This post was originally published on July 18, 2016.
People get sober in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they just quit on their own. Sometimes they go to rehab. They show up in 12-step rooms, ashrams, churches and their parents’ basements. There is no one right way—something we’ve aimed to show in our collection of How I Got Sober stories. While we initially published these as either first person essays by our contributors or as interviews with anonymous sober folks, we eventually began to realize that there were other stories to tell: yours. This is our reader spotlight and this, more specifically, is the blogger behind Ink Splattered Soul, Chelise:
Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories
What is your sobriety date?
October 6, 2013
Where did you get sober?
The San Francisco Bay Area.
When did you start drinking?
I don’t remember my first drink. I started binge drinking and engaging in blackout drinking when I was about 11 or 12 years old.
How would you describe your life before you quit drinking?
In essence, I drank and used to self-medicate untreated PTSD. The years prior to my recovery were punctuated by increasing shame over my drinking behaviors, frequent institutionalization, depression and suicidality.
As the years went by, I lost hope and was preoccupied with thoughts of dying. Without recovery, I endured two failed marriages, was unable to be the parent my child needed and incurred financial devastation.
Eventually, no amount of drinking or other addictive behavior could relieve me of the shame. In Alcoholics Anonymous they call this stage “incomprehensible demoralization” and those words perfectly describe my mental and emotional state in the years prior to entering recovery.
What was your childhood like? Teenage years?
I spent my childhood living in Berkeley, California in the 1970s. My parents were hippies. Because of their loose and counter-cultural lifestyle they often neglected me and my brother. There was a complete lack of structure, and I frequently witnessed the adults in my life drinking and using drugs.
By the time I was a teenager, my life began to reflect my upbringing. I drank regularly, used drugs and was promiscuous. I dropped out of high school my senior year. By the time I was seventeen, I hated myself, my life and attempted suicide for the first time.
When did you first think you might have a problem?
I was a binge drinker, even as a teenager. So although I was experiencing the frustration and embarrassment around blackout drinking—I also had periods of days and even weeks or months where I would not drink at all. Because of this, I denied that I was an alcoholic. Still, despite the fact that I might have periods of abstinence, I had no recovery program and eventually, I would start drinking again.
It wasn’t until my early 30s that I began to entertain the idea that I might be an alcoholic.
How did you rationalize your drinking?
I was a classic example of denial in action. I rationalized my drinking by telling myself I was being “social,” despite the fact that I often drank alone and frequently drank to the point of throwing up, passing out and being sick the next day. I still wanted to believe that I was “just partying and being social.”
What do you consider your bottom?
By my early 40s, my life had become completely unmanageable. My second marriage had failed. I was enmeshed in a new, unhealthy relationship and my teenage son was in residential treatment for his own addiction issues.
Because I had been self-medicating PTSD symptoms and was no longer getting relief, other co-occurring disorders were presenting. I was struggling with a life threatening eating disorder, and by the time I was 44 my PTSD symptoms were out of control. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and was fixated on the co-addict/alcoholic I was dating—and not myself.
In October of 2013, I overdosed and spent several days in a coma. After a month-long hospital stay during which time I detoxed and remained clean and sober, I began dual diagnosis day treatment to deal with my addiction issues and my PTSD. In order to participate in treatment, I moved into an “SLE”—a very structured sober living environment—sharing a room and the house with other alcoholics new to recovery. The SLE required that I attend AA meetings every day for the first three months I was there—so I did.
My overdose knocked me to my knees and ultimately, I crawled into the rooms of AA finally seeking true recovery. Looking back, I believe my overdose was the best thing that could have happened to me because it forced me to realize that my options were to live a life of active recovery, or to die.
Did you go to rehab? If so, where?
