6 Questions with Helaina Hovitz on PTSD and Addiction

Looks like the folks at Discovery House are having technical difficulties….fear not! The interview is below!

Helaina Hovitz was one of several child survivors who got caught in the horrors of September 11th, 2001, as a 12-year-old girl living and going to school blocks from the World Trade Center. As she writes in her book After 9/11, One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning, it was a long road to recovery, full of misdiagnosis, countless medications with painful side effects, and therapists that listened, nodded, and sent her on her way.

It would take years before she finally found answers about what was causing all of that chaos in her life—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—and began to recover. A few years later, she found another path to recovery, this time, one that led her to sobriety and freedom from her addiction to alcohol and marijuana.

On Saturday, November 12, 2016, she’ll have five years sober—it would have been October 26, she says, but she had to finish all of the weed she had first.

  1. What were some of the ways that you saw your PTSD and substance use were connected? 

When you have PTSD, you often feel like your brain, your body, your nervous system never let you rest. You’re constantly in this hyper-vigilant state of being, and things can feel pretty dark and desperate, even if, on the outside, you look “normal” as you try to carry on with your day-to-day life. It’s our inner world, as survivors, that can be most chaotic, so anything that brings some sort of solace or distraction from those feelings are naturally a welcome relief.

I was in college when I really started drinking in a way that is medically defined as “binge drinking” for women, but it seemed like everyone else around me was drinking the same way. Not so coincidentally, college was the time I finally found the right type of therapy for my PTSD. At the same time that I found myself doing hard work to recover with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I was also looking for that “break” from it all, that quick medicinal entry into feeling happy and accepted. I never drank deliberately to “forget” or “cope” and I certainly didn’t think I was drinking or smoking weed to “escape.” However, looking back, I can see the ways in which those words very accurately describe what I was chasing, a feeling of being carefree, a way to temporarily quiet the chatter in my head and blot out the constant feeling of being on-edge and anxious that I carried around with me.

  1. What were some of the red flags that popped up during your recovery from PTSD that ultimately led you to realize you were struggling with addiction as well?

I had what you’d call a “high bottom” by the time I hit “rock bottom.” I was never sent to rehab, I never committed any crimes, and I managed to graduate college with a 3.8 GPA, solid internships under my belt, and bylines not just in a local paper but in the New York Times. I didn’t drink every day or in the mornings, and there were periods in which I stopped for a long time or could indeed just have 1 or 2 drinks, so it wasn’t immediately apparent that I was an “alcoholic.”

The first of the red flags was how sick I got—deathly ill—and frequently, with hangovers lasting for hours and hours. It was so bad that I prayed to just be unconscious and always swore to never drink again. At the time, I always meant it: the alcohol poisoning got so bad, in some cases, that I had to be hospitalized several times. But despite how “intelligent” I was, and despite how bad I knew it could get, I always went back. It was the first drink that ultimately always did me in. It didn’t make any logical sense, which is why they call it a baffling disease.

More baffling still was the fact that alcohol and weed caused me to become even more sensitive to PTSD triggers, having the exact opposite effect I intended to get: when I smoked weed, I was often even more paranoid than I was when I was sober, and when I drank, I made bad choices that kept me stuck. In both cases, I was more prone to impulsivity and more vulnerable to severe reactions when triggered, like screaming, hysterical crying, even throwing and breaking things in that panic-induced state.

While I was making a ton of progress in CBT and then DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy), it was kind of like I was running around the finish line for a while instead of crossing it. My therapist hinted at it, several times, by saying, “You only have these episodes when you’re not sober.” But she never directly suggested a recovery program because she knew I had to come to that conclusion myself.

  1. Just as there is a stigma of addiction, people are often misinformed or judgmental about conditions like PTSD. What do you wish people knew about PTSD?

It’s a term that is often misused, like OCD or ADD, and it’s so crucial that we acknowledge that it’s a serious condition that affects millions of us, and not just veterans or victims of war crimes or mass shootings. One out of every two children in this country will be exposed to some sort of trauma, and it also affects people who live in dangerous neighborhoods, or live through natural disasters, or who live in a home where there is an alcoholic parent or domestic abuse taking place. There are people who survive medical trauma and sexual assault and witness horrific crimes. Of course, it also affects the people who love and care about those living with PTSD.

