Last Day 18: Tell Me About Your Childhood
Brandy and Wilma are two women who have a lot in common. They both grew up in California, they both experienced profound childhood trauma, and they both turned to drugs to soothe their pain. But their stories end very differently. Brandy died 10 years ago, at 28 years old. Wilma is now in her 50’s, approaching 10 years sober and living a busy, meaningful life. In this episode, we look at cycles of trauma and how facing it head-on can make all the difference in recovery.
Please note, this episode of Last Day contains graphic details of physical and sexual abuse along with strong language and mature themes. It may not be appropriate for all listeners.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
[00:01] Amber: Hi, I am calling to share my story. My best friend who was doing heroin — and when I say best friend, it was more like a sister that you never fight with. She was a person that I met when I was really little, before we could even talk. I still, to this day, even though she’s not with me, I believe that she is my soulmate. And to watch her go down that road was really hard for me.
[00:32] Amber: So when I was trying to fight for her, fight with her, I didn’t have any resources. We couldn’t afford rehab. The only thing that I could do was just watch her suffer. And she lived on the streets in San Francisco in the Tenderloin. She was prostituting to make money. One time I went out to see her. And like many of the times, I found her under a blanket on the sidewalk. And her hair was messy. She could hardly open her eyes. And she’s looking up at me and she says, “oh, it’s so good to see you, but I’m so sick. I can’t — I can’t spend the day with you.” So I ended up giving her money so that she could get heroin, so that we could spend the day together, because it had been so long since I’d seen her and I missed her.
[01:27] Amber: We were sitting in my car and she was shooting up. And she said — she said, “heroin is my best friend.” And I turned around and I said, “I thought I was your best friend.” And she said, “oh, yeah, you are. I’m sorry.” But as her best friend, I just couldn’t go down that road with her. My last resort thought was to go out there and sit next to her on that sidewalk and refuse to leave her until she decided to come home. And just sit there and maybe a her watching me suffer would do something, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had a job and I was going to school and I didn’t want to give those things up.
[02:26] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We recently got this voicemail from a listener named Amber. It’s very heartbreaking to imagine her driving around in her car, working through all of this on a voicemail. There’s just so much there. So I gave her a call.
[02:46] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I have to tell you that when I was listening to all the voicemails, yours particularly stood out to me.
[02:44] Amber: Was it because of all the crying?
[02:58] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, I do like crying. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m very into cryingp. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs and this is Last Day.
[03:22] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Last week, we sat down with world-renowned trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté. He says lots of things, but one of them is that every traumatized person doesn’t necessarily become addicted, but every addicted person was traumatized. It’s a sentence that needs to be unpacked, and we do that for you in the last episode. So if you haven’t heard that one, I strongly encourage you to stop this one, go back one episode, listen to it, get the context you need moving forward and then come right back here once you’re all set. We will be here. Because today we are looking at the connection between addiction and trauma in two different stories of two different women.
[04:08] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: How would you describe Brandy?
[04:11] Amber: Brandy is funny. She is an artist. She likes to look at a different side of things. She loves to wear black. She paints her face in strange ways. She sometimes has a mohawk. She is very loving and accepting of just about anyone.
[04:37] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: What’s so striking about this description, other than the sometimes mohawk, is that when I asked Amber to describe Brandy, she did it in the present tense, which is noteworthy and sad because Brandy overdosed and died 10 years ago at 28 years old. As kids, it was Amber and Brandy against the world. Or at least against the grown-ups.
[05:09] Amber: Both of us grew up with parents who were addicted to drugs. And there were always people coming in and out of the house, either at her house or my house. It was pretty much the same situation. Our moms liked methamphetamines and our dads liked heroin. And it’s pretty much the same story. My dad wasn’t around, her dad wasn’t around. We were raised by our mothers and boyfriends who would come and go. You know, friends who would come in and out of the house. There was always somebody sleeping on the couch, you know, staying there, either at her house or mine. It was a very, very lively household, you know. Doors open. Music playing. Partying and stuff, you know?
[05:56] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, do you feel like the upbringing that you had bonded you together even closer?
