Getting Sober: Finding Your Way

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Brooke Aymes started drinking as a way to deal with the negative emotions that arose after the death of her cousin from suicide. Then it became a social activity — “a way to fit in and to feel good about myself,” she says.

Social drinking led to sneaking water bottles filled with alcohol into high school. Eventually Aymes found that she couldn’t pull herself away from the bottle.

Nearly 15 million people use alcohol to the point where it has harmful effects on their life and they can’t stop drinking. Those with alcohol use disorder have many treatments to choose from, including 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), inpatient rehabilitation centers, and medication.

Some methods work better for certain people than for others.

At her parents’ urging, Aymes went to detoxes, rehabilitation programs, outpatient facilities, and 12-step programs. “None of those things worked until I was able to have the desire to not want to drink, and to have the willingness to follow through with doing work on myself.” she says.

Aymes eventually used techniques she’d learned from the programs she’d done to find her way to recovery on her own. Today, she is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor in Oaklyn, NJ.

“I do not believe recovery is one-size-fits-all,” she says. “There are a lot of roads to get there.”

12-Step Programs

AA is one of the best-known and most established alcohol recovery programs. Many other programs follow its 12-step method, which relies on 12 principles, the first three of which are admitting your powerlessness over alcohol, believing that a higher power can stop your drinking, and turning over your will to that higher power.

It’s a system that centers on spiritual belief, which made Fay Zenoff uncomfortable because she hadn’t been brought up with religion. For her, alcohol had become a way to deal with the “tremendous grief and loss” from the death of her older brother and her parents’ divorce.

By high school, Zenoff was a blackout drinker. But it was only at age 40, after two children and a divorce, that she realized that she couldn’t keep up the façade anymore that she was OK.

Zenoff says that when she first walked into a 12-step program, she cried. “I didn’t see reflections of myself there.” But after 6 months of “white-knuckling it” on her own, she went back.

She realized she had more in common with the people in the program than she’d thought. “They were talking about solutions, and they had stories that were similar to my lived experience,” she says. “I actually felt hope for the first time.”

Zenoff learned the coping skills and resiliency she needed to break the behaviors that were controlling her life. She has been in recovery for almost 15 years, which she says is a continuing process. Now she’s a recovery strategist who helps others learn how to thrive after leaving rehab.

A 12-step program also helped Ty Reed stop drinking, but only after he had hit bottom. Once a successful mortgage salesman, Reed had been living “a double life.” After work, he’d go out drinking late into the night. Eventually, he also got hooked on crack and meth.

By 2014, Reed was homeless. He was in and out of jail and mental institutions. He even tried to take his own life. He credits the sense of community in his 12-step program with helping him stop using alcohol and drugs as well as keeping him from slipping back into a relapse.

Getting a job was also instrumental to his recovery. “It gave me structure,” he says. “Having responsibility and an obligation to show up somewhere, and learning to be dependable again were critical.” The company he has since founded, Recovery Career Services, helps other people in recovery rebuild their careers.

Therapy and Support

Ashley Loeb Blassingame’s “drinking career” started early. At 7, she would steal beers from her family’s fridge and drink them alone in her closet. By high school, she was filling water bottles with wine or vodka and downing them before school. She also used drugs and got into trouble with the law.

Therapy helped her understand the reasons for her drinking. “I was using it to medicate feelings of discomfort. I was using it to medicate anxiety,” she says. Two types were helpful: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which addresses the harmful thoughts and beliefs that trigger the urge to drink, and another kind called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

Therapy, plus support from her peers, has kept her sober for 15 years. Now, Loeb Blassingame is a certified alcohol and drug counselor and co-founder of Lionrock, an online substance abuse counseling program.

Inpatient Programs

For some people with alcohol use disorder, trying to recover at home or in an outpatient program may not be enough. Inpatient programs offer a higher level of care, including detox to ease the withdrawal process.

Patrick Venzke ended up in an inpatient facility in Jacksonville, FL, a decision that he says probably saved his life. The German-born former NFL player had been investing his football earnings to buy and flip luxury houses when the 2008 housing crisis hit and his life crashed down around him. “I was living the American dream, and within 3 years we were on food stamps and had to file for bankruptcy,” he says.

“I used alcohol like a tool, like a painkiller, just to get through one more day,” he says. By 2014, he was drinking two to three bottles of wine a day.

The inpatient program helped him get sober. Then the NFL Alumni Association got him into the Desert Hope Treatment Center in Las Vegas, where he now continues his recovery while working as a patient liaison.

Venzke is 5½ months into his program, but he realizes that recovery is a long journey. “It’s not like I’m healed,” he says. “It’s a lifelong process for me.”

Sober Living Homes

For Joe Marks, drinking had become so ingrained that 90 days in a treatment facility barely made a dent. “Two weeks later, I was going to pick up a pack of cigarettes, and what do I have in my hands? Two half-gallons of booze. It started all over again,” he says.

More than 35 years of drinking had brought him to the brink of death. He would drink to the point where he passed out, only to wake up and start drinking again. “Alcohol had hijacked my brain,” he says. “I needed to get off alcohol for a long enough time to let those pathways find the right way to go.”

His rehab counselor suggested that he move into a sober living housing community in Hickory, NC. “There was enough stability, and it put structure into my life,” he says.

It took a couple of years, and making connections with like-minded people, to help him get sober. “I discovered a new life,” he says. “They took me by the hand and walked with me when I couldn’t walk on my own.”

Today, Marks has found a renewed sense of purpose in helping others. As an ambassador for the Talk It Out initiative, speaking to young people about the dangers of underage drinking is a big part of his recovery.

Do It Yourself

Some people prefer to stop drinking in their own way, like actress, filmmaker, and podcast host Raeden Greer. Tired of the negative consequences (including a DUI and two arrests) from her drinking, she got sober by managing her anxiety and by substituting new rituals for the ones that used to involve alcohol.

“Five o’clock is still going to roll around, regardless of whether you’re drinking or not. So what are you going to do now at 5, because you’ve got to do something different,” she says. When 5 o’clock does roll around, she drinks sparkling water with fruit juice or herbal tea. And she’s replaced the time she used to spend drinking with more positive pursuits focused on self-care.

Greer takes recovery one day at a time, and tries not to put too much pressure on herself to never drink again. “The longer I go, the more I feel like I probably won’t ever do it again. But if I do at some point, I don’t want to create an environment for myself where I feel ashamed and … like a failure that I didn’t live up to this huge expectation that I put on myself,” she says.

Find What Works for You

Recovery from alcohol use happens for each person in their own way. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t succeed the first time. See it as a step in the right direction.

“It is very common for people to try recovery multiple times before it takes hold,” Reed says. “It’s tough not to be discouraged, but every time we fail, it’s actually an opportunity for growth.”

If you or someone you love has trouble with alcohol use, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (800-662-4357).


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