I did not attend a standard drug and alcohol treatment program. Because of my dual diagnosis, in 2013 through 2014 I attended day treatment at Herrick Hospital in Berkeley, California. Herrick was equipped to handle the PTSD issues I was dealing with alongside my alcoholism. In addition, Herrick provided specialized eating disorder treatment. Receiving comprehensive treatment for all of these issues was critical to my recovery. After a month-long hospitalization in October of 2013, I was in day treatment for close to four additional months.
Did anything significant happen while in rehab that is important to your sobriety?
The most important thing that happened in rehab is I realized I did not want to die and made a choice to live instead. I understood for the first time that when I was not sober and not seeking treatment, I was throwing away any potential I had to contribute something positive to the world and to my child.
During this time I spoke to my AA sponsor about my feelings of worthlessness and the fact that I often believed I had no value as a person. She suggested that I did not need to believe I had value in order to actually BE of value. I began to make coffee and greet newcomers at meetings. I started doing volunteer work for local community organizations. After a year of sobriety, I decided to return to college to enter a two-year program in order to become a drug and alcohol counselor so that I could help others who were struggling with the same issues I had.
I have found my self-worth, continued commitment to recovery and will to live by serving others. It is interesting to me that it was not in my efforts to self-medicate that I finally found relief from pain but instead in reaching out to help those other than myself.
What did you think of AA at first? How do you feel about it now?
When I first began to attend AA meetings, I was skeptical of the program and did not believe it would work for me. I was ashamed of being in my 40s and a newcomer and ashamed of how far down I had gone.
With time, I began to realize that everyone in those rooms had stories filled with their own versions of failure and triumph. Ultimately we had all suffered and we were all reaching out for recovery. I began to see that I shared the strength of other alcoholics in recovery and I was not so separate or different from others.
I followed the program diligently and still do today. I provide service to meetings, have a sponsor in AA and sponsor others. I attend meetings regularly and most of my closest friends are in the program.
What do you hate about being an alcoholic?
More than anything, I hate the stigma. I hate that we learn to hide our pain, hide our struggles and endure so much shame in the course of our active disease. I believe that the stigma and misunderstanding around addiction (of any kind) contributes to addicts/alcoholics being reluctant to get treatment. And all too often, the consequence of untreated addiction can be fatal.
What do you love about being an alcoholic?
I love that living a life in sobriety means I am a survivor every single day. I believe that alcoholism is a life-long disease that never goes away and every day I don’t take a drink—I am a living miracle. And more than anything, I love being surrounded by others who represent the same miracle. I am inspired by all of them.
What are the three best tools you have acquired to stay sober and happy?
The three best tools I have for sobriety are attending AA meetings, striving for continual spiritual connection and always reaching out to fellow addicts/alcoholics for support. In fact, these three things are closely connected—as each fosters the other. If I can remember to make these efforts, I know I will be able to face another day clean and sober.
Do you have a sobriety mantra?
Not a mantra in particular, but I remind myself regularly: I do not have to do any of this alone. Between a higher power, AA and my friends and loved ones, there is always support and there are always solutions that I might not be able to come up with on my own.
What is the most valuable thing that has happened to you in recovery?
Without a doubt the most valuable thing I have achieved is the ability to be a model of recovery and sobriety for my son who also shares the disease of addiction. While I won’t share his story here, he has now been sober for two years, himself. Knowing that despite the years I spent not in recovery, I am now able to support him and be there for him is such a gift to both of us.
Have you worked the 12 steps? What is your opinion on them?
I have worked the 12 steps and often return to them when facing stressful situations. In general I see the steps as guiding principles for life and they both keep me on my toes and provide me with a lot of peace. When I am struggling, I try to remember that I can regain ground by doing “the next right thing” and those “right” things can be found by working the steps.
If you could offer a newcomer or someone thinking about getting sober any advice, what would it be?
Keep coming back. At the end of most AA meetings, everyone is reminded to keep coming back but the reminder means so much more than the obvious. Keep coming back to your meetings, to your prayers, to your resolve to stay sober. Don’t give up, don’t disappear. Just—keep coming back.
Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories.