Once-Broken Mom Moves Beyond Stigma to Strength

To those in AA, it’s known as The Big Book. Chrisi Hard’s copy is deep blue with the title Alcoholics Anonymous embossed in the same color on the cover, rendering the words almost invisible. “They design them that way,” she explains, “so that if you’re reading it in a coffee shop or somewhere, no one will know it’s an AA book.” It’s a detail that brings a small smile to her face. She decided long ago not to hide her struggles, even from the person sitting next to her at Starbucks. The 51-year-old mother of two tells her story — one that includes extreme trauma, alcoholism, a daughter’s bipolar disorder, another’s diabetes — to chip away at the stigma behind each. “Who knows, maybe it will help someone,” she says.

‘It Was Just to Stop Feeling’

Chrisi has called the seaside town of Carlsbad, California, her home for more than 20 years, but she grew up in Rancho Santa Fe, an affluent enclave in San Diego County populated by the well-known and the well-heeled. It’s a community that values appearances, as did her family. “It’s all about keeping the perfect look on the outside all the time,” she explains, even though inwardly she struggled to feel comfortable in her own skin. “I always felt like an outsider.” When the time came for college, Chrisi chose a small school in rural Missouri. That’s where her drinking got its start. It was never about having fun, she explains. “It wasn’t, ‘Let’s go out and party!’ It was just to stop feeling.” She had a compelling reason to seek a mental escape. At a fraternity party in her first year of college, she was drugged and raped by five fellow students. That trauma was compounded by its aftermath. “I started to prosecute, but this was a backward farm town in the middle of nowhere,” she says. It was also 1980. “In that era, they really didn’t talk about rape.” Her name made the newspapers; her assailants’ didn’t. And her attorney would only talk to her father, not to her. “It would have been five separate trials. It would have gone on forever. So I finally said, ‘Enough. I really need to put my life back together.’ ” She dropped the charges, stayed for another year “just because I have a stubborn side” but eventually transferred to another college, hoping for a fresh start. One night at a sorority event, she was shocked to come face to face with two of her assailants, also transfer students. “The harassment started all over again — phone calls, they would make a point to bump into me when we were headed to class. I went to the dean and he said, ‘Oh, well … there’s nothing we can do.’ ” She toughed it out, but in her third year of college, a bad car accident sent her home to recuperate. She never returned to the school. Back in Rancho Santa Fe, “I went to therapy for a little while.” It helped, she says, “but one day my parents said, ‘Well, you’re done with therapy now.’ And that was that.” Her drinking began to accelerate. “I think there was a lot of just trying to stuff the feelings down. It’s like there’s a big hole in you and no amount of alcohol will fill it.” It didn’t help that there was a family history of alcohol addiction. “It’s more than just a matter of willpower to stop,” she explains. “Every day you have that conversation in your head: ‘OK, I’m going to stop.’ But it doesn’t end up that way. And then you have more shame and anger and set yourself up for the next drink. And it just keeps going.”

Becoming ‘A Different Kind of Mom’

In 1989 she married, and the drinking intensified. When two daughters came in quick succession — Ashley in 1992 and Lauren in 1993 —  life took on an important new focus. She knew she had to change. “By then, it was just ugly. I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired. You hear that and it’s so true. My grandmother said, ‘Any center you want to go to, just pick one. I’ll send you.’ ”

She chose a rehab facility that offered trauma therapy, realizing that “to have a successful recovery, you have to deal with the other issues that are going on.” When the time came to go, “I was scared to death. To leave the girls was so hard. They were 2 and 3. They were really little. But I knew I needed to be a different kind of mom.” Her 21-day rehab stay, with its 12-step-based program, therapy, homework and connection to others with the same struggles “is the best thing I ever did. It saved my life.” That was almost 18 years ago. She hasn’t had a drink since. She sums up the experience this way: “I was broken on the inside. I looked OK on the outside, but when the inside doesn’t match the outside, that’s when you have problems. Rehab helped me put the pieces back together again and become whole.”

A Life Do-Over

Back home, Chrisi quickly realized being sober didn’t mean life’s problems were behind her. For one, there was an adjustment process. “It was definitely like learning how to do life over — while raising babies.” Her marriage was also in trouble. “They say no major changes in the first year, so we went to marriage counseling and the whole thing.” But she knew it wasn’t going to work. She also had to find a career, now that divorce meant she’d no longer be a stay-at-home mom. A solution presented itself when friends began asking to buy the desserts she liked to bake. What had begun as a hobby turned into Chrisi’s Creations, a part-time bakery business. “It’s therapeutic,” she says, and it allowed her to work from home and set her own hours. The business continues today. As the divorce proceeded, the parents became aware that their eldest daughter, then in second grade, was having problems. At first she was diagnosed with extreme ADHD, but Chrisi realized more was at work. “I knew that in grade school Ashley should not be standing on the roof screaming at me. Or throwing knives or the horrible things you don’t tell anyone because you’re embarrassed. You think, ‘Is it my parenting?’ We went to doctors who said, ‘Well, if you weren’t getting a divorce, this wouldn’t be happening.’ ” It was several more years before the true issue was revealed; Ashley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that can cause dramatic mood swings. It didn’t mean that her troubles were over, but it did at least mean the family now had positive steps they could take, including medication, therapy, and inpatient and outpatient help when needed. About three years ago, the family faced another crisis. Chrisi’s youngest daughter, Lauren, 17 at the time, became dramatically ill and was discovered to have type 1 diabetes. It was a startling diagnosis, but now “it’s pretty under control,” Chrisi says. “Lauren’s really got a good handle on if she doesn’t take care of it, what the consequences are.” In fact, she’s handling it so well that her mother held her breath and allowed her to study abroad in Italy last semester. It has also led Lauren to her career choice. “She wants to be a diabetic nurse,” Chrisi explains, so she can share what she has learned with others in the same situation.

