I have come to believe that my Higher Power shows up in skin to give me messages. My job is to stay open to whomever the messenger might be. Today I have the honor to introduce you to Tennie McCarty, a woman in long-term recovery, founder of the Shades of Hope Treatment Center, and author, who was one of those profound messengers in my life.
Between her Texas twang and her no-nonsense approach to recovery, I could listen to Tennie share her experience, wisdom, strength, and hope all day long. The denim on the episode art is no coincidence =) Don’t worry you will hear the touching story.
Learn more about the Shades of Hope treatment center and Tennie’s life changing book Shades of Hope.
Please meet Tennie McCarty!
See full transcript below.
You’re listening to The Embrace Family Recovery Podcast, a place for real conversations with people who love someone with the disease of addiction.
Now, here is your host, Margaret Swift Thompson.
Welcome back today is probably one of the biggest moments of my podcasting career so far, because I have the absolute privilege of talking with Tennie McCarty, who is a woman who changed my life forever when I heard her speak at a convention in Las Vegas.
She’s the author of the book, Shades of Hope, and the founder and head of an incredible Treatment Center in Texas called Shades of Hope. In Tennie’s, book Shades of Hope, the foreword, written by Ashley Judd and saying, I suspect that upon reading this book, you too will be grateful that you have been introduced to her and the promise of recovery that inheres in her life story. If it can happen to her, it can happen to you. I’m living proof of that”.
I would just add ditto. I believe after listening to Tennie today on the podcast, you also will feel that connection of deep recovery, simplicity in the actions and steps taken, and the generosity in which Tennie shares it with anyone she comes in contact with. Even my dogs are a little excited, I think knowing she was on the podcast. They’re barking passes, please meet Tennie McCarty!
The Embrace Family Recovery Podcast.
Well, I am absolutely beyond thrilled to have you on my podcast, Tennie McCarty, I cannot believe this is happening. So, for my listeners out there, I need to give you a little backstory before I have to join us and share some of her wonderful story. I am clear about being a recovering food addict. And I had the privilege of hearing Tennie share her story back in Las Vegas at a convention. And I can’t remember how many years ago that was, but you had just published your book.
Tennie: 10 years,
Margaret: Is that right? Oh, and I sat in that audience and was so overcome by emotion because your story was so familiar and so empowering. And so, permission giving for me as a professional in the field of addiction to validate the truth that food addiction is just like any other addiction.
And it probably one of the most pivotal, powerful moments in my entire personal life Tennie was hearing you share your story. And I am so honored to have you here and give you a chance to speak to my audience which is filled with loved ones of people with this disease of addiction. That’s who usually tunes in to the podcast, and to get a chance to hear from you.
So, Tennie If you were to introduce yourself to an audience that’s new to you, how do you do that?
Tennie McCarty 03:38
Well, what I would usually say is, name is Tennie McCarty, I’m very grateful, recovering compulsive overeater, bulimic, I’m an adult child of an alcoholic, and I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I’m much more than these, this is what we call our claims, but I’m much more than that, but that is the claims. My diseases is what has helped me find out who I really am at the core. So, I say I’m grateful, not so much that I’m grateful for having the disorders and the diseases, but I’m very grateful that I have found and healing. And that’s what I want to share with other people that there is hope. People can recover from eating disorders or any addiction. I absolutely know that.
And tell our audience how you know that. Obviously, your personal story is part of that. But how else do you know that there is hope and recovery?
Tennie McCarty 04:35
Well, after you know I’ve had the disease of compulsive overeating since I was age four, and then in ‘72, started practicing bulimia and for 13 years, got very ill with bulimia. And then went to treatment and I didn’t know there’s treatment for folks like me. I was in the addiction field working with drug addicts and alcoholics every day, but I had no idea that, I just thought I was a glutton and weak willed and was trying to lose the weight. I did not know I had a disease that was absolutely just like an alcoholic. The similarities are there. So, I went to treatment and realize that I had a brain chemistry that’s different than normal eaters. And that I did have a disease called compulsive overeating and bulimia, and also learned that I could treat it, one day at a time.
