The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 19, 2013

Hitting rock bottom helped her realize what's important

SMRC volunteer knows about power of recovery

By Robb Murray
rmurray@mankatofreepress.com

---- — MANKATO — When Tamara Gretz thinks about what kind of mother she was to her children, it brings tears to her eyes.

And they're not tears of joy.

"I'd have to decide 'Do I drink today, or do I see my children today?'" Gretz said of that time of life, more than 2,000 days and hundreds of support meetings ago. "I missed baseball games, I missed sleepovers, I missed seeing my kids be with their friends, I missed knowing their friends, I missed first dates."

And after holding back tears, she mentions the thing she missed that hurt most of all.

"I missed my daughter's graduation," she said.

Today Gretz is a healthy, happy and sober example of the power of recovery. She's also a volunteer at Southern Minnesota Recovery Connection, a Mankato-based nonprofit holding its inaugural awareness walk Saturday in Sibley Park. SMRC is calling it, "a day of celebration, hope and fellowship."

They're hoping it becomes an annual event. They're also hoping to get the word out about the resources it offers — counselors, library, support groups, referral expertise — so that when someone like Gretz comes along, they can get her the help she needs.

Gretz, born in upstate New York, said she was around drugs and alcohol a lot. She took her first drink when she was 9, a shot of blackberry brandy.

"Even as god awful as the taste was," she said, "I was mesmerized by the burn."

She wouldn't drink again for a decade. But she had other things to worry about, things that would shape the rest of her life — including what kind of mother she'd be.

Gretz came from a home where her step-father physically and mentally abused her and everyone else. She described the lives of the children in the house as a case of "survival of the fittest," with each of the three kids finding their own way to avoid their father's rage. Her way was silence. If she kept her mouth shut at home and didn't breathe a word of the goings-on to friends, she thought that was the best way to keep herself and her family safe.

"I learned to keep secrets at a young age," Gretz said. "We didn't talk about any of the fights in our house. It was easy for me to lie to people, easy to lie to myself. I learned how to wear a really rigid mask. I dated nice boys, got good grades, but had no direction. I just knew I wanted to get out."

Her way out was a boy she met in high school who joined the Army. They married and she went wherever he was stationed. And while she says he was a good man and a great father, the marriage was doomed, she said, because she had so many unresolved issues from her childhood, issues that led her on the day of his initial deployment to get drunk.

"I felt so absolutely empty. I had zero faith in myself that I could raise this baby by myself. I was petrified. Absolutely petrified. And he didn't know. I was very good at hiding it."

They had a daughter together and tried to make it work. They even hoped a move to an Army base in Alaska would offer just enough change of scenery to turn things around. But it didn't, and Gretz's alcohol use and erratic behavior continued.

By the time they divorced, they'd already had a child, and she'd already met the man who would become her second husband. She moved back home with her mother to Virginia, and corresponded with her new love interest with letters. Eventually, he persuaded her to move to Minnesota, where his family owned farm land near Madelia.

And for the first time, she saw how a normal family operates.

"It was the first place I saw people fight and then make up," she said. "I learned that sometimes family doesn't like you, but they always love you."

She had two more kids but continued a life plagued with drinking and irresponsible behavior.

"I'd drink. I'd be unaccountable. I'd spend all our money and not know what I'd spent it on," she said. "I could go to the mall for four hours and do nothing."

This is when she hit the time of her life that, when she looks back on it now, brings her to tears.

After divorcing her second husband, they split custody with their children. But on the weeks when the kids were supposed to be with her, her drinking sabotaged her.

She'd be scheduled to pick up her kids on a Monday, but then she'd be drinking tequila and Monday would turn into Tuesday, which would turn into Wednesday. She wouldn't allow herself to be with her kids unless she was sober, and her struggles to stay sober robbed her of precious time with her kids.

"Do I drink today, or do I see my children today," she said.

Her daughter, she says, may have seen the worst of it.

When she missed her daughter's graduation, she said, her daughter was disappointed ... but not necessarily surprised. Her daughter had spent years with a mother whose spirit was tainted by alcohol use. She also spent years with a step-mother who, Gretz says, treated her the way a daughter should be treated. That was hard, she says, and she wanted to stand up and take back that place in her daughter's life.

But she knew she was a mess, and a loving step-mother was a better option than an alcoholic biological mother.

Eventually, she got help.

Southern Minnesota Recovery Connection helped her find her way to a better life. She also found her way to her third husband, Drew Gretz, who had two girls of his own before they met. He's given her a built in support system, someone who understands her demons.

Her relationship with her daughter has improved, too. When her daughter gave birth to a son, Gretz said her daughter invited her to come to El Paso, Texas, for a while to help. And when Gretz got married recently, her daughter was the maid of honor.

"When I came into recovery, I was so broken and hollow," she said. "When you come to recovery, there's always someone in the room who has done it before. ... I felt loved here."

If You Go What Recovery Walk for Hope, the inaugural awareness walk for the Southern Minnesota Recovery Connection When Saturday -- Registration begins at 8 a.m.; opening ceremony begins at 9; walk begins at 10:30; lunch is at noon. Where Sibley Park in Mankato Cost $15, includes lunch and T-shirt Contact Emma at 386-5728 or eblackwell@smnrc.org for more information.