Substance Abuse Resources & Disability Issues

Josephine F. Wilson, D.D.S., Ph.D., Director

CAM Testimonials: Cathy's Story

In the following case study, Cathy describes personal experiences related to her struggles with disability, addiction and lesbianism. Cathy started abusing alcohol during adolescence as a way to deal with the challenges caused by her physical disability. Cathy?s drinking increased after she came out as a lesbian during college. She sees her coexisting disabilities as major contributors to her dropping of out college, her lack of trust in people, and her obsession with control. However, with the help of spirituality, a sober social network, and substance abuse treatment, Cathy was able to conquer her addiction, accept her lesbianism, and achieve personal independence from her disability. Since her recovery, Cathy has made several positive changes in her life, and is now is able to share her fears, struggles and triumphs with others. Although it has taken Cathy a long time to know herself again, she ?likes herself?, and feels she is ?worthy of a good life.?

Even though I'm disabled, my story is like most alcoholics. I am the daughter of an alcoholic. My mom was a single parent who dealt with many stresses related to being a parent of two disabled kids. There wasn't legislation in place that protected our rights to mainstream services such as regular childcare services. My mother could only afford to hire fourteen-year old girls to baby-sit my sister and me. My childhood was fairly unsupervised, and I always felt on my own.

When I was fourteen, my mother entered into recovery. I started using alcohol around this time. I began my drinking career at a Muscular Dystrophy Summer Camp. The campers' parents were aware that we drank, but seemed to find comfort in their children partaking in "normal" adolescent behavior. At camp I made several friends; however, until then, the only other disabled child I had been around was my older sister.

I drank alcohol throughout high school, mostly after school or on the weekends with friends. I was rarely asked for any identification; I attribute this to the fact that I use a wheelchair and either cashiers assumed I was older or just felt sorry for me. Ironically, these were the few times I wasn't infantilized because drinking made me feel grown up. In my senior year, I started using other drugs as well such as cocaine and marijuana. But alcohol still remained my drug of choice.

The summer after high school I came out as a lesbian. Although my disabled friends were accepting of my identity, they didn't really embrace it. I went to events and parties to meet other lesbians, but felt uncomfortable and mostly invisible. Drinking alcohol would help me to feel more at ease in these settings.

I used alcohol to both cover up feelings and facilitate feelings. When things got rough, I would drink. Alcohol helped me express my feelings of sadness or anger with my friends. When my life became unmanageable, I did not know how to ask for help. Instead, I would get so drunk that others would have to take care of me. When I received good news or had accomplished something, I would handle positive feelings by drinking.

After high school, I moved to San Francisco to attend a State university. I made friends in the dorms and continued drinking alcohol and using pot and cocaine. Most of my friends were other disabled folks who drank and got high a lot. I was a vocational rehabilitation client with a vocational goal of either becoming a speech therapist or an elementary education teacher. I really wanted to be a teacher, but I didn't think I could make it through the required years of education.

The summer after my first year in college, my social network expanded greatly. I made several friends, most of them lesbians, by becoming involved in peace activism. This circle of friends drank alcohol, but used more experimental drugs like amyl nitrate and hallucinogens. I started eating hallucinogenic mushrooms that summer. I also participated in a weekend retreat for young disabled women. At this retreat, I met a group of disabled women that invited me to attend weekly ?happy hour? gatherings at a local bar. Some women came to socialize, but many drank heavily like me.

At school, my grades were never very good. I took several Incompletes and dropped out completely for one semester. My rehabilitation counselor did not provide me with any guidance even though I had missed several appointments with her. She seemed to attribute my poor performance to my disability, and never questioned to find out if there was something else amiss.

After my third year, I quit school. I got a job at an organization for disability public policy. Even when drinking blatantly interfered with my job, I was not put on notice or even questioned about my behavior. Because the disability community is small, everyone was aware that I had a problem, yet no one confronted me.

When I was twenty-two, I began to spiral down pretty quickly. I started to endanger my life as well as that of others?. I began to drink myself into unconsciousness. My social support started to intervene, but backed off even though I was clearly in a sick state.

A few months after, I received a call from my drinking buddy that I met at Camp. She asked me to attend an AA meeting with her. We went to a group meeting where all kinds of people went such as professionals, skid row, men, and women of all ages. She didn't stop drinking, but I did. I was twenty-four years old.

