not to leave her there.
“You need to stand up, dry your face off and walk in there and sign the paperwork,’ Annie. “You need to stay. You need to be there. You can’t do this alone. Give Augustus my number and have him text me an update. I’ll talk to you when you’re sober. You’re no good to anyone unless you’re fighting this. You need to get better. Put your oxygen mask on.”
Shaken, hoping I’d said the right thing, I slipped back into the conference.
A few hours later my phone bleated.
Hi Jennie. This is Sophie, Annie’s sister. Her husband, Augustus, my sister Lorena and I just left Annie at a Detox center where they admitted her. They said she would probably be there 5 days and then they would work with us going forward. I want to thank you on behalf of all of us for speaking with her this morning. She speaks so highly of you, you have made a real impact on her. She has spiraled downward so quickly since her relapse. We are all worried sick. God bless you for getting thru to her today. Thx again.
I responded with:
Hi Sophie! I’m so happy she wrote this morning. She’s an incredible woman, even with this sickness, and I’m so SO GLAD she is in treatment.
I hope, and I know from personal experience it’s hard on the family, I hope she has your love and support as she recovers.
I reminded her today, implored her, not to stay focused on the shame. She isn’t the only one on the street or even in the family with “room for growth.” We all have that room, you know?
I commended her for asking for help, or for agreeing to it. And I mean that.
Please keep me posted and please help your family understand the process of getting well… Its not just 30 days; it’s a lifetime.
And there’s a reason they say “one day at a time.”
To you: I know it’s hard. I’ve been there. I’m sorry for your grief and anger and frustration and fear… it’s not an easy thing for a family to deal with. It’s better though, than seeing her continue to spiral.
She’ll need a good network when she’s home. And the sisters are AWESOME but she’s gonna need a group of whole who understand her “secrets and sickness.” That’s why AA is so important and effective.
She’ll need someone to call at 2 am or 2 pm when she wants “just a small drink” and she’ll need to hear it from someone whose already walked that path, you know?
And so. Don’t feel compelled to thank me, Sophie! She was a light in the midst of a very dark time in my life. And she was real and honest and shared about her sickness; so I saw not pretty and perfect Annie and I loved her anyways.
Life brings us the people we need, when we need them.
I’m so glad she texted.
And picked up the phone.
Was in a meeting when I missed the second call but I was so relieved you were there with her.
Ok. This is a LONG text.
A few minutes went by and my phone bleated again.
Well I can see why she loves you so! I am so relieved that we were able to get her admitted. She was threatening not to go almost to the last moment, and you know she needed to enter willingly. She’s basically been drunk around the clock and it’s been heartbreaking and destructive and scary and just so sad. Annie is one of the sweetest souls on the planet and would never treat her family, most especially her sons, the way she has if this was at all in her control. I get that five days may be enough to “detox” her for the moment, but she desperately needs a 30 day in-house rehab, at the very least. She absolutely refuses and says quite horrible things. I know it is the disease talking. I know this. What I don’t know is how to help her. I convinced her to go to an AA mtg a couple of weeks ago (she attended intoxicated) and Augustus and I attended an Al-anon mtg that was going on at same place. I thought we all got something out of it and walked away with good contacts but I couldn’t get her to go back. My prayer is that there are angels at the place she is now who will convince her she needs to enter an in-house program. Please keep her in your prayers. We love her so much and want her back. I am always open to any advice you may have, Jennie. Thank you for the time you took to reach out to me and for your wise words. I will update you when I have any news. God bless.
I threw up after I read that text. It made me think of my mom. Annie is the same age now my mom was when she died in 2010 after years and years of shooting heroin.
“I’m clean, JennerMennerPennerz. I’ve been clean for four years now,” was something she said to me when she was still basically lucid, after she’d been admitted to the hospital. I’d just interrupted when she told the doctor making rounds she wasn’t on any meds. She actually kicked me out of the room. I saw him in the hallway and when I approached, he said he couldn’t discuss her care with me, at her behest. I thrust the bag of meds I’d grabbed from her house earlier that day into his upturned hands. There were 17 different prescriptions inside. I said simply, “These are hers. There’s nothing to discuss. Just think you should know what you’re up against.”
She might’ve been clean by her metrics because she didn’t use spoons and needles anymore, but I’d never seen her actually sober, without some combination of drugs and meds in her system. She had methadone and all the prescriptions she asked her doctor for.
