#SECONDCHANCES: This Thanksgiving, I’m free of the alcohol and the painkillers. That’s a lot to be thankful for

Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on gratitude. Retreat asked three alumni to author a collection of original columns explaining why our leading substance abuse treatment gave them a second chance at life. The result is our special series, #SecondChances.

By Celeste W., 44, a former Retreat patient in Lancaster County, PA

Inpatient Drug Rehab Florida

This Thanksgiving, I am Free

For 14 years, I taught special education to elementary and high school students in Pennsylvania.

Little did those kids realize that, as I stood at the front of the classroom lecturing for nearly a decade and a half, I was drunk in nine out of ten of those classes.

You see, I’m a recovering alcoholic. Like most people suffering from addiction, I brought traces of the disease with me everywhere I went — including the classroom.

I didn’t do it because I wanted to subject my students to a drunken teacher or an unsafe learning environment. I didn’t have any other choice; the disease had fully consumed me. If I didn’t drink, I couldn’t function. It was just that simple.

How I started drinking

I first came to the disease when I was about 17 years ago. My then-boyfriend and I did a lot of drinking together — and his temper, mixed with my belligerence when I drank, was a tempestuous combination. Eventually, a few years later, I found out that this man whom I was convinced I was going to marry had actually been seeing another woman, and we cut off the relationship. I was devastated.

That’s when my drinking really took off. Sure, my friends were concerned, and from time to time they even spoke up and voiced their fears for my well-being, but the rage I met their questions with always quieted them down. No one was going to get between me and my liquor.

Alcohol just made me feel so right. I loved who I was when I was buzzed — I was convinced that could communicate better with men, was bubblier in social settings. I even felt like I was skinnier and looked prettier. If someone told you, you could have all that just by taking a sip of some sort of magic potion, wouldn’t you?

In college, getting my hands on seemingly unlimited supplies of alcohol was like child’s play. It got more difficult when I moved back in with my parents after I graduated though, and I’d have to sneak bottles of vodka upstairs to my room or raid my dad’s stock of beers, without them noticing. It wasn’t easy to conceal my habits from their watchful gaze.

Spiraling downward

Through my 20’s and 30’s, my drinking got worse and, like most gateway drugs, opened up a gateway to more dangerous experimentation with substances. I started mixing drugs together to experience new kinds of highs, and eventually even tried crystal meth. That was the pinnacle of my substance abuse, and it caused my parents to stop speaking to me for half a year; they were so distraught by the things I had done to myself.

In 2001, I met my husband Mark, a firefighter, and EMT who swept me off my feet. Within three months of meeting Mark, I had gotten pregnant with our daughter Morgan, and we knew we had no alternative but to get married. We stayed together for 12 years when finally the fighting and disagreements became insurmountable. Mark is an amazing man, but because of how quickly everything happened so early on, we never really had a chance to get to know each other. Simply put, we weren’t the best fit for one another.

Predictably, my struggles with addiction caused a lot of tumult in our marriage. Things got worse after I suffered a bad car accident and was prescribed Soma, a muscle relaxer. Soma has been shown to have habit-forming effects due to the presence of meprobamate, a metabolite that, in the body, operates like benzodiazepines (a class of drugs that includes Ativan, Klonopin, and Valium).


Between Soma, alcohol, and eventually meth, I shirked a lot of my responsibilities to my kids. With my husband out at work, Morgan had to become a mom to her younger brother Kenneth in my place. It’s not like I was out all day at work at that point, either; I was home with them, but totally out of sight, out of mind, from the alcohol.

Throughout the ebbs and flows of this horrible cycle, I sometimes managed to pry myself free to temporarily get sober, but I relapsed on two occasions. The second time was right after we lost my grandmother, who passed away as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. Losing her was devastating. After having spent a few years clean, I suddenly was craving safety and comfort in the wake of her loss — so I turned to alcohol to get it, which ironically was the one thing that provided exactly the opposite of the safety I so desperately was seeking.

Finally, last year, two girlfriends of mine came to see me at home. I had taken my fill of drugs and alcohol and then some. I looked terrible. “You need help,” they told me. One of these women had been to Retreat in Lancaster County, PA, as a patient herself, and spoke so highly of their care. She told me I had to go.

What happened next

My time in treatment was completely transformative. It gave me a chance to start building a frame around understanding that I can’t have alcohol again. It’s not a death sentence; it’s actually a release and a relief. Alcohol has always been so perilous for me; without it, I’m free to live my life.

