Debra's Story

Removing the Mask of Alcohol Addiction

Debra doesn’t remember much about her life before her parents split up. Except that she was four years-old when they divorced, and afterward, she moved with her mother from their middle-class Chicago home to an apartment on the city’s tough west side. “We lived in the ghetto,” Debra, now 53, says.

Her life growing up included cheerleading and volleyball, spending summers with her aunts, and taking classes in the park. “They had ballet, art, things like that,” she says. “I learned how to walk the way I do by taking an etiquette class in the park.”

Debra’s west side neighborhood taught her a different set of lessons. “I learned to run a lot,” she says. “And to never walk with a smile. Ghetto rules.”

After Debra graduated from high school she moved to the suburbs, worked as a hairstylist and dabbled in college courses before working her way up to become the director of housekeeping for International Services System in Dallas, Texas in 1988. In Dallas, she was assaulted in her apartment, a turning point in her life that led her to Fairbanks. “I thought it was my fault,” she says. “It felt like a part of me died.”

The years that followed left Debra depressed and lost. “I had built up anger and resentment about the assault,” she says. “I managed to hide it, because I didn’t like people knowing my business. It was like I had a bunch of masks and personalities. And I’m a really good actress.”

But by 2002, the masks had begun to crack. What started as drinking to mask the pain, resulted in a physical dependence, which brought Debra to Fairbanks seeking help. But Debra wasn’t ready to embrace recovery – yet. “I told people what they wanted to hear,” she says. “But my counselor told me he hoped someone was planting a seed.”

Three years later Debra returned to Fairbanks, her dependency on alcohol even greater. And the “seeds” from her first encounter at Fairbanks had taken root. “I came back because I needed someone in control of my life that I could trust,” she says. “I knew I’d be safe. And that for once I could take the time to heal myself.”

Debra spent the following year in the supportive living apartments at Fairbanks while continuing to work fulltime. She learned that her anger over the assault from years earlier really masked her fear of being alone, and feeling vulnerable. “The best thing I got from Fairbanks was when I left and had to face life for myself. I learned I wasn’t afraid anymore – I could feel the peace.”

Being at Fairbanks, Debra says, has helped her find the woman she’s been hiding all these years. “When I look in the mirror, I can say I actually like this person,” she says. “I had to deal with all my emotions and stuff. Before my emotions were in a bottle.”

Today Debra shares her story with other women as a volunteer at Fairbanks and with other organizations. She also talks with co-workers seeking help. “My biggest thrill is talking with the women at Fairbanks,” she says. “They think I’m helping them…they’re helping me.”