Into the light

Women, recovery and spirituality

Photography by Sarah Whiting.
Photography by Sarah Whiting.

“Quitting drinking? That’s easy. So easy that I did it … over and over and over again.

“Using I could do alone. Quitting I could do alone. But staying clean I can’t do without my higher power,” said Dawn Jenkins (name changed to protect her identity). “I feel a need to tell my story only so that it can help others.”

Love match
Jenkins, who is 29 years old, took her first drink at age 12. It is not an exaggeration, she said, that the can of 3.2 beer changed her life forever. “I became an alcoholic like that,” she snapped her fingers. That first night, the slightly built preteen drank more than six cans of beer. “When I woke up the next morning with a pounding headache, I wondered if drinking would stop it. Whether or not it did … I couldn’t wait to drink again.”

Jenkins spent the next six years on a downward spiral that included three stints in rehab, sexual assault, failing grades, blackouts, suspension from school, a DUI arrest and a rocky relationship with both parents. But it didn’t start out that way. Starting to drink, she said, was like falling in love.

“I loved everything about drinking, at first,” she said. “First I loved the taste and then I loved how it … filled in some holes and gaps in me. I had stepped out of a gray-tone world [in]to one of swirling colors and sound. Suddenly I was friendlier. So were the other kids. Life seemed beautiful for the first time in a really long time.”

There was, Jenkins said, no one reason that she drank. “I took my first drink at a party with older kids,” she said. “I craved acceptance and attention. My parents were going through a messy divorce and they were focused on themselves. My mother had two younger children to worry about and my father was an alcoholic himself. I was emotionally young and so alone. The beer loosened me up … it was like turning on a switch from being the girl in the corner alone to [being] the life of the party. I loved that girl and so did everyone else. I remember once when I about 13, I had a buzz, my mom didn’t know I had been drinking but she complimented me on seeming so happy and relaxed.

“At first there seemed to be no downside. After a while, there seemed to be no way out of the hell of my addiction.”

The power of their stories
None of the stories that Jenkins tells would surprise Patricia Dorsey Nanoff. She talked with many women “elder alcoholics” for her book “Rising from the Dead: Stories of Women’s Spiritual Journeys to Sobriety.” Like Jenkins, they were, she said, willing to tell their stories, but only if they made a difference for other women. One of the women told Nanoff, “To tell my story isn’t just to know myself, but it means that my suffering and the suffering I’ve caused are a way of healing those I’ve hurt, and healing others who are hurting too.” Spirituality is at the core of many recovery programs, including the well-known 12-Step programs that began with Alcoholics Anonymous.

Telling their stories is important, Nanoff said. “That’s living life out loud. These are women who cast huge shadows. It’s kind of the idea that there’s a great freedom and great healing in the world when I can know who I really am and help someone else know who she really is and have it mean something, not just a wasted life, a life that brings light to other people, that’s a huge honor.”

One of the people the stories had a profound impact on was Nanoff herself. “I thought I was a good listener … after all, I’m a clinical social worker. But listening to these stories … the sighs, the breaths, made me realize I had never really tuned in that deeply to how people tell their stories. I never listened until I heard these stories. And what I heard … I was rocked to my foundations to hear in their breaths that spiritual presence of God.”

Though Nanoff has her doctorate of ministry (DMin) and a “day job” that includes teaching theology (she is an associate professor at the College of St. Catherine), she does not believe it is necessary for women in recovery to equate spirituality with specific religious beliefs. “It’s a mistake to say you can do it only one way,” she said. “There are many ways to God, ways to health and wholeness.”

An important part of achieving that health and wholeness is gaining self-respect, said Ellie Skelton. She is executive director of Wayside House, a 54-year-old program based in St. Louis Park that is one of the nation’s oldest women-specific chemical dependency treatment programs. Wayside offers primary treatment, supportive housing and aftercare programs.

“Because women’s self-esteem is eroded by the downward spiral of addiction, spiritual healing is essential to maintaining long-term sobriety,” Skelton said. “Empty, disconnected, isolated and numb are feelings women try to escape by using drugs and alcohol.”

June Cleaver, heroin addict
Kim Kirkeberg, a 52-year-old recovering heroin addict (she is in her third year of recovery) said that her relationship with God “is always the thing that got me through hard times. I feel it as a strong bond, a connection. But when I start using, my relationship with God is always the first thing to go.”

Heroin wasn’t her first addiction. Kirkeberg was addicted to methamphetamine and opiates as a teenager and young adult. She celebrated 15 years of sobriety and had rebuilt her life. She earned her GED, a two-year chemical dependency counseling certificate, and then her bachelor’s degree. She had completed 27 credits in course work toward her master’s. “I was a successful, educated person,” Kirkeberg said. “I was at the top of my profession. I had a new car, a beautiful home. I had two great sons and was married. When I wasn’t using, I was like June Cleaver, Mom of the Year.”

