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; here’s part one. Check back next week for part three.)
Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories
How did your drinking escalate?
After college I started a career as a business professional in the corporate world. It was a young company with lots of young people and drinking was everywhere, so it was easy for me to believe my drinking was normal. My career continued to grow and I was very successful. Outwardly, everything always looked more than put together. I got married at age 31, at the height of my career. My peers had started to settle down, to mature, and people didn’t go out as often. My husband at the time went back to get his MBA at night, and people didn’t want to go out after work much anymore, so I started drinking more at home, on my own. I’d drink while I made dinner, and then pretend that glass of wine with my dinner was the first of the night. I’d sneak gulps when alone in the room, or slug down a glass of wine and top it off before anyone noticed. I always, always made sure there was wine in the house. I never went to events that didn’t involve drinking. I drank alone, a lot.
It was when I had my daughter, at age 33, that my drinking really took off. I felt like “good moms” didn’t work full time, so I quit that big corporate job to stay home full time with my new infant daughter. For reasons I don’t understand (but am very grateful for), I didn’t ever crave a drink when I was pregnant. Of course, I used that as a big checkmark in the “I can’t be an alcoholic” column. I ignored the fact that as soon as she was weaned I was back to drinking just as much, if not more, than I was before I was pregnant. Except now I had to hide it for fear of being judged as a bad mom. Also, I was miserable being home full-time with a baby; it was a huge identity crisis for me, because I hadn’t ever taken the time to figure out who I was, what I wanted out of life. I just always followed the blueprint of what I thought was expected of me: go to college, have a career, get married, have kids. I felt so much guilt that I wasn’t happier being a full-time mom; it seemed so easy for everyone else. I began drinking earlier in the day, and more often, to numb the feelings of inadequacy and guilt. I started stashing bottles around the house when my daughter was about three-and-a-half and I had a newborn son. I was hollow inside, totally depleted and riddled with guilt and anxiety, but outwardly everything seemed fine. I made sure it did, because I didn’t want anyone to look too closely behind this carefully constructed veneer and see what a mess I was inside.
Once I started hiding alcohol, things escalated quickly. One night, late at night, I woke up sweating, shaking and full of anxiety. I thought I was having a heart attack; I didn’t realize these are symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. I went downstairs, telling myself I was going to have a glass of milk. Instead, I took three long swigs of alcohol, standing in my underwear in my kitchen at 2 am. The shaking, sweating and fear instantly stopped. I remember thinking, “Well, that’s it, then. I’m an alcoholic.” But instead of stopping, I decided to always have alcohol near me—snuck in water bottles or stashed in my purse since if I didn’t drink often enough the symptoms would kick in—because I truly felt like it was the alcohol holding me together. It still felt like the solution, so I didn’t care if I was an alcoholic. I wasn’t going to stop. It wasn’t until my husband came home one day and found me passed out, surrounded by bottles, that I was forced to get help. I still didn’t want to stop, but I didn’t want to continue, either. That was an awful place to be: drinking without my own permission but being unable to put the bottle down.
How did you rationalize your drinking?
I rationalized it in many ways. I truly believed that if the outside stuff was okay, then I couldn’t have a problem. As long as other people thought I was okay, then I must be okay. I also subscribe to the stigma of the alcoholic: destitute, homeless, drinking from a brown paper bag. I had a “work hard/play hard” mentality. Alcohol was the reward I gave myself for how tough life was—whether it was when I was working or home raising two kids. It was the balm that soothed my nerves, the reward at the end of a long day. It was the cure for boredom, irritability, anger, sadness and resentment. It was the mortar that kept all my characters together; it is exhausting to shape shift all the time, to maintain a double life. Even when I knew I was an alcoholic, I clung to my bottle because I could not imagine how I would exist without it.
What do you consider your bottom?
The concept of “hitting bottom” is a tough one for me. While it’s true that usually external forces—legal, familial, medical or financial pressures—are often involved when deciding to get sober, for me it was the emotional bottom that really mattered, the one that made me decide that I was done. Even after my DUI I drank three weeks later, because it has not been my experience that getting sober to please someone else, or get out of hot water, or to get people off my back ever works. It’s an inside job, and the truth for me is that I had to be in enough emotional pain to decide to get sober for me, not for some external reason. It is true that wanting my outside life to improve was a big motivator to get sober the first time, but that wasn’t enough to maintain long-term sobriety. Eventually, I had to do the work on myself in order for sobriety to really take root. My kids aren’t even enough of a reason to get or stay sober. It has to be for me.
Did you go to rehab?
Yes, I did. I went to Gosnold detox and their Cataumet 30-day facility in August and September of 2007, and again in November and December of 2013. After my DUI in March of 2014, I went to Gosnold’s long-term all-female residential treatment program, Emerson House, in West Falmouth, MA for 60 days and also lived in a sober house for 30 days, also in West Falmouth, MA. All of these treatment programs are part of Gosnold on Cape Cod.
Did anything significant happen while in rehab that is important to your sobriety?
The first time I got sober I did have an “ah-ha” moment. It was about two weeks into a 30-day program, and I had been fighting to leave the program, to get back to my family. My counselor finally looked me dead in the eye and said, “You’re no good to your family like this, Ellie. You need to get sober and take care of yourself or you’re going to take them all down with you.” This truth—which I had heard dozens of times before but for some reason this time it was different—landed on my heart like a ton of bricks. I burst into tears, dropped to my knees and wailed, “I give up!” I had two more weeks of treatment to go, and I spent those two weeks in utter surrender, soaking up all I could. When it was time to leave this program, I was terrified to go. I looked at my counselor and said, “I’m not ready. If I leave here I’m going to drink.” She gave me a knowing smile and said she was glad to hear me say that, because it meant I knew I was powerless against alcohol and that left to my own resources, I would drink. She told me to go to a 12-step meeting, put up my hand and ask for help. I was so terrified of drinking that I took her advice. It was the scariest thing I have ever done, and it saved my life.
I had another spiritual awakening, of sorts, at the longer-term treatment center I went to for 90 days after my last relapse. This wasn’t a single moment, but a dawning awareness, a coming back to self. I needed time away from my life to really take a hard look at why I had relapsed, what changes I needed to make in my life in order to stay sober for good. I could see, from the perch of physical distance and hindsight, that while I had managed to not drink for almost five years, I hadn’t made key changes in my life (namely addressing a failing marriage) or addressed past traumas (I was diagnosed with cancer—I’m now in remission—and lost a parent, all in a three-month period of time) thoroughly enough. I needed to dig deep, do the hard work of addressing fears and toxic relationships and make some big—and scary—changes. I knew, with utter certainty, that if I didn’t do this work I would never be able to stay sober. I had fought as long and as hard as I could to push through things like depression, trauma and anxiety, and it was time to surrender, ask for help, and not try to do everything on my own.
This is the end of part two. Check back next week for part three; catch up on part one here.
Photo courtesy of Ellie; used with permission. Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories.
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