Share Your Story: Sarah

Sarah’s story was the first of the Share Your Story requests I received and it rocked me. It’s so powerful, it kind of takes the wind right out of you. What’s even more amazing is the grace in which Sarah owns her past, her vulnerability, and the person she has become through her ups and downs. I won’t say anymore because Sarah will say it better.

My personal story is quite a whirl-wind of events.

My parents divorced when I was about 2 years old, and I never knew my dad growing up. All I knew was what my mom told me, and she never told me “bad” things, most everything was good, but I never really asked too many questions because I did not understand the concept of a dad. I think it goes along with the whole thing of ‘you can’t miss what you never had’. They divorced because my dad was an alcoholic who was emotionally (never physically) abusive to my mom.

My grandparents partially raised me since my mom was a school teacher and a single mom. I give my mom so much credit because she managed to let me do everything from dance and gymnastics, to acting, to many vacations to visit family. When my grandparents died in 2002, I was about to start high school and it was like my world came crashing down on me. They died within 6 months of each other, and my mom who had battled depression since the divorce from my dad probably did not handle it well. I do not remember exactly how she handled it, but I do remember how I felt. When my Grandma died in February, I remember being in the room after she had passed and not even crying because I knew I had to hold it together for my grandpa and mom. I remember the nurse telling me how “strong” I was being, and how she was telling me, at 13 years old, the next steps of how to get the body to the funeral home and what to do. Inside I was broken, my nanny and I were one in the same and she had just been taken from me. But I knew I had to hold that inside. We ended up moving in with my grandpa to help take care of him but he died in July, a day after my birthday – to this day I am pretty sure he died of a broken heart.

In high school I began drinking around 14 years old. The first time I got drunk, I blacked out, threw up, and to make matters worse – I was at school. I got suspended for 5 days, but it did not stop me from my partying ways. My mom never really punished me for it either, I think that I was just too much to handle and she did not know what to do with me. After all, it was just her and I all my life and now my Grandparents were not there and so she really was just as lost as I was, I think. I ended up switching schools to try to get back on track, but it didn’t really work. I continued to party and drink, but in my mind everyone was doing it. I had no self-respect, was dating the wrong people, almost got pregnant at 16, and throughout it all my mom thought I was doing just fine. I think because my grades weren’t suffering she was not worried. I was almost raped (got away somehow), but that did not stop me.

By my senior year of high school I was out of control. I also stopped eating. So, if you’re keeping track I am now drinking and not eating…great combo right? I am not really sure why I stopped eating. I was working at a clothing store that put a lot of value on body image, so I wanted to fit in. I was going to clubs and bars and drinking 4 or 5 nights a week. I was rarely home, and if I was it was just to sleep before another night of partying. Again, I do not know what my mom thought I was doing. At this point I was noticing a change in my body, I knew I wasn’t eating, but Mary Kate Olsen was not eating either and it seemed like she was getting attention for it.

All I wanted was the attention from my mom. I wanted her to notice that I was in need of her, I wanted her to take care of me for a change rather than me taking care of her. She always said that we were roommates, for as long as I can remember she referred to us as that. It was funny at first, but then I think she really believed it. I remember being 8 years old and waking her up for school, I would make breakfast, and ever since I got my license I have driven every time we are in the car together. I was 5’7 and had gone from about 140 lbs to 91 pounds in about 4 months. My mom finally took me to a doctor for my weight loss.

They thought I had a thyroid problem, and I let them think that. Eventually, the doctors caught up and advised I start treatment for an eating disorder. I wanted to go away for treatment, I wanted to escape, but that wasn’t an option. They signed me up for a nutritionist, which to me was a joke. I also started seeing a therapist. I tried going to 3 different therapists when my grandparents died, but neither of them were the right fit for me — so I did not have high hopes about finding a therapist again. A little foreshadowing, but I would prove myself wrong on this point about therapy. I loved seeing my therapist, but I certainly was not an easy client. I did not talk sometimes, other times I would tell her anything she wanted to hear. I had started dating a new guy, but of course with a life like I was leading, we were rocky and when he broke up with me, I tried to kill myself and ended up in the hospital for 3 days. Now, I had recovered from my eating issue, I had gained back weight, but emotionally I was still fragile. I think that boyfriend and I probably got back together, a time or two, but I kept seeing my therapist. I started noticing changes.

