Arts & Sciences

From rock bottom to shining star, a student’s journey through alcoholism

June 25, 2015 by Cindy O'Dell
Amy Sinkeldam at the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Desert.<

Amy Sinkeldam at the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Desert.

First impressions can be deceiving. Anyone meeting Amy Sinkeldam could be forgiven for thinking the petite blonde with the easy smile and friendly demeanor has always had an easy path through life with hardly a bump along the way.

Think again. Sinkeldam has seen rock bottom in a way that’s difficult to imagine. More importantly, as Brandman adjunct professor Gail Bardin puts it, “Even at her lowest, she found her way back up.”

Sinkeldam was born into a rock-and-roll life, and in some ways, a double life. She was a toddler wearing ear protection backstage at Van Halen concerts (her uncle played bass), tending bar at the age of 12 and perfectly comfortable in a life that included a lot of drinking. At the same time, she also loved school and sports and excelled at both.

But there were also sexual abuse that, while not ignored, was never fully dealt with.

Still Sinkeldam headed off to college in Hawaii, when she was 18 fully expecting to someday become a trainer at Sea World, a lifelong goal. Used to a life of spontaneity, she enrolled in a college she had never visited and signed up for a course in scuba diving, only to be told she couldn’t dive because of asthma.

“I used it as an excuse to drink,” she says. Soon she had flunked out, returned to California without any goals and was jumping from restaurant job to restaurant job, paycheck to paycheck and party to party.

“It started getting worse, to where I had to be drinking before the job, on the job, after the job.”

She tried taking community college courses but nothing really interested her. She was 22 when she stopped in a dive bar in La Verne, not far from her parent’s home. She doesn’t really know what happened next, but the night ended with her driving into a palm tree at 55 mph and being mistaken for dead.

“That should have been my bottom. It wasn’t,” she says. Her hip was shattered to the point that it had to be replaced. Her shoulder was broken and she had the legal consequences of a DUI. Required classes on drug and alcohol abuse did nothing to curb her drinking.

“Instead of stopping, I drank more.” She was also depressed, unable to walk initially and just sitting at home. Eventually her parents convinced her she needed to do something. That led to a revolving door of drinking, detox, sober treatment centers, being miserable and drinking again. Eventually, her parents refused to bring her home.

Three months later, in the middle of the night, she fled an abusive relationship and called her father.
“We need to do something different.”

A psychologist and family members suggested the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage. “I was scared to death,” she remembers.

At Hazelden Betty Ford

FordMagazineCoverThe admission area of the Betty Ford Center is a study in desert beige. A bust of the late first lady oversees a waiting area and a full wall of glass-enclosed shelves displays photos and other mementoes. Letters from patients crediting the clinic with saving their lives line the wall. Cactus and other desert blooms can be seen from every window along with the occasional roadrunner.

“From the moment I walked through the doors, it was a giant hook,” says Sinkeldam. “The genuineness of the people, any staff I came into contact with … they really cared, they really believed I could make changes.”

“I felt like I was finding myself,” she says, adding that she had spent most of her life trying to impress other people and never feeling quite good enough.

Although technically too old for the “young adult” program for those 18-25, Sinkeldam, then 26, was allowed to stay on campus in a program called Phase 5, which connected her with a hotel reception job and a pilot program at Brandman University.

Still longing to major in marine biology, Sinkeldam wasn’t sure there was anything for her at Brandman but began taking classes, including a psychology course taught by Gail Bardin.

“From the start, Amy had such an inspiring passion for learning and a level of insight and self-awareness that’s vital in the field of psychology,” said Bardin who encouraged Sinkeldam to take additional psychology courses.

Seven months later, Sinkeldam thought she was ready to make it on her own.  Eleven days later she relapsed.

“If I thought I was at the bottom before, then this time I was way down here,” she says, holding one hand flat and motioning with the other two feet below it. Despite a trip to the emergency room for a stab wound and a rape exam, she did her best to keep working and going to school. Still both her co-workers and people at Brandman knew something had gone wrong.

“I was trying to hide it. But one night, I called my sponsor and said, ‘I’m drunk.’ She called my parents. I went back into Betty Ford the next day. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

And their response? “Thank God you made it back.”

Picking up the pieces again

Amy Sinkeldam

Amy Sinkeldam

She spent 30 days as an in-patient. “I got a lot more honest about everything,” she says. “I hit a different kind of bottom, a spiritual bottom.”

When she emerged, she still had a job and Brandman welcomed her back so she could finish with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She feels blessed by the love and support of her classmates and others.

“I think she took every undergraduate course I taught and I always looked forward to having her in the classroom,” said Bardin, who also knew that Sinkeldam still longed for a life among sea creatures. Bardin met Sinkeldam for coffee shortly after she graduated and inquired about an upcoming job interview.

When Sinkeldam told Bardin that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she didn’t get her dream job, Bardin told her, “It’s so wonderful that you can look at it through that lens. You have your life and so many opportunities in front of you. With your level of dedication and passion, you can be successful at whatever you choose to do.”

A few weeks later, Sinkeldam told Bardin that she was entering the Brandman master’s program in psychology and counseling. “I was absolutely thrilled on so many levels,” said Bardin. “I think she’ll be a fabulous therapist, a great asset to our community or any other community she chooses to go to. Amy has a great outlook on life, yet she’s not a Pollyanna. She’s a realist. Her personal experience’s and willingness to authentically share about them, has such a powerful impact on others. I’ve watched it unfold in the classroom on numerous occasions. It allows others to take a step back and think about their assumptions. It taps into another part of their thoughts and emotions.”

Don Scott, director of Advising and Retention Services at the Palm Desert campus, remembers seeing Sinkeldam when she first arrived at Brandman and still finds the transformation hard to believe. “She’s a shining star for this campus.”

Sinkeldam would still like to love to live by the beach someday. But now instead of training dolphins, she’s hoping she’ll be able to work with young adults, especially those who might be away at college for the first time and struggling as she did.

In the meantime, she’s working to maintain a happy balance. She’s left her hotel job, still feeling an incredible debt of gratitude to the people who stood by her. She’s back at the Betty Ford Clinic but this time working in admissions and helping guide people as terrified as she once was through their first experiences there.  She’s about halfway through her master’s program at Brandman.

She’s planning her wedding, set for September 2016. And she shares her story, in part because the 12-step program she adheres to requires service to others.

“If sharing my story helps somebody, even one person, that’s worth it,” says Sinkeldam. Working admissions at the clinic she often comes in contact with parents of young addicts.

“I give them hope that it can be done. When I share my story, you can hear the weight fall off their shoulders and they realize that someone can come through it.”


Getting help

Students who are recovering from addiction may be able to get additional support through the Office of Disability Services – Accessible Education.

More information is available here and here.

Brandman employees (staff and full-time faculty) can seek help for alcohol and drug abuse and issues through the Employee Assistance Program. The free benefit is also available to dependents. Help is available 24 hours a day at 800-538-3543. Additional information is available on my.brandman.edu and on the EAP website.

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