That’s why I’m really here to open the door of my home and to invite women in to share their stories. I’m really here for the messages that I get from old friends and strangers, the ones that say, "I don’t want to feel this way anymore. But what next?” I’m really here to hold the bottle of sparkling water in my hand in rooms filled with wine glasses and to never have to mention a thing about i, unless you want to know. I’m really here to say I’ll tell you where I was so you can see how I’ve been transformed, so I can say that if you want this too you can have it and more.
Can I tell you a funny story?
It’s a story about a magazine editor who had it all together but sometimes had to have an extra glass, or seven, of wine.
One who was reasonably blonde and reasonably successful, and who helped manage a big job and a family. How did she do it? The way millions of others of women do it: willpower, caffeine, and chardonnay. Then one day that magazine editor had a spectacular fall — literally fell over and collapsed, torn apart from the two lives she was leading.
For months I’d struggled with how I would cope with this wedding in the heart of wine country, in a place where every single trigger would be triggered. Long, physically taxing days, family dynamics, wine at every single meal. Climbing up the hill to the country house in the car, my back screamed. “I can’t do this,” I thought.
But I did. And here was my brother, and his groom, and my parents. And my aunt, a Cuban refugee who had survived so much -- oppression by a dictator, her own cancer, an the cancer that took the life of her husband. This broken, brutal world.
I’d show you a photo from my last day one except that there aren’t any. The photo up above: hang with me on that.
On my last day one, my phone was in the back of an Uber and my pants were crumpled up in a bag at the front desk of the hotel where I was staying for a business trip. I lost things a lot back then — phones, time, my dignity.
Had I had a phone I probably wouldn’t have used it, because for once, there was nothing I wanted to document. I called rehabs from the hotel phone to ask if they took my insurance, and I messaged friends privately via Facebook. “I’ve done it again,” I said with a shaky voice, the contents of my purse strewn on the hotel floor.
It’s easy for me to mythologize the events of that day. It was the day everything changed. But only recently am I realizing the grace of the way that I was rescued.
But then? Then was not pretty.
That morning, with my mouth dry and head pounding, I posted in a secret Facebook group for sober women, group that was born from a podcast. I said “Help” and that I had drank yet again, ignoring the intention of not, the tiny Big Book in my suitcase, a few months of on and off again sobriety, and the promise of a sober SXSW. Many women replied to the message. One, an Austin resident named Sondra Primeaux to whom at that point I'd never spoken, wrote:
“Do you have running shoes? Put them on and I will meet you downstairs in the hotel lobby.”
A stranger, looking at Facebook, heard the cry of another woman and offered to drive across town and tell her she never had to live like that again. That this could be her last day one. Really and truly.
I don’t remember many details of the conversation. The alcohol had wrecked me, drinks from after parties and my sad after party of one. Years of drinking to self-medicate, drinking to try to keep up with what the world told me to be, drinking for energy (I know), drinking to cope with physical pain and anxiety. This was not about "fun" and hadn’t been in a long while. Dehydrated and shaky, Sondra walked me along the edges of the Colorado River. She was a mother too, and a seamstress. I think she said something about vintage lace. I said things like:
“But you don’t know what I’ve done.”
She assured me that this world was filled with people who had done all the things I had done, and then some. And that there was actually a way to move through this life healed from those mistakes. She shared because she had been there. She had stopped drinking and stayed stopped and done the work to look her past in the eye and it did not kill her.
Also would I like a smoothie?
That is what I remember: we walked, talked, and drank smoothies. She told me there was a way to get better, but I’d have to do the work and find community. The sun made my head hurt even more, and I stumbled back into the hotel and slept again, embarrassed to find my coworkers. They tracked down my phone, and a kind Uber driver returned it. He was deaf — I remember this, and I was struck by his act of kindness. He didn’t have to do that. Maybe the world was good. But first, to get through hell.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but it's 24 months. I have done nothing different than a million people who came before me: I’ve gone to meetings, connected with other people in recovery, and most importantly, developed a deeper relationship with God. I’ve also become deeply connected to the online recovery community, creating actual real-life relationships with bloggers, podcasters, and fellow writers in recovery.
