Tragedy, Recovery, and a Breadfruit Tree

Written by Debbie H.., Tallahassee, Fl.

My childhood began in paradise. My home in Hawaii, where I was raised in the sixties, seems now to be a perfect setting for a child. We lived on Diamond Head, we had a pool in the front yard, and the soothing waves of the Pacific were right across the street. My surroundings were a mixture of perfection, beauty and opportunities for adventure. It was here I experienced tragedy, recovery and a Breadfruit Tree.

As for my family, my father was an Air Force Officer and Navigator which means he was respected and confident, and also had to be away from home for significant periods of time. My mother was energetic and active with community programs, and I remember her dedicated love for me and my two sisters. My parents had a good marriage, and we were a happy family. I was the youngest of three daughters.

As the youngest I had a life of little responsibility and lots of play; perhaps I filled the traditional family role of “mascot”, as the fun and impish one. Looking back, it seems our family was healthy, with a balance of compassion and discipline. Life was good and I felt loved and safe.

My God was with me everywhere I went. I don’t think I found his presence in church, or in the Bible, He was there for me wherever I was. It seems that as I learned about the world and my role in it from my earliest memories, He was a consistent presence in every aspect.

God was like an imaginary best friend that I carried around in my pocket.

I remember sharing with Him the back and forth, the ups and downs of my day. It was like a running dialogue where I was asking for and listening to His advice, with the comfort of knowing I was not alone. God was my ever present “invisible best friend,” my (IBF).

The most vivid memory of that time has become a symbolic representation of my story. All of this took place in a tree: memories of my life, the tragedies, defeats, and victories that are my journey of recovery. Back then, we had a huge two-story breadfruit tree in our yard. These beautiful trees are native to Hawaii. They grow tall and provide delicious fruit. It was my special adventure tree, in my personal playground.

We had a ritual of regularly climbing our tree, my IBF and me. It was a challenging and exhilarating climb. On a windy day (which was common so near the ocean,) the trunk and branches and limbs–the whole tree–would sway and move with the wind. It was an exciting sensation, being a part of this rhythmic motion and experiencing the risk involved.A close up of some green leaves on a tree

Holding on firmly was critical. Exact placement of my feet was necessary on every foothold, because it was a long way down if I fell. Some of the branches were damaged or decomposing and ready to break off. In some places, I would have to struggle for a safe purchase. And a misstep could bring me crashing down. Even with these dangers, I remember no fear when climbing this challenging route to the top. After all, my IBF was with me. Much like the sturdy trunk I would cling to when it was swaying and windy up high in the tree, my IBF was solid and strong and safe.

Oh, the feeling of finally reaching the top of the tree was exhilarating! Gazing over my world with appreciation and awe of my life, I remember feeling so connected with the peace and beauty my life had to offer. I would sway there in a breeze that spoke of contentment and beauty. With great clarity I recall a specific moment when I shared with IBF, that my life was the best of the best. From a place of supreme happiness, I said to Him out loud “Please never let me forget 1972, I am nine and I love my life and I love You. The only thing I worry about are worn-out bathing suit bottoms, Thank you for loving me so well.”

Then, it happened, the ugly parts of life showed up.

My father was called to duty to fly in the Linebacker 2 mass bombing campaign of the Vietnam War. That nonstop news coverage and commentary was a river of horrific footage, and watching it terrified me. It was all over the television and on all the time. Unfortunately, the fear and tension I felt (perhaps we all felt) was not discussed in my home. There was no one to help me process this deep fear that reached to the depths of my soul. Why was I so alone and afraid? I could not understand.

And if that were not enough, I experienced sexual molestation. Down on that beautiful safe beach that had brought me so much serenity and joy, a strange man, dark and evil, robbed me of my innocence. In my memory, both of these traumas happened at once. My safe and happy world came crashing down in a moment. People were no longer to be trusted. Though I did not cause this, and in spite of all rational reason, I became filled with a feeling of shame.

someone falling out of treeWhere was my IBF? How come I wasn’t protected or warned? I must be bad! As if the tree had snapped off at the top and I was screaming and tumbling, to the ground, I was alone, confused and in terror. More than my young and innocent spirit could handle at the age of nine.

