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Interview: Helaina Hovitz on The Transition From Fun to Problems

By on January 22, 2018

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One of the major misconceptions out there about people in recovery is that we hate drinking and drugs. Au contraire! We simply learned that we can’t do it responsibly. The fact of the matter is that we would never have become addicted if it all hadn’t started off being incredibly fun.

If you hang around recovery circles, you’ll hear people say, “First it was fun, then it was fun with problems, then it was just problems.” I like that expression. I get that expression. I wanted to do an interview which examines that expression. And so I interviewed Helaina Hovitz. She’s an editor, writer, and author of the memoir After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, HEALTH, Teen Vogue, Glamour, Forbes, Huffington Post, Salon, Women’s Health, Prevention, Reader’s Digest, VICE, and many others. She still lives in New York City with her husband and their rescue dog, Wiley.

What was drinking/using like when it was fun?

My career really started, aside from occasional teenage experimentation and yakking, at 18. A native New Yorker, I wasn’t college partying in dorm rooms. I was doing it at the hottest clubs in West Chelsea three nights a week, with promoters that took care of high-paying clients. At the time I felt like I’d finally been accepted, belonged, was worth something. It was for all of the wrong reasons. We always walked right through the velvet ropes and were led to a table in the center of the club, where I began drinking so I could lose all inhibition and hit the dance floor. The alcohol silenced the fear of their judgment, the envy I had of other people, the anxiety I carried inside me at all times. I had always dreamed of rolling with the “in crowd” and there we were, dancing among celebrities and the Manhattan elite. Strawberries and pink lemonade and chocolate were brought with every bottle and I usually didn’t have to go home alone, back to the prison between my ears that was my every thinking mind that never shut off.

I felt like I finally had that feeling other people had—relaxed, calm, happy. Excited about life. A certain freedom from the anxious thoughts that I lugged around with me everywhere I went. I felt pretty, I felt normal, I felt soothed—in a way. I felt lighter, I felt fabulous; it was like I was always expecting some sort of amazing adventure—even if I sat in the same place—each time I threw one back. I was a girl who didn’t need to know the plan for the night suddenly, mapping out every detail. I was the girl on the black leather couch dancing at the club when nobody else was allowed to. I wasn’t a total mess. I showed up for the love of my life, my grandmother, whose health was slowly and painfully declining, almost every day. I didn’t drink in the mornings or nights I had work or school the next day (mostly).

When and how did it become fun with problems?

I tried to convince myself that I was young and carefree, scurrying from this lounge to that club and a late-night date. But I couldn’t ever quite convince myself hard enough that there was nothing “carefree” about my drinking when people didn’t know where I was, when I got very sick and afraid the next day for hours upon end, when I lost my wallet or stepped on my Chanel sunglasses or kept my mother awake crying until 5 am. When my then-boyfriend sat across from my hospital bed after spending the whole night before on a wild goose chase to find me and told me not to tell him I loved him ever again because there’s no way I could possibly mean it. How could this keep happening? I kept asking myself. I was a smart, responsible person, a good girl who always did what I set she set her mind to.

When people think of alcoholics, they don’t think about 22-year-olds dancing at a club; they think of an older woman sneaking nips at her desk, or making an idiot out of herself at an office holiday party. Our culture has decided that 20-something binge drinking is normal. But it wasn’t normal for me, and even when I recognized that and tried to stop on my own, I realized I couldn’t.

What was it like when it was just problems?

Alcohol was clearly a staple at every dinner, every party, every girl’s night out.

On Thanksgiving Day during my last year of college, I landed at New York Downtown Hospital for alcohol poisoning, my fourth time since I started college.

“She’s the ninth one today,” the nurse whispered to the doctor when he arrived, shooting my parents a disapproving look. It was no coincidence that three college dormitories were within a four-block radius of the hospital. I am never drinking again, I resolved. And I meant it. But I failed, and failed again.

I was thrown out of an apartment building by my ex-boyfriend’s security detail, had to go to the emergency room with alcohol poisoning four times, had to go to the doctor twice because I was terrified when I started bleeding one morning after a practical stranger left, or when I saw that there was no condom wrapper. It was 10-12 hours the next day of bad headaches and retching and shaking, on the bathroom floor, because I didn’t get hungover…I got deathly ill.

Falling off a restaurant chair, cursing in front of children, and—shudder, this is the biggest one because I don’t even know who this person is—telling my ex to keep the dogs gated in the living room so I didn’t get their fur all over my outfit…this was never fun, because even though at the time it “seemed fine,” deep down, my conscience was too loud to ignore. I still look back on that and wonder who that evil monster was. I can’t even pass a dog on the street now without trying to make out with them. Back then, this was not a personal capable of having fun on her own. She had to let the liquor unwind her gears and lube up the wheels, and more and more often, that train ran off the tracks.

How and when did life become fun again?

At 22, I identified as an alcoholic, and was often the youngest one in many of the 12-step meeting rooms (I didn’t need to go to rehab). I never picked up a drink again. Life became more fun than it had ever really been, because my feelings were real. Girls my own age wanted to be friends and hang out with me, do things like go to the movies or have brunch. There was plenty to do that didn’t involve drinking when you knew where to look for it, and about two years into sobriety, when I had worked on myself not just through CBT, DBT, meditation and the steps, I had rebuilt the life and identity I never had the chance to when my world came crashing down at age 12. As the woman I had only imagined I would be I my wildest fantasies—calm, patient, clever, understanding, selfless and rational—I began to build a life and welcome people into it who made me feel happy.

Most of all, these tools made me feel safe in the world again, and safe in my own skin. Safe in my own ability to be “okay” no matter how painful or stressful things got. Changing my perspective and expectations for “fun” also changed the game—when I started thinking about what I could bring to or contribute to a situation, how I could help someone else laugh or feel happy, rather than what I could “get from it.”

A wise teacher once told me that before you can feel happy, or loved, or give love or make someone else happy, you have to feel safe. And that was when life became fun: because I had the capacity to feel it.

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