While in the program, I really enjoyed our music therapy immersions. One day, our clinician gave us all the chance to choose a song to listen to with the other members of the group; I chose “Celeste,” in honor of my name, by the folk singer Donovan. While it was playing, I just kept reaffirming to myself: “I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to lose hope.”

Knowing what’s best for me

When I left Retreat, my counselors and the staff there sat me down to talk about next steps. How was I going to maintain sobriety? Should I go straight home to my husband the place where I had been a prisoner of alcoholism for so many years? Or should I go to sober living, in a more structured environment designed for people like me to take those first steps toward living and working in recovery?

On the advice of people more experienced in treating addiction that I was at the time, and following my own gut intuition, I chose sober living. “I need to let this be on God’s time,” I told myself back then. “Not on Celeste’s time.”

While I was in the sober living home, my husband called me on the phone one day and asked, “Celeste, when are you going to come home?”

“I’m not,” I told him. “I really want to work on my recovery and get to know myself better.”

“Okay,” he answered. “I guess I’ll file for divorce.”

The aftermath

It disappointed me that my husband, who was supposed to be my champion and have my back during this process, decided to leave me when I was arguably at my most vulnerable state, so early on in my recovery journey. I can’t change anybody though or bend people toward my will. I’m practicing accepting situations that are hard to come to terms with every day, just like accepting, finally, that I can’t control the effect alcohol has over me.

That’s why I finally surrendered to sobriety, I finally gave in. As I look back on the struggle to accept that I can never safely drink again, I’ve come to realize that perhaps it wasn’t a surrender after all. Maybe, for the first time in my life, I mustered the courage to face that fact and stand up to my disease. Maybe, after so many years wasting away under its thumb, I had finally pried myself out — and now, my addiction was going to surrender to me.

Indeed, I learned from my special ed students that you can’t surrender to your goals and dreams. You have to keep moving forward and not let anyone tell you that can’t do what you set your mind to. For me, overcoming addiction was the ultimate proof of that.

In time, maybe I’ll meet a special man who shares my interests, can make me laugh, and together we can travel, see the world, write a new chapter full of memories. Maybe one day we’ll even have the beach house I’ve dreamed about for so many years. But for now, I’m focusing on Celeste — and the fact that I get to say that, without worrying about alcohol’s role in my life going forward, is a relief. It’s certainly enough to give thanks for this Thanksgiving.

In my newfound freedom, I’ve taken up hobbies like doing crafts. I particularly love making jewelry — I started with beaded jewelry in art class at Retreat and worked my way up from there. I’d love to make my own rings or necklaces one day, perhaps enroll in a class that teaches about how to make jewelry on your own.

Given my interest in jewelry, I like to picture precious stones in my mind; they’re such beautiful, natural relics. I think if I had to liken myself to one, it would be a diamond. Forged from the crucible of unimaginable stress, I emerged more beautiful than before. I’m not a flawless diamond, but I am clear and transparent as one — so clear, that you can see both my flaws and my facets if you look closely.

And sometimes, when I’m at my happiest — when my family is around me, when we’re living life and enjoying it free of alcohol or meth or Soma or anything else — in those moments, just like a diamond, I feel like I’m radiating light.



#CELEBRATESOBER: Retreat’s guide to navigating the holiday season in sobriety

Inpatient Mental Health Facilities

Thanksgiving in Recovery

In sleepy New Cumberland, PA, about 10 minutes outside the nearby city of Harrisburg, it was a comfortable 67°F on Thanksgiving Day 2014. For many Americans, the most pressing concern on their minds that particular November 27th was whether to dig into pumpkin, apple, or sweet potato pie. For 26-year-old Mike B., though, something entirely different was on his mind as he walked up to his mom and dad’s front door.

This was to be Mike’s first Thanksgiving in recovery. He had been sober for 220 days.

Prior to treatment, it was in this very same house where after dinner, “I’d go up to my room, shut the door, get my heroin out, and go to town — right there as [my family] were directly underneath my bedroom,” Mike told Retreat.

Now, Mike added, he was uncertain what to expect: “It was the first family get-together that I experienced in my sobriety. I didn’t know how the meal would go… The dynamic with some of my family members wasn’t where I wanted it to be, because relationships take a little bit of time to heal.”

“The wounds were still fresh for my dad… It was almost like some of my family members were walking on eggshells. They were afraid to address my addiction, my recovery,” he recounted in an interview.

