The Last Addictions Memoir (Hopefully): An Evidence-Based Recovery Story Pt. 9

By Anne Giles 05/23/17

Most people who develop addiction experienced trauma. At four years sober, I can see past traumas line up one by one.

Teacher and student

While my sister and I ate pot roast and lettuce salad doused in Good Seasons Italian dressing mixed from a packet, we listened to my father and mother discuss news, books, and ideas with their keen, dynamic minds.

While talking with each other at the dinner table, my parents took a break from trying to raise "good" children. My mother's fiery brain, engaged with my father's cooler one, distracted her from evaluating her small daughters. Except for strict correction of table manners - "Chew with your mouth closed!" and "Switch hands to cut with your knife!" - the remarkable brains of my parents created an intellectual hearth at our dinner table.

When I became a teacher, I brought to the classroom that fire from my parents' dinner table. I added kindling passed to me by the master teachers of my grade school, high school, and college years, my own learning, and training in how people learn. Synergy ignited! Further, as a childless woman, I brought my whole heart's warmth to loving other people's children. In the sacred sanctuary of the classroom, the students and I reveled in who we were and what we could know. I have never felt more ecstatically alive, or more deeply sure that what I was doing was meaningful than when I was in a classroom with students.

This is an excerpt from the incident report I was asked to write after nearly a quarter-century career as a teacher: "On Tuesday, February 6, 2007, at approximately 12 o’clock, I was standing in front of my 4th period class, reviewing a handout with approximately 15 students. They were seated in rows in front of me. In my peripheral vision, I could see [the student] enter through the classroom door, approximately 15 minutes after the class began.  Although ample space to walk to a seat existed on the sides of the classrooms and down rows other than the one in front of which I was standing, [the student] walked up to me, put his hand on my right shoulder, and pushed."

I have been off balance since.

Other teachers might have experienced the push as enraging, saddening, annoying, or a whole array of reactions. Given that I had developed an insecure, anxious attachment style in my family of origin, then found safety and security in the just, ordered, reliable world of teaching, I experienced the push as if my sweet little grandmother had backhanded me across the face. I was felled, dumbfounded, in horror.

For days, I didn't tell my mother, still alive at the time, or my father. My father is a Boy Scout, Army Ranger, Virginia gentleman, and fellow teacher. When I finally told my parents at dinner at a restaurant, my father could not keep a tear from falling down his cheek.

Just over 10 years later, when I look back, I feel such compassion for myself and everyone involved. Humans feel, think, speak and do. Sometimes they hurt each other. We might wish conflicts didn't happen, even think they "shouldn't" happen, but they do. Life cannot be prevented from happening, or punished for having happened. It's how we handle what happens that determines the quality of our post-happening lives.

Protective factors for recovering from trauma, for not developing trauma-related disorders, and, then, for not developing substance use disorders, start with being able to fall into loving, accepting arms and cry. Talking through what happened, at the person's own pace, with a non-judgmental, non-advice-giving, non-vindictive, skilled-at-listening family member, friend or professional can prevent the experience from becoming a hardened memory.

In rural Virginia, we say, "Get over it!" and "What's the matter with you that you can't handle it?" and "Why are you still talking about something that happened in the past?" I finished the day, walked out the school's front doors, didn't see the tow hitch on the car parked illegally at the front of the school, and hit my shin on it so hard I later had to have surgery to remove the mass formed beneath the scar.

When I take a clinical look at my personal history, the push was one of a series of half a dozen events I experienced as devastatingly traumatic in the span of just over a year, 2006-2007. Not one of them was preventable, not one of them was anyone's fault, and everyone did the best they could to do right by everyone afterwards. They just happened.

In 2007, we still hoped trauma happened to other people in other places. My rural culture's practices of silent forbearance and "tough love" drove trauma deeper. I did not disclose my shattering to my therapist for, literally, years. That my brain developed addiction, may, essentially, be a no-brainer.

Today, in 2017, when life happens in hard ways, we know to wonder about trauma, to assess for it, and to get help for people as soon as possible, even if they say they're just fine. Untreated trauma can break hearts and lives.

In my small town, we eventually see everyone again. Seven years after the push, I was at a doctor's office and there, across the lab area, was the student, now a grown man. He glanced up. I stiffened with dread.

In his face, I detected no recognition of me at all. I wasn't happening.

After my appointment, in the nearly empty parking lot, I saw the student again, a few yards away. I froze. I felt given a choice between toppling into an inferno if I spoke to him, and into cold oblivion if I did not.

I called the student by name.

He looked up. Again, I could tell he didn't recognize me. I stated my name. No reaction. I said, "I was your teacher," and mentioned the year and place. I was ready to fight or flee. I saw in his face an unguarded search for a memory.

"I remember you," he said. Then he smiled.

At his simple smile at some kind of pleasant memory - maybe the little kid crayons we used to create cartoons for big kid vocabulary words, who knows - I felt a different kind of horror. His hand on my shoulder had been a shared, identical reality. Same place, same time, same hand, same shoulder. It had detonated an apocalypse in my life. In his life, not a glimmer remained.

A fire-hardened tightness within me loosened.

I had known exactly how old he was in 2007. I did a quick calculation and offered a guess at this age.

"Yes," he said, surprised and pleased.

"You take care," I said, a phrase my mother used before she hung up the phone.

"You, too," he said. He got in his car. I walked silently to my car, got in, and started driving out of the parking lot.

From his car, the student lifted his arm and waved, confidently, intentionally, and smiled again.

What is a teacher to do, what is a humane person on this planet to do in such a surreal circumstance?

I waved, too.

Check out previous installments of The Last Addictions Memoir below:

Part 1 here  Part 2 here  Part 3 here Part 4 here  Part 5 here Part 6 here Part 7 here Part 8 here

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is a counselor, writer and business owner. She writes about addictions treatment, recovery and policy at As of this writing, she has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012, and is in remission from alcohol use disorder.
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Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is a counselor, writer and business owner. As of this writing, she has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012, and is in remission from alcohol use disorder. You can find Anne on Linkedin and Twitter.