Publisher: Morgan James
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$30 Unlocking Me - Autographed Copy
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Fall Seven, Rise Eight
Helps women of faith overcome adversities such as addiction, trauma, postpartum depression, or the struggles that come with being a single mom.Share Tweet LinkedIn Embed pszr.co/juYMu 5624 views
|Mind & Body #1 in Mind & Body|
Addiction is a rising problem in America, costing heartbreak, tax dollars, and lives.
Women in recovery often find the male-centered recovery approach off-putting and unworkable, while people of faith may be told by their leaders to avoid secular recovery altogether in favor of prayer and religious exercises. What are women of faith in recovery to do when they can’t find any other answers?
Inez Sobczak provides a winning solution in Unlocking Me. While sharing her personal journey, Inez embodies the realities of trauma-caused addiction, outlines her failed attempts at recovery, identifies her personal rock-bottom, and shares her tools for beating addiction once and for all. The problem most addicts face, Inez believes, is a pain that demands to be addressed. Addiction is a failing attempt to handle trauma, not a stand-alone problem that can be cured solely by willpower.
Ending with a roadmap for future health and a thoughtful series of questions for personal growth and application, Inez brings to her writing the same warmth, encouragement, understanding, and humility that have made her personal wellness business such a success. FitNez, which Inez founded in 2009, handles numerous clients in the affluent D.C. area, and satisfied clients continue to stock her waiting list with recommendations. Unlocking Me captures the best of Inez Sobczak’s life experiences and professional excellence.
For this special offer, Inez has included several special offers available for those who are joining her and supporting her through this publishing journey.
The publishers will be visible after the campaign has ended.
When I graduated college and was truly out on my own, I created a life around me that fulfilled my needs. I learned over the years what I truly needed and how to meet those needs in healthier ways. But the story of this part of my life is me meeting those needs in unhealthy ways. Eventually, something would happen to me to stop a destructive pattern.
What about you? If you see some unhealthy patterns in your own life, it helps to look behind the behavior to the need. What needs do you have that you might be meeting in destructive ways?
George Mason School of Law was a welcome challenge. My college had prepared me well to handle the logic and memorization that I would need in studying the law. I could have tackled all the courses ahead of me, I have no doubt.
What I chose not to tackle was the astronomical debt that mounted daily. Though I went to only one semester, I ended up a hundred thousand dollars in the hole. After some soul searching, I decided that I just didn’t want to be a lawyer that badly. My inner foster child needed me to become rich and successful. Fine. I could do that without bankrupting myself in the process.
At this crossroads in my life, a headhunter approached me with an offer. Corporate Executive Board was a best practice research firm that served Fortune 500 companies and which eventually merged with Gardner. I was a good fit for their sales team.
I sold to CFOs and general counsel. I was a top marketer three years in a row. I was good at my job.
This opportunity promised to provide me two things I wanted: a challenge and a commission. I took all my positive energy and relentless determination and went to work. Within a year, I paid off my hundred-thousand-dollar student debt.
Nevertheless, I entered an environment where drinking was the culture. While working there, the more success I achieved, the more incentive checks I received, which meant Happy Hours, restaurants, and traveling. Everything picked up speed and magnitude, not just drinking.
But I didn’t handle the social drinking well. The company sent me on several trips as a reward for hitting sales goals. By indulging too much, I left myself open to attack by a bunch of white female colleagues who did not like me and who were intimidated by someone they saw as competition. Seeing me drink like that gave them something to use against me. As an attractive woman of color who became louder than life when I had too much to drink, I put a target on my back.
One of the first incidents that these shady ladies were able to report was the first trip I won as a top sales executive, a trip to the Dominican Republic. Here I was in my twenties, at the top of my game, living my life, and having a ball. Together with the other ladies from CEB, all white, I had been drinking Long Island Iced Teas and rum and Coke at the swim-up pool bar all day.
One redhead, Susie, saw that I was drunk, just like everyone else, and decided that I was too trashed to enjoy a sunset cruise, one of the excursions provided to the employees.
“You, know, you really should just stay back at the hotel and sleep,” she suggested, dripping with synthetic sweetness. “Go ahead. Take the night off.”
“Okay, thanks,” I told her. I didn’t know that she’d asked me alone, not the other white women who were equally trashed, to stay off the ship.
Once we got back home, Susie made sure that my drinking, not hers or anyone else’s, got back to my boss, R.P. She made it sound like I was the only one who had been drunk that night. No – I was just the only one she asked not to go on the cruise.
So, R.P. pulled me into his office and told me the importance of drinking in a way that wouldn’t look bad for myself or the company. I took his advice and cooled out on socializing with my co-workers, especially since it had become clear they were watching me. And I couldn’t trust them.
One thing I didn’t recognize at the time was that I might have been drinking partly to check out of those work gatherings. I was devoting a massive amount of time and energy to doing a job that wasn’t my calling. Sure, I enjoyed some aspects of it, but it didn’t draw on my talents and desires fully. And no amount of money can make up for long for doing what you are not meant to do. Especially doing that kind of work around people you can’t trust who don’t really like you.
The binge drinking incidents that started around that time did not meet my definition of alcoholism or substance abuse. I didn’t see it that way, not even after I crashed a car while driving drunk. As usual, I was with some colleagues celebrating during happy hour, and I had one too many. I needed to get home because I was scheduled to leave town the next morning. Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t know how drunk you are until it is too late.
I was leaving D.C., driving on the E Street ramp to 66 West, toward Virginia. I didn’t realize that the car in front of me had stopped until I ran into him. I knew enough to know that if the police got there and tested my blood alcohol level, I would be in trouble; so I left. I grabbed as much of my work stuff as I could and got out of there. I must have grabbed my keys, too, because I had them to get into my apartment.
Once I was home, I totally blacked out. The next morning when it was time to leave, I didn’t realize that I had left my purse with my driver’s license behind in the wrecked car until I couldn’t find my driver’s license. Luckily, I got onto the plane with my passport.
When I returned from my trip, my answering machine was flooded with calls from the police, who had my pocketbook. Again, I just got off with a warning, probably because my last name, Sobczak, did not identify me as a woman of color. I’m sure that staying at the site of the accident to be seen and tested would have netted me a different outcome.
I didn’t think I had a problem with alcohol because I wasn’t drinking secretly. I was a successful woman who turned to drink as my reward. Looking back, I’m amazed that I handled everything that I did, like teaching fitness classes during my lunch hour. I would leave work, change fast, work out with my students, change back, and hit work again without missing a step.
This accident, however, made me miss a step. This outside force interrupted my belief that everything was under control. And it made me slow my drinking for a while.
While I was working in corporate America, I found bodybuilding as a discipline. I needed a challenge; I was outperforming the competition where I was. Working with Fortune 500 companies didn’t feel hard for me. It didn’t require all of who I was.
So I threw myself into a physical challenge. I was far from out of shape; in fact, I was pretty fit. But bodybuilding took me to another level. I hired a trainer, and within a few months, I lost thirty pounds. I placed second in my first show.
The way I could sculpt and shape my muscles in specific ways amazed me. I felt powerful and fierce when I trained so hard, knowing that I was accomplishing something few people could or would do. I determined to take this discipline as far as I could go. I would devote myself to it.
Dad would come to these events to cheer me on. It meant a lot to me that he would take the time to be there for me. Just like when I was a little girl on the soccer field, I looked for his face and listened for his voice, and knowing he was there warmed my heart.
Competitions took a lot of work. After exercising with a trainer to get to peak competition readiness physically, I would prepare the icing on the cake, the beauty elements. Then I would go to the venue on the day and bring it all together.
I liked dressing up for competitions, too. It was a chance to go all out on my hair, nails, and makeup and to select a range of outfits. These competitions weren’t beauty pageants. If you didn’t display the required physique, no amount of mascara on earth was going to save you. But if things were pretty close, some beauty could sway a decision.
Depending on the level, these competitions happened in school gyms, community centers, and other auditoriums, anywhere with a stage, good lights, and a sound system. The smaller venues hosted smaller, local competitions. They might cover a few cities or a few counties, depending on the number of competitors to apply, and the event itself might take a few hours. Then you would advance to regional competitions, which covered a grouping of states. Winners of those competitions went on to nationals, which would often take place at resorts or convention centers over the span of four or five days.
Once the audience lights would go down and the competition began, the venue didn’t really matter. Everyone’s eyes were on stage. The lights flashed red in patterns against a background to increase the sensuality of our appearances. Hype and upbeat music set the expectation that the women coming on stage were about to blow everyone’s minds.
One by one, the contestants would come forward and pose to upbeat music in specific ways, highlighting the tone and definition of a particular muscle group. When one person’s turn was done, she’d head backstage so that the next contestant could show the same pose. Then all the contestants would return and hit the same pose so that the judges could compare the definition of specific muscle groupings from contestant to contestant. Then everyone headed backstage to change into another outfit. We’d repeat this for perhaps five different poses. Then other groups in other categories would do the same thing.
Let me tell you – I invested in some spectacularly sparkly bikinis! And we’re not even going to mention the eyelashes, hair extensions, and acrylic nails. Ordinarily, I didn’t need any fake tan because of my Cuban genes. But in the bodybuilding world, all the contestants have to get professionally painted, even those with the darkest skin tones, because, under the stage lights, the judges can’t see the musculature without the artificial tan.
