Interview with Laura McKowen
"...every time I drank after I knew I shouldn’t be, I was tortured by it; whatever luster was left was totally gone. I knew there was nothing left for me in it. By going to meetings I started to learn how to be honest. I watched other people do things sober, build lives, have relationships, and I absorbed that, piece by piece. But mostly I wrote. The writing saved my life. All I’d ever wanted to do was write—to be a writer—and here was this thing now that I could actually write about, that I needed to write about. It helped me connect with others and articulate things so that I could metabolize them."
Interview with Laura McKowen
Hi Laura, I am so excited that you have taken the time to talk! I am such a massive fan. You really inspire me, not only in terms of your recovery journey, but how you talk about life, so beautifully.
Laura's Rock Bottom
Liv: In your longer version of ‘about you’, you talk of your rock bottom; can you elaborate on what that looked like?
Laura: That’s actually something I’m saving for the book, but it involved my daughter, and I put her in a very dangerous situation while I was blacked out. It wasn’t the first time I’d put her in danger, but it was the most extreme and terrifying. It was at a family event, so my family was witness to it all, and so it forced me to face what was going on. I say that because I’m not sure if it would have been by ‘bottom’ otherwise. It might have always been emotionally, but it was because of this event that I went to my first AA meeting. I don’t know if I’d have done that otherwise—my back was against the wall.
Liv: You talk so openly of your journey into recovery, can describe how you approached recovery?
Laura: I approached it kicking and screaming. The last thing I ever wanted to do is quit drinking; I thought it was ‘game over.’ So my approach to recovery didn’t feel so much like an approach, but a slow, messy, fumbling tumble into an unknown world I didn’t want to be part of, until I did. I started to go to AA meetings after that incident with my daughter in July of 2013, because I had friends and family who had gone that route and it’s really all I knew. I had a dear friend who I’d gone to college with and at that time she was six years sober. I’d reach out to her when I was desperate, or had just experienced another horrible night, and she was really wonderful about planting the seeds for me, so that when the time came, I knew I could reach out to her.
For that first six months or so, I attended AA meetings but didn’t stop drinking. I could put a few days together here and there but it felt impossible. I started to pick things up in meetings, though, and because I’d read every single addiction memoir out there, I had some reference points for what I could expect on the other side of this – in sobriety. I re-read all those books and then read some more, I absorbed all the information I could, I started inching my way closer to people in AA and eventually met a few. All the while, I kept my world very compartmentalized between people who were heavily invested in me getting sober (my family, my ex-husband) and people who didn’t (work, some circles of friends). It was exhausting.
I started to write about it in earnest and put little bits out into the world on my blog. The writing was cathartic for me, although I found it impossible to be totally honest, because I had many different versions of the truth still out there. So I started a new Instagram account (at the time called ‘@clear_eyes_full_heart’) and I started to connect with the sober Instagram world, which was surprising and incredible. Because it was separate from my other social media circles, I started to really tell the truth about what was going on with me. I met amazing people, including Holly. I showed her a few pieces of my writing and she encouraged me to keep going. Slowly, I started to put more out there, I got a sponsor, I started to attend more meetings, and I was able to put together longer stretches of sobriety. I still found it impossibly hard to not drink; I really missed drinking, but my life started to improve when I stayed sober.
So I guess my approach was to throw anything at the wall and see what stuck. Part of it was relenting my intellectual battle and just doing what other, sober people told me to do.
Surrender, as they say. Part of it was that every time I drank after I knew I shouldn’t be, I was tortured by it; whatever luster was left was totally gone. I knew there was nothing left for me in it. By going to meetings I started to learn how to be honest. I watched other people do things sober, build lives, have relationships, and I absorbed that, piece by piece. But mostly I wrote. The writing saved my life. All I’d ever wanted to do was write—to be a writer—and here was this thing now that I could actually write about, that I needed to write about. It helped me connect with others and articulate things so that I could metabolize them.
I feel like my approach is and was half AA, half DIY. I run, do yoga, meditate (horribly), write, pray, read, go to therapy, talk to lots of other people in recovery. I built a new toolbox that doesn’t include alcohol over time.
Liv: I particularly enjoyed podcast number 27: Atheism in Recovery, where you talk with Holly and Catherine Grey about your experience of AA, and how, as a method of recovery, it didn't work for you. Can you share a little more of this experience?
Laura: AA has actually been a huge part of my path, and it has worked for me. I don’t know that I’d be sober today if not for AA. But, I don’t buy it wholesale, and I don’t think anyone needs to in order for it to “work.” I think it’s a beautiful model for living and I take what works for me and leave the rest.
Liv: What advice would you give to someone entering recovery?