Picture this story I created for myself: from my safe, secure and protected place in the breadfruit tree, sudden traumatic blows sent me tumbling down, and IBF was nowhere to be found. What I can understand now (that I could not see then) is during the fall, I was grabbing for limbs, for branches, for anything to help me. I was struggling for survival. Some of these limbs would slow me down and some would give me hope. Sadly, other seemingly solid branches disintegrated in my hands, and therefore damaged my faith. Let’s see if we can step back, after the dust has settled, and do some accident reconstruction:

The largest limb that I clung to in an attempt to arrest my fall was alcohol. It was a dead and hollow limb. Imagine a green and lush moss that covered that seemingly sturdy handhold. Alcohol was deceptive lie. It was a trap, although it would take some time for the deception to reveal itself. Ultimately, it would break without warning, and when it broke, it would break me. I had no clue and I never saw it coming. Perhaps that is true of many bad choices, and/or addictions many of us subscribe to: it was very alluring and altogether hollow.

Still falling out of this tree of life, I frantically tryed to grab something to slow me down. The next thing I reached out for in an attempt to arrest my fall was my husband.

Then there was the time when I walked down the aisle on my day of marriage, creating a place for my spouse to become my new IBF. I looked to him to guide and counsel me to a place of safety as I put all my weight and trust on him. I expected another human to fulfill something he could not do. That choice was doomed to failure.

Alas, the winds of life blew again and that handhold gave way. When that happened, my heart was broken again, I experienced a deep wound to my self-worth, and my basic need to be loved and protected was violated. Selfishness, lies, and infidelity in my relationship with my husband reaffirmed that nobody could be trusted. I was all alone again. Where was my IBF? I am still falling and afraid!

The next branch I would grab was self-will. As I reached out, depending on no one to save me, I became my own IBF with alcohol my new truth. Self-will (run riot), fear, ego, and alcohol would now be my chosen controllers for safe living. Convinced of this, I climbed out further on the moss covered, hollow branch of alcohol, seeking life.A group of people holding wine glasses in their hands.

What’s ironic about the analogy is that I hid pretty well out on that branch. But that’s all I was doing: hiding from others and running from pain. Oddly I can’t recall clearly the pain or fear from that time. It must have been the anesthesia.

My new IBF of vodka was hidden in the shadows in my closet and stashed in my car, away from people, and it felt comfortable, safe. It seems that the dark felt safer than the light. The alcohol masked my fear with feelings of courage and confidence. It quieted my inhibitions with a feeling of brassy boldness. I was living the lie and hiding from everyone in my life.

This was the profile of that fall. Perhaps this accident reconstruction makes sense, as a scrambling fearful grasping falling process that took many years to finally hit the ground beneath that tree. In recovery we call that the bottom.

When the dust settled and the shock wore off, thankfully I had landed in a safe place, and I was sober. But my heart was still reeling over the broken relationships and shame. I was feeling boatloads of self-loathing. The landscape at the bottom of that fall included two DUIs, probable jail time, multiple legal problems, and a probable divorce.

Bruised, broken, and defeated, I was in denial of my fear, yet, at the same time, still very afraid. I realize now I was precisely where I needed to be: on the ground, in pain, which brought some clarity. Alcohol had become my God and I was powerless to it. Alcohol was my faithful confidant that dictated my every move. It was a terrible IBF that made my life a chaotic mess.

Back to the accident reconstruction of the final impact: It seems that I had landed so hard, the breath of my inner being was knocked out. Devoid of any energy to fight, I crawled over to the base of that tree. That tree was still the tree of life: the program of AA. In complete submission, I breathed in the oxygen of God, my IBF, who had been in and around me all the time. Between breaths I cried out “God! I need help, I am an alcoholic and my self-efforts have forsaken me!” Sometimes it seems all I could do was breathe in and out. From this vital and necessary place of reckoning, I would begin an authentic transformation of my life, heart and soul. This process (which is not over) has brought the sunlight back…a necessary nutrient for new sprouts of life to grow in my journey of recovery.

Somehow, I was able to get the next thing right. Not picking up a drink was my sole priority. I listened to those that had come before me while praying for discernment of what God would have me do. Perhaps He was emerging again as my real IBF. Maybe I was hearing truth, finally. There were many times I reached for the wrong influence or wanted to succumb to a quick pain-numbing relief, but I would read the chapter of acceptance, or educate myself on the physical aspects of my disease, and it would pass. Yes, it was a disease, rotting my heart and soul and eroding supportive relationships available to me. In those early days of my recovery, even though I was staying sober, I still hated myself and I was angry with God. Slowly, that began to change.

