Turning Point – Choosing the Road to Recovery

In the early part of 1988 I got a call from my great aunt Irene.  She told me that she and Uncle Manley were in Savannah for a couple of days and would like to visit with us. Aunt Sissie, the name that I called her all my life, was a strong and intelligent woman with a generous heart.  Like most of my Dad’s family, she was fun and funny and I really loved her.  It was exciting for me, a young 26 year old, to take my little family to visit her at her hotel on the riverfront.

 via David McSpadden (flickr)

We had what I thought was a nice visit.  My stepdaughter Tara was about to turn 13, JR was 3, Mallory almost 2 and baby Emily—they were an adorable bunch and I was proud of them.  I felt like we made a good impression on them and that Sissie would likely go back home to Virginia and report that Duane and his family were all doing well.  Imagine my surprise when I got a letter from Aunt Sissie about 2 weeks later expressing her concerns for me and my family.  In the letter she said that she had been thinking about me and praying for me “…ever since our visit” and that she wanted to ‘help’ me.

I might have taken offense to such a suggestion.  I might have gotten my ‘back up’ at the very notion that I needed help from anyone, let alone a great aunt that I had not had any contact with for most of the past 14 years.  I might have, but I didn’t.  I thought we had done well on our visit, but apparently Aunt Sissie could tell that something wasn’t quite right.  My life was a mess and I was drowning and somehow she knew.

via Samantha Cohen (flickr)

Sissie knew that something was wrong, but she could not possibly know the extent of my problems.  I had been alcoholic for most of my life at this point; I also had an addiction to amphetamines and cocaine, and was doing dangerous things to feed my addictions.  My wife was also an addict and we were not being very good parents.

Out of desperation I swallowed my pride and began talking with Sissie.  She offered to buy me and my family a house in Radford, Virginia where she lived.  My wife and I, believing that this move would be the cure for our addiction and money problems, quickly said yes to her generous offer and started making immediate plans to go to Virginia.  It shames me to admit this, even today, a sin that I long since have repented for, but Sissie didn’t just buy us a house.  She bought me a car (I had lost one of our cars to a drug dealer), and she gave me money.  The money and the car were supposed to facilitate our move out of Savannah, but being the loyal drug addict that I was, I prolonged the move and spent the money on drugs.  We barely made it out of town.

via Fred Ross Lord (flickr)

 We arrived at our new home in Radford in June.  It was an exciting time for us; a new beginning.  Sissie and Manley had done lots of things to welcome us and make us feel comfortable.  My wife continued to smoke pot and I continued to drink, but it seemed to us that we were doing great because we were staying away from the more dangerous drugs.  To us

it seemed like we were going straight and it felt good.  We did well for more than six months.

As any recovering addict will tell you, a geographical change is not likely to be a cure.  Wherever you go; there you are.  The addiction goes with you and so it was with us.  We eventually found drug dealers and resurrected the trouble that we thought we had left behind us in Savannah.

I got in trouble one night at a bar in the little town.  I was arrested and spent the night in jail.  Again, from my perspective, it was nothing.  This sort of thing had been a regular occurrence with me for years.  It was normal for me, but Savannah, Georgia was not the same as Radford, Virginia.  As it turned out, the little burg in Virginia had a lot less tolerance for belligerent, aggressive drunks than Sugar City and my story found its way into the pages of the local newspaper. A paper that my dear aunt read religiously.

via Ken Teegardin (flickr)

My aunt caught me at home alone one morning, probably the same day that the story made the paper.  She knew the local police (heck, she knew everybody) and had the whole story on me.  She knew things about me that I had forgotten and she really let me have it.  She was embarrassed and she told me so.  She told me that I had disgraced the name that my family had made there—my grandfather, my great-grandfather.  She reminded me of the money that she had spent to help me and how my actions proved that I was selfish and ungrateful.  She also reminded me of my little children and how they depended on me and how I was letting them down.  And then she called me The Name.  I had never heard my aunt cuss…and I never heard her cuss again, but on that morning she called me a name that I have never forgotten.  It is a part of the human body known for, among other things, the passage of noxious gas.  She stared at me after the word was said and didn’t say anything for what seemed like an eternity, and then she turned and left.  I just stood there like a noxious gas hole trying to assess the damage that I had done.

This event happened in about February of that year.  Sissie, while very unhappy with me, did give me until August to find a new place to live.  It was a tough time, but this was my ‘pivot point’ in life.  I had burned a lot of bridges over the years.  I had been down in the gutter and sworn off drugs and alcohol many times before, but this was different.  It took another year and a half before I would begin the successful recovery that continues to this day.  Something about hurting Aunt Sissie and having her alert me to the fact that I had shamed my family’s name, that inspired me.  There was no ‘living with it’ anymore.  I would get well or I would die—nothing in between.

It was long process, getting sober.  It was the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that helped me to find redemption.  When I got to Step 9, making amends, Aunt Sissie (and Uncle Manley) were the first on my list.  She didn’t make me pay back the money that she had given me, instead she reserved the right to ‘keep an eye’ on me.  I remember a few years later at a wedding reception for my cousin Zack, Sissie walked up to me and took the Diet Coke from my hand and smelled it.  She handed it back and smiled and said, “Just checking.”

Early this morning, Aunt Sissie passed away at the age of 88.  She was reunited with her mom and dad, a brother, and 2 sisters.  I’ve been thinking all day what that celebration must be like.  I take great comfort in knowing that today she knows exactly what she did for me.  Because of her generous heart to intervene; and because of her wisdom to cut me off and pull back; she put in motion my recovery from addiction.  Because of what she did, my children gained a father and have found success in their own lives.  Although my ex-wife may be slow to recognize how all of this benefited her (those were very tough times), my current wife got a much better man thanks to Aunt Sissie.  Sissie’s faith in God carried me in the early days of my recovery and inspired me to develop my own relationship with Him.

Sissie and Manley never had any children of their own, and although I’m not supposed to know, I do know that I am not the only ‘child’ that they helped over the years.  I’m reminded of two verses in Mathew Chapter 25 as I think of Aunt Sissie being greeted by the Lord this morning:

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

 21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

I love you Aunt Sissie, and I’ll see you on the other side.

~Duane Pannell

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