And actually, I’m very grateful that I went to that particular treatment center. Because they did, now they did a lot of other things. But the basic, the core of the treatment was the 12-step program. And that’s what I taught every day to drug addicts and alcoholics, at the treatment center, here at home.
So, I left there knowing that, you know, I had looked for help all of my life, all my life started at about age 13. But I left there having some solutions and knowing that if I follow the direction that was given to me in that treatment center, if I did that one day at a time, I could get well. And I’m coming up, I’m 36 years of recovery from food addiction, compulsive overeating, and bulimia. And I’m grateful for every one of those days. And it takes work. It takes hard work but after a while, and I tell people this all the time, after a while the food takes its proper place. I mean, I look back and I cannot imagine food not running my life today, like it had for many, many years. And I cannot say how grateful I am for that.
You know, I eat today to sustain my body. I eat basically three meals a day, nothing in between, maybe a snack in midafternoon or at night. Food is not the problem. Food is not the problem. And what getting some, you know, the recovery from the food addiction in order has helped me look and other aspects of my life. Because that’s what I was trying to hide is the history and push the feelings down. And I no longer have to do that I get to deal with the feelings.
So, a similarity we shared being in the field of addiction, serving clients with chemical dependency and addiction and not acknowledging or knowing we’re using the same language until it was taught to me that that was an option that my disease worked in the same way. What led you to originally work in the field of addiction Tennie?
Tennie McCarty 07:46
Well, I came from one of those very dysfunctional homes that we, you know, hear about. My parents were very ill. My mother was a prescription drug addict, she laid on the couch and wore out couches. She was sick my entire life. And she was also a compulsive overeater. But she would go from anorexia to being overweight. And my father was a sex addict. He was a violent man anyway. He did all of his violence and got away with a lot because he was also a law enforcement officer.
So, I grew up in a lot of dishonesty. I mean, I was pretty much captive in the house, you know, my dad would say you can’t trust anyone outside this house. Well, I’ve came to learn I couldn’t trust the people inside the house. So, I knew that I wanted my life to be different. And actually, at age eight, I started to a little Baptist Church and really found, I didn’t find religion, what I found was the God of my understanding. You know, it didn’t take away the suffering and all that, but I knew, I had a knowing that somewhere along the line, my life was gonna be alright.
So, I’ve been a seeker of help forever. And I always swore that I’d never marry an alcoholic and I didn’t I married me two of them. (laughter) So my second husband and I, I had no idea he was an alcoholic, because he could drink, wouldn’t go out and he’d drink. Anyway, I didn’t realize he was an alcoholic until we were on our honeymoon. And so, what happened for me is that I found Al- Anon family group and spent 14 years there before my husband ever went to his first AA meeting. And while I was there, together we had seven children. My husband had always made us a good living, but I thought, you know, if he didn’t get sobriety, I might have to make a living for these children and I didn’t have an education. I went back to school. They were just licensing chemical dependency counselors in our area. And I went toward that field, really wanting to work mainly with children of alcoholics. But that’s how I got into the field and my husband was still drinking, when I got into the alcoholism and drug field. Had the opportunity of helping start a drug program here, in Abilene, Texas, there wasn’t a lot of help from drug addicts and alcoholics back in those years.
So, I got to start really from the ground up. And, you know, I would wish on days that I could be more of an alcoholic, so I could get help, you know, because my behavior was getting sicker. I was getting sicker and sicker by the day. And it was actually a recovering drug addict that I had hired from LA that worked for me in the treatment center. I had hired him, he was actually the one that took me, that told me about the treatment center in LA. And he gave me a book ‘Fat is a Family Affair by Dr. Judy Hollis. And I read it. And they were opening the center on Tuesday, and by Wednesday, I was there, and it’s the best thing that ever happened. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the best thing. Although today, I could not have made it without treatment, because I’ve been in OA since 1972. And it was ’85 and I could not have made it without treatment.