So why did she start using heroin?

“It was a combination of a lot of things,” Kirkeberg said. “My job [in child protection] was way too much. I was kind of going through my midlife crisis-I was not happy that my [last] child was leaving home. And then I had three surgeries and was given narcotics. I had been 15 years clean. Ordinarily I don’t think it would have been a big deal, but where I was in my life, I was combustible.”

And combust she did. “I lost everything. My house, car, marriage. … I didn’t even have an apartment. I went to live with a friend up north and that was hard because I need roots, my own place.

Relapsing, Kirkeberg said, “is a process. It happens long before the actual picking up of the drug. It kind of runs full circle, and at the end of that circle is the drug. I found myself lowering my expectations, morals, beliefs … trading off. It was subtle at first, a gradual thing. I built a strong case that it was OK to start using.”

One thing that made it easier to start using again, Kirkeberg said, was that she had neglected her spiritual life. “My connection with God was way down the tubes. He was a reminder of what I was doing wrong. I didn’t want to think about him much, only when I was in a pinch, in jail, ready to go to jail, or really scared. It was really sacrilegious.

“I got into a lot of trouble in a short time,” Kirkeberg said. “I could feel myself dying on the inside.” She had fallen in with a crowd of what she calls “sophisticated criminals” and was arrested for forgery. After a two-month treatment program and time in a halfway house, she moved into housing at Wellsprings Living Center, a St. Paul transitional program for women run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and stayed for 18 months. At Wellsprings, Kirkeberg got deeply in touch with her spirituality. “I worked hard on [my] spirituality there. It’s the most marvelous program … I was able to go to Mass, though they don’t force that. I had spiritual guidance, therapy, daily meditations with God … just being there, walking through the peaceful grounds.”

Defining spirituality
“Recovery from the path of addiction is a journey by which women learn to find meaning in their life, replacing drugs and alcohol with something that helps them feel whole and restored. The ‘something’ that many women find on their healing path is discovering their spirituality,” said Wayside’s Skelton.

Although Kirkeberg has embraced a conventional God-centered spiritual life, she makes it clear that her higher power-God-is not the only means to a spiritual recovery. “I think whatever works for you is your higher power, but … it’s essential [to have one]. I don’t know anyone in recovery that doesn’t have a higher power.”

Jenkins took her last drink at the age of 18. “I had quit so many times,” she said, “but I never took responsibility for my spirituality. I paid lip service to God being my higher power. Lots of people find … God when they work the [12 Step] program. I had been a lazy Christian-celebrated holidays, went to church some. Deep down, I was not a believer.

“When I accepted that,” Jenkins said, “I was in despair because believing in God seemed to be as elusive as maintaining sobriety. It was in a conversation with my AA sponsor that I really got that there is a reason AA calls it a ‘Higher Power’ rather than just God or say God as the individual knows Him.

“During that conversation a light bulb went off. How many times had I heard ‘higher power’ and not really heard it? I needed to redefine was what my higher power was. And for me, it was the power and the support of AA groups. I was unconditionally accepted. I was loved. No matter what. To me, there is just nothing so powerful as the group. I became more accountable. And my sobriety stuck. I’ve got 11 years now. I have a good life. I work the program. I know that without it and the power of the group I would be dead. Tending my spirituality is being religious about the power of the group.”

Living in the light
Kirkeberg is in her third year of recovery from heroin addiction. She has a job she likes, as a technical recruiter. “I have a lot of people contact which I like but it isn’t so intense [as working in child protection.” She has her own apartment and a good relationship with her adult sons. Life, she said, is good.

Jenkins’ life is a little more complicated. She discovered during her last stint in rehab that she was HIV positive. “I was very indiscriminate when I was drinking,” she said candidly. “And there were times when I passed out and was taken advantage of. I don’t know where I got it. I don’t know who I might have given it to. It is the legacy of my years living in the hell of alcohol addiction.

“If there is such a thing as hell, I know that I have lived there. You don’t emerge from hell without a few scars. I lived in a dark, dark place. Sobriety shed a light on my life. And finding my spiritual self led me out of that darkness and into the light.”

For more information

Rising from the Dead by Patricia D. Nanoff (available locally at Amazon Bookstore Cooperative)
A Place Called Self: Women, Sobriety and Radical Transformation by Stephanie Brown (Home of the Good Shepherd transitional housing for women, not limited to substance abuse recovery)