Eileen Normandin remembers well the first time she got drunk.
She was 13 and, along with several friends, got her hands on some Boone's Farm strawberry wine. They all had fierce hangovers the next day.
"There was a bunch of us girls, maybe six of us. The next day they all said 'We'll never do that again!' and I said 'I can't wait to do that again.'"
She credits that experience for what would follow; decades of alcohol and drug abuse that would see
her finally, in a last-ditch effort to straighten out her life, submit to a three-month inpatient treatment program.
Today, 16 years after walking through the doors of the Stonington Institute and admitting she was an addict, Normandin has a successful career as program director of the Katie Blair House in Norwich, a facility that provides emergency and long-term housing for women who are abused by their partners or are substance abusers.
She also, after two failed attempts, is happily married.
"That's another of my problems, I guess. I fall in love too easily," she says with a brief laugh.
Normandin, 51, also laughs, with a good measure of sadness, at the memory of the youthful indiscretion that helped launch her career as a substance abuser. She knows well why her friends had such a strong negative reaction to their first drinking experience and she didn't.
"I was a red-headed, shy girl who got picked on a lot and drinking made me feel good about myself."
When she got drunk, she says, her shyness dissipated and she became another person. She liked it so much, in fact, "I knew from that day on that (alcohol) was going to be a problem for me."
Normandin grew up in East Hartford, the eldest child in a family of three girls and three boys. Both her parents, she says, were alcoholics, as was her grandfather, whom she says was one of the founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous, back in the day when it was a fledgling group that met furtively after services in the darkened basements of local churches.
By the time she graduated high school in 1977, Normandin says, she was drinking regularly and went to work as a bartender in high-end clubs and bars in Hartford.
That's where she got introduced to cocaine, a drug she says was so pervasive in the Hartford club scene of the late '70s and early '80s that some regular customers left her coke as a tip.
"You'd go to parties, and it was all over the place, it was just everywhere."
She swore she'd never pay for coke, but quickly became so addicted she had to buy it to ensure that she had a steady supply.
"I made a lot of money and I spent a lot of money on cocaine. It was such a different life it seems like I'm talking about someone else's life now."
It was during those drug and alcohol-fueled days when Normandin met her first husband, a man who would physically abuse her.
"Never marry someone you meet in a bar," she says ruefully.
By the time she was 23, she was married and had given birth to a daughter. She and her husband were living in Torrington, and he, like her, was an alcoholic.
Shortly after another Torrington woman, Tracy Thurman, was stabbed numerous times and nearly killed in 1983 by her abusive spouse, Normandin decided to leave her husband.
"He was a very violent drunk," she says. "He brutalized me for years and I didn't know how to get out of it."
After her divorce she lived for a time with a boyfriend, who also abused her.
"I guess I got used to living on the edge."
After that man pulled a knife on her one night, Normandin, shaken and upset, called one of her brothers. He came with a U-Haul truck and moved her into their father's home in Clinton.
While Normandin says leaving another abusive relationship was the best thing she could do for herself, moving in with her father was "the biggest mistake of my life."
Her dad paid the bills, helped take care of her daughter and Normandin says she became "a free bird. I really got into the drugs heavily."
Still working in bars, she was partying heavily, sometimes staying out all night.
"You get so hyped up from the coke, you need the booze to calm you down," she says.
After one all-night bender she arrived home early one morning and found her father waiting for her in the kitchen.
"You need help," he told her. "And I told him, 'I think I do.' He told me afterward that he was surprised by my response. But I had gotten to the point where I was just so disgusted with myself. I had really hit bottom and I wanted to change my life."
She sought out a local social worker who gave her a tough-love ultimatum: She would help Normandin get into an inpatient treatment facility and the town would pay for it, but it would be a one-shot deal.
"She told me, 'If you don't make it, I don't want to see you back here.' "
She made it through those three months at the Stonington Institute and after, came to the Katie Blair House, a supportive housing program run by Bethsaida Community Inc., where she would stay for 10 months while she pulled her life back together.
She got a job in a local pizza place as a waitress, making a fraction of the tips she used to make in the Hartford clubs.
"But that was good for me because I needed to be humbled."
She would come home at night and watch television in a communal room at Katie Blair, wishing she could go to one of the local package stores and buy alcohol.
"I used to take it one commercial at a time, literally, instead of one day at a time. I would tell myself, 'Just wait until this commercial is over and then you can go.' And then the next commercial would come and I'd say it again. I kept doing that until 8 o'clock, when the package stores were all closed. Because sometimes, for some people, one day is too long."
Those 30- and 60-second self-therapy sessions worked. Normandin remained sober and went to work for the Stonington Institute as a van driver. She got an affordable efficiency apartment in Stonington Borough and began attending classes at Manchester Community College to get certified as a drug and alcohol counselor.
One day, when one of the institute's
counselors didn't show up for a group session, administrators asked Normandin to lead the group.
"I jumped in that first time and before I knew it, they wanted me to do it full time."
Around the same time, she became a volunteer at Katie Blair, giving residents there rides to job interviews and off-site counseling sessions. When the job of teaching a life management skills class opened up at Katie Blair, Normandin applied for it and got it. Three years later the founder of Katie Blair, Carol Croteau, asked her to become the facility's director and Normandin, surprised but pleased by the offer, accepted.
"I never thought in a million years that I was qualified for it."
She's held the job for about 11 years and recently was named project director for a new initiative operated by Bethsaida called Homeless Women Deserve Treatment, a program that provides housing, basic health services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and counseling and daily support to women in need.
"There are not many people in the world like Eileen," says Claire Silva, Bethsaida's executive director. "She believes in each woman's potential and encourages all clients to change their lives for the better. Eileen truly cares for everyone and will do whatever it takes to help someone realize their own self-worth."
Today Normandin has three grown children and is married, happily, for a third time. She and her husband live in Norwich.
Her pride in Katie Blair House is evident on a recent morning as she gives a visitor a tour, from the family room at one end of the house to her small office on the second floor.
The large dining room table on the first floor, she points out, originally belonged to Croteau's family. A pair of large bedrooms on the second floor each hold two beds for two of the residents who temporarily call this place home. In one bedroom, several stuffed animals sit perched atop the bed against the far wall.
Back downstairs she meets up with Cora Sharpe, a former resident of Katie Blair who now lives in one of the apartments Bethsaida owns next door. Sharpe, who came to Katie Blair after leaving an abusive husband, says she comes back regularly to visit with Normandin, whom she credits with helping her rebuild her self-esteem.
Today, she has her own apartment and a full-time job at Foxwoods.
"But Cora, you really did all that on your own," Normandin tells her.
Watching someone like Sharpe change from a frightened victim into a confident, outgoing woman, Normandin says, is what drew her into this career.
"You're working with women from all different walks of life, from jail to Yale. It's wonderful to see how some of them blossom here."
And what about those who don't make it?
"To me there are no failures. Every woman who comes through our door is a success, even if they only last one day. Because even if you only spend one day here, we've planted a seed in you that can ultimately sprout."