Its December 23rd I arrive at the women’s recovery house to interview Ellen. A shiny red alumni wreath hangs on the door frame rather than on the front door itself.
“Why did they hang their wreath on the side like that?” My daughter asks as she strokes the delicate strands of the artificial wreath with her fingers.
“I don’t know…they tend to do things a bit differently here.” I answered. And I thought about how sometimes even the simplest tasks can seem daunting for anyone when struggling with an illness or a deep emotional issue. During times of acute emotional distress the thought of just getting out of bed can seem an arduous chore. In times of acute illness even thought itself can be painful.
I remember being so ill one time from a virus that the thought of lifting my hand to scratch my nose was exhausting. I ended up choosing to suffer the discomfort of the itch rather than exert any of my remaining precious energy. I have also experienced depression that seemed to hold me prisoner in a sticky, heavy, tar-like substance, trapping me under its weight, unable to move, barely breathing, unable to see any way out. I remember being depressed like this at Christmas one year. Anything having to do with the holiday was painful. I would plug my ears when I heard Christmas music and avoid going into the room with the Christmas tree.
Maybe there was an existing nail on the door frame, I thought and either from lack of energy from being ill or the aversion to holidays that can occur from depression the author of that wreath found a readily available solution for a physically or emotionally taxing chore. Or maybe I’m over analyzing and projecting too much. Perhaps the quirky placement of the wreath is simply artistic expression.
We waited for someone to open the door as I pondered the placement of the wreath. Ellen greeted us with her big flashy smile standing in the bright warm foyer. Her silky white-blond hair is swept up off her neck and pinned in the back. Delicate strands of what looks like spun gold frame her high cheek bones and accent her beautiful chiseled facial features. She is wearing a sparkly dark brown sweater that clings to her curvy figure. Her fitted dark blue jeans hug her shapely legs and she looks a little edgy in her high heeled black boots. Ellen is in her sixty’s. A beautiful woman. She has a natural classy look like she’s lived a charmed life; has been forever pampered and spoiled by a wealthy family perhaps. When I first met Ellen she didn’t have this elegant look. She looked weak and frail, brittle and hollow.
It’s amazing to witness the physical changes in Ellen since she has been at Wakefield House. Her outer beauty revealing her inner healing.
“Come on in!” Ellen welcomes us inside. Elizabeth finds a cozy little corner in the family room and becomes immediately absorbed in the internet world on her iPhone while Ellen and I settle in the front living room to chat. The house is always neat and clean. It’s definitely a women’s house, feminine touches of lace and fabric soften windows and adorn tables. There are orchids and house plants in the front room and delicate little porcelain Christmas figurines line the shelves.
“This is so nice Ellen!” I exclaim admiring the decorations and the furniture that is new to me since last visiting the house.
“Yes, I like to make it homey.” Ellen proudly accepts my complement.
“And you do make it very homey Ellen. The women sort of count on you for that right?” I ask
“Yes, they call me mommy goose.” Ellen laughs. “I certainly wasn’t a ‘mommy goose’ when I arrived here though.” Ellen recalls the past, puts her hand to her neck and sort of shrivels a little at the memories.
“I remember.” I said.
“What was it that Eric said when he first met me?” She asks out loud then answers her own question. “He says I was so fragile that if someone were to blow on me I would fall to the ground and shatter.
“I remember that about you Ellen. I was here for your interview.” I remembered listing to a small frazzled woman desperate to please everyone, nervously attempt to answer the interview questions from the current house members.
“Oh Eric,” I said as we drove home after that meeting and interview. “She will never survive here…they will eat her alive!”
“I don’t know…” Eric said thoughtfully. “She could thrive…what are her other options?”
“I was petrified when I first moved in here.” Ellen recalls and shared with me the story of the events in her life that led her to find a safe place to heal and explore her true self for the first time.
Three years ago Ellen hit what she considers her rock bottom.
Ellen had been living in a cheap motel leaving her room only to buy more alcohol. “My body was rejecting the alcohol. I would have two or three drinks, then throw up, then I’d drink some more, throw up again. I just kept doing this until I had ‘enough’ alcohol in my system.” Ellen recalled while shaking her head, recounting the past was obviously bringing up horrific memories. A maid at the hotel noticed Ellen’s deterioration and would bring her soup and extra blankets. For many weeks the only food Ellen ate was whatever the maid would bring her.