The second most important thing I wish people knew was that the symptoms can become incredibly complex, and sometimes take years and years to surface. Feeling, doing, thinking, behaving one way now can often present itself as one thing, but really be traced far enough back to reveal that it is a trauma-based reaction. When we live through trauma, our nervous system creates patterns of thinking and responding to the world that may not reveal its clear cause and effect or fight or flight response.

That’s why I wish more people would seek help for anything that just doesn’t feel right. There are some crummy therapists and psychiatrists out there just like there are crummy hair stylists and writers and chefs. That’s why we have to be so proactive about keeping hope alive and searching for answers and the right type of help so we can start to heal and take care of ourselves. Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness, it takes more courage and strength to show a willingness to get better than it does to white-knuckle your way through life while suffering.

  1. How do you think Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped you deal with your PTSD and ultimately your alcohol addiction?

CBT was a pathway to actively creating meaningful change, distinguishing the differences between what I perceived to be threats of danger in the world around me and what the reality of it all actually was. PTSD takes such a toll on our daily lives, from our relationships to our morning commute and our physical health as well. CBT was an active learning process, and I had to challenge myself to practice new ways of thinking, communicating, behaving, perceiving, and coping to replace the faulty ones. Our brains and even our muscle memory go into autopilot as a way to try and “keep us safe” and this form of therapy helped me untangle that faulty wiring in my body and my brain that I’d been operating with for so long. Like learning anything new, we have to be taught how to grasp it, and we need to practice.

The difference is, instead of good grades as a reward, you get one step closer to positively changing the way you respond to the world around you and perceive your own place in it.

As for how it helped me get sober, too….firstly, it laid the groundwork for me to see clearly how my progress was stunted by my drinking and smoking pot. But the reason the 12-step method worked so well for me, I think, is because the method is so similar to the CBT approach. We don’t just “know” how to change for the better or become the people we want to be and live healthy, productive lives with meaningful relationships and fulfilling careers and personal lives, how to deal with difficult feelings without reaching for something outside of ourselves to soothe ourselves in the moment—or in some cases, deliberately self-destruct. We need a guide, we need social support, we need tools. I also think being so young (22 years old) and eager to change was useful…I always had that in me, this strong desire to find help and do whatever it took.

  1. With sobriety and recovery come many changes. What has changed the most for you since you’ve been sober?

I would say it’s how that baseline mood of anxiety, agitation, and fear was replaced with this sense of calm, the space to feel actual joy. Recovery has allowed me to handle what life throws at me like an adult instead of a scared 12-year-old girl who had no idea how to handle anything. What has also changed is the quality of my relationships, both professional and personal, which are healthy, positive, and long lasting. Like anything that’s worth doing, it takes work and the willingness to be uncomfortable and build the capacity stay present through unpleasant, difficult and even painful feelings without reaching for a drink or a drug or a person. But if you’re willing to do what feels difficult, like responding with patience and kindness to people who don’t show the same courtesy to you, the way you experience life will change for the better. Peace of mind and a feeling of safety where there was once just internal chaos and darkness is the best gift I have ever given myself, and I definitely had to earn it.

  1. Any final thoughts?

We often need help figuring out how to make the transition from victim to survivor, because many of us don’t realize that we keep ourselves stuck in that role. We certainly don’t “want” to “play the victim,” but when we are convinced that people want to hurt us, that the world is unsafe and nothing can be trusted, can lead us to believe that, in fact, everything bad is just “happening to us.” Once you start to see the part you play in keeping ourselves “stuck” in a trauma-informed state, and once you know there is a way out, then you have a choice to make about the kind of life you want for yourself.

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, author and media start-up co-founder. Visit her at www.HelainaHovitz.com to read more of her work, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Recovery Resources

If you or someone you know is looking for a place to start their journey to recovery and healing from PTSD, addiction, or depression, you may find these links and the below information helpful.

It is possible to recover, heal, and live with almost any type of issue or disorder with the right guidance and support. Please don’t be afraid to reach out for help in your area and talk to a therapist, counselor, mentor, or other trusted professional who may be able to help you figure out a plan of action. There is always a way to make things better, even if sometimes we have to fight to find the right way. Don’t give up!

The National Association for Mental Illness: this is a helpline with staff are on call to answer questions about symptoms, treatment options, local support groups and services in your area, and legal issues.

Healing From Trauma: An excellent read that will help you understand almost everything you are going through, have gone through, and where you can go from here.