I got out of my own way.
The first year of sobriety was like clutching onto dear life. It was trying to stay sober hour by hour, while still performing the motions of a former life: going to an advertising job that didn't feel right, trying to show up anyhow, and breaking out of 40 years of comfortable-now-uncomfortable people pleasing. My infant sobriety needed to be fed, watered, and changed all the time. I needed to put myself and this baby sobriety to bed a lot, while still acting like everything was fine, just fine. It was not.
They say that the first year is about physical sobriety, the second about emotional sobriety and the third is about a spiritual shift. I agree with that for the most part. But nothing is linear, and there is no calendar or clock to this way of life. While I got physically sober in year one, year two has been about the physical for me as well. For instance, wedged between year one and two I came to Pilates for healing after two car accidents, and stayed because I discovered a practice of mind, body and soul integration. In year one I got rid of the booze and in year two I arrived back into my body, one I'd never truly inhabited.
In year two I began to share more of my story. Remember Sondra, who showed up at that hotel? Well of course God sent me a woman who was a fellow creative. He knew, on that day in Austin, that I needed to hear her exact words. That I needed to be scooped up by woman and an artist who had walked the path before me.
In year two I got to share my day one story the podcast Sondra shares with fellow artist Tammi Salas (The Unruffled). Yes, the person who came to my rescue that day one was a person who would go on to do a podcast about the intersection of creativity and recovery. Someone who collects vintage clothes just like me and repurposes them into new creations. God had this whole thing planned out. (I see what you're doing there, Jesus.)
Here I am wearing one of Sondra's original creations. I wear it like a magic robe. On days when I'm having a hard time I remember that I was sent someone to literally pull me off the floor and set me on the right path. AND SHE MAKES KIMONOS.
But it doesn’t stop there. Oh honey, this is just where we get started.
We help other people in sobriety because it helps us stay sober. We learn we can’t give what we give away what we don’t have. This is the club no one wants to join ("Oh hi when I grow up I want to be an addict!"), but once you’re in you realize it’s the real deal. People in my club learn how to be honest, don’t do small talk, and general cut right to the chase about the things that matter.
There’s a line in one of our books that says “We are not saints,” and this is true as well. But we do have a system — a “design for living” — that helps us process the challenges and the joys of life.
In my second year I started working with other women, sometimes as a sponsor and sometimes as a friend. Many of the people I worked with have returned to drinking. This is the reality of addiction. It always makes me sad, but I know everyone must walk her own path.
Every time I see someone go “back out” I reflect on what brought me to my first day one and just how easy it would be to return there, to that hotel room. Negative consequences are not enough to stop those of us who are addicted. This disease is cunning, baffling, and powerful. We drink when things go wrong and we drink when things go right. I'm particularly reminded of this as things have begun to go very right for me.
Sobriety is filled with dichotomies, like how each of us has to walk this road alone but we’re also not alone. Sondra walked with me that day and assured me I didn’t have to do it alone (I’d done enough research in that department). I have stayed sober so far because I surrounded myself with people who were deeply entrenched in sobriety and recovery. Every day I have a choice: drink or not drink, stay sober or don’t stay sober. Left to my own devices I might. So I turn it over to my higher power.
Sometimes I am better, but sometimes I am still a jerk. I know one thing: when I stay out of my way long enough, I am able to show up for another woman.
The story is played forward.
Two weeks ago I got a call from a friend (let’s call her Allison) who said she had a friend in need. Could I meet them at a 12 Step meeting? We sat in my friend’s minivan in the rain and I explained what to expect. And then, 55 minutes later, my jaw hit the floor when Allison said, “Um, I think I am an alcoholic.”