Matters not in the end, the difference in our metrics. She lapsed into a coma and died 10 days after that conversation. My brother and I’d been in her room around the clock and we both left for an hour … she died while we were gone. Just a day earlier we removed all of the equipment delaying the inevitable.
After I puked I wondered if she’d had a support network like Annie’s at any point in her life. People to go to AA meetings with, people cheering for her.
I wondered, too, if she’d have beaten heroin sooner as a result.
Too tired to text anymore, I called Sophie and opened the conversation with “I’m not a doctor or a therapist or a mental health professional but I think you and Lorena need to tell your other two sisters and collectively you need to tell your parents.”
Secrets aren’t healthy. Secrets are shame. She needs to come out of detox and hold her head up and not think people are ashamed of her. You guys all need to stop letting her disease control your lives.
We spoke for a while, I implored her to set up a counseling session for the whole family (sisters and Augustus) to have a discussion, and prepare to tell her parents.
She said it would kill her parents. I said it wouldn’t, though it might break their hearts. It would kill them, however, if she succumbed to this disease and they’d never had a chance to intercede with prayer and and love. They’re her parents.
Stop keeping secrets. Secrets enable addicts. I AM NOT A THERAPIST.
My phone bleated again an hour or so later. I’m torn about continuing to post the texts, but I asked permission to blog about it. Rest assured, if you’re reading this, the family was ok with what I’ve written.
At the risk of making you crazy, I have a question…please, just when you get a moment as I’ve already taken a lot of your time. I called Augustus as soon as I got off the call with you and told him Sara should be told, and it wasn’t his sole responsibility. That I had a long talk with you and you suggested getting a family counselor for all of us and getting it all out on the table. So far, so good and he was on board. Now I am preparing to convince Lorena and I just can’t find the words as to why my parents can’t be spared. It all made so much sense when you were telling me, but now the words are eluding me. Can you give me a bottom line sentence or two. I’m sorry, just trying to navigate all this.
My thumbs went to work and I sent this back:
Lying to your mom and dad puts tremendous stress on all of you, including your spouses and children.
This won’t “kill” your parents, even if it does break their heart for a moment. What would “kill” them is knowing one of their daughters is tremendously ill and they weren’t part of her healing process.
Heaven forbid she DOESNT pull out of this and drinks herself to death? Then each of you has to live with the idea YOU prevented your mom and dad from trying to help.
This disease, Annie’s disease, has impacted your entire family. You keep secrets from each other, from your kids, from your parents, your neighbors… and it’s not healthy for any of you. It’s not FAIR to any of you, either. It’s not fair to your parents.
Alcoholism is a disease. You wouldn’t hide cancer or Alzheimer’s, you’d treat it with chemo and, in the case of Alzheimer’s, you’d make adjustments so EVERYONE who loved the afflicted person would be part of their care, their new normal.
You can’t be part of the cure if you’re part of the secret.
LASTLY, if Annie is going to beat this, she needs to stop hiding and having people hide for her. We keep secrets when we’re ashamed.
Stop enabling and stop living in a cycle of shame and codependency.
Tell Sara, together, and get with a therapist and then tell your parents.
You’re working to save her life, but also to take yours (all of yours) back.
Secrets aren’t healthy.
Ok, that was more than a “couple” of bullet points. 🙂 I am not a therapist or a doctor and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
That night I got a text from Augustus, thanking me for talking to Annie, for getting through. The next morning I received a series of texts from Lorena, thanking me for reaching out and answering questions and helping.
Hi Jennie. It is Annie’s sister Lorena. Sophie has completely filled me in on her conversations and texts with you yesterday. I wanted to add my sincere thanks for the support and wisdom you shared with Sophie. I remember hearing a lot about you from Annie when she was in the hospital in the spring. What a gift that you came into her life when she so needed you. We are completely on board with your recommended gameplan, and I am filled with gratitude. I know we are on a long journey, but I know your help has been essential to getting us on the right path. Lorena.
I didn’t throw up again, but it knocked the wind out of me to read “We are completely on board with your recommended game plan.” Who am I?
I waited a few minutes, considered what to respond with, and sent this:
Hi Lorena! Loved seeing this; had a similar one from Augustus last night.
I’m so excited you guys are a united front. I’m so sad, and so sorry for your whole family to have to deal with this disease but remember, it’s just that. A disease.
It’s a long road back, but you guys have already done the hardest part. I know leaving her there yesterday was painful.
