The invisible woman
Judy Stall came to Bloomington a year and a half ago, brought to her knees by an addiction to alcohol. Each day she works her program, unnoticed by most.
By Matthew Glowicki
It was humbling, cleaning other people’s messes. She pushed her cart down the halls of the Bloomington Courtyard Marriott, running through her mental checklist. In every room, she made the beds, changed the towels and checked to make sure the Bible was still in the dresser drawer.
In her old life, before the state took away her nursing license, Judy Stall had been entrusted with the care of veterans and post-surgical patients. Now she scrubbed toilets.
At 57, she was starting from nothing. Years of drinking had robbed her of herself. Home, nursing career, husband, two sons – all lost to the disease. With no friends, no family and few possessions to her name, she was working back toward some kind of life.
This is the way it has to be, she told herself.
At least for now.
Sometimes, when she cleaned up after guests who had left behind empty bottles of wine or liquor, the clinking of the bottles in her cart would taunt her. Other days, she would walk into a room and find unopened bottles of beer. Heineken had always been her weakness, and in these moments, she would debate whether she should take the unopened bottles.
They’re too good to waste, she thought. I could just stick them in my sack and find someone to give them to.
That was when Stall would close her eyes and pray. If she could steady herself and resist the temptation for 15 minutes, the urges would pass.
With her checklist, she found order. Room by room, she was making things right.
* * *
The addictions of the moment – heroin, methamphetamine and prescription painkillers – currently hold the nation’s attention. Yet alcohol remains the most abused drug in the United States. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 17 million Americans suffer from alcoholism or exhibit harmful drinking habits.
In many ways, Judy Stall’s story is familiar. But in Bloomington, a college town that celebrates youth and excess drinking, she is almost invisible.
Stall came to Bloomington in July 2012 after spending nine months behind bars at the Hancock County Jail. She had already lost her family and had been convicted several times of DUI.
Her recovery began inside a muted yellow house that sits just off the B-Line trail downtown. The Amethyst Women’s House, a not-for-profit halfway house, helps women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.
Amethyst House Executive Director Mark DeLong said Bloomington is atypical compared to other Indiana towns in its number of social support resources. From substance abuse to housing to employment services, Bloomington is a Mecca for those in need of a hand up.
Stall had her pick of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to attend. There are about 50 AA/Narcotics Anonymous meetings each week in Bloomington.
“You need to start from day one thinking what your life’s going to look like,” DeLong said. “Where are you going to live? How are you going to reconnect with your children? There’s so much on the table to figure out.”
When Stall arrived, she joined more than a dozen other women trying, like her, to reclaim their lives. The Amethyst program keeps the women in the home for at least six months, but many stay longer, some up to two years.
For Stall, structure was key. Chores and curfews. Her job at the Marriott, her evenings in AA meetings and intensive outpatient therapy sessions. No deviations. She knew her program. She knew her triggers. She understood the fragility of her recovery.
Each day was a test.
Her nursing license remained folded in her wallet – worthless until she could get off probation. Before her jail term, she had cared for patients for more than 20 years, employed at a number of hospitals. She also traveled across the state as an agency nurse, a freelancer moving from hospital to hospital and working with pediatrics to geriatrics. The job paid well, but the money supported her addiction. Her responsibility for her patients fed a God-like sense of power.
“Kryptonite couldn’t bring me down,” she said.
Before the addiction took over, Stall says, she had two grown sons from her first marriage, both IU graduates, and a loving new husband. They lived in Zionsville, Ind. She had struggled with alcohol for years, particularly after the death of her father, but felt like she was in control when she remarried in 1999.
She told herself she could handle it, but soon she was bingeing. The marriage lasted until 2006, when her second husband could take no more and left.
The divorce kicked off a six-year spiral into oblivion.
“I tried to kill myself,” she says, stretching out her arms to show the thin white slashes that covered her wrists. When that didn’t work, she tried overdosing. Twice. “I hated myself.”
She hoped for death. There were days that slipped away, lost to a booze-soaked sleep. Sometimes when she awoke, she was sad to still be breathing. She had racked up multiple DUIs and lost her driver’s license.
Almost nine months in the Hancock County Jail broke her down to her most basic needs. She can still remember the chill of the mattress and the threadbare sheets. The wailing of other inmates filled her ears as she attempted to sleep each night.
When Stall was released, not a single family member was waiting to welcome her back. Her adult sons, Tom and Mike, were embarrassed and hurt and fed up with her. They had largely cut off contact.
She last heard from her younger son, Mike, in an email laced with foul language. She kept a print-out and would sometimes read it to remind her of the pain she had caused her children.
Even now, when she walks through town, she sometimes makes eye contact with college students and sees younger versions of her sons looking back.
“The memories start flooding and I’ll start to cry,” she said.
She can’t afford to linger on these feelings. She doesn’t know when she’ll see her boys again.
But if she doesn’t stay sober, they’ll never allow her near them.
* * *
Stall’s six-month anniversary in Amethyst was Feb. 7, 2013. Though she graduated from the program that day, she wasn’t ready to leave. She re-upped for three more months.
“I want to get grounded before I make that move because I don’t trust myself,” Stall said. “I’m a little nervous about being alone.”
Support was plentiful, but true understanding was harder to find in the house, which was populated mostly by younger women whose perspectives on recovery were different. Stall’s one good friend in the program was 52-year-old Janeta Kimball.
Kimball noticed how much Stall had changed from the broken woman who had arrived six months before.
