As a Recovery Coach, my lived experience is my primary resource and strength.
Even after twenty-two years of sobriety, I am still struck by the fact that my most painful experiences have become my greatest gifts–a spiritual alchemy of sorts. Although I made a vow to myself that I would never become an alcoholic like my father, my own struggle with alcohol, and an eating disorder, resulted in my crawling my way to recovery as a thirty-six year-old single mother. That journey would ultimately lead to my becoming a recovery coach. I never anticipated becoming a recovery coach. In fact, I had never even heard of term. Now, more than ever, individuals and families are struggling with substance use disorder and mental health. Folks are desperately wanting to know where to find and get help. There are literally millions of people who could benefit from working with a recovery coach. My clients have said it’s a game changer.
A lot of people drink and abuse drugs or misuse prescription medication when they are alone and keep their consumption a secret. That behavior can be very isolating. It is extremely hard to break that isolation, and to connect with others who have been in the same boat. My first attempt at not drinking was in 1998 when I confided in a friend that I might have a problem. She quit drinking every year for Lent, and I thought maybe she could show me how to do the same. I thought “taking a break” might help me get a handle on things. Doing it with a buddy might do the trick and reassured me that I was going to be Ok. In retrospect, I was toying with a false sense of security. In my mind, if I could successfully quit, I must not have a real problem. It was tough, but every day we checked in with each other and held each other accountable. But here’s the truth: every day I didn’t drink wasn’t a relief. It was just one day closer to when I could start drinking again. Forty days later, mission accomplished. We celebrated by having a drink, and I slowly resumed my intoxicating friendship with white wine; it was my favorite ally. I had started taking antidepressants, and the combo of meds + booze made things worse. There is a reason why the warning label says, “Do Not Take With Alcohol.” Antidepressants enhance the effects of alcohol. I never took the meds as prescribed, and often swilled them back with a glass of Chardonnay.
Divorced, in emotional shambles from another recent break up, struggling at work, and distanced from my friends – my life was unmanageable. Some of my family members were extremely worried, but their concern and advice sounded like criticism and disappointment. Many nights, with a pack of Dunhill cigarettes and my bottle of wine out on the kitchen table, I would call my older brother hoping he could figure out my life for me. I admitted to him I was barely functioning. I was living in a charming little house, volunteered, sat on various non-profit boards and committees, attended book club, played in a tennis group, and had a beautiful little boy. Everything on the outside “looked good.” You would have never known there was a problem. Yet, just under the surface was the undertow of this disease – a strong current with a relentless pull downward. What wasn’t noticeable to most was that I drank at home alone almost every night. I “pre-gamed” before dinner parties and social events, I underate so I could get a better buzz, and was hungover at least three to four times a week. Having a glass of wine had become my companion, my friend, a habit and something to look forward to and depend on every day.
When did I pass through the looking glass? When did my social drinking evolve into problem drinking? It wasn’t when I started drinking vodka from a brown paper bag; that wasn’t the case. It was when unacceptable behavior became acceptable – that’s when I knew. When I began to do things that only problem drinkers or serious ass alcoholics might do. I drank to get over a hangover, and when that didn’t do the trick, I popped a Percocet. I drank on Sundays, I drank before 5pm. I finished other people’s drinks when they weren’t looking. I drove with a “roadie” in the car on my way to drop off and pick up my eight-year-old boy from evening hockey practice. I fell asleep in my clothes. I kept moving the goal posts and began to physically crave alcohol. But it was when the ability to take care of my son began to falter – that got my attention. In fact, that frightened me. With a raging headache, I would pack his lunch box, and put him on the bus in the morning, and then crawl back into bed calling into work sick. At night, I would read him a bedtime story with a glass of wine on the nightstand, and intentionally skip some pages so I could get on with my night. I was also wrestling with a volatile personal relationship, and by staying in that relationship I was exposing my son to things I would have never exposed him to; arguing, late nights, my being too hungover to be able to play with him outside, unexplained behavior. And it all came rushing back to me. I was beginning to do to him what had been done to me. I swore I would never, ever, let the disease of alcoholism in, and I was the one who opened the door. For many mothers, if they won’t get help for themselves, it’s their child who somehow gives them a purpose – a reason to live. Whether that was my mothering instinct or God’s Grace, it gave me a higher calling – a higher purpose which led to my sobriety.
