Progress, Not Perfection: A Conversation with Mary Di Salvo

Mary Di Salvo is a 40-year veteran of financial services and now one of the top female advisors in the Independent Advisor Channel for Manulife Financial of Canada. She is living a life beyond her wildest dreams as a result and credits/blames one of her older brothers for her success. “It’s all his fault!” she laughs as she describes how her brother convinced her to come in as a junior advisor to his insurance business. At the time, Mary didn’t realize that he would get a percentage of whatever she sold. “A classic sibling move. He eventually left the business and I continued on. I’m very grateful to him because no matter what his motivation was, he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

Of course I had to ask what it was she thinks he saw in her. “I think it was my sincerity and my integrity. And that I can convince people of my ideas. You get very intimate with people in my work. I tell people all the time: ‘Your lawyer knows all about your legal matters, your accountant knows everything about your finances, and your doctor knows all your medical information. An insurance agent knows all three.’ I genuinely care about my clients, they are more like my family and friends as opposed to just clients.”

I can relate to how Mary’s clients must feel when they work with her. We spoke once before our interview and within seconds I knew I was getting the real deal. Mary’s frankness, sense of humour, affability, unflinching honesty, and warmth made it feel like I was catching up with an old girlfriend, not initiating a conversation with a stranger, a conversation that would ask Mary to delve into some of her life’s most intimate details and darkest days.

Mary is a first generation Italian-Canadian. Her parents and two brothers left Sicily in 1960 on the Queen Federica, their sights set on a new life of “cash, hope, and prosperity.” Mary was conceived during their month at sea. They arrived in Halifax and then took the train to Montreal where they were greeted by all her aunts and uncles. Seven years later, they became full Canadian citizens. “[My parents] were so proud that day they got their letter from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.”

While her parents believed Canada was the land of opportunity, and it was in so many ways, life in Mary’s home was not as bright. Mary described living at home as, “Tumultuous. Very tumultuous. I was always in fear growing up. My father was a very angry, volatile man and he believed in physical discipline. I’ve heard it said that abuse has a cycle: the spouse abuses the wife (usually), the wife beats the kids, and the kids beat the dog. That was certainly true in my house. For a while I was too young to discipline physically, but my brothers certainly weren’t. I was witness to them getting physically beaten all the time by my father to put them in their place.”

What she described next had me in goosebumps, hanging on each word. “One vivid memory I have that still haunts me to this day – and that I think was the starting point of my own abuse – happened in the basement in the house I grew up in in Ottawa. It wasn’t a finished basement. My father had a cold cellar for all his prosciutto and cheese and salami and wine. I remember there was a big kerfuffle in the house and my dad was downstairs beating the shit out of my brother, Gio, who was 12 or 13. Eventually everything got quiet. I went downstairs to see what was wrong with my brother because he wasn’t coming up.”

“I found him with his hands tied behind his back with a rope that was attached to a 50-pound bag of potatoes. My father had beaten him and tied him to the sack to teach him a lesson. He was kept there overnight.”

I was astonished. No one was allowed to free him? “No,” Mary said firmly, “no way. The reason he was tied there was because a mother in the neighbourhood had come and told my father that Gio had sexualized her daughter. So, he learned really quickly that you can’t do that. So guess what? Right? [Here Mary begins laughing darkly.] My brother goes, Okay, if I can’t do it to strangers, maybe I can do it to my sister. That was the start of it.”

Beginning around the age of 8 or 9, Mary was sexually abused by Gio, her father, and a cousin who was living in their house until he got married. “What is it with these men in my family?!” she cried, her voice charged with disbelief and the profound injustice of it. Then she began to describe how she coped with it. “I started to become angry. I started dressing like a boy; I would wear my brother’s shirts and started swearing (which I still do today: swearing). I started doing everything I thought I had to do to become less attractive to men. Looking back now at my patterns or the different choices I made, I can see them as self-preservation.”

The sexual abuse stopped after Mary became old enough to avoid the situations it would occur in, but she continued to endure physical abuse at the hands of her father, “the beat-in fear of not wanting to piss off my father, to not set him off. And it didn’t take much to set him off.”

