Episode 148: Lisa K.

Continuing with our Wednesday Secular Speaker Series, today we present to you Lisa K. who spoke at the KC Secular AA Speaker Meeting on December 8, 2018. Lisa, a Korean adoptee shares her experience as an adoptee and how it impacted her alcoholism and recovery.


Hi. Thank you. My name’s Lisa. I’m an alcoholic.

And it’s really good to be here tonight. I’ve shared my story a lot at different meetings so I apologize if you’ve heard parts before. Also, I went to an all-day training today, so I’m a little braindead. So I made notes and I may jump around a little bit. I can’t really do it chronologically, I don’t think. [chuckle] So, anyway, I was thinking about when I was new in sobriety, I went to a lot of speaker meetings, and in traditional AA, a lot of times from the podium they will say, “My name is so and so and my sobriety date.” So I thought I’d do that. So my sobriety date is November 19th, 2010.

I always start kind of like with a little joke. I was raised a poor white girl. [chuckle] I happen to be a Korean adoptee. [chuckle] I know, it’s kind of comical. So I was born in Korea in 1963, and I was adopted when I was two years old in 1965. And when I came to the States, my mom was already pregnant with my brother. So she had four kids after me, but I’m the only one who was adopted. I grew up in Northern California. My parents were divorced when I was 11, so it was a pretty topsy-turvy childhood, to say the least. We moved around a lot, and actually, just recently, I counted how many schools I went to by the age, or by 12th grade, and it was something like 12 or 13 schools. There was a lot of, aside from the financial hardship, like we were on welfare, and we lived on the wrong side of the tracks and there was a lot of shame about that. Because I remember just going to school and when our pants would get too short, she’d go to the fabric store and get that border thing and sew it to the bottom of our pants. So I just remember it looking really funny. And we shopped at thrift stores; I still do. I think it’s a great deal. Some of my best clothing from stores.

But anyway, so basically, when I first came to AA they used to talk about being uncomfortable in your skin, and I truly, literally and figuratively was uncomfortable in my skin from a very early age. I remember, even though we were in a pretty diverse neighborhood, like the wrong side of the tracks, meaning there were people of color, I didn’t fit in with those other people, all those other non-white kids, and even Asian kids in my school, because, and it’s hard to explain this even as an adult. Culturally, I wasn’t Asian. [chuckle] I said that I was trapped in this Asian body and that if people only knew who the hell I was. And so my whole life I was explaining, “I’m Korean, but… ” And even to this day, when I say that I’m adopted, people still assume that my parents are Asian. I’m like, “No, I grew up in a white world.” [chuckle] So anyway, that had a lot of problems for me growing up because not only was I ashamed of how I looked, and as a little kid, and many other adoptees share this same thing, is that I just wanted to fit in. I wanted blond hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be tall and blond and not asked all these questions. Like, “Where did you come from?” And, “Why do you speak English so well.” [laughter] 

And it’s just… And even, I’m 55 and my citizenship is still in question. How long have you been here? So, anyway, that’s another subject. [chuckle] So growing up, it was the ’70s and I was telling John before the meeting, we were… This is like 1974. I was about 12; 11, 12. We were passing around a joint. There was, my mom, remarried. It was a big old party. People were coming and going. I had every… There were booze and drugs, and I had every opportunity as a kid to become addicted to something, but I resisted. I finally smoked some pot and stuff, but I don’t know, it was just so chaotic and I was just trying to… I remember being left with my four younger brothers and sisters, and there was just constant screaming and yelling and everybody beating the shit out of each other. And I don’t know if it’s… Sometimes you wonder, “Is it genetic?” Because that is not my nature. I’m very quiet. I was a very quiet, reserved… I tried to get away from that. It was just emotionally upset all the time. I remember locking myself in the bedroom to get away from them and I would be stuck to take care of them when my mom was at school or something. 

And I just didn’t socialize with other kids in high school. I was so fearful. I had, now it would be called, ‘social anxiety’. It was so stressful to walk down the hallway in high school. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t go to dances. I just hid because I was so ashamed. I just felt so ugly. Anyway, so fast forward, I went to, out of high school, I went to the junior college for two years, and then in 1983, I went of all places, to the pot capital of the world, Humboldt State, Northern California. Needless to say, I was 20-years-old, I let loose. That was my year of binge drinking, promiscuity, I’m staggering home; I lived in the dorm, staggering home in the middle of the night. I could have been killed or raped. Yeah, it was a college town, but the things that I did in blacks, which I didn’t even know what a blackout was until I came to AA. And then the following year, somewhere in there, my mom migrated North, and she divorced my step-father, they lost the house to foreclosure, the kids… The younger kids all got farmed out, some to the East Coast. And I was living in a tent in Northern California in a campground with my mother and two little dogs, and she was trying to find work.

