Author: Carol Haley-Smith
Women have a unique perception of themselves; both while they are in active addiction and when they are in recovery. Women are driven by their feelings, more so than their male counterparts. Their basic instinct is a need to love and be loved. Being a woman who was in her active addiction for 32 years (since age 11) and has been abstinent and living a recovery lifestyle for over 23 years, I can speak on my feelings and experience in this area.
I was an only child up until age 10 and was also the only girl on the street. My dad was a druggist and he and my mother worked in the family pharmacy. My great-grandmother, who was in her 90's, raised me. I tried everything I could to please my parents. I took ballet and tap lessons; piano lessons; made good grades in school (usually mostly a's), and wanted to be a nun until age 13. Still, my mother had very little time for me as she worked 7 days a week from 9:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. My brother was born when I was 10 years old and lo and behold, Mom started taking some time off from work. That made me feel as though she loved him more than me and I became very resentful.
I began looking for love in all the wrong places. I took my first drug at age 11 and it was prescribed to me by a doctor to calm my nerves and prevent the eczema that was showing up on my body. The Rx contained an opiate which made me sleep; that's when I fell in love as I didn't have to feel those horrible feelings of rejection and inadequacy. I started to make really bad choices in who I was friends with and my choice in men was terrible. I was drinking wine and whiskey and stealing drugs from the drugstore. Still, I was functioning in High School and I was on the drill team; Student Council; National Honor Society and graduated with Highest Honors and received a full Senatorial scholarship to Pitt. In college, I started to shoot heroin, and that continued to be my drug of choice for 26 years.
I married another drug user and dealer and that was another of my bad choices. I stayed with him for 20 years thinking he would change. He was abusive, both verbally and physically; but I just kept getting high thinking he would change. Women usually think we can change others into who they are supposed to be...but that never happens. The only person we can change is ourselves. I was supposed to become a pharmacist and take over the drugstore, but in my second year of college, I got arrested and went to the Allegheny County jail where I stayed for 9 1/2 months until my trials for drug possession and sales. I returned to Pitt after awhile and changed my major from Pharmacy to Psychology and Social Services. I got a job with the Department of Welfare, where I worked for 14 1/2 years as a Caseworker and then Supervisor. Still using both heroin and alcohol on a daily basis.
My husband became ill and passed away in 1993; his death that year was followed by my father-in-law in August and my own father in October. I went completely into a depression, left my job and just used drugs and alcohol to numb my brain and body. It wasn't long before I started getting arrested again. I just wanted to die and remember how mad I was at God for waking me up each morning. I had abused my body so much that the doctors were talking about amputating my legs. Still I couldn't stop. I finally was sentenced to jail for 18 1/2 months with 3 years of probation to follow. The judge, seeing that I was an addict, referred me to a work release program where I would also get treatment. God saved me from myself.
I still vividly remember sitting in a jail cell at age 43, and not having a clue as to who I was. I had spent my whole life trying to live up to everyone else's expectations (my parents and family; my friends; my husband and my employers) and forgetting about my own plans. I had detoxed from the drugs and could think clearly and began to make an effort to be the woman that God had intended me to be. Women are natural born people-pleasers and we will accept our own misery if only we can make another happy. We have an identity crisis when we fall into addiction and take on all the shame and guilt.
The world looks at women in addiction much different than they do male addicts. The men are looked at as having made a mistake, or just sowing their wild oats and will change. They are used to going to jail and having visits weekly from their loved ones, money put on their books and will probably be offered a place to live upon their release until they get themselves together. Women are looked at quite differently, especially if they have children. Their families often abandon them while they are in jail and when they are released. The feelings of guilt and shame are so overwhelming, that they often resort to drugs to cover what they are feeling. Then the vicious cycle of addiction continues.
Being active in 12-step recovery was my road to finding out who I was and who I wanted to be to coincide with God's plan for me. Going to meetings, getting a sponsor, working the 12 steps and being of service to others has allowed me a freedom that I have never known before. Today, I am not looking for my identity in another person...I can truly be me. I used to be referred to as Chuck and Lois' daughter, Charlie's sister or Bill's wife. Today, I am happily married to another addict in recovery for the past almost 13 years. People refer to him as Carol's husband now. That makes me feel good which is something I had not done for so long.
I thank God every day for waking me up and allowing me to live this wonderful life I have today. I worked for years in the field of treatment with women in jail, in the community facilities, teens in the criminal justice system and men coming out of the Federal penitentiary. I am grateful to be able to share this wonderful miracle with others who think they can never change. If they put their trust in God and ask for help from other recovering addicts, they can find out who they really are and start living their own life one day at a time.