Since graduating from Retreat at Lancaster County’s Inpatient Program, Mike has gone on to celebrate four Thanksgivings successfully. He now works full-time as Retreat’s Manager of Patient Care in Palm Beach County, FL, and says he’s come to “embrace the positive much more,” when the holidays roll in.

Nonetheless, the Thanksgiving jitters Mike experienced four years ago aren’t rare: Indeed, the most wonderful time of the year is acutely stressful for the 22 million Americans whom the Research Recovery Institute says are in recovery from substance abuse.

“There’s shame, there’s probably guilt in there too,” for people who have recently entered sobriety and are suddenly surrounded by large volumes of alcohol for the first time, said Jenna M., 33, a former Retreat patient who now works as the company’s National Events Planner in Palm Beach County.

According to a survey from, as many as 38% of Americans report feeling “more depressed” than normal around holiday time, and 32% say they’re “overwhelmingly anxious.” What’s more, alcohol consumption spikes during the holidays, the data found; and December has been well-documented to be the most lethal month for substance abusers, with 90,000 alcohol- or drug-induced deaths reported on average.

In spite of the statistics, the holiday season can still be fun and memorable when you’re in sobriety. Retreat asked experts to share their top tips to #CelebrateSober as the holiday festivities kick off.


Top Tips To Celebrate Sober

  1. Be proud of your sobriety. “From day one, I’ve always been open that I’m sober, I can’t drink; I was always very open about that,” Helaina Hovitz, 29, a New York City-based journalist and author of the memoir “After 9/11,” told Retreat. “I know who I am now. If I can help people, what good is hiding it?”  Events Planner Jenna, for her part, has a simple answer for fellow party-goers who question why she’s not drinking: “I say, ‘No, thanks,’ and, if they press it further…[I might say], I’m actually in recovery. It’s coming up on three years [sober],’ and hopefully, by that point, they would respect it.”
  1. Brandish your sense of humor: A little laughter can go a long way in diffusing awkward situations. “Some people don’t understand,” why it’s important for people in recovery to abstain from alcohol, Jenna opined, so she might end the conversation on a light note by saying: “Oh, the world’s just a safer place if I don’t drink!”
  2. Arm yourself with a red plastic cup: A great way to deflect unwanted questions at holiday parties (e.g. “Hey, why aren’t you drinking?) is to hold a cup just like everybody else. Try sipping on some nonalcoholic bubbly like sparkling cider or seltzer with a lime, for instance. The latter “looks exactly the same as a vodka tonic with a lime,” Hovitz said. Alternatively, bring a non-alcoholic holiday cocktail in lieu of a hostess gift. You might whip up your signature non-alcoholic sangria or spiced holiday eggnog, to share your favorite sober recipes with your friends.
  1. Make friends with the food: The dessert table is a great place to set up base-camp for socializing, so consciously position yourself in proximity to the holiday treats, Hovitz said. “Be the food recommender. Food is such a big deal; everyone takes pictures of it before they eat it,” so this is a convenient way to sneak in a few snapshots with friends for Instagram, too.
  2. Enlist sober friends. “If you can bring a sober friend with you, that’s ideal, that’s the gold standard of socializing [while in recovery],” Hovitz said. You could even duck out of the party early together before things get too wild and people get too drunk (once you’ve made the rounds and visited with all the guests). “If you can’t have them with you in person, have them with you in your pocket,” she advised. “Let a couple of sober friends know, ‘I’m going to this [event], I’m going to check in and text you before, text you after, and I might text you during.'”
  3. Attend special holiday AA meetings: Many local AA groups set up special 24-hour meeting schedules during the holidays, so consult your local chapter to find out what their plan is. “To just be around more people, it’s a little easier to get through that period of time than just be by yourself,” Patient Services Manager Mike said. These groups also provide an opportunity to air frustrations and lean on fellow members for support if you’re struggling to resist temptation.
  4. Let go of your inhibitions — without using alcohol. “When you were drinking, if you danced, do it [sober],” Hovitz, who recently celebrated her seventh anniversary in sobriety, said. “What would you feel comfortable doing if you were drinking, what’s stopping you? Would you be singing? Would you be dancing? Would you be telling a joke? Then do it anyway.”


“At the end of the day the most important thing is just to remember when it feels like you’re in the moment and something uncomfortable is happening, everything passes,” she concluded. “The night’s going to pass; the next morning…everyone else is going to be [focused on] their life, and so are you.”

“You have to ask, ‘How do I want to feel tomorrow? What’s important for me to do for myself [tonight]? You have to answer to you.”