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Vicky Bowker Jeter

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How Chewing Gum Saved My Life: Tale of a Pre-Teen Addict
By Vicky Bowker Jeter
Monday, April 26, 2010

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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This is the autobiographical story of how I learned, first-hand, that the disease of Addiction is about lack of stability in environments leading to dysfunctional adaptive control behaviors that are destructive, regardless of the vehicle the addiction manifests in.

I grew up in a home with three older brothers and two alcoholic parents.  Regardless of the truth that we loved each other in my family, I learned very quickly that, no matter how you shake it, active addiction in a person's behavior (meaning, for example, an alcoholic is drinking) equals random chaos in the house--anything can happen at any time and probably will.  Even though there is no way I could even imagine an intellectual concept of addiction, by the time I was four years old, I had begun adapting to living with it.  I would wake up every morning and determine from the sounds in the house, or not, whether it was going to be a "good day," or a "bad day."  If Mom and Dad were up and around making breakfast, taking care of the house or working, it was a good day--to start out, at least.  Either pervasive silence, yelling or brooding in the air meant a bad day from the start.  Now, the only hole in my plan to feel safe in how to approach a day was that a good day could turn into a bad day in the blink of little eyes.  The effects of alcohol or the psychodynamic stress of "the need for a drink" could turn my life upside down without warning.  There was no stability at this level in my house, and all of us kids knew it.  My parents lives were out of control, and one of my deepest drives was for a feeling of stability. 

So, I learned other adaptive ways to create a feeling of safety inside for myself.  One of these ways was rocking.  I had a big beautiful Rocking Horse that I rode until I was seven, and then I took to swinging on a swingset across the street from my house.  Swinging felt really good to me, and it was good for me in many ways.  Much as an infant is soothed by rocking, it made me feel comforted; rocking or swinging has a natural rhythm and balance to it that my body could feel.  While I was swinging I also took to creative imagining of dreams other than things I was afraid might happen.  Now, while I was swinging, I was also chewing gum. The thing is I spent hours almost every day swinging away my cares and chewing gum the whole time.  Within a year or so of doing this every day, to allay my fears and concerns swinging was good; chewing gum was good; swinging and chewing gum together was definitely Double Good.  And, if you may recall from high school General Psychology, when one behavior or stimulus is associated with another for long enough pretty soon you don't need the original stimulus.  So, after a while just chewing gum made me feel calm and safe and well inside, the way rocking makes a person feel.  Now, given that the awareness of the disease of Addiction would not come to light in my house for five more years, or so, I became as addicted to chewing gum as my parents were to drinking.  

And as true to any addictive cycle of behavior that I've ever seen, my gum-chewing had a dark down side.  I would leave my gum in inappropriate places, everywhere.  I left gum on my plates at meal times; I left gum on the side of the sink when I brushed my teeth.  Anytime I had even momentary cause to take my gum out of my mouth, it might get left where I set it.  For the sake of authenticity, to be clear, I was not one to leave my gum under seats and arm rests in public, but at home (where I was struggling for my needs) it was really bad.  This behavior was totally unconscious in comparison to how I normally behaved.  I was generally a very polite little girl, who wanted very much to lend all I could to relationships going well around me, and so forth.  But no matter how much my parents scolded me, no matter how consistently it caused my brothers to shun me, I would not, could not take proper care of my actions with gum.

It all came to a pretty horrible head one afternoon when I was 11 years old. I had made a pitcher of lemonade.  My dad poured himself a tall glass, and in the middle of drinking it down, found himself with a piece of gum in his mouth!  Needless to say, Dad nearly threw up on the spot.  And, to this day I sincerely have no conscious awareness of how it happened that my gum got into that pitcher.  Dad was literally speechless just long enough for Mom to get a hold of me.  Mom wasted no time in laying down the law.  I was never to chew gum, period.  While certainly we both knew she would not be able to stop me from chewing gum apart from her or home, she told me if I ever chewed gum in the house again, "there is no telling what might happen."  I took this to heart hook, line and sinker as portents to the End of the World.  I felt just awful inside and out.  I felt dirty; I felt guilty; I was so ashamed of myself.  Not yet did I have a clue that my parents intense need and boundry around my discontinuing chewing gum, energetically so closely mirrored boundaries that I needed to be able to expect of them in their actions and behaviors with alcohol.  Nor did I yet begin to fathom that levels of shame and guilt I was feeling, they struggled with inside themselves in their addictions, every day.   This powerful revelation, for me, would blossom over time.