The summer between high school and college I really began partying, but emotionally I seemed to be doing so much better. I had learned so much from my therapist. I realized that I had always been afraid to make my mom upset, and she made me realize that it is okay to say ‘no’ to someone, or it is okay if someone is upset with me. It is part of life. I credit my life to this therapist. If it was not for her, I think I would be a very troubled person right now, or dead. During my first semester of college she told me she thought I could stop seeing her, but that was not what I wanted. I liked going to her every week. I liked that she listened and helped me. But, she made me realize I have the tools to do this on my own, and if I need someone she will always be there. I became okay with the idea of stopping counseling every week.

Within about a week or 2 of discussing the fact that I was going to stop seeing her, I got news that would forever change my life. My dad, who I had never met, never talked to, always tried to find him on Google, had died. Worse than that, he had been homeless for about the past 10 years, he drank himself to death, he was only about an hour and a half away from where I lived, and I would never get to meet him. I always wondered what he was doing, if he remembered me, if he had a new family, what his job was – I never thought he would be homeless. The people who he was around said that he did love me and that he knew one day I would find him. It was comforting to know that he did not forget about me. But one thing that stuck out in my mind – he died from alcohol. The path I was on was ruining my life. I needed a change.

As you can guess, I continued to see my counselor for a few more months, but this was where I really got my act together. I decided I wanted to be a counselor and work with people who have substance abuse problems. My dad felt ashamed of who he was; everyone was shocked that a homeless man had a family who loved him and cared about him. I wanted to change that stigma.

I stopped drinking, my body was healthy again, and I was thriving in school. I ended up graduating with my BA in psychology, but thought I wanted to go into forensic psychology. Doctoral programs in Psych are so competitive, I wanted to get a master’s in criminology first and maybe just join the FBI or CIA. I began my M.A. program immediately after my undergrad and quickly realized my heart was in psychology. I finished my M.A.. in criminology and I am currently in a master’s program for Psych with plans to get a Ph.D. in Clinical Psych when I finish here. My mentor for my Crim M.A. changed my life, introduced me to so many opportunities and now I do research studying alcohol. I do not want to practice full time anymore – I want to teach at a university, mentor students, and be able to practice on the side. I do not believe that my dad is the reason I am doing alcohol research, but I do think it guided me to where I am at.

Overall, I had lots of bumps in the road. Well actually, just one really LONGGGGG bump, but I came out of it alive and successful. My relationship with my mom is better than ever now. I do not dwell on my past. What I went through may be a lot to some people, but to others it may be nothing. I feel that we are each faced with different obstacles, and we each can handle different things in life. What may be a big deal to one person may be a minor hiccup for another — who am I to judge another persons’ struggle? The stereotype around homeless people drives me nuts. No one looks at me and thinks, “Oh, her dad was homeless, so I hear all of their stories”. I understand that they are just naive to the situation, and I just listen. I sometimes tell them that part of my life and they often are in disbelief, but that is why I am all for the Affordable Health Care Act. My dad had lots of medical problems, he was hit by cars several times, but never could get adequate treatment because he obviously could not afford insurance.

I hope that people realize it is possible to come out of the hole they may feel like they are so deep in. Find one thing that motivates you, and use it daily to succeed.

Thank you for your story, Sarah. If anyone out there would like to share their stories, please contact me at jen [at] thepursuitofsassiness [dot] com.

The Case Files: Chris Brown & Rihanna

Does anyone like Chris Brown anymore? I wanted to like him, I really did. With his MJ moves and his catchy tunes, I really thought he and Rihanna were the best couple. Then that whole thing happened where he beat her up before the Grammys and I changed my tune. Then he threw a chair out of the window on Good Morning America. Then, I really felt bad for Chris Brown. I won’t excuse him for what he did or has done, but it’s obvious he’s got some emotional stuff going on.

Then there’s Rihanna. I’ve loved Rihanna forever. Funky style, fun music, and awesome tattoos. She’s got a lot of sass and doesn’t seem to really care about anyone’s approval. Whether it’s dying her hair red or smoking a joint on the beach of Barbados, girlfriend does what she wants for the most part.

These two people have compared their love to Romeo & Juliet. Rihanna has been quoted about her relationship saying, “The s–t is magical and it’s real”. Poetic? Maybe. But it’s clear the two are back together, between the tweets and photos on Instagram. On one hand, I want to ball up my tiny hands (it’s true, they’re very small) and shake my fists at the sky,  asking the gods of music, “Why?! Why do this?!” but it must be done. It makes sense, strictly from a clinical perspective.


