By Verna Bartlett
I accepted drinking, when I shouldn’t have, as a normal part of my life. I believed that is was my destiny to drink. Anyone who thinks that they have to live that way should know that there are choices. We do not have to drink and live that way. But back then, I didn’t know I had a choice.
I married my second husband and purchased a home where I would live for 20 years and raise my children. The marriage did not last although I gave birth to three children. I lost one child in 1970. He was born with his sex organs inside his body and part of his brain missing. I had been sober for two years and attended a full gospel church. I went to church three times a week, twice on Sundays.
I would get up at night and go to the crib to get him but there was no baby there. I would go to the kitchen to warm a bottle, but there was no bottle to warm. My baby was gone.
They never allowed me to see or hold him, and I told them that he was a boy and they said I couldn’t possibly know that. My doctor advised me to let him “expire,” and then cremate him; that a funeral and burial would just cause me more pain.
When they performed the autopsy they found that he was a boy. A month after he died my husband asked me what I did to have his son be born that way. He left me. My own family was afraid of me. My mother said that, “no one in our family ever had a baby like that.”
Everyone was afraid of me. I attempted to return to church but even there people walked around me and looked at me funny. I gave it all up and went on an eight-month drinking binge. No excuse. I was lost and alone – that’s when the devil moves in and tells you “go out and have a drink. You deserve it.”
I was in a cloud for eight months. I sobered up and attempted to get back to normal and my husband asked to come home. I had my third baby by him in October 1971. He looked at her and said she wasn’t his and left me. She was born one month early. But I knew he was the father. I had no reason to lie after all I had been through. I had been with no one but him for a year.
When she was a month old he kidnapped our five-year-old daughter. I just about lost my mind. I looked and looked and looked for her. I couldn’t get any help from the police. They said he had more right to her than me. I prayed and I cried. I had nightmares that she was hurt or dying. They told me if I filed for divorce and got legal custody of my two youngest children that they could help me. That took six months. Then they said it was a cold trail and there was little or nothing they could do but would notify me if they found her.
I continued to drink. I was alone and on welfare. I didn’t drink every day. My children had a home; I had food stamps and commodities. They came first. I would pay my bills and get groceries and then take off to drink, usually with a few cents in my pocket. However I didn’t need money to drink. We had a home no matter what.
In June 1972 I attended a dinner for graduates from the Muckleshoot tribe. My cousin, Bernie (who always believed in me said that one day I would straighten up and help our people) invited me. She told me “You have to be there or I’ll disown you.” To this day I cannot tell this story without crying so I imagine it’s our good Lord talking to my heart.
Billy Mills was the featured speaker. Of course I didn’t know who he was. I knew little about current events in Indian country. As he began to speak something clicked in my mind. He said he ran in the 10,000-metre race in the 1964 World Olympics in Japan. One of the regular runners became sick so they called him to run. He showed a video of the race. He spoke of his feelings, how he had a difficult time as a child and how hard he practiced to prepare himself for the Olympics. He said that too many of us Indians settle for third best or second best not knowing we can be first.
I never believed that I could be first or best at anything. He spoke as he showed the video. At the beginning of the race he was way back, but this is a 27-mile race. He spoke of how his legs and chest hurt but he still kept running. I held my youngest child on my lap and the other four sat nearby. I was crying and I didn’t know why. Billy showed how he moved from way back to fifth place, then fourth, and with what we now call a kick he won the race. The video showed him with his arms raised in the air and people running after him. They asked him what his name was and he said, “I am an American Indian.” He said there were newspaper men from all over the world running after him.
After I was told I was not “college material,” and after years of beatings by husbands and boyfriends, and after my drinking, and after the suicide attempts, and after the degradation of being on welfare and the second-hand clothes and furniture, and after having my lights turned off and after never being able to hold my head up – I now knew without a doubt that I would go to college and I would be someone of value and I would return to help people.
In September 1972 I entered Green River Community College. I didn’t have a car. I lived 30 miles from the college but I was used to hitch hiking or walking. Nothing was going to stop me from attending college. I hitch hiked the first year but by the second year I won a lot of money at the race track and bought a 1965 Mustang and had the luxury of driving to college. It was out of sight to take the back roads and listen to the radio and go over my home work in my head. I sang along to Aretha Franklin’s Respect and CCR’s Green River. I had somewhere to go and something to do.
I had to take classes to understand the regular classes. I had to start at math 89 and go to the lab for hours several times a week. I didn’t understand college lingo and was lost in most of the lectures. I bought a dictionary and wrote down the hard words. I looked them up when I got home. I was 36 years old attending a college where the average student age was 19. I’d go to the library on weekends to read. I learned how to spell “psychology” and was so proud. Go ahead and call me crazy but now I can use the word psychology and tell you what kind of crazy I am.