I remember my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting like it was yesterday: October 18, 1999. I was beside myself and knew that the only way I could get to a meeting while I was at work would be to go during my lunch hour. I hated the neighborhood surrounding my office so, I rarely left during the day. RG/A advertising, the digital ad agency I worked for, was on the edge of humanity located at 39th and 10th in Manhattan. The word “neighborhood” is a misnomer; the building was behind a fourteen- foot wall for good reason. We weren’t just protecting Nike and Chrysler’s secrets. On the other side of that wall, the sidewalks were draped with homeless people, and heroin addicts discarded by life. Leaving the office to go do anything was like stepping out into a war zone. As I rounded the corner onto 10th Avenue, some city creature spit in my face. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I swore that my life would change. Sounds dramatic, but the visceral disgust which shuddered through my body crystallized into determination. I hated commuting into New York City. I hated my life. I hated being hungover and emotionally spent. And in that that moment, I vowed my life would change. With tears streaming down my face, I walked a few more blocks to find the dilapidated building entrance where the meeting was located. A few guys standing in the stairwell pointed upstairs. I ascended the creaky staircase and felt completely self-conscious as I entered the large room filled with a sea of people. Like tuning into an old radio station, I tried to listen and make sense of terms and slogans like “Newcomer” and “Sponsor,” “Ninety Meetings in Ninety Days” and “First Things First.” A petite woman named Charlene, Dionne Warwick’s look alike, walked up to the podium. She stood on an apple box to reach the microphone. She identified as an alcoholic, and a drug addict, and shared a brutal story; having sex with people in exchange for drugs was her regular routine. She described having the shakes so badly she had to drink her breakfast beer from a straw. I thought if she could find the strength to stop drinking then I could — I could at least for a little while. I could not drink for just a little while. I approached her after the meeting and asked if she would be my sponsor. She sized me up, looked my preppy facade up and down and said, “Sure, I’ll be your sponsor, but on one condition, I won’t co-sign your bullshit.” Short and to the point, she had me nailed and stated, “Call me every day, go to ninety meetings in ninety days.” Those were my marching orders and I followed them to a tee.
Being a single mom in recovery was tough. On many occasions I had to bring Jack with me to AA meetings. I was committed to doing the “90 and 90,” and that meant I was going to a meeting every day. My ex-husband didn’t live locally, my family was not nearby, and I couldn’t always get a babysitter. I conjured up an “age appropriate” explanation that would hopefully make sense to my darling little boy with the longest eyelashes on the face of the planet. I was his universe, his life interpreter, chosen by his sovereign spirit to make sense of the world for him. So, we called them my “feelings meetings.” I would pack up Jack’s Power Ranger backpack with goldfish, a juice box and his plastic action-figures, and have him sit in the hallway while I sat in a chair and listened. Everyone who I first got sober with knew my son. A man who had done time at Sing Sing prison was a friendly face and playmate along with a man who had been homeless living on the streets of Costa Rica. We all had something in common – we were trying to stay sober a day at a time, and I trusted this group of people with Jack like they were family. After a full day of looking for a job and dinner at home, I would sometimes go out to attend an evening meeting. To this day I remember Jack Hayden saying, “Mommy, why do you always have to go to those meetings – it gets in the way of us spending time together.” That slayed me. But I was told by the other women in the rooms that I would be a better mother – sober. I had to have faith that being sober, being present, being responsible was what my son needed the most.
As I stayed sober over the ensuing years, my career in advertising and marketing continued, but I found myself increasingly drawn to wanting to work with non-profits and organizations associated with recovery. I became a Board member of Liberation Programs, a behavioral health organization specializing in treatment for substance use disorder and was the Keynote speaker for their Annual Gala in 2010. I volunteered at Silver Hill Hospital, a world- renowned treatment center and psychiatric hospital. I produced branding videos for Shatterproof, the addiction awareness organization founded by Gary Mendell. But the meeting I had with Trey Laird, the CEO of The Lighthouse, back in December 2018, was my pivot point. I had reached out to him to talk about marketing ideas for the new women’s sober residence he was planning to open in New Canaan, CT. As a member of the local recovery community, I wanted to do more to help women specifically. Although Trey was planning to broaden female centric support services, and stated he would love my help in the future, he said, “Ya know Steph, you would make a great recovery coach.” A recovery what? I had never heard of the term and had no idea what he was talking about. He encouraged me to find out more about this recovery support role, and my curiosity was peeked. The seed was planted, and as a result my personal life and professional life are now fully aligned. I became a full-time recovery coach professional back in 2019 and haven’t looked back since.
Twenty-two years ago, getting from where I was to where I wanted to be seemed insurmountable. I would have benefited from working with a recovery coach. I would have benefited immensely. A coach would have been the bridge and shown me, step by step, how to get across what felt like the Grand Canyon of my life. But, recovery coaching wasn’t main-stream back then; it was never an option. Substance use disorder, born out of pain and suffering, has a vice grip on those who struggle and damages, even fractures, their families. Lives are often pillaged and changed forever. What I know though is that how we heal is what matters most. How we evolve and grow from pain and trauma is what matters most. Like a beacon of light, sharing my experience I hope will point others in the direction of wellness and recovery, and illuminate that there is a way forward with a recovery coach. A recovery what?
Yep, a Recovery Coach.