With regard to the destructive dynamics and cycles of the disease of Addiction, what happened next is when it really got interesting.  By this time in our lives both my parents were aware their lives were out of control and that "something" had to change.  At this fairly predictable stage each of them was struggling to pin that "something" on the other one's drinking rather than their own.  So, one night not too long after I was strikened from gum in the house, I had a girlfriend staying the night.  It was about 10:30pm, or so, and we were doing what pre-teens do on sleepovers.  My dad had been out all evening.  He came home characteristically drunk.  It did not surprise me that he stopped at my room to say good night.  What did surprise me is that he stopped in gave to me an entire case of bubble gum!  As he gave it to me, of course, he said, "Shhh, don't tell your Mom."  Secret-keeping being a tell-tale earmark for addictive cycles, this move was so totally classic unconscious addict-to-addict, dysfunctional, dependent/co-dependent loyalty alignment.  Whether my dad was aware of his motives consciously, or not, what his disease dynamic was aiming for was, "I won't tell on you, if you won't tell on me," about his drinking.  Even then, as it was happening, I knew how screwed up it was.  On the one hand I was petrified of what my mom would do if she found out.  At the same time, I NEVER liked disappointing my dad.  Besides, like I was really going to succeed at telling him, "I don't want the case of my favorite gum you're holding in front of my face."  In truth, I certainly wished none of this was happening; it was just I was never going to be able to tell him that.  So, before I knew it, my friend and I were both chewing gum with my mom right down the hall, asleep.

Well, as will sometimes happen when an addict really deeply wants help to stop what's happening, my propensity to do something inappropriate with my gum kicked right in.  I fell asleep that night with it in my mouth.  When I woke up the next morning my long blond hair had amassed mercilessly around it, AND it had ground into one of my mother's pillows.  The pillow and my hair as they had been, would be no more.  This was, up until that moment and even still to this day, one of the worst nightmare awakenings of my life.  Odds were certainly in favor of Mom disowning me or some other equally frightening prospect, and on the way to this mortifying determination I would, doubtlessly, be outing my dad's "secret."  As I write, I realize the rational realities of this make it somewhat comical.  There is a part of me that can laugh at it, myself.  But in the time and place it was happening, it was truly serious.  To my mother's unending credit, as soon as I showed her that Dad bought me the gum, she was conscious enough of what some of addiction dynamics were to realize what had happened here was all on my dad.  She admonished me that I was still fully expected never to chew gum in the house, but assurred me she was not upset with me about the pillow, and she would take care of it all with Dad.  All I wanted when talking with Mom was over was for things like that never to happen to me, again.  With the enormous pressures to smoke and drink that come with being a teenager, I have a core certainty that it is my memory of how much I was "done" with this kind of potential happening to me that kept me from the behaviors that could so easily, if not even likely, would have led me to chemical addictions, which I never engaged.

As I grew up and moved away from home, surely I chewed gum when and where I chose, even around my mom.  She had no quarrel with me beyond the age of 18, so long as I handled myself respectfully, which I had learned to do for myself, by then.  However, I never forgot the powerful destructive forces that were connected with that behavior, and as I got out into the world and discovered the gift of various 12-Step programs for myself, it began to come together for me how addictive cycles operate.  While addictions that are physically addictive are exponentially immediately and mortally dangerous, my own experiences with being addicted to a behavior to make me feel better, with the illusion that I have control over chaos, taught me beyond doubt that it is not about what someone is addicted to--it is the addictive cycles or behavior and relationships that are destructive and deadly at the root of the problem. 

Today I am married to a man who I asked to understand that if he chose to be with me, he would have to choose not to drink, as my home needs to be a peaceful, safe place for me and all those we wish to invite into it.  Not long after we began dating, I noticed that my husband-to-be was irritated by the sound of me popping my gum.  So, in honor of his willingness to give up a relationship with alcohol for me, I gave up any relationship with chewing gum for him, and I could not be happier for the trade, and that with diligence in our relationship, we are Addiction-free.















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Books by
Vicky Bowker Jeter

Call Me Victoria: Life Poems and Stories from Trial to Triumph

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Real Palmistry - Your Life is in Your Hands by Mark Seltman

Your hands are a topographical map of your character in past, present, and future. You can learn to navigate your map and chart your course...  
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The WEALTH SECRETS You Must Know Before40 (Kindle Edition) by Jay Onwukwe

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