Climbing Out: An Interview

By Patricia Obletz

Eleanore Martinez, MS, CASAC, is the director of Renaissance House, the first and only Western New York long-term rehabilitation residence for chemically dependent adolescents. When asked what influenced her career choice, Eleanore said, “I knew nothing about addiction when my community of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart sent me to teach grade school in New York City. Five years later, I was sent to a middle school in a small New York town where I was assigned to the science curriculum, despite my undergraduate degree in English.

“I discovered that I loved science, and so did the kids. Awarded a National Science Foundation grant, I spent the next two summers at Eastern Illinois University and Bradley University studying science, returning each fall to teach in Ogdensburg.

“Those summers were stressful. Care packages containing bottles of wine arrived and I’d share them with others in the dorm. I discovered that drinking relaxed me, made me feel comfortable. I began looking forward to those packages, but never thought about buying wine.

“At age 30, I was sent to Buffalo to teach high school science. That summer, I attended Fordham University for a Master’s in science, struggling to keep up with my young classmates. I stopped sharing my care packages, selfishly ensuring that I had enough each night to put me to sleep.

“I became conscious of wanting, not just enjoying, the results of drinking. As my level of tolerance changed, my feelings and attitudes toward drinking changed. I now needed two or three drinks to achieve the effect of one. I stopped counting them.

“When I injured my back, a doctor prescribed Valium and codeine. Taking Valium with my nightly drinks gave me a much bigger high and a much greater sense of relief. I later learned that mixing alcohol and drugs, especially those that depress the central nervous system, enhances the effects of drugs.

“I told my doctor about my stressful life; he prescribed a tranquilizer. Because I was a teacher, in charge of department curriculum and several after-school activities, he never suspected that I was a functioning addict - doctors need to learn to question patients about chemical dependency and stop treating just its symptoms.

“The more I drank, the guiltier I felt. I watched students hide liquor in their lockers, very much aware of the harm they were inflicting on themselves. Sadly, I was unable to transfer this awareness to myself.

“I compensated for my increasing guilt by working harder to prove to myself and others that I was fine. But I was very uncomfortable inside and growing increasingly unhappy.

“After three years of drinking heavily, I woke up every morning with hangovers, headaches, the shakes. Valium made them go away.

“Sane, sociable drinkers don’t mark a bottle into nightly allotments, yet I did this, trying to control my consumption, wanting to believe I was okay. I began drinking my Monday and Tuesday rations on Monday, telling myself I’d skip Tuesday’s share; Tuesdays I’d drink Wednesday’s, Thursday’s and Friday’s, buying another bottle before I wanted to.

“I began buying cough medicine containing alcohol, trying to believe I didn’t need another bottle of rye. I blamed the world and the world’s demands on me for my misery. I’d studied English, not science; I didn’t ask to go to Fordham, and so on. Drinks rewarded me for working hard; they released my stress. Eventually, I drank just to get through the day. I unwittingly had crossed the line from abuse to addiction.

The bottle becomes more important than friends.

“When my best friend said she was worried about my drinking, extreme shame and rage overtook me. I managed to say, ‘Thank you for pointing that out for me. I’ll take care of it.’

“Alcoholism had built a brick wall around me. Other people talked to that wall, not to the Ellie behind it. And I responded, not from my heart, but from that wall. The bottle had become more important than friends.

“My self-esteem disintegrated. I was ashamed of my drinking. I began questioning my own value.

“Occasionally I could make myself stop drinking for three months. When I couldn’t stand the void that alcohol once filled, I’d drink again, just as heavily. I didn’t know that I needed talk therapy to lift me out of shame and teach me why I was addicted.

“I passed out twice in one day from mixing Valium and alcohol and somehow was able to convince the doctor that I had hypertension. Addicts are clever at manipulation. Addictions prevent insights needed for recovery.

“Chemical addiction can mimic paranoia, depression, schizophrenia. One night, I wrote a suicide note and washed pills down with whiskey. I became violently ill; a friend found me vomiting. I said I had too much to drink, omitting the pills and the note. I resigned from my job and went to Philadelphia thinking I could regain control there. New doctors prescribed muscle relaxants and painkillers without questions.

“I couldn’t help voicing my suicidal desire and was sent to a psychologist, who put me on an antidepressant. The dosage had to be increased systematically because alcohol kept canceling its effects. She never asked if I drank or took pills.

“Feeling hopeless after every session with the psychologist, I’d buy a bottle and return to my room to drink myself to sleep. I moved through each day devoid of feeling, hoping she could fix my depression and end my drinking. I didn’t understand that my problems were the result of my drinking, which is key to every addict’s recovery. Like most addicts, I believed that alcohol and drugs were my best friends, and that I couldn’t function without them.

“Two years later, I resigned the job in Philadelphia to take another one in Potsdam, New York. Potsdam is God’s country with a beautiful river running through it. I thought I’d be okay there.

“My next two years were the worst. I went to a counselor at a mental health clinic, every week passing a sign on a door that read, Alcoholism Treatment. I’d think, that’s what I need, but stayed with my therapist, who focused on my relationships. Addiction prevented me from gaining insight in those sessions.

“After a year, I told my counselor she wasn’t helping me; I wanted to leave. She asked a number of questions and then said, ‘Did you have to drink to tell me this?’ Shocked, I said yes. She referred me to alcoholism treatment.

“That summer, the head administrator of our community confronted me. She’d watched me go from being a high achiever ten years ago to someone who could barely function. She said that I was valuable to the community and that I needed help.

Treatment is Education

“For the first time, I faced reality and entered a rehabilitation clinic. Not everyone does, but I needed the 28 days of education - that’s what treatment is. I also needed to get rid of alcohol and prescription drug toxins.

“Treatment taught me what alcoholism did to my spiritual, physical, emotional and mental life. Group therapy helped me lose the shame of my drinking and introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

“I realized that addiction is a cunning, powerful, sneaky type of illness. And that the line between abusing drugs and depending on them is very thin.

“I learned that every time I’d stopped drinking and went back to it was a mini-relapse. Relapse is part of the recovery process. What prevents relapse is understanding what can to trigger it, and making the commitment to not want to use, because not using is a better way of living. I accepted that I was an addict and that I could live without crutches and be happy.

“When I was discharged and returned to Potsdam to teach part-time, I immediately got involved in 12-step programs and gained more friends sober than I’d had in my entire life. I also volunteered at the parish and the local mental health center, things I’d never done before.

“Chemical dependency is a painful disease that afflicts, not only the person who has it, but all the significant others around that person. We must do a better job educating kids on ways to be happy, to get approval, to be appreciated, and how to be successful through their own efforts, interests and talents, without using chemicals.

“I realized I worked well with alcoholics, not only because I knew a lot about addiction, but because I wasn’t judging or condemning them, and they couldn’t say I didn’t understand. I went to Rutgers School of Alcohol Studies and interned at a hospital in Buffalo. I began working for Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services, acquired my alcoholism counselor credential and became supervisor of two halfway houses. Nine years later I became the agency’s program for youth director.

“Chemical dependency is an illness, not a shameful flaw. There is a lot of hope, and a lot of help for those who still suffer. But fear is conquered by awareness, by seeing hope in others and by a willingness to think the unfamiliar: life can be joyous without drugs or alcohol.”

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on September 09, 2016

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