How I Stay Accountable: Helaina
While we all have different journeys in recovery, most will agree that accountability is a crucial component when it comes to staying clean and sober. Once we admit we want to rebuild our lives—whether it’s to a close friend, a family member or all our followers on Instagram—it becomes a lot harder to just pick up a drink or pop a pill. After all, who wants to risk having to come clean and admit we lost focus for a sec—or, er, three years? Accountability is how we stay on track and we all have people, places and things that have helped us reach our recovery goals. This is how accountability has worked for Helaina.
What does accountability mean to you?
I tried to stop drinking on my own several times between the ages of 19 and 22. I could go for long stretches, or just have one or two, but the binge always came because I didn’t have support or someone to check-in with. My therapist was not that person and it wasn’t her job. Having a sponsor, meetings to go to where I raised my hand, and making other sober friends made all the difference.
Once I had that, I never looked back. It’s much easier to take care of ourselves when we’re accountable to someone else, as ironic as that is. I even found it to hold true when I committed to my healthy eating and exercise plan for the New Year, and through an app, I acquired a nutrition and fitness sponsor I checked in with every day. It was the first time I stuck with my long-term goals after five years of trying.
Ultimately, though, being accountable is about a commitment to yourself. Other people come and go but at the end of the day, you have to answer to yourself. Hopefully, after the work you put in during recovery, that is someone you now trust and love and don’t want to disappoint.
Does the fact that people know about your recovery play into you staying sober? How?
Absolutely! Being public about it, through my various articles and my book, I feel that I have a responsibility to be that example of a young person who can work a program that works for her, have a fulfilling life, talk about the shit that gets real when it gets real, and still not pick up a drink or a joint.
I have young people write to me, I have mothers of young people come up to me at events in tears and tell me about their own children, even if those children are grown up. I have women of all ages that reach out and I am honest with them. I have to be because I am a horrible liar. Lying wasn’t my forte even when I was active in addiction, and it’s not something I do now. It feels gross and I’d never be able to live with myself. I know that I’m one person out of a zillion on this planet but there are a few eyes watching me every now and then, and I hope that I can continue to inspire them. It’s not about just me.
Who or what are you accountable to in your recovery?
Aside from my sponsor, my husband, our rescue dog, my friends and my parents, I’d say the entire Internet (through my writing and social networks) and anyone who picks up my book.
Right now, I have a sponsor who is a flight attendant and one of the coolest women on the planet. I wanted her desperately to sponsor me when I first came in, but because of her schedule, she said it wouldn’t be fair to me. Now, over five years later, she’s like, “Girl, you got this, let’s do it.” She knows she doesn’t have to worry about me, especially because I’m thinking about recovery pretty much every day on some level because I’m always writing about it or connecting with sober friends.
I tell waiters all the time—and this happens often since I cover restaurant and food news—and restaurant representatives who pitch me cocktail and wine and tequila stories, which happens often. Not to “shame” them (because so many people drink normally, duh) but because I’m proud of it, and because every time I say it, I’m being accountable. Meetings are not a big part of my program anymore. I try to go once a month, but it’s more to stay grounded in my roots than anything else. That could change when things get rough, which they do in life.
How important is having a community to your staying sober? Why?
The way we define community now has changed so much! There’s a general recovery community at large, made up of smaller communities and individuals, Facebook pages and phone meetings, phone calls between two friends who happen to both be sober. For me, community doesn’t mean, in 2017, having to sit in a meeting and physically be surrounded by other sober people. The important thing is to stay in touch with and give back to that community in any way you can.
For me, that is through service related articles, taking any call or text from a newbie that I can, or someone struggling with sponsor issues (for which I’m an expert) and showing up to sober celebrations. I know that the reason I got and stayed sober was because we can’t do it alone, and I don’t take that for granted. Just because I don’t rely on other people to keep me accountable anymore doesn’t mean I take them for granted.
Have you ever relapsed? Is there anything you could have done that might have prevented that?
No, I have never relapsed.
What advice do you give someone who wants to get or stay sober?
Take pretty much every suggestion your sponsors, friends, coach or whomever give you during the first year (unless it feels icky or questionable from a moral or safety standpoint, of course). You’ve got to change your thinking and your general approach to life— past, present, and future—in order to become the kind of person who isn’t trying to escape or find relief from it. In your first year, it’s true that on many matters, you can’t really trust your thinking, at least, the kind that gets you into situations you maybe should have thought twice about. You’re here to learn how to live a happy, healthy life from others who seem to have nailed it, so be wary of those first paranoid, judgmental, angry, scorned thoughts you’ll have in reaction to life and the people in it.
Now, in my case, there were people who really messed with my head—weighing in on my medications when they shouldn’t have or projecting whatever their own sponsor told them right onto me at very inappropriate times during my fist year. Nobody in this program should ever mess with [telling people whether or not they should take] anti-depressants or anything else prescribed by a doctor. We’re here to stop drinking and abusing drugs. Mental health is not something you mess with—that’s the opposite of healthy.
That’s why it’s important to have outside support, like a therapist, as well as other people in the program who have more time than you that you trust. And, build that sober network of friends! You’ll want to have people around that you can to talk to about your sponsor or coach when you guys hit an impasse. There is nothing like feeling shaky about such an important relationship to make you toy with the notion of giving up.
After you’ve put some time together, start feeling comfortable doing what works for you and don’t let anyone tell you that their way is the right way. Be open to having that ebb and flow over time. Just make sure you’re doing something. It took me nearly five years to find the courage to start living the sober life that worked for me and standing by it on a middle ground between remaining connected to the program and the people in it and learning to rely on myself and have faith in the universe. When we get sober, we see things more clearly, and if you’re working a program, chances are you’re getting back in touch with reality and rationality.
How important do you think transparency is in your recovery?
I’m very open about my recovery when people ask, and sometimes even if they don’t. In one instance, it even inspired someone to open up to me about their own using and ask where the best meetings in the city were. In writing about it openly as an author and a journalist, I hope to help others out there identify and offer useful tools for dealing with everyday life in recovery. I’m willing to share the good, bad and ugly because if I don’t share it to help others, what good was it all?
How does it feel to earn people’s trust back now that you’re sober?
I was lucky because my parents never stopped trusting me. They’re really the only people who are still in the picture before and after. None of my fair-weather friends or exes are in the picture anymore. So really, for me, this question is about not breaking the trust of the people in my life now, and not disappointing them. I know my sobriety is about me but it affects many other people and that’s what keeps me going on the rare occasion that I want to say “f*ck it.”
Helaina is the author of After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Women’s Health, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes and The New York Observer. Follow Helaina on her website, Facebook and Twitter.