What? Yes, during the meeting Allison realized she too had a problem with alcohol.
“Can you get a silver chip for me?” Allison asked. (The silver chip signifies as desire to stop drinking.)
“Nope, but I can walk with you to the front of the room to pick one up,” I replied.
Just then, I knew what God was doing. We do not walk alone, yet we must first make a decision. We must recognize the problem and we must be willing.
Allison, a mother to several small children, kept going to meetings. One night I picked her up for a 12 Step meeting. On the way there, I grabbed us two smoothies. Walking out of my gym I looked down and saw it:
The tennis shoes.
Only now I’m the one able to answer the call.
I messaged Sondra a snapshot of that photo. I said, “Look what just happened.”
Allison made the decision to go to in-patient rehab. I visit her, bringing nail polish. It’s Essie’s “Master Plan,” which made me laugh because this plan was not one either of us would have imagined. I tell her about Sondra and how she was there for me at my start. I tell Allison that she will one day do the same thing.
This second year was hard. I imagine so will be the third and the fourth and the fifth. And so will the rest of my life, because, life. But it was also good, so good. Some amends were made, a job disappeared, a better use of my gifts appeared. The old me faded away some more, wounds were healed, and I began to truly let go of the life I planned (sometimes with claw marks).
Every morning I start the day with “Thy Will, not mine.” Then I do my professional work, pick my son up from carpool, and hug my husband when he comes home. I've become an accidental advocate, focusing specifically on the alcohol-as-lifestyle narrative in media and marketing (@tellbetterstories2018). All of the paths that God created for me -- as a writer and storyteller, as a woman, as a mom, as a person in recovery, as a lover of vintage clothes and things that are repurposed -- he's included all of them in this story.
On the best days, I get calls and texts and messages from women in recovery or ones who want to get sober.
I show up with smoothies.
I say put on your running shoes.
I say that we can walk together.
Apparently this is the most stress filled Thanksgiving ever. The Boston Globe even has a term for it: The Thankspocalypse.
"TV anchors are urging people to remain calm. Therapists are adding office hours to accommodate the panicky. Doctors are warning diabetics and heart patients about elevated health risks. Motorists are being advised to plan for hurricane-evacuation-level traffic jams. Pet owners have been put on alert.
The threat? Thanksgiving."
They go on to point out that we do actually have real crises on our hands, aka our country imploding. That is very, very real, of which I'm reminded by daily as I drive by Roy Moore signs in my state, as well as the constant stream of tragedy and bad news. So our national, community, and individual psyches are beat down. Not to mention the very real daily lives we are all still living: the illnesses and deadlines and births and deaths, and also did you give the dog her insulin?
The Boston Globe story also talks about people needed intense pre-and post-holiday therapy. Family dynamics! Traffic! And apparently we're still into cooking the "perfect" holiday meal (let's get back to that in a moment, shall we?). They quote a therapist:
"Carney, who is Skyping with out-of-town patients who need a holiday booster shot, says people start talking about Thanksgiving anxiety in October, and then spend post-turkey sessions discussing who said what to whom. 'The debrief is a big part of the therapy, 'he said."
First, mental health is a very real thing all year round, and holidays bring an additional level of challenge. It's vital to take care of your mental health and call upon every therapist, priest, rabbi, and support system you may have. For those dealing with grief, illness, recovery (drug/alcohol and or food), it packs additional layers. If you need help, reach out to a trusted source -- please.
This is my third holiday season sober. The first two were incredibly difficult (see: having to leave the family dinner table to weep and call my sponsor). But two holiday seasons sober has taught me:
I have the power to do things that I don’t want to do.
And so do you.
That's right: you are a decision maker. And you do have the power to respond differently to the things you do have control over. This includes the holidays.