I can't really put my finger on the pivotal factor that lead to my recovery. I had surrounded myself with people who didn't drink; some were in recovery, some were not. My two roommates did not drink and the woman I was involved with was in recovery. I had a few good friends who were what I call "co-drinkers" since they drank with me as the only way to socialize with me. Once I quit, their drinking nearly stopped completely.

I had just started working with an excellent therapist (also a disable woman) who forced me to take responsibility for my behavior. She didn't allow me to blame my poor choices on anyone or anything but myself.

I didn't go into treatment, or even attend meetings right away. For the first year, I "white knuckled it." But I was barraged with memories and feelings of fear and lack of safety from my childhood. These overwhelming feelings lead me into a state of depression. Finally my therapist suggested I attend AA meetings.

Although I hadn't been raised in any religion, AA's Christian undertones did not bother me. It was easy for me to "take what I needed and leave the rest." Someone had advised me to define my own Higher Power as whatever was important to me. I needed to identify an entity that I could put faith in, something that would keep me sober. In my earnest to remain sober, I began to work the twelve steps. Wanting to immerse myself in recovery, I committed to attending 90 meetings in 90 days, but discovered it was impossible because there weren't that many wheelchair accessible meetings.

At AA meetings, I found a community of people who shared my stories. At first, it was difficult for me to sit still and listen, for I was caught up in judging others by their appearances. My political stance always influenced me to view people who were not disabled, gay, part of the working class or female as "other." The experience of recovery enabled me to see people beyond their shells. In listening to people share their fears, struggles and triumphs, I was able to see humanity in all people.

When I entered recovery, I recognized that control was a critical issue for me. In my daily life, I clung very tightly to a routine. I came to a realization that so many aspects of my life were out of my control. However, it was hard for me to realistically identify the elements in my life that I could and could not control. Up to that point, I had it all backwards. I would try desperately to influence how others treated me. I would feel overwhelmingly guilty or responsible if someone in my life felt physically or emotionally hurt. I began to see that even though I could not change these situations, I could change how I let them affect me. When I was drinking I was a very bitter, distrustful person. But when I was able to forgive myself for my mistakes and have patience for my daily transgressions, I began to trust others.

It was easy for me to begin taking responsibility for the parts of my life that I had control over. When I realized how much pain and worry I'd caused others when I was drinking, guilt motivated me to do anything I could to make it up to those who stood by me. I felt embarrassed over how selfish I had acted.

Accepting that I couldn't control everything was an entirely different matter. This required inner faith, trust and hope. I went back to trying to define my Higher Power which was the entity that I needed to "turn things over" to. I reflected on my life and realized how lucky I have been during so many rough times of my addiction. I started to feel that someone or something must have been looking out for me. When I trace the path of my recovery, I believe that everything has happened for a reason.

I count the blessings in my life from childhood through present. I had an older sister with a disability who acted as a built in role model in my family. Although I have hurt many of the people whom I care about, they have stood by me and supported me through this process. Many of my friends have been shunned by their families after they came out as gay, but my family still loves and accepts me for who I am. By looking at my life through this perspective, I realize I have faith.

As parts of my life continue to improve, I believe that I deserve to have a good life. I plan for the future, which is something I have never done before. I realize that up to this point, I have never really had hope for the future. Some of this may have been a result of my disability, but primarily I think it is a typical mindset of most alcoholics. We don't value life because we don't think we deserve it. It has taken me quite a while to get to know myself again. But, hey, I like myself. I feel that I am worthy of a good life. I view life as very powerful and very precious. During my first year in recovery, I made several changes in my life. I quit my job, I ended a harmful relationship, and I received treatment for specific health problems.

Whereas I used to assume the worst of people, I now assume that they have honorable intentions. I don't make excuses for people, but I recognize that sometimes their actions are the result of fear or feelings of inadequacy. I don't put my faith in one entity; I trust in human spirits, life and the earth.

Cathy's support network was aware of her addiction and the impact it had on her life. However, nobody, including counselors, confronted her about getting help. Cathy believes that her support network attributed her bad grades, her lack of attendance to rehabilitation treatment, and her bitter personality to her physical disability. Cathy sees her addiction to alcohol as the strongest influence on her behavior. Cathy's act of taking responsibility for her own actions was a turning point in her recovery. Cathy now plans for the future and, like Leslie and Johnny, feels everything has happened to her for a reason.

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