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HPR Hero CINDY-WALKER-WHITE : Autobiography

I'm an addict named Cindy. There is no logical reason for me to be an addict. I come from a good home, a good family, no substance abuse on either side of the family. I wasn't abused. I wasn't neglected. My childhood was good.

It isn’t every time that we fall into an unfortunate scheme of things. For the most part, we make our own choices in life, good and bad both. The consequences of those then determine our life, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently.

Being an adopted child, I guess I'm proof that it's genetic and I was born this way. I was taken home by my adoptive parents when I was only six months old, so as far as I'm concerned they are my parents. I have a brother, 3 years younger than me, and a sister, 6 years younger than me. I grew up on 10 acres of land just north of Atlanta Georgia. We had large gardens, pastures with cows, and a pigpen. We canned our vegetables. Well, mom, aunts and grandmothers did!

We did not own the biggest and the fanciest house but we always had so much good food to eat, and so many cousins to play with, and large family gatherings and big holiday celebrations. It wasn't perfect. There were family squabbles, mom and dad had arguments, and some Christmases weren't lavish. But I look back and see it as good. Did I see it that way then? Probably not, but what kid does see their life as good when they're a kid?

The only part of my childhood that wasn't good was my dad's prolonged suffering after a work related injury. He was a firefighter, and he fell off a ladder from a height of about 30 feet. It caused a blockage from his heart to his brain and that caused hydrocephalus. The surgeons operated on my daddy 14 times in 6 years, but it never seemed to work the way it was supposed to, and my dad died a few days before my 15th birthday.

My mom amazes me. Somehow, through all that, she managed to take care of a sick husband, raise three children, keep a full time job, and keep the house clean. I remember a lot of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and family friends stepping in and helping out and making sure that we were never alone if mom had to be at work or the hospital. Mom's sister had a lake house, and we were allowed almost unlimited access to it, so mom took us there a lot. It was awesome. I loved swimming and waterskiing and those are things I want to start doing again. I remember one trip to my aunt's lake house as a teenager, we were playing trivial pursuit with my mom's best friend and her kids. A question came up that made my mom and her friend start singing some song ‘in 1814 we took a little trip, along with colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississippi, we took a little beans’...I even remember the tune!

High school sucked for me. I just never felt like I belonged. I wasn't athletic even though I played softball. I wasn't a cheerleader. I wasn't one of the preppy kids. I didn't feel like I fit in with the genius whiz kid types either even though we took the same classes. I just didn't feel like I fit in, you know?

I used drugs for the first time when I was 9 when I stole some appetite suppressants. Somehow, I managed to graduate high school on time in 1988, but shortly after that I spun out and stayed spun for almost twenty years, 2 marriages, countless felony drug arrests, and three trips to the "state spa" to serve prison time. I married the first husband because I was tired of living on the streets, sleeping in my car or on whoever's couch I could crash on.

That actually seems to be a common theme amongst all the addicts I've met in recovery. The thing I love about recovery: when you look around in a meeting, there are all types: black, white, and gay, straight, young, old, bikers, doctors...all in the same room, all getting along, all helping each other stay clean. I guess I found my people after all.

I lived through almost 20 years of active addiction. I don't remember so much of it. What I do remember is almost like bits and pieces. I remember that the first husband was physically and verbally abusive. The second husband was a decent guy but got tired of my excuses and my poor choices. I'd have gotten tired of me too, to be honest. I was so drunk and sick with alcohol poisoning.

I knew then that I just needed to start over and really work my way out or that was the end. I took baby steps like my life depended on it, and what I discovered was that my life DID depend on it. Once I started, it got easier.

I did exactly what my drug court counselor suggested. I went to twelve step meetings. For the first time, I had to be of service to somebody. Anybody. I just had to help others.

And that’s when I learnt, the power of doing something for others.

Eventually, I met a man in 2008 and we are still together today. I remember experiencing a moment of deep peace and serenity on April 9, 2009. A tornado was destroying the world around us, while he and I were huddled in the center of the house. The noise was unbelievable, and I almost burst out laughing wondering what atheists did in moments like that. I feared I was about to die and the deepest sense of peace washed over me.

With him, I have finally realized that it is so true that someone else can't make you happy; that someone can only enhance the happiness that I have found inside myself. He enhances my happiness. He makes me laugh. Laughter, true laughter like we share together, is so precious.

The happiest moments of my life have been some deeply spiritual moments that have come at such random times. Once we were in the yard which is in the middle of a large field. I was surrounded by waving grasses. We had scaffolding set up, and the wind that seems to constantly blow at that property was whistling through the scaffolding. I stood there in that wind, staring at the sky, listening to that whistling sound, and I realized how small and insignificant I was in relation to the universe and I was so at peace.

People helped me because someone helped them when they got clean.

They gave to me what had so freely been given to them. I was taught that I could not pay them back, I had to "pay it forward". I was told that helping others was part of getting my own life back. I was so desperate to find something different that I just started helping others and it worked so I keep doing it. Mostly, it's the little things. When I see the neighbor who just had shoulder surgery struggling to get groceries in the house, I stop my car and help him carry the groceries in.