Ellen described the moment when she realized everything had to change. “I woke up and dragged myself to the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror and was shocked. I was wearing a pink shirt. It was covered with blood.” The blood was from throwing up the night before. Ellen always slept in her clothes. “I didn’t want anyone to find me dead in my pajamas.” She explained.
“So you were actually committing a slow suicide.” I concluded.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I was doing. That morning I knew something had to change. I was out of money, I was just about out of booze. I took two Klonopin, knocked them back with a beer then got in my car and drove to the hospital. I had a bottle of Klonopin in my hand and knew I had to make a decision.” Completely desperate, Ellen called out to God. “Okay God, I’m either gonna take these pills and die right here and now, or I’m gonna walk into that hospital.”
Ellen described a sense of letting go and without much effort on her part found herself getting out of the car and walking through the hospital doors.
After being stabilized at the hospital Ellen went off to a rehab for a month. She arrived at Wakefield House clean and sober and completely lost. Soon after moving in Ellen began repeating old toxic patterns, as we all do until we begin to pay attention and learn who we really are. Ellen’s childhood was frightening and traumatic. She would turn to the bottle as a young teenager to find a sense of strength and safety. As an adult, Ellen longed for the safety and security she was so wrongfully denied in childhood and turned to powerful men to protect her. Their power was anything but loving. Ellen left a physically abusive marriage only to wind up in an emotionally and financially abusive relationship. Sober and in recovery but still spinning from the residual pain and confusion of a traumatic past Ellen latched onto a woman at the house to be her protection, to take care of her. “She told me she had my back.” Ellen said and she let herself shrink, and fold in on herself, letting this other woman take the lead and call the shots. Ellen now realizes she was repeating old behaviors but at the time she couldn’t see it.
When Ellen’s ‘friend’ left Wakefield House she began to blossom a bit. It was a two steps forward, one step back sort of process but she was, in fact moving forward. Ellen began to take on responsibilities at the house which was a very organic process. With the overbearing shadow of a toxic relationship lifted from Ellen’s world she became visible to the women in the house. “They just started to come to me, you know? I’m a lot older than most of them, they think of me as a mother figure.”
Ellen courageously allowed herself to explore this new role of being caretaker and we (the house members Eric and I) were all in agreement that she should become the house manager aka House Mom.
In the beginning of taking on this new role Ellen would often become overwhelmed, fall apart for a few days but good ‘mom’s’ don’t get to collapse completely. One or several of the house members would need Ellen’s loving presence; her advice, her shoulder to lean on or just her ear and Ellen would drag herself out of bed, look in the bathroom mirror and see a strong, beautiful healthy woman and realize how far she had come from the wretched drunken image in the mirror not so very long ago. She continually would pull herself together and be there for the women. Ellen shared with me that she has learned in giving, healthy giving with loving boundaries and equally loving detachment, she receives so much love and strength in return.
Ellen has received training to become a recovery coach and will soon be certified in this role. She also plans to go back to school to become a recovery counselor. “This is my career!” Ellen beams as she excitedly tells me her plans to stay on with Wakefield House, train other House Managers and help even more women while taking very good care of herself.
Even though Ellen has come a long way and is obviously on the right path she still struggles with her self-image. “I’m not book smart.” She must have said to me at least a dozen times.
“I don’t know that a book could teach someone how to be a Mommy Goose Ellen.” I offered. “Anyone can read a book, but how many women could have pulled themselves outta the hell you were in, found the courage to heal and share it with others?” Ellen sat silently, she leaned forward in her chair, put her elbow on her knee and rested her chin in her hand. “You have heart-smarts. Not everyone does.” I continued. “You’re going to be able to help so many women.” Ellen agreed with a nod, blushing a little at the complement. And I was sincere, the women wouldn’t be drawn to her if she didn’t have something valuable, the women wouldn’t be drawn to someone who didn’t have a brilliant spirit.
One day Ellen will look in the mirror and see the inner beauty that draws so many to her. She is still healing, still learning and growing. We all are, or rather we all could be. It takes courage and strength to grow. Ellen has a remarkable recovery story and I have been very fortunate to witness the peeling away of all those heavy superficial outer layers and watching her inner beauty emerge and shine through.