I won some, and I lost some. Competing taught me a lot about myself. One thing I learned was that I didn’t like the actual competition as much as I liked the preparation. In fact, I got such a huge case of nerves during one contest in April 2020 that after my turn was over, I ran off stage and out the door. I felt sick and scared, and I didn’t like feeling that way. It took a while for me to calm down enough to return for the prize announcements.
In the gym, I never felt those kinds of nerves. There, I had a fantastic time every time I showed up. It became clear to me that I was really in the competition cycle to challenge myself and see what I could accomplish physically. That was some good information for me.
It was also good information for me to note that this competition was my first sober show. During my earlier competition prep, when I was in my twenties, I was not attending AA meetings or even thinking I was an alcoholic. I was using competitions to control my drinking.
When I jumped back into competing during the pandemic in 2020, I was attending AA meetings and prepping for a show at the same time, which was a totally different experience. I was much healthier, sound in mind and body.
For the first time, no substances were running through my system to dull my responses or my emotions. I could really feel what I was feeling in a way I never had before. No wonder things felt overwhelming! They were all new to me. Now I get to do both training and competition regularly in an empowering way.
When we find something that lights us up and brings out the best in us, it’s important to experience it fully. Coping mechanisms, so useful in shielding us from the pain of trauma, can also rob us of true joy. That’s why healing is so important. It literally gives us back the best of our lives.
Around the time the housing crisis hit America, my time in corporate sales came to a close. Corporate Executive Board was laying off employees, and my number came up. I was so scared. I wondered what I was supposed to do with myself now. Did I want to seek another corporate position? If I was honest, I knew that I didn’t.
Fitness motivated me and made me happy. The answer had been plain to me, though I hadn’t had the mindset to see it. What had I given up sleepovers and trips to the mall to do as a young teen? Teach step classes. What had I given up my lunch breaks to do while I worked my corporate job? Teach classes at the gym. Clearly, helping other people reach their physical goals was close to my heart.
But how was I supposed to make ends meet as a trainer? Could I make enough? Was this really the right move for me?
To cover my bills and to test this new direction, I started working every spare moment. Between Gold’s Gym and Washington Sports Club, I worked eighty hours a week. No hungry law-school intern ever took work more seriously.
I consulted several people, who all confirmed what I knew. And while I visited Dad and Aunt Leslie, I talked to them. They saw how happy I was working in fitness. They loved me and believed in me, and they knew me well enough to give me the right advice.
True to form, Dad, coached me on the practicalities of running my own business. But he agreed that I had hit on something that fit me. And Aunt Leslie came up with the perfect name for my new business.
“You should call it FitNez. You know, fitness plus your name.” Her eyes sparkled with the idea, and as soon as I heard it, I knew it was right.
Running my own business was a hustle from the start. I did what I needed to do, whether that was strictly allowed or not. There are certain gyms that only want designated staff training members, but I couldn’t always abide by those restrictions. I needed space and clients. I was going to get them. Inez did not fail.
I did every job. I scheduled. I kept the books. I even built my own website!
And man, did I learn to watch every penny! I was determined to do things the right way as far as paying taxes and getting a business license. Sometimes that felt like a penalty instead of participation in the American way, but I did it. I was scrappy!
And I felt such a sense of freedom in beginning this business. It wasn’t just that I was working for myself. I was free from the expectations of my inner foster child that I could only be successful if I went into medicine or law. I was free to be successful doing what I loved.
My clients started becoming a larger and larger part of my life. When you train someone, things get personal pretty quickly. From the beginning, when I was doing physical training primarily, I still discussed nutrition and lifestyle habits. You can’t discuss topics like those without getting into deep thoughts, desires, and experiences.
People need comfort and wholeness. When you’re a trainer, you see the results of people taking shortcuts to happiness. When I see someone who’s out of shape, I see a whole history that needs to be addressed.
This side of my work appealed to me from the start. But the money didn’t follow that part of the business at first. People wanted to pay for workout coaching, and I was qualified to offer that service. So that’s where a lot of my effort centered at first.
I talked about my desire to be there for people and talk about feelings and behaviors and eating decisions with one client, Victoria, who came to be a good friend. A former triathlete, Victoria was really successful in her own sales and marketing business. I trusted her advice.
“You’ve got to follow the money, Inez,” she told me. “Diversify your income streams, but give people what they want.”
“I don’t like to think I’m giving up on the part of my job I like the best,” I said.
“Hey, don’t worry about that right now! Little by little, you’ll build up that part of what you do. But you have to stay strong to get there. Do the workouts. The coaching will come.”
Victoria was right. The short discussions I had with my clients about why they might not see the progress they wanted evolved into formal coaching sessions soon enough. Life is holistic. You can’t ever perfect just one part without paying attention to the rest. You have to balance your efforts.
Soon I had enough stability in my business to find a formal location. I rented a little studio above a Papa John’s pizza place. Trust me, the irony is not lost on me that I was so close to serious calorie temptation for my clients. In fact, I used that location to set them at ease.
“If you ever think about quitting,” I’d tell them, “you can always just go downstairs.”
They knew what I was telling them. I understood that calorie-dense food choices were everywhere. I also believed in their power to choose their health – to walk upstairs to do the hard work instead of staying on the ground floor to chow down.
With a lot of time, faith, sweat, and patience, I built FitNez into something really solid. Satisfied clients introduced me to people who needed me, so that I soon had a waiting list.
However, until the coaching portion of my business grew bigger, I did find ways to help people with other habits at the same time. Ironically, though I was deep into a cycle of abusing alcohol when my own personal pain overwhelmed me, I added helping others with sobriety as part of what I offered.
I had no idea how personal this part of my work would soon become.
One coaching client came to me after having been in an accident. He was in recovery from alcohol abuse, and while healing, he had gained weight. It was easy to substitute comfort food and inactivity for the oblivion of alcohol, and now he needed help to beat these habits.
That client was Brian, and I enjoyed his company from the start. He had a great sense of humor, and he was a good listener, too. Most of all, he respected me and listened to me. He really took me seriously and trusted me to do my job well.
With my help, Brian lost the weight he wanted to lose and gained some great new habits. I was really proud of him for sticking to his nutrition and exercise plan the way he had stuck with his sobriety. It took a lot of discipline to achieve what he did.
We started hanging out as friends, going to dinner or the movies, or out to the club to dance. Feelings started to develop on his end, feelings I didn’t know at first if I could reciprocate. He was attractive; it was just that I didn’t date many white guys. And Brian wasn’t just white. He was upper crust, part of the Arlington country-club set. Having come from a white family myself, I knew that these people were out of my class and out of my family’s class.
But one day, he picked me up from the airport, and things just clicked between us. For the first time, I felt what he felt. We went back to his place and had dinner, and I just didn’t leave. We were a couple from then on.
My parents were thrilled. In accepting Brian, I had finally done something that they wholeheartedly approved. He was exactly the kind of person they wanted for me. I was surprised by their enthusiasm.
Brian and I spent a lot of time together, and I could see where things were heading. We were at that age where life pushes you in a certain direction. The direction life was pushing us was towards marriage and family.
And I wanted to settle down. A child of such turmoil and uncertainty early in my life, I found a lot of appeal in the idea of creating my own family. At the same time, something inside me doubted that I could be happy within his world. Could I really be an Arlington housewife, concerned with lawn maintenance, charity functions, and social events? Could I find purpose in a world where I would never be white enough to pass, where my children and I would always look just a little different?
While I was still pondering these questions, Brian popped the question, the big one. And what was I supposed to say? I loved him. I liked him. I could see a future with him. Were my doubts enough reason to hurt him and reject him? They weren’t.
I told him yes. Then I started planning my wedding.
I look back at the newly engaged woman that I was then, and I wish I could hold her hand and talk to her. She was so lost and still trying so desperately to be good, to make her parents proud, and to succeed. I wish I could tell her that she was trying too hard in the wrong places. The real work she needed to do was not choosing flower arrangements and booking a hotel event venue. The real work was sitting down with her own heart and looking hard at her own pain, her own desires, and her own rock-bottom needs.
Besides the crisis of my own personal issues, I had a hard time with all the pre-wedding social expectations. There were all these engagement celebrations with dinners and drinks. I was drinking consistently from Thursday to Sunday on a weekly basis. This is when I started back to blacking out all the time and making bad choices. During this time, I did not like myself. I didn't like that I was lying all the time. I was fighting with my friends. I was drinking excessively, and I was having health issues.
But still, I went to Kleinfeld 's in New York, which was pretty awesome. If you have watched Say Yes to the Dress, you can imagine the wonderful time I had been shown lovely dress after lovely dress. The party I brought with me had a VIP concierge service while we looked at all the different creations.
I remember trying them all on and loving them. I thought I wanted a fitted, sexy mermaid dress, but then I put on this one dress: white with lace, little crystals, and pearls glittering all over it. It was strapless with a beautiful, cinched belt that tied at the waist, and when I put it on, I felt like the skirt of my dress was a wedding bell. A delicate, floating veil misted my hair. I looked like the little girl I had been at her first communion, all grown up.
While I stood in the mirror in this dress, the woman who was assisting me whispered into my ear: “What could you see your father walking you down the aisle in?” Her question to me solidified my choice.
I picked my wedding dress because I thought of what Dad wanted to see me get married in. I wanted his approval, and I got it. A picture of me in my dress is on his phone home screen.
