All pennies start out the same color- bright copper. But throughout their lifespan, they begin to lose their luster, because they’re reactive metal. And depending on the penny’s environment, some can look black or tarnished. But don’t be fooled, a dull penny doesn’t lose its worth, it just needs some cleansing. And what better month than February, which comes from the Latin word “februa,” which means “to cleanse,” to be a month to get clean. This month we are taking a divergence from our Drawn Together series to celebrate a very special person in my life. On February 2nd, my bright shiny penny, Sarah, my “third-out-of-three” (kids), celebrated her 5th year of sobriety. She admits this journey isn’t an easy one, but we know that one way to maintain sobriety and serenity is to give it away. So grab your tissues, or maybe an extra roll of toilet paper from your pandemic stash, as we celebrate recovery and discuss addiction, sobriety, and the ongoing process.
Hindsight is 20/20
Sarah was always familiar with the term “alcoholic” growing up, but she never really understood what that meant. They don’t drink now? They no longer drink? What is the world of recovery and why can’t they just stop? It’s the way most people without addiction tend to think. And for a long time, it was the on-going joke amongst her and her two older siblings that, based on statistics and genetics, one of them was bound to become one. As openly as it was spoken about at home, Sarah recalls the shift from openness to secrecy. The secretive side of the disease is what’s so isolating. It was an indication that this was “not right.”
An Alcoholic All Along. . .
It began in high school, became evident to others in college and, of course, Sarah was the last to know. She enjoyed school, thrived even, but her addictive behaviors had been there long before. She started attending Tulane University in New Orleans where open container laws, campus bars, and a very healthy night scene put most colleges to shame. Admittedly, Sarah knows whether she was in college in NOLA or Alaska, her surroundings didn’t change who she was. It wasn’t until her sophomore year of college, when she tragically witnessed a good friend fall to his death, that she really catapulted into depression. All the things she once enjoyed were no longer in the forefront of her mind, and the one thing she could do during that time, successfully, was drink and do drugs.
At the end of her sophomore year she came home and it was evident that she was majorly unhappy. The following summer her drinking got really out of control. Every night she would get blackout drunk, wake up and do it again the next day. Although it was clear to her family that she had a problem with substances, Sarah saw it as she was depressed, struggling, and going through a hard time. The following fall Sarah went back to college and continued down the same path, probably worse. A good friend reached out to Sarah’s sister, who then flew to NOLA to check on her, and the next day the sisters were on a plane back to New York.
Still in denial, Sarah went to rehab the next day, “willingly and unwillingly.” After day 28, she moved back into our NYC apartment. Outwardly, she thought she was doing everything right: outpatient during the day, therapy, meetings– all the things she was supposed to be doing and she was doing them. However, in isolation, she was drinking at night and miserable. For a continued two months, she tore the family apart, tore herself apart, until she finally had her moment of clarity.
A late-night accident turned into Sarah’s moment of clarity. She woke up the next morning with a couple of missing teeth, in an apartment she didn’t recognize. She saw her therapist that day and a question posed many times before “Are you ready for the misery to end?” finally made sense. She said yes and from that day forward, everything changed.
Drinking is no longer an option. It is a continued battle. No matter how crappy a day is, picking up would make it worse. It’s no longer a thought in her mind. She doesn’t take her sobriety for granted: she’s terrified of relapsing and that is also what keeps her sober. “It is my biggest fear and that will end it all. And, I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to. I have other resources available to me that will help make it better in time. It’s not going to be right away, but nothing was as bad as that last night. Just that whole life was miserable and alone. And I don’t want to be miserable and alone anymore… which is nice.”
For those of you doing the math, Sarah got sober at 20 years old. She never had a legal drink. Although she gets the “you’re so lucky” quite a bit at meetings, because she didn’t lose anything tangible like a home, a spouse, or a job, she does feel like she lost a piece of her childhood and herself. For a long time, she resented the fact that she was so young and being labeled as having a “problem” when all the kids around her were drinking, drugging, and partying just the same.
People, Places and Things
5 years sober, and Sarah has gained and lost things throughout this journey. She lost a lot of “friendships” because they revolved around using; they no longer knew how to interact with her newfound sobriety. People who she’d spent sunup to sundown with realized they had taken two different trajectories. So she felt this huge sense of loss, leaving everything.
And ironically, I experienced the loss while Sarah was using. As a parent, I felt like I was in mourning for that kid I knew and loved, but didn’t seem to be around at all. So, as she became sober, that person who had always been there, tucked deep inside, came back. It was a huge relief. And she came back, smarter, stronger, wiser, and more in touch with herself than ever before. So many parents feel like they just don’t recognize their kid when they’re in the throes of addiction. They don’t like them. They know somewhere inside they love them, but it’s very hard to feel those positive feelings.
