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.”
Resuming her life in Connecticut included continuing her postgraduate employment as a clinician with the mobile psychiatric crisis teams for Waterbury Hospital and, later, Wheeler Clinic in Plainville. Around 1995, future Mount Sinai medical director Luis Gonzalez joined the Wheeler project. “At the time,” he explains, “the state provided funding to different community mental health agencies to develop groups of clinicians who would assess patients in crisis at their homes. The goal was to prevent unnecessary hospitalizations; if the person turned out to be too acutely ill, or suicidal, then we’d call the hospital or the police. Monica would go out—sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes on weekends—largely to urban ghetto neighborhoods in New Britain, where many people wouldn’t dare venture.
“I was very impressed with her,” he adds. “She was very empathetic, very nice, very directive—which is what most people need in a crisis. Interestingly enough, she counseled many of them about substance abuse.” He was not aware that she herself was spinning out of control, though he found her “somewhat hyper and energetic. I thought of her as the corporate-wife type; her husband had an important position with Oxford Health Plans at the time. My take on things was that she was working more as a hobby.” Monica herself recalls that she repeatedly impressed local police with her skill in dealing with suicidal individuals. “They asked me how I did it,” she says. “It was easy—all I was doing was talking to myself. Insanity to insanity.”
Meanwhile, Tim—who declined to be interviewed for this piece—was indeed climbing the corporate ladder rapidly, actively pushed upward by his wife. She now figures that they moved six times over seven years, from Connecticut to New Jersey to Virginia. Along the way they decided they wanted children, though by that time Monica says that she had had so many abortions—including one within the marriage—that she could then get pregnant only through in-vitro fertilization.
The first procedure was especially successful: All three of the implanted embryos took, and one split (resulting in her now 11-year-old twin daughters). For the others, she made the “miserable” choice of selective reduction. “I was so depressed about my two lost children,” she says. On top of that, a bout of toxemia forced a hasty return from Virginia to Connecticut. “I was horribly sick and spent six weeks at the University of Connecticut Health Center.” In 2001, she went through a second in-vitro procedure, resulting in a baby boy.
She and Tim settled in the Waterbury area, close by her family—but not for long. Her sister Cathy now maintains that all their moves were less about advancing Tim’s career than continuing to keep Monica’s addictions successfully hidden. “She needed to keep changing the scenery so she could stay high and not be found out,” Cathy says, “a great trick. When the babies came, she was only about two miles from the rest of us, so it was easy to check in on her.”
By this time, Tim had landed a position with the Fortune 500 firm Hewitt Associates (now Aon Hewitt) in Norwalk, prompting a move to Fairfield County. Cathy, who owned and managed a dry-cleaning business in Wolcott, got a clue as to Monica’s condition from the owner of the package store next door. “After she left town, he told me, ‘I just lost my best customer—your sister,’” she says. She admits she didn’t fully appreciate the import of his remark at the time. “I just didn’t recognize everything that was going on, because I was trying to live my own life.”
In early 2002, Tim and Monica found a house in Wilton—the first sale for realtor Nancy Pantoliano, who, as it happens, is also the wife of Emmy Award-winning actor Joe Pantoliano (“The Sopranos”). The Pantolianos became good friends, employing Monica to help them behind the scenes for an ill-fated VH-1 reality show. “I’d call them in California, drunk as a skunk, in the mornings—I’m sure I didn’t even make sense,” Monica says. “I was drinking a bottle of 1800 Tequila every day.”
Monica liked the social status that being a friend of the couple gave her. “I loved the parties with people like Chazz Palminteri, Chris Meloni and Patty Hearst,” she says. It fit in with her growing mania for having the most exclusive in all things. Always overweight, she opted for gastric bypass surgery—then, having slimmed down to size 0, began racking up $1,000 a day in shopping expenses. “My favorite indulgences became champagne and cocaine,” she says. “I’d go to J.Crew in Westport and lock myself in the dressing room for hours, getting loaded on both while the staff brought me clothes. Then I’d get paranoid and leave—I needed another drink.”
Monica also developed a fondness for booking herself into high-end hotel rooms, costing as much as $700 per night—the better to carry on numerous affairs. These stays often ended in removal by the police. “At one point, I checked into Mohegan Sun with my lesbian lover for a week and stayed nearly two months,” she says.
The euphoria these binges gave her alternated with periods of crushing despair, resulting in what she calls “grandiose” suicide attempts, including one that involved lying down on the Norwalk train tracks. “That made it into the Wilton newspaper,” Cathy says. After many unsuccessful detox attempts, Monica entered the rehab program at New Canaan’s Silver Hill Hospital in the waning days of 2003. Her family, finally coming to grips with her problems, visited her on Christmas Day. “She was out of her head,” Cathy recalls. “She told one of her daughters not to reveal to anyone where she’d been for Christmas. Her attitude was still, ‘Let’s hide it.’”
Monica walked out early on her six-week commitment to the program, proclaiming herself cured. “I was afraid they’d call me on my shit and I wanted to avoid that,” she says. “My instinct was always to run.”
