“Where does one begin a story of their life in review, where they went wrong, the moments of success, the moments of pride or despair? I’ll just start with the hard part. The part one doesn’t want to share.
I have been addicted to several things in my life, but food, alcohol, and tobacco are the biggest ones. And they all share one common thread. Me. My inability to self-regulate. Self-medicating. Escapism. My challenge with managing my own state, causing destruction to both myself and to those around me. I’ve hurt a lot of people along the way and in many ways.
I’ve had many amends with others that I had to make. I am grateful for forgiveness. I accept forgiveness is a difficult process and ongoing process. For forgiver and forgivee. I find that I’m both. Through all of this, I hurt myself the most. By fragmentation of the self to avoid the pains and traumas throughout my life. But fragmentation of our self only leads to more and more fragmenting, more and more trauma. And then, suddenly, you find you’ve destroyed everything you’ve dreamed of or worked for. Of course, it began with good intentions, as the paths to hell often do.
A central theme of my upbringing was religion. Christianity in particular. Since as far back as I can remember, I grew up in the church with rigid rules, judgments, condemnations, and hypocrisy. Conditions. Duality. It’s black or white. Wrong or right. No room for gray, much less color. I despised it. It didn’t feel right, and my inquisitive nature went against a paradigm of controlled behavior. With some wisdom of hindsight, I can see the tremendous value of following ritual, and living in right behaviors, and presently strive daily to do so.
Early in my life, I knew I did not fit in. I was different from others and to be so was rebellious. I was bad. Something was wrong with me. I needed to be a good girl. I needed therapy. Things I remember being told from many along the way. At the same time, I was a good student getting good grades. I did well in track and field, had lessons in piano and flute, and tried to fit in. Yet, I didn’t. I think I was mostly happy until I felt so different. When the reality of that kicked in, I struggled greatly with the extremes of feeling, of depression, of mania, of anxiety. Difficulties in receiving, processing, and outputting information. Emotions and experiences became very difficult.
In many ways, it began the cycle of struggle. Not understanding my own differences and challenges made me feel differently than others. I was increasingly medicated, provided counseling/treatment, and becoming more and more under the impression that I wasn’t good enough for anyone. That I was of defect. Sadly, I carried this pattern of thinking and feeling for far too many years. And it ultimately became my reality for a time.
Yet, during this time, I was fascinated by others with ‘abnormal’ behavior. I often wondered about the different ways that led people astray, what led people to choose to do wrong. The ultimate nature versus nurture dilemma, the varying levels of consciousness. I read books on Charles Manson and other serial criminals as a youth. They fascinated me intensely. First, I wanted to grow up to work in a prison, and later I knew I wanted to be a counselor to them. I had a goal. And despite my carelessness along the way at times, I made it happen. I received a B.S. in Criminal Justice in 2003 and M.S. in Counseling and Psychology in 2007. Yet, I can’t help but think of the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’
When I was 15 years old, I was sent to attend a private, fundamental Christian boarding facility in the backwoods of Missouri. The school has since been closed, and the students who once walked the halls are scattered throughout the United States and beyond. This is a pivotal and monumental experience of my life and created lifelong familial relationships with many people and backgrounds.
When I arrived at the boarding school, back in 1990, my parents drove me from Iowa to Southern Missouri and dropped me off. The night before, I had snuck out and been out roaming during the night. As a result, I was suddenly taken into a building far out into the woods, the doors locking behind me. And for the next 2 years, I was ‘locked up’ in a Christian facility with razor wire fences, an open bay dorm of girls in culottes and dresses. I was being told I could only talk to a certain set of people. I was to say yes ma’am and no sir. Everything was taken from me. I had nothing of my own, no feeling of safety. My parents were gone and I was told I would get a 10-minute phone call to them in several weeks.
We were to write our parents weekly and turn it in for review. Our letters were censored and only sent to our guardians. We were censored on the words, types of conversations, and acceptable behavior in our writing and in every waking moment. Because the school was a large unit in my time, containing the dining area, school, and dorm area under one roof, we were held indoors for weeks and months without the taste of fresh air. Infractions were dealt with by being forced to write lines, some received swats, others public shaming and ridicule. Girls who would cry would be forced to sit in a baby stool with a pacifier. Some girls were heavily targeted, bullied, and broken. Shaming was done about our weight, physical appearances, background.