But I was confused. I started an affair during my engagement that I thought might be my future. Before the marriage, I told my best friend Jamie that I needed to call the wedding off. She thought that I needed to go through with the wedding. How did I know it wasn’t what I wanted if I was just going to run away from it? Everyone thought my intuition was just wedding jitters.
My drive to be responsible and not to let other people down finally decided me. I pushed all my fears to one side and said, “I do.” That day, I felt like I was walking through a dream.
One morning a few months into my marriage, I was lying in bed with Brian after a night of drinking. He turned over, looked me right in my face, and confronted me about my affair. Surprised and guilty, I got up quickly out of bed and got dressed.
I left, went across the street to a restaurant, and lied to the waitress, telling her that someone in my family had passed, because I didn’t want to say that I was about to get a divorce. It was the first time I consciously told a lie to drink the way I wanted to drink because I didn’t want to feel.
At that time, I was using drinking and relationships to hide the emotions that would have guided me in the right way. I was looking at what people expected or wanted out of me instead of listening to myself. And ignoring myself meant that I ended up hurting myself and others.
After my six-month marriage ended, one way I healed was by going back to my roots. I took a spontaneous trip to my mother’s birthplace: Havana, Cuba. I had been staying in Arlington, sleeping on a friend’s couch. One morning I just woke up and asked her, “Come with me to Cuba.” I felt the need to fly out of the country, away from my shame, sadness, and anger.
At that time, it was really uncommon to travel to Cuba. We had to have an educational or cultural reason to go. I found an Art and Culture trip to Cuba, which served as a passport to the country for my friend and me. Excited, we flew to Miami.
From Miami, we hopped on a 20-minute flight and landed in a new, seemingly untouched country where it seemed that time had stood still. Caribbean heat settled on our skin as we walked across graveled pavers down a row of antique cars from the 1940s and 50s, waiting to take guests on a tour of old town Havana.
I kept hearing the word “Fuerte,” the Spanish word for strong, from Cuban people looking at me. Everyone we met also kept on saying “rostro Cubano,” which means “Cuban face.” I had never identified as truly Cuban except with my license plate and on paper in college, when being Cuban allowed me entry into the International House. Here, in the place of my mother’s origin, I was no longer “other;” I was the woman with the Cuban face.
I felt immense pride. I thought to myself, “I really am Cuban. And the Cubans think I'm Cuban. I must belong here, to them.”
That sense of being recognized and included was what I had been looking for my whole life. I had always longed for someone to say, “You look like you belong here with us.” I never had anyone say that in any room I'd ever been in. But in Cuba, the people saw me in a way I had not even seen myself. I spent five days soaking up my culture, my identity, and my roots. Here was an entire island of my extended family.
Thinking back on it, that acknowledgment of myself as a Cuban probably was the only way my ancestors knew I was ready to meet them, which is the second thing that happened. At this crossroads of my life, when I had lost a future that was not mine and when I had found people that wanted me, I met my spiritual guide.
Here's what happened. To challenge myself, I joined a group of tourists and ran the Malecón, a concrete wall in Old Havana built to prevent erosion. To keep the sea from washing away the six-lane avenue and sidewalk where Cubans meet and greet one another, the Malecon stretches eight kilometers from the mouth of Havana Harbor to the mouth of the Almendares River.
The night before the run, I was super drunk. Partly because I desperately wanted to fit in with people who looked like me, I had drunk all this rum and smoked all these Cuban cigars. It made for the worst hangover in the morning. It was so painful. I should have stopped drinking right then!
Stumbling about, hung over, with one eye open, I found people talking about this challenging run. One guy told me: “If you're going to run the Malecón, you need to do it before 6:00 AM because it gets hot.”
“No problem,” I thought. “I can do that. I’ve got a few hours before sunrise.” I told the others I would see them at breakfast.
While the sun was still barely peeking over the horizon, I dragged myself out of my hangover. Having never gone to bed that night, I downed cups of coffee to counteract the exhaustion and the alcohol. The only reason I even did the run is that I really take a lot of pride in doing what I say I am going to do. That was it.
While I did avoid the full intensity of the sun’s rays by starting early, the sun still beat me as I ran, panting with alcohol draining through my sweat. I couldn’t believe how a place could roast you at this time in the morning. On the way back, the sun’s heat really affected me. I was sweating and tasting the heat. If I closed and opened my mouth, I was sure flames would have escaped. I could see the sun tracing tan marks on my arms and legs as I watched. I was so happy to reach the end!
While walking along a cobbled path back to my hotel, I scooted around a shaded corner, searching for any relief. I saw a small chapel and felt compelled to go through the doors. Once I was inside, I saw a place on the right where I could kneel and put in a dollar with my prayer.
I knew I needed to pray. I should absolve my sins and atone for my actions that had caused the end of my marriage. I found a pew and sat there. Then I fought a losing battle to quiet my sobs as I kneeled before Jesus and prayed that he would forgive me because I couldn’t forgive myself.
My head bent in penance, and out of nowhere, I felt a woman behind me place her gentle hands on my shoulders. The comfort of her hands let me weep without judgment. This woman, who felt instantly familiar to me, was hugging me near, making me feel safe.
After her fingers loosened their grip, I figured I needed to pull it together because I at least needed to introduce myself and say thank you. When I got myself together to turn around to thank her, she was not there. I looked around, confused.
I asked the janitor, who came in at 7:00 AM: “Where did the old lady go?”
He answered in his broken English, “I'm the only one in here. No one's come in. No one's come out.”
The hairs on my neck stood up a little when I asked him again: “You sure? There was a woman sitting behind me.”
His blank stare helped the reality of the moment settle in. I got it.
And after that moment, I knew that I was not alone. I was going to be fine, despite the pain. Knowing that my guide saw me and showed up for me, I was able to march through that hard moment in my life because of her saving hands on my shoulder.
Real connection with friends I can trust is one of my number one needs. I’m a people person, and genuine sharing and empathy are like air to me. When I felt uncertain about being myself or when I was just feeling stressed and wanted to relax, I relied on alcohol to make that connection for me. I didn’t want the alcohol for itself; I wanted what it was going to give me.
Back home in D.C., I gradually began to spend time with people I met outside work. One friend, Orlando, taught Latin dance classes at several clubs, and I loved learning from him. That kind of movement and music felt like a tangible connection to my heritage like I was making up for some of the cultural erasure I had suffered. I met great people at his classes.
The gym was another great way to meet people. The people I met at the gym I knew shared some of my values about health and activity, but other than that baseline, they were from a great variety of backgrounds and cultures. Many of them became friends for a while; some still are friends.
I met some people when I was out partying. Dancing was one of my favorite things to do, and I regularly invited people out to dance with me at one club or another. If the music was good and the people were friendly, I could think of a few better ways to spend an evening.
Right before my twenty-fifth birthday, I met one of my closest friends at one of these clubs. I had been there for only a little while when I noticed how good the music was. I had to see who was working this magic, so I found the DJ and introduced myself.
That DJ was Azam, and I quickly hired him to do the music for my upcoming twenty-fifth birthday. The party was on fire, partly because of his handiwork. From then on, I made sure to find out where he was working when I wanted to go out. Then we started meeting outside the club sometimes for dinner or drinks.
I found that Azam was not only a talented DJ and a lot of fun to hang out with, but he was also a sincerely kind and genuine person. Though the question of romance arose early in our relationship, we soon agreed that we were like family. He felt like my brother, and I trusted him absolutely. I’m still lucky that I walked into that club where he was playing that first night.
But I did not honor our friendship well when Azam was getting married. His wife Joy, a professional stylist and talent agent, booked an elegant vineyard for her bachelorette party and hired a limousine to provide transportation there. Though she and I were not close at that time, she invited me as a favor to Azam. It was an extremely kind gesture on her part.
Perhaps the upcoming wedding of someone that I cared about brought up my own failed marriage in a way that hit me emotionally. Maybe a lot of things were converging that made this party just the final thing that I couldn’t handle right then. All I know is that I was leaning hard on my coping mechanism.
I showed up at Joy’s apartment already pretty much the worse for wear. I grabbed a bottle off the table she had available for refreshments, and I took it with me to the venue, sipping all the way. By the time we arrived, I was sobbing and loud, and I made a humiliating scene. It ended with my passing out in the limousine and missing the rest of the bachelorette party, which I had effectively ruined.
This event was not isolated. My inner pain was causing me to spiral, to drink and black out and act in ways that endangered me. I was trying to keep things together, but life was hard.
Stung and embarrassed by my messy divorce, my family radiated disapproval whenever I saw them. Jamie was a constant in my life, but she was far away in Lynchburg. Debra was concentrating on her own family and her wellness. We had never quite come back together from the distance that had crept into our relationship.
Slowly, it became apparent to me that all my friends were people I held at arm’s length. Each one knew a piece of me. Some, like Jamie, knew a whole lot of the real me from way back. But I let no one all the way in. I did not confide all my messy emotions and all my joys, and all my inner thoughts to my friends.
They showed up for me when I needed them to connect, to dance, to party, to have a good time. But my early life had taught me that no one was forever, that no one stayed, and that no one truly loved me for myself, only for what I could do or give. My trauma, eating away at me like a spiritual cancer, was for me alone to bear.