Along this journey back to health, many wonderful people appeared. In these people, in this program, I discovered great pockets of love and collective wisdom about how to beat this disease. They are known as meetings. In those rooms, I learned to listen, and accept advice. One suggestion I followed was to write down positive affirmations. A board with some yellow post it notes on top of itAnything that I thought was, even remotely, a good and healthy character trait of mine, I wrote them down and placed them everywhere: mirrors, counters, inside books, the screen of the computer, everywhere. These would be a constant reminder of the hope I desperately needed.

These stickies are still around, these words of love from myself to me. Imagine that! I am learning to love myself! But at the end of the day, I know they are affirmations from my Higher Power–My God. IBF texts? Who knows? But they still keep me moving forward, guiding me out of the darkness and back into the light.

A little later, I came to address another character defect: Fear of Making a Mistake.

We all may have some of that, but mine is paralyzing. The paralysis is the curse, it does not go well. A wise friend suggested to write these ten times every day: “I am doing the best I can, my best is good enough” and “I am good enough.” As I wrote it, I began to believe it. Bit by bit, this healthy habit provided me more courage and self-worth, and a valuable understanding that moving forward is a necessity, and to not move forward is to fall back and lose my grip again. Clearly, I had to keep moving forward.

I began journaling to God in the morning asking for forgiveness, direction, desire to live, and relief from the dark emptiness inside. In the evenings, I would write to myself what I thought my IBF might say to me. I would journal what I needed to hear of His love. Filling my lungs with the breath of those words (these affirmations of Him loving me, into loving myself) provided comfort, strength, and hope. With that came stronger holds on the solid trustworthy limbs of a sponsor, the Big Book, and the fellowship of flourishing sober people. I was relearning the importance of breathing in the grace so freely available. You see, I was finding trustworthy and reliable branches for me to hold on to. I was standing, even climbing again.


What a gift of the program: the power of suggestion from people who are loving me until I can love myself! Another suggestion I adopted was a healthy diet. Renewing my body was important, not only to begin to climb, but ultimately to see the view, from each stage, in this new turn of the journey. Now I am ascending in recovery, instead of falling. I am convinced this takes a healthy body as well as mind soul and spirit. In my youth, I did not have to pay attention to my health a lot. Nor did I take the time to see the beauty of all the sights and experiences on the way. I am careful to not miss them now. And so, in time and repetition, a river of gratitude began to flow from my notes to God.

My admission that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become painfully unmanageable was a place I had to be. Powerlessness helped me reach out for help from others. I learned to be open-minded, to trust in my God, my real and true IBF, is immeasurably full of unconditional love, acceptance and guidance for me. A new life is emerging and the view is exhilarating, again

The fruit of the program and relationship with my IBF is so real! Speaking of fruit, back on Diamond Head, the natives and neighbors would often gather around with interested hunger when the breadfruit tree was ripe with fruit, which is savory and delicious. Back then, my family gave it away for all who wanted it. And today in the program, my recovery family still provides the fruit of happiness, usefulness, purpose, comfort, and serenity. Just as we gave it away freely back then in Diamond Head, those in the program give it away today. The fruit of His Love is free. He often uses words like “bread of life” and “fruit of the spirit“. It seems so clear now that we only need ask for it. Just like hungry people at the base of a tree. Just like me.

I am still on the beautiful climb of recovery, and I know it will last for the rest of my life. There is a joy and serenity available to me if I choose to do the work. I have learned to improve my stability by sticking with what has proven faithful.

My heart is convinced that I have no control over alcohol, which is a story in itself.
Further, I am learning how I can’t control the people and the circumstances around me,
which is far more confusing that picking up a drink or not.

I am trusting in the program and the steps and just doing the next right thing. I am climbing. These are the safe holds of my climb up the tree of life today. My IBF is guiding me, and giving me confidence.

Perhaps my world looks like more clarity and less fear, but I just keep doing what is working (it works if you work it) and continue to climb. I have a closer connection with my purpose in life – more good fruit. It tastes like “I am ok,” that I matter in this world. I am changing. I like the taste of the change. It tastes like I love me. Climb on up: the view is spectacular!

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