When Mary started high school, she found another method of coping with what was happening at home. “I got in with the drinking crowd, the partying crowd. I started drinking and that was the beginning of my addiction…I had started smoking cigarettes at 8 years old so I was primed for addiction right there. In high school I was afraid of doing drugs, but drinking was it.”

As soon as she could, Mary got her first full time job and started making her own money. She was 16 years old, out of school and making $200 a week at a local convenience store. Her drinking increased and she began to experiment with marijuana. When she was 21, Mary met a guy named Vince who introduced her to cocaine. Over the next 2 years, she blew through $100,000, spending it all on cocaine. Broke and addicted, Mary began sleeping with Vince to get drugs. “That’s when I knew I had a problem with drugs,” she explains. It wasn’t the harm to her body, the huge amount of lost money, it was having sex with men that was the turning point.

“I had been attracted to females since I was about 8 years old. And I was doing so many things that were out of character for me. I was so ashamed. I was compromising my morals and values to get something I wanted. I certainly didn’t feel like the nice Italian girl my mother raised me to be, so that had a huge impact on me.”

Mary decided to get therapy to try to turn her life around. In the process she discovered that the reason she was abusing drugs and alcohol was to cover up the shame she felt about the sexual abuse and the blame she put on herself that it was her fault. “My therapist – God, I love her, she’s still practicing today and I go see her sometimes when I’m in Ottawa – she gave me an assignment. She said to me, ‘Mary, I want you to go to a playground, and I want you to watch 8 year old girls play. And I want you to come back and tell me if you think it’s ever their fault.’”

Mary dug deep in her therapy to understand what was really the catalyst of her addiction. She went to a treatment center for 35 days that turned into “the best 35 days that absolutely saved my life. I was able to talk about all the things that had happened to me and I started to build a foundation upon which to build the rest of my life on.”

That foundation for Mary was formed by 4 key things: “being able to openly talk about the abuse and be heard, to be finally understood, and to be given comfort and solace that it was not my fault.” The last critical piece came through a male counselor that she worked with while in treatment. “He was my first introduction to having a relationship with a man that had nothing to do with what he could get from me. I think that was the start of my healing.”

Today Mary is able to truly feel and express gratitude for her addiction and her 34 years of sobriety. I asked her what sobriety looks like now and she said this, “I’m still actively involved in going to AA meetings… I still sponsor people and I have a sponsor. I do 12 step work…and still take this one day at a time. I have alcohol-ISm, not alcohol-WASm,” she laughed. “Some days are better than others. There are so many things that come at me in a day that I could find any reason to pick up a drink or drug. It’s not as poignant as it was in early sobriety, but what I find interesting is that I have to work particularly hard at today is not physical sobriety, but mental and spiritual sobriety. I have to work hard not to get angry and cross that line. That’s my work today at 34 years… my colleagues might go and have a drink at the end of their day, but I don’t get to do that. The only thing I can do is talk about it, to talk my way through the bad feelings that would lead me to that first drink. So today having emotional and spiritual sobriety is… what I strive for on a daily basis, and it is progress, not perfection, I gotta tell you.”

The gratitude piece she sums up this way, “In my father’s cold storage that I described earlier – and what a paradox he is, he was such an abusive human being – but in his cold cellar there was a portrait of Jesus. A portrait of Jesus! I would sleepwalk as a little girl and I would wake up on my knees in front of that portrait. I was looking and searching and pleading for help. And I think that God brought me to my knees ultimately through the way that I went. It took drinking and drugs to make me do the things that went against who I am at my core, which is a happy and proud lesbian, and it took what it took to get my attention. To finally honour myself and say: ‘This is who I am, and it’s okay to be who I am. And I’m going to live my life on my terms.’”

This determination has led Mary to achieve a life long dream of becoming a police officer. At the age of 51, she is now an auxiliary officer with the London Police Force. “My proudest moment was getting sworn in by the London Chief of Police. And it didn’t happen a minute before I was ready to have that honour. In the past I wanted to be a police officer to have power over, but now I could step into that role from a place of service.”

Thank you, Mary, for sharing your story and for all that you do to lift others up and keep them safe.

Jody Carrow