CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT + VIOLENCE + SUBSTANCE ABUSE
I found my way into the rooms of a twelve-step recovery program after a devastating “bottom” that almost ended in suicide. I had been drinking since childhood and when faced with the reality of death or recovery, I entered the rooms to seek help. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I knew that my trauma and alcoholism were innately intertwined. I met Zully in one of the twelve-step women’s meetings I frequented. The space felt intimate and safe, and it was there that I first opened up about being a survivor. After the meeting, Zully shared her story with me, and I felt seen and heard by another survivor living with addiction. A few weeks later, I had Zully over to my apartment for coffee, where she bravely opened up about her experiences.
B.G.: We’ve talked before about the fact that we both have childhood abuse in our stories. Would you be comfortable talking a bit about your childhood?
Zully O’Conner: I came from very severe childhood abuse. I don't think my mom was ever in her right mind. I didn’t know it then, but she was bipolar. She was also an addict. Mainly alcohol, I never really saw her with anything else. And the men . . . these were men were high, using needles. I’m talking about cocaine, crack cocaine, pipes. She just . . . she could not be without a man.
And those men abused us. One of the worst scenarios we had was with a stepfather she kept around maybe four years. I don’t remember much about my childhood because I blocked out a lot. I understand the concept of trauma now. I’m sure my mom knew what was going on, but she was the type to lock herself in the room and, when things were happening, she would just knock the hell out. That’s just how she did things. And I just remember one night I heard all this screaming and commotion, I guess he went to violate my sister again and my sister stabbed him.
My sister just went off, and I mean, at this point she was in her early teens, maybe not even a teenager yet, maybe 12. It has always stuck with me how my mom defended him. She took him to the hospital and said someone broke into the house and stabbed him. Then she bought him a ticket back to Puerto Rico, never to be prosecuted. The cops eventually came and my sister gave her story. We were pretty much held by the state for a while after that.
Even years later, it didn’t change. She didn’t change. The men didn’t change. You know, we just got through it, became older kids. I remember I was the only girl left at the house and I just happened to have a step-father who was on crack-cocaine . . .
I ended up having two kids.
I remember walking into high school, pregnant. I was good at everything I did. I excelled at school. I was good at track, cross-country. And out of the blue, I was pregnant. People were shocked. “You don’t even talk,” they said, and I still didn’t talk. I just remember the first pregnancy my mom pretty much told me everything’s going to be different, it’s going to be alright. She consoled me in a way that she’d never done before, so I believed her. That was all I was looking for.
And then it happened again. I didn’t like being around him, I didn’t like talking to him. It’s like, I plotted in my mind the next time he comes around, I’m going to attack. You know? Like I was ready to be a fuckin’ soldier before I ever became a Marine.
The strangest shit is, the concept I had then was adaptable in the Marine Corps. So I was prepared all my life and didn’t even know it. I think it’s stamped on my birth certificate: Marine. Because of my fear of men I leaned on women. I was scared at first. I had adventures in high school but it was never sexual. Because I was scared to be touched on that level, period. Male or female. But my comfort zone was with women.
B.: Can you talk about what it was like when you realized you were attracted to women? How did that play out in your experience as a Marine?
ZO: It wasn’t until I got to college that the feelings started to become something new. I almost felt that if I didn’t find a different way to define love, I couldn’t see the purpose of being alive. Because there was no way in hell I was going to be married—let him take you by the hand and let him make you his wife kind of shit—it just, it didn’t fit in my mind. So, eventually I started learning what a full-blown relationship with a woman was.
“IT WAS NOT THE FLAVOR THAT HOOKED ME. FROM THAT VERY FIRST DRINK, I WAS SWALLOWING MY TRAUMA. EACH AND EVERY TIME.”
The biggest mistake I made was joining the military when they still had the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The woman I was with wanted to come down and live with me. I couldn’t claim her because it would have ended my career, and I had put my career first. It was what took me out of my childhood home—there was so much pain there—I couldn’t go back. So, I had to let her go.
And months, maybe a year later, I met the man who would become my husband.
Early on, he knew that I was into girls. It was pretty much a contract marriage. I met him August 5th, married him September 18th, and deployed December 24th. And I figured, okay he understands, he’s cool with it, fuck it, let’s get married. Being deployed, if I die in Iraq, I don’t want my mom to get $400,000—nearly half a million dollars—after she made my life hell. I was thinking about that when they had me sign the family-care plans and all the paperwork you do before you deploy. I started to think, well damn this bitch is gonna get everything. Unless I get married, and so, that’s exactly what I did. Got married. And, then the problems got worse.