The International Society for the Study for Trauma and Disassociation: For children and adolescents, specifically, this offers a wealth of information including what to do if you feel you or your child have been misdiagnosed.

There is also great information for parents at Smarter Parenting.

The Crisis Text Line: If you are a teen who feels overwhelmed, in urgent danger, and have nowhere to turn, send them a text.

The World Trade Center Health Program: If you think you might have physical or mental health symptoms resulting from 9/11, this program provides specialized medical and mental health care to survivors affected by the attacks at no out-of-pocket cost. Inquire if you lived, worked or went to school or daycare south of Houston Street or in parts of Brooklyn within 1.5 miles of the WTC site. The World Trade Center Health Registry conducts surveillance of health of enrollees by sending out and analyzing responses to periodic follow-up WTC health surveys.

Suggested Therapy for PTSD:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A form of therapy aimed at helping you develop skills to change patterns of thought and behavior that are causing you distress and creating difficulty in your day-to-day life.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): This is like CBT, with the addition of a specific set of skills: mindfulness (staying present in the moment) distress tolerance (the ability to handle stress and pain in tough situations without trying to change it) emotional regulation (how to change feelings that are uncomfortable or upsetting without reaching for something outside of yourself to do it) and interpersonal effectiveness (how to ask for what you want and communicate effectively while maintaining healthy relationships with others).

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Another form of therapy used to treat PTSD by helping your brain and your body process the actual traumatic memories and all of the physical and emotional sensations associated with that memory to find relief.

When we talk about “skills” we talk about the ability to do something well, and of course, a skill has to be learned and practiced. Soon enough, it becomes a natural part of who you are and what you do, which is pretty awesome. The original definition of skill means “to make a difference.”

What To Do If You Think You Have a Problem With Drinking or Using:

If you think you may have a drinking problem, check out this questionnaire to get a sense of what may or may not be “normal” drinking. This is also a great test to take. If your substance of choice is not alcohol, you may want to take the test with your “preferred” substance in mind.

Try dropping into any local 12-step meeting, take a seat, listen and share. These meetings are free, anonymous, confidential, and take place in almost every city in the world. If you search for “Intergroup” or “AA” and your city and state, you will most likely find a list off days, times, and locations.

You also may want to find a therapist, counselor, or local rehab that can give you more information and a plan of action.

Just remember: the majority of us cannot do it alone.

Karate Teacher Rocks, In and Out of the Classroom

Downtown Express January 5 – 11, 2011

Karate Teacher Rocks, In and Out of the Classroom 

BY Helaina N. Hovitz

The boys in Manhattan Youth’s Martial Arts class want to be just like their teacher, and the girls want the boys to be like him too. Their teacher, James Clifford, is also the bass player in the Energy, a pop/rock band that will be celebrating the release of their third album at Irving Plaza next weekend.

Every Friday afternoon, the Energy gets ready to spend the weekend touring cities across the East Coast. The band has two other albums and an EP under their belt, and has achieved something of a celebrity status, opening for bands such as Vertical Horizon, Fastball and the Click Five.

Between the band’s busy tour schedule and his full time job teaching music at Bay Ridge Preparatory School, Clifford still makes time to commute into Lower Manhattan every Monday and Wednesday to teach Manhattan Youth’s Martial Arts after school programs at P.S. 276 and P.S. 397.

Clifford may be a born-and-bred Brooklyn boy, but his heart has always been in Lower Manhattan. He took the train in from Bay Ridge every weekend to play football in Battery Park, and remembers spending most of his free time around Chambers and Greenwich Streets, hanging out with friends and frequenting his favorite diner.

“Gee Whiz always hooked it up for me,” he remembered fondly. “When I began teaching, I’d go there on my breaks between classes to have a cup of tea.”

But Clifford’s favorite Downtown destination was always J&R, where he stopped in every Tuesday to buy new music as he walked from P.S. 89 to Southbridge Towers. Clifford first ventured to the area at the age of eight, when his uncle, Manhattan Youth Martial Arts Program Director Dr. Charlie Fasano brought him to his first karate class at P.S. 234. Dr. Fasano, also the headmaster of Bay Ridge Prep, worked closely with Bob Townley, president of Manhattan Youth. When Clifford turned 17, Townley hired him as a martial arts instructor. He went on to become the program’s assistant director.

“Bob took a chance and gave me a lot of responsibly at a very young age,” said Clifford. “ It made me feel confident.”