Because of the cultish brainwashing and confined nature of this facility, we all can relate to those we served time together with or can relate to those who walked those grounds before or after the days in which we did. We can relate to one another on feelings of abandonment, of imprisonment, loss of personal autonomy, complete control of every word or deed. We were youthful prisoners in a religious institution that shamed, bullied, humiliated, belittled, and spiritually molested and violated the minds and souls of youth. In the name of the Lord, of course.
We all paid our price, and the memories and nightmares are something the majority of us have experienced. PTSD. That’s the official name for this kind of thing. Institutional abuse. As a student, I saw things, people broken, and I see them broken today. I was broken. I thought I was fine. Could brush it off. Buy into the bs. I wasn’t.
Now, in order to deal with these sorts of things, we bonded as much as we were permitted to. I remember lots of laughing, riding in a school bus going out to church in the community sometimes. The students would often be taken about to ‘share our testimony’ of how we’ve been saved and we were all reformed. I bought into it at times. In hindsight, we all did what we had to do to survive.
I have loved and maintained familial relationships with so many from this time. Our group has helped its members through a lot of difficulties. Unfortunately, many of us, and that means me, have engaged or may continue to engage in toxic behavior, active addiction, and unhealthy lifestyles. Those who have walked this journey have experienced various struggles as I have, often with substance abuse. And, unfortunately, I’ve lost many of my comrades along the way.
After the conclusion of boarding school, I went to a strict Christian College in Pensacola, Florida for 2 years before briefly marrying and divorcing a ‘Christian’ man that resulted in physical violence against me and self-defense. I also went through the corrections academy and began a career with the Florida Department of Corrections. I was 19 years old. I was entering a ‘man’s field’ as a naive, eager, and optimistic person. I got drunk for the first time at age 19 and smoked tobacco. Finally, I felt free.
I was free from the church and the judgments and I had no clue how to manage that. So, I worked on being tough, and hard, and I can do this job just as well as the predominantly male co-workers. I could drink like the others, and gradually it became the way to manage the stress, the heartache, the challenges along the way. And it was acceptable. That’s the thing about alcohol, most people do it, encourage it, recommend it, require it for social engagement. Not everyone goes nuts, or all at once. Maybe you realize that suddenly you’ve been drinking more and more and it’s a daily habit, and now you can’t imagine a day without it.
I wish I could have seen how broken I was then. Just accepted it. Yet I struggled to rise each time I was knocked over. Now, I look at the woman and hold her tight in my heart. And I feel the sorrows and hurt and comfort that younger soul. And I thank her that no matter how long it took, she always continued, clawed her way out, even when she had to stop and rest. I think of the amazing family and friends I have who have loved me despite my worst days. Who held me in their thoughts, prayers, and pleas to the Heavens.
At age 31, I had gastric bypass surgery to address my morbid obesity. I was in my last year of grad school, in the downhill slope of a marriage, a stepmother, a sergeant at the prison. I was taking a measure to address one of the huge areas that I had utterly lost control of, my weight, at around 275. I had insulated so much, the drinking, poor diet, no exercise, negative environment… it did help with weight loss, but my struggles and downward spiral ultimately continued.
After this surgery, I have experienced numerous complications requiring additional abdominal surgeries. I continue to have to monitor my diet fairly strictly. When I resumed drinking, I could no longer drink like I could, I would be drunk on one beer. My attempts to build a post-surgery tolerance resulted in uncounted blackouts on small amounts of alcohol which my body just could not process. This alone created tremendous challenges. There have been several occasions that I experienced sexual assault from those that took advantage of these situations, in a variety of predatory ways. I suffered much of this in silence, my soul screaming for quiet from that soul-violating, nightmarish time, too ashamed to say anything. And so I drank more. I hid. I began to study spirituality and overcoming. But I wasn’t overcoming.