[06:02] Amber: Probably, you know, because we could sit and talk about how crazy the grown-ups were, you know. Any time that, you know, one of us was mistreated by the grown-ups, it was like we had each other to complain about it with and to understand. So, yeah, I would imagine so. And the fact that our moms were friends and, you know, it was easier for them to have us together rather than to be parenting alone. It was like either her mom had us or my mom had us.
[06:37] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Even though the story of their childhood is clearly woven together with intense amounts of drama, it didn’t really feel that way at the time.
[06:47] Amber: You know, you would see somebody kind of like spacing out on the couch or, you know, falling asleep there nodding off. And it was like, ooh, this is a perfect opportunity for us to, like, draw a penis on their face or something, you know. So it’s like we just — I don’t know. We were like 12 and we would knock on the door and nobody would answer. And we’d keep knocking and we’d hear this, “What do you what?” Oh, you know, we just want to know if we can have like a couple bucks to go to AMPM and get a soda or something. And, you know, somebody would open the door, her mom would open the door and go, “what do you want?” And her hair would be all like everywhere. And she would do this little, like, body twitch thing, like so frustrated, like a foot-stomp thing, like, “what the hell do you kids want? Get out of my face!” You know? And that was always like something that we would refer back to, you know, like, jeez, you don’t want to look like that angry chicken.
[07:52] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s hard to tell how Amber actually feels about these memories. On the one hand, she’s laughing. But the details of some of these stories are really hard to hear. Angry chicken is a fun little euphemism for person on meth. And if you don’t know any people on meth, stereotypical behavior is manic, unpredictable and unstable. But these aren’t necessarily symptoms of the drug itself as much as consequences for what happens when you don’t sleep for long periods of time, which is often the case when you’re on meth and then you crash.
[08:27] Amber: My mom would sleep for like three days at a time. And I mean this is usually like when Brandy wasn’t there, I would get bored and lonely and I would go into my mom’s room and I would wake her up. And I would lie to her and tell her I was hungry just so that she would have a reason to get up. And she would just get pissed at me. And she would yell and say, “you can get yourself a fucking bowl of cereal!” And it would just — I mean, it just broke my heart, you know, every time, because I just wanted my mom, you know?
[09:03] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Amber is still working through some of that pain, as is her mom, who is sober now.
[09:09] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Have you talked about this time with your mom? Have you guys ever fleshed any of this out?
[09:14] Amber: We do. We do talk about little situations on occasion when she comes around. It’s always kind of painful, and I hate to see her feeling guilty, you know. I don’t know. I understand that it was the drugs that had her. And as resentful as I was growing up, I’m not so much now because I understand that, you know, it wasn’t her fault. She was a very good mother despite it. I mean, she taught me how to be a good person. She loved nature and she taught me to love nature. But it definitely has an effect on kids. I don’t know why I’m OK. I mean, I don’t consider myself totally OK, but I don’t know — I mean, I honestly don’t know why I’m not addicted to drugs.
[10:04] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Amber doesn’t know exactly why she went down a different path than Brandy, but she does remember when they started moving in different directions.
[10:12] Amber: The first time I felt that distance was in junior high school. We had a falling out. I don’t even remember what it was, but we stopped hanging around with each other about the age of 13 until probably 16. I’m guessing that 16 and 17, maybe 15, is when she started experimenting with the hard drugs that our moms were doing. But we never really talked about that. I think she was really ashamed of that, to discuss that with me, because we hated that about our moms. We hated it. We hated the way it made them act towards us. And so for her to turn to that out of curiosity and then, you know, to become addicted to drugs like that was probably something that she was ashamed of to share with me because I knew her best.
[11:06] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Brandy was falling into all the pattern she promised herself she’d avoid. She was using. She was forming destructive relationships. She started seeing this guy, Jeff. He was jealous and abusive. But at 17, she got pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Noelle, the day before her 18th birthday, she and Jeff got clean for a while and it seemed like they might be able to make it work. But it didn’t last. And when the baby was a year and a half, she was ready to leave Jeff. So she called Amber, who took the day off, and the plan was to relocate Brandy to a women’s shelter in San Francisco. But when Amber pulled up, Brandy got in the car without the baby.
