Skip to main content Skip to bottom nav

Sober for 30 Years: How I Did It and What I Learned

Lessons I learned going from drinking two ounces of vodka every waking hour for twenty years to sobriety for the last thirty
Sober for 30 years

My father loved whiskey and women. He insisted if I drink, I drink like a man.

My mother kept a locked closet of narcotics; she drove an hour north each month to a hair salon owned by a woman who "cut like a barber." Like a man.

Alcohol, prescription drugs, and male authority were the bedrock of my family culture.

I was a very bright, very shy, and fat little girl. By adolescence the family pediatrician prescribed Dexamyl so I would lose weight. By the time I reached college in 1960, my mother phoned the pharmacy to send bottles of Dexadrin to my dorm at Bryn Mawr, a women's liberal arts college. Though I was far from liberated.

By the time I was 26 I had fallen in love with and married a narcissist. I perfectly recreated the emotional architecture of my mother's dark world.

Alcohol made every day a sunny day.

I ‘learned' how to drink 2 ounces of vodka every waking hour of my days.

2 ounces, every waking hour of my days for 20 years.


Two weeks before my 46th birthday, my younger brother appeared at my home in NYC to transport me to a 5-Star psychiatric hospital in Connecticut. I resisted, for an hour, consumed by feelings of shame and fear of public knowledge of my serious addiction. I surrendered. I drank a fifth of gin during the ride to the rehab.

Today I celebrate thirty (30) years. That is almost 11,000 days, one day at a time. In the beginning, one day was 24 hours. One year was 8,760 very long hours! After the first several years, hours seemed to move faster. Then miraculously it was 10 years…and now thirty!!

Living One Day at a Time

Getting sober—detoxification, and learning to live, "one day at a time," is like restarting the cycle of human development from infancy and childhood to adolescence, young adulthood, etc. It takes many, many years of rewiring the neuronal pathways of the brain. It requires learning new intellectual, physical and emotional tools for living in reality— sunny days, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes and ordinary overcast, gray days.

To find my authentic self and flourish as a healthy and honest woman, mother, friend, daughter, I was directed to a psychiatrist specifically trained in addiction and recovery. He taught me to value myself. He showed me how to detach in conversation with those who push my buttons. He insisted on active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous where I learned the Serenity Prayer and discovered how to differentiate between that which I can and cannot control. I began to understand that there is a power greater than myself that runs the human slot machine.

Lessons from AA

At first, I went to AA meetings every day. I went to beginners' meetings, open and closed meetings and after some time I attended step meetings, my favorite. By the time you get to step meetings you are not reporting the horrible past, but learning how to live anew: how to detach, listen and think more rationally, more intuitively. The sayings and teachings of AA are too bountiful to detail. Sharing at meetings was impossible for me at first. I was too shy. I didn't do my first-year ‘qualification' of sharing my story for more than 3 years. Now, thirty years in, I am liberated to share it here - and everywhere.

One of my earliest learnings from AA was how important it is to pay attention. I started with the physical-- looking around me, if not fully inside myself just yet. I looked up on the streets of NYC and discovered reflections of buildings in the glass cladding of modern structures-- reflections that were distorted by weather and building materials. It was a magnificent irony that my sober eyes found these real distortions (image above).

Getting Grounded in the First Year

The first year was a quest for integrity, which I unexpectedly found in an oak tree in Central Park. The tree symbolized the sturdy groundedness I sought. I would practice, every day feeling my legs and my feet standing squarely and solidly under me as I took slow deep breaths and found my equilibrium.

I started to eat healthily. I went to the gym regularly. I read many books, I took many classes. I learned to detach emotionally when family and friends spoke to me; I learned their words applied to their needs and feelings, not my failures or my stupidity. After 10 years I enrolled in and completed an MSW program at NYU.

Now, at 76, because of being 30 years sober, I have strong and authentic relationships with my daughters, my sons-in-law, my friends, and my grandchildren. My mind is ever curious, I have a healthy, albeit creakier, body, and I'm still paying attention with as much intensity as ever.

Need support? Join our empathetic community, chat with a free, trained listener, or start affordable online therapy today.

Posted: 19 April 2019
Share Tweet

Gail Niederhoffer, MSW

Gail Niederhoffer holds her MSW and recently celebrated 30 years in recovery from alcoholism.

Other Articles Articles by Gail Niederhoffer, MSW

Sober for 30 Years: How I Did It and What I Learned

Lessons I learned going from drinking two ounces of vodka every waking hour for twenty years to sobriety for the last thirty
Posted 19 April 2019

Related Articles

How to Plan a Sober Vacation

3 tips for those in recovery on how to have a fun vacation without alcohol
Posted 12 September 2019

Aging and Sleep: Adjusting to New Sleep Patterns

How to handle sleep challenges as we age and it becomes more difficult to fall and stay asleep
Posted 13 May 2019

What to Expect in Your 50's: Guide for Women

Women's health tips for the most surprising issues women face over 50, from those who have been there
Posted 13 May 2019