Interview with Helaina Hovitz

This week Liv interviewed Helaina Hovitz. Helaina has a way with words, so I think it best she describes herself:

I’m an editor, journalist, author, co-founder, author, and native New Yorker who has always had the unreasonable notion that I can help change the world. My greatest passion is writing inspiring stories about charities, social good, nonprofits, social issues, animal rescue, mental health, and recovery, though I also write about the lighter things in life, like food, wellness, and culture!


Interview with Helaina Hovitz

Liv: Let’s kick off with a food question: what have you had for breakfast today?

Rolled oats in almond milk with chia and flax seeds—I make it on the stovetop the way my grandma used to when I was little, perfectly sweet and more “liquid” than “lumps.” When my mother made oatmeal, I would get so pissed—it was not the same way Grandma made it. Now that I’m in charge of the oatmeal, it’s all under control.

Liv: Moving to your story, in your article for Glamour—What 911 was really like—you said that post 911, “I started trying to put myself back together—first, in 12-step programs, where I learned to stop relying on substances to quiet the chatter in my mind.” First, thank you for sharing your experience. Second, did substances really quiet the chatter?

On a good night, temporarily, it did. It helped me “get out of myself” and lose all inhibition, it silenced that fear of being judged and the envy I felt watching other people who looked like they were just living life to have fun, without a care or worry in the world. I would say it turned the volume down on the anxiety I carried inside me at all times if I drank enough, but I usually couldn’t stop at that point where the alcohol made me feel calm, confident, more connected to the people around me, because for alcoholics, our brain’s chemistry changes at this point and we think drinking more will make that feeling even better. Instead, it just kind of makes a mess. But, it was the closest to being unconscious as I could get, even though I could never quite get drunk enough not to worry about what happened when the drunkenness faded. As they say, it works until it doesn’t.


Liv: During therapy, you were diagnosed with PTSD. You described this as a condition which never lets your body rest. How did that diagnosis affect your addiction?

I think that most “normal” people drink for the same reasons I did: it’s a social activity, it helps gives us some sort of release or relief, it’s fun, and, most often, it makes you feel good.

People with PTSD tend to feel everything more intensely—sadness, fear, paranoia, sensitivity to particularly threatening or dangerous cues in their environment around them and the people in it. Recovery from PTSD is hard work, and that instant gratification of taking a drink or smoking a joint is incredibly tempting, giving you what feels like a break or an escape that you desperately need.

When you’re always “on,” and “on” is a constant feeling of dread and anxiety and mental chatter that you can’t turn off, having something to “take the edge off” is very tempting. For a “normal” drinker, taking the edge off is a luxury that comes in the form of a single drink or two and the satisfaction both starts and ends there. For “us,” what should be an enjoyable activity done in moderation mutates until it more closely resembles self-medicating.

Liv: Several months after graduating college, you found recovery following a series of consequences of your drinking. How did you approach recovery initially?

The idea of recovery, rehab, and AA, etc., never crossed my mind because firstly, I was young and very high functioning, second, because nobody ever suggested it, and third, I thought I was just binge drinking like everyone else did and just needed to get it under control. So I would stop for a while, manage it well for a while, but always end up exactly back where I started. When I somehow had the intuitive thought to ask for help at age 22 back in 2011, my therapist gave me a referral to some AA meetings, and I think I may have been one of the most enthusiastic newcomers in the history of the program.

I was thrilled that there was a way to do this, with social support, with suggestions, with steps that are very similar to the word I’d been doing in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help my PTSD. I was so happy that there was a way to actually remove that craving that seemed to always linger over my life. I approached it like I approached college: I was there to graduate with a high GPA…and when I learned that we never “graduate,” that was just fine with me. I kept it up, and I haven’t picked up a drink or a joint to this day. 


Liv: In your interview with After Party Magazine, you describe your feeling toward AA as enthusiastic but that you don’t now rely on it as heavily.

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, and I feel really accountable to both my close friends and the entire Internet because of it. I still go to meetings every so often because I know it’s important to remember where I came from, possibly share something that can help others, and make the meeting the meeting for that day, because it only exists when we show up. I will also always speak to a newcomer or offer myself up as a sponsor.

There’s this mentality in “the rooms” that once you go to less meetings, once you really do feel “fine,” you’re in trouble. I think that’s ridiculous. If meetings every day are your path, that is amazing and I support you doing it. But I came into this program with some co-dependency in my baggage and part of the journey for me has been finding my own sober voice, my own identity, and my own program that works. That does not involve a meeting quota. That does not involve a coffee commitment. It doesn’t involve my not being able to think for myself or do anything without consulting with my sponsor, who most of the time is flying over an ocean and unreachable. The program promises us that the craving to drink will be removed if we follow the steps, and that’s what happened for it doesn’t really make sense to keep living as though I’m a newcomer. When we learn new job skills, or hobbies, or healthy habits, it eventually becomes natural to us and we don’t need to be taught over and over again.

With that being said, I am humble and willing enough to go right back to attending meetings multiple times a week if that’s what it takes to be emotionally and physically sober at any given time.


Liv: Where is your “pause button?”

My first sponsor had a pause button—the kind you’d find on a remote control—tattooed on the inside of her wrist to remind her to stop and take a breath before she spoke, acted, or wrote anything while feeling triggered. As alcoholics, we can be impulsive and emotional people, so taking that extra beat to think gives me a moment to make sure what I want to say or do is in line with the person I truly want to be. Spatially, it feels like the pause button is somewhere in my stomach or my middle-back, like where a robot’s circuit board would be. That’s where I feel emotional cues in my body, so it’s simultaneously engaged in that same place.

