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How I Transformed From a High-Functioning Alcoholic to Helping Others Thrive

“I worked so much that my mental health and drinking spiraled out of control. I had no other coping mechanisms for stress. I have never developed healthy habits and didn’t think I had time to start because the business was experiencing explosive growth. I just wasn’t willing to stop and deal with it. Big mistake.”

Hello! Who are you?

Hi! I’m Sonia. I am a former orthodontist. I built and sold a successful multi-location practice in 2016 and I got sober in 2017. I live in rural Pennsylvania after living in Philadelphia and NYC for the past 15 years. I have 2 adorable tiny elderly dogs. I am an avid fine art photographer, writer, and I love spending time with my 3 nieces.

I consider myself to be resilient in terms of happiness. I have moments of sadness but always bounce back and can experience joy.

There was a time when I thought the hardest thing I would ever have to do was get through my childhood, then I thought it was getting sober, and now it is going through a divorce.

And I know that there will be more challenges in my life that may be even harder, but I know I’ll get through them and experience joy again. I’ve learned something amazing from each of these experiences.

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

I had a misspent youth and early adulthood in terms of substance abuse. I consider myself a former addict. I was self-medicating the extreme anxiety and depression that I started experiencing at an early age. As a result, I was drinking by the time I was 15 years old.

It progressed from binge drinking to daily drinking when I started my first business.

I worked so much that my mental health and drinking spiraled out of control. I had no other coping mechanisms for stress. I have never developed healthy habits and didn’t think I had time to start because the business was experiencing explosive growth. I just wasn’t willing to stop and deal with it. Big mistake. 

I’ve been sober for almost 6 years and some days it feels easy and normal. But it takes practicing daily healthy habits – eating properly, exercising, keeping in touch with my family regularly, journaling, and taking time to unwind. When I skip some of these steps I start to feel shaky in both my sobriety and my mental health struggles.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

Well, for me, the downsides of self-medicating were pretty obvious – I had developed an addiction to alcohol, and I was deteriorating physically and emotionally. I had no coping mechanisms for stress and thought I had no time to develop them. I had let go of any semblance of a healthy lifestyle.

I also had no personal interests and was constantly disappointing myself. I was a classic high-functioning alcoholic which allows you to mask your problems from the people around you and creates distance in your relationships.

I was the life of the party, the wild one who was always up for anything borderline illegal or immoral.

Turns out that’s not me at all. They never saw the hangovers that lasted for days, the sprained ankle when I tripped in heels, they only saw what I wanted them to see – a professional, successful woman who knew how to have a good time.

Inside I was struggling with so many demons. From my self-own esteem, major imposter syndrome, severe anxiety, and questioning why I didn’t want to have a baby.

Still, I was able to ignore these things. I made sure no one knew any of my issues.

Now, I’m an open book – whether someone wants to hear it or not. I’ll talk about my childhood trauma at a cocktail party, about my husband’s infidelity, about trips to exotic places that I can’t really remember because of my spiraling addiction. Maybe I’m an oversharer now but the secrets had fractured me into different people and the truth keeps me whole.

Overall, I was becoming someone I didn’t like. I can’t even picture who I would be if I had kept going down that road. I’m so glad I veered off that path when I did.

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

Sort of unexpectedly, I was speaking with a head hunter looking for some executive-level help for my business, and he asked ‘would you ever consider selling’ and said he knew of a group looking for exactly what I had built – I had been so focussed that I hadn’t even realized what I had built, so I got an offer to sell my business and I couldn’t turn it down. 

It was a long due diligence period. But I knew that I was staring down the barrel of a gun and that with my days less busy I would start drinking more. Without something to keep me busy, I would probably start doing more drugs.

Also, I knew I was about to lose my identity as a hard-core professional, business person, and boss. So I quit. I had to now find a way to treat my anxiety and depression and was finally in a place to seek professional help and medication. 

If this situational change hadn’t taken place, I don’t know if I would have ever quit. If I had stayed in that high-pressure environment I would have kept making excuses for my behavior. Even though I knew I had a problem I definitely wouldn’t have quit drinking for at least another 5 years. So I would say that my improvement was 99% environmental.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

Without knowing, I had been working on a list of things I wanted to do when I ‘had more time’.

That actually turned out to be my pathway to recovery. I went to school for photography, coding, I took writing classes, jewelry-making classes, I started exercising, eating healthy, taking baths, meditating, and journaling.

These steps all helped me overcome my struggle. I call it – doing all the things.

These all gave me such a strong sense of self and pride, both feelings I had been missing for as long as I can remember. I think immersing yourself in things you love is a great healer and exponentially increases happiness.

Also, I wanted to focus on other things that spoke to my values and I was passionate about. That strengthened my sobriety and mental health. And I wanted to give back and be of service.

I wanted to make a social impact. I started volunteering with different non-profit organizations and giving my time to help people prepare their resumes and get ready for job interviews. I was able to use my experience as a business owner to give advice and feedback. Spending time with people that were also struggling was life-changing. I no longer had to wear a mask of perfection. I could let my guard down and name my illness. 

I would say for several years, my hobbies and connecting with others were my greatest healers.

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

I was involved in volunteering with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated providing entrepreneurship training through a nonprofit program.

I was sharing my story with them and it was freeing for me after so many years of hiding. I had never shared the story of my addiction. In fact, I never even called it an addiction. In prison, I was able to talk about my childhood trauma that contributed to my addiction, and the feelings I was trying to numb.

I learned about how much we truly had in common. We had all been through some serious stuff. I was able to show them that I was literally one bad decision or one bad night from being where they were. And that there was hope in recovery and that I had turned my life around as well.

The conversations that followed were profound and all I want is to give them some hope that there is life after addiction.

My then-husband was extremely difficult to talk to about my struggle. To a certain extent, I think he was embarrassed that his wife was an addict and suffered from mental illness. He was not someone who dealt with weakness in himself or in others and considered addiction a weakness. To him, the solution was not to talk about it, it was to stop doing it. 

Now I really enjoy sharing my story and I want to know other people’s stories of redemption and discovery. I love hearing stories of how people radically transformed their life after addiction.

People in recovery have an innate understanding of each other. We all used substances to prevent ourselves from feeling. Some are numbing loss, illness, traumatic memories, anger, disappointment, or failure. But all of us have experienced pain that we only knew how to get through by using. 

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Don’t wait to get help. There are treatment options for addiction, anxiety, and depression. 

I now understand that what I was doing was self-medicating and that it prevented me from developing healthy habits. A healthy lifestyle is as much for the mind as it is for the body.

Eating properly, sleeping enough, and exercising are ways to keep me in balance. Self-medicating is not a healthy option and when drugs and alcohol are used in this way, it results in addiction and worsening of mental illness.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

Where can we go to learn more about you?

After getting sober, I became a recovery coach and have dedicated my life to making a difference with social impact investing and volunteering with the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and victims of sex trafficking.

Now, I hope to create my biggest impact by leveraging the power of peer support to create a community for those on their recovery journey with my new venture EverBlume.

You can find more information regarding my writing on my Medium blog, or you can follow me on InstagramFacebook, Twitter, and TikTok.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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