A journey with recovery: how I dealt with trauma after becoming sober
THIS IS REAL LIFE Warning: This story discusses the topics of trauma, alcohol, and triggers. Please be cautious reading this story if these topics are triggering. Two months before I got sober, I was working at a top advertising company in Chicago. I thought my life as a twenty-something in the big city was supposed to entail working on big brands and sending important emails. Most of all, I thought it was about attending happy hours. In reality, I was a 27-year-old who was silently struggling with alcohol abuse and heading toward a change I never imagined would happen. From what I remember of the holiday party that year, there was unlimited wine, and I met Dennis Quaid. Thankfully, I was sober enough to meet the dad of all dads, Nick Parker—but after that, my memory of the night is spotty until I got sent home in a Lyft. The shame from that night consumed me all weekend. So, when the CEO called me into her office Monday morning, I could barely hold it together enough to leave my desk. I anxiously tried to relive my steps: Did I see her? Did someone say something? Was I walking around with my dress tucked into my tights? What could be this bad? She sat at the table in a cold office and someone from HR was sitting to her right. The two of them together signified it would either be the start of many more conversations, or one of our last. “As you may have heard, we’re restructuring the business and opening the new office…” her sentence evaporated into the next as she mentioned clients and finances and company hoopla. The two of them went on to explain that their reason for letting me go was not because of anything I did but because of the nature of the business. I breathed a sigh of relief that this wasn’t for my reindeer games last Friday. I had gotten away with my antics by a fraction of an inch, making me question how much I was willing to let alcohol influence my life. It was a layoff and kind of an unusual one at best—they let me work until the end of February to help transition the business. Having eight weeks to look for a job sounded feasible, but with it being around the holidays and New Year, getting any sort of auto-generated response was affirming. As February crept in, my work dwindled. Companies continued to tell me they were still working out fiscal budgets and couldn’t hire just then. Eventually, defeat and boredom led me to drink more heavily on the daily. Until one morning after a happy hour blackout. I woke up wearing the clothes from the night before to a pounding headache and a furious boyfriend. It was the umpteenth time he told me I had a problem with drinking, but it was the first time he told me he was done with it. With a threat like that, I went into autopilot and told him I’d get sober. My decision was an instantaneous declaration and not one I could put off until I had a stable income. The truth was, I had to face early sobriety on top of all the other stress in my life. In my first week sober, I was officially let go from my most recent job. Thankfully, that was immediately followed by an offer from another company. But losing my job and saying goodbye to friends made me want to drink. The time off between employers made me want to binge-drink all day. Finally landing a new position made me want to celebrate with champagne. The cravings and urges were vexing, and it felt like I might lose the battle. The first 30 days of sobriety are said to be enlightening, treacherous and a time of great vulnerability. In the first month, a newly sober person may be figuring out what interests they have besides drinking or drugging. They may be withdrawing physically from a substance. And, most importantly, they’re coping with the fact that their life has to change. Seeking to relate to someone, I went to a substance abuse counselor, a women’s twelve-step meeting, and a sober curious women’s MeetUp. Each woman I connected with made me feel heard, and I continuously took lessons from their stories. By filling my time with meetings, talking to women in recovery and opening myself up, I didn’t pick up a single drink. On my 30th day of sobriety and my second day of work, I was walking through a sleeping neighborhood under construction to my new office downtown. With new buildings going up on every corner, seeing hard hat workers around was as common as parking tickets in the city. I had a venti iced coffee in hand and my pace was faster than that of the heavy-set man walking in front of me. His white, thermal long sleeve looked like it’d been washed with a charcoal-based detergent. His faded blue jeans were crusted in mud and his Timberland boots were untied. The pathway to pass him narrowed with construction roadblocks separating the road from the sidewalk. It was just big enough for the two of us to walk side-by-side, arms-distance-length away. My gait reached his, and as I said, “Excuse me,” the gravity in my step betrayed me, and I was pulled backward. He had the base of my ponytail in his hand and was in control of my motions as if I were his puppet. My cheek touched his as he pulled me closer to sneer in my face, “Don’t you ever [explicit] pass a man again!” Still holding my ponytail in his hand, he pulled my hair back harder, sending me to the pavement. My right hip hit first, followed by my arm carrying the coffee. In a daze from the shock, I lay there on my side looking up at him with his fists flailing overhead. Is he going to touch me again? What is he doing? Why can’t I move?! Whether it was one second or a thousand, he got in enough words for me to begin to regret ever considering passing him. Then, in a stroke of luck, he lost his balance and took a step back. It gave me the opportunity to get up and run like hell. It was still three-quarters of a mile to work and making a run with a backpack felt strenuous and unfeasible. I ended up sprinting to the end of the next block since I had a hunch he wasn’t chasing me. When I looked back, all that was there were visions of him standing over me, yelling. No one was there. My whole being felt dirty and all I wanted to do was take a shower. A man I did not authorize touched me and belittled me. I envisioned the microbial cells of his fist making their way from my hair strands into my skull and penetrating my brain. His unbathed musk hung in my nostrils, embedding itself into my nasal cavities. Finally, in the office, I felt like I could burst. I had to talk to someone about what had just happened. Did I bring this upon myself? I needed to know if what just happened to me was warranted. Did I make a mistake trying to pass him? Once my new coworkers were in the office, I couldn’t contain it. I had to tell someone about it, but because I was so new, I was horrified this would taint what they thought of me. Battling mixed emotions, I tried to play it cool, like it was a casual incident, “So, something happened to me on the way to work this morning.” It almost felt naughty to talk about it in a work environment, but it was a relief to say it out loud. My new coworkers were kind, compassionate, and most of all, they validated my feelings; I wasn’t in the wrong. I should have been able to pass someone, with space between us, without being touched. And at their insistence, I called the police and reported the incident. A month into sobriety and recently assaulted, I didn’t trust myself. For the next week, I avoided walking to work, and if I did, my boyfriend walked me there. I carried a keychain of mace in my pocket. My sense of security was broken but repairable. It would have been so easy to retreat into my old patterns by bottling emotions and relying on alcohol to numb them. Instead, I held onto the tools that kept me sober for the last 30 days. I attended twelve-step meetings and met other sober women online and in meetings. The therapy sessions with my new counselor helped me understand why I wanted to mute my thoughts rather than deal with them. I also began writing more seriously, which proved to be therapeutic. And opening myself up and allowing myself to be raw ended up benefiting my relationship with my partner. Now, we have an honest and loving partnership, where I don’t feel I have to hide parts of myself that are suffering. I’ve ditched boozy nights, certain friends, and endless hangovers. I’ve replaced my environment with other sober women, creative projects, and love. By surrounding myself with like-minded women, I’ve been able to heal. I believe in the healing powers of other women, and that is what’s gotten me through it all. Without my female therapist or women’s meetups, I wouldn’t have made it through early sobriety or my second day of work. I’m thankful to be healthy and here, to carry the healing powers of connection. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, head over to the Facing Addiction with NCADD website and/or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-622-HELP (4357).