She was a blessing to me this Spring, even while she struggled with her own issues, and I’m glad she reached out yesterday.
I hope you guys find a good family counselor and have a session or two with “the sisters” to work through it, too.
Time to stop letting the disease and the secrets control your lives too!
Keep my number, write or call when you need to* and please keep me updated.
Like I told Sophie and Augustus; *I’m not an expert or a doctor or a counselor, just sharing my own insight from a lifetime of experience with it.
The response was hard to read. I found myself once again thinking about my mom’s addiction.
Your insight and experience are absolutely invaluable. You may not be an “expert”, but you are our angel. I have been struck by the fact that as upset, distraught, and terrified as Annie was yesterday, she was determined to give me your contact info. Thank God I wrote down your number correctly!
Yes, we are in the process of working with a family therapist and scheduling a session with all of the sisters in the next day or so. Our plan is to also tell our parents before Annie is released in a few days so that we can al be, as you so profoundly recommended, united in our support for Annie.
I had read Elizabeth Vargas’ book this weekend, and was struck by the similarities between her and Annie. Both beautiful and successful. Both struggling with a lifetime of anxiety, and, more recently, with the disease of alcoholism. And yes, it is a disease as you point out.
When I was filling in my husband Don in last night in what you had said to Sophie, he was struck by how well you ” knew” our family. As though you have been a part of us for many years. Amazing.
I took a deep breath and texted:
I’m so, so excited to hear you guys are meeting with a family therapist. And telling your parents before Annie is released.
I hope you guys insist she goes from Detox to a 30 day inpatient rehab. I’m sure there are great options in Jersey and inpatient is what she needs if she’s going to beat this.
Inpatient will allow her body to recover from the detox, allow her mind to recover and heal from the “insanity” she experienced in these last weeks while she was drowning herself in vodka.
Inpatient will be daily therapy, group sessions, art therapy… a whole program designed to help her realize she needs a support network to stay sober and also realize she isn’t alone in this disease.
Inpatient will be a journey of self discovery (sounds wonky, right?) and figuring out the anxiety and maybe even discovering old wounds or fears and facing them and, hopefully, letting them go.
It can’t be detox and then “Annie is good, lets have a party and move on.”
It’s bigger than that, but I suspect y’all already know that.
Thanks for your kind words re: invaluable. I think we come into each others lives at the right time for the right reasons.
As far as knowing your family; Annie shared a little when we talked all those nights in the hospital (makes me cry to think about it. SHE was MY angel in those days, because my cousin wasn’t available to be at the hospital very much.)
When I met Annie as my great aunt was dying, I was struggling with a whole host of hurt and loss because I’d just FOUND her 18 months earlier (talk about a dysfunctional family) and I was just SO SO angry/sad to realize I was losing her.
So. Some of the things I *know* about your family Annie shared with me and some, truly, aren’t unique to you. They’re the things I’ve seen other families struggle with as a result of an addiction.
My grandma is 93, my mom died in 2010 at 54 and I can count on ONE hand the number of my grandma’s friends who knew my mother was a heroin addict. My grandma’s sisters and their families didn’t know. Talk about secrets and shame.
I deflected the thanks and praise with humor, as is my habit, and then decided to send both of the sisters the link to my heroin dreams blog.
“This isn’t an easy read. It’s a blog I wrote in May after having a series of bad dreams. I shared it with Annie when she was in the hospital. This is why I understand what you’re dealing with and this is why I insisted Annie walk into detox. I’m not making stuff up as I go along. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve seen addiction.”
A text came in: “I just read that and I can’t stand up. Or talk. I’ll call you in a bit.”
Sure. Ok. In my mind, “Sorry about that.”
Later, another text:
Just got home and had a chance to read your blog. Oh my. I don’t even know what to say. How incredibly painful and difficult. Thank you so much for using that pain to help guide and direct my beautiful sister.
Again I found myself overcome with emotion. Guilt? Anger? Sadness? What if someone loved my mom so fiercely, 30 years ago? Or 20, or 40 for that matter, they called her their beautiful sister just days after leaving her at detox? I cried.
We talked over the next few days, texts and a few quick calls. I kept reinforcing the need to tell their parents, assured them both the Saturday therapy session would be hard but having the therapist there when the other two sisters were fully apprised of the enormity of the situation would help.
Thursday night Sophie called and said Annie was adamant about going home for a while after detox, then going to rehab. “That’s horse shit. She needs to go door to door. And I bet the therapist and the staff at the detox will tell you that. Door to door. Not home for a while and… no!”