- If it's so stressful to do these holiday things you've always done, don't do them. As in draw some boundaries and stay home. What is really going to happen? Are you going out of fear and obligation? Look, I get that. I know you might hear, "But this could be grandma/Fluffy/ my last ________." That's guilt. That's fear and shame based. And yes I know that's how family can roll. But you can also respond differently.
Do you care about your family? Do you make time for them at other times during the year? Do you actually enjoy spending time with them? If the answer is no, then seriously, doesn't it sound nicer to stay home on your couch, or spend the day in nature, or serving someone in need?
Maybe at the holidays you are trying to build a bridge. Trying to repair strained relationships. Trying. I get that. But miracles can and do happen all year round. And they happen when they happen. It might not happen during the window between Thanksgiving and December. OK.
Brene Brown says adults should be able to give ourselves "permission slips," the way teachers give kids. Like give yourself a permission slip to do whatever you want. She actually says you should write them down, and if that works, go to town.
- If you decide to go (again, you have the choice) and can't bear to hear your crazy Uncle Walter (yes that's a Ben Folds reference) go on and on about how noble our deranged president is, don't. As in, you actually don't need to have conversations you don't want to have. I'm not saying throw eggnog in his face, but why can't we say, "You know what, Uncle Water? I'd prefer not to discuss that. Please pass the green beans". Boundaries? Oh, your family doesn't do those well? That's because it's hard work. And not everyone has done, will do, or is doing the work. And if you really feel yours are being compromised, or you are going to leave agitated or down, circle back to my first point.
- A note on food: I mean that is a huge part of the stress, right? Try to find a lifestyle publication that doesn't have a headline about "Stress Less Thanksgivng ______." I dare you. (Sure, I'll stress less as I'm walking through the woods picking up foliage to weave a custom centerpiece or searching for small batch single origin cranberries.) Maybe you like to cook and entertain. Maybe you don't. Maybe it changes year to year and based on the circumstances of your life that holiday.
Here comes that radical thought again: if you don't want to cook, don't. If you do, wonderful! Nourishing your family and friends over a communal table is a beautiful and time honored thing. Guess what: I'm not doing it. In fact, this year even heating up the pre-prepared meal from Whole Foods was too much for my family, so we will go out for a lovely meal. Yes there might be some grumbles about the menu selection or lack of leftovers. Oh well.
My mom has chronic and disabling illnesses that really do make day to day challenging. She expressed some sadness that we’re not doing a big at-home spread. I told her I literally don’t care what we eat, just that we’re together. (I know, I like my family a lot so you might not take advice from me.)
No one should have to. I am going to create space put their health, sanity, or well-being at risk to create a meal that's going to be inhaled in 20 minutes. Again, if you find great delight in doing things, if it's life-giving and brings you pleasure and honors your family traditions in a way that brings you joy: wonderful. But if not: why are you doing it?
Why are we still feeding into the notion of this “perfect Thanksgiving” concept. Like the world is literally on fire. So why aren’t we minimizing the stresses that we can? Why aren’t we standing up for ourselves and using our voices and just saying what we want? And doing that, knowing that in doing so, we’ll be better protecting ourselves for experiences that we choose. For celebrations we want. For this marathon of life.
This weekend, as I took down the last of the boxes of Christmas decorations, I was thinking about that one time I screamed at Santa. Guess what was involved?
It started like this: every year, I hosted a grand Santa party at our house. Children came in the guise of a "cookie party," only to discover the man in the big red suit was the surprise guest of honor. But wait ... there's more! As the children sat on Santa's lap, he pulled out a gift just for them from his sack. The gifts had been procured from their parents weeks and months before, as I worked on this elaborate event for months at at time.
It made me happy to do this for the kids; that much is true. I liked giving a gift them and to our friends, who got Santa photos with their kids without having to wait in line at the mall. I had "inherited" Santa and the cherished first Saturday in December from a friend whose daughter had aged out. The Santa was really, really good, with a thick, real beard and twinkly eyes. He was so good he was booked solid for years.
