This post was originally published on February 29, 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 Janet H.
Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories
What is your sobriety date?
December 7, 1979
Where did you get sober?
When did you first start drinking?
At age 18.
How would you describe your life before you quit drinking?
Chaotic and desperate. I was consumed with anger and sorrow.
What was your childhood like?
My parents were teetotalers. I was a good, naive Christian girl. I never saw anyone drink until my junior year in high school.
The summer I graduated from high school, a friend hosted a grad party where I found a bottle of sherry and drank the whole thing. I had a spiritual awakening. When I got home that night, I wrote in my diary, “I have found the key to the universe.”
Off I went to a private Christian college in the Northeast, where, in the first two weeks, I discovered the joys of smoking pot and taking stimulants. I was off to the races.
Do you remember the first time you thought you might have a problem?
Early on, I began to call my drinking/drug using “my friend.” It was my solace and my companion; in my eyes, it made life not only bearable, but also fun.
Towards the end of my second year of college (and with below par grades due to my partying) I married my drinking buddy, the only man who could drink me under the table. By then, I had become promiscuous, narrowing escaping rape on a couple of occasions, though at the time I thought nothing of it.
My husband was already a daily drinker and a budding alcoholic. I was not far behind. Tensions in our relationship were common. I remember a fight over Ritz Crackers that lasted three days and ended with me chasing him down our neighborhood street with a machete in hand.
We divorced after his affair and my affair. One night, I met a man at a stoplight who was drunk and high on Quaaludes. It was love at first sight. We married a few months later. In that time, I divorced my first husband, changed back to my maiden name, remarried and changed my name again. It was confusing on so many levels.
I loved John’s parents, which, in large part, was the reason I married him. He was just out of the state mental hospital for attempting to kill his mother. He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, which I thought was romantic. Mental illness is not romantic. We had a turbulent and often violent relationship. He was usually drunk or high and off his meds. I had to drink to cope with him.
One of our drunken nights, I accidentally got pregnant, though I didn’t realize it until I was three months along. Not an unusual happenstance for an alcoholic woman. During my pregnancy, I was thrown across the room by a hard slap to the face; strangled with a pair of nylons; kicked so hard in the leg that my entire leg turned black and blue—just to mention a few of the more violent episodes of domestic violence. I was equally as violent, though not as strong as he.
One night, while having a typical evening fight with my husband after the baby went to sleep, I yelled, “I’m calling the police!” I always called the police—nothing new there. However, from the corner of my eye, I saw our three-year-old son looking in terror at us from the doorway to his bedroom; for some unknown reason I had an epiphany.
I yelled again, “No, this is not happening again. You have to leave now!” He left, and I never let him in the apartment again and never again have been in a violent relationship. Fourteen years or so later, he died of cirrhosis related to Hep C.
How did you rationalize your drinking?
Well, it was obvious to me and to anyone who knew anything that my husband was the problem. I had to drink to cope with him. I needed to drink just to stay sane. Then I needed to drink to catch up with my husband’s drinking. Eventually I needed to drink just to have a friend.
What do you consider your bottom?
In November of 1979, I had a bad car accident. My son, only four, would have been seriously injured or killed if he had been in the car. Fortunately, my mother had not let me take him that day. It was a wake-up call I could not ignore. My son (now a sober member of AA) was so dear to me and the thought of hurting him was a shock. I didn’t care about myself, but I did care about him.
I drank Nyquil and vanilla (which didn’t count) for another few weeks, then quit completely—this time for good—and never looked back. I also began following my sponsor’s suggestions. My first service work was acquired when she nudged me in a meeting and said, “Raise your hand.” I did, and became the meeting secretary.
Did you go to rehab?
