From Alcoholism to Oakwood

From Alcoholism to Oakwood

Bridget Vasko is a living miracle. It’s written.

“We who have successfully recovered from excessive drinking are miracles,” says the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, page 133, about mental health. This is what those who have had this experience believe.

It’s thanks to the Oakwood Home for Women and the 12 steps of AA that Vasko says he can claim 11 years of sobriety.

Of some grandeur, the historic two-story white house on Highland Avenue has transformed the lives of countless women over the past 50 years. Oakwood is a temporary shelter for women recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.

It’s a place Vasko is incredibly grateful for: “It’s my safety, it’s my heart.”

Yet when she first laid eyes on Oakwood, it was a place that promised solutions to problems she wasn’t yet ready to admit she had.

Looking back, it seems like alcohol has always been a part of Vasko’s life. She remembers taking her first sip of beer from her parents’ bottle at the age of four, and she enjoyed it. Alcohol was always present in her home, she was the girl who went shopping and ran to the corner store to buy beer and cigarettes for her parents.

Her mother was an alcoholic until her death from cirrhosis. It was a chaotic household. Her mother had temper tantrums and insults were commonplace: “We never encouraged her to be who we were or who we could be.”

“It breaks you when you’re a kid. I became what they thought I would be,” Vasko recalls.

She learned that when she got angry, people left her alone, and when she was funny, she earned admiration. These were the two emotions she became most comfortable with.

Other abuse she suffered went unaddressed and in middle school she skipped classes and drank with her friends. “I didn’t have great aspirations for life.”

His rebellious ways only made his unstable life worse, as his unresolved traumas required further self-medication.

Her deep need to feel loved resulted in a baby at 16 and a marriage that quickly turned violent. She ran away, with more trauma to bury and more alcohol to consume to cope.

She surrounded herself with friends who also drank like her, masking the growing problem as a normal way of life.

Her daughter was her best friend, and Vasko did her best. Her desire for a better life led her into another marriage, which also became violent. Shortly after the birth of her second child, she ran away again.

It was her third marriage, which is still going strong today. It gave her another child and a house in Broadmore with a white picket fence. “I finally found the one who was really good for me and who loved me unconditionally, but I still wasn’t happy deep down. I was still searching.”

From the outside, everything seemed fine, but it was inside that things were falling apart. She was running her house like her mother did, with fits of anger.

She suffered from depression and used alcohol to mask it: “I had a deep unhappiness inside me that I had not yet explored.”

When alcohol stopped working as well for her as it once did, she explored other drugs, always trying to fill the “void.” She chose methamphetamine over all others.

Despite the way she had lost control of her life, she felt like she could control everything. But what was becoming more and more problematic, and what she couldn’t hide, was her gambling addiction.

She had reached a point in her life where her choices were limited, she had found herself in a difficult situation. The consequences were serious enough that she sought help. She underwent gambling treatment and was exposed to the 12 steps of recovery.

It was suggested that she move to Oakwood. She agreed, but only because there were no other options, no other place to go.

She wasn’t yet ready to admit that her drinking problem was a problem. She resentfully complied with the rules. The list is long and includes an early morning curfew, no interaction with romantic partners, a list of chores, and what seemed like an endless list of others. “We try to live life on life’s terms. These rules are not arbitrary, but necessary,” the list reads.

Jessica Ritchie, Oakwood’s executive director, believes the long list of rules is what it takes to achieve sobriety: “It’s 50 years of what works and what doesn’t. These rules are designed to teach women what it means to live a daily life without drugs or alcohol.”

Vasko adapted, she even recited the Serenity Prayer every morning.

Yet every day she wondered how she could leave if she had the chance. After four months, she didn’t hesitate and left. A few days later, she was drinking again.

But the Serenity Prayer and all the rules left an impression on her that she couldn’t shake. “It ruined my drinking career,” she recalls. “There’s a reason it’s a routine. It sticks with you, and you remember those positive things.”

Within the year, she asked to return to Oakwood, finally admitting what everyone knew: “I’m an alcoholic.”

That little bit of honesty was strong enough to begin to tear down the walls Vasko had built around her. She was able to become what she had always feared, vulnerable.

She was vulnerable enough to admit her flaws, vulnerable enough to allow others to love her, and vulnerable enough to love in return.

The relationships she formed in this house would transform her: “They loved me, they showed me that they would not abandon me even if I was not perfect.”

“When I was drinking and doing drugs, I hated the world around me. I only chose the people around me from whom I could get something out of me.”

At Oakwood, Vasko created relationships that still last today: “We have a bond that is unbreakable.”

One of the closest friendships she made was with Kelly Byers. She was not a resident of Oakwood but attended the AA women’s meeting. In Kelly, she found someone who looked at her with pure love, the way she looked at everyone: “She loved every soul she met on this earth. She radiated sunshine.”

It was a friendship based on honesty: “I can only be the best Bridget if I’m authentic. All we want is real friendship and love.”

This friendship would also test Vasko in ways she could not have imagined.

Byers was diagnosed with cancer. It was a battle she couldn’t win.

Vasko’s first reaction was to run: “I can’t stand this, I can’t watch her die.”

But Vasko also knew that wasn’t really an option: “It wasn’t about me, it was about being there and sharing this experience with her. In the end, none of us are going to get out of here alive.”

It was an experience of extreme emotions. There was pain but also joy. There was hope but also despair. One constant was love, there was always love.

Vasko remained sober despite everything. It was the greatest gift she gave to her friend, but also to herself. Vasko “lived her life on the terms she had.”

“Through sobriety work and the 12 steps, you learn how to live safely,” Vasko says. “I tell my story to bring hope to someone who may share some of the same traumas I do.”

She has something she never had before, an inner peace, and she wants to pass it on: “You don’t have to be defined by your baggage from the past.”

Where to find help

Northwest Louisiana Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction (CADA)

Oakwood House for Women

Alcoholics Anonymous Central Office of Shreveport, LA

The annual banquet benefiting Oakwood Home for Women will be held on August 21, 2024, at 6:00 p.m. at Broadmoor United Methodist Church. More information can be found on the Oakwood Home for Women Facebook page.