This is one reason why I did not react well when I heard that my college friend Emefa was planning to put together a group of close friends for an intervention. I knew that each person was going to take turns looking me in the eye and saying, “We think your drinking has gotten bad.” But these people didn’t know all of me. They would be judging me without true understanding.
At that time, because I was in such a state of shame about how I coped, I took offense to the idea of sitting through accusations. All my old patterns and stories of “they’re going to leave me” or “I'm not good enough” surfaced. As a result, I went individually to the people Emefa had approached and told each one that I was fine. I didn’t want that intervention to happen.
I think I might have reacted differently if the intervention had occurred one on one. If one of those people, say Emefa because she was so worried, had sat me down, expressed real concern and care, and asked how she could help, I might have listened.
Have you ever done something like this? Have you pushed away people who were concerned for you because you were embarrassed or hurt? It’s a hard place to be. After all, if you were healthy enough to handle the criticism well, you probably wouldn’t be doing things to worry the people close to you.
But we need those people. As hard as it is to hear their concern, we need to listen. Chances are, they’re saying something your inner self already knows. They’re giving it a voice.
At that time, I couldn’t listen. Instead, because of my childhood trauma and insecurities, I created distance from the people that I needed to speak into my life. I took offense to people who were offering advice, encouragement, and friendship just when I most needed those things. Missing genuine support, I fell into real danger.
In one part of my life, I was successful, healthy, and focused on others and their welfare. I was a successful entrepreneur. Also, I had a circle of friends who cared about me as much as I let them.
In the other part of my life, I was running towards oblivion. Along with drinking, men were a reliable source of oblivion for me. I dated around, never staying with anyone for long. After the disaster of my divorce, I didn’t want to commit to anyone for a long time. One of the men I started dating at that time was Chad.
This was not a great time for me to meet anyone serious. Chad and I weren’t approaching life or each other with the ability to build a good foundation. Had our son Xavier not arrived to cement that bond permanently, Chad would have been another story about a crazy time in my life. But some choices are forever, and you don’t know that when you’re making them.
Soon after the intervention planned by my friends, I got pregnant. In a way, it was great news and perfect timing. I could stop drinking for the length of this pregnancy and say, “Look, nothing to see here!” After all, I had stopped drinking for months at a time when I was bodybuilding. I had the willpower to do it again.
And then there really would be nothing to see because I would be sober. I would be a good mother. I had been over-functioning for everybody else. Now I had a life inside me to take care of, and he saved me. It was like God gave me another shot, a chance to start over.
I took that shot. No one could have been more conscientious about prenatal vitamins, doctor’s visits, proper nutrition, and birthing classes. I was on the mommy train. During my pregnancy, I actually picked up a few more clients who saw how well I was caring for myself and Xavier before he was born.
I asked friends and researched parenting, and I read diligently on how to be a good mother. Because of my checkered experience being mothered, I wanted to make sure I did the best for my son now that it was my turn. I studied for parenthood like it was a final exam in a class where I absolutely had to have an A.
The birth itself went as well as it could go. Sure, it was a kind of pain I’d never experienced before, a confusing, blinding, tearing pain. But it also felt like hard physical work, and I felt on sure footing with physical work. I could do that.
Mom, Dad, and Meredith stayed with me during my labor at the hospital. Chad came and went. He excused himself at one point to hit the gym, an absence my family found strange and upsetting. But he returned for the birth, and I could tell as soon as he laid eyes on his son that he loved him absolutely. Well, that was one thing at least that we would always have in common.
It would have been nice if the sobriety I embraced during my pregnancy for Xavier’s sake could have extended for the rest of my life. It would have been ideal if I could have walked out of that hospital after his birth with a clean bill of health in every way. But that wasn’t my story.
Preparing for Xavier’s coming had been like scrubbing one area of a room while hiding the rest of the mess behind a curtain. That mess was going to come invade the clean places because I hadn’t cleaned it up first. I was bringing my baby home to a messy life.
Here I had a child that I feared I wouldn’t raise well. I had a relationship that was failing. I had a fitness business that took up all my spare time. I was working hard enough for three people without giving myself what I needed to thrive. What was I supposed to do but keep coping?
When postpartum depression wracked my body with conflicting hormones and shocked my psyche with anxiety and lethargy in turns, I came to Waynesboro with my newborn child. My sister and mother looked after Xavier and let me sleep. Nobody should underestimate sleep as a treatment for new moms. You can’t hold yourself together emotionally when you’re physically spent.
My mom and sister were also great at reassuring me about motherhood. They told me something I have seen often since then and which I firmly believe. Every new mother believes that she is doing a terrible job. All of us believe, when that warm little bundle lands in our arms, that every other mom knows more about babies and is doing a better job at raising theirs.
If I could tell all moms two things, it would be this. First, trust your gut. You know how to be the mother you are supposed to be. You have a north star within you that will guide you into doing what is right for your child. But you have to get quiet to see it, and you have to be bold and peaceful to follow where it leads.
Second, take care of yourself. Postpartum depression is real and devastating, and there is no shame in seeking medical treatment for it. But even if you don’t have that crippling condition, you can create a number of the symptoms in your body if you don’t devote time and energy to caring for yourself, not just your baby.
In becoming a mother, I learned over time that I could and would do anything, face any hardship for my child. It didn’t happen right away; I still had some more hurdles to leap. But faithfully pursuing recovery showed me the power of mindfulness, of noticing my own patterns of thought and behavior.
Have you had a life-changing moment like this one? Have you passed through an experience which convinced you that you had no choice other than to do the hard work of healing? If you have, then you know the inner certainty about what you have to do. You also know that it’s not instant. It’s a day-by-day journey, and it’s one full of challenges and setbacks.
Doing the hard soul work of counseling, journaling, and other forms of self-examination taught me that I was strong enough to handle my pain instead of hiding from it. I learned how to fight for my own welfare. And in learning that lesson for myself, I learned how to help others fight for theirs.
After my son was born, I hit a series of lows. Each one taught me about something I had to leave behind. I knew what my soul needed, deep down at the center of me. Now I would learn to walk away from the behaviors that were not helping me get what I needed.
These stories are ones that I hope will help you find your own path upwards. Watching me walk away from self-destruction should shine a light on some exit doors of your own. What is no longer serving you? What do you need to leave behind for good?
Exit from Denial
My first exit from something that was no longer serving me was not an exit I took by choice. It was one that happened to me, and it was permanent. All of the sudden, I could no longer say that I was fully in control, balancing everything in my life.
That morning, I showed up to my apartment, where I lived with Chad. Things were not going well between us. The only surviving part of our relationship was our son Xavier.
I had stayed out all night, dancing and drinking with friends. When I showed up, not later in the evening like ten or eleven but the next morning, Chad naturally thought I had been cheating on him. But it wasn’t true.
I was chasing human connection, running away from the darkness inside me, and using substances to do both. That night, I had been blackout drunk, in a state that prevented both conscious decision-making and memory of what happened.
So here I came home, wanting rest and a shower and something liquid. I felt dehydrated and just so tired. So much depended on me. I was a dedicated, scrappy entrepreneur living my dream of running a fitness business. I was also the only person providing income to the household. Chad and I were accustomed to a certain standard of living, and I had to meet that monthly total and exceed it to meet my own standards.
Beyond anything financial, I was responsible to keep up the appearance of having made good in the big city. My parents wanted me to be a success. My wellness clients depended on me to stay in peak physical shape. And my friends depended on me to keep all my plates spinning safely in midair so that when I showed up to be the fun one, they could have fun along with me.
Most of all, my son depended on me. Tiny, perfect Xavier needed a mother who was present and loving and able to provide for him. I had only known him a little while, but his need for me occupied a great portion of my thoughts.
I felt so much pressure just to be, just to get through a day, one hour at a time, in the way I had laid out my life.
That morning in the apartment, I had a halfhearted argument with Chad. Neither one of us seemed to care enough about our romantic relationship to fight for it anymore. We had backed off from each other, leaving our son in the middle, caught in the no-man’s land of our distrust and anger.
I pulled myself together with my usual routine: shower, makeup, clothes, a prescription pill to deal with the postpartum depression, and a protein shake in a carry cup to keep me moving forward. The possibility never occurred to me that the alcohol still in my system from the night before could do nasty things when mixed with my prescription. I thought I was being responsible, following my doctor’s orders and my own healthy habits.
I got Xavier ready, returning his smiles, kissing his smooth face, inhaling the clean, soft scent of baby powder. As I left home, I was struggling. I could feel something inside me straining to come open, spilling all my guilt and shame into the sunlight where everyone could see. I took a sip of my shake, closed the apartment door, and wheeled Xavier into the elevator.
Sunglasses hid my eyes, and I passed a quiet ride down to the lobby, exiting onto the courtyard. Medina’s hair studio was just ahead, and I needed to get to Medina. I needed to focus on my stylist and whatever wild story she had for me this morning. I needed to feel her skilled fingers on my head and the warm water on my scalp. I needed to relax. Then I would be okay.
I walked up the ramp to the salon complex. Medina’s space was near the front, behind a dark wood door. I knocked on it.
She answered, “Hey, Girl! What’s going on? I got all your stuff lined up and waiting.”
Then she looked more closely at me. I leaned down to unbuckle Xavier and picked him up. The smell of his hair was pure and strong. He seemed too innocent and fragile to be near me. I handed him to Medina.
“Watch him for me,” I said. Then I turned around and headed back out to Wilson Boulevard.