Both Chris Brown and Rihanna grew up in some version of domestic hell. Rihanna’s father was addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine. Chris Brown’s step-father regularly beat his mother throughout his childhood. For these two people, their family-of-origin has strongly influenced their love lives. It’s no surprise they are so drawn to each other. Let’s review why:

  • Eighty-one percent of men who grew up in homes witnessing domestic violence turn to abusing their partner’s as adults. Violence teaches violence.
  • As violence against the woman becomes more severe and more frequent in a home, the children experience a 300% increase in physical abuse by the adult male abuser. Violence provokes violence.
  • For children of alcoholics, co-dependency is a common issue.
  • Issues of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem also accompany both issues.
  • The most important: Between Chris Brown’s background, Rihanna’s background, their careers, their age similarities, and shared interests, it’s likely Chris Brown and Rihanna feel that they could never be understood by anyone else as much as the other can understand them. These two fought through hell to get where they are today, meeting someone else who filled voids they had from childhood.

Think about it. Chris Brown’s background dictates that he should always protect a woman (his mother). Rihanna’s background dictates that she should find someone to protect her and fill the void left by having no male influence in her life. Both of these people have emotional wounds the other perfectly fills.

Unfortunately like many couples with these issues, their individual problems and past hurts bump up against each other. In traditional couples (or those who have worked on these issues) these problems are solved through counseling, deep discussion, and practice. Because Rihanna and (what seems to be mostly) Chris Brown have seemingly not resolved their childhood traumas, they fight. Rihanna stands up for herself because she’s scared and Chris Brown beats her when he’s too angry (flooded) to react any other way. He learned to beat women long before he knew it was right or wrong. Rihanna loves him outside of the knowledge that he hits her, most likely because the proportion of time he spent hitting her was infinitely smaller than all the other times he spent trying to love her.

“Because as angry as I was, as angry and hurt and betrayed, I just felt like he made that mistake because he needed help, and who’s going to help him? Nobody’s going to say he needs help. Everybody’s going to say he’s a monster without looking at the source, and I was more concerned about him.” — Rihanna, telling Oprah about how she felt in 2009 after the ordeal at the Grammys.

The Case File

So these two have reunited again and there’s even discussion about marriage. Let’s all remind ourselves of a few things:

  • Back in 2009 when the ‘incident’ happened, Chris Brown and Rihanna were 20 and 21 respectively. Think about the relationship you were in when you were that age. Probably not a good one, maybe a dysfunctional one. Depending on your background and your emotional wounds, maybe a really bad one. You were young.
  • Think about the ego that goes into being such influential pop stars. They don’t need no stinkin’ help. Well, at least that’s what I suspect to be the dominant thought process here.
  • Think about Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston. Yes, it’s sad. I think everyone saw the connection those two had, even if it was toxic.
  • Remember: Most of us are Rihanna’s distant fans, not her personal friends. We have no right to tell her what to do.

All in all, the right approach here is to be cautiously optimistic. Berating Rihanna for returning to Chris Brown won’t solve anything. At the end of the day, when she feels alone, scared, and misunderstood, she’ll turn the one person in her life that accepts her choice – Brown. To alienate her, to bully her, because of her choice isn’t just wrong, but it’s counterproductive to her ultimate well-being. With Chris Brown, there’s the possibility of change, but it’s not evident by his public persona and his statements about women. He’s trying to be famous in a music genre that does not champion the well-being of women. That’s going to be a difficult life of competing ideologies to lead.

If you want to read more, I’d recommend this article and all the other ones I referenced in my sources. Domestic violence is a huge issue in our society that is rarely dealt with in the media like this. I encourage you to educate yourself about the issues surrounding this problem. Vilifying either party will not help. This is a time for empathy.

Sources (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

The Case Files: Robert Downey, Jr.

Sigh. RDJ. I remember when I fell in love with Robert Downey, Jr. I was walking through my living room getting ready for the day. I used to put on VH1 in the early morning hours as a soundtrack to my routine. I was brushing my teeth and Elton John’s video for “I Want Love” just came on and there was RDJ looking at the camera with the sweetest, most forlorn expression. He had some scruff and big brown eyes and I just loved him in that moment.

I was just breaking into my adulthood and had completely missed the memo about RDJ being such a bad boy for the majority of my life. Just as well, because I happen to find reformed bad boys to be just as interesting.

So, Robert Downey, Jr. is like many of our other Case File alums who found their mental health journeys intertwined with that of their parents’. Much like Lindsay Lohan and Drew Barrymore, RDJ got his start in showbiz through his parents. Much like Lindsay and Drew, Downey, Jr. (man that is annoying to actually write out, darn comma) also started using drugs because of his father. At the age of six, Downey, Sr. introduced young Robbie (I’m calling him that) to marijuana.

Father of the Year, I tell you what.

Since that time, RDJ’s appetites were nourished by his father. He starred in his father’s movies and productions while also enjoying the taste of illegal drugs along with his father’s company and approval.

“When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.” — Robert Downey, Jr.