Reflecting on the last 5 and a half years, Sarah recognizes that this life-altering experience was for the better. While she wouldn’t wish this experience on anybody, she is grateful for it. Had it not been for her declaration to be sober and the dedication from her family, she knows this story could have been very different. As ugly as it was, Sarah finds joy in pre-sober moments and doesn’t regret anything. She knows “Why me?” was never a productive question to ask. Everything that happened brought her here, to where she is today.
Every 2nd of the month she celebrates. She’s still in therapy, still going to meetings and doing the work of recovery. She went back to school a couple of years ago and will soon get her undergraduate degree. (Mom brag: with a 4.0 average!) Her academic career is in the best place it’s ever been. When she isn’t quarantining with her parents and sister in the Berkshires, (i.e. pre-pandemic), she has her own apartment in New York City. She works at a sober living facility where she gives back what was given to her. It keeps her sober to help others. She still has a social life, just like any other 25-year-old kid living in New York City.
“The opposite of addiction is connection” – Johann Hari
While I try to find the silver lining in most of life’s more challenging events, I couldn’t help but feel triggered by the recent attacks on the U.S. Capitol Building. I felt scared, in much the same way I did on 9/11. (We were there, but that’s another story.) Add to that the massive loss of life during this pandemic– and it terrifies me when I let it. So I wonder how someone manages sobriety in the middle of a pandemic and domestic terrorism?
“Meetings have all shifted to Zoom, which is challenging. A lot of what made meetings magical was the human connection. No matter who you are, where you are, what you do, you come into this room and share that moment. Some say the opposite of isolation and addiction is connection. It’s been hard in the world of recovery. Overdose rates are at an all-time high and people are struggling. We’re always struggling, we always save a seat at the meeting for the addict that’s still sick and suffering, but it’s even more challenging without the physical connection. I’m grateful for my huge network of people: family, sober friends, non-sober friends, my therapist. I know I have enough experience, in general, to reach out to those people, so I’m okay. But I’m also aware that that’s not the case for everyone.”
A Window Into Reality
I’ll be honest, I asked some people I’m closest to what they wanted to know about Sarah’s sobriety. Being intimately involved with the narrative, it’s hard to know what others don’t know about addiction, recovery, sobriety. So some of the following questions were posed by my friends and I hope this sharing of ours will be a window for people to see how rampant addiction is– everywhere. It doesn’t matter how you grew up, what race, creed, religion, or sexuality you claim as your own, it doesn’t matter what your economic conditions were, where you lived, who you hung out with. The reality is that addiction is an equal opportunity killer.
It can be hard for others to start the conversation, but Sarah is open and honest about who she is, and eager to help others cross the bridge of understanding. To know that addiction is not just this scary thing that happens to “other people”. Openness helps break the stigma. And just like an addict feeling the importance of sharing their stories, it’s important for parents to share too. This disease needs to be dealt with, and rather than feeling shame, own your truth and open your doors to allow sunshine and healing in, instead of keeping them closed, where secrecy and illness fester.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
What is the biggest challenge in maintaining your sobriety?
I was in a relationship with someone…. we got sober together, or so we thought. We struggled through the first year together. And after a few years together it came out that — this is hard. I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about this part yet. But nothing has threatened my sobriety. Nothing has made me want to pick up which I’m really grateful for. At meetings, they make the promise that “you’ll lose the desire to use,” and I’ve lost that desire. There are things that are difficult to go through, but I can’t imagine not being sober now.
What unexpected joy have you found in sobriety?
That’s going to make me emotional too! My first nephew, my only nephew so far, was born after I got sober. So that’s all we’ve known of each other, the people we are now. I’m really grateful I get to show up for him. I make his birthday cakes and see him on the weekends. Just being his aunt, I think that’s been one of the biggest gifts. And more recently, getting a dog.
How has sobriety changed your social life and the friends you have?
Some friends I’ve always had. My closest friend still to this day is my best friend from middle school, who I think is another person who I kind of lost in my addiction, in a way. Now she and I, in the city, live a few blocks away from each other. And I live in the building next to her mom. That has been a tremendous gift. I still have one really close friend from my Tulane days in New Orleans that has been such a blessing. And I have a lot of new friends from meetings, from sober living, from all of these different areas. So I have this network of friends, just important people in my life.
Sarah, I remember when you were dating a little bit on the apps — I hope I can share that — and you were very forthright about letting people know you don’t drink. That you could meet them for a cup of coffee but not a drink. I think that was very brave.
