Episode 13: Helen From 13 to 31 years sober and the shots along the way

Join this funny and candid conversation about addiction and finding hope amidst challenges.

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In keeping with the traditions of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous, this podcast recording will be audio only.

Hello, World, and Welcome to Choices Books and Gifts where” You Always Have Choices.

So today I have with me a very dear old friend of mine named Helen. Good afternoon Helen.

Good afternoon, Jay. Thanks for inviting me.

Absolutely. And thanks for showing up, we are going to have some fun. So, Helen, the first question is tell us where you grew up. 

I grew up in Yorkville, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, 91st Street, first and second Avenue, the youngest of five.

Interesting. I'm the youngest of four. Okay. How old were you when you got into drugs and alcohol?

The first time I had any sort of effects from alcohol, I was probably the oldest flower girl on the face of the earth. My sister got married. I was her flower girl.  We got the champagne to toast her, and her new husband and I sipped some of the champagne, and I go, “oh, I got a little woozy.” And then, “oh, I'm dancing with everybody.”

And then, ooh I keep picking up my gown because I had stockings on, and I wanted everybody to see my stockings. And my sister came over and she grabbed me and she said, “if you pick up that fucking gown, one more time, I'm going to wring your neck.” So that was the first real effect of alcohol.  

And they did send me home in a cab. I got upstairs, I changed out of that gown before anybody could see me. Because again, reputation right. And go down to the street in the neighborhood. And I was still feeling the effects of the alcohol.  I felt out of sorts. And I didn't like it. I felt woozy because of the effects of the alcohol. So I went back upstairs and I slept it off.

And then fast forward some years. My first real drunk was 13. I drank on a dare - a quart of Old English 800 malt liquor. And, I got ossified drunk, ossified drunk, puking up all over the streets and cursing and fighting with people.  Oh, it was a horror show. It was a horror.

You know, I had such similarity there.  So, as I said, I'm the youngest of four, and my oldest brother used to buy us Old English 800. He said it was the strongest beer and it will get us where we want to go quicker than the other beers. So, like you, my first time was with Old English 800. I had a little pot in there, too. Well, like you, I went in the next room. I passed out.  As soon as we woke up, me and my little friend knocked back on his door and said, “we want back in - we want some more.”  So I knew right then and there I was in trouble. 

But, I want to preface this podcast by saying Helen and I are old friends. She was actually my bartender many years ago, and, you say you were not sober while I was coming in and drinking and carrying on with the boys. Were you or were you not sober then?

 I was not sober then. No.

That's so funny. Because you held that position so wonderfully. You were a great bartender. I never saw you sloppy. You were always right on.

Well, I had enough of that Peruvian marching powder to keep me upright and sociable.

You most certainly were. Out of Curiosity, how long have you been sober now?

Monday, no Wednesday will be 31 years. 

Oh, this coming Wednesday. Next WednesdayGod bless you. That's terrific. Really terrific.

What was it like working as a bartender in recovery? Because I know you did, both outside and in. What was that like - was that a struggle?

You know, it was in the beginning.  I remember I was, I talked to people about it and they said, listen, you know, it's it's what you're doing for a living right now and if it means that you have to find other work because you can't not drink while working, then you need to do that, but at least give it a try.  And I did and then, you know, it was perfectly fine.  Actually, it empowered me - not to drink while behind the stick because for the first time, I got to see how people REALLY were.  You know, like, people didn't know I was drinking behind the stick, but I was drinking. And I just held it together.

But when I was sober and bartending. I would see them people come in and they'd say, “Hi, Helen, how are you? Can I have a beer? When you have a chance?”, and I say, sure.  And I give them the beer.  And then they’d say, “can I have another one when you have a chance?” And then (after a few), they’re slamming their hand down on the bar, demanding a buy back.  Their behavior changed - and it was all very, very clear. And, you know, I saw how ugly it was. And so therefore it helped me not to drink.  I think they were mirroring me and I didn't want that life anymore.

That's great. That's a great analogy to how they come in sober and, you know, an hour later their personalities have completely changed. Now, we mentioned that you grew up on the Upper East Side and that was a tough neighborhood, especially back then. what did you have to do to like, you know, make your mark and be okay and not have people mess with you?