 So that was my life in, like about ‘1984, ’85, somewhere in there, and fortunately she did get a job. She moved even farther north to Oregon, and I went back to Arcata because I just, not to go to school, but just to get away from the whole family dynamic and, lo and behold, I got pregnant with my son, and it was just this person I was dating, there was nothing… He was 20 and I was 21, and I was like, “Holy shit! I’m pregnant!” I thought that was the end of my life. It was the scariest day that I was pregnant, and also at 21, I had the mentality of  doing… 

So, because I think of my adoption issues and all the chaos I grew up in, first of all, I was so far along in the pregnancy, there was no way… I was past the first trimester. I was in such denial about being pregnant. Abortion was out of the question. The person I was dating, he was like, “Well, just give it up for adoption.” No, not giving it. I’m gonna have the baby.” So anyway, because Kurt, my ex-husband, is from a good family, and he did right by me, and we moved in together. He was a junior in college. I worked in restaurants. Derek was born in February ’86; life was good. I was away from my crazy family. I had some peace. I had my son. And being pregnant was the most incredible, wonderful experience; and we were dirt poor. I was working in restaurants. Kurt had like a $500 a month stipend. I don’t even know how we lived, but it was like the happiest time of my life. I was complete and I had my son, and being pregnant, that was the first time I thought about my own adoption. Like, “Oh shit. Some woman carried me.” And I always get emotional when I say that. 

So let’s see. So Kurt finished his BA. We went out for a master’s degree. We moved in 1988 to Montana of all places. So we’re in this really liberal Northern California granola, really super laid back community, and we moved to conservative Montana. And I remember our friends at the time saying, “Aren’t you concerned about going out there as a mixed-race couple?” And I just like, “What?” [laughter] 

And because of that I had no… Even then I had no racial consciousness about not being white. Even though I’d looked in the mirror and I saw how I looked, I had no pride. I didn’t like how I looked, so I just kind of blocked it out. Okay, so let’s see. We were in Montana for two years, then we went back to Oregon State for the Ph.D. And I can look back now after I got sober, and when I looked at the timeline, I discovered around age 30, I started breaking out of that; that really quiet shell, and just kinda going along with everything, and I came out in a big way. [chuckle] I left my husband for a woman. I discovered lesbians. Feminism. I was up in arms. I was out on protests. I was reading books, and I was just, I was angry. And so anyway, I met my girlfriend Cheryl, and she was also and she had just come up from Berkeley. 

So ironically, I left my husband when he was just finishing his Ph.D. Cheryl, my girlfriend, had a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Berkeley. We started dating. We didn’t move in together right away. That year that I left my ex-husband, he was going to Sweden for a postdoc, and Derek who was eight-years-old, my son, he went with Kurt, because on my clerical salary there was no way that I could support him. And I wasn’t living with Cheryl yet. And that, in 1995, that was like, he died. I was in mourning that year. That was like the worst, worst year of my life. It was just horrible. And that is when my drinking started. So with my ex-husband, there’d be like a six-pack in the fridge on the weekends and we’d drink some beer, or whatever, but alcohol, it just wasn’t something that I thought about. But once Cheryl and I were together everything that we did, there was alcohol. And you know how, I don’t know, in the early AA for me, we would say things like, “You can never deem another person alcoholic.” But she sure as hell drank alcoholically and I couldn’t keep up with that. 

So as the relationship progressed, she ended up being really domineering, and I don’t like being told what to do and I don’t like, yeah, I don’t want to be under anybody’s thumb. And it just wasn’t working out, and so the more unhappy I was, the more I drank. And she traveled on business and I would be alone in the house. And I have a lot of fears from childhood, like the boogie man and scared and covering up the windows at night. And so, when she was gone, I would drink to fall asleep ’cause I was so fearful about being alone in the house. And I think that that’s… I was trying to think, When did drinking become a problem? When did I recognize, “Oh crap, I think I have a problem.”? And it was, I think, around maybe 2000, between, yeah, ’98 and 2000, that I realized, “I have started hiding my drinking from her.” Even though she’d drink in the evenings and go to bed, I’d still be up drinking. And then I was starting to hide it in the closet. And I think that’s when I first started feeling some shame about my drinking. 

