Even as a very young girl, Terri was a scrapper.
She got kicked out of grade school for defiance, temper tantrums and pushing other kids. Her teacher, the principal and the district psychologist agreed she was not controllable. She barely made it through her sophomore year in high school before leaving with a trail of incidences that convinced the district they all were better off with her elsewhere.
Her mom and a series of stepdads/boyfriends had all been alcoholics. Several of them had been violent, but one in particular had been kind and tried his best to help. Even so, the chaos and disorganization required Terri at 8 years old to be feeding and caring for her two younger sisters. By age 10 she had primary responsibility for them. She was her mother’s mother, her sister’s mother and family protector – a role far too large and demanding for a child.
By her early teens and with great guilt at leaving her two younger sisters behind, Terri hit the streets. Drugs, alcohol and criminal activity became her passion and profession: burglary for food money, breaking and entering for a warm place to stay, junkies and alcoholics for friends. Loaded with hurt and anger at the world, Terri’s life became one big fight: a fight to survive, a fight to get high, a fight to prove herself worthy.
Her name was well-known by the local law enforcement community. She had spent quite a few nights, sometimes on purpose, in various jails and shelters. People from various churches and social organizations had tried to help, but it was like trying to reason with a hungry wolverine. The only organization she would have anything to do with was the AA group, and that was only because they had free coffee.
She did, however talk occasionally to a couple of rough-looking older guys who were always kind and encouraging, who didn’t care why she came back as long as she did and who had a modicum of credibility with her as they seemed to have had as rough a road as she did.
Although in the early days, she did not stop using alcohol, she did continue to go to that first group. It took nearly a year of “in and out” before she finally made the commitment to stop and found her first sponsor, oddly, a woman who appeared to be her exact opposite. She looked kindly, almost grandmotherly, but her appearance belied a tough-as-nails interior that Terri didn’t find out about until it was too late to turn back. Sponsoring Terri, her sponsor would say later, was like taming a wild pony; it took lots of love and a firm hand.
Terri has been sober for 14 years, is married and has two daughters. She finished high school and, with her sponsor’s encouragement, got a college degree. Terri credits her life to her sponsor’s love and tolerance and to the two old guys who didn’t judge her. She would tell you she learned to trust, to give and accept love and to stop fighting everyone and everything.
• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.