[11:49] Amber: And I was like, “aren’t you going to bring Noelle?” And she said, “I don’t know where I’m going. I’m probably going to be homeless. I don’t know what’s going on. And I don’t want to bring her into that situation. And she’s safe here.”
[12:04] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We can’t know what she was thinking at the time, but I have to assume that she was very desperate and in a lot of pain, and so she left her daughter with Jeff. He wasn’t good for Brandy, but maybe he’d be more gentle with Noelle. All of this feels wrong. But Brandy was right about the situation ahead of her. Without a job and dealing with addiction, she struggled. She was homeless and sometimes would go missing for long periods of time.
[12:36] Amber: I would go out to San Francisco and look for her when she was living on the streets. And she was prostituting, and she smoked crack, and she shot up heroin. And so she did all these things. And a lot of times I wouldn’t be able to find her by myself. So I would have to ask the people who lived on the streets around there who were like standing on the corner selling crack. And they knew who she was. And most of the time they knew who I was. And they’re like, “oh, we got to find Red, her sister’s here.” And they call her Red because her hair is red, when she wasn’t dyeing it green or something. And she went all natural out there. She had her red hair, which I always thought was so beautiful. And so we would, you know, find her. And they knew who I was, like, “oh, her sister’s here.” You know, this is like the most important person to her, we got to find her. And, you know, they would go around and they would find her. And here she would come. And sometimes I would find her on my own under a blanket. And I would have to like buy her some heroin in order for her to be OK so we could spend the day together.
[13:46] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: By this point, heroin was the only thing that helped Brandy make it through the day. It also made it easier to ignore her mountains of unresolved pain. Like the daughter she’d left behind.
[14:00] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Did Brandi ever expressed regret about not being with Noelle, or did she ever talk about missing her?
[14:08] Amber: Yeah, I think that was one of the things that kept her out there in the city is because she felt like she couldn’t come home and face her old life. I always asked her, you know, do you want me to try to make friends with Jeff so that I can bring Noelle out here to see you? And she always said no. She said, no, I do not want her to see me like this. I don’t want her to know anything about this. She didn’t feel capable of being any kind of positive influence on her and she just didn’t want any part of it. She loved that little girl so much that she felt that she had to stay away.
[14:47] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Ugh. It breaks my heart. When was the last time you talked to Brandy?
[14:54] Amber: I had gotten a job for about six months driving a taxi in San Francisco. And every shift I had, I drove through the Tenderloin to look for her. And the last time I saw her, I was driving through the Tenderloin, and there she was just walking down the street. And I stopped. I stopped. There was no place to park. So I just stopped there, double parking. And I honked my horn and I said, “Brandy!” And she leaned in the passenger window like the whole top half of her body. She leaned in the passenger window and she gave me this big ol’ hug. And she said, “do you need some money?” And I was like, “no, I’m OK. I’m working.” And she goes, “well, me, too. And I’ve been doing really good. So if you need some money, I could give you some money.” And I just said, no, thank you, you know. And her hair was so clean. Her face was clean. She looked really beautiful that day. And she didn’t look like the punk rocker that I was used to. She looked like a movie star. And I said, “well, when I get off work here in a few hours, “I’m gonna come back and we’ll spend some time together, where are you going to be?” And she told me where. And I went back there. It was nighttime. I shouldn’t have been down there. I felt really uncomfortable. I went to the spot where she said she might be and she wasn’t there. And I needed to go home, so I left. So I didn’t get to see her and hang out with her that night.
[16:30] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: As out of control as Brandy’s life seemed, Amber also had a lot going on back home. She was dating this guy who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and thrown in jail for a few weeks. And then she was evicted from her house. Needing help with the move, Brandy’s parents, Pat and Judy, showed up with their truck.
[16:47] Amber: So me and Pat and Judy ended up at my mom’s house, sitting on the couch resting, and the phone rings. It was the landline, which usually is just telemarketers. And so we ignore it. But it just kept ringing and kept ringing and kept ringing. And so finally, my mom picked it up. And it was the San Francisco coroner looking for Judy, trying to find a way to get ahold of her. And we have no idea how they ended up with my mom’s landline number. It must have been some emergency contact that she had given the hospital at some point or something. Because she was in and out of the hospital from time to time. So they found us. They found Judy and they told her — we were all together, which is really kind of a mercy, you know, that she wasn’t alone when she got that news. She had been dead for almost a week by the time they were able to reach us and I wanted to see her before they cremated her. I wasn’t going to just let her go off and her body be destroyed without me seeing it.