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So, you bring up some really interesting things. My way of getting into recovery was through the 12 steps of OA originally, and it was through a colleague of mine saying when I went into her room and I just was devastated at my inability to stop, and how I was seeing the similarities in my behavior to the clients that I served. And she’s like, what about going to an o a meeting? And I’m like, I live in rural Wisconsin. Are you kidding me? I’m not driving all the way to Minneapolis, St. Paul, for some stupid meeting that probably won’t even help me. I mean, I’ve tried everything. And she found a meeting 20 minutes from my doorstep. And it was there that I started to hear people share my story, which helped me find my way into recovery. But the thing that jumped out at me, many things did Tennie that you shared just then was you shared I believe it was 14 years you were in Al-Anon before your husband got help for his alcoholism?
Tennie: Yes, 14 years.
Margaret: I know there are people listening who are in that situation where they’re not able to change their person. They’ve accepted that on some level, but they’re still struggling, but they’re going to their meetings. And there are people out there who are trying to decide if they stay, if they go, what’s my role? What do I do? How did you manage those 14 years? What helped you? What did you do different as a result of your exposure to Al-Anon?
Tennie McCarty 13:17
Well, I will say you I was far sicker than that husband ever thought about being. I was emotionally sick from living in the disease of alcoholism all my life. My father was a rager and I had picked up his rage I had become a rager. And I’m not proud of this. My husband, he was a gentle man. He was gentle. And he would come home drunk at night, and I’d beat him up. Now, I’m not proud of that. But it was my behavior that I was eating over. It wasn’t his. You know, I had ate myself up to 287 pounds. But I would get mad at him and beat him up. And then the next morning, I would apologize to him. And he’d never knew what I was apologizing for. Because he was you know, he’d been in a blackout the night before. So, we got very sick together, the two of us but when I found Al Anon through. I had been to a to hear Father Martin. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard
Margaret: I have
Tennie: Father Martin. Beloved, you know, he did what we call Chalk Talks. And I heard him many years ago and he talked about the family and what happens to the family, and he said the family needs as much if not more help than the alcoholic. So, he talked about Al-Anon and so I started to Al-Anon and it was hard for me to go because by that time I was so shut down. I could hardly say my name, but you know, I could rage at home to my kids and my husband, but outside the home I was shut down. I was really pretty mentally ill I don’t know what my diagnosis would have been, but it was the living the disease of alcoholism had taken its toll on me.
So I went to Al-Anon and by the grace of God got a really good sponsor, they had just moved there to our town. And she hand fed me the program of Al-Anon, and a very gentle, loving way. And one of the things that she taught me early on, was that it’s okay to love an alcoholic, just don’t love him to death. And she helped me give up trying to caretake him and trying to be his mother, all of those things. And also, she’s the one who helped me to see that he had a disease, he wasn’t doing it at me, my mother wasn’t doing it at me, you know, none of that, that they both had a disease.
And when I could get to the point that I could love my husband, in spite of his disease. I remember one day walking up to him. By this time, I was already a counselor, I’d already started thinking about because I only had, a couple of children at home by then, and I thought do I want to continue to live in the disease of alcoholism, I had no idea that he would ever sober up. And so, I went up to him one day, and you know, he kinda dodged ‘cause he was used to me hitting him. But anyway, I put my arms around him. And I told him that I said, honey, I know that you’re sick, that you have a disease called alcoholism, and I love you, and I care about you. But I cannot go down with you. And I’m here if you ever want any help if you ever want to do anything different, but I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m not saying I’m leaving today. But I’ve got to find a better life for myself and the children. And that’s how I left it. And I went on about my business. And it was probably two weeks later, he showed up for his first AA meeting.
What I say with alcoholics, we have to get off of their back, get out of their way and go on with our own lives. And that’s what I did. And my husband would say, you know, in his AA talk, he would say, he realized he was going to sit there in his chair and drink himself to death while his wife and family was going on with their lives.
I had to, I had to find the life for me and the children, regardless of whether he ever sobered up or not. So, I never left but I did go as far as renting an apartment. What I tell people is stay in the situation, unless it’s physically abusive. And of course, I was the one that was the abuser,
Tennie: I tell people stay in, stay until you can stay and become different, when you can become different inside that relationship. And what that means is when you can love yourself, enough to know that it’s not about you, when we can stand tall autonomous with the God of our understanding, when we can stand alone, we can stand with another person. But I had always been so dependent on someone, my mother, my husband, you know. And it takes two healthy people to make a marriage. And we had two unhealthy people that formed a dependency to each other. So, when I pulled out of that dependency cycle, my husband, I say fell flat on his face, and he decided he wanted sobriety. Really didn’t have that much to do with me. I went on with my life and he made the decision to recover.
