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 Helaina.
What is your sobriety date?
November 12, 2011
Where did you get sober?
New York City
When did you start drinking?
Technically I was 14, but I didn’t start to really drink on a consistent, social basis until I was in college, also in New York City.
How would you describe your life before you quit drinking?
When you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it’s like your brain, your body, your whole nervous system never let you rest. You’re constantly in this hyper-vigilant state of being and things can feel pretty dark and desperate even if on the outside you look “normal.” So you’re looking for relief, some way to quiet everything down. The word escape sounds dated and tacky but that’s kind of what we’re looking for when our inner world is so chaotic: relief. I graduated college with a 3.8 GPA, had bylines in both a local newspaper and The New York Times before I graduated and had three internships under my belt.
What was your childhood like? Teenage years?
I had a very happy childhood until September 11, 2001, when I found myself caught in the middle of the attacks just blocks away and in the street from the time the first plane hit to the time the second tower fell, and lived in the aftermath that night and every night after. Most people don’t know what it was like for people living down there who weren’t evacuated or what it was like for school children in the area. I started living life with these complex symptoms surfacing that came and went, and then got worse over time. I saw therapists and psychiatrists and my life was full of misdiagnosis, countless medications with awful side effects and specialists who just nodded and sent me on my way. I created more chaos in addition to the internal grief I was experiencing and I tried to hold it all together on the outside because I knew I wasn’t crazy, that there had to be a reason for what I was going through. I felt like I still had my sanity even though I was severely depressed and anxious and overly reactive to pretty much everything.
When did you first think you might have a problem?
College was the time I finally found the right type of therapy for my PTSD and I found myself doing hard work to recover with CBT but my therapist asked me if I realized that when I did drink too much and get very sick or go home with these random guys, that I felt worse afterwards. When she asked me “What would happen if you didn’t drink?” I thought she was insane. It felt like she was asking me to just end it all there. It was my only “lifeline.” And while I wasn’t ready to give it up at age 18, the seed was planted.
How did you rationalize your drinking?
I was in my late teens and everyone else around me was drinking the same way. I never drank alone, or in the mornings, or every day. I always, always got my work done. I kept thinking I needed to just control it—the thought of AA never even occurred to me. It was what you were “supposed” to do when you were young and what everyone around me was doing too. Plus, I was drinking in these very upscale, mature ways, at wine bars and at fancy, trendy clubs with celebrities. It felt like a part of normal life, at times even more privileged than normal life, and that was a feeling I chased mercilessly because of how hard my day to day was on the inside.
What do you consider your bottom?
It wasn’t one moment but a series of nights in one week, several months after I graduated college. I said I wasn’t going to drink and then I did, and I got very sick and there were consequences. Something in me finally realized I was not going to be able to do it on my own, like I had tried to do so many times, by going dry for long periods, by switching drinks. I surprised even myself when I emailed my therapist to ask if she knew of any AA meetings that people under the age of 50 went to because until then it was never mentioned to me as an option. Looking back, I know that the thought occurred to me because I had been ironically reading and identifying with Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story and the idea must have been lodged way back in my brain from then. I had read the book as a “study” since I was embarking on the writing of my own memoir—turns out it became one of the catalysts for a part of my story that was just beginning.
Did you go to rehab?
Did you go to AA?
If so, what did you think of it at first? How do you feel about it now?
Incredibly enthusiastic, and I still am, but I don’t lean on it as heavily
Have you worked the 12 steps? What is your opinion on them?
I loved it! I was overjoyed that there was a way to do this thing, even though my career was short, crime-record free and I was young. I took to it like I took to school, happily bouncing into meetings, giving away my number and calling women, doing my step work every week. They changed my life—there are a lot of similarities between the steps and what I had been learning in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—it’s all part and parcel of improving your inner and outer quality of life. The desire to drink was removed and I never relapsed.
What do you hate about being an alcoholic?
Probably that I don’t get to try all of these fun, fancy cocktails pushed on me all the time when I do restaurant reviews, or that I can’t just use a few glasses of wine or a joint to pass away the time on a lazy Sunday.
What do you love about being an alcoholic?
The fact that I’m not active and can use my experience to help other people.
What are the three best tools you have acquired to stay sober and happy?
Meditation, speaking to other sober women and inserting a pause button when I can remember to.
Do you have a sobriety mantra?
I would say it’s more of a philosophy, that even if you feel really triggered and need to grip the couch cushions to keep from moving and acting on an impulse to do something kind of destructive, whether it’s drink or otherwise, don’t do it. Everything passes. It does. Literally nothing can stay up or down.
What is the most valuable thing that has happened to you in recovery?
Staying sober despite a fleet of sponsors who either flaked on me or didn’t like that I needed medication to sleep or for my anxiety. It made me realize I can never depend on any one person for anything, including staying sober, and that in staying true to myself I will find the right fit—not just within the program, but it’s a philosophy that applies to life too.
If you could offer a newcomer or someone thinking about getting sober any advice, what would it be?
Take things one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time, and keep your mind exactly where your feet are. You have everything you need to be okay at any given time.
Any additional thoughts?
It’s interesting, the more I write about addiction and recovery myself, the less I’ve needed the meetings. I think it’s because in this digital age, we’re not left with the sole option of a two-hour drive each way to a room where we all physically sit together. The face of recovery is changing and the AA community is important but now it’s available through social networks and forums and texting and Skyping. I think it’s important to acknowledge that while we should never take something from a community and leave, we do come here to get better and we get sober to live fulfilling, healthy lives—not to spend them hitting a meeting a quota. What we need changes at different times in our lives, though, and there will likely be a time in the future that I need to lean on them more heavily again, and they will save my ass again. I’m very grateful that they’re there and right now I mostly show up just because it’s a type of service to be at the meeting, since we need bodies in those rooms for it to exist. I’ll keep sharing the message through my writing and in reaching out to other alcoholics and sober women.
Photo provided by Helaina Hovitz; used with permission. Click here to read all our How I Got Sober stories.