Clifford continued to take up bass and guitar in high school, where several of his music teachers played in bands outside of school. After seeing that it was possible to become a teacher while still pursuing dreams of musical stardom, he joined the Bay Ridge Prep faculty, along with two fellow band members. He has since spent over a decade showing students that even though he’s a member of a popular band, he’s also grounded.

In fact, he said, it’s his students who help keep it that way.

“The industry is an emotional roller coaster. The kids I teach are so innocent, and they’re real,” said Clifford. “They keep me grounded and help me take a step back.”

Fellow band member Adam Wolfsdorf said teaching karate has kept Clifford “rooted,” because the kids are exciting, original and haven’t been “turned off” the way many adults have.

“We’ve toured with some pretty huge artists who think the world should revolve around them,” said Wolfsdorf. “But we know that we’re part of a whole. It’s like you’re Clark Kent during the day and Superman at night. We’re living two lives, but those two lives are yin and yang, and you need both.”

Clifford said his teaching gigs provide him with a sense of balance that most other successful artists don’t have, noting that many groups quick to make it big are also quick to fall apart. In order to maintain this balance, he must establish a clear set of boundaries in the classroom.

“The kids see that we have lives, that we aren’t just boring teachers, so they want to know more about what happens on the road,” said Clifford. “But we don’t actually tell them. We usually just give ‘em a funny answer.”

Students often frequent the Energy’s shows with their parents, who are grateful for the opportunity to go and do something with their kids. When a student, who was an aspiring musician, expressed some doubts about pursuing a career in music, the band let her open for one of their acoustic shows. Clifford still receives phone calls from students who have graduated and gone on to pursue careers in music, attributing their success to his encouragement and leadership by example.


Clifford believes it is important to show his students that with hard work and ambition, anything is possible. Commitment is one of the most important words in his vocabulary, so it’s not surprising that as last week’s blizzard was underway, the karate group gathered to practice — and fall, a lot — in the snow.

“He puts himself into things with full force; he doesn’t go halfway,” said Wolfsdorf. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to accomplish the things we have.”

Not many people can wear both hats at once, but Dean Bevilacqua, Clifford’s mentor and fellow faculty member, said he’s a dynamic teacher, and is just plain great with kids.

“He’s a pied piper. If you see him at the school or on field day, all the little kids gather around him like little geese,” said Bevilacqua.

Bevilacqua has always been a brother figure to Clifford, and began bringing him to shows when he was just nine years old. Clifford now opens for bands that they went to see perform years ago.

The Energy’s sound is heavily influenced by early 90’s rock, and ideas for songs come to Clifford in snippets, which he hands off to Wolfsdorf to shape into lyrics. Of the 2,000 CDs lining the walls of his room are bands like REM and Radiohead, who Clifford values for their ability to make listeners feel like they are part of a whole. He makes a strong distinction between this music and his favorite “ear candy,” bands like Weezer and All Time Low.

Clifford met the band’s vocalist, Adam Wolfsdorf, in the Manhattan Youth Martial Arts program back in 2000, and the two began attending open mic nights together. Soon more musicians joined in, and an early 90’s cover band was formed, playing local bars in Bay Ridge for two years. Clifford and Wolfsdorf wanted to start writing original tunes, and sought out a permanent drummer and guitar player in 2005. By early 2006, The Energy became regulars in Clifford’s home away from home at Tribeca’s Knitting Factory.

The band, whose other two permanent members include Ian VanderMuelen on guitar and Chris Flanigan on drums, has yet to sign with an actual label, but continues to run their own “min-label.” They work closely with Wavelength Entertainment and renowned industry publicist Tracey Miller, and their manager, Beth Bogdan, is senior director of artist relations at Universal. Their booking agency, Supreme Entertainment Artists, is based out of Boston, and represents bands like Maroon 5 and Eve 6. Since all four band members work full time, it took almost a year of traveling to Boston and back every weekend to cut the new album.

Clifford has no plans to give up either of his teaching jobs, and will soon be adding yet another responsibility to the list.

“I have an 18-month-old girl, Rafaela, and when she doesn’t think I’m cool anymore, I’m gonna call on him to take her to concerts, like I did for him,” said Bevilacqua. “He’s already said he’s got it covered.”

The CD release party will be held at 8 p.m. on January 15 at Irving Plaza, where the band will be performing later in the evening. The music video for the first single off their new album, “Go to Girl,” is due in February.