If you’re considering giving up drinking, you’ve probably been deterred by all you would be, well, giving up. Holly Whitaker, author of “Quit Like a Woman,” and addiction psychiatrist Kristen Schmidt, M.D., flip the script on this discouraging outlook as they talk about everything you stand to gain.
We talked with:
- Holly Whitaker is a writer, researcher, teacher, student and the author of the wildly popular, New York Times Bestseller, “Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol.”
- Kristen Schmidt, M.D., is a board-certified addiction psychiatrist at Park Nicollet.
We talked about:
In this episode, Dr. Millstine and her guests talk about:
- Reframing sobriety. It’s hard to face quitting drinking when you focus on everything you’ll lose: The taste, the social acceptance, the ability to relax in social situations. We’ll talk instead about the many benefits to your physical, social and emotional health.
- Reframing alcohol. Sipping a cocktail or choosing a bottle of wine for the table are actions laden with meaning. Alcohol can frame you as fun, sexy, successful or social. Holly Whitaker helps take some of the power away from what she calls “just a liquid.”
- Reframing community. Finding a community to support your recovery and sobriety can be difficult — and in some cases, impossible. But community can take many different forms, and we’ve got some ideas on what those could be.
Can’t get enough?
- Purchase Holly’s book “Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol.”
- Want to read more on the topic? Check out our blog:
- If you’ve got ideas or book suggestions, email us at email@example.com.
- We invite you to complete the following survey as part of a research study at Mayo Clinic. Your responses are anonymous. Your participation in this survey as well as its completion are voluntary.
Read the transcript:
Dr. Denise Millstine: Welcome to the “Read. Talk. Grow.” podcast, where we explore women’s health topics through books. In the same way that books can transport us to a different time, place or culture, “Read. Talk. Grow.” demonstrates how books can also give a new appreciation for health experiences and provide a platform from which women’s health can be discussed. At “Read. Talk. Grow.”, we use books to learn about health conditions in the hopes that we can all lead happier, healthier lives.
I’m your host, Dr. Denise Millstine. I’m an assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, where I practice women’s health, internal medicine and integrative medicine. I am always reading and I love discussing books with my patients, my professional colleagues, and now with you.
I’m so excited to introduce my two guests. The first is Holly Whitaker, who’s a writer, researcher, teacher, student, and the author of the wildly popular New York Times bestseller “Quit Like a Woman.” She’s the founder of Tempest Inc., an alcohol addiction recovery and support space. She’s been working in media beyond her book, including “Blogging in Different Spaces,” and also her most recent podcast called “Quitted.”
From her website, Holly is a person in long term recovery who thinks that the key to everything we’re looking for individually and societally comes from the work we do on ourselves. Everything starts when we stop running, and because of that everyone deserves the opportunity to engage in recovery. Holly, I’m so excited to have you on the show.
Holly Whitaker: Thank you. I’m really excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Denise Millstine: My second guest is Dr. Kristen Schmidt. Dr. Schmidt is a board-certified addiction psychiatrist at Park Nicolet. She has experience assisting patients in their recovery in residential and intensive outpatient settings as lead psychiatrist at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. She received advanced training in substance use disorder at UCLA, where she completed a research and clinical addiction psychiatry fellowship. She received a grant to research the unique relationship between substance use disorders and female hormones during her general psychiatry residency at Mayo Clinic.
She used her expertise to contribute a chapter in “The Assessment and Treatment Of Addiction: Best Practices and New Frontiers,” as well as “The American Psychiatric Association Textbook of Substance Use Disorders,” published in 2021. Dr. Schmidt, welcome to the show.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: Thank you.
Dr. Denise Millstine: So let’s start with the book. I need to tell you a story. I was in my room, this very room, with a patient recently, and she was not feeling herself. She was tired. She was frustrated about weight gain. We’re going through the process and I stopped and I said, “Really? How much are you drinking?”