[17:54] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: What was that experience like? I mean, did it look like her?
[17:56] Amber: It did. It looked her. It looked like she was sleeping. It was really difficult for me. Her mom, too, I know it was hard for her mom to see her, but we needed to. We could not have just gone without that, I don’t think. I’m really glad that I saw her and got to touch her. Because, I mean, that person was like an extension of myself. And to be walking around without them, it just didn’t seem right. So to see her laying there lifeless, it was some kind of a closure, but also just a really sudden realization of what, you know, what happened, and what’s happening and how life is going to be now.
[18:55] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I know what it’s like to have a sibling-slash-soulmate-slash-extension of yourself suddenly get ripped away. It’s like waking up and realizing you’ve lost a limb. It’s not fatal, but it is a constant struggle to relearn how to get through life when you’re missing this essential piece of yourself. Brandy’s daughter, Noelle, is in her 20s now. From what Amber knows, Jeff has been a good father and Brandy’s mom has tried to stay connected over the years.
[19:28] Amber: She looks like her. She talks like her. She walks like her. Her mind is very imaginative, like her mom. You know, I’ve reached out, Judy has reached out, you know, to try to be in her life, because that’s really all we have left of her. And she is so much like her in so many ways. It’s freaky.
[19:54] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: These days, Amber is doing well. Like she said, she’s not totally OK, like most of us, but she’s grateful for the stability that she’s carved out for herself despite the chaos of those early years. After the break, we hear a story of another woman who’s had to fight really hard to get to where she is today.
[22:44] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. When I heard Brandy’s story, it reminded me of this woman, Wilma Hawkinson, who called in for our holiday episode. There’s so many striking similarities. I just kept thinking maybe if Brandy had lived longer, she could have told her own story like Wilma. In 2010, Wilma was waging a daily war with an opiate addiction, and she’d been working as an escort on and off over the years as a means to an end.
[23:16] Wilma: I hated it. I hated me. I hated the whole game. I hated the drug scene. I hated what I was about to do. I mean, I was willing to sell myself again so I wouldn’t be dope-sick. And I don’t exactly know what happened. I know that I was desperate, so desperate that I would sell myself for opiates. I went to pick up the phone and call the man that ran the escort service because I’d run out of money and something in me said, “Really? You’re 49 years old and this is what you’re gonna do? Why don’t you just get sober?” And so I did. This was my last day.
[24:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: You may remember Wilma as the woman who described walking around in early recovery feeling like she didn’t have skin. She’s the one with that great pillow-worthy quote, “it’s the best I can do right now, and right now that’s OK.” Still so good. And Wilma is wise because she has been through it. She was abused repeatedly over the years, but is adamant in the way she views her story. While she may have been victimized, she is not a victim. With that said, a warning that her story contains some graphic descriptions of physical and sexual abuse.
[24:51] Wilma: You know, I think that there’s always been this, you know, you can call it inner child, or inner being, or whatever, but that little girl in me is a fighter.
[25:03] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Inner child is such a soft phrase. I love that Wilma calls hers a fighter. And I’ve been dying to know more about that fighter ever since she called in over the holidays.
[25:17] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So I want to just dive in there and ask you what kind of general question to start, which is can you tell me about your childhood?
[25:25] Wilma: Absolutely. And let me just preface it that I have done a ton of work in my recovery to be able to be somewhat comfortable in my skin, because for years and years and years, the only way I felt like I could survive was by using drugs. So my childhood — like my first memory really — was of being sexually abused by my dad. And, you know, I’m sure that there were good times. I have no memory of any good times. I know that there are some pictures of good times. My mother was absolutely emotionally absent. As a matter of fact, she had left my father, and found out she was pregnant with me and she went back.