Well, you know, I hit the streets coming from, you know, older brothers and sisters who already had a reputation out there and they knew who I was related to. So I had a little something to live up to. And you know what - my “edge” started at a very young age in kindergarten.  I just had this kick ass attitude, and I didn't care. You know, some people didn't want to fight, and people were afraid, and they ran away. I would experience fear, and I attacked you. And that served me well in that neighborhood, because, you know, if you threatened me, I wouldn't wait for you to push me or punch me. I would just go after you. (People said) “Actually, beware of Helen, she's going to beat the shit out of you.”

Yeah, yeah, that's a good reputation to have, especially in that neighborhood. Maybe not if you were growing up in Connecticut, but over there was a good.

Yeah. Absolutely served you. I know with me, like you said, that attitude. And in kindergarten I used to love to fight. Even in kindergarten I took this kid once. I bounced him off the wall. And I was five years old. And I remember him getting six stitches. And they kept me out of school for two weeks at five years old.


And that sort of didn't go away. You know, even today I can't drink coffee because I still got that that buildup of frustration and craziness.

So, Helen, at what age - was there anything specifically that happened to you that you said, okay, I got to stop living like this and make some changes?

Yeah, well one day I just, while brushing my teeth, I lived on 38th Street between First and second Avenue and Murray Hill. I'd been drinking and drugging. I had been, I'd been to prison. I was mandated to go a 12 step program for my drinking. And I had to get a piece of paper signed.

And, you know, I just blew it all off, and I owed them, like 6 years on paper. So, you know, if they tested me, I would go right back to Rikers Island and then upstate. And one day I just was going to hell in a handbasket. I looked up and I saw an image in the mirror and it was me. And I was horrified. I was horrified by my reflection in the mirror, and my solution was to stop looking in the mirror.

How about, how did you get into the rooms? What actually was it that day that you did something about recovery or what happened that got you into recovery. 
And then it was a short while later that, I was sitting in that little bucket of blood where I met you on the Upper East Side, No Name pub, and I happened to be looking out the window, and I saw this guy go by that we thought was either dead or in prison because nobody saw him for about eight months.

And I ran outside, and I called his name Chucky. And he turned around and I said, oh my God. I said, “Shat are you doing? Where have you been? We've been taking bets. Were you in prison? Well, obviously you're not dead.” And he smiled and he hesitated, and he said, “No, Helen, I've stopped drinking and drugging. It's been eight months.” And I'm like, “Oh my God.”  And he told me what he was doing. And I just remember thinking, if it worked for that sick bastard, maybe, maybe it'll work for me.

That’s great. Listen, can you share with us - only if you're comfortable. Some of the experiences - what kind of stuff did you do while you were out there?

Oh, mother of mercy, when I came out of prison, a friend of mine had died, and he was killed up in East Harlem.

And the cops could care less because, you know, he was a piece of work. And it caused a lot of problems in the neighborhood. So, they were kind of glad he was gone. They weren't kind of glad they were glad he was dead, and I wasn't. So, I thought I would go uptown and find out a little more about his murder.

So I was, you know, like Mrs. Colombo. I'm going up there. I have a full-length mink coat on. I got pockets full of money, and you know, I have a little “something something” (weapon) in my pants. And, you know, just to be an equalizer of justice. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Before I know it, I’m smoking crack on the roof landing with a couple of people, you know, just to get people to “talk” to me.

Do you ever find out what happened to your friend?

Oh that's a funny funny story.  I don't know how hard you were working up there to come to come figure out the case.  But it sounds like you had a lot of fun while doing it. 

Can I ask without - what were you in prison for? If that's okay? 

I wound up shooting a guy, and it was really was self-defense, wouldn't bring it to trial because my parents wouldn’t stay out of the courtroom, and I couldn't testify as to exactly what happened with them in the courtroom. I didn't want to put them through a trial. I know what court dates did to them - I was not the first one in my family to get arrested. So, I didn't want to do it to them. So I copped a plea, in other words. 

I understand that. What was the plea? What did you get?

I got 2 to 6.

Oh, that's not bad.  It could have been worse. 

Not bad - you eat that spam for two years and then tell me that. 

Did the person live or die? 

Oh, no, no he's still here - he's walking with a limp, but he's here.

When you got sober, did you have to make an amends? 

Fuck him. 

How old were you when you got sober? If you don't mind me asking?