She opened up to me and I said, “I want you to read ‘Quit Like a Woman’ because you have been struggling with this question of ‘Am I an alcoholic?’ And it’s the wrong question to ask. We can see that alcohol is affecting you and it’s affecting your health and we need to find strategies to figure out why you’re drinking and how to support you to really look at that and try to change it.”
You’ve joined my prescription pad, Holly. I’m now going to keep copies of your book here in my room so I can hand it out. Tell us about how you came to write this book.
Holly Whitaker: I started drinking in my teens, and I think, like the messaging that most of us get, we’re supposed to be able to drink, and there’s something wrong with you if you can’t make alcohol work. I had a lot of childhood trauma and I never really had a healthy relationship with alcohol, but I also never had what would qualify as addiction.
I drank excessively and that kind of ebbed and flowed throughout my teens and into college and then through my early professional life. Then around 2009, as I was working at a startup in healthcare, my drinking just went off the rails. I had a break up. I was working a ridiculous number of hours. I was in a startup culture. I was living in San Francisco and I was surrounded by so much drinking and so much messaging that drinking was normal. It’s really interesting, within a health care organization, how much the messaging was work hard, play hard, and I followed that script. Secretly I had an eating disorder that I really never dealt with. It developed going back to when I was 11.
I had collected all of these maladaptive behaviors in order to deal with things that never healed. Then around this time between 2009 and 2012, I just shot off. I was bingeing and purging. I was drinking excessively. I was using pot excessively and smoking and working a lot. I spent a really long time terrified. There was something wrong. There was something so clearly wrong, and you can see this objectively, but also being in that, when you’re looking at the markers of what we imagine alcohol addiction looks like, you’re like, maybe it’s not that bad. You kind of waffle, and that really was my existence. We created this framework at Tempest, that helps us identify where people are in the stages of recovery, and I was in what we call the ether, where you’re just not aware. It feels wild from this vantage point to realize that. For me, I spent a long time absolutely not wanting to have alcohol addiction because of what I believed it would mean for my life, my quality of life, my social life, my friendships, how I fit into society.
All of the things that you look at, you think you’ll lose; that I’d have to be going to meetings forever, that I would probably end up dying from it… There was a turning point when I just got exhausted in mid 2012, and late 2012 there was this breaking point and I could no longer deny it.
I was too tired from everything I was doing to myself, and kind of by the grace of God I ended up finding a book that was called — and this is why books are so important, and I love this podcast, because I had all this access to health care and to whatever I needed, and still it was a book. That was the thing that absolutely changed my mind.
I found this book by Allen Carr called “The Easy Way to Control Alcohol.” It’s so interesting because it’s the only book I could have imagined reading because it was about keeping alcohol in my life. Because again, we have this societal value, this currency on alcohol. We think it’s so important and we have to make it work, which I think is changing now, but I read that book and that book essentially said the only way to control alcohol really is to not use it. It also really flipped the script for me. It said things like: “It’s not about not being able to drink, but not having to drink,” and that was like a breath of fresh air that I didn’t have to do this to myself.
That really was the start of it. I wrote the book essentially not just because of that, because for me, really personally, what I felt was missing within the space of recovery was this desirability. When I started to get sober, there was no desirability that was included. It was aspirational. It also didn’t necessarily meet people where they were at.
I really wanted to help people move around the idea that they had to call themselves alcoholics. But there’s a thousand other reasons that we can get into, but it was essentially because I felt the health care system absolutely failed when it came to meeting addiction. It was because I felt, especially for women, we have these models of care and frameworks of recovery that were created in the thirties that still persist, that largely ignore not just women, but individuals at intersections of other marginalized identities.
There’s just so much because we’re still lacking in this idea of holistic, integrative recovery. People are still referred to 12 step meetings, which are great for some people, but that doesn’t count for holistic care. So there’s a lot.