So, take me back Tennie because I hear the change. I hear that you got in and were gently and firmly taught what you felt you needed to be healthier in yourself. The transition from the way we’ve always done it to the new way of doing it through Al-Anon I described as a dance right, the one we’ve been in is familiar. We know the steps we know how to engage with the disease. It’s very second nature when we have lived in it. But as we’re learning to do this new dance with these new tools that feel so counterintuitive, what we learn as a loved one. Did you have techniques you use to slow you down to stop your reactivity? Did you use your sponsor you know what, can you go back to those early days and talk about what helped you in that transition to being able to set the boundaries and live a way that was different?
Tennie McCarty 19:30
Absolutely and it had to start with a lot about my mothering also because I ran the house, and we had seven children. We had a blended family and ran that household like a staff sergeant, and I was a spotless housekeeper and active in the community and blah, blah, blah and all of that. And a compulsive overeater, and I drove those children to perfection. And so, it really had to start in the home. Not even with my husband I had to start being a better person that I could live with.
So, my sponsor early on, she gave me, you know, the little meditation book, One Day at a Time and she said, sit down every morning, take, you know, get up, and I was an early riser. But she said, take five minutes, sit down and read this meditation book every morning. Well, my mind was like on a railroad track, and I couldn’t do but two minutes. But gradually I did five and then gradually, I began to, where I could do more prayer and meditation. But I would start it every morning.
And then she said, why don’t you start putting some cheerful music on in the house while you’re fixing breakfast for your children? Well, I did that. And they come downstairs, and they didn’t know what was going on,
Margaret: I’m sure.
Tennie: because I had a smile on my face. And I wanted to be a tap dancer. And so, I started doing a little tap dance as for them, you know, I began to change in front of the children. And it helped me so much to give up, and it took years to really give up all of that rage and anger. And it took a lot of treatment, a lot of experiential help to get rid of the rage.
But anyway, it was those things that she would give me to do that I would do, I would actually do them.
When the kids would go to school, the older ones I had, about a two-year-old, still, you know, still at home, and when they’d go to school, I’d gather that little two-year-old. By that time, I had three or four meditation books. And I’d read those meditation books to her. And then I’d read her a little story that was at our time. And but one morning I overslept, and I hit the floor running and went to the bottom the stairs, screaming at those kids like I’d done before. And you know, and I was in there trying to make lunches and fix breakfast and all that. And all of a sudden, I felt a tug to my old house coat. And I looked down, my sponsor had given me a little denim bag, that to carry my meditation books in. And I look down and my baby girl was pulling on my house coat. She had that little denim bag, and she held that bag up. She didn’t know
Tennie: all about what was in that bag. But she knew if her mother opened it, she was a kinder person. That was the best lesson I’ve ever gotten. And I’ll tell you from that point to this, I’ve never failed to do some form of prayer and meditation. Sometimes it’s laying in my bed. Sometimes it’s with this girl here, Misty, we do prayer and share together. We used to do it every morning, we’re gonna have to get back on a better schedule. But I’ve had a prayer partner for many, many years.
And so, prayer and meditation has been the most number one thing that has changed my life and then going into meetings, sponsoring people taking action. You know, and when I came home from treatment, we had disbanded OA meetings, in Abilene and I knew I had to get with, like kind and so I drove to Fort Worth, which is two and a half hours one way. I did that for about a year to go to meetings. And then I came back and myself and another woman, we started a OA meetings and they grew, and they grew, and they grew. Then willing to go to any lengths, willing to go to any lengths driving to Fort Worth to go to meetings, I knew I had to do that.