[26:20] Wilma: So that’s kind of how it all really started. Our house was always really chaotic and I never knew what the mood was going to be. But I loved my daddy. My mother really wasn’t there for me, but I loved, loved, loved my dad. And of course, you know, at a really young age, you don’t equate abuse with what was going on. And I think that we had this kind of unsaid agreement that if I didn’t tell what was going on, he wouldn’t beat me like he beat my siblings. And one day I was outside playing Barbies on the sidewalk with a girlfriend of mine, and I had a two-piece bathing suit on. This was in California. My dad called us in to have banana splits for dessert. So I come in to have this banana split and my dad is behind the door, the front door of our house. I was seven years old and he put an ice cube down my bathing suit bottom pants. And I had enough fire in me that I wasn’t going for it this time. I took the ice cube out of my bathing suit pants and I threw it back at him. And he took his belt off and proceeded to beat me until I bled. And all the while, I’m begging him — because now he’s saying that he’s leaving, that he’s no longer going to be our dad. And I’m just begging him, please, daddy, I won’t do it again. I won’t do it again. Please don’t leave. Please don’t leave.
[28:23] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: But Wilma’s father did leave, and it’s hard to say if his departure actually had anything to do with Wilma standing up to him finally, but that’s how it felt to her at the time. And her guilt over this was only made worse because he died by suicide when she was 9 years old. Even after all of the abuse, losing him was traumatic. And her mother struggled to care for Wilma and her three siblings.
[28:52] Wilma: We had to fend for ourselves. There were no clean clothes. There were no groceries. Yeah. It went from bad to worse, really. And ultimately my mother decided to send me to live with relatives in Oklahoma. And the people that I met in Oklahoma, their lives were so foreign to me. It was like normal. They had normal parents. Their parents loved them. There was no signs of abuse. And it was pretty beautiful for a minute. And probably about a year in, my cousin started sexually abusing me. And I didn’t tell. The message that I got really from my dad in my really early years was that if you had sex with me, you must love me. So this was his way of showing me how much he loved me. And it was tough. Like it was — it was brutal. And, let’s see, I was 15, I went to California to spend Christmas with my sister. And at the time, I told her what was going on in Oklahoma. And she made the decision to save me. And it was wonderful.
[30:21] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: She felt like she was finally safe, so she let our guard down for a moment.
[30:27] Wilma: I was at her house. She was married. She had — I think my nephew was probably three or four, and she was pregnant. And the first night or second night that I was there, I was able to get in contact with one of my old friends and went to her house. And my sister’s husband took me. And when he picked me up, he started trying to kiss me and hug me and tell me how beautiful I was. And I was 15 at this time, and he was 24. And that continued for a year. And the truth is, I believed that he — I mean, in my 15-year-old brain — I believed he was gonna leave my sister for me. I really believed that this was real.
[31:22] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: After experiencing such extreme abuse from such a young age, it didn’t seem so bad. In fact, it felt good. Which made it seem consensual. Also, everyone was doing drugs.
[31:38] Wilma: While I was living — let me just say this — while I was living with my sister, I did a lot of drugs. They provided multiple substances and it just made me — made it easier to be who I am. It made it easier to survive. It made it easier just to be. My emotional maturity at that point was probably that of a seven-year-old. I was just a girl that wanted to be loved. And I didn’t know what that looked like. So about a year in, I thought I was pregnant, and went to a clinic and fortunately tested negative. And at that time, he told me that this was not really a thing, that this was not real. This was just kind of a game. And I said OK. And I used a few choice words. OK, I’ll show you the game. And I told my sister what had been going on. She threw all my clothes outside in the front yard and caught them on fire, and I was homeless.
[33:02] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Wilma spent some time at her mom’s house, but it didn’t last long because she clashed with her mom’s husband. Soon she was put back on a plane to Oklahoma, where she married a guy right out of high school and pretty soon they had two kids.
[33:18] Wilma: And life was pretty tough. He was a drinker. He didn’t just drink, he drank. And I ultimately had to leave him. And I left him and took my two children and was single for a while. And again still didn’t know how to live. Didn’t really — I really had no real life skills, but I did it. And all through this, I would intermittently use drugs. Maybe amphetamines, because I thought I was too fat or, you know, a few Xanax because I was too stressed out or, you know, some — and all of this was prescribed — and some pain pills because my cramps were too bad. And so I started experiencing the effect of mind-altering substances. And I liked it a lot.