Now, Wilson is not the busiest street in the city. The chances of my actually dying on this four-lane road through a wealthy neighborhood were not the highest. But who was thinking logically? Not me. All I knew was that I wanted out, and this looked like the easiest, most obvious way. I just wanted the world to stop and let me off.
Xavier would be okay. Everyone else would be okay. In fact, they would be better off without me. I was toxic. I was ruined, bad, and unable to do and be what they wanted and expected of me.
A hand seized my arm. “What are you doing? Girl, come on with me.”
How lucky I was that a good, solid friend was there for me at the moment when life forced me toward the exit from denial! Yes – my life as I was living it was unsustainable. I was in a bad situation: failed romance, body pushed to the breaking point, soul straining with unseen secrets, and practical pressures of work and responsibilities draining the last of my strength.
But I did not want to commit suicide. I did not want everything to end permanently. What I wanted was rest, and I didn’t know how to ask for it. I had been in denial: denying that I needed sleep, peace, affection, and relief.
This moment when I stepped into the street was me walking away from holding the world together with my own two hands. Nobody can do that. Not even one of us.
These places where we feel out of control and overwhelmed can be scary. We don’t like feeling powerless and afraid. But if we listen, these places can be valuable. They can clarify for us what needs to change, what is not sustainable. When you hit a brick wall, it’s pretty clear that you can’t keep going anymore; you have to turn around.
Exit from Destruction
Medina walked me back to her salon. Xavier was on her hip, a warm bundle perfectly comfortable letting Medina carry him around. I would do the same, let her take charge. I followed, unthinking and uncaring – not really there.
She put him back into his stroller, where he stretched and made kittenish sounds. I watched him squirm while Medina, in the background, cancelled all her other clients for the day. “I’ve got a family emergency. I will call you to reschedule. Thank you so much.” She said these words over and over again while I stared at my son, not able to care yet about the money I was losing her or the damage I was causing her business.
“Come on, we’re going home,” she told me. “Can you walk?”
Could I walk? I had walked here. Yes, I could walk. I nodded.
“Get yourself up, then. Girl, I don’t know what is going on with you this morning. Let’s go back home. I’ll take you home. That’s it. Come on, honey.”
Then Medina called Chad and several of my other friends. At home, I went to the bathroom and called Mom. “Mom, I don’t know what’s wrong,” I choked. “Something’s not right.”
I don’t remember what she said to me. I’m sure she prayed. We hung up, and I grabbed a wad of tissue to mop my face.
When I came out, I saw Medina hanging up the phone, and I curled up on the sofa with my head against the arm. I sat that way, letting time drift past me, knowing I was safe because my friend was there. She, on the other hand, crossed and recrossed the apartment, straightening the mess I hadn’t noticed before. That wasn’t like me, to leave a mess. I was almost obsessively clean. What was wrong with me this morning?
Then the doorbell rang. I heard male voices and the squawk of a police radio, and I knew who was outside. Panic surged through me.
“Dina! Don’t let them in! Don’t tell them I’m sick! They’ll take my baby!”
She shushed me, hand on my shoulder. “Boo-boo, we have got to let them in. You want to pay for a new door? It’s going to be okay. I’ll explain. Nobody’s taking Xa-bay. I won’t let them.”
I concentrated very hard on looking normal and competent. When the police entered, I felt my heart going like a sledgehammer. I could feel the pulse in my ears. I tried to answer their questions, but I didn’t do a very good job.
Medina talked to them for me, told them I had postpartum depression and was taking medication for it. She talked about my business and my preparation for a bodybuilding competition, preparation that included diet changes. I could hear her flirting. The cops must be handsome in that rugged Viking style that was her type.
I couldn’t make myself see their faces past their uniforms. They were just bodies in black, and I was a very small, powerless person about to be parted from someone I loved. This was familiar in a way I couldn’t acknowledge consciously. Tears flooded my eyes, and my breathing went shallow.
Mom had sent officers to do a wellness check. I wouldn’t know for sure until later, but I knew in my bones this was true. She had no conception of what a police visit would mean to me, a woman of color. She didn’t know what a police uniform had meant in my distant, subconscious past, and she didn’t acknowledge the potential for harm and overreaction, potential that had been splashed across the headlines for years. In her mind, a police welfare check was the next rational step, and she took it.
When the police entered, I tried to answer their questions, but I didn’t do a very good job. At this moment, when I needed practical help and warm reassurance, I was getting an extra layer of stress and adrenaline. I migrated to the balcony. I wanted air. I wanted out. I could feel the anxiety rising in my body, through my spine and my chest to zing in my head. If I had felt an inexplicable pull earlier to the street, I felt an irresistible one now toward the balcony. The police were not chill with that move.
Other people came. Chad came. I saw him holding Xavier. Good. At least Xavier wasn’t going to someone wearing black. Things went dim as the panic took me, deadening my ability to respond, to notice, to care.
That was when the handcuffs appeared. Because someone outside the situation had introduced the law into my mental health condition, it became a legal matter. The police escorted me through the building, past my neighbors, people I had to live with, and down the elevator toward waiting cars with flashing lights. My anxiety became like a living thing inside me that I had to use all my effort to control.
That day was a confusion of nurses and doctors whose names and faces slipped through my awareness and back out again. A needle went into my arm, an IV. I was wheeled into different rooms for tests, where I felt the warm stillness of the CAT scan or the noisy stillness of the MRI. I obeyed, held my breath, held my body still. I had stepped off the world, just like I wanted, and I was in the space outside it, the space where I was just a body that wasn’t working right. I went back to sleep.
That morning had already forced me to question the story I had been telling myself. I wasn’t handling life well. That much was obvious. But that was only the beginning.
Waking up in the hospital after a full night’s sleep, free of the substances that had altered my ability to think and choose, and away from relationship and client pressures, I knew that my impulses the day before had not signaled an end. They had signaled a beginning.
I had to start trying. I had to find my way toward change and health. It wasn’t just the street or the balcony that had been acts of self-destruction. Denying my memories, piling stress onto myself, and acting out to relieve my stress: these acts were all destroying me. I had to stop reaching for destruction. I had to turn towards life.
Exit from Definition
When I woke up in that Arlington hospital, I wanted to leave and fix things. I reasoned that I had lost control for a moment in time, but I could do better. As I walked out through the big, glass doors outside the emergency room, I thought, “I'm going to take care of this problem and keep everything else quiet.” But how could I?
I was waking up to the same things that had driven me into a dangerous state of despair and unhappiness in the first place. I was still low on physical nutrients because of my bodybuilding competition diet. My body was still craving the substances I had been using to bring it calm. My hormones and neurochemicals were still fighting to find balance after childbirth.
I still had all the same financial and reputation pressures. I still had all my inner baggage straining at the seams. I was still the same person with the same problems, plus more now that I’d had an expensive ER visit and a day of lost work piled on the rest.
On top of all that, I was starting to question the story I had been telling myself, the story about competent Inez, powerful Inez, successful Inez – Inez who can handle it all and anything else you care to throw her way. I was starting to feel a fear that I was going to explode any minute now.
The hospital wanted me to try AA, and so that’s one of the first things I did. I learned some valuable tools in AA that did help me when I was ready to face the pain inside me and deal with the reason behind my addictions. But AA alone wasn’t the final answer for me. I found that out through trying it - and failing at it.
Going to AA was tricky for me. After all, entering the building sent me right back mentally to the time I had been there with my ex-husband, Brian. Back then, I had come as a spectator, a support, not a participant. Now, part of me desperately wanted help. At the same time, part of me carried that spectator mindset with me to this place where I should have been coming with my heart wide open only to receive help for myself.
In my area, not many women in recovery were coming to meetings at six in the morning. So, one of the groups I tried was largely male and largely military. That was fine; some of my closest relationships were with males: Dad, my brother, and my son. The male group recommended pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. That wasn’t bad, but I felt something was missing.
I later went back to groups that were mostly female and had a different experience. I got to know a lot of great people. These women were supportive and warm and wonderful listeners. Though they came from all walks of life, they accepted one another and spoke honestly with one another in a way that I wasn’t used to hearing among women generally.
I could talk about postpartum depression, balancing work and motherhood, and the sadness and fear that seized me about losing my shape to pregnancy and struggling to get it back. I couldn’t talk about these things at the men’s groups like I could with the women. It was a relief and a comfort to hear them talk about similar things in their own lives.
But in all the AA groups, there was this common understanding of alcohol as a disease and an addiction, of alcohol as the main problem. When we apologized to people we’d hurt and made amends, there was this underlying assumption that we were different people before because alcohol was controlling us. Now we were not those people. Alcohol was the barrier standing in the way of a healthy relationship, and now that it was gone, everything was good.
I had a problem with thinking this way. I always understood that alcohol wasn’t the only problem standing in the way of healthy relationships with the people around me. I couldn’t blame my actions on this substance, or on my unhealthy use of this substance. It never seemed completely true to say so. I didn’t point to alcohol as the reason for everything going wrong in my life, because it wasn’t. I could not accept the narrow definition of me as an alcoholic.
One AA meeting in particular made things clear for me. Until this particular meeting, I had understood my drinking problem to date back to college, getting worse in my corporate years. But then I heard a man talk about drinking beer in second grade to deal with stress. Suddenly, I remembered the first drink I had ever taken. A lost memory suddenly reappeared.
