True Story: Susan

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Susan True StoryGrowing up, I was a typical “good girl.” I got excellent grades and was always trying to please everybody. I was like a chameleon: I’d figure out what people needed from me and give it to them so that they’d like me.

Looking back, I think I was overcompensating for the shame I felt as a child. There was little money and a lot of neglect. Food was so scarce that we’d steal the fruit off our neighbor’s tree. When I turned five, my mom decided she couldn’t take care of my sisters and me anymore and sent us to live with our dad. He was an alcoholic and sometimes hit us—my mom had, too—which made me afraid of him, and really of all people. By the time I was 13, I made a conscious decision that there was no one I could trust, and I’d have to take care of myself.

In the beginning, I took care of myself very well. I got into a good private high school and became involved in the drama department. That’s when I met a boy. We had sex for the first time when I was 15—and for a reason I couldn’t explain then, I pretended to be asleep when it happened. It turned out that the only way I could have sex awake was with alcohol. I coughed it up to Catholic guilt.

When alcohol no longer worked for me, I turned to heroin. For the next few years, I kept switching addictions to deal with my pain, which I still didn’t understand the root cause of. I’d gotten married to a much older man who got me into selling sex and participating fully in the swinging ’70s—when all I really wanted was to have a Leave It to Beaver family. I was so torn up about the life I was living, and the only way I could deal with it was to drink and use.

After we got divorced, I got remarried to a man who didn’t use. We had a house and two kids. I really could have had that Leave It to Beaver life, but I couldn’t shake free of my addictions—and eventually my husband started dabbling in drugs, too. At one point, we both got arrested and our kids had to live with their aunt and uncle. My oldest son was in junior high and my youngest had just started kindergarten.

It was then—in prison—that I hit bottom. Another inmate asked if I wanted some heroin, and I knew I had to make a choice: I could keep being a victim to my addiction, or I could take charge of my life. I said, “No thank you,” and when my prison term ended, I went right to Phoenix House Residential Program and Outpatient Services in Santa Ana.

I learned so much about myself at Phoenix House. I realized that I had been so selfish and self-centered. There were 86 clients in my program, and we formed a complete living system—we had jobs inside the system, ate our meals together, and felt a responsibility for each other. I realized that if you’re a good friend, you hold your friend accountable for her actions—instead of being an enabler—and we all held each other accountable. That helped me to be less self-centered and more positive.

But something much less pleasant came out of my treatment. During a counseling session, I remembered something that I had repressed for years: that I had been molested by my grandfather as a child. I realized that that was why I pretended to be asleep during sex, and was the root of so much of my feelings of guilt and shame. In prison, I had come to recognize how much I felt and acted like a victim—everything from my body language to the way I spoke. At Phoenix House, I was finally able to work on that. I learned to stop being a victim, and to take responsibility for my life and choices.

After Phoenix House, I stayed sober for seven years. While I never went back to alcohol or heroin, I became addicted to painkillers after two car accidents. A doctor prescribed them to me, and I didn’t realize how addictive they were until it was too late. But I’m happy to report that I just picked up my five-year chip in November. My husband has been sober for 17 years.

Phoenix House has a big place in my heart, and I believe very deeply in treatment and recovery. In fact, I became a drug and alcohol counselor and worked in that field for a number of years. Today, my husband and I own a small business. We’ve been married for 34 years, and our children are doing great; one is married with a good job, and the other is in college. It’s like the Leave It to Beaver life, even if it is a little late. I continue to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly.

I hope to get back to drug counseling one day. I would love the opportunity to use my experience to help others. I want them to know that if you work through your bad past experiences, they can become your greatest assets by making you stronger. They don’t have to make you a victim. I thought my past meant I didn’t deserve recovery or that Leave It to Beaver life. But now I know that we can become whole again. I’m living the life I never thought I deserved.

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  • Nancy hoving

    This is an especially good one! Maybe not the typical PH story

  • Renee Riebling

    Thanks, Nancy! Hope it inspires people to see that recovery is possible–and rewarding.

  • Toni-Anne

    Thank you for sharing your story. Its great that you are a successful wife, mother and business owner. I know we are our own worst enemies. I used to think I didn’t deserve the good things that would come my way and would sub-consciously sabotage my recovery and then relapse. Thank God that’s my past.

  • Renee Riebling

    Well said, Toni-Anne. Congratulations on your recovery journey! Let us know if you’d like to share your story. Feel free to contact me at

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