Onward and downward, RDJ’s career continued to grow in spite of his drug use and trouble with the law in connection with what had developed into a full-blown addiction by his early teens. Things really got going from 1996 to 2001, when RDJ was arrested several times related to his drug use and risky behavior, including an arrest for possession of cocaine, heroin, and an unloaded .357 Magnum handgun while speeding down Sunset Boulevard. It just sounds so Hollywood, doesn’t it?

Well, the sneaky hate spiral didn’t stop there. RDJ was already on three years of probation for the previously mentioned incident, had one of his most infamous moments when he stumbled into his neighbor’s house and fell asleep on their child’s bed. That had to be an awkward story to explain to a kid. [insert joke about how you’re only supposed to wake up to strange men in your bed as an adult after several alcoholic beverages]

“It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.” — Robert Downey, Jr.

There are a lot more little nuggets to this story, but it eventually leads up to four years of jail for RDJ. He was released after one year. He immediately joined the cast of Ally MacBeal playing Ally’s love interest. People naturally ate up everything he did and this stint was no exception. Unfortunately, RDJ was still in the throes of addiction and had not yet reached that point of ‘rock-bottom’ well-known in addictions treatment. The average number of relapses until full recovery and sobriety is about 8, which means RDJ was just hitting right down the middle in this case. He relapsed pretty hard (two arrests, one involving walking around aimlessly barefoot and high on cocaine in Culver City) and lost his spot on Ally MacBeal.

“It was my lowest point in terms of addictions. At that stage, I didn’t give a fuck whether I ever acted again.” — Robert Downey, Jr.

There’s been a fair amount of hubbub over RDJ’s mental state in regards to bipolar disorder. His mother was quoted by People magazine saying he had gotten a previous bipolar diagnosis and several celebudoctors of course weighed in on the issue at the time. Now that he is sober, he maintains he is not bipolar. While bipolar disorder is incredibly common among addicts because they use mood-altering substances to control bipolar mood swings, you cannot and should not diagnose anyone until they are sober.

Oh wait, spoiler alert. Robert Downey, Jr. got sober.

You know how I mentioned rock-bottom? Well it might take longer for celebrities, but everyone reaches rock-bottom. It’s an essential part of the recovery process. RDJ hit rock-bottom.

“When someone says, ‘I really wonder if maybe I should go to rehab?’ Well, uh, you’re a wreck, you just lost your job, and your wife left you. Uh, you might want to give it a shot.” –Robert Downey, Jr.

He was looking down a long road of jail time or a stint in rehab.

“I finally said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can continue doing this.’ And I reached out for help, and I ran with it. You can reach out for help in kind of a half-assed way and you’ll get it and you won’t take advantage of it. It’s not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems…what’s hard is to decide to actually do it.” — Robert Downey, Jr.

Guess what his first comeback job was?

His video for Elton John! Another reason why I think I’m a good therapist, I just read this stuff in people. I knew he was ready for my adoration.

So we know the rest of the story. RDJ fully recovered and has been sober since 2001. He’s completely revived his career, becoming Tony Stark/Iron Man (could anyone do it better, really?) and Sherlock Holmes. I just adore him.

The Case File

Surprise, surprise… family matters. The people who care for you and the genetics they give you play heavily into your mental well-being from the way you choose to behave from modeling their behavior to already having the genes predisposing you to becoming an addict. I don’t know much about RDJ’s family other than his notorious father, but I can imagine when you choose to walk the same career path as your parent, you idolize everything about them – not just their ability to perform. The role of fathers in modeling for their children is crucial. Your children become the best and worst parts of you, unless you are paying very close attention to the person who you are becoming.

Also, let’s talk about resilience. Yeah, yeah I know. I talk about it in like every other post. Can you imagine being six years old and being allowed to smoke marijuana, wait scratch that. Not only allowed, but encouraged? RDJ had about 20 years of serious addiction and hardcore maladaptive behaviors under his belt. It takes a very strong and very resourceful person to look inside themselves and say, “I’m ready to change“. Not only that, but he probably had so little self-awareness considering a lot of that time traditionally spent cultivating oneself was spent drowning out the self. He had to likely start from scratch to some extent. That’s courage. If RDJ can come back from that and live a fulfilling, successful, and downright sexy life, then I think the majority of us can get over most of the small first world problems that plague us. What a model for resilience!

Downey attributes his sobriety to his family, therapy, meditation, yoga, and Wing Chun Kung Fu. Proof that staying busy (with things that enrich the person) is an excellent way to stay away from the bad stuff and focus on what is truly worthwhile. Like, more Iron Man movies, perhaps? Yes.