So, let’s see, 2003, or I’m sorry ’97, we moved to San Diego. She got a job transfer from Oregon to San Diego. And then in 2003 is when she went, or sorry, overseas to Singapore for her job. And that was my out. So, looking back on my ex-husband, and when he went to Sweden that was my out. And then when Cheryl went to Singapore, that was my out. I was a chicken shit. I didn’t… I couldn’t… I didn’t know how else to break up. So anyway, once she was in Singapore, the plan was that Derek would finish his senior year in high school and then I would join her. Well, of course, that’s the opportunity I took to leave the relationship. And then by 2005, when we officially split and I moved out of the house, that’s when my drinking picked up. Because you know how they say, “Then I could drink how I wanted.” And no surprise, around year seven with Cheryl, I realize, “Oh crap. I’m still attracted to men. Oh my God!” 

And so, after Cheryl and I split, I started dating men again. And no surprise, I ended up with alcoholic men and they always drank more than I did. So, but I’d say there were two alcoholic men that I dated. The second one died, and that’s what brought me back to the rooms, or that’s what brought me to my knees and I thought… I didn’t know that I was so ignorant about drinking. I didn’t even know that a blackout was when you lost… Or I thought it was when you lost consciousness. I didn’t even know that you could still be doing things. So when Dave died in 2010, that’s when I just thought, “I gotta do something about my own drinking.” ‘Cause I didn’t wanna look at my drinking. 

I thought I was a functional drunk. I still made it work every day. I had to live with that shame and that secrecy of like, “Oh God. If those people at work really knew what I was doing every… Passing out.” So when I came back, in 2007, I tried to get sober as a result of that first alcoholic. But I only managed to stay dry for six months, ’cause I only went to a few meetings. I didn’t listen to things. I didn’t… I heard the God stuff and I went, “Uh-huh.” So I thought, “I can do it myself.” I just thought it was just sheer willpower. So in 2010, when I came crawling back, that’s when I was… That all those things in the beginning about being willing. I set aside my preconceived notions, I said, “Well, I don’t wanna end up like Dave, [chuckle] so I’m gonna see how this is done.” And you know like when you first stop drinking? You just can’t even imagine what it would be… What are you gonna do with yourself? 

And so I remember coming home from, or not even coming home from work, but sitting in my apartment at night looking at the meeting schedule going, “I gotta go to a meeting. I gotta do something.” Because I couldn’t sit in that apartment ’cause that was my trigger. That’s where I drank. So, fortunately, I white-knuckled it through the holidays. And then finally in January, I went back to the meetings and I found a friend for me, and I just, I’d say I jumped in a whole hog, I just did. 

I  was just the good little AA. I got involved in everything. I had like five or six service commitments, and again, I can see how I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to be accepted and I wanted to be part of the group. And I was still stumbling over this God stuff, and I would share in meetings, and it’s no joke, I would say, “Okay, I don’t believe in God but I’m sure there’s a book out there.” So I’ve gone on Amazon.com, [chuckle] and I was just trying to find… “I really wanna be part of this AA stuff, and if I could just learn this thing about God, I’m sure there’s a way that I can make it work for myself.” And that lasted a couple of years. And when I went to meetings and I would be involved in all these service commitments and go to conventions and stuff, I can look back now and see how I just… You speak to the audience that you’re with and you use all that AA speak and you say, “Oh, I know there’s something out there and I know that my higher power is helping me. And maybe looking back, that’s kind of what I needed, and I needed to sort of be indoctrinated. 

Because I don’t think that if I had not done all those things, I probably would have just strayed again. And so if, for anybody who’s new, I would say, even if it’s not sitting right with you, stay close to those people in the meetings because I believe that it’s the fellowship, and it’s being connected to another alcoholic, that keeps us sober. It’s that willingness. So, I guess what changed for me, or what kept me coming back, in the beginning, was that I went through my steps, and for me, that was a good thing, because I went and I looked at my behaviors and I saw patterns in the way that I treated people and that fear of economic insecurity, which still plagues me. But I could take a step back and look at myself. And also, I blamed myself early on for Dave’s death, because I was so cruel to him and I pushed him away. My last text message to him was that “You’re gonna be dead in a gutter.” And he was dead, like 10 or 11 days later. I carried that with me for my first six-month sobriety. I have such a crazy story because I think, sometimes I think, I came from such humble beginnings. I was an orphan in Korea. I could have died. I used to say that, growing up, “I could have died in Korea.” By some miracle here I am. And I also say that, that I think it’s Judy Collins, that song, ‘Both sides now’. I have literally lived both sides. 