Laura: Oh, god. I’m writing an entire book on this. I think my one biggest piece of advice would be to show up empty. Meaning, forget everything you know or through you knew about yourself, your life, other people, the world. Show up empty, as a student. Be willing to be willing.
And also: you probably don’t know it yet, but you’re lucky.
Liv: In your bio you talk of in sharing your blog, you were saving your life. Can you explain a little more about that?
Laura: Early on in this journey I read “The Great Work of Your Life” by Stephen Cope. In it, he quotes The Gospel of Thomas:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
All I’d ever wanted to do was be a writer. But for a million reasons, when I got to the age of 37, I thought that dream was for other people, and that it was over. The act of writing saved me because it connected me to the thing that my soul most wants to do (and not doing it, among other things, had been killing me). It was like finally, finally taking a full breath.
Writing was something I wanted to do more than drink, and there were very, very few things (if any) I wanted to do more than drink.
It also saved me because it connected me to other people by being honest about my own experience, so it opened up a new world, which was something I really needed. Basically writing gave me what I was looking for in drinking: connection, purpose, catharsis.
Liv: As you know, there are so many different theories of how we become people with substance use disorder, whether its genetics/nature/nurture, what is your experience?
Laura: I really don’t know. I believe we know so very little about it. Gabor Mate’s work really makes sense to me, as does Dr. Drew Pinksy’s. They both (in very simplistic terms) cite trauma and our resilience to coping with trauma as a key cause. Genetics probably plays a part, I think. Culture plays a HUGE part: I thought drinking was what people did, what adults did, because that’s what I learned. It’s what we see everywhere.
But honestly, I don’t know. I think we’re going to learn a lot more about addiction in the coming 20 years than we ever have before.
Liv: In podcast 14, you talked of ‘coming out sober’, how did you find people responded both professionally and personally?
Laura: Far and away, the response was positive. I’ve had a lot of people come to me and thank me, or tell me my words have helped them understand a loved one, or whatever. Professionally, nobody has really talked to me about it in person, and that’s fine. I think that’s just respect of professional/personal boundaries coupled with a fear people have of talking about it. I work in advertising and alcohol is very tied into the space.
When I came out about it, part of me was saying ‘fuck you’ to the whole experience of going through this. “Fuck you” to the society that we live in, that glamourizes drinking so much. “Fuck you” to the people who might talk about me behind my back. “Fuck you” to the hush-hush around addiction. “Fuck you” to what people think it looks like. “Fuck you” to my pain and this thing that almost killed me. I had a good amount of fight in my belly, and I needed to, because it was really scary. I’ve always, always cared what people thought about me—to a debilitating degree—so for me to do it was huge.
But back to the question, people’s response to me has been beautifully positive. I’ve no doubt there have been less understanding conversations behind my back, but that’s okay. I’m okay with that—that’s not about me.
Liv: How has sobriety affected your life?
Laura: How has it not? Ha! Everything is different. My relationships are infinitely better. Work is better. I’m doing a thing I love, finally. I can be there for my daughter. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.
Liv: As a teacher of yoga, how do you think this practice can aid recovery?
Laura: It’s a perfect complement to recovery. Yoga teaches you to be in your body, to be present, to breathe. A lot of recovery is just learning how to breathe through life, through edges, discomfort, urges, feelings.
The thing I say most to my students is, “stay with yourself,” and that’s kind of perfect for recovery too.
Liv: What advice would you give to other bloggers and writers about the sharing of their journey?
Laura: Hmmm. There’s no playbook on what to share and what not to share. It’s totally individual and circumstantial and each person has to decide what’s right. I share a lot, but there’s plenty I don’t get into, like my family, the details of my marriage, my current relationship.
As far as negative responses, they will happen because people are scared. But there’s a way to talk about your own experiences without disrespecting the privacy of others. If I’m unsure, I always ask. My husband (ex, now) for a long time asked that I not write anything about him or us. Over time, he eased up on that a bit, because he saw how much it was helping me, and so I very carefully and respectfully talk about our relationship now. Same goes for family.
Top Recovery Tools
Liv: Finally, what are your top 5 tools for recovery?
- Sweating – running, yoga, spinning – I sweat every day.
- Writing – it connects me to my purpose
- AA meetings – specifically, the help of a sponsor and the people
- Honesty – this was a totally new concept for me, but the ability to connect and be honest in conversation, in relationships, it was life changing
- Sleep – I don’t fuck around with my sleep
Liv: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your journey, or what is coming up next for you?
Laura: I don’t think so, but thank you for giving me the opportunity to answer! These were great questions.
Next, I’m just continuing to plug away at my book and of course, doing the podcast with Holly. That’s been incredible and continues to unfold in surprising ways.