I drank the first time as a child, the night of the rape. I drank to avoid angering the dangerous strangers around me. I drank to fit in, to disappear, and to hide from a situation that had grown way beyond my ability to handle it. Alcohol for me would always be linked first to trauma – not to stress or partying like I had thought. That reclaimed memory changed my view.
Alcohol was one go-to comfort I was using to deal with the unspeakable things inside me. I had other tools. Overwork was one. The more successful I was, the fewer questions people asked, and the less I had to think. Also, the more I worked, the more I deserved to party to let off steam. Physical exercise was another. It legitimately made me feel good, and it quieted my fears and anxieties, too.
Lots of people out there use different activities and substances to quiet their own panic. Some of these strategies and products are healthier and more socially acceptable than others. But when we talk about those unhealthy coping strategies, we have to acknowledge that addiction is addiction is addiction, no matter how it hides.
Addiction can hide in alcohol consumption and drug use, because the milder forms of indulgence are just fine, even welcome. Look at wine moms, beer dads, and the stoners who are a perpetual joke in every other movie out there today. There are also love, sex, and porn addicts.
Don’t forget money. It’s a great releaser of happy chemicals, and several kinds of addiction center on it: overwork, gambling, and compulsive shopping. And there are people who use food as their drug of choice, either for what it does for them chemically or for the feelings it evokes.
I consider sobriety to be just one part of a complex experience. If you focus just on the kind of habit, you lose a level of power and understanding. Your addiction is not your definition.
The most important thing I can show you is that your main job is not to beat a habit. Your main job is to heal from the wound that drove you to that habit in the first place. Your biggest problem is your pain. And when you heal, you won’t need the habit anymore.
Exit from Desperation
Chad and I had never been married. And because there was no legal contract beginning our relationship as partners and co-parents, there was no legal contract governing the end of it. So much of child welfare law in its practical outworking depends on the parties involved working peacefully together. Chad and I did not.
My relationship with Chad had started to go bad when I realized that I had become our sole support. He was lying to me about having a job when he didn’t. Leaving me and taking me to court for full custody and child support was part of his strategy to keep him from being homeless without an income. I didn’t know that until later; what I knew was that the burden of caring for the three of us was all mine.
Then Chad started to build a case against me. He started recording me; he started emailing and connecting with lawyers and collecting information he thought would show that I was an unfit mother. He contended that what made me unfit was my use of alcohol. By the time I caught wind of what he was doing. he was also able to add my trip to the psych ward to prove I had mental health issues.
With some distance and perspective now, I can say that Chad is a good dad, and there was some validity in his concern. Absolutely, however, I believe Chad attacked me with an ulterior motive. He fought the custody battle in a manipulative, narcissistic way. After all, you can do something for a good result and still do it with bad intentions.
Unfortunately, Chad had a better shot at gaining full custody than I did. There is a common belief that mothers always win custody. No. If there is any drinking, postpartum depression, or any other serious problem, mothers are in jeopardy.
Our troubles with custody began the night Chad and I attended a gala. I pulled Chad to the side and asked him about his job. I had already spoken to his company and found out that he had been fired. He lied and got angry. Knowing the end had finally come, I took his key to my apartment – the apartment where I was paying all the rent. I picked Xavier up from Chad’s sister and brought him home. I assumed Chad would stay with his sister. He was done living off me.
But during the night, Chad did come back. In the middle of the night, he showed up drunk and started banging on my apartment door. So that he wouldn’t wake the neighbors, I let him in and let him sleep in the bed, while I slept on the couch with Xavier until my babysitter got there.
The next morning, I left the house to teach a full day of fitness classes, leaving my friend in charge of my son. Once Chad woke up, he told my friend to get out. Then Chad took what he could and fled back to his sister's house with Xavier. The babysitter called me and told me what happened. So, when I finished work on Sunday, I came to get Xavier back from Chad at his sister's house. And Chad called the cops on me.
They told me to leave without my son. I did not take Xavier home with me. That act of revenge for my confronting Chad and drawing a line started a long, drawn-out court custody battle over Xavier. This battle brought me to desperation; I would do anything to end it.
When Xavier was gone, I missed him like a limb of my body. I could not bear being away from him. For Chad to keep him away from me felt like the worst thing he could possibly do. It was at this point that I hired a lawyer, and so did he.
Because of the law on possession and custody, there was little that my lawyer could do to compel Chad to let me see my child. But that did not stop me from asking. I hounded my lawyer, and we filed an emergency hearing stating why I needed to meet with my son soon.
Finally, the court allowed a visit. Chad’s lawyer and mine arranged for Chad to come to a restaurant in our neighborhood. We met, and holding my baby felt like the first breath of fresh air after a room full of smoke. I could not imagine letting him go again. After a while, Chad got up to go to the bathroom. I pushed Xavier in his stroller out the door, heart racing and eyes leaking. I reached my car and put Xavier into his car seat.
But Chad stopped me, and he called the cops. Chad spun the cops a tale, and the cops listened to him. Sneakily opening my back seat while I was getting into the driver’s seat, Chad unbuckled Xavier and took him.
The cops told me there was nothing they could do. For the third time, police officers helped Chad keep my son from me. There was no custody agreement. There was no legal reason for them to side against me. They just did.
Later, I did manage to get Xavier for a visit. But I was paranoid every moment that Chad would show up to grab him away. We had several exchanges, not as fraught as the one in the parking lot of the diner, but close.
The final encounter of this kind happened at a pediatrician’s office for Xavier’s six-month checkup. On this day, Chad showed up before I did in a suit (he was unemployed) and told the doctor what an unfit mother I was. By the time I showed up, I could tell that the staff believed him. He had the office in his pocket.
I had a friend with me because I was so panicked about the very real possibility that Chad could be anywhere, at any time, ready to take Xavier from me. If my previous encounters with the police had taught me anything, they had taught me that I needed allies.
I had to get some distance to work things out. I had to be able to count on seeing my son again before I could let him go. I had one chance to keep Xavier without losing him indefinitely to his father. To keep custody for the time being, I had to run with him.
When we got into the exam room, my friend looked at me and said, “I’ve got the stroller.” That was all I needed to hear. We both started running. I clasped my baby safe to my chest and dashed out of the doctor’s office. I got down the stairs and out the door, and I ran half a mile straight down Fairfax Drive. Reaching my apartment, I grabbed a few things and drove away.
I went home to Waynesboro, and then I contacted my lawyer to make a permanent, binding, fair custody agreement. While I had the power to act, I would end this time of desperation. I would remove this state of emergency so that I could focus on my own healing.
Exit from Detachment
Another place I learned to face the past was with my friend Julie. Dr. Julie Lopez is a busy professional, a counselor who runs a wellness center focused on emotional and spiritual wholeness. Another friend had told Julie about me being adopted and some of the things I was experiencing. Upon hearing about me, Julie wanted to meet me.
She, too, had been adopted - not because her mother was imprisoned but because Julie was the product of a rape. Her whole life’s work centered on addressing this trauma. She had even written a book about it, Live Empowered.
Soon after meeting Julie, I went to her wellness center to participate in an offering dealing with adoption. For the first time, I heard in a collected way some of the difficulties all adopted children faced. There were prayers and times for sharing and other guided activities that helped me feel in a whole new way like I understood what had happened to me as a baby and how to deal with it.
Intrigued with her as a professional and endeared to her as a person, I kept up my friendship with Julie. When we met one day at the Peacock Café in Georgetown, D.C., she invited me to join a retreat she had planned in Isla Mujeres, which means the Island of Women.
Isla Mujeres looks like a magical paradise without any worries. Most of the land is sparse and flat, open to sky and sea in a way that makes you feel deeply connected to both. Julie created a luxurious environment for us, booking a world-class resort and ensuring that we had fresh, appealing food ready when we wanted it.
I came to this retreat without knowing any of the other participants in advance. Julie knew us all, and we trusted her to put together a group of women who were all focused on rest, health, and connection. We did activities together in the morning, usually a discussion or an exercise.
But other than these events, all the participants could curate their own experience as they wished. I met dear friends at that retreat, Ati and Jen among them. They accepted me as I was, listened to me thoughtfully and kindly, and knew when it was time to go have fun. One incident with Ati endeared her to me forever.
A lot of emotions had been stirred up by the retreat, and I was already at a pretty tender and vulnerable place. On top of that, I was staying sober, and so I didn’t have my Tito’s to take the edge off and let me laugh at any irritations. One woman rubbed me the wrong way, and I felt attacked. Our interaction got heated, and I left, feeling raw, humiliated, and angry.
I went back to my room to take a shower, partly so that I could hide my tears. That bad exchange put me at the place where I thought seriously about changing my plane ticket and getting the heck out of there. Island of Women? Some women I could do without.
While I was in the shower, I heard a knock at the door. Then I heard Ati in my room, calling, “Are you here, Inez? Are you all right?”
Dripping wet, I stepped into the room, still sniffing back the snot and tears of my ugly cry. I felt rejected and unlovable and just plain sad. I was not all right. Ati could see my hurt.
Then she came and gave me a hug. I got her all wet, and she didn’t mind. She held me, let me cry, and reassured me that I was still welcomed and treasured in the group. That hug was one of the single greatest acts of kindness I have ever experienced.
After that generous hug, I assumed I had experienced the point of the trip. I habitually distrusted women, and the hug and the way the group dealt with the difficulty helped to heal some of that distrust. But the trip was not done surprising me and giving me what I needed.
Here on this Island of Women, I decided to set aside Mom’s Catholic ideals and trust the faith of my ancestors. The next day, I entered one of the rooms at the villa where we were staying to learn more about myself through the reading of tarot cards.
As I walked gingerly into the room, I felt a little wary. I saw an older white woman who didn’t have a tooth in her head. The heat of the island had weathered her skin into worn, brown leather. My brain conjured every image of a witch I had ever seen.
I took a seat across from her. Not even looking up at me, she pulled out a bag of what looked to me like toys. She made a circle of many different statues or little figurines that looked like toy animals. I had no idea what she was doing. Then she started talking about my ancestors, and the more she talked, the more I just cried.
Suddenly, she made a statement that got to me. “You have a problem that's been passed down, and you have the responsibility to do something about it. This thing that keeps on being handed down generation to generation: you're struggling with it, and you’re here to fix it.”
This woman told me that I was in the circle of the figurines. As I was crying, I felt the exact same thing I had felt when the old woman had held my shoulders in the church in Cuba as I cried my tears of guilt over my marriage. I remembered and felt again that feeling of comfort and acceptance, and then the woman in front of me told me, “Your ancestors are here.”
She showed me a rock. Then she put it into a plain, rectangular box, handing it to me. I sat stunned as she named the issues that the rock symbolized. Addiction. Alcohol. Pain.
She told me, “You have to keep the rock in the box and put it over there, because it can't be passed on anymore. This guilt, that shame that you’re carrying, you don't need to carry it anymore, and you don't need to carry this to your son.”
What a gift she had given me! My ancestors had each struggled with alcohol, with addiction, and with inner pain, and had passed that suffering on to the next generation. Now that the stone had come to me, I had the opportunity to hold it, understand it, feel the pain of it, and keep it from passing to my child. I could absorb the karma and remove it from my family line. What an honor it was to have that opportunity!
If we acknowledge our problems, then we all have this same opportunity. Only then can we keep from passing our wounds on to those we love, those who look up to us and trust us. As long as we hide problems from ourselves and others, we stay powerless to take them away. We have to look at the problem and say, “Yes, I do this; this belongs to me.” Then we have the power to become free and to free others.
Exit from Disguise
When I had made it through a whole year of sobriety, I realized that the anniversary was going to pass without much fanfare. All of those years when I had been attending AA meetings, I had seen people receive chips for accomplishment. You stack up so many days or months or years, and you get a chip to mark that milestone.
But I was celebrating this anniversary in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. How was I supposed to say, “I did this! For three hundred sixty-five days in a row, I chose me. I did the work. I made it!” I wouldn’t get a chance to tell my story. I wouldn’t get a chance to say how grateful I was for this change in my life.
The pandemic had changed how I did business, as well. Sure, I had always had an online component to FitNez, ever since I started and built my own website. But I learned that virtual coaching was going to have to become a much larger part of my work.
I redesigned the user experience for my clients. I took classes and did research on interpersonal communication so that I could recognize non-verbal cues and read into facial expressions much more easily. I thought deeply about how I could make my clients feel that I was both professional and caring.
In a time when the world was turning upside down, I needed them to experience FitNez as a safe and welcoming space where they could put everything else aside and concentrate on themselves. Though it was a different experience meeting online, I created a space where they could see and hear the authentic me. And in order to let people know what I was doing, I made a series of promos.
To film these onboarding videos for my super-virtual offering, I hired a photographer and videographer named Patrick. He did a great job for me. And while I was filming the advertisements I needed for my business, I couldn’t help thinking about my one-year sober anniversary.
I had struggled in silence for so long. I was carrying so much, and I knew that I needed to let it go. If I couldn’t expect the usual chip and chance to share, I needed to find another way.
When we finished the last spot, I made a request. “Could you leave the camera going, Patrick? I have this big thing I’m celebrating.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Do you mind if I stay? I just want to see what you’ve got.”
“Ahh, I’d rather you didn’t,” I said. I hadn’t prepared. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say. I wasn’t sure at all that I’d be able to say anything.
“Well, it’s a new camera,” he said. “I just want to stay to make sure it doesn’t mess up on you.”
I kind of knew what he was doing. The camera couldn’t be that faulty, right? I think he wanted to offer some moral support or some focus for me.
I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts. What if this was an AA meeting? What if this was the one-year celebration I had wanted to have? If I was there, standing in front of my family and friends and fellow AA members, what would I say about the last year?
I didn’t know what to say. And that’s where the video started that Patrick filmed for me, with me saying, “I don’t know where to start.” Then I just concentrated on honesty and gratitude, and I let myself speak from the heart.
After I finished speaking, Patrick edited my story to show old family pictures and pictures from my adult life – pictures that showed all the parts of my story that I was sharing. Then I put that sharing out into the world.
The response I got was mixed. Some people contacted me that I hadn’t seen in years. Debra messaged me and encouraged me as kindly and generously as only she could. I got messages from so many people, congratulating me on this huge accomplishment.
Some people just focused on the sensational confession that I, a professional fitness coach, had struggled with drinking. They looked past the point that I felt was most important.
The drinking was a secondary point. The whole message was that I was a wounded person. I had been in pain, and I had hurt people when I was in pain. The person I hurt the most was myself, and one of the ways I hurt myself was using alcohol to cope.
But I felt that I finally got to tell my story. I told the world that I was in pain, and that I had used drinking to deal with my pain. Admitting that inner pain felt huge to me.
Even if I wasn’t going to get a one-year chip at a meeting, I had shared the truth about myself. For the first time, I was appearing to the world without a disguise. I wasn’t trying to be fun or competent or amazing. I showed my heart. I showed my scars.
Releasing this video was necessary for me. I knew how important the support of other people was to me. Without them, my heart wouldn’t receive what it needed at this important time in my life. Starving my heart would cause me pain and suffering. And what had driven me to drink in the first place? Inner pain and suffering.
Filming what I did was my way of doing an end run around the pandemic. I knew myself, and I knew what I needed. I needed to tell the truth, and I needed to feel love and support. No world shutdown was going to keep me from doing what I knew was good for me.
How has the pandemic affected your mental health? Have you had to postpone or cancel things that feel necessary to your mental health? I’m sure you have. Let me encourage you to get creative about your needs.
When we say, “Oh, I’m okay. Nobody needs to show up for me. Don’t make a fuss,” we’re usually wearing a mask, and not the kind recommended by the CDC. We’re wearing a disguise that covers up not our faces, but our hearts. And those kinds of disguises will only make things worse.
Speak up for yourself. Say what you feel. Do what you need. That’s the way to true health.
Living a mindful, peaceful life takes a lot of balancing. Even though I’m sober now, I still have to work at my health and sobriety. After all, I will always have childhood trauma inside. I still have hard places in my family relationships. And running a business will take a great deal of effort and energy from me as long as I do it.
But life is a gift. Mine is, and I know yours is. How are you taking care of that gift?
I’ve found a way to help me balance the zones of my life that need care. When I see an issue, I know that I need to pay more attention to one of these zones. They are the mind, body, heart, and spirit.
Below, I’ve outlined principles for each zone that help me keep myself together. These twelve principles have guided me into a way of life that is sustainable, fulfilling, and peaceful. By thinking them through and adopting them, I hope that you will find a path to balance and health for yourself.
I have a unique relationship to exercise. Movement has always come second nature to me. It’s a source of joy. It’s also something I can’t keep from doing!
Sometimes people who don’t naturally enjoy movement as much as I do can use my natural love for it as an excuse. “I just don’t feel that way. It’s hard.” Maybe. But there are a few things to consider.
Living a sedentary life is so dangerous. Seriously – we’re coming to understand more and more that it’s as deadly as smoking and drinking. Being a couch potato can erase all the other good choices of a sober, nonsmoking teetotaler.
Also, lack of motivation is why God made your willpower! Your mind will always want to quit before your body has to give up. If you put your inner drill sergeant in charge, he will help you over the resistance to the point where your body craves the movement. This will happen – trust me. I’ve seen the change too many times for it to be a fluke.
Be adventurous! Find the kind of movement that feels fun to you. Think of what you liked to do when you were a kid. Kids love to get out and play. What did you do?
Maybe you try a dance class, a basketball team at a rec center, or puppy yoga (which I think would be tons more fun than goat yoga!). The point is that movement doesn’t have to mean lifting weights or running. It can mean sailing, ice skating, boxing, or dawn Tai Chi. You can find what suits you, what makes you smile.
I do this! Yes, I love weights and running. I love toning my body. But I also love dancing! I’ve just experimented with learning surfing, and now I can do that, too! With each new skill I try, I find a way to benefit my body and bring me joy at the same time. What a win!
During my worst drinking years, I lived with a lot of fear. I didn’t want anyone to find out the things about me that made me feel shame. But most of all, I didn’t want to live in plain sight of the truth within me.
You would think that resolving to live authentically would focus mainly on honesty with other people. But that honesty springs from truthfulness between me and me. Trying to hide terrible memories and emotions from myself was what really drove the cycle of addiction for me.
This truth is so powerful because it means I don’t have to live in terror of breaking sobriety. I embrace the hard parts of my life now. So, I don’t have to run from them like I did before.
