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 Dr. Dawn Nickel, the creator of the enormously popular recovery site She Recovers (which hosts retreats and has a thriving Facebook page you need to go check out now).
Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories
What is your sobriety date?
I celebrate my clean time recovery on May 11th each year, as the last time I used any mood- or mind-altering drugs was May 10, 2000. So this May I’ll celebrate 16 years clean. I haven’t had a drink since July 21, 1987.
Where did you get sober?
In British Columbia, Canada
When did you first start drinking?
At age 15
How would you describe your life before you quit drinking?
My heaviest drinking and drug use was between the ages of 15 and 20. I can’t say too much about how it was, because when I used, I blacked out. But from what I remember, it was mostly a nightmare: multiple overdoses, a lot of chaos and moving around. I got pregnant when I was 20 and give credit to my daughter for saving my life to this day. I didn’t stop using during my pregnancy, or after she was born (or after her sister was born four years later), but I did spend most of those years trying to moderate my drug and alcohol use. I definitely changed my using pattern from a daily habit to occasional (bad) binges.
What was your childhood like?
Drinking was a big part of my family culture, but I don’t recall the drinking surrounding me being a particularly negative thing. There were a lot of relatives around on the weekends; I recall my mom and aunts wearing fancy dresses and my dad and uncles wearing ties for most family parties. The parties always started out pretty civilized, with lots of singing, dancing and a good spread of food.
As kids, I think we loved that we got away with a lot while the adults were getting hammered. I didn’t become aware that we had quite a few alcoholics and drug addicts in our family until I realized I was addicted myself. Then I started seeing them everywhere. My parents separated when I was 16 and I kind of got lost in the mayhem. I quit high school, ran away to the Yukon and pretended to be an adult. Poorly.
Do you remember the first time you thought you might have a problem?
On my 17th birthday, I ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I knew then that I had a problem. It marked the beginning of my trying to quit drinking. Of course, I still had drugs to rely on.
How did you rationalize your drinking?
I don’t think I did. I always said that I wasn’t very good at drinking, that I was better at drugging.
What do you consider your bottom?
There are too many to list. I started trying to quit using when I was 17, after all. But possibly the most defining moment happened when my oldest daughter was six and I was 27. I was begging her to get her younger sister a bottle because I was lying on the couch, too dope sick to move. She got right up into my face and said, “Mommy, you make me sick.” I have to say, that was a pretty defining moment for me.
Did you go to rehab?
Twice. I went in July 1987 and have not had a drink since. I smoked pot very heavily for the next two years and went back to rehab in 1989 to get off it. I was clean for nearly 11 years when, in 2000, my mom died. I relapsed on her painkillers for two days.
Did anything significant happen while in rehab that is important to your sobriety?
Before I left rehab in 1987, my counselors and fellow rehabbers told me that I would need to leave my marriage as my then-husband was still using. I listened. So it wasn’t a thought or a moment, but taking the right action that set me on the proper course. I really wanted recovery at that time, even though I did end up smoking pot shortly afterwards.
Did you go to 12-step?
I’ve been a member of a 12-step program for drug addicts since 1989. I have always loved it, but completely respect and understand the people for whom it does not work. It’s not for everyone and that’s okay. I’ve always done a lot of recovery work, plenty of therapy, self-discovery and writing, while supporting other women in recovery and giving back when and where I can.
Have you worked the 12 steps? What is your opinion on them?
I’ve worked many sets of steps formally (by writing them out). Today, I try to live them. I don’t always do so great at it, but that’s okay. I think they are a good roadmap for life—but I also see how they could turn people off. I believe in taking a strengths-based approach to the steps, because they can be interpreted rather negatively with all of the focus on defects and such.
What do you hate about being an alcoholic?
I am a person in long-term recovery. I don’t hate anything about it.
What do you love about being an alcoholic?
I love all of the real and inspiring people I meet, the life I’ve built, my close friendships, my amazing family and the incredible experiences I’ve had, spanning 29 years of recovery.
What are the three best tools you have acquired to stay sober and happy?
Hope. Faith. Gratitude.
Do you have a sobriety mantra?
We are strong and courageous women and we do recover.
What is the most valuable thing that has happened to you in recovery?
I’ve learned the importance of life-long learning. In recovery, I went back to school for 13 years and learned a lot more than the content of three degrees. I learned the importance of curiosity, perseverance, self-discipline and vulnerability. I’ve learned to like mostly everything about myself and to love all of you. I learned that I love simple things. And that I need to keep things simple.
If you could offer a newcomer or someone thinking about getting sober any advice, what would it be?
Just do it. You are worth it. Find a pathway that works for you, but make sure it comes with a tribe of loving, supportive people. Go slow, but go. Find a way to deal with your past and then put it to bed. Practice self-care. Lots of self-care.
Any additional thoughts?
That little girl, whose words finally forced me to seek recovery, just gave birth to her own beautiful baby girl. I can’t help but reflect on how grateful I am that recovery has given me the opportunity to live fully and presently in the lives of my daughters—and now my angelic granddaughter. When we recover, so too do our families. I’ve never been happier.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Dawn Nickel; used with permission. Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories.
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