I still remember the first time I got drunk. I was 6 years old. My mom was having a party, and she’d set the table with a cut-glass punchbowl and cups that matched. It was sparkly and shiny and filled with icy yellow punch. Somebody gave me a cupful, probably just to get rid of me, and perhaps not realizing the punch was spiked.
I liked it. I liked it so much I wanted more, so I climbed up on a chair and dipped my cup into the bowl. Pretty soon, the room started spinning. All I remember after that was being put to bed.
It was also about that time I discovered I loved making things. All during my childhood, I drew pictures, I made birthday and Christmas cards, I sewed most of my Barbie’s clothes. Later, I made my own clothing. Maybe I got my love for art from my dad; though I never really knew him, I heard he was a pretty creative guy. But no matter what else was going on in my life, art always took me into my very own little protective bubble.
By the time I got to high school, alcohol replaced art as my escape from my turbulent family life. All that partying had an effect on my grades—and my college options. In the end, my mom sent me to nursing school so I could “always get a job.” It wasn’t my idea of a calling, but no one seemed concerned about what Mary wanted to do.
So I became a nurse, worked a few years in an ICU and then found work in what I felt would be a less stressful environment: Alabama’s first legal outpatient abortion clinic. OK, I was naive.
But I did know something though about the importance of a woman’s right to choose. I’d faced this issue in high school when my best friend got pregnant during our junior year. It was 1970; abortion was illegal and not an option for her. She was ‘forced’ to marry the father; she endured ridicule and shunning; and turned into a psychological basket case.
Even worse, her baby died shortly after birth. The young parents split, leaving my friend, at age 18, divorced, uneducated and dealing with the death of a child. She never really recovered and went on to lead a very sad life.
So when I heard the news of a legal abortion clinic opening near my home in Birmingham, Alabama, I was on board. I wanted to do my part to make sure no woman ever had to go through my friend’s trauma. I also wanted to ensure that abortions were provided in a safe, clean and comfortable environment.
But my new job turned out to be 10 times more stressful than the ICU I’d left behind. Our patients came to us in emotional turmoil; anti-abortion picketers tried to block our way into the building; and it was an ongoing challenge finding competent physicians and staff. We even had to deal with bomb threats.
What an introduction to feminism and politics! I became an activist, working with nearly every organization involved in the fight to protect women’s rights. I learned the ropes, drove hard, fought with a vengeance, and never backed down.
Talk about a stressful lifestyle! Alcohol and drugs remained my stress relievers of choice, and I used them liberally. Because I was young and resilient, I never thought about the toll they would take. But eventually, after one failed marriage, with a second marriage unraveling and my career eating me alive, I hit the wall.
I knew I had to make a change. So I did, but not in a good way. Instead, I did it the alcoholic way: taking big, bold action with no forethought whatsoever. My exit plan from marriage No. 2 went like this: I applied and was admitted to medical school. I stockpiled stuff I would need for my own apartment. And then, I made a run for it.
My first two semesters of med school were great. I managed to study hard, make good grades, and not drink. But then the divorce got ugly and caused so much distraction and aggravation that I lost all focus on my studies and failed a key course.
Anyone who tries to gut out tough times and simply not drink—and makes it—kudos to you. I wasn’t able to take that path. Faced with so much upheaval at once, I had no idea how to deal with my feelings. I’d been masking them with alcohol since my teens. So I made bad decisions.
I dropped out of med school and resumed my drinking career. I’d become so good at covering up my alcoholism that I continued to succeed at work and even started a business with colleagues.
In 1990, I married my third (and last) husband. Shortly after, it became clear to me that this marriage could not survive my drinking either, and that I actually cared enough for this guy to try to figure it out.
I went on a bender, which led to a fight. I probably blacked out somewhere along the way because by then I was blacking out on a regular basis. I’m not sure what exactly happened after that, but I do remember throwing all my husband’s clothes off the balcony of our 11th floor apartment. The next morning, as soon as I came to, I checked myself into a rehab facility.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into it. If I had, I might not have gone at all. Twenty-eight days later, I was discharged with instructions to find an AA sponsor, attend an AA meeting every day for the next year, and give up all my drinking buddies.
It was a sudden and shocking change in lifestyle, and I had to find a way to deal with it. All my life I’d found escape from stress and turmoil through either art or alcohol. All that was left now was art.
The drawing came back to me gradually during that 28-day treatment lock-up. I was completely shocked to find myself, Mary Farmer, on a locked ward suffering from alcohol and cigarette withdrawal. At first, I started doodling on napkins, handouts, in notebooks. And then I discovered they had an art room. Did I ever draw! I drew my pain, my previous escapades, my thoughts on the drinking life.
After rehab, I decided to paint, too. I took classes at various art centers and discovered I was pretty good and improving with each attempt. I allowed myself to paint all the crap and nastiness that had been my life. I did angry work. I did political work. I made a lot of very ugly pictures.
The whole process was amazingly cathartic. It felt so freeing to go ahead and paint all that stuff, to get it out of my head and clear the decks, to realize I’d done it. I’d changed my life. I’d saved my marriage.
But now, I had to develop my new, sober voice. And that was terrifying. I’d never, ever let anyone see my real self. I’d never let anyone know I’d been wounded. I was too afraid to let anyone know that I was less than supremely confident and capable.
But the truth was I’d never in my life felt truly safe. I didn’t even know what safe felt like. Once I’d tried hypnosis to stop smoking. It wasn’t at all successful, but it was an eye-opener. I was supposed to think of a great place, a good place, a calm place . . . and nothing came into my mind.
I tried thinking of the beach, but I was usually drunk there. I thought of hotels and pools, but nope, that reminded me of stupid fights and outlandish behaviors. I just couldn’t conjure up a calm place. I had masked my feelings and fears for so long I didn’t even realize I didn’t feel safe.
But when I returned to the art I’d enjoyed as a child, I began to create my own safe spaces. Once I’d painted out all the pain, what began to appear on my canvas were scenes of comfort, shelter and beauty.
To think that once I couldn’t even imagine a safe space, and now I create them every time I paint! It’s amazing. And even better, people who collect my work tell me they experience those same feelings of peace, well-being, and contentment when they look at my paintings. This is what art is to me—liberation from the stress of the world, a haven where we can experience all that life is meant to be.
Mary Farmer | 108 Silverood Ln, Asheville, NC 28803, United States