Recovery Rocks – Jo Black Sullivan

Photo Credit: David Harback Make-up: Larissa Norris 2015

Photo Credit: David Harback, Make-up: Larissa Norris, 2015

Jo Black Sullivan is a recovering addict, who, despite many years in active addiction, managed to turn her passion of working with animals into a career. She even ran a chimpanzee sanctuary! She credits helping animals with making her bearable to herself when clouded in her disease.

Now she is rediscovering hobbies like theater and threatening to learn new ones like knitting. Everything is on the bucket list now!

1) Describe your ‘rock bottom.’

My “rock bottom” was not cut and dry. It was more like falling slowly down a cliff. I’d land on a ledge, some boulders would bounce behind me and knock me about and just when I’d roll to my knees to climb back up – the ledge would collapse and down I’d go further and further. This landslide went on for years taking jobs, houses, cars, relationships – whatever was on the ledge – with it as it swept me further and further down and under the debris.

What finally sent me to rehab was waking up in my office at 11am with an empty bottle of vodka beside me. It doesn’t matter the details – there’s nothing new in them. Shame, embarrassment, humiliation, guilt – all the things I’d become comfortable feeling. And when I lost the job (shocking I know) I think I felt my Houdini lifestyle had come to an end. I was in in-patient treatment center for about two weeks before the aftershock of shame settled down and I could see the reality of it all and accept that I was sick. Suffering from Substance Abuse Disorder, not from “You Suckness.” That moment of clarity gave me permission to give myself enough of a break to stay and get treatment.

2) What were your first 30 days of recovery like?

My first 30 days were protected and insulated because I was in a treatment center far away from normal day-to-day life. I thought a LOT, walked a lot, ate healthy, listened to people play mournful guitar riffs, talk of their adventures and I began to heal. I discovered there were actually 7 days to a week. I was averaging 4 maybe 5 in my last years of drinking. I saved caterpillars and a frog or two and I watched the fall season slowly turn to winter. I cried. I laughed. I began to formulate what my life could look like if I stayed sober.

While it was not easy (recovery is not for the weak) it was structured and I felt safe. Now the next 6 months as I returned home, didn’t have a job or a career and went from someone who processed 200 emails a day to someone who could barely shower and get to the gym? Those months were hard. Very hard. My whole first year was tremendously painful and vulnerable. I did not begin to fit into my own skin again until late last year…over 2 years after my last taste of vodka.

3) What are the best things that have happened to you since you got clean/sober?

Giving up my previous career. It was too much, I’d done too much damage and I was in NO way in a place with myself that I could face going back into that tight-knit group and try to find a place. In rehab, something began picking at the back of my consciousness – something that was never fully formulated but that I felt I should start walking towards and all rest would work out.

So, in the first year, I took odd jobs at local theaters helping stage manage, do social media whatever I could until I enrolled in a community college to pursue my certification in Addiction Counseling.

I finished the program at about 18 months sober and began working in the field as a trainee. I’ve just been accepted into graduate school and will be working towards my Masters of Social Work to grow my skill set and expand my knowledge.

And that’s hopefully just the start. That niggling feeling at the back of my brain was telling me to heal, treat myself but not to forget what I’d done in my career and what I’d wanted to do since I was 5 years old: help those without a voice. So all this is a path to my ultimate dream of opening a treatment center for people recovering from addiction in a farm sanctuary setting. I want to be able to offer a year-long program which would work therapeutically with counselors and the animals. I’d like to have a focus on people who have survived childhood trauma or may be battling other co-occurring disorders. And if I build it well, there will be job training in animal care, micro-farming and construction/maintenance which would serve to keep up the farm.

For whatever pain and discomfort the first year brought, it also brought the time and space for me to begin to lay out this vision and to also take practical and necessary steps towards that of education, building a network in the treatment world…and the greatest blessing? Reconnecting with many many people in my former world of nonprofits and fundraising who have said “we will be with you.” I didn’t know if they’d ever see me the same again….

4) If you could go back in time to you when you were drinking/using what would you tell yourself?

Ask. For. Help.

5) What have been the most useful things you have learnt about yourself since getting sober/clean?

It’s not me, it’s what happened to me. Situations and issues in my life created patterns and behaviors which are basically textbook. And all that time, I’d thought I had deep moral flaws, that I was born a horrible person and my path was to always be that. Alcohol wasn’t my primary problem – I was. And if I will just give myself a break and look around in the community I am building – in professional circles or with my therapist – then I can see that being human comes with great risk and all of us carry “something.” I am no better or worse than anybody else. Now that my eyes have been opened to that, though, I have a responsibility to not continue the same patterns, same destructive behaviors and same actions. Because now I have a choice.

6) Tell me about something wonderful that happened to you recently that never would have happened if you had been drinking.

I was accepted into the School of Social Work graduate program at University of Maryland Baltimore. Who knew?!? I may be the oldest student there – but I will be the hardest working and the most appreciative for the chance!

7) What are your favorite recovery slogans?

Be Kind. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

Life happens FOR me. Not TO me. (That one’s mine – I have to keep repeating it though.)

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. (That one is the wisdom of my Mom, Mildred. It never made much sense to me until the past few years. I always thought she was talking about me wearing blue eyeshadow or making my bangs 3 feet tall. Now I see…..)

8) And lastly, why does ‘recovery rock?’

Without recovery – I would have NEVER taken the time or even understood the possibility correcting the lies I’d told myself since I was 5 years old. Recovery rocks because it gave me the opportunity to meet “me” for the first time in 40+ years. And now I can meet you with a little more confidence and security in who I am. Hi.

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