“She was weary in her spirit. She was weary physically,” Kimball said. “Now because she can see the personal achievements she’s made, there’s a brightness to her. There’s a lightness in her spirit.”
That February, Stall talked about how much she wanted to return to nursing. Her plan was to eventually ask the state board to reinstate her license.
In three months, she said, she would see whether she felt strong enough to leave Amethyst. Maybe she would get a dog and settle into an apartment.
“I don’t belong any place else,” she said.
All of her plans depended on her avoiding a relapse.
“That’s always a possibility, because I’m an alcoholic,” she said. “I’d love to sit here and say to you I’ll never do that again. I can’t say that.”
Someday, she said, her boys would see the change in her. Maybe they would forgive her. She fantasized about picking them up, going for lunch, whatever they wanted to do. She would ask them about their lives. The day would end with them telling her they loved her.
“That would be my perfect day,” she said. “And then I could die.”
* * *
One day that winter, a family emergency briefly brought Stall and her older son together.
Stall’s brother went into the hospital with severe pneumonia, and she feared the worst. She was at the hospital ready to tell him goodbye when her son, Tom, walked in the door. She glanced over her shoulder and saw him, standing just feet away. Almost a year and a half of silence separated mother and son. It filled the room.
Her brother had told her Tom would come. But now he was here. Her boy was before her.
“I was just drinking him in,” she recalls. “I kept staring at him.”
Her stare broke when their eyes met, and she realized he was uncomfortable. He was icy and reserved. But she saw it as a start.
Stall offered to take Tom back to see his ailing uncle. He accepted.
“How’s it going?” she remembers asking.
Tom turned the question back to her. “How are you doing?” he said. “Are you being good?”
“It’s coming up on a year I’ve been sober.”
“Are you taking your medications and everything?”
“Like a big girl.”
They reached the door of the uncle’s room.
“Can I have a hug?” she asked.
Begrudgingly, he allowed it. His body was tight, tense. She knew to not linger.
Before entering the room, visitors were required to put on medical gowns. Tom pulled the sleeves up his arms, grabbed the string straps and attempted to tie them behind his neck. Stall motioned to help him tie.
“I can do it,” he said.
Flashes of a determined toddler trying to tie his shoe filled Stall’s eyes. “Me do it, me do it” echoed in her head. She fought back the lump in her throat.
Tom continued to fumble with the straps.
“Here, I can help you,” she said, then waited.
“Go ahead,” Tom said.
She slowly tied the knot. This is my son, she thought, looking at the back of his head. My son.
* * *
Tom’s 38th birthday was two months later, early that March.
Stall decided to risk a call. At that point, she says, her sons still avoided her. Tom wouldn’t tell her where he lived or share his cell number. But he had given the number to his grandmother.
Stall dialed it, and Tom answered.
“It’s mom,” she said. “I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday.”
“How’d you get my number?”
“My mother gave it to me.”
* * *
Spring 2013 passed in a flurry of AA meetings and therapy sessions.
Stall got a promotion at the Marriott to a better-paying job as a server in the hotel’s breakfast area. She took a part-time job at the Dollar Tree, working the register. That May, she finally felt ready to leave Amethyst.
She moved into an apartment at Woodland Springs, a no-frills housing complex on Bloomington’s southwest side. She placed a figurine of the Virgin Mary on the sill of her living room window. She still wore the rosary around her neck.
More months went by, and she settled into a new routine. Around Thanksgiving, she took a third job, this one at Hobby Lobby. She wanted to keep busy. She was eager to repay a cousin and brother who had funded an inpatient recovery program years ago, before she served her nine months in Hancock County.
She did not work on Sundays, preferring to reserve that day for reflection. She would wake and attend an AA meeting, then head to St. Charles Catholic Church for mass and confession.
As she approaches her 60th birthday this September, she is yet again recalibrating. She no longer aspires to reenter the nursing field that would frown upon her record. Earning back her driver’s license is a new goal, though insurance costs with her background would be hard to swallow, she said.
She adopted a little black dog, a 9-year-old Papillon, from the pound. She named her Bella.
Stall debated replacing the tiles in her kitchen and fixing the showerhead in the bathroom. She wanted the place to feel like home – her home, her way. Order.
* * *
Today, she passes Amethyst every weekday morning on her way to work at the Marriott.
Every time, she says a prayer. Of gratitude for what the house did for her. Of strength for the women still inside.
She prays, too, for the women who succumbed to their drinking.
“I could have been one of those numbers,” Stall says. “You’re forgotten and your disease says, â€˜Yes, I got another one.'”
She hasn’t seen her son Mike in two years and hasn’t seen Tom since that day at the hospital. She understands why.
“I realize that I hurt those boys, and this probably serves me right,” she says one evening this month, sitting on her sofa. “But still …”
” … it’s still hard to take.”
Crying, she takes another moment to collect herself.
“I’ve caused them nothing but grief and they don’t want someone like me in their life. And that’s OK. That’s OK.”
She is coming to understand that she might never talk with them again. If she does get the chance to be near them, she’ll know not to push. She would like to see them, even from a distance. If she can look at them, she says, she’ll at least be able to tell if they’re happy.
“That’s all I need to know.”
Tom’s 39th birthday is this Monday, March 3. She knows not to call him again. She plans to contact him through their father. Her ex-husband will allow her to email a message that he’ll pass on to Tom.
She’s not sure what she’ll write. She’ll likely keep it simple. Maybe just “Happy birthday, Mom.” She doesn’t know if she should risk closing with the word “love.”
On Monday, she’ll decide. She’ll hit send. Then wait.
This story was reported intermittently since September 2012.