Dr. Denise Millstine: I’m so thrilled that you talked about the importance of books, because one of the things that I think is so important is that books are private and they are accessible to anybody who has access to a library. You literally can get them for free. A lot of women’s health care topics are very intimate, very personal, and that you can step into that space without necessarily selecting first who you’re going to talk to about it, or which direction you’re going to go so that you can start to explore the topic.
Thank you for mentioning Allen Carr’s book and of course for writing your own book. Kristen, you have such an interesting area of expertise in psychiatry. I wish we could clone you and have thousands of you. The system needs thousands of you, but tell us how you chose to go into addiction psychiatry.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: I come from a long line of females who are in recovery and I myself am also in recovery. I actually remember one night I was driving and I saw a woman who was on the street in Minnesota in the winter, which is probably like 20 below, and she was all by herself. She fell over.
She was a very young woman, probably five years younger than me at the time, and I remember just identifying with her so strongly and being concerned about her safety. By that point I was already into my recovery. I stopped and brought her into my car, and at first, I could tell she was pretty embarrassed.
She said: “Oh, I just tripped,” but I knew she was intoxicated. I could smell it and I could also hear what was in her purse, and I just said, “No judgment here. Where do you need to go? Let’s get you where you need to go safely.” At that point I really felt this was my purpose. What I really responded to in Holly’s work was this question of purpose.
This really is the fundamental question when we’re dealing with any kind of destructive behavior. It’s so important that people find what their purpose is. People are so dissociated from that that there’s all these forms of escapism. Holly spoke to this idea of binge drinking, whether it’s the most common form of problematic drinking that we have. Most people are not severe alcohol use disorder folks.
Most people are drinking in a problematic way that puts them in situations of harm, basically abstracts them from their potential and their purpose. I think the binge drinking culture really is a reflection of our ambivalence. Holly points out that alcohol is a poison. That’s a fact. It’s this sort of open secret in our culture that, yes, it’s a poison like tobacco, but we’re really comfortable with using this poison, and to go against what the majority of society is saying in terms of “Get comfortable learning to drink, use this in social situations.” That is such a challenge and it takes such a strong sense to go against all of society.
I have many patients whose problem is binge drinking. It’s interfering with their potential, and they vacillate between “Do I stop or do I continue because has this problem gotten too bad for me to leave my friends behind?”
I’m just so grateful that Holly’s written this book because I, like you, now have something to especially give my female patients who are struggling with this question of “Do I have a problem? Do I not?” They have a way to reconcile it on their own before they maybe move to the next step.
Dr. Denise Millstine: We often consider some of the more classic health impacts of alcohol use. You mentioned this woman who was in a dangerous situation, whether that be exposed to the cold or just unsafe for the people who are around her. Of course people think about cirrhosis and liver disease related to alcohol, of course, as well, the liver is very redundant.So that’s a really late change of heavy drinking.
Holly, you mentioned that just one drink affects your health. Give us this laundry list of ways that it impacts your health, which includes sleep and your mental health, your memory, your ability to concentrate, your ability to metabolize the other things that you put in your body. Can you both talk about these possibly less-recognized impacts of alcohol unhealth?
Holly Whitaker: One of the things that I think is so ridiculous about it is that it’s a depressant and it also fuels anxiety. I think those are the two things because we look at it as something that relieves both of those things, that relieves boredom or brings joy or something that also you wind down with, but because of how alcohol works as a depressant, but also because of the way the body responds to it, it also then fuels you with all of the things that produce anxiety.
When you look across women and the demographic, the two of you will notice a lot better than I do, but women have the lion’s share of depression and anxiety. When we’re told and we’re sold the substance that actually exacerbates those things… It’s wild. For years I have watched a lot of like influencers or individuals that have written books on mental health issues. They’ll integrate alcohol into their feeds. It’s still so disconnected from those things, along with all the things you mentioned just from how it makes us appear, to premature aging, to the way it disrupts our hormones to any number of things.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: I agree. The anxiety, the depression, the sleep is really disrupted. They do this thing called dry January where, I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, people basically try and take the month to reset as an attempt to figure out what alcohol is actually doing in their lives, and we know that even within two weeks when we have people at a treatment center, their liver enzymes improve dramatically, within just two weeks, people are sleeping better.