And so, one thing that I would say to people is to be willing to do whatever. And you know this, I’m going to pat myself on the back for that, because I’ve searched for help forever. And when I would find help, I would follow directions. And that’s where I see people not being willing to do. They want help, but they don’t want to do the work. It takes work. It takes work.
Thank you, Tennie, I think that what you share that’s so powerful is the taking the action, the baby steps, even if they seem small, like you said you could only manage two minutes at first because your brain was on the railroad track. That if we’re willing, and we take the action, we grow and take direction from a sponsor or whoever we’re working with to help us find our path. I mean, I couldn’t have done recovery without that accountability and direction.
Tennie McCarty 24:26
Oh, I’ve had many, many sponsors. And you know, because I qualify from different 12 Step programs, I’ve had to have a sponsor in each one. And also, years ago had a spiritual director a spiritual guide. She was like a grandmother to my kids who had many years of sobriety. And so, it took more for me, I think. I’ve always worked with a sponsor. I still do, and I sponsor a couple of people and I do that mostly by phone. But in the early days, I may, I called the sponsor every day and I’m talking about early days, I probably did that for the first 35 years of my recovery. I found Al-Anon and October of 1968. So, I’ve been doing this a while.
Margaret: You have, you have.
Tennie: But it has taken a lot and going to conferences, and going to weekend retreats, you know, I would go anywhere that I might could hear, something that’s helping someone. I mean, I wanted to get well more than I wanted to stay sick.
Do you think it’s harder to get well than to stay sick, or harder to stay sick and keep that life going?
Tennie McCarty 25:45
Well, I’ve done it both ways. But once I started toward recovery, I mean, I loved, and I still love every bit of it. I mean, it has just, it’s everything I wanted out of a family. That is what I was looking for. I wanted direction, I wanted someone, you know, my mother and dad could not parent me and this is really what I have found in a 12-step program is some re parenting. Those 12 steps will reparent anyone and then we can become our own healthy parents. I had looked for directions all of my life. And you know, I’m not, I mean, my family, my folks were very ill, you know, and they came from sick family. So, it’s not about that I’m beaten them up. But they were sick people, and sick people have sick people. And it passes down, you know and it’s sad to say I’m really the only one in my family that ever-sought recovery. My mother did for a while, but she loved her, I called her my little tablet taker she loved those prescription drugs and you know my sister died about a year ago and she died of untreated codependency. She never ever would accept the fact that our mother was as sick as she was. My sister was three years older, she was out of the home quicker, she lived through yeah, so I did get the bulk of my parents’ sickness. But still, just to say that I’m the only one and it saddens me that my family didn’t join me, but I will say the family that my husband and I have established, all of our kids are in some, well not all but they all know about recovery and majority of them are in recovery.
So, recovery is just a wonderful way to live and the big book talks about we’ll see a fellowship that will grow up around us and I’ve seen that. We used to have, before my husband passed away. We’d have large groups of people at our home nearly every Saturday night after the AA meeting. He loved having a lot of people in, and we had a note, you got to stick around the program long enough to have fun with it.
Tennie: we had a lot of fun and recovery still do.
And I would assume your children were witness to that through the transition of your healing and your husband’s healing.
Tennie McCarty 28:19
Absolutely and when they talk, it almost embarrasses me to even say this but when my three daughters talk what they will say is that their mother going into Al-Anon is what saved all of them. And as much as they didn’t like it, they were you know, little kids and then got into being teenagers and all. And they were you know, kids are selfish. They wanted me there all the time. And they’d complain about me being on the phone or going to too many meetings or whatever. But today they say, “oh mother we’re so glad that you did” and they wanted me to then but you know they also wanted, self-centered kids they wanted their mom at home. And we involved them and took them to conferences not all the time. But we incorporated a lot of fun into our household which we had not had before. It had been a very serious household.
I didn’t lie did I. Tennie is one of a kind. Come back next week to hear more from this wonderful role model of recovery. She does it to the best of her ability one day at a time, which is what I aspire to do, and I hope you will be encouraged to do also.
Until next time, take care of you.
Outro: I want to thank my guest for their courage and vulnerability and sharing parts of their story. Please find resources on my website.
This is Margaret Swift Thompson.
Until next time please take care of you