Liv: You mentioned that you have had sponsors who didn’t like that you take medication for anxiety and/or to help you sleep. What advice would you give to you back then, when you heard such a response?

That was probably one of my biggest challenges during my first six months. I was fortunate to have a former college professor who I could call when this happened—twice in my first six months—who was also in the program. He shared my frustration and anger, and fortunately, both he and my therapist reminded me that despite how difficult hitting this roadblock was, giving up all the great progress I was making and “quitting” because I was angry at others would only hurt me.

I believe that things happen for a reason and even though it was very distressing at the time, it showed me just how much my sobriety meant to me—I stuck it out and trusted my gut while looking for the right sponsor who would support me and adhere to the true principles of the program. I can still look back and think, man, I REALLY wanted this.

For the first time in sobriety, I felt confident in a decision to take care of myself in the face of some opposition. I had taken to all of the other steps and suggestions so strongly that I knew deep down I wasn’t “messing around.” Interestingly enough, nobody seemed to have a problem with it after that. If I had to go back in time, I would tell myself with even more confidence, “Your instinct that you’re not doing anything wrong is 100% correct, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Nobody in this program should ever mess with 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.

Liv: How are you able to use your experience, as a recovering person, to help others?

When I interview others who are willing to share their experiences, it’s kind of like I’ve curated a very solution-based meeting full of laughs, head nods and hopeful moments on the page. Now all I need to do is figure out how to pump caffeine into the words.

I’m also very open about my recovery when people ask, and sometimes even if they don’t, like in restaurants or at parties. 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?

And, of course, whenever a sober woman needs someone to talk to, either one time or on the regs, whether she has 4 days or 4 months or 40 years, I’m there.


Physical Recovery

Liv: Moving on to your physical recovery, tell me how your relationship with your body has changed in recovery.

I quit drinking, smoking weed, and—get this—cigarettes, all at the same time. So naturally, I put on a few right away. I still looked and felt great despite the five to eight pounds worth of cookies and cake these folks kept around in large supply (I also developed an affinity for making funfetti cupcakes that are meant to serve, like, 24 people). I was fine with it and totally comfortable with my body—but my mother was actually pretty rough on me, unfortunately. She even poked me in the stomach one night and said, “I don’t think you need another piece of cake.”

Fast forward a few years, and I’m doing restaurant and food writing professionally, which means numerous meals cooked in oils and fats with way more courses than I would order normally. I went from a size 0 at age 22 to bordering a 4/6 at 27. I’m five feet tall, and the thing is—and I promise this isn’t a humble brag—I’m pretty much all muscle under there, so it wasn’t my weight that I was concerned about. It was the fact that my pants were starting not to fit, and about four months ago, I decided I just didn’t want to go up another size. I was also making self-deprecating jokes about my weight when people gave me compliments, which signalled to me that something wasn’t right. I felt kind of unhealthy overall, despite my regular gym visits and the fact that I was staying away from fried foods and junk food for the most part.

So, now, I’m on a healthier eating plan and exercising more, but in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m depriving myself, or like I couldn’t keep it up for a long time. It’s a slight challenge, but manageable.

What has been your relationship with food has been like?

Food is different than alcohol because we need to have a relationship to it, so it’s really finding that emotional and physical balance that is meaningful. Three months ago, I decided to sign up for this app called Vida Health, which allows me to work with a nutrition and fitness coach. I had tried working with a personal trainer a couple of years ago and followed his workouts and diet to a tee, but saw no results—he also wasn’t exactly a beacon of positive reinforcement. Coach Monica and I chat via text almost every day, and she motivates me to make better food and exercise choices without totally depriving or exhausting myself. We speak on the phone once a week to check in and set goals for the week. I log my meals, my sleep, my exercise, and am always honest. The process of checking in, being accountable, and taking the suggestions reminds me so much of how I got sober in AA.

Liv: Penultimate question: what is your favourite meal/dish?

I hate choosing favourites! But since I’ve been eating much healthier over the past few months, I have a more clear idea of what it is I truly go crazy for, so I’ll say this; if the following items are on a menu, they’re being ordered: lobster (raw, in a roll, hanging from the ceiling, I don’t care), an Italian meat and cheese plate, and tacos al pastor with extra pineapple, any sort of special carrots, and most Thai, Japanese, or Chinese chicken dishes. I also didn’t realize what a gift pepperoni pizza was to my very existence until I started only allowing myself to have some every 2-3 weeks.

As for junk food, if you would have told me that I would literally lose my desire to indulge in cupcakes, cookies, and candy the way I lost my desire for alcohol and started to replace those items with things like “banana oat energy bites” that I found on Pinterest, I would have laughed in your face. It’s amazing how much change is really possible when we want it and we put in the hard work during those early days.

Recovery Tools

Liv: Last, what are your top five recovery tools?

  1. Meditation—I have like 12 apps on my phone and just need to lift that finger to hit start. Wouldn’t you know it, sometimes my finger is just too heavy to lift.
  2. Talking to other women—not just sober women, not just my sponsor, but friends.
  3. Doing something for someone else and just generally be nice and friendly—even if I can’t pack up and catch the last flight out of JFK to catch up the folks at Habitat for Humanity, I can send out some tweets for the animal rescue I manage Twitter for, or I can stop to chat with the old lady sitting by herself on the bench outside.
  4. Exercise! It’s a release that has so many health benefits beyond appearances. I don’t feel like I’m high after a workout or anything, but I do feel better than I would have if I didn’t work out at all. Go figure.
  5. Keeping my plans and commitments even when I don’t feel like it. This is a tool, for sure! Showing up is one of the biggest and most important aspects of regular life and life in recovery, and even if I have to get myself there literally one step at a time, I never regret showing up.


Olivia PennelleComment