In August 2012, while visiting my family in Iowa, I became very ill, requiring major emergency surgery. While I was descending to my rock bottom, the blessing is that the emergency put me near my family. It allowed them to love me and help me, and beat their chests frantically in frustration as well. I was reliant on my parents for physical and financial care. I had given up. I didn’t really care much for a good bit of my story because I was too busy self-medicating. I didn’t realize I was breaking the hearts of people who loved me. I didn’t realize I was disappointing people who had such high hopes for me. I didn’t realize I had allowed conditions and old stories to paralyze me. I didn’t realize the heaviness of impact of so many years of heavy exposure to negative environments had on me without proper self-care.
I had to come to accept that I needed to change. In February 2014, I had enough of the drinking. And I quit. My out of control drinking had brought me under the attention of local authorities in Iowa, resulting in several arrests for possession of marijuana. Marijuana was something that had helped me at various times, but something which was illegal in the states I resided. In April 2014, I was required to serve a 7-day jail sentence for possession of marijuana. During my jail time, I reflected on my 2 months off alcohol and improving health. I decided that no matter how much I was judged, I had to take some measure to begin a new life.
In May 2014, I began a journey in my car from Iowa and ending in California later that summer. Along the way, I began to shed the conditions and traumas of the past. I felt in control that I could get better. I learned new skills to pick up work, and had a massage table and freshly passed National Boards for massage. I journeyed through North and South Dakota, Wyoming, 6 weeks in Utah, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and various areas of California before settling in Santa Barbara County. I was rambling, had very little, and was blessed to have been supported, offered beds, meals, and temporary accommodations. I was offered love from members of my boarding school community, and other friends and family. I was beginning a journey inward, and while it was difficult, it often brought me to my knees. I knew that the Divine was looking out for me. I was supported and continue to be along my path by earth angels and those beyond.
Shortly after I arrived into my present area, I began working and then living on a horse ranch. It was hard work, strengthening my body and resolve. The horses offered comfort and healing to my wounded soul. I worked with the horses for about 8 months as I waited for a massage license in the state of California. I have been working as such since 2015.
In January 2017, I was hospitalized in Santa Barbara, weighing around 125 pounds, emaciated. While I’d made significant life improvements, the tobacco still had a hold in me. I was told that over a decade of complications from bariatric surgery, my refusal to quit smoking tobacco would put me in the grave within the year. I had an ulcer about to erode through my stomach lining, and surgery was high risk. I felt this to my bones.
Even though I had quit drinking years before, it was diving down deep in quitting tobacco that brought me back to owning the rest of my life. On working the steps of recovery. Of attending meetings for addicts. Being more transparent.
Several months after I quit smoking tobacco, I bought a used mountain bike. At first, a few miles alone would fatigue me. Now, I am cycling in events, running Ultra’s and hiking and trail-running deep in magical places. I am returning to my body, mind, and spirit, the most resilient of nature’s. I am embracing the beautiful and magnificent creation that I was created to be, and always was. I am returning to a state of consciousness that knows every survivor can help another survive. That through our stories and tales, triumphs and disappointments, through our willingness to be raw, we can help someone else.
I asked one of my sisters from boarding school if she had a few thoughts to share regarding my journey. This is what she shared:
‘I have known Amy since our boarding school days starting back in 1990. Over the years, I watched her struggle with different issues and it was always very heartbreaking being so far away and not being able to be there to hold her hand and help her through. It got to the point where I was scared to wake up each day and look online. I was afraid of what I was going to see she had done to herself. I was so afraid I was going to lose her to her addiction. But thankfully she is a strong and stubborn individual. She has a heart of gold and would do anything even during her addiction to help others. There were times when she didn’t even care about herself, but she never stopped trying to help and take care of others. We have laughed and cried together many times over the years and I’m so thankful she is in a place in her life that I know I’m going to have her around until we are old and can’t remember each other‘s names. Even though we share the same name!’
I am truly thankful to be where I am in my life. I am thankful that I can offer a gift of human and energetic touch through body and energy work. I am thankful to be healthy and vibrant, with growing wisdom. There are so many times and reasons that I should not still be breathing. But I am. And that is hope to me, that I can always continue. I am thankful for the love, the support, the guidance, the acceptance, and Divine protection I have been given. I am thankful that I am in the processing of expansion and creating a powerful life.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amy Rhodes. You can follow her journey on Instagram here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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