One challenge I face with authenticity is my nature as an empath. I feel deeply about people, and my instincts tell me to present the side of me that whoever is in front of me needs. I am not being false. I just learn to prioritize the real me and not get lost in the me that other people want.
For instance, I might have to have a come-to-Jesus talk with a client who is wasting her own time by not following through. I am ruthless when it comes to honoring self-care! I might sense that she wants comfort from me, but I have to provide truth instead. Or I might have to ask for support from a friend when my memories and regrets get too painful. Instead of hiding my need, I have to find a person who can provide that human connection because that’s honestly what I have to have at that moment.
In one way, living authentically is easier. They say that if you don’t lie, you don’t have to have a good memory. In another way, it’s harder. There is a reason my psyche chose to slam some feelings and events behind a wall. Facing them poses a risk and a challenge.
What I can say is that facing the pain inside is worthwhile. I prefer not having to lie to myself, not having to distract myself or blind myself. When I do the work, I can look in the mirror with respect, and I like being able to respect the person I see.
Living out in the open like that, though, you are vulnerable. Some people are looking for a place to hurt you, and when you live honestly, you’re providing them that opportunity. Some relationships are just not meant to survive into your growth.
People will tell you whether you can trust them with your vulnerability if you just pay attention. When you learn who needs to be outside your circle of trust, you draw a boundary. You adjust your expectations of those people, and you limit the time and information they can access. Send them love and light, but don’t hand them a torch to burn you.
I say this, and at the same time, I want to acknowledge that you just can’t cut out of your life everyone who is not good for you. Maybe it’s a family member; maybe it’s a coworker or boss at a job you can’t leave. If you have to coexist with a toxic person, then take action in the when, where, how, and why of your contact.
When: Your time is your own, and you don’t have to allow everyone to take up unlimited amounts. Schedule time with toxic people when you are able to handle it. Then set limits. With workplace relationships, realize that not everyone in a corporate environment needs to like you. Get up and move. Think of ending an interaction like the Oscars playing the shut-up music. It might be awkward or offensive, but it’s happening. The microphone is shutting off.
Where: Your space is your own. Draw boundaries of absolute safe zones where toxic people never come. And recognize, too, the power implied in place. Like animals, we all have our turf. Going onto a toxic person’s turf limits your power. Meet in neutral spaces to keep your own space yours and to remove the home-court advantage from the toxic person.
How: You might not feel safe being physically near a toxic person. If so, choose methods of contact that employ distance: email, calls, Zoom. When physical proximity is unavoidable, remember that your body belongs to you. Don’t hug, kiss, or shake hands with someone you don’t choose to invite into your space that way. You don’t even have to smile. Truly.
Why: Guard your why. A toxic person must have a good reason to request your presence. Decide before the request comes what is a good reason for you. Your holidays don’t all automatically have to center on your family. A hint that someone misses you is a manipulation that doesn’t have to result in your agreement.
Put your own mental and emotional security in first place. No amount of guilt, bribery, or other pressure should get you to put yourself in an unhealthy place. After all, you’re the one that’s going to have to do all the hard work of healing. If you can avoid hurt, then do it.
What’s the only proper response for an awesome gift? Thanks. And think about what happens inside you when you feel truly thankful for something. You get this warm sensation of love and tenderness inside you. You feel bonded to the person who thought of you and chose to bless you this way. Everything around you starts looking up.
Do you know what happens inside you when you approach God this way? You start noticing other gifts, like a trail marked for you. Even the hard places in your life start to spark some positive feelings. After all, each one shaped you into the person who’s standing here today.
For instance, my two mothers feel like a hard part of my history sometimes. I can focus on their errors and the harm I suffered because of their choices. But I can also choose to approach them with gratitude, knowing that God put them into my life, even if I didn’t understand why.
I’m grateful for my birth mother, whose bravery landed me in America. I’m grateful that because of her, I have a beautiful and meaningful Cuban heritage and appearance. I’m grateful that she allowed me to be raised in a safe home.
And I’m grateful for Mom for my adoption and for her faith. The life experience of seeking comfort in a church pew led me to my ancestor in Cuba. I’m also grateful that Mom chose to be there during my son’s birth and when I was fleeing with him for safety.
Speaking of fleeing with Xavier, my relationship with Chad is another hard area of my life. We ended things without much peace or love towards one another, and his fight to take Xavier from me hurt me deeply.
When I feel irritated at Chad, whether justified or not, I have to choose gratitude for his presence in my life. He is the reason I have my son, the one person who means the most to me. So many qualities in my son, from his handsome face to his confident spirit, come from Chad. I can’t cherish bitterness against the father without damaging my relationship with the son.
If I didn’t cultivate gratitude in my spirit, I could sink into despair, resentment, and constant anger. That’s not how I choose to live. So that’s not how I choose to look at whatever God wraps up and puts into my life.
Because we all mess up, I want to encourage you to keep going. While I was writing this book, I went to Costa Rica to celebrate my sober anniversary. I wanted time to reflect on how far I’d come. I needed space to consider my life’s meaning and purpose. And because this anniversary felt like a birthday of sorts, I felt that old birthday impulse to get on the road.
But I also just needed rest. To do the work of reliving your memories honestly is a tiring process, and I needed time away from it. For a week, I would tend to myself with sun, exercise, adventure, good food, and lots of sleep. That was what I needed.
My time in Costa Rica was also going to include surfing lessons. I was really excited about learning a new physical skill and increasing what I could do to relax that didn’t include drinking. Learning in Costa Rica also meant that I would get to experience a famous area, Witches Rock, which appeared in the film Endless Summer. The rock juts up from the ocean at an angle, a single obstacle a good swim out from the coast, and it churns the sea into a foaming boil, like a witch’s cauldron.
For the first few lessons, my fellow surfers and I learned the basics at a beach right around the corner from our villa. Everyone learning had varying degrees of skill, but the instructors made sure we could all catch a wave and stand up on a board before they presented us with the opportunity to tackle Witches Rock. “Here we go,” I thought to myself. “Now it’s real.”
I came out in a boat with a bunch of other surfers and our instructors. I was feeling comfortable about my skill level and my preparation. Our instructors led a few people out to the rock and surfed around it themselves. When my turn came, I was eager to try. I paddled towards the rock and got to my feet. Then I fell.
When I fell, I felt the enormous force of the ocean tugging me down. I swam as hard as I could, managing to reach the surface and call for help. No one turned, and I went down again. Panic and the raw animal need for survival kept my arms and legs going long past the point where I was just exhausted. I was overwhelmed.
My air was running out, and my strength was gone. I sucked in water with the last air I gasped. This was it. This was the way I was going to die.
Then a hand reached for me, and voices called to me. I was never so relieved before. An instructor towed me back up on a board and helped me to the shore. I lay down on the wet sand, coughing, gagging, and sobbing. I was safe. I wasn’t going to drown today. I didn’t want to move for the rest of my life.
“You ready to go back in the water?” my instructor asked.
I told him pretty forcefully that no, I was not ready to go back in the water, not now and probably not ever. He let me talk until I ran out of protests, and then he reminded me that I had to get back into the water to get to the boat.
The boat. No. I would walk back to the hotel through the jungle. Anything but drowning. But the instructor talked to me until I realized the truth of what he was saying. The only way out was through. It wasn’t the first time in my life I’d had to realize that.
Shaking and terrified, I swam. My body was screaming at me to get out of the water, and my mind was putting up straight exclamation points with no words. I passed the rock and watched the boat grow closer. When I reached it, many hands stretched to receive me. Everyone was in a mood to celebrate. I hadn’t died, and we had all done something really hard and worthwhile.
“Let’s pop the rosé!” someone suggested, and immediately the alcohol started flowing.
I wanted some wine! I wanted to check out and not feel the terror and despair that had washed through me as I sank. But I didn’t.
What did I do instead? Instead of relying on a substance to take away the dregs of my fear, I sat with it and sobbed through it. I felt it all and let it ebb away. Instead of drinking to foster a connection with the people around me, I presented myself, honest and wounded and in need. And the people around me accepted me and welcomed me.
That was a powerful lesson. My day surfing taught me that I was strong enough to keep going when I was at the end of my strength, that I was vulnerable enough to connect with the healthy people around me, and that I didn’t need to hide from whatever was going to happen to me in the future. I could keep going the way I was facing what had happened to me that day.
That realization determined the rest of my trip. The first thing I did was go surfing the very next morning. I got up at oh-dark-thirty, made everyone coffee, and marched out to the beach right around the corner from our villa. The waves that day were glorious.
The second thing I did was listen to the recordings of people from my past. They talked about my flaws and my good points. They shared the memories they had of me. I won’t say that listening to those recordings was easy. I will say that it provided me with a good deal of clarity.
Like going back into the water, listening to those voices showed me how strong I was. Like the water that had entered my lungs, I could expel those bad feelings and leave them behind me. I didn’t have to try to breathe around them forever.
This is my hope for you. Don’t try to breathe around the pain in your life. Cough it out. Cry over it. Pray over it. Tell it to a good person. Paint it or write it or sing it or carve it into wood. And then leave it behind.
It will follow you. Pain is sneaky like that. You’ll be doing just fine, surfing along with the sun on your back and the wind in your hair, and it will pull you underwater, stealing your breath. But there is a shore. There is an end to the ocean of your pain. If you keep going, solid ground is waiting for you, along with friendly hands and faces, fresh air, and a brand-new start.
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