B.: What was it like for you to be one of so few women in the Marines?
ZO: In Iraq, for every one female there is probably like three hundred guys on base. So, I had to suck it up a lot. A lot of the paranoia, the anxiety attacks, I had to suck that shit up. Iraq made it worse because I endured it 24/7—I couldn’t leave—there are no holidays, no weekends, no birthdays, there’s none of that.
I wasn’t looking to my left and right for IEDs, I was looking left and right because I was worried about the Marines who were gonna take advantage of me. I’m worried that the same damn motherfucker I’m trusting to walk with me to the chow hall is gonna be the one who takes advantage of me. That’s where my mind went each and every time—I was preparing for someone to sexually abuse me.
I would go to sleep with my rifle. I refused to do the comfortable thing, and that’s to hang your rifle, which you’re supposed to do. No. I laid that bitch right next to me and I made sure the magazine was in my dominant hand and the rifle was in the other hand. And if I ever woke up, the first thing I did was slap that damn magazine in the damn fuckin’ rifle. And, you know, I lived my life like that. This wasn’t just one stepdad, it was three to four hundred men at a time. Even though they were Marines, even though I knew we had the same training and we were there for the same mission, I wasn’t worried about getting shot—I was worried about getting abused.
When I came back from Iraq, my husband gave me my first drink.
B.: What happened?
ZO: Things weren’t good. I didn’t like sleeping next to him. I didn’t like him watching me change. If I was using the bathroom and started to hear his footsteps, I’d get paranoid. It took a long time to get accustomed to. He asked for a child and we struggled with that. The courts told me I was getting custody of my kids back, and I remember my sister calling me and saying “get them, it’s not their fault, it’s not their fault what happened,” and, you know, I gave it a chance. But, my oldest is a boy. I couldn’t change his diaper, I couldn’t feed him, I couldn’t bathe him, I could barely touch him. The reason I stayed married so long was because my husband was a good father and I didn’t know how to be a mother. My kids didn’t look like me, you see? They may have had my skin tone, but they didn’t look anything like me.
Sometimes I’d get so full of rage and fear that I’d scare myself.
I had no outlet. You can’t be aggressive in the civilian world, it’s unacceptable, and I started to get very depressed. I started thinking about stuff—my childhood, the war—I started thinking about Marines I’d known who had committed suicide after coming home.
When I started drinking (and I was drinking a lot) the memories came back. Every time I drank I got into these blackouts where I’d feel so strong and confident and violent. It became dangerous to think about the past because when I was drunk, I wanted to fight back.
I got drunk one day and considered my husband a threat. My mind was telling me he was dangerous—in my mind I was stabbing my stepdad—in reality, I damn near killed my husband.
I had moments like that a lot, just blacking out. I went to jail and was facing prison time, and that’s just one scenario. Prior to that, I burned a house down. With my bare hands. I was drunk, my kids weren’t home, my husband wasn’t home.
I was just thinking, like, I am never going to be able to have a solid home. It is never going to happen for me. During that time I found out I was bipolar, my anxiety was getting bad, my panic attacks were getting bad, and my sleep patterns were horrible. I couldn’t sleep without meds, and even with meds, I couldn’t stay asleep. My dreams were so vivid sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference between the dreams and reality. My paranoia was so bad that I would hear men’s voices. It got to the point that I had knives and guns stashed all over the house.
On that specific night, I just gave up on the idea of ever having a home and a life. I didn’t want to fight back anymore. I was like, I’ve done my part, I fuckin' tried, that’s my part. I’m done with it.
“I GOT INTO A TWELVE-STEP PROGRAM, I STARTED TAKING MY MEDS, AND I STARTED DEALING WITH TRAUMA...I STARTED RECOVERING.”
I took a bottle and finished it so fast I should be in a fuckin' Guinness Book of World Records. Then I lit the house on fire and waited to die. It didn’t fuckin' work—damn firemen doing their job.
I had attempted other types of suicide too, but they didn’t work out for me. I’ve tried to overdose. I’ve driven cars into trees—and I know my trees very well, okay, so I know which ones break easy, which ones won’t—I’d always go for oak trees. Me and oak trees, we have history.
Anyways, they caught me for arson. I pled guilty and that’s when I started thinking about sobering up.