They’re not requiring sleep medications. Their mood, specifically females tend to use to address negative affect. Negative affect, stress improves, the sort of reactivity to life stressors, to interpersonal stressors. All of that improves, and just the inability to engage. You have a lot of social anxiety as well when people are in this habit of drinking and then recovering in the morning, and not wanting to talk to friends or avoid coworkers, all of that kind of social anxiety improves when people put the substance away.
Dr. Denise Millstine: One big one that we didn’t list yet is cancer. Alcohol’s a known carcinogen. We recently interviewed Clare Pooley, who wrote “The Sober Diaries,” which is another incredible book about the journey of deciding to stop drinking. In her year that she stopped drinking, she developed breast cancer, and we know that alcohol is associated with breast cancer among others, but that’s obviously an important cancer for women. We’ve mentioned a bit about the culture of alcohol being normal, but there’s also a specific culture directed at women. I was in a bookstore yesterday and the tea towels, and the T-shirts, and the decorated wine glasses… Let’s talk a little bit about that and its impact.
Holly Whitaker: When I was researching the book, probably in 2018, one of my friends sent me this article about cigarettes and encouraged me to look at the trajectory of cigarettes and how they became ubiquitous, and then also they became universally despised within our society. It was fascinating because one of the articles he sent me was this piece about how PR agencies in the early 1900s when women were not smoking as much as men were, cigarette companies essentially co-opted feminism and the women’s lib movement in order to sell cigarettes. So they did this by basically finding feminists, giving them a cigarette, taking pictures of them and putting them in the newspapers. One of the biggest taboos at that time, purity culture, women, if they were smoking they were doing it out of the public sight.What they did was they used conspicuous consumption and showed photos of these very sexy, young feminists smoking cigarettes. The idea that a cigarette was this symbol that you were the new woman, essentially promoted other women to smoke, and they did this. They smoked and they used cigarettes as a symbol of feminist rebellion, and you still know that. We still know that imagery. We also know that PR agencies back in the 1900s used cigarettes on film in order to convey what words could not. So cigarettes were used to show relaxation or nervousness or sinister-ness depending on how they smoke them.
The alcohol industries co-opted the same idea. We know alcohol is a symbol, especially from like the sixties and seventies, that drinking a whiskey neat says a specific thing about you. The same type of imagery and conspicuous consumption and what it said about you was tied in and wrapped in with alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol is the sign of being sexy depending on what alcohol you drink.
It’s across all films, it’s across all media. The messaging that we get — and Jean Kilbourne did an incredible job highlighting this and multiple books that she wrote — the idea is that over time we have been given all of these symbols and these images through marketing, through films or media, and now through social media where we’re showing each other how we use alcohol.
What’s erupted is this normalization that drinking solves everything and that we’re doing it all the time. I do think that there’s more awareness now a little bit, but at the height of this, when I was researching my book, there was social media posts of a woman with a barbell and she’s lifting weights and she’s like drinking alcohol that’s attached to the barbell, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, toxic amounts of alcohol. It’s normalized. We’re drinking at book clubs, we’re drinking at weddings, we’re drinking on vacation, drinking is our reward, it fixes everything.
It’s what stressed-out-to-their-end-of-the-rope moms use. It’s something that my sister, who is not a heavy drinker and when her kid turned three and she started going to all of these different functions, she was like, “Oh my God, the pressure to drink during the day or all the time with these moms is so real.” It kind of started small, but really, I think the alcohol industry has ingeniously co-opted all the work that the tobacco industry did for them and created this symbolism around alcohol, but then also with social media and the way that all of us are kind of piling on in this concept of how we use alcohol and how important it is, really sends this message that women need to drink alcohol basically all the time, and a lot of it.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: I would say that that’s 100% true and that we’re socialized especially as young females until you become pregnant. I remember in medical school, I did some research on pregnancy and alcohol use, then I extended that when I was in my residency looking at rats. But what I did was I set up all these images.
