"After All..." by Suzie Walker


She’s in my mind at random moments: when I toss frozen food into my grocery cart with a resigned, what-the-hell attitude; when I share special moments with my galpals; or when I notice myself doing something with spunk and humor. She’s been a role model since I was about 10, and ever since, she’s felt like a friend. I was still playing with Barbie dolls then, but they grew more sophisticated when she came into my life. I remember a nightstand with a cubbyhole for books that I emptied to decorate as an apartment where my single, career-minded doll could live, just like Mary. I sewed outfits for her to wear to work or on dates, just like Mary. I wanted to grow up to be carefree and independent, just like Mary. At the time, I meant Mary Richards, her iconic character; but I grew up to be more like Mary Tyler Moore herself in many ways.

Our home was loving, but also chaotic. We had moved to a farmhouse, and for the first several years, we weren’t just family anymore. The hired hands lived in the house with us. They were a series of mostly good guys, just back from the war or hard on their luck, but some were what my mom called “doozies.” They drank too much and carried on in ways that were both fascinating and frightening to us kids. Our home wasn’t a sanctuary from the world anymore, and the people we trusted to live with us did not always live up to that trust.

So I’d escape in my playtime, imagining that my Barbie was like Mary, a strong, caring, funny single gal who had a job and people she loved. Mary made a difference and was an example of feminism at a time when it was a radical idea. Women were burning bras, and little girls were fighting for the right to play Little League, but Mary had a more gentle style. My Barbie had her job and friends, dated my brother’s GI Joes, and enjoyed her own refuge from the world, her apartment—a renovated nightstand with as much panache and style as my talents could muster. She loved her independence, and I loved mine.

I was full of ideas and passion for learning, and dreamed of being a journalist like my friend Mary Richards. But I was also riddled with insecurities and ignorant of how to proceed in my real life. I didn’t know how to marry my dreams to my reality, so my reality got further and further from my dreams, and I drifted.

While my life had joy and meaning, my insecurities led me into the abyss and abandonment of alcoholism. I forgot who I was and what I wanted. When I was brave enough to reconnect with my story, I was too overcome with disappointment and shame to start a new act. I’d get lost in the miasma of the alcohol and dysfunction, even as, on the outside, I managed to enjoy some success. But it was all a performance, one that involved my energy and skills but left my essential self behind, quietly bottled up inside. I sent mannequin girl into the world to go through the motions of my days, but her hollowness left echoes. The prisoner inside got smaller and smaller, her voice harder and harder to hear on those rare occasions when she’d show up to audition something new.

I worked up the courage to hit the stage most days, but I’d retreat to the dressing room as soon as possible, dodging my supporters in search of solitude or bottled courage. I’d isolate, comforting the lonely girl the only way I knew how, buoying her fleeting ambitions with the one fuel sure to produce only bad reviews. Until at last, I was stretched too far and couldn’t carry on the farce any longer.

Then I found recovery. I learned how to heal and bring all the pieces of me together again. All the roles I’d played merged into one, and I freed and embraced the bottled-up girl inside. I exchanged the false courage of alcohol for reality and relationships, including old friends like Mary.

Along the way, I learned that Mary Tyler Moore was a recovering alcoholic, too! She’d grown up in an alcoholic home and eventually turned to alcohol herself. But she found recovery and courageously shared that part of her life, too, in interviews and memoirs. Now she inspired me in a new way, showing the pluck and optimism of Mary Richards but also the vulnerability and resilience of Mary Tyler Moore.

People are capable of powerful transformations, and we learn from each other’s examples. I smile now, knowing that, after all, I can cherish all of me, and hold a special place in my heart for my friend, Mary.

Gary MillerComment