Oh, you were 38, I was 37. That's great, that’s great.

Now, I'll bet you. Can you share us some equally as exciting stories in sobriety? Do you have anything that especially stands out that you would like to share with us?

You know, sobriety has been a highlight. And yet what stands out to me the most was when

my father was laying in a hospital bed and he had been through several several treatments already, and they wanted to do yet another procedure. And he just looked at the doctor and he said, no, I'm done. That's it. He said, I tried, you tried. That's it. I want to go home.

So I looked at him and he leaned up on his elbows and he asked me, he said, “Can I go home?” And I said. I told them, “just get up the paperwork - we will sign an AMA (against medical advice.)”  And we signed my father out and we took him home and he got to go home and die with grace and dignity.  And I could only do that because I was sober.

I do agree with that. 

And 11 years, I did the same thing with my mother. She wanted to die gracefully in her home. She had, you know, she fought a good fight. She had a great life. And, you know, she was smoking a drink and and carrying on right up until the end and I was able to keep her home too (till the end.) You know, it may not sound like much to people, but if that's all I ever got from not drinking and drugging, that's perfectly fine with me.

Great.  I’ve known you have quite a few years. I know you've had some really wonderful blessings in sobriety, too. I know you married in sobriety to someone in the program.  How was that, do you help each other stay sober? How does that all work? 

But, you know, I help, I stay sober with the help of a lot of people outside of my wife. And so does she, you know.  We're both together this long - 30 years - We're only still together because we're still both not drinking. And thank God for therapy. You know, people say I should be the poster child for therapy. Well, you know, sometimes I need a few little adjustments up here mentally because I start clanking up here. So I go, and I get it.

Yeah.  I hear you. I know for me, I need to work on everything each and every day. Now, it's not as big a chore as it was in the beginning, but I have my set of rules where I meditate, I pray, I exercise a certain amount, I do what needs to be done and it's repetitive. And for me that repetitiveness works.  I know that’s probably your story as well


I ran into a guy in his program that said, I'm slowly becoming the person that I drink to be, and that's exactly what's happened to me over the years. You know, before the drink and the drug came into my life and took over and basically changed everything about me.


I'm now, going back to the basics, you know, I'm just going back to being a kind, warm, loving, helpful human being.  And that's who I was born to be, and that's who I was. And then, you know, as circumstances happened, I started to adjust who I was to fit into the circumstances that I was thrown into.

I'm still not going to apologize to that guy, though. 

No, no, that's good that we'll shoot him again if we have to.

Let me get this Jay, calm down. 

Yes, you got it. Yeah. I got to calm down.  So I guess sobriety really worked for you. So what type of things do you do on a daily basis to help that along? Like are there meetings still involved? Are there sponsee’s?  How does it work?

I go to meetings every day of the week. Yesterday I was at three meetings. I did 11:30. I was at a 7:15 meeting over at the workshop, and I was at the Templeton meeting at 6:15. I am definitely still a meeting maker. I believe in meetings every day. 

That’s 30 years later.  God bless you. 30 years later.  Well, making three meetings a day when you can.

Shame on me if I stop going to meetings. Everything that I've gotten in my life have come from meetings, and if I don't want to turn around and be there for that next schlump that comes in the room, that looks and sounds like I did, that's not going to sit well with me. It's just nothing soups me up more, than to watch the light come back in somebodies eyes when they start putting days together - consecutively.

It's one of the greatest experiences I had, was to give so freely back what was given to me, and to watch people grow and see them come in so beaten down, right? And then few years later, I mean, not that this is so important, but they're leaders of these companies now. They've turned from you know, I love that saying from park bench to Park Avenue or however that saying goes, you know what it is.  Exactly. And it's amazing to watch their change. And I know you've always done a lot of service. So do you still continue to do service Not only in the meetings but also working with others? 

Absolutely, Right now I probably have about six sponsees


I’m going to count the one that doesn't call me but still considers me to be their sponsor. Okay. All right. 


Yeah. Whatever floats your boat if that's working for you - far be it for me to change it. But, you know, I help people on a daily basis. I'm walking to the 79th Street the other day, and it's like 10 to 7 in the morning, and there was an ambulance parked in the middle of the side street, and all the cars are backed up behind it.