I share my experience, strength, and hope with anybody who asks to hear it. I write for an online group blog open to all. As contributors, we put a voice to the things left unsaid - not for want of a teller, but for lack of an understanding ear. Alone, we are small, together, we are unstoppable.

Today I also remain an integral part of my recovery group. But I sit on the other side of the table, for I need to ‘pay it forward’.

If someone asks me to sponsor her, I sponsor her. If a newcomer needs a recovery book I buy it and give it to that newcomer. If I am asked to chair a meeting, I chair it. I do a lot of work online, describing the realities of reintegration after prison to sensitize our society. Part of what makes reintegrating into society after being in prison so difficult is healing from the experience that landed a person in prison in the first place. Many ex-offenders are saddled with PTSD from prison itself, and many struggle with guilt over the offense that sent them there.  Aside from working through all the random little things that crop up in daily life and tackling the major issues of employment, living arrangements and repairing relationships, ex-offenders need to address the mental and emotional ramifications of prison and release. These are the things that aren’t so easy to let go, the things that keep people awake at night, the things that might very well land them back in prison. Things like dealing with the guilt of what landed them in prison; the depression and fatigue that comes with trying to rebuild a life, facing obstacles at every turn; the fear of dealing with law enforcement in any circumstance, even when one is the victim or knows for absolute certainty they have done NOTHING wrong.

It is the RARE prison facility that has any kind of mental health care available for inmates; no therapy, no medications, no follow-up care. Inmates are left to deal with the guilt of their offense on their own. Prisons don’t do anything to help these people prepare for life after prison, or even to live with themselves and what they’ve done. Granted, not all offenders feel remorse, but those that do deserve some kind of counseling to help them deal with it.

The guilt over having caused someone else’s death, even though the other person wasn’t blameless, is soul-crushing and crippling. People need to know that being the surviving driver in a two-impaired-driver-crash is traumatic. People need to understand that some offenders truly feel remorse and need help to deal with the trauma. If people don’t find the right course and acceptance back into society, and a way to forgive themselves, they would return to prison again, sooner or later.

The editor I worked with on that project said that the whole thing changed her perspective on ex-offenders, the criminal justice system, and reintegration. She said that before working on that with me, she always assumed that anybody who couldn't reintegrate into society just didn't want to and had nobody to blame but themselves.

In that moment, I almost felt like all my time in prison, all my struggling to stay out of prison and become a productive and responsible member of society, was worth it. I'm starting to see more of this change in attitude in mainstream society, too, for what that's worth.

My neighbor, who I'll call mimi, said that getting to know me and talking to me about my history and my addiction, has helped her understand her own children better. I get mails all the time, thanking me for opening people’s eyes. “This is a sad, but good shows the stereotype and prejudice that exists for ex-offenders. Thanks for sharing your story!” are common reactions of all the people active on my social blogs.

In helping others, I learnt that it has been the only thing instrumental in my recovery. With an online blog that I write posts for, I find that helping other addicts out of their addictions helps me focus on the positive, helps me be grateful.

I make myself appreciate the sun, or the cool breeze, or the way the leaves look as they change color, or the way my little dog's fur feels when I rub my face on her head.

For me, the meaning of life or the purpose of life is just to live it, to appreciate it, to enjoy it. I existed in a drugged haze for so long that I truly feel that I must grab each moment and experience it to its fullest.

If I'm having a bad day, I have found that helping someone else does me better than words can say. Other people matter today. Before I got clean, other people were just a means to an end or something. Today, each and every person I encounter is beautiful just as they are, perfectly imperfect and perfectly human. 

Addiction was all about me. Recovery, and by extension life, are all about US.

Life is about the little moments that take one's breath away, and those moments are all around us if we just open our eyes to them.

I am now building a community with the love of my life. He has acquired some land, almost 200 acres. We are working toward moving there and growing our own vegetables. So I see my future moving toward something simpler, something more sustainable, something quieter.

We want it to be open to any who wishes to live there. We want to build a community, where people know each other and help each other and care about each other. We want to live a life that is more about living in the moment.

Like, sometimes I think my dog is smarter than I am. If I asked my dog "what time is it?" My dog would look at me like I'm crazy. See, my dog has no concept of time. If she did understand what "time" was, she would just tell me that it is "right now" and right now it is time to play, or run, or stand there and squeak a toy, or roll in something stinky, or eat a treat, or lick my face off, or any of the other ways my dog expresses joy or enjoys life. My dog gets it.

I want my future to be about the moments, about the people around me, about trying to make the world, or at least my corner of it a better place.

Cindy Walker White, you allowed for all of your experiences to uncover so many hidden truths of our society. You have helped this world to be less judgmental and more welcoming and accepting. Thank you!

Inspired by Cindy's story? You can share it on your wall and pass on the inspiration!

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