Sara’s Journey to Recovery: Part 1
Sara remembers looking through her parent’s liquor cabinet at a young age.
Or going to see what kind of cooking wine was in the cupboards.
She didn’t understand it yet, but she was curious about alcohol and wanted to have a mind-altering experience. Even if she didn’t imbibe until years later, her grandmother would give her non-alcoholic beer and wine so she could feel like a grown-up.
“I was a city child,” she says. “And that’s what the adults were having.”
Fast forward 20 years and Sara had developed a pretty serious drinking problem, to the point where being either drunk or hungover became her norm. There was no in-between, except when she tried to cut back, which was more than once — but she’d fall back on old habits. Like most people in her shoes, she felt trapped and unsure of how to break the cycle.
Through it all, she watched her friends and loved ones thrive. “I mean, I watched my sister get married. Anything I ever wanted for myself, I saw everyone around me getting,” she says. But Sara felt stuck, unable to move forward. Alcohol had kept her frozen in time. “I was living in the past,” she recalls. “I was too focused on when I’m going to get my next drink.”
She doesn’t remember exactly what her breaking point was, but it came as the cloud of COVID-19 started to lift. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” she confesses. “I just knew that I didn’t feel like I was actually living. Or living the life I wanted to live.”
She realized that all the things she wasn’t achieving could be tied to alcohol and decided that enough was enough. She needed help, and hopped on a plane to get it. First to Arizona, then to California, where she found refuge at Avalon Malibu, a world-renowned residential treatment center for mental health and addiction issues.
As the message of recovery began to sink in, Sara discovered a new way to live.
“Avalon changed my life,” she says.
Off to the Races
Sara considers herself pretty normal. She grew up on the East Coast and split her time between there and South Florida. She describes her younger self as a do-gooder and a bit of what she calls a ‘late bloomer.’ A lot of people who develop a substance abuse problem later in life have experienced some form of childhood trauma, but to her, nothing from those years really stands out as the catalyst to her drinking.
“Things were pretty eventless,” she muses. “In terms of the person I am today.”
That changed in college. “It wasn’t until after high school that I started to experience loss and some major family events,” she recalls. The most difficult was when her mom was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that causes the nerve cells to break down.
When our loved ones are impacted by a disease like ALS, it can have a significant impact on our own mental health and well-being. Often, we stop caring for ourselves as well as we should be and experience deep feelings of fear, anxiety and helplessness.
Sara was no different.
“That’s when my drinking really got out of hand and I started to spiral,” she says. “And I was off to the races. But first, I should probably tell you about when I was younger.”
A Good Kid
All throughout her childhood, Sara was a good student and a rule follower.
For the most part, that carried over into her teenage years. “I feel like when my friends started smoking pot, I wasn’t smoking pot yet,” she explains. “But for me, at that point in time, I probably couldn’t even tell you what pot looked like if it landed in my lap.”
And despite her memories of rifling through her parents’ liquor cabinet, Sara didn’t really touch alcohol until much later in high school.
“I remember my first, real experience with alcohol. A friend of mine threw a party and I remember just mixing like… everything,” she laughs. “I don’t know what I was trying to do, or if I was even trying to get drunk.” The night ended with her throwing up in her dad’s car and learning the infamous saying: beer before liquor, never been sicker…
“But just to give you an idea of the type of kid I was… I’d call my parents if I got into trouble. My friends would be too scared to call theirs. They used to joke that my parents didn’t love me because they weren’t constantly calling me to see where I was.”
“But they just trusted me,” she continues. “I was honest with them.”
Sara was always forthright, and sometimes that got her in trouble.
“I’m honest to a fault,” she admits.
Later, this would set some events into motion that would make her think seriously about getting sober. “My honesty…. Well, my actions got me in trouble, but if you had asked me years ago, I’d tell you my honesty got me in trouble,” she says.
She was introduced to 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and tried to curb her drinking for the first time since college. “And I was successful at it,” she insists. “Except for a few times, like on weekends. But I never got caught for it.”
She was eventually able to focus and things calmed down a bit.
“I did what I had to do,” she says.
She went on to finish her graduate degree and started working, but soon her mom’s condition began to deteriorate. Her parents were living in South Florida by then, so she moved down there to be closer to them.
“And for two years I pretty much watched her get worse and worse. As a result, I guess I wasn’t really focused on myself… So my drinking did pick up.”
After her mom passed away, her alcohol use increased even more. This time, there was nothing holding her back. “It went from maybe a few days a week to daily… then it started to be on the job. I got to the point where I was putting vodka in water bottles. I was taking it with me.”
It didn’t help that her line of work enabled her.
“Fortunately and I guess unfortunately for me, the industry I was in, there was no 9 to 5,” she explains. “You would go to events, and you would do things. It wasn’t far-fetched to go out with a client and have drinks. And I was working with some bars or restaurants, so of course I was drinking at those places.”
Like many high-functioning addicts with prominent careers, she was able to keep drinking without completely bottoming out. And with no obvious consequences at the time, it was easy to deny that she had a problem. After all, she didn’t even fit the stereotype of an alcoholic.
She had an MBA.
She went to law school.
She managed to land a great job.
Yet drinking became enmeshed into her life. She started to lie to herself and others about what was going on, and the lines that kept her alcohol use separate from everything else began to blur. Suddenly, there was no differentiation between when she was drinking and when she wasn’t.
“At that point,” she says, “I was not being honest with the amount I was drinking. I made it sound a lot less worse than it was.”
There were other times when she tried to get her drinking in order, but they didn’t last. Alcohol had become an essential part of her being. “Even if I found myself hungover, I thought, well, the best way to bring my body back to homeostasis was with more alcohol,” she groans. “Which is not what my body really needed, but clearly I wasn’t listening to science at the time.”
“Let’s see… this went on for about 10 years,” she says. “Then COVID happened.”