And I know that ambulance isn't going to move for a long time. So what do I do? I go in the gutter, tell everybody, roll down your windows. Come on, we're going to back you out. How are you going to do this? Just pay attention to me. Keep your window down. And I helped everybody back out of the traffic.  What's the big deal? You know, that's my life today. You see something you could do something about it. What did it mean to me? It would bother me if I didn't try to help all those people sitting behind that ambulance. 

You know, it's funny you say that because, like, and I can tell you practice these principles in all your affairs because, as you said, even the person you are today, even if it's not AA or program related, you just know how to jump in.

But what I have found a lot in New York is like, I'm always like one of the first people to jump in and do something. A lot of people are standoffish, and they won't do it. But I know you have that same personality as me, “hey let's take charge here, let's help out here.” And I think that comes from doing all the work in the program that, that you know, partially, you are like this as well. I mean, I know you were born that way. I truly believe that. But I think that the program only enhanced it.

I agree, my program now enables me to actually follow through with it. Before I always wanted to, but I was so sick up in my head and selfish and self-seeking and self, self, self, self. I would just say, “Ah, come on, mind your business Helen” and keep it moving. 


I swear to God, it's amazing. It sounds like you're the female version of me. I swear to God, you truly are.

So there's people out there, as you know, they're sick and suffering. Some of them may not even know they have a choice and there’s help out there. What do you say to somebody that's listening to this and listening to how intense your story was? What would we say to get them some help?

I secretly thought and believed I was a hopeless case until I saw that guy. That sick bastard that was even worse than me. And how this program worked for me. And he was my glimmer, my light, my program of attraction, if you will. He gave me that, that hope. I would say to you that there was no such thing as a hopeless case.

If you sit your little duper down and give up all your preconceived ideas and actually reach out and ask for help and let people help you.  That's the thing, you know, that time, March 13th, 1993, when I walked my way up to the mustard seed in a blinding blizzard with nobody and nothing moving on the streets of this city, and there I am, knee deep in the snow, and I'm walking up to the mustard seed in my head, telling me, “Oh my God, you idiot, there's nobody out, go home.”  And, you know, not only was the mustard seed open, but it was packed and there was that meeting. And then the next thing I did was I let people help me. So it's there for anybody who's willing to accept the help that's available to them in the rooms and out of the rooms.

That's such a powerful statement. I know when I went in, you know, you we come from a family of drug addicts and alcoholics. And my brothers paved the way for me, I think, sort of the way your family paved it for you. So, they went into recovery way before I had a chance to. And I remember my middle brother, who's sober the longest, and he said to me, Jay, I want you to just for a year, give up any thought of your own.

Just ask somebody that you respect and appreciate in the rooms what you should do and how you should move forward. Don't make any decisions yourself because you're not capable of it.  He says, “In this war, when we wave the white flag, that's when we win. When we give it all up.”  And that sounds like what you did. And I just I loved your story, I love you, I think you're a terrific person. And I hope I know you for a million more years. Thank you for this friendship. 

And the same here. Nothing. Few things make my heart soar is when I see people come in the rooms that I drank with and drugged with.  And to watch you walk in. Oh man, oh man. And you didn't even know it was me. And I left you a alone. I left you alone for a little while because you were like, whoa, whoa. You were like very, very edgy. 

I was, I was very edgy I was very scared. Do I belong here? Should I be here? And it was people like you that, like you said, people you drank and drugged with, that you see their success because, you know, I had a business in the neighborhood.

And when I first walked into the Mustard Seed, I thought, oh my God, everybody's going to see me. It's going to be, I'm just going to be so embarrassing. And you know, all I got was hugs and kisses and people saying, oh, we had a seat for you. We were waiting for you. What took you so long?

And the feeling that gave me, you know, that I was going to go in and then the warmth and love. It was an entirely different thing. So, if my thoughts are, if you have any shame or, you know, or anything like that.  I've done so much more stuff that I'm ashamed of out there than I've ever done in recovery.

So, you know, don't be ashamed of anything. Get your ass to a meeting.  And Helen, I thank you so much for talking with us. 

I know we did this spur of the moment, and I love spur of the moment, so thank you. 

And I'm so glad we both surrendered to the winning side.

Absolutely, dear. I love you, and I'll talk to you soon. 

Okay. Thanks so much, Jay.  Bye. 

Thank you. Bye bye.