Tim celebrated Monica’s 38th birthday in September 2004 by serving her with divorce papers and kicking her out of the house. “When he said, ‘I’m leaving you and getting custody of the kids,’ my reaction was, ‘I can party the way I want to now,’” she says. “Instead of ‘I need help,’ what I told myself was, ‘Keep going.’ I didn’t want to quit. All I could think was, ‘What am I going to do without this?’ Yet, it was killing me.”
At first, she lived in small apartments all over Connecticut—in some cases, with whomever she was sleeping with at a given moment.While Tim allowed her weekend visitations with their children, she became increasingly reckless with their welfare. “Drug dealers were coming into wherever I lived with guns and knives,” she says. During one notable period, she lived in her Audi off I-95, with her expensive clothes, diamond rings, various substances and $5,000 in cash. “I never feared for my safety,” she says. “Isn’t that whacked?”
In 2005, Monica once again found herself at an exclusive substance-abuse treatment center—this time, Canaan’s Mountainside, where she came under the care of therapist Debbie Olow. She’d landed there as a result of an incident in which she’d accosted a police officer after being pulled over for driving under the influence. “At that point, her family wanted nothing to do with her, so she hired a limo to bring her,” Olow says. “Upon arrival, she was so drunk she fell out of the car.”
Olow’s goal was to get her to “truly work a 12-step program. I knew she would need more than 30 or 60 days to make progress.” Monica wound up staying for seven months, after which Olow arranged treatment for sex addiction at Gentle Path in Hattiesburg, Miss. (where Tiger Woods received treatment). “She was there for three months—after that I lost track of her because she relapsed,” Olow says.
Then, a couple of years later, she received a drunken call out of the blue, and sensed that Monica was again suicidal. After establishing that the call came from Waterbury, Olow contacted the police, who found Monica in the nick of time—she had removed all her clothes and jewelry and was getting ready to hang herself. “After that, Monica called to say that she was very angry at me for intervening,” Olow says. “Then I lost touch again, and I guess that’s when things started going downhill badly.” Says Monica, “I never would have hit bottom if my mom hadn’t died suddenly at this time.”
She proceeded to squander $106,000 in 401(k) funds—cashed out from Tim’s account—in five months. What followed was two years of homelessness, in the last few months of which Monica supported herself as a prostitute. She says she worked the corner of Holmes Avenue in Waterbury and crashed on the basement floor of her paternal grandmother’s house, then inhabited by her pimp and drug dealers. “I’d cry for my grandma: ‘Please help me,” she says. She got one last chance at rehabilitation from former colleague Luis Gonzalez, who by 2009 was medical director of Mount Sinai’s psychiatric unit.
Initially, he didn’t recognize her. “She’d been living in crack houses in Hartford, doing things I’d never expect her to be involved with,” he says. Like Olow, he thought Monica might benefit best from long-term residential care, which, he notes, was not available to her at Sinai because she was still covered by her husband’s insurance and had exhausted her mental health benefits. So, he got her into the state-run Blue Hills Treatment Center, where “insurance is not an issue.” She stayed five months. “I thought she was better—at least she was sober,” Gonzalez says.
Ultimately, it was only the events of Aug. 4, 2009 that enabled Monica to reach a state of “amazing grace.” Busted for prostitution by a state police unit, she served two months in Niantic’s York Correctional Institution. “They took me in in shackles,” she says. “I tell people now that at that moment, my outside appearance matched my inner being. I’d paid, easily, $600,000 out of pocket for treatment, which bought me changes in behavior, but not a change in thinking. I had to stop and be still. That’s what prison did for me.” Upon discharge the judge told her, “You’re too old for this.” Says Monica, “At first I was offended, but then I heard this voice inside say, ‘Shh—he’s right.’ I’d finally gained acceptance.”
As anyone who’s ever dealt with addiction knows, recovery is not a soaring victory—more a vigilant daily trudge along the razor’s edge. Still, to Monica, sobriety’s a miracle: “Through all my years of addiction,” she says, “I was never afraid to die, I was afraid to live—and that’s what recovery has taught me to do.”
Two years after her incarceration, she’s doing service in a 12-step program while dealing with the collateral damage of her past. She’s under treatment for hepatitis C. “I owe $60,000,” she adds. “The IRS is chasing me.” While she can finally reclaim her previously suspended driver’s license, she still needs the $250 to pay for it. And a car to drive.
“Emotionally,” Monica says, “I struggle. But now, I go for help.” She’s also in the process of “making amends to the people I hurt.” Relations with most of her siblings have been so toxic that currently, only Cathy knows where she lives. Her brother Dan—who also suffered multiple addictions—committed suicide last Christmas Eve. She says the door is open to her estranged sisters, “but they’re not going to beat me up any more.” On the plus side, her relationship with ex-husband Tim and her children is better than ever. “Tim is awesome,” she says. “He’s never poisoned my kids’ minds against me.
“I used to live on regrets, resentments, shame, blame and guilt. That was my diet. Today I feel gratitude, acceptance, love, forgiveness and compassion. That’s new to me.”