Ann E. had avoided looking in a mirror for most of her life. She despised the shame she saw behind her own eyes.
But near the end of her time in treatment at Oxford Treatment Center, she was offered a different view of herself: The perspective of those who had walked beside her in the first steps of recovery.
“Everybody told me I was so kind and caring,” said Ann*, an administrator in her 50s, who listened as a circle of fellow patients described the encouraging role she’d come to play among them.
“Before treatment, that wasn’t me at all,” she said. “I was grumpy. I was hateful. I didn’t speak to people. Before, it was all I could do to get out of bed. Now, I look at life like: ‘Wow! This is a brand new day. What can I do today?’”
Ann’s path to Oxford Treatment Center to receive treatment for alcoholism stretches back to her childhood. When she was 6, she was forced to begin drinking by her father. It kept her from fighting back when he raped her.
Ann was the victim of repeated sexual assault by her father over the course of eight years. She hid that secret from the rest of her family until recently, bearing the shame that she was somehow responsible for the abuse.
“In my family, it was like: ‘What happened at home stayed at home,’” she said. “But I’ve often wondered whether I would be a different person today if it hadn’t happened.”
By age 14, Ann had switched from beer to liquor to cope with the pain. As an adult, she buried herself in her work, with alcohol as her constant companion.
“I got up in the morning drinking,” she said. “I drank at lunch, just to make it through the day. I drank to forget — but also, I drank because I loved to drink.”
Liquor numbed the pain. It made it easier to push down the fear and guilt when they threatened to rise to the surface. But for Ann, the trauma she had endured could not be contained forever.
“I felt like I was full of toxic waste — that my life didn’t mean anything, that nobody cared,” she said.
“You bury yourself in something — anything to ease the pain of the trauma, to try to help forget it. But I felt full of poison. I wanted to die.”
Ann had attempted suicide once and was unsuccessful.
She was determined not to fail again. Concerned for her life, a friend who had gone through treatment at Oxford Treatment Center urged her to try treatment. The urging was so persistent, Ann quit answering her friend’s phone calls.
Ann had been to treatment at another center before and wasn’t interested in trying it again. But she had begun seeing a therapist, who also encouraged treatment. By the time she decided to go, the therapist was making her sign a contract, week by week, pledging that she would not take her own life.
Ann made the call on a Thursday and arrived at Oxford Treatment Center five days later. Though she felt hopeless, it was hope she wagered: “There had to be more to life than what I was living.”
Ann completed medical detoxification and entered the residential treatment program. In her first session of music therapy, she turned her chair away from the circle and looked at the floor. When therapist Michelle Cooper, PhD, asked her privately after the session how she was doing, Ann made it clear she’d had enough of the program.
“I was sober: It was time to go home,” she said. “I had no intention of working on my trauma while I was there.”
At mealtimes, Ann would wait in the main meeting room until the other patients had finished eating. She couldn’t stand in a line like that; being around other people made her start to shake.
Ann had already packed her bags when she arrived for equine therapy. Before the group began working with the horses, therapist Dale Phillips shared his own story with them. For the first time in many years, Ann cried.
“This was somebody sitting across from me who was right where I was,” she said.
“I knew there were people who’d been through trauma, because you see it on TV. But I’d never known anybody else who’d been sexually assaulted.”
Ann consented to dealing with her trauma alongside her treatment program. She began to meet with Cooper one-on-one as part of Oxford Treatment Center’s Trauma Track.
“Working with Michelle, just being able to talk to her and knowing she wasn’t going to judge me, was a tremendous help,” Ann said. “She somehow knew how to ask the right questions, and she helped me see things I didn’t know. Even though she hadn’t lived through it, she had the insight to help.”
Through the course of their meetings, Ann came to see that even though her abuser had been dead for many years, he still held power over her.
“I needed to be a survivor and not a victim,” she said. “I couldn’t let him win. I had to take my power back.”
For Ann, it’s now clear that her trauma and her alcoholism had to be addressed together.
“Before I came to treatment, I was already going to counseling,” she said. “I would stop at the liquor store on the way, because I couldn’t talk about all of this without drinking. Now, I don’t want to drink anymore. I never thought I would say that.”
Having come so far in the course of her 30-day residential treatment, Ann chose to move into sober living with Oxford Treatment Center and continue working on her trauma. She also volunteers to assist with Oxford Treatment Center’s equine therapy and family programs.
“I’m a different person,” she said. “I’m different inside, this time. I came on my own, and there have been good days and bad days. Very emotional days, very exhausting days.
“I still have a lot of work to do, because I’m not yet where I need to be. But the process has been well worth it.”
*The patient’s name has been changed.