I remember I was presenting, as a young med student, this presentation, and I had all these sexy images of these women with alcohol. All of my professors were watching, and I continued to roll through these images, then all of a sudden I had an image of a pregnant belly and a woman with a drink. You could almost hear an audible gasp because suddenly we can drink, we can drink, then the body becomes sacred as the mother when the baby’s inside.
Then suddenly there’s a hard brake pedal. Then a woman, if she drinks, she is shamed. But then once the baby’s out, get back to it. This is where some of the research was exciting for me because I found all these old studies of women who had struggled with alcohol use disorders. They became pregnant and suddenly they were able to stop drinking. It wasn’t just the social messaging, because you and I know if someone really struggles with an alcohol problem, I’d have male gynecologists telling me when I was starting this research project, well, it’s because women get nauseous during pregnancy, so that’s why they stop.
I know plenty of people have alcohol use disorder who will throw up and then go right back to the bar to continue drinking, because that’s part of the problem. It turns out that there is a hormonal component specifically for females during pregnancy, beyond pregnancy, that could play a role in why females are able to stop drinking.
I did a study with rats where basically we got them drinking alcohol dependent. Then as soon as these rats became pregnant, those same rats stopped drinking and I got to see it. Then we measured some of their hormone levels. We looked at something called orexin, which is responsible for alertness, arousal and some other things, and we found that the orexin was decreased in these rats once they became pregnant and it correlated with their alcohol use titration. We also know that there’s tons of studies looking at progesterone and allopregnanolone, which is basically a metabolite of progesterone in women with cocaine use disorder, methamphetamine use disorder, nicotine use disorder and what they found is if you give not only women but males 400 milligrams of progesterone, they will have reduced urges to smoke or use these stimulants.
Their cognition improves, their negative affect improves. There really is a hormonal piece to all of this that could at least be helpful as another tool in terms of getting women and even men help in terms of quitting some of their substance use disorders.
Holly Whitaker: That is so brilliant and exciting.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: It is. Yeah.
Holly Whitaker: It’s like a natural Antabuse or something.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: Exactly. Our body knows what to do. Estrogen really fuels the alcohol and then there’s plenty of studies with that that helps with rewarding alcohol and then progesterone really is an allopregnanolone. They’re kind of the yin and the yang. It’s an exciting new area.
Holly Whitaker: It’s so interesting. A lot of women that I’ve worked with that are coming into recovery or at the stage where perimenopause onsets and they have to kind of pull apart, “Is this perimenopause or is this recovery?” Then also, I wonder in recovery, as people are trying to quit drinking, if any of the research will shine a light on how your cycle affects your cravings, obviously there’s no research done in this area. There’s so little when it comes to how drinking affects them. We know from the vaccine that there was so little research done on what it did to cycles and I wonder what this will yield. That’s so exciting.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: It is a very exciting area of research that’s floating, and they’re really trying to give a lot more money to female researchers who are doing this work. Because the reason why many women were excluded from studies in general, for instance, aspirin, the 81 milligram aspirin a day, no females were involved in that study. None.
The reason why is because we cycle. They couldn’t control for that variable so they just excluded women altogether. But things are changing. But we definitely need much more work in that direction.
Dr. Denise Millstine: I just want to comment on the pregnancy association, but then — and I’m quite a bit older than the two of you, but like you mentioned, Holly, with the perimenopause and menopause, women do become much more sensitive to alcohol. Because menopause and perimenopause don’t have a defining moment, there’s no positive pregnancy test. It’s just that your hormones start to become less predictable, but that many women in their late forties and into their fifties find all the health effects that we have mentioned about alcohol, even if it’s a low level of drinking alcohol, have huge effects on their mood, their sleep, all of the other things that we mentioned.