After yet another trip to the ER and then to a psych ward, I was admitted to the Silver Springs Quarterway House (non-medical detox). Within a few weeks, they had me committed to the psychiatric unit at Suburban Hospital—my long history of suicidal thoughts and attempts began to surface, along with my deepening despair. I was discharged from the psych unit to the CD unit at Arlington Hospital. This episode of treatment lasted 42 days. It was a relief to finally begin talking about my overwhelming grief, shame and guilt.
A year or so later, after drinking a fifth of vodka while taking Antabuse, I was admitted to the Montgomery General Hospital CD unit. By that time, I had been through the ER there, where I worked, enough times to not be embarrassed. I suffered seizures that night and was deathly ill for at least a week. I thought, because I was a nice girl, drinking on Antabuse wouldn’t hurt. It did.
Did anything significant happen while in rehab that is important to your sobriety?
My sponsor, Ella M., came to visit me on the unit and cried. She told me she didn’t think I was going to make it if I didn’t stop. I was shocked. No one had ever cried for me, about me. She said she could not longer sponsor me if I continued to call her when drunk. It was sobering.
I learned so much about my problem—yes, it did become my problem. I took notes in every class (which I later used for lesson plans while running an IOP). I was a star pupil—well, almost. I had an affair with a fellow rehabber, which began in the group room late one night and slightly, ever so slightly, diverted my attention.
I already had a sponsor who I would call when drunk, but now began to call her sober—at least occasionally.
Did you go to 12-step?
I’d been to Emotions Anonymous and Al-Anon meetings, but hadn’t returned. At my first AA meeting, I knew it was for me and that I had found my people. But I was unable stop drinking; my despair over the continuing wreckage of my life was too great. I was also a caller of hotlines and tried therapy. Nothing much helped until AA.
Have you worked the 12 steps? What is your opinion of them?
I began working the 12 steps with my sponsor, though I didn’t have much of a mind for it. I floated through several years of sobriety, not really understanding it all, though I was regularly attending my home group and other meetings and active in all kinds of service work.
It wasn’t until after moving to Arizona in my 10th year sober that my step work began in earnest (I believe the 10th year is often a year of decision and change for many working a 12-step program). My Big Book thumping, loving sponsor notified me that, “We are going to work the steps together using the Joe and Charlie tapes.” Not one to buck her suggestions, I did. It was life changing and shaped my work with all my future sponsees.
What do you hate about being an alcoholic?
What do you love about being an alcoholic?
I love the friendships and fellowship that have taught me what I need to know to live a good life, my life.
What are the three best tools you have acquired to stay sober and happy?
Service, steps, friendships and the “meetings after the meetings.”
Do you have a sobriety mantra?
Same as when I was drinking, though it has different meaning now: “Push on regardless.”
What is the most valuable thing that has happened to you in recovery?
Being able to raise my son in a sober household, having a fulfilling career, completing a graduate degree, having a wonderful relationship—the list is long! I also began a career in addiction work, first working as a country supervisor for the Maryland Drinking Driver Monitor Program and later as a therapist and CD program director in Arizona. Today I am the editor-in-chief of In Recovery Magazine, fulfilling my lifelong love of writing and publishing.
If you could offer a newcomer or someone thinking about getting sober any advice, what would it be?
Find a home group and a sponsor who can help you learn a new way of living. Don’t suffer—many of us need the loving care of someone who can teach us how to live life, not a drill sergeant. To me, sobriety is about having a life, my life, along with all the many learning lessons that shape that life. It’s about learning to be miserable and be okay; learning how to walk through difficult times without harming others or myself. It’s about learning that life can be difficult for most everyone; compassion for others and myself is the key.
Find a Higher Power. Doesn’t matter who or what—that will evolve with time. My faith has grounded me through many a storm.
Most importantly, it’s about having fun. Sharing happiness with friends and family inside and outside the rooms while enjoying each other’s company as we walk this road to happy destiny.
Any additional thoughts?
There is so much between the lines! This brought up so many memories. Thanks for the opportunity to share my story.
Photo courtesy of Casey MacKenzie Photography; used with permission. Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories.