I’m 22 years old, and I am almost five years sober. I’ve never had a legal drink, and after a lot of work, I can say that I don’t plan to.
I have many people in my life to thank for helping me get to this place. My parents, my sister, Alcoholics Anonymous, my good friends, and my sponsor. But let's put it this way: While I may have just graduated from Stanford University with a degree in psychology, I don’t remember the spring semester of my senior year of high school. The stuff in between has been anything but easy.
Hanging With The Wrong Crowd
I grew up in the picture-perfect home with the picture-perfect family. My parents are both doctors, and they sent me to an all-girls school, where I was undoubtedly the most awkward girl there. My lack of filter helped me hide from the fact that like those other girls, I really did just want to be accepted. I was 13 when I worked my way into the infamous “bad crowd.” With drugs, older guys, and alcohol, I was starting to feel like the bad kids weren’t so bad.
That same year, my dad had a heart issue and had to be taken to the hospital. My aunt gave my sister and me two sugar-free Redbulls, a DVD of “A Christmas Story,” and Bailey’s Irish Cream. Alcohol to fix the problem.
As I got older, the parties got crazier. I blacked out for the first time in tenth grade. After one night out, I woke up with my jeans covered in vomit and no idea how I got home. I Googled, “How to make sure you’re not an alcoholic.” I convinced myself I wasn’t. That I couldn’t be. I was drinking the same as everyone else, just a little more intense because that’s the kind of person I am, I told myself.
In a desperate plea for distraction, I joined the rowing team, became the president of school clubs, and focused on my grades. Still, every weekend, I found a way to get blackout drunk. The rowing thing stuck, though—at six-feet tall, it was one of the only sports I really succeeded in. I even got a scholarship to Stanford.
Hitting Rock Bottom
My parents took our family on a trip to Hawaii to celebrate after my high school graduation. It was fun to get away, until I woke up being shaken by police officers. I was drunk, I was drugged, and I was sexually assaulted. All I remember is three men who claimed to work on a cruise ship that was docked there, getting hit in the face and led away by one of them, and waking up knowing something had happened. There, on our family vacation, I had to have a gynecological exam and a rape-kit procedure. I couldn't consider pressing charges because the detectives involved told me they couldn't find the men. Who knows what the truth was. I was chugging rum samples on the bathroom floor two days later.
I was on a downward spiral that everyone could see but me. I saw an alcohol counselor, but I would get drunk before our sessions. I got into three drunk-driving accidents (and somehow, no one was hurt). But I didn’t even consider quitting drinking until I did hurt someone. A guy said something rude to me at a party and I slammed his head into a counter. I didn’t even know it happened until someone told me days later.
I realized then that alcohol turns me into a person I never wanted to be.
My Turning Point
So on June 11, 2012, I went to rehab for one month after my high school graduation. I memorized the steps and I did what I was told, except for when they told me to stay 45 more days to do some more work on myself. I wanted to get back to my life, back to my friends, so I left.
Six days later, alcohol was back in my system. I didn’t fail at anything else. With tears falling down my face one blackout night I asked myself, why was I miserably failing at recovery?
I had to go back for treatment. I had done it my way, and that didn’t work. I would really have to commit this time. I faced the same people I had said goodbye to when I left just days earlier. I was so embarrassed to walk back through the doors with all of my things, ready for another round, but everyone welcomed me back with open arms. I made some of my best friends at The Caron Foundation Treatment Center. When asked if I wanted to take a two-month camping trip with three guys from the program and two guides, I packed my bags, even though I had to defer my acceptance to Stanford. There in the outdoors, really living for what felt like the first time, I realized my life didn’t have to be over if I really committed to being sober.
I finished the program, for real this time. And I followed the advice of those who told me to go to 90 A.A. meetings in 90 days. I started the 12-step program. I found a sponsor.
They told us to find a sponsor who was ahead of us in the steps and had been sober for longer than we had. They said to look for someone who “has what you want,” so when I met this badass, confident, strong 23-year-old woman, I stopped looking.
Writing It All Down
“I want you to write down 10 things you are grateful for every day,” my sponsor told me one day over coffee. It sounded easy enough until she said, “and you can’t repeat.”
I had never really been the type of person to write down my thoughts before. I feel things really strongly and really quickly, so I just never thought there would be time to write it all down. My hands couldn’t possibly move as fast as my anxiety-ridden thoughts. Still, I bought my first notebook and started writing. I had nothing to lose.
The first few lists were easy: “my mom, my dad, my dog, my other dog, my car, my sponsor.” Every day, the answers became less obvious. I started having to look for things to be grateful for, which is something I had never done before.
I remember sitting in a Starbucks on one particularly crappy day, not knowing what to write, when I saw an older couple walk in. The woman was using a walker and the man held the door for her, and then kissed her on the cheek. I wrote that down. Just because.
Journaling about the good led me to journal about the not-so-good. I started writing my fears, my doubts, and my shortcomings so that I could remember to talk about them with my sponsor and therapist. Soon, though, I was filling notebooks so furiously that my hand hurt. Seeing my complicated and confusing emotions on paper staring back at me took their power away. I felt like I was finally in control— not alcohol, not anxiety, not depression.
And interspersed between all of the difficult experiences I wrote down were those lists of 10 things I was grateful for. I’ve made a list every day since I started.
I’ve learned through my meetings, my therapy, and my journaling that, as addicts, we are not bad people trying to be good, we’re sick people trying to get well. While I no longer have an obsessive desire to drink, I’m still recovering from my addiction. I still go to meetings three or four times every week.
When I flip through the pages of the hundreds of tear-stained, Cheetos-dusted notebooks sitting in my closet at home, I’m proud of myself. Writing—and re-reading—my journals has shown me that I’m no longer a person that exists just for me. I try to step up and be the type of person I wish I had around me when I was young, struggling, and alone.
I’ll never forget this one day in the treatment center (my second time around). I was listening to a lecture about the statistics of recovery when the teacher told us to look to our left and to our right. Statistically, only one of us would make it. Today, the women who were sitting next to me are both still sober. All three of us are close friends. Miracles happen when you’re willing to put in the work it takes to create them. And sometimes, you won’t really notice them until you write them down.
This article first appeared in Women's Health.