Finding strength: Recovering alcoholic

After 20 years, Helen Mays discovered the resolve to stop was inside her all along
Sunday, November 26, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:21 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008


Helen Mays searches for the correct puzzle piece out of dozens of options. A recovering alcoholic, Mays works on puzzles to stay occupied and to make amends for her past behaviors.

(MAGGIE RIFE/Missourian)

How do you make up for something you regret doing?

Helen Mays puts together jigsaw puzzles.

Sometimes it takes her months to finish a puzzle, sometimes two or three days. Sometimes she doesn’t even like the puzzle she’s working on. But Mays says it takes her mind off everything bad that’s happened to her.

She says that when you have to focus on finding a particular piece, figuring out what color it is, what shape it is and how it fits with the rest of the puzzle, it’s hard to think about much else.

That, she said, can be a good thing.

Born in 1951, Mays started drinking when she was 16. She tried to quit many times, but she wasn’t able to until a turning point 19 years ago when she blacked out and was sexually abused.

Afraid of what else could happen when blacking out, she joined an Alcoholics Anonymous program.

“I started drinking because of peer pressure, but I kept drinking because I had a disease called alcoholism,” Mays said. “I tried to quit for everybody else, for every other reason, and it didn’t work. I had to reach a point within myself that I was worth it.”

Mays said that she always had an inner belief things would get better and that’s what kept her going. She said she realized that she couldn’t make it on her own.

“Nothing happens in God’s world by mistake,” Mays said. She said that she always believed in but took God for granted for many years.

Mays had a daughter 23 years ago. She said that she doesn’t remember much about motherhood because she “stayed drunk” most of the time. When her daughter was 3 years old, the Department of Family Services put the child in a foster home, and she was eventually adopted. Mays hasn’t seen her since.

Mays said that she has talked to her daughter over the phone, but they haven’t talked about seeing each other again. Mays said she has “a strong belief that when the time is right and when it’s meant to be” she will see her daughter again.

When Mays was still drinking, she stayed with a man who put together jigsaw puzzles. She would sometimes knock the puzzles over when she had too much to drink, and she said she’s always felt bad about it.

Mays joined Alcoholics Anonymous 19 years ago. One of the program’s steps is to make amends for past behavior. Mays makes up for knocking her friend’s puzzles over by now putting them together herself.

“If I had it all to do again I wouldn’t change a thing,” Mays said. “Everything happens for a reason. Everyone’s got their own path. If I didn’t go the path I went on I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I like me today.”

What does Mays like most about life now?

“That I’m part of it,” Mays said. “When you’re drunk you kind of block out the real world. I was here but I was not here. Now I’m doing time on planet Earth.”

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