Planning the party was stressful, and I made it more stressful on myself, but I also said things like the window for belief was small, and I was so lucky to have this great Santa. How could I give up that coveted first Saturday in December?
All true things. Also true: planning the Santa party also took up nights, weekends, and energy that I didn't really have. At the time I was working 12 hours a day, often in other cities. Often while having an extra glass of Chardonnay or three to take the edge off. I just kept going, plunging myself into planning a party that involved hot gluing for weeks, creating a photo booth, commissioning hand-lettered invitations like the one above.
That photo is from a post in 2012, in which I lamented how busy and tired I was and how I needed the wine to get through it all. I wrote:
"The wine happened because I was in between packing for a week-long trip, and laundry to get everyone ready for the week, and some work. So there's that."
I cringe as I read this. As if the wine just "happened." As if I was a martyr for hosting a party. As if I was working woman of the year. As if celebrating Christmas was something I had to do to get through.
I thought it was totally normal to drink it all of the time, and because I was such a busy and important person that I *deserved it.* There was a mimosa bar at the party, and a mimosa bar that was my life. "You would drink this much if you had to do what I do," I said, or I thought. It makes me sad now, but that's with hindsight, several years of recovery, and the knowledge of how many women fall into the same trap.
It makes me sad to see this photo of me holding my baby nephew, playing this role of harried hostess. "Another Santa party in the books!" posted to Facebook. Sigh.
I believed my own hype. I posted these photos and wrote cheeky status updates an endless cycle of, "See? I have it handled."
A few years later, one summer day St. Nick emailed me to say we needed to change the date of the party. He had given away the first Saturday in December. Could I do a date in November? Could I do a weekday morning? The audacity. If I'm going to be honest, I can't remember if I called St. Nick or if I emailed him, but I was a total jerk and told him he'd ruined Christmas. I yelled at Santa. Whether it was via phone or words, it doesn't matter. I yelled at Santa.
Hiiiiii, that's me.
That was me.
When not a delightful hostess I was a mean drunk. Those photos were not Christmas card worthy. But, that was then. This will be my third Christmas sober.
I hardly recognize the girl in the photos, except for one thing: the look in my eyes then. "Help." No one was coming to help -- I would have to save myself. And I did. And I do.
If I'm being honest, and I am, because I just told you how I had to get loaded to plan Christmas parties, I will also say that I feel a little empty now unpacking the decorations. We've long outgrown Santa parties in my house, regardless of how this one ended. My son is in middle school now and I don't plan parties because I "should." I don't know why the decorations make me feel off, but it probably has to do with the memories they bring back, back when I was running around trying to make everything so lovely and ignoring the storm that was brewing inside of myself. Yes, that is why.
I haven't yelled at any Santas lately, or commissioned any hand lettering, or designed a photo booth. I have stayed sober another day, and started building a life I didn't need to escape from, not with one sip or with the pageantry of an event to distract me from the truth. It seems like a good place to start, this first weekend of December.
It's National Recovery Month. Which, for a lot of us, is every month.
Two years ago this month, I started getting sober. (It had nothing to do with an awareness campaign. Just timing.) A year ago I wrote about sobriety publicly for the first time. So I have spent a lot of time learning about this space, and this year I want to share five things I believe about recovery right now, September 2017.
I write this as someone who has lived one part of this story; a person who spent the better part of a decade covering health issues, and one who, because of the these two things, accidentally started writing about sobriety, recovery, and addiction.
These are five themes that rise to the surface for me this month. Points within may change next month, next week, or tomorrow. But these do seem to be overarching themes that I'm coming back to again and again:
1. We’re in the midst of an epidemic. We are dying in record numbers every day.
21.7 million Americans currently struggle with some sort of substance abuse disorder. You have probably, surely by now heard of the opioid crisis, and the fact that deaths from drug overdoses is now the leading cause of death in Americans under 50.