[34:23] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: What did it feel like?
[34:24] Wilma: I was prettier. I was taller. I was thinner. I was smarter. It was almost like, this is it. This is what I — this is why I’m alive. This is what I’ve needed my whole life. Like I was not haunted by, you know, my childhood abuse. I was not haunted by being a single mom of two.
[34:55] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Remember how Dr. Maté said drugs can feel like a warm hug you’ve been missing all your life? This was definitely true for Wilma. On top of all the childhood trauma, she had been dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts since the birth of her second child. So she started seeing a psychiatrist, who prescribed more drugs, and her addiction got worse. Over the next decade, Wilma went through the cycle of recovery and relapse and her kids were there for a lot of it.
[35:26] Wilma: I was — actually, you know, I became my dad. I became my mom. That’s exactly what I did. And I abandoned my children. My two oldest went to live with their dad. My youngest went to live with her dad. And it was just me.
[35:46] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: In the past, she’d turned to sex work when she was broke and out of options. Now finding herself alone, she went back to it.
[35:56] Wilma: I prostituted for about two years and in the meantime, got pregnant by one of my clients, decided to have the baby. Found a family to adopt him. And at the last minute they decided they didn’t want to move forward. And I think that they knew that I must be on drugs because my behavior was not — didn’t signify sobriety at all. They decided to pull out of the adoption at the last minute. So I decided I’d take him home, because that’s the thing to do. He was addicted to amphetamines. He was addicted to benzodiazepines. He stayed in the NICU. I brought him home. And I was living with a guy, or a guy was living with me, who had been kind of abusive to me, but I didn’t even — like I didn’t even know where the line was. Oh, yeah. Like, if you hit me, you know, that’s the line. But if you say you’re not going to do it again, then do we start over? You know, I just had no — I had zero education around abuse and the effects. So this little boy was adorable. I adored him. And thought that I’m really going to get my stuff together for this child. And at three months, I left him home with this guy and this guy nearly killed him. He broke this little three-month-old baby. He broke his hip, his ankle, six of his ribs and his collarbone. And I had no idea. The child was pretty fussy that night. The next day, an ambulance was called and they took the baby into protective custody. Ultimately, the guy was charged with severe child abuse and went to jail. And I fought to get this child back and ultimately realized that I just didn’t have the tools.
[38:31] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Similar to Brandy, you can’t judge Wilma for what was going on. Believe me, Wilma has spent enough years judging herself and working through what she calls the emotional wreckage of this time. At that point, she knew she couldn’t win this fight and saw that her son was in a safe place.
[38:51] Wilma: He had been with his foster family and they loved him. He knew what they smelled like. He knew what they sounded like. And so I relinquished custody and went back to prostituting, or “escorting.” And I did that for a while. I ultimately became homeless. I lived in a motel and I started smoking crack. All the while, I continued to break the law on different levels. And pled guilty to identity theft. So I was on probation and of course, had to give clean new ways, which I couldn’t do. And I had an appointment and I went to my probation officer and just told him I’m smoking crack. And he ordered me into treatment. And that was the beginning of being able to exhale, really. I had held my breath for so many years. So I went into treatment. Did that. It was a community corrections treatment center, so that’s not any kind of a posh, beautiful setting.
[40:15] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: No personal chefs for you.
[40:17] Wilma: Not at all, sister.
[40:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: No beach views.
[40:20] Wilma: Nope. It was difficult for me. So I did that and then ultimately went to a treatment center in Memphis. My husband and I had ultimately moved to Memphis, that’s where I married my second husband. And finally got a taste of sobriety and started looking at my trauma. And possibly what kind of fueled me. And also the first taste of what I had put my children through. I was sober. I started taking some accountability. And it broke my heart because I was going to be the one that didn’t do to their children what my mother did to me, what my dad did to me. And the truth is I did exactly. I abandoned my children emotionally, physically. And that was a tough, tough realization to come to. I mean, it made sobriety that much more difficult. I stayed sober for two years and then relapsed.