Holly Whitaker: I just wanted to take a moment to step back to what you were talking about, Kristen, which was that all these pictures that we love of like the maidens drinking alcohol and then the second they become mothers, it’s so taboo. I just want to put a pin in that because I think it’s so absolutely important.
There is no one that’s made more of a monster than a woman who is pregnant, who drinks or does something to her baby because she’s absolutely not valued in our society. Any woman who has been pregnant is pregnant, is struggling with alcohol use disorder, I just want to make clear you are not a monster and you deserve all the compassion, all the empathy, all the support that anybody else would deserve that is dealing with what you’re dealing with.
A prime minister in Europe who was seen partying and it reminded me of the study that was done a few years ago that showed when men have alcohol in their hand what’s assumed of them, and when a woman has a drink in her hand, what’s assumed in her.
I was just reading the study of a woman holding a beer makes her seem more sexually available, discredits her trustworthiness. It’s just wild, these things. I think they’re really important to call out because they absolutely do affect why we use substances in the first place and how we recover.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: I just want to make clear, too, that there are lots of women who, when they’re pregnant, they still struggle with this substance use disorder. So the thought is, is there a hormonal component. The best thing we can do is add some hormonal, whether it’s progesterone or it’s metabolite, to be able to add that to a woman’s milieu as she’s carrying the baby to help her in terms of the substance use disorder and craving, that may be the best thing we can do for both her and her baby, because her body already makes it naturally. There wouldn’t be the kinds of consequences that can come with other medications or any concern for fetal harm.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Can we talk specifically about wine? Holly, you do such a good job talking about how you became a wine expert when you were a young professional and also how you go to a gathering when you’ve stopped drinking and it’s really shoved in your face. Can we just talk specifically about wine? Because I feel that’s a very big women’s issue.
Holly Whitaker: In my book, I talk about how I went to school in San Luis Obispo, in Santa Cruz, which are both huge wine regions. My early career was in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which again, a huge, huge influence of wine country there. It’s hard to talk about this because I lived in such a specific area and I had such a personal attachment to the status that was attached.
I started going to wine bars, and they were a new thing in California, and I started going to them and learning about all these different wines. But I talked about it in my book specifically that I dominated wine. It was like having a wine collection or being able to tell the difference between wines or knowing how to order a bottle for my table.
All of these things were things I trained in. It’s really funny because when I stopped drinking, because of how I stopped drinking, a lot of my process involved a full spectrum recovery, meaning I had social, spiritual, psychological, physiological supports, but specifically around this like flip in it. It was so interesting because alcohol is so important to me and the people that I hung out with. It became ridiculous to me because it’s a liquid in a bottle. I’m not anti-drug. I don’t want to discount the fact that ceremonial alcohol is a drug. Drugs have been around forever. There have been ceremonial uses and cultural uses of alcohol for thousands and thousands of years, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about late-stage capitalism, excess consumption.
No one’s using it ceremonially in the United States. It’s just a liquid in a bottle and all the import we give to it and it was so interesting because I had one of my really close friends at the time, his family lived in Oregon, his parents wanted me to marry him, they promised me my own wine cellar if we were to get together.
He had a wine cellar in his home and a wine fridge. He lived in San Francisco, so he had smaller apartments and he had so much alcohol that he had offsite storage for it. I remember being so impressed by that. It was just ridiculous. Like the flip in the value of it was just, Oh my God, like how much money and time and effort and it’s just spoiled grape juice.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Clare Pooley talks in her book about how she was buying the nicer bottle of wine, and that’s how she justified that she didn’t have a problem because she wasn’t buying that bottom shelf.
