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Monica Driscoll loves her new apartment, the one she just moved into in July. It overlooks a busy downtown intersection in a classic Connecticut college town, a location that’s a little noisy, a little gritty—yet inside, her home is tidy and clean, graced with a recently renovated bathroom and kitchen. Carefully framed artworks by her children line the walls; a hat rack by the door bears a neatly stacked assortment of baseball caps. The word that comes to mind is “sweet.”
Driscoll, 45, is chatting excitedly about being within walking distance of the college’s cultural opportunities, peppering our conversation with references to the bookstores she loves and the theaters she hopes to frequent. Her face is warm, expressive, naturally pretty, and she seems youthfully fit—if it’s true that most of us at midlife wear the body we have earned, then she appears to have been living right. I’d never guess that this is only her second year of recovery after 39 years of relentless, self-destructive addictions—to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, even conspicuous consumption—that led her to homelessness, prostitution and ultimately, a two-month stint in Niantic’s York Correctional Institution.
At the root of this harrowing downward spiral is a cautionary tale of childhood molestation, toxic secrets, family dysfunction, squandered therapeutic opportunities and multiple suicide attempts—one that often seems incredible, stranger than fiction. But it’s also one that Driscoll no longer wishes to keep to herself, if telling it can encourage someone else out there to seek help. “What connects us is the pain, but we can also use that to heal, together,” she says. “No one can do it all by themselves. So if I can reach out to another person and say, ‘You don’t have to fight this alone anymore,’ that’s where the beauty lies.”
Monica Patricia was the last of five children born to Daniel and Patricia Driscoll of Waterbury, seven years younger than her youngest sibling. “I was a ‘happy surprise,’ or so I was told all my life,” she says wryly. She describes her dad, a Timex executive, as remote but generous—“he always thought if he gave you money, you had a relationship”—and her mom as the family nurturer, albeit one who took nightly refuge in alcohol: “I still remember the sound of her sipping her gin-and-tonics.” The family traveled in upper-middle-class circles; it was during one of her parents’ parties that the defining moment of Monica’s childhood occurred—at 4 years old, she was sexually molested by her father’s lifelong best friend, a prominent local dentist.
Both Monica and her sister Cathy—who’s 11 years older—think the incident took place because their mother, busy with guests, had trusted the man in question to check on her youngest daughter, who was taking a bath. Monica believes she was not his only victim. “He laid his toxic shame on me,” she says. “That’s when I lost my ‘voice’; I lost my power. He was an alcoholic and smoked Camel cigarettes. I’ve never smoked, but I’ve often wished, in retrospect, that that was the only addiction I developed as a result of what happened.”
How things did turn out for her is not all that unusual. “For women, sexual and physical trauma—especially at a young age—tend to play a significant role in later addictions,” says Luis Gonzalez, medical director of the adult psychiatric inpatient unit at Hartford’s Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Therapist Debbie Olow, who worked with Monica years later as a counselor at Mountainside, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Canaan, agrees—not only as a professional but as someone who went through a similar trauma in her youth. “And until you can work through all that, it’s very difficult to have successful recovery from your addictions,” Olow says. “Monica went in the direction she did because she didn’t know any other way to deal with this incident.”
More immediately, the consequences of her molestation—not disclosed to the rest of the family—were both emotional and somatic. Sister Cathy recalls 5-year-old Monica lying on the floor having a tantrum, screaming, because their parents were planning to bring her for a dental appointment to the man who molested her. A long parade of physical complaints followed. “My parents took her to doctor after doctor after doctor,” Cathy says, while Monica remembers “missing half of third grade.” Finally, another family physician/friend insisted that the little girl had serious psychological problems. “My parents decided he was the crazy one,” Cathy says. “Monica saw many specialists, but never the one she needed most—a therapist—because we were all in denial.”
It was in the third grade that Monica says she began drinking and experimenting sexually. “Do you remember those bridal showers, when people used to serve champagne punch with sherbet in it? Remember how good that was? That was my first drink,” she says. “I loved the feeling it gave me—even though I got drunk and threw up.” Her first sex-play partner was her best friend’s brother, five years older. The relationship was not exactly consensual, though it lasted for three years. “I think I just didn’t know any better,” Monica says now, “though obviously, he did.”
Once she reached high school, she was drinking steadily. “I’d get a bottle of Veryfine juice from the refrigerator, empty it and fill the bottle with vodka,” she says. “My brother Dan’s best friend caught me one day and threatened to tell him, but I just got sneakier.” Not perfectly so; Cathy recalls concerned calls from teachers and reports of heavy drinking on weekends.
“She got caught many times by Mom and Dad, but the behavior kept getting bigger,” she says.
Nonetheless, Monica performed well as a student and became the only person in her immediate family to complete a college degree. She chose Regis College in Massachusetts because of its reputation as a “drinking school,” distinguishing herself by serving in student government, being arrested on her first DWI charge and, Cathy says, becoming “unbelievably” promiscuous. She also found a doctor willing to prescribe speed. “That way, I could drink more and still get my work done,” Monica says.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in clinical counseling from Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, meeting her husband-to-be, Tim, in a local bar. “He came from Boston, the second youngest of six boys,” she says. “He seemed interested and that was okay with me. That’s how I thought about myself. I couldn’t handle true intimacy. I felt so ugly inside.”
By the time the two married in 1993, Monica had had countless one-nighters behind Tim’s back and had begun her first affair with a woman, finally realizing that she was gay. “Talk about self-serving dishonesty,” she says. “My promiscuity with men was really denial of my true sexuality.”
On the eve of her wedding, she made the tough decision to tell Tim that she was in love with a woman, hoping that he would call off the nuptials. He stunned her, she says, by saying, “I forgive you,” and offering her the chance to start over. She didn’t have the courage to refuse him, instead preparing for her big day by getting drunk. “I remember standing on a cliff in Bermuda and thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this,’” Monica says. “After the honeymoon, I picked up exactly where I left off.”