B.: What has your experience as a survivor been like in the rooms of a twelve-step program? I know the concept of a “Higher Power” can be a turn off for some (I almost left the program because of it). Can you talk a bit about those two challenges?
ZO: After that experience, I started taking my meds, and I started dealing with trauma. I do prolonged exposure and I go to VA weekly. I go to a lot of appointments—I have a network of people. I started opening up about my past and going to twelve-step meetings. I started recovering.
At first, I didn’t want to do it. I was just like, you keep telling me this is going to work, but nothing works for the shit that I’ve gone through. Until you can tell me you’ve been through the same exact pain, ain’t no way in hell that your Band-Aid is gonna help my situation.
And, you know, eventually I gave up that concept of believing that if your pain ain’t my pain—if your wounds ain’t how I consider my wounds—then what’s working for you isn’t gonna work for me. When I allowed for differences, I started to get better.
Trauma gave me was the ability to get to know myself. Anyone who’s gone through trauma goes through a phase where they want to give up—but then we just keep fighting. We’re the strongest people, the smartest motherfuckers. But we’re also the most fragile.
I know I’m never gonna heal completely. I’ll always have the scars, but I plan on surviving in this world. This is who I am. It’s just the way life played out for me. If it had not been for recovery, God, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve never been handed anything, so I have to take what I can get and this is how I’m gonna take it. One day at a fuckin’ time.
I used to say, I can’t. Ain’t no way in hell I can go without a damn drink, I can’t sleep at night, I can’t focus.
I’m still saying “I can’t,” but this time it’s, I can’t go back to that thought process. I’ve accepted that shit happened—I’m never going to be without those memories—but I can subdue them and I can take control of my life. The only thing that’s been consistent is God. I have been through some shit, but God was there. And I suffered this pain, but God was there. I beat myself up, but God was there. I attempted serious suicides, but God was there.
I have put a gun to my head and had that shit misfire. Ain’t no way in hell you take someone as properly trained as I am with the ability to shoot a fuckin' target 500 yards away and hit a bullseye on that shit and get a perfect score on a moving target and have her misfire on her own head.
Ain’t no fuckin' way you can do that.
I believe now that I have a bigger purpose because my life should have stopped then, and it should have stopped when I was looking at 15 years. You know, I sat in that cell knowing my life was over, but then they sat me down and told me they’d just started a program (not some shit that’s been in the system for years, not something that’s been available for decades, they just started a program) that gets veterans out of the system. They said, “We can get you help.” God put the right people in the right place at the right time to say this is not where you belong. And if God can pull me out of something like that, I have to see the purpose in myself.
I know I have a greater purpose. Being in a twelve-step gave me direction, gave me the structure I need, but it didn’t give me purpose. Finding my Higher Power did that. One of the hardest things I ever dealt with in my life as a child was thinking God wasn’t there for me. Why would God bring me to life for these men to abuse me physically? There was no God in that.
Recovery is not where you go, it’s what you’re willing to accept. And in my journal—I have to journal for the court—they always ask to put some kind of crazy-ass quote. Listen, I don’t know, I don’t do philosophy very well. I’m not sitting here trying to dig deep and give you some fine words. Every day, I write the same shit: “I’m going to take the good, I’m going to leave behind the bad, and I’m gonna accept the shit that’s ugly.” That’s it. If I can do those three things every day I am good to go. Now, am I gonna do them perfect? No.
It’s a challenge. I know life is going to punch, and kick, and try to hurt me. I just gotta be able to fight back. I am not going through life thinking it’s gonna be easy. Hell, I was fuckin’ 4 years old, there was no peace then. I was 10 years old, there was no peace then. I was 14 years old, there was no peace. There was never peace. My life now is just about what I’m willing to deal with for today.
B.: Can you talk a bit about your kids? What’s your relationship with them like today?
ZO: When it comes to my kids, as I started to recover I just started to say, damn it, I don’t care how you got into this world, you didn’t have a choice just like I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t choose to come into this world either, you know? My son sent me a text message the day before the anniversary of the house fire, and it said “I have the greatest mom in the world, you understand me on a level no one ever will understand me.” That touched my heart.
“I’M GOING TO TAKE THE GOOD, I’M GOING TO LEAVE BEHIND THE BAD, AND I’M GONNA ACCEPT THE SHIT THAT’S UGLY.”
Today he’s a man. He’s a man on his own and he has forgiven me. When am I going to forgive me? Now it’s my turn. I am never going to forget but who am I really hurting when I don’t forgive?
B.: For me, drinking was deeply connected to the trauma I endured. Have you found this to be true for yourself?