Switching gears a bit, I think the importance of community and learning how to build that community when a lot of your social interaction or even what’s numbed you is alcohol. You both talk about how important that is and strategies that women who are looking at this might employ to intentionally build a healthy community around them.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: I would say in terms of the community piece that it is especially helpful for women. We do know that females tend to be relational in terms of their use. A lot of times what gets them sick is relationships. Whether that’s a relationship with an intimate partner, whether it’s a negative relationship in terms of their workplace, we do know that if a female has a partner who’s been using specifically, there was a study done in terms of like injecting heroin, and what they found was that while 51% of males learned to inject by a friend, 90% of females are injected by their male partner.
That sort of relational pattern of use keeps females using longer. If you can kind of flip that and have a sense of positive community, that really helps women get sober. I know Shelly Greenfield has done a lot of work on this. She’s out at Harvard and she developed a whole program, women’s recovery manual, looking at female concerns, child care concerns, really gearing community groups to address female problems. The outcomes from those have been much more positive for females. Much of that has to do with the approach. It’s a very supportive approach, non-confrontational, and they really work on using affiliate statements so that females feel really good.
I know in Holly’s book she really speaks to the voicelessness and how difficult it can be for some women in the 12 step community to feel a voice, because it was predicated upon older white males addressing their problem. Not to say that women can’t get sober with the 12 step recovery, because I’ve seen that, but some women certainly don’t feel that that’s an appropriate place for them to get what they need. Really finding a community of women for women is very important.
Holly Whitaker: I’d add to that too. Whenever anybody asks that question I think about how hard it was for me to find community, that I really felt like I belonged. I kind of want to take the opposite approach to also say I’ve seen a lot of shame develop within individuals that don’t find their place. It’s hard to find community. It just is. Doesn’t matter how many different programs we create or how many spaces there are.
A lot of times people that are struggling with addiction are naturally introverts or they’re naturally socially anxious and they use alcohol in order to break down barriers between them and other individuals. Bruce Alexander coined or framed this dislocation model of addiction. Bruce Alexander is famous for doing the Rat Park experiments, but he also wrote this book called “The Globalization of Addiction.”
One of the theses of his book is that fully integrated individuals were, first of all, completely accepted for who they were as individuals and fit into a society because of who they were, no matter what they were, meaning they were fully individuated, but also fully accepted based on their own unique expression, and I think that that a lot, because I’m rich in community. I have many, many, many tight relationships, and that has been a foundation of my recovery.
I didn’t go that traditional route of walking into a room, of getting hugs from 100 people. I’ve seen that and I know the power of that, and I didn’t have that. I couldn’t access that because the rooms I was walking into made me feel completely messed up and scared and worked against my recovery.
It’s really important to also state that community building and belonging should also be community building and belonging within the self. We’re always looking for externals. For me, a lot of my work came down to finding community within myself, being with myself as enough.
I couldn’t be alone. I didn’t know how to be alone and to be sober. I had to do a lot of friendship building with myself, learning to be alone in the sense where I wasn’t alone. Those two processes, as well as putting myself out there and trying different forms of community that weren’t necessarily sobriety based. I did yoga teacher trainings, I went to meditation classes.
Those were really the two primary ways for me. Finding community at first was through places I was already going to. But a lot of it was also a lot of internal work. Those two things, as I got more comfortable with myself, as I expressed this different version of myself that allowed me to develop bonds in community with people that were needing me at that different version of myself that I couldn’t have connected with necessarily when I was drinking.
I always think of the woman who writes me and says: “I’m all alone. I have no community, I’ve tried. There’s something wrong with me.” I find that to be the predominant more than, “I have this great community that’s helping me develop relationships,” and I think to her, I say that’s okay, too. There’s stuff that you can do. It’s not a deficiency that you’re not able to find community because our world is fractured and communities are really hard to find.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: I really like that. Also you can find community even within your own family, people who have children. When you’re using substances, you’re totally disconnected. You’re not present. A lot of my patients feel so good coming home in terms of, gosh, they’re able to really recognize and establish those bonds again with their children or with their close friends, with their partner.
