Most people in Helen Thorgalsen’s life have only known her sober. That includes her two children—now in their 30s— and her partner of 20 years, Bonnie Clement, with whom she founded the general store H.B. Provisions in Kennebunk in 2002.
Two things haven’t happened in all those years: H.B. Provisions hasn’t closed, not even for a day. And Helen hasn’t had a drink, not even a drop.
“I’ve been without a drink for 34 years,” she says.
She was in her early 30s when she got pregnant, got married and stopped drinking—a major turnaround for a woman who had been drinking since her teens and drinking to the point of blackouts for several years.
“The drinking age when I was in college was 18, and I was 18,” she says. “I drank with a big group of people, and we drank often. I was one of the heavy partiers.”
After graduation, she had a regular routine: working days and drinking nights.
“I felt like I didn’t know any other way to live; that’s what you did, you just drank every day,” she says. “I got very inebriated most nights, and blacked out almost every night. I lived in a small town and would go to a local bar. I just drank a lot, went home and went to bed. But I knew when I got pregnant that I couldn’t keep drinking.”
While she was determined to break that cycle, her new husband was not.
“It became very problematic,” Helen says. “We saw a counselor, and she sent me to a family support 12-step program and him to a 12-step program. I was going to meetings six days a week, hanging on for dear life.”
The other difficulty with giving up drinking is that while going to meetings and dealing with being the wife of an alcoholic, she hadn’t faced her own alcoholism. By the time they had their second child, she had been sober for two years. But their relationship was fraying, and the marriage didn’t last much longer.
“Seeing him drink and him being drunk, and all the drugging, it wasn’t pretty,” she says. “Drinking isn’t pretty on anybody, and I was able to see that. And I had the clarity that I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
To get herself “in a better place” as she was going through the divorce, Helen went to the Renewal Center at Hazelden in Minnesota, then got involved in a recovery program.
“I got much more real with my personal recovery,” she says, “and owning the fact that I am an alcoholic and that I had been drinking alcoholically.”
Not long after that, Helen was having dinner with old friends who convinced her—once—that she could drink socially with dinner. And she shared a bottle of wine with a friend.
“I woke up the next morning so hungover, and I was clear without a doubt that I never wanted to feel that way again,” Helen says. “It was a spiritual awakening. It was crystal clear in my head and my whole being.”
Helen raised her kids in Kennebunk, where she has been active in a 12-step program all these years.
“I’ve been able to learn more about who I am, being sober,” she says. “And now I have a community. It’s a much richer, more fulfilling life.”
In August 2001, Helen’s youngest daughter got a job as a dishwasher at Dockside Café, which was being run that year by Bonnie Clement. When Clement was short-staffed once teens went back to school, Helen came onboard to help. The two hit it off and have been life partners ever since.
In January 2002, Helen and Bonnie decided to buy what was Meserve’s Market in the Lower Village of Kennebunk. They gutted, renovated and rebranded the historic building as H.B. Provisions, with the H. and B. short for Helen and Bonnie. It’s been almost 20 years since they opened their general store and lunch counter.
“That’s a lot of sandwiches,” Helen says, smiling. “A lot of coffee. A lot of everything. It’s really good.” They also sell beer, wine and alcohol. “When I first got sober, I wouldn’t be around alcohol,” Helen says. “But now I’m okay. It doesn’t appeal to me. That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges, and it’s been a bit of a bumpy road at times with alcoholic behavior and not feeling comfortable in my skin and dealing with frustration and anger. All the emotions you experience in life, I’ve experienced here while working in my store, because it’s been 20 years.”
All those years have come with some transitions, of course. One of which was that Helen and Bonnie tied the knot in May 2007. Parttime Kennebunkport resident George H. W. Bush, who used to stop by the store for a cup of coffee and donut after church, was one of their wedding guests.
“I never would have been able to do all this if I was drinking,” Helen says. “I’m an all or nothing gal. I don’t do moderation. And with alcohol, I definitely couldn’t do moderation. I feel very blessed that God gave me an opportunity to have a sober life.”
She credits the recovery community as the rock upon which she has built her busy and purposeful life.
“When I’m having a bad day, I don’t even think of reaching for something to drink,” she says. “My sobriety is first. If I’m not sober, I have nothing. I don’t have my relationship with my granddaughter, my children, the store, nothing. It’s number one. Without that I have nothing. And still, this many years later, it’s still number one.”