ZO: I know the day I picked up my first drink, it was not the flavor that hooked me. From that very first drink, I was swallowing my trauma. Each and every time.
And trauma is all that would come out every time I drank. Nothing good came out. Nothing. Not the good, disciplined fuckin’ Sergeant, not the motherfucker who can sit here and take ten, twenty, thirty Marines and put ‘em in a fuckin’ platoon and square their asses away. Not the motherfucker who can put a tight uniform on and carry it with pride. Not the motherfucker who graduated high school and college. Not the motherfucker who can run three miles and be done in seventeen minutes. It wasn’t that. When I drank, the past came out. The trauma, the hurt, the pain.
Twelve-step programs may not have all the answers, but as long as I keep coming back, I remind myself that what I’m willing to swallow everyday is definitely gonna be my pride and not my problems.
B.: Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. Do you have anything you might want to say to someone who has been through something similar? Anything you might have wanted to hear?
ZO: I’ve said this before, if trauma is the basis of your addiction, or plays a big role, you gotta fight those demons. What are you willing to carry with you? And how heavy is it going to weigh on you? Because it may kill you. Unfortunately, for some of us that have been through trauma like that, death doesn't seem like a bad thing.
Death can seem like the best thing, but that’s because we haven’t started living yet. Life has been bad because of what other people have done to us. What are we willing to do for ourselves? When you start living, you stop dying, and when you stop dying you start to shed the light back into your life.
One of the things I tell people is this: The Bible says, in the beginning, it was a deep, dark place. God had to speak existence and light into the world. You can speak light into your life. You can say, I am no longer this person. Being in the dark place means a new life is coming. You’re going to have to step into it.
You gotta talk about it. Like, I can sit here and we can talk about trauma all day and I guarantee you we’ll boo-hoo and we’ll cry and we’ll kick. Lord, I’ll try not to break holes into your walls, but I guarantee you’ll walk out a different person. Every day you do that, you become more and more clear-minded. And the pain’s still gonna be there but it’s not gonna hurt as much.
“YOU HAVE TO DEAL WITH TRAUMA TO DEAL WITH ALCOHOLISM. YOU GOTTA STEP OUT. YOU HAVE TO CRY. YOU HAVE TO TALK ABOUT IT. YOU HAVE TO HURT.”
But that one part is obvious, alright? You have to deal with trauma to deal with alcoholism. You gotta step out. You have to cry. You have to talk about it. You have to hurt. It’s like an open wound. They’re gonna sew me up and I’m gonna be able to fuckin' dodge another bullet tomorrow. It’ll be alright. Wounds hurts, they hurt when they heal and sometimes you get fuckin' scar tissue and that shit hurts too. It’s just, I wish I had instructions, I wish life had easy antidotes, resolutions to all these problems.
It’s the only thing that keeps me in the rooms of twelve-step recovery. That shit does make sense. If I can take my knowledge and hand it over and I can hold your hand while you’re going through it, I guarantee you’re gonna do it for somebody else. And, in reality all we’re doing is paying it forward. Once you stop the pain, pay that shit forward.
Don’t look back. Looking back, shit, how many times did that work in our favor? I don’t know about y’all but I’ve had an attempted murder charge and that’s all from looking back. More than 90% of the women in prison today have been sexually violated. That is where we are expected to be. That’s where our lives lead. Incarceration and addiction. We have to fight to not be a statistic.
I really hope that if someone’s been through a similar story they can take something from this. Because we’re only bound for one thing: death. We have to change. We have to break the chain. Somebody has to do this work. Somebody has to be willing to try something different.
It’s a disease we’re suffering from, I believe. I believe the trauma we go through and how it affects our mind, our sleep, how we function . . . I believe it’s a disease. I’m going to live with it the rest of my life and that’s fine. Because there’s going to be somebody in the future who’s gonna have gone through the same damn thing and they’re gonna feel like they’re unique in their situations and I can be there for them.
Ain’t nothing you’ve gone through that’s unique. All the crazy shit that has happened to you and all the things you’ve considered doing, all the thoughts you have had about suicide, all the thoughts about being worthless—someone has already survived it. That road has already been paved.
Special thanks to Madison Ray for transcribing this interview.
Zully O'Conner was born in Puerto Rico and raised in North Chicago, IL. She was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 2013 and is a graduate of Robert Morris College in Chicago. Zully holds a Marine Corps Martial Arts black belt and is an author and independent publisher.