She’s refusing, Sophie said. And she has to go voluntarily.
“I’ll come up and do a snatch and grab if I have to. She needs to go from detox to rehab.”
“What’s a snatch and grab? Never mind… I don’t wanna know. Will you really come up? I think she’ll listen to you.”
“Yeah. If you think she’s not going to go to rehab because she’s mad at you guys or her husband for leaving her at detox? I’ll absolutely fly up and be the one who looks her in the face and tells her where she’s going next. She can be mad at me. If a relationship disintegrates over the decision to force her into rehab, it will be ours, not any of yours.
And so I did. Saturday afternoon I flew three hours –after a hurricane delay that left me rerouted into a city in the next state over which meant wait for the car service for 2 hours or talk a yellow cab into a 60 minute off book ride, yay cash!– to meet a bunch of strangers, except they weren’t strangers, not anymore. We had a great dinner, most of their kids were at the table, home from college or just home for dinner, and no one hid anything. Everyone knew why I’d come to town.
It was a room so full of love I found myself wondering, again, what if my mom’d had this type of family.
I made it a point to tell Augustus, in front of his sisters and brothers in law, this wasn’t his fault. This was a disease and she had to WANT to recover from it. I told him he’d done what so many spouses do. He tried to help, to carry her along, to cover it up, to love her through it. I told him he’d likely saved her life by insisting on detox when he did.
Sunday morning the detox permitted “one visitor for ten minutes.” When we got there I insisted all three of us go in. Sophie, her husband and I. Lorena was on the way, too. My plan was “all of us roll in to show our support and if they wanted to kick some of us out, ok.” Forgiveness and not permission, right?
I brought an exquisite coloring book and colored pencils, the sisters brought pajamas and toiletries and chocolate. We each walked in with a gift.
When Annie walked around the corner and saw me she literally started to cry.
I was both humbled and humiliated by her response. We hugged and she asked why I was there. I said her sisters and husband asked me to come. They paid for my trip.
The sisters stayed for about 15 minutes and then left us alone to chat. I didn’t mention the time to the counselor who was monitoring our conversation; figured I’d visit until he kicked me out. I wondered, briefly, looking at his sleeve tattoos, if he became a substance abuse counselor after his own battle with addiction. (He later confirmed it. Because you know, my filter works so well I had to ask.)
I spoke to her about 30 days, not 7 0r 14. Explained why. She pondered. We spoke of my family, and hers. She spoke of shame and I made a show about looking in the gift bags to “see if any of us brought a bag full of shame.” No shame here.
She thanked me profusely for coming, asked again why I’d made the trip. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
I turned to directly face her and said, carefully, “I came to force you to go to rehab, Annie. They were worried you wouldn’t go. And I’m worried you won’t agree to 30 days. I came so I could look you in the face and hold your hands when I tell you I can be friends with a sober, recovering alcoholic, but I can’t, for my own self preservation, be friends with someone who chooses not to fight for herself. Someone who has a tremendous loving family, a husband and kids and an opportunity to start to get well and dismisses it. I can’t be friends with someone who won’t fight to be well, for her children’s sake. I came to ask you to please go for the full 30 days. To take care of yourself. To put your oxygen mask back on.”
She agreed. We visited for 100 minutes before the counselor, who’d interjected a few times to affirm something I’d said or asked me to repeat something so he could write it down to share with other patients, finally said it’s time to wrap it up.
A couple of fierce hugs and I promised I’d see her in 30 days, assured her we were all proud of her, that this was the best decision and she’d be safe at rehab.
I spent the rest of the day with the group of people who were no longer strangers. Team Annie, I called them. That night, watching the shit show that was the town hall debate, I received a text from Annie’s youngest son.
I’m staying home because I don’t want to get anybody sick, but I wanted to say goodbye and thank you for helping my mom.
Kid is home with a cold and sends a thank you text. Sitting in the dark with the debate on a big screen in a room full of his cousins and extended family, I read his text and cried.
Again, with the emotions. Guilt, anger, sadness.
What if my mom’d had such a fierce team?
I’ll never have that answer. I know, collectively, they have a long road ahead of them but I’m honored I had the chance to be part of Team Annie.
At the end of the day, a wise friend reminded me, her sobriety belongs to her, and her alone.
God grant all of us the serenity to understand that. To accept it.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Click here to learn more.