Mr. Jose Cuervo is standing out there with his pretty bottle, smiling.
But Margie Bustamonte blocked that out Friday as she walked out of Turning Point Home, her refuge for the past 11 months in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood. In front of her is a sun-bright city with leafy trees and happy families. She wants that to be hers as she rejoins her family and hopes to restore life as it used to be.
But then fear shadows the sunlight as she looks inward, into the window of her past. She sees the besotted life she’s trying to escape.
Margie, today, is a person of great achievement who has earned our respect. She’s not had a drink for 12 months. Don’t laugh. Until one year ago, this woman was as bound to the bottle as any slaver’s chains could secure. She couldn’t not drink, though it almost killed her.
Alcohol addiction is probably as tough to escape as heroin or crystal meth, because booze is here, there and everywhere: at parties, at weddings, in the grocery store and in a kitchen cabinet. If you have the taste, it’s the nectar of the gods. Hospitable people offer it in a sweating, cold glass. It’s chic and advertised by beautiful people. There’s no fair in that fight.
Margie was raised in La Vida Village between Encanto and Spring Valley. Even in that tough neighborhood, she grew a perpetual happy-smile. She has a husband of 30 years who has been a rock, especially in her troubled last decade. Before that, she had 20 years as a normal wife, mother and neighbor in their Otay Mesa home.
She will be 51 next week, but her prized re-birthday has become Aug. 27. That was the day she decided to live, and live cleanly and proudly. But the story doesn’t start there.
Margie’s drinking crept up like a stalking house cat. It escalated over a 10-year period dating from when she underwent gastric bypass surgery. The doctors at the time cautioned her about the danger of substituting another addiction for food, and, true to the warning, it happened.
Additionally, her drastic weight loss created tension in her marriage; again, no surprise. That is not uncommon, we’re told. As her 300 pounds melted away, she became a different-looking Margie, and it threw her husband off. Though that tension subsided, it heaped another hot coal of uncertainty on her.
Despite increased drinking, Margie kept a job at Home Depot from 2002 to 2006, rising to plumbing department manager in her store. She loved plumbing and prided herself on being good at it. In 2006, she followed her boss to Lowe’s and continued there until August 2012. The bottle also made the trip.
Her drinking increased radically to where she would imbibe at any opportunity off the job. Tequila was her great weakness, and she indulged it copiously. Somehow, she kept a reasonably level head and did her job, and thought no one knew.
On lunch break, she would drive her car through a nearby self-help carwash so she could drink unobserved, gulping as the brushes washed her car, still clean from the day before. If she went more than three hours without a drink, she would become violently sick. Her 15-minute breaks were for drinking in the parking lot, not resting.
Margie says in all those years she was never written up for performance or behavior problems. She is a proud worker and says she never drank on the job, per se, though she draws the distinction finely.
On Christmas Eve 2010, she became gravely ill at a family gathering and was taken to the hospital, where she learned she had cirrhosis of the liver and was given blood transfusions. Later, she would undergo liver dialysis.
“Once you get cirrhosis, it never gets better. As long as I don’t drink, it doesn’t get worse, but the scarring is already there,” she says.
Margie knows there’s a likelihood she’ll need a liver transplant eventually, and if she drinks again she would not be given one. Alcoholics are taken off the waiting list.
Following the Christmas crisis, she went through detox and a rehab stint, but it didn’t take.
Family members, for the umpteenth time, implored her to quit drinking. Her husband would hide her booze, but she could always find it or hunt up another source. For every plea she had an answer: “I can’t.” Even though death was a silhouette looming ever larger: “I can’t.”
Slow suicide gaining speed.
In early August 2012, she collapsed twice in the Lowe’s parking lot and was rushed to the hospital. In both cases, she soon was back on the job as a plumbing specialist. However, on Aug. 25, she again collapsed in the parking lot after work. A kind assistant manager came to her aid and sat with her until her mother arrived to pick her up. He told her she needed help.
That same evening, she slashed her wrists. She was taken to Sharp Coronado Hospital, where she was treated and then placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. It was in the hospital under a suicide watch that she made the commitment to stop drinking. She then spent a week in detox at Sharp Mesa Vista, then 28 days in Sharp McDonald Center, a rehab facility.
To become “dry,” she had to endure withdrawal pain that included days of delirium tremens and its accompanying violent shaking and vomiting. The physical need to drink went away after about two weeks, but the psychological compulsion remained. It may always be there.
Holding to her sobriety promise, Margie decided to enter Turning Point Home.
Turning Point is in a large 1920s, foursquare-style home that houses up to 20 women seeking release from alcohol. It’s a sisterhood of the tempted.
Margie was thrown into a demanding, but supportive, environment. For the first two weeks, she couldn’t communicate with her family. For a month, she couldn’t leave the premises. Gradually, however, she worked her way through counseling, group encounters and rehab steps. For the past few months, she has worked at her family’s hardware store and been able to visit home for limited periods.
She has come to think of Turning Point as her second home. “I love this place, and I love my sisters here. This place has saved my life.”
Stephanie Sobka, program director at Turning Point Home, says: “Margie is a kind, genuine person who’s done what she needed to do. Now, she faces a lifetime of challenges in learning to live sober. But she has the coping skills and knows she can turn to the friends she’s made here.”
Saturday was Margie’s first day back home with her husband and two grown sons. And that poses its own problems, because the family has learned to function without her. The kitchen, especially, has potential for conflict. Her husband became the cook, and now enjoys it. Her new role will have to be argued over, negotiated and finally compromised. But people who care can work that out.
No matter how accepting her sons and husband are, it’s the home that is her most dangerous trap. In the past, family efforts to hide liquor were to no avail. She recently purchased one son a lock to secure his own liquor in his room.
“My problem is if I am home alone too long, that’s when I isolate,” she says.
Of Margie’s three children, her 29-year-old daughter living in Germany is the one most resentful of her alcoholism. She has been cold to her mother’s appeals. “I hope I can reach my daughter and let her know things are different. I fought through this for her.”
She wants to return to Lowe’s where she has spent a year on disability, but the company doesn’t seem enthusiastic. Alternatively, she has applied at Home Depot. In the meantime, she’ll work at her parents’ hardware store.
She still has occasional yearnings for alcohol. “There are times I do. Tequila, I don’t want to be around it. It always tastes good. That would be the one to take me down, if I let it.”
How would you feel if I put a cold glass of orange juice and vodka in front of you right now?
“I don’t think I’d feel anything right now. I don’t have an obsession for it. If we talk about Jell-O shots, that might be a problem.”
Excuse me? Jell-O?
“Yes. They make Jell-O in these little shot glasses, and then they put liquor in it, and with cream.”
Over the past year, Margie has grown in spirituality. “It’s a miracle I’m here. I talked to God today. It has helped me forgive myself. I had great resentment toward myself for this mess I created.”
Have you made friends with yourself?
“I think so, yes.
“I just want a chance at life again: to be a good mom, be a good wife, be a productive member of society.”
Fifty-one may seem a little old to start over, but the right time for any troubled person to begin anew is today.
We tend to be impatient with those who are victims of addictions we personally can resist. We save most of our patience for our own weaknesses.
But before we frown at this woman, remember that Mr. Cuervo has faced a lot of challengers like Margie, and he’s won at least as much as he’s lost. He’s got an iron grip, but Margie has already torn loose, so let’s urge her to stay free.
Stephanie Sobka, program director at Turning Point Home, with Margie Bustamonte.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net Contact him at [email protected]