Yes, I think part of it is being true to myself and another part is taking care of myself, self-care. Setting myself up for success by being in a situation I feel comfortable in rather than uncomfortable in. I have no interest in going to a bar and having a cup of water while you have a drink. There are so many other options. I mean, that’s something that I’ve realized in sobriety, how much everything in society revolves around drinking. Any time you sit down at a restaurant, they give you the menu and then the cocktail menu. They ask you what you want to drink before they ask you what you’d like to eat.
Five years is long, but it’s also not. There is no reason to be careless when it comes to putting myself in situations that could be threatening to my sobriety. Even though I can’t imagine that, it’s not worth going near it if I don’t have to, and I don’t have to.
How did you learn to trust yourself? And are you confident that you have your own back?
The more, pardon my French, shit I go through, the more confidence I have in that. Dating again was terrifying. Every time I go through these new experiences it’s really scary, but when I emerge on the other end, I realized that I knew how to handle it. I can trust myself in that way that I can handle it. You have to work on trust with yourself in addition to everyone else.
Trust is a big one. You lose it in your addiction. I remember getting my keys back to your apartment in New York City. I remember when my sister gave me keys to her apartment. The first time taking care of my nephew alone. These are all signs of trust from other people. And that helps me trust myself too. I’m harder on myself than other people are on me, which is probably true for a lot of people.
Are there subtle or unconscious things that loved ones or friends have said or done that were harmful or helpful in your sobriety?
Being there, but also giving me space, I think, helped. I think trust is something that you earn but is really important. All of these acts that I just described, getting the keys or babysitting, reaffirmed the words “we’re so proud of you.” It’s not just in the words but in the actions. My parents and family remember my anniversary and make it special, feeling supported. To that end of feeling supported, because it’s really a solo journey in a way. I have to put in that work. Just to know that other people are there and they still love me. My immediate family has put in their own work, whether it was through Al-Anon or therapy, or talking with people. Getting the help that they needed and educating themselves so they could even show up for me. Everything that applies to me applies to them too.
People who are not as intimately familiar with addiction or having a loved one with addiction are uncertain or nervous about what to say, they feel like they’re walking on eggshells, but they want to weigh in and make a connection, how would you suggest they do that?
It’s so hard because it’s so different for everybody. The person I am now is completely different from the person I was five years ago and being in early recovery is very hard. You’re just raw. You asked me a question just now and I just broke down. I still have those moments. I would encourage you to keep asking questions and I’ll let you know if you’ve gone too far, if that’s a button, if that’s still a sore spot, if that’s still challenging. Early on it’s just so overwhelming.
For me, I needed space when I first got sober, so it’s hard for me to make a blanket statement for everybody else. Even when people were like, what can I do? Sometimes we do know and sometimes we don’t. One of the biggest things I’ve struggled with in sobriety is putting words to my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences, and just not having the vocabulary. So when somebody says what can I do, I don’t even know what I’m going through right now, so I can’t even imagine what you could do for me. So the biggest thing is letting them know I’m here if you want it when you want it.
Similar to grief, you’re going through a loss. And now you have to figure out new ways to cope with life, on life’s terms, and with daily life. I suffer from very severe anxiety and I still don’t know fully how to help myself even. It used to be getting very drunk, getting very high. Use things to numb things out. So when you get sober, everything comes rushing back. You no longer have the thing that makes it all go away. The overwhelming feeling is just… everything.
Now I have tools, I need a hug, I need to sleep, I need to rant, I need to cry, I need to call my therapist. Those are tools that I’ve picked up the last five years. When I first got sober, I didn’t realize I had any of those tools. The only thing I did have was drinking myself to sleep.
Whatever those things are that you were sending away, they never really go away, right?
As a parent, it’s really hard to step back from your kid, especially when you see them hurting themselves. But at the end of the day, it’s what you have to do to let them find out that they’re capable of taking care of themselves.
No matter with broken teeth or a broken heart, Sarah has told her story countless times with courage but more importantly without shame. There are many words to describe my bright, shiny penny, but her resilience to endure hardship and continue to keep living on her terms is the most inspiring form of self-love.
As we shift gears back to our Drawn Together series, our next guest is the singularly amazing medical artist, illustrator, and animator, James Archer of ANATOMYBLUE. Specializing in the creation of didactic and cinematic illustration and animation for the healthcare, pharmaceutical, and publishing communities, James Archer combines medicine and art, science and illustration, and in some cases “the subject of anatomy and the color blue.” He’s a gentle giant in the field of medical illustration and we’re excited to visit with him in our next blog post.
Until then, be safe, be kind, and think about the unseen heroes in your world!