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 Ellie—and yes, we’re talking about Ellie S., the woman behind the widely popular Bubble Hour show, the blog OneCraftyMother and the nonprofit Shining Strong.
(We’ve actually broken up Ellie’s interview into three parts; check back next week for part two and the week after for part three.)
Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories
What is your sobriety date?
My first sobriety date is 8/16/07, when I accumulated almost five years of continuous sobriety. Between 2012 and 2014 I had two brief relapses, both of which led to increasingly dire consequences and two stays in treatment facilities. My last relapse, which lasted two hours, led to a DUI and a felony child endangerment charge because my kids were in the car with me. This was my rock bottom, and led to a 90-day stay in treatment and what I hope with all my heart is my final sobriety date of 3/26/14.
Where did you get sober?
When did you first start drinking?
I had my first drink when I was 12 years old. My best friend Amanda and I wanted to find out what was so interesting about alcohol that my dad had to lock the liquor cabinet. So one night while we were babysitting my little sister, we broke into the liquor cabinets and did shots of whiskey. It was a fiasco; we vomited everywhere. But I still remember the feeling, as the liquor hit my bloodstream, of all my anxiety and self-doubt evaporating. I thought, “This must be how normal people feel.” I couldn’t wait to do it again. I didn’t drink often through middle school and high school, but every time I did, I drank to get that feeling back. I drank to get drunk, to obliterate myself.
In my teenage years I actually drank less, and less often, than my peers. I was too obsessed with being “perfect” to let myself fall into a problem with drinking or drugs. I was deathly afraid of getting in trouble, and this kept me coloring inside the lines. I attended an Ivy League school, and always felt like I wasn’t deserving of that kind of education, that I wasn’t smart enough. The theme of not being good enough followed me throughout childhood, teen years and into adulthood, but it was particularly strong in my late teens. In college I surrounded myself with people who liked to drink like I did to normalize the fact that I couldn’t attend any social event without the lubricating effects of alcohol. My problem drinking really took root in college.
How would you describe your life before you quit drinking?
My drinking really took off in college, so while I did drink on occasion before that, I count my life “before drinking” as predating college. My life was, by most definitions, normal, stable and comfortable. I grew up in an upper middle class town west of Boston, and was surrounded by a fair amount of affluence, and although we weren’t rich we were certainly comfortable. I was a good student and athlete, and placed very high expectations on myself. A lot of it was motivated by fear, I think, though of course I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. I don’t know what I thought would happen if I wasn’t “perfect,” but I was convinced I would be unlovable. I drove myself really hard, and was never satisfied with my efforts. While my parents wanted me to do well and set the bar high, the fear part came from inside me. It was just always there.
What was your childhood like?
One factor I have come to realize that contributed to my fear, anxiety and feeling “other-than” was that I was adopted as an infant. While my family loved me like I was a biological child, I carried with me this fear that if I didn’t “measure up” I would be returned, or rejected or abandoned. I think a lot of alcoholics/addicts carry this feeling of being inherently different, or flawed or “other than,” but in my case it was exacerbated by my adoption. Looking back, I can see how much of my fear was a construction in my own mind, a story I told myself that I utterly believed was truth, but throughout childhood I was just full of fear. I went through a phobic stage where I couldn’t be left alone—and this is when I was old enough to be left alone as a pre-teen/young teenager—even for an hour or so. Every time my parents left, I was convinced they weren’t going to come back. When we went on vacations, I thought they would try to abandon me and go home without me. I know how crazy it sounds, and even back then I think I knew on some level it wasn’t rational, but this is early evidence, for me, of “feelings being facts.” This visceral fear of abandonment led to pathological people pleasing. I would shape shift, try to become who I thought you wanted me to be, in a desperate attempt to make you love me. I was obliterating my sense of self way before I picked up my first drink. When I discovered alcohol alleviated this intense fear, it felt like a cure. It felt like the solution.
Do you remember the first time you thought you might have a problem?
I do, in fact, remember the exact moment I thought I had a problem. I always knew I felt differently about alcohol, suspected that maybe I was a little more in love with it than other people. In my early 20s, I noticed that I’d get a slightly panicky feeling when I thought there wouldn’t be “enough” alcohol when I was out to dinner with friends, or at a party, and that I was always the last one to leave a drinking event because I didn’t want to stop drinking. But I never thought I might be an alcoholic until I read Caroline Knapp’s book Drinking: A Love Story in 1997. I was 27 years old, and I identified strongly with her story of being an outwardly successful, smart and creative woman whose inner emotional landscape was a slurry of fear and insecurity, and who drank to feel better—to numb those feelings. I read that whole book with a pit in my stomach, because I knew I was on the same road. I actually wrote in my journal, when I finished the book, the following words: “I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a dark abyss, and if I’m not careful it will swallow me whole.” I was referring to drinking, but I couldn’t even bring myself to write the words “alcohol” or, God forbid, “alcoholic.” I told myself I’d be careful, that I’d keep an eye on it, and in the ensuing 10 years before I got sober, I tried everything I could to drink like a normal person. Caroline Knapp’s words nagged at me, though, because I knew that once I started drinking, I couldn’t stop, but I couldn’t imagine a life without alcohol. It was unthinkable.
This is the end of part one. Look for part two next week!
Photo courtesy of Ellie; used with permission. Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories.
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