When I was with Cheryl, we traveled the world. I’ve been to most of the capitals in the world and all this crazy stuff, and also on the other side, I’ve known poverty. I’ve lived in a tent. I still to this day have this like hand-to-mouth existence. But through it all, I don’t know, I just feel like there’s some drive in me to survive. I’m like a cat. I always land on my feet. It’s crazy. Here I am in Kansas City and people are like, “Where in the hell is she now?” I have moved so many times. I recently applied for this postal job and I had to fill out this application. And I had to list all the places I lived and worked for the last five or seven years. It was a nightmare. I have moved so many times. So I guess what I’m doing now, they say, “What happened? What was it like what happened? And what I’m doing now.” Something like… 

20:08 LK: I believe very much in service, and service can be anything. It can be doing things that are uncomfortable. When I was first sober I used to do this thing called H and I. They call H and me in California; Hospitals and Institution. It was going in and sitting in a room like this and sharing my story with complete strangers. It scared the shit out of me. I’d be shaking. But after I did that it helped so much, just outside of your comfort zone and remembering. And that’s another thing, is that I will never forget. I will never forget how it felt sitting in my apartment at night and drinking myself to sleep, and that shame. And I don’t want to feel that again. And I’ve never come close to drinking, but I’ve had a lot of rough times in sobriety; emotional upheavals and that sort of thing. 

I moved to New York in 2016 from San Diego to help my mom; big mistake. My mom is still abusive. [chuckle] And I realized, at 55, I was still looking for her approval. I’m still looking for her to love me; to say a kind word. And it’s not coming. It’s kind of the things that we go through. I wanna say, I am so, so grateful for this group, for the, We Agnostics group, and to John and for the podcast, and how much of that was so pivotal for me. A couple of years sober, I realized the traditional meetings weren’t doing it for me, and that I felt that I wasn’t sharing my truth. 

And I think that that’s another thing that’s very, very important, is like when we start hiding things that we are not truthful about, that’s the things that make us, that could lead us to, drink, or to do something destructive. And I think the fact that we can come to these rooms and we can really share what’s on our heart and we don’t have to be careful about which… Pick our words or… And I did that so much. I remember, toward the tail-end of my time in San Diego, there were so many things that I just felt I couldn’t share in those meetings. And that’s… What’s the point when you can’t be honest? I had a couple of quotes. Your know-how, and I still do this, when you think that the circumstances or that your environment or all of these things around you, if these things would just change, then I’ll be happy? And there’s this quote I had on my desk many years ago. It’s from Theroux. And it’s basically, I’ll paraphrase, “Those things don’t change. We do.” And I think that that’s so true, because… And that also kind of goes in with, our perspective is always changing. You know when you were five months sober, you saw things a certain way? When you were five years sober… 

As you get older, I think that’s another thing, it is like that humility and humbleness. I think I always had that. I’ve never been boastful or arrogant person. But I think that getting older, it makes you look at your life and your body. And, How do you wanna spend the rest of your life and to take care of yourself and to do the best things that you can and to have an impact on the people around you and to make those people happy? And yeah, it’s like, that when you give that it comes back to you. And I think that when people hold back and they’re just… Like I can see that it’s really, really heart-breaking with my mom. She’s just bottled up all his anger and it’s just manifested in her body and she’s just so angry and… Yeah, I don’t wanna die. I don’t wanna die like that. I don’t wanna go out..

I liked this. I had this bookmarked for many years. It’s somewhere and I’ve lost it, but it basically says, “The challenge is to be yourself in a world that’s trying to make you like everyone else.” 

And the way that I interpret that for myself is that I spent my whole life trying to prove to people that this is not me. This body is not me; what you see. And I’ve seen people who, like about the prestige and pretension and wealth and that somehow that is a reflection of who you are as a person, and I just don’t… I don’t respect that. I think that I want to be seen, when I’m gone, they’ll say, “Yeah, she was a really goofy person, but she had a good heart.” Or, “She tried her best.” Or, “She gave of herself, maybe not monetarily, but you know that she brought joy to other people. And with that said, that’s all I have. Thank you.