Tackling the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder

Ashley, now 22, dreams of being a veterinarian. She goes through phases with her bipolar disorder, her mother says, with good days and bad. “The problem I’ve really run into is when we are in crisis we need help now, and there’s a huge shortage of beds in psychiatric hospitals.” A powerful resource has been the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF), a group that Chrisi has been actively involved with for seven years. Started by four San Diego County mothers whose children were diagnosed with bipolar, the IBPF offers free medical referrals and a wealth of helpful information.

Most important, the group urges society to move past its stigma surrounding mental health issues. Chrisi and her girls will help illustrate that message at the foundation’s gala in May, going on stage to tell the story of how Lauren’s diabetes diagnosis brought flowers and meals and expressions of love and support, while Ashley’s bipolar disorder brought only silence. “It becomes so isolating for that family.” For her work with the IBPF, Chrisi was named its 2010 volunteer of the year, and in 2011, she was named volunteer of the year by the North County Philanthropic Council.

‘A Good Way to Live Life’

Chrisi has always been open with her girls about her struggles with alcohol and makes sure they understand the risks drinking holds for them — alcoholism runs on both Chrisi and her ex-husband’s sides of the family. The girls grew up going with her to AA meetings, Chrisi explains, and she feels good knowing that they’ve learned that reaching out for help is the right thing to do when troubles come. Chrisi says the desire to reach for a drink left her long ago — “I know it would only make whatever bad thing that was happening worse” — but AA remains an important focus in her life, and she still attends meetings regularly. Why? “Our wiring is a little different from someone who is a normie,” she explains, defining a “normie” as someone not in recovery, and who doesn’t need to be. “Your thinking can get off track. They help with that. You can say whatever it is and they aren’t going to gasp in horror because they probably have the same thought.” She’s aware that AA has been criticized by some who point to things such as high relapse rates and to the spiritual element behind some of its steps. But Chrisi has witnessed 18 years of success stories, her own included, amid the struggling. And the reliance on a higher power doesn’t bother her at all “because my own choices ran me right into the ditch.” Now that she is an AA “old-timer,” a title that never fails to amaze her, she tries to return the favor to the organization that has helped her so much by acting as a sponsor for others and by reaching out to those just joining the meetings. “I don’t ever want to forget what it feels like to be a newcomer.” To her, the principles of AA “are just a good way to live life.” Each October, her entire family goes with her as she accepts her AA token marking another year of sobriety. She is grateful for their presence. “A lot of people don’t end up with families. They lose everything.”

‘There Is Help’

The nest is starting to look decidedly empty these days with her daughters, now adults, coming and going. But Chrisi is as busy as ever. Several years ago, she began running as a way to keep both physically and mentally healthy and as a way to raise money for charities close to her and her girls. She’s run five marathons, two of those in one year. About three years ago, she created the running team Stigma Busters, which fights misperceptions about mental illness and raises money for the IBPF. Last year alone, they donated $15,000 to the organization. She is also helping a friend create a new organization called Sisters in Solutions, which will extend a helping hand to women in recovery. The need is great, Chrisi says. “Women have a lot more shame about being an addict. We’re supposed to be superhuman.” She’s also thinking of starting a support group for parents of young adults with bipolar disorder because “where do you go?” Problems don’t stop when a child with bipolar disorder becomes an adult, she explains. They just become more complicated because he or she is legally out of the parent’s control. Chrisi also acts as an alumni contact for the rehab facility that helped her so many years ago, connecting recent treatment graduates with area resources, and she remains an active member of the alumni community. “I remember when I was in treatment, I thought, ‘Why would I want to come back?’ ” Now, she says, she wouldn’t dream of missing the annual reunions, retreats and workshops. Her goal moving forward is to continue to spread the message that we must all do our part to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction, and no one should be afraid to ask for help. “I know how hard it is,” she says, “because you feel so isolated when you’re at that point of needing help. But there is help. You’re not alone.” As to her own struggles, her story ultimately is not one of problems overcome, but of learning she is strong enough to deal with them. “I still get a little anxious going into crowds,” she says, but she has come to terms with her past trauma. “They took my innocence, and that held me prisoner for a long time,” she says. “But I just have to believe there is karma.” Today, she says, “I take one thing at a time as it comes.” The events of the past “are all pieces of who I am today, so it’s just made me stronger.”

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