[41:42] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Like we’ve heard before, the road to sobriety is long and bumpy and very, very wind-y. Especially when you’re not addressing the trauma that’s at the root of all of it. After the break, we’ll hear where Wilma is on her journey. Stick with us.
[43:59] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. On our last episode, Dr. Maté explained that trauma is a wound. And the longer it goes unhealed, the more infectious it becomes. Unlike Brandy, who we heard about at the beginning of the show, Wilma was given more time to heal her wounds. But that process comes with its own kind of pain.
[44:21] Wilma: It hasn’t been easy because I’ve got to face my trauma. I’ve got to face my children. I had to learn how to live. And it’s been painful, really painful, but not so painful that I ever had to pick up a drug or a drink. I’ve been single as long as I’ve been sober, which is beautiful that I did this, the life that I’ve created, I did it on my own. And I ultimately moved to Eugene for an internship. And I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t know anyone. I knew my best friend in Portland, I didn’t know anybody else in Eugene. I had my dog with me. Didn’t have a vehicle. And just made it work because I knew that’s what I was supposed to be doing. Fortunately, found a studio apartment and the rest is kind of history. I’ve been in therapy for the past four and a half years, every freakin’ week.
[45:42] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Oh, my god.
[45:43] Wilma: Yeah. Actually, you know what? I’ve been in therapy probably six years, but I’ve been with the same therapist for four years. And he has helped me heal. I went to trauma treatment in 2017 for 52 days in Florida.
[46:02] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Wilma spent those 52 days at The Refuge, a treatment center with a dedicated track for people coping with PTSD and trauma. The biggest turning point for Wilma was revisiting the memories of her childhood, and realizing that what she’d previously seen as bad choices could actually be classified as abuse. So she opened up all of these wounds that she didn’t even know existed, which was ultimately good for her recovery, but was miserable in the short term. After she left The Refuge, she was experiencing intense suicidal ideation.
[46:41] Wilma: You know, I think so many people think that, oh, gosh, if I just get sober, all is good. I wish it was, but it’s not. Like every day, every night wanting to kill myself for two and a half years.
[46:59] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: How did you get through that without using? I mean —
[47:05] Wilma: So how I got through that without using is I knew what using got me. I didn’t know what suicide would offer me. I was prepared to call my children and tell them I cannot. I just can’t do it anymore.
[47:26] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Oh, man.
[47:31] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s sad to think about Wilma in this state, especially considering her own childhood experience with a parent who died by suicide. But just like addiction, this level of depression doesn’t play by the rules of logic. You don’t want to go down this path, but you’re not in control of it. And this is a really good time to mention that if you or someone you love is dealing with suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. There are links to the International Association for Suicide Prevention, along with other resources in our show notes, so please check them out. And you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-799-4889 for the deaf and hard of hearing). And if you’re dealing with these emotions in recovery, Wilma can tell you first-hand you’re not the only one.
[48:22] Wilma: There’s a lot of people in sobriety that suffer with suicidal thoughts. I mean, a lot of us, probably the majority, have experienced childhood trauma. I mean, it’s just so complex. And the work is really tough. That’s the thing. The work can be brutal. But so worth it.
[48:52] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This brutal work started at The Refuge. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t sustaining. She needed a long-term treatment option. We’ve talked a lot about medication assisted treatment for addiction. Well, recently, Wilma heard about another kind of MAT.
[49:11] Wilma: So I, fortunately — and believe it or not, my sister messaged me with a link to a podcast about ketamine. So I listened to it and it just sounded like something that I really needed. Because what happens when we’re depressed, or when we experience trauma, it affects those parts of our brains and they’re just not able to function efficiently. So I found a ketamine clinic in Washington and I went for some infusions. And after my first infusion, the suicidal thoughts were gone. Gone. I had been suicidal for two and a half years. The thing about ketamine is that you have to continue to do it. I mean, it’s really expensive. My sister actually paid for my first round of infusions. And so what I’ve done since then is I followed up with a nasal spray. I go to a clinic in Portland, which is two hours away. However, I have committed to saving my life. And so I make the drive up there. I started with twice a week, so it’s about a six-hour ordeal.
[50:30] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And she’s not taking that six-hour journey alone. She has to rope in friends, because you can’t drive after a ketamine infusion.