Then the car broke down and I didn’t have the money to fix it. I didn’t have cash to buy oil for the house furnace and we spent a cold winter although we had a fire place. We lived on commodities and had very little of any other food. I was hitch hiking again but no matter rain or shine I kept on going. I kept on thinking about Billy Mills telling himself “Well so what – you may be 27th now but you’ll move up to fourth and third and maybe even end up first.”
I refused to give up. My son was beginning to get into trouble and ended up in juvenile hall. I still had not found my daughter but I had hope.
I struggled the first year at Green River but excelled the second year. I got A’s and B’s. I applied to attend Pacific Lutheran and miracle of miracles I was accepted after two years at Green River Community College.
I bought a box of cards with a word and definition written on a card. I carried a card a day with me and even when I drank I’d take the card out and memorize the word and its definition. I was determined to become educated and find a way to help my people.
I still hitch hiked but now there were only eight miles to walk to Pacific Lutheran University. I attended summer sessions and went to the library often. I began to learn and retain the information. I began to change and realized that I had the ability to learn.
I had plans to take the Law School Admissions test (LSAT) when I earned a Bachelor of Arts but I didn’t pass the first time and the second time I got a lower score. I didn’t know it at the time but I had dyslexia. I got my B.A. in 1976 and since I couldn’t get into law school I continued on to earn my M.A. in social science.
During all my college days I drank. I scheduled my classes for a Tuesday through to Friday so that I could drink on the weekend and sober up and rest on a Monday in time for classes on Tuesday. That worked for six years. I don’t know how because an alcoholic doesn’t get better when drinking. From the first drink it’s down hill all the way. Of course I didn’t consider myself an alcoholic – my mother said that “no one in our family had ‘that.'” There was a lot of ‘that’s’ in our family.
Hitting rock bottom
In 1978 I could not go an hour without a drink. My hangovers were getting worse. I was pale and skinny. I wasn’t well. I went to my college advisor and told him that I had to quit. I was one semester away from getting my M.A. He advised me to take a leave and take care of my problem and I could come back to finish. I didn’t know what that meant. I thought that I could just ease off the alcohol and get back to business and finish my classes. I didn’t realize how badly off I was.
One day when as I crawled on my bedroom floor looking for a bottle of whiskey, I found the newspaper article about Billy Mills. I sat there and sobbed and sobbed. I was shaking from not having a drink. I vomited green liver bile. I crawled to the bathroom and back to the room. Finally, I lay down by the toilet to wait for the next bout of vomiting. I cried and asked our good Lord to please help me. I asked myself “What are you doing to yourself?”
It took me three days to come down cold turkey. I called my cousin Bernie and told her that I was ready to go into treatment, even though I didn’t know what “treatment” or “alcoholism” was as no one in our family ever had “that.”
I took my last drink of whiskey on April 16, 1978. I now tell time by that date and every year I sit and think of how I suffered when I didn’t have to. I want other Indians to know that they do not have to suffer. There is a way out and there is something to do about it. We do have a choice.
Seeing the light
My cousin took me to a treatment centre called Alcenas. It was probably the best treatment centre in the United States at that time. I learned about what alcoholism is and how we can treat it. I began to take many vitamins and watched my diet. I finally uttered the words “I am an alcoholic” and from that time to now, I still say that I am a recovering alcoholic. Every day I thank our good Lord for allowing me to live and taking the bottle from me.
I had a counselor at Alcenas who took a lot of interest in me. He called me into his office one day and said “You’re a victim of child abuse, aren’t you?” I looked around and asked him if he was talking to me. He said, “Yes, you.” I asked him how he knew as I sure as hell never told anyone since the day I told my mother and she disowned me.
One of her boyfriends had molested and abused me from the age of seven to 11. I carried all that guilt, hate, torment, ugliness and shame with me every minute of my life. I had blamed myself. I felt dirty, ugly, useless, sinful, filthy, and shamed all of my life. I never got over it but that day I began to heal and I am still healing to this day.
The counselor asked me, “Verna, did anyone ever tell you that it was not your fault?” It took me a minute but I said, “Well, no.” After I got out of Alcenas I began to study child sexual abuse, molestation and incest. I wanted to learn more about alcoholism and sexual abuse because they stole my innocence, they stole my youth and I suffered needlessly from a very young age.
I now have the rest of my experiences to tell Indian youths who have been sexually abused, and are victims of incest. How I wrote and initiated the first in-patient alcoholism program, Tiospaye, in the United States. Of course I know that “I” didn’t do it – I am only a vessel through which our good Lord or great Spirit works. Now I am within reach of my Ph.D.
I have it all in my head I just need to get down on paper. In retrospect, I have walked a very difficult road but I’m here and I want to deliver the message just as Billy Mills did:
“We Indians settle for fourth or third best when we can be first .” I have a story to tell.