Some of that really is the community that had been lacking as well. It’s important to recognize that piece. You don’t need to go out and make 100 new friends. Sometimes you just really have to devote time to nurturing exactly what you have.
Holly Whitaker: I love that because that was really important to me too, which was reestablishing connection that was so severed because of my addiction. It reminds me of all the different qualities of relationships that I built because it was the reestablishment within the relationships that existed, and also the relationships with individuals that knew what I had been through because my family couldn’t meet the need of being able to understand anything about what I been through. That reestablishment of relationships that existed in connection to the present moment and being able to show up. You’re right. It’s a lot.
Dr. Denise Millstine: You make a really good point about connecting to the self and the difference between solitude and loneliness or isolation, that it’s okay to be by yourself as long as you’re not feeling that struggle and that pull. Another form of community I’ll throw out is having a pet. The hormonal changes of having a cat or a dog, or just connecting with another being. It doesn’t have to be hundreds of people and it doesn’t have to look like this picture perfect social life we are also being fed on social media.
Holly Whitaker: My therapist was my original community. That was my first sense of belonging and recovery and being seen with that person I paid.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Having a place where you can be your authentic self. Even if it’s in a context of a relationship like that. Absolutely.
Dr. Kristen Schmidt: Holly, you also took all of that energy and passion and you read such amazing books. I’ve got a whole book list now after reading your book of things that I want to read. I remember having a friend in college who told me that James Joyce is your friend Kristen, Virginia Woolf is your friend, and those books and those authors, I mean, they really can change your life. You can’t discount that.
One of my wonderful patients told me, “Look, I’m not doing AA, I’m talking to some of the women from treatment. I’m not getting a sponsor, but what I’m doing is I’m going to school and I’ve been sober a year,” and I say God bless it. However you get there that’s a way to connect. That’s a way to connect to yourself too, through the medium of an author’s voice and your own intellect.
Holly Whitaker: My friend Courtney Maum is a novelist and memoirist, and she writes a newsletter about writing, and she was just saying the other day that a really good memoir or a good book is a conversation between the author and the reader. When I was getting sober I found Gabby Bernstein’s work. She’s like a new age person.I read this line and she had clearly had eating stuff and clearly had drug use stuff, and she was saying that she was addicted to gossip and Subway sandwiches, and I thought I was the only one who had a thing with Subway. It was just this recognition and this coming home.
When I met her, it was such a big deal to me. I realize now when people meet me, I remember that because when I met her I had had this intimate, deep relationship and it was very one-sided. You bring up this other point, which is that part of my recovery was throwing myself into a different — my energy went into building what I built and at the end writing what I wrote and researching what I researched.
Dr. Denise Millstine: That’s a great point for us to end on. Many times we think about when people stop drinking, what they’re losing and really pivoting to look at what you gain when you get back all of that time and energy and better quality sleep and how it can crack open your life into avenues that perhaps you hadn’t allowed yourself to dream about prior to that point.
This has been an amazing conversation among amazing women to talk about a topic that can be really difficult to face. I just want to express such gratitude for the book love that we shared today, but really for the authentic conversation on a difficult topic and for the work that both of you do for this world. Thank you.
Holly Whitaker: Thank you. Dr. Millstine and Dr. Schmidt. It’s really been a pleasure being here with all of you.
Dr. Denise Millstine: Thank you for joining us to talk books and health today on “Read. Talk. Grow.” To continue the conversation and send comments, visit the show notes or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Read. Talk. Grow.” is a production of Mayo Clinic Press. Our producer is Lisa Speckhard Pasque and our recording engineer is Rick Andresen.
The podcast is for informational purposes only and is not designed to replace the physician’s medical assessment and judgment.Information presented is not intended as medical advice. Please contact a health care professional for medical assistance with specific questions pertaining to your own health if needed. Keep reading everyone.