And though opiods like heroin, fentynyl and myriad pain pills are receiving more attention, an estimated 88,000 people each die year from alcohol-related causes. High risk drinking is up, and alcohol use disorder is up by 50 percent. As a population, some of the greatest increases are among women. According to research reported in JAMA, alcohol use disorder is up among women by 84 percent (Story here).
We are dying in record numbers: moms, dads, black, white, this epidemic slashes through socio-economic, geographic and cultural divides. It is not a “them” problem: it is an us problem.
2. The causes are complex.
This is not a simple story. It’s a story about neurobiology, genetics, big pharma, big marketing, cultural messaging, and a world in chaos. It’s about what we were born with, what we were taught, coping mechanisms, a world that continues to foster shame and stigma. It’s about people desperately seeking a way out: of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. And seeking a way in: for connection, for feeling “alive,” for belonging and freedom. It’s about complex socioeconomic and cultural factors. It is not an easy story to understand, unpack, or tell.
As with other complex issues, there are many good sources of information and many not so good sources. As one digs into the literature, blogs, and media, one must do it with discernment. A few questions to ask when evaluating stories around use and addiction: what is the author or creator’s viewpoint? What foundation is he or she grounded in? What research has been done to back up the information?
3. We do recover. There is hope.
1 in 10 Americans are in recovery -- more than 20 million Americans. There are many, many pathways to recovery. However, not everyone gets the help he or she needs, and recovery, as complex as it is, doesn't have a one-sized fits all solution.
Recovery today is both similar and different than in the past. Similar: the need for care, community, support, and work by the individual and his or her support network. Different: the way we connect with others (e.g., the rise of digital social networks), less stigma (in some cases), and more multi-modality systems of treatment. However, access to care continues to a complex barrier.
Judgement about why a person chooses one avenue of recovery over another is not helpful. Supporting, resourcing and loving people is.
4. We are waking up.
All over the place. People are engaging in discussions about what it is in the first place that draws us to tuning out. What is it that’s led us to a culture where it’s “the norm” to pair yoga with wine, children’s birthday parties with beer, signature cocktails with ... everything. People are noticing how drugs (yes, including the kind you can get in bottles at the grocery store) make them feel, look, and act lesser than their true nature. Some are starting to opt out long before use becomes “a problem.” Some younger people are opting out and choosing sobriety before they even start drinking or using. Sobriety is even becoming something to aspire too (see: the rise in sober social events, and allusions to sobriety in celebrity culture).
Again, the digital age has aided in this, with information sharing happening faster than ever before, with safe spaces for a person to explore what it means to life an alcohol/drug-free life. Today there are tons of blogs, podcasts, Instafeeds that celebrate sobriety. And the fact that this life is big, full, and actually better than when we were using.
5. How we (you, me, media and social media) talk about alcohol and other drugs matters
This is a big one, one that unfolds and evolves each day. One thing is for sure: the language we used to describe alcohol and drug use matters. Earlier this year the Associated Press stylebook issued new guidelines for journalists, like not using “addict” as a noun. “When the media start treating people with addiction with the same respect that they use for other patients— and when we cover addiction care with the same skepticism about possible quackery used in other health reporting— perhaps the rest of America will start to accept that addiction is a medical problem and that moralizing and punishment have failed.”
There is no consensus about the language around use and addiction. It’s a subject widely discussed in the recovery community, particularly the age old question of to identify or not to identify as an addict or alcoholic, and in what spaces (e.g., in anonymous 12-step rooms vs. to the world at large). Furthermore, some people who have given up alcohol or drugs don't self-identify as alcoholics, alcoholics, or being in recovery.
The most important thing is that we think about this language, and that people in recovery have a seat at the table in the creation of media accounts surrounding drug and alcohol use and/or addiction. It's a complex, present, and every day discussion. Ask them to be a part of it. Ask us. Because this is an "us" issue, not a them.