[50:41] Wilma: But it has worked for me. It has been beyond effective. And, you know, being able to continue in therapy and work in the field of addiction and be loved like I’m loved, it’s like kind of like the stars are aligning or something, you know? It’s just really good. It’s just really good. My two oldest have children. And like, it’s just such a delight to be able to, like, Facetime with them. They call me Winnie. That was my nickname when I was a little girl. And so I decided to like kind of come full circle and pick the name back up and let it mean something different to me. Let it mean something pure just for me and my grandchildren. And our relationships continue to evolve.
[51:42] Wilma: My two daughters really don’t like me very much. They love me, but they don’t like me very much. I hurt them and it’s painful. My gosh, it’s so painful, you know, and there’s been times that my oldest daughter has just basically begged me to move to where she lives. And it breaks my heart. I’d love to live closer, but I just can’t. And that’s one of those things that in sobriety, sometimes we have to make those decisions. That without me being sober, there’s nothing. And the best thing that I can do for you is to heal me. And that’s what I’m doing.
[52:25] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Well, it seems like you have this incredible, like you said, family and support system that you’ve carved out that’s so tied into your sobriety. July is going to be 10 years for you, right?
[52:40] Wilma: It is!
[52:41] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Oh, my gosh.
[52:43] Wilma: I know, I know. Like, it’s crazy.
[52:50] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Oh, my god! Like, you are a survivor and the fact that you are telling your story like you are and knowing what you need to do to take care of yourself is incredible.
[53:06] Wilma: Yes, ma’am, it is.
[53:07] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, I don’t need to tell you. I’m just reiterating what you already know.
[53:10] Wilma: But I really, I really appreciate and love to hear that, because years ago I would have, you know, just tried to deflect. And today, I can really take it in.
[53:30] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The more Wilma works through her trauma, the more space is cleared out in her mind to welcome in something that is so foreign to her: self-love.
[53:42] Wilma: I love myself enough today, and I have surrounded myself with people that absolutely adore me. Like it blows my mind, really, because I never had a model family. I didn’t know what that looked like. But so many people that just adore me. Two people in particular. Can I say their names? Jade and Gladys, Jade and Gladys, they crazy adore me. My two best friends, Annie and Marty, just freakin’ adore me. Like it makes me cry because I never knew that kind of love. I just didn’t. I didn’t even really know it — I didn’t know it existed. And it’s pretty doggone cool, you know, being in my 50s, being able to experience that.
[54:56] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: When I hear Wilma talking about Jade and Gladys, I can’t help but think about Amber and Brandy. Their friendship was so strong. But heroin will always win the best friend contest when there’s unresolved trauma in the mix. Last week we ended our trauma episode by emphasizing the importance of connection, which is so important. But for people like Wilma, whose earliest experiences of connection were deeply entangled with abuse, there’s a lot of work that has to go into building connections and accepting love in the first place. Wilma couldn’t do it until she was nearly 60 years old. She had to tap in to that inner child, and let her throw a bunch of fucking punches, and go to trauma therapy, and go to regular therapy, and do ketamine infusions, and and and and and. All of that before she could experience something so simple: the power of friendship.
[56:10] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Next week, we talk about the sudden and very unexpected transition from grandma to mommy.
[56:17] Woman: Emily used to say having Carter saved her life. I think having Carter saved my life when Emily died because if I did not have Carter, I think I would have probably just stayed in my room, stayed in my house, not gone anywhere, not do anything. I’m a big denial person. I deny a lot of things. And so having to take care of Carter was right up my alley of denying what was going on. So I literally had to get up every three, four or five hours, feed her, take care of her. You know, that was it.
[56:49] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Last Day is a production of Lemonada Media. Our producer is Jackie Danziger. Nicolle Galteland is our associate producer. And our assistant producer is Claire Jones. Kegan Zema is our technical director. Bryan Castillo is our editor. And our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer. Our music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Westwood One, our ad sales and distribution partner. You can and should find us online @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me online @wittelstephanie. If you like what you heard today, tell your family and friends to listen and subscribe, rate and review us on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. It really, really does help make an impact. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. See you next week.