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Where Art and Healing Meet

Throughout her life, Leila Parnian has worn many different hats. For starters, she’s a cross-fitter, a multi-instrumentalist and a three-time all-American racquetball player. Until about six months ago, she was also the general manager at Parnian Furniture in Scottsdale, Arizona—a family business specializing in bespoke luxury accent pieces. But she left to pursue her most intense and personal interest: painting. “The passion I have for what I’m doing now blows away anything I was doing in the past,” she says. Coming from Parnian, that says a lot.

A quick scan of Parnian’s Instagram reveals recent artistic focus on two-dimensional images of various lion heads, both colorful and dynamic. The images might be flat but their effect certainly isn’t. “I’m not the most three-dimensional artist,” Parnian says. “But what I have realized is that the style I have is very unique to me. It’s not something where I need to be copying other people or learning other people’s message. This is raw art and raw talent that’s coming out of me.”

Any recent admirers of her work may be surprised upon scrolling a little farther down to an older collection called Silence Speaks. These images are much darker—abstract faces and heads rendered in black and white—often with x’s over their mouths. “I’ve been in a series of abusive relationships, mostly mentally and verbally though a little bit physically as well,” she says. “I went through a relationship where I was dealing with a narcissist, walking on eggshells and scared to say anything. A lot of my art is stemming from a place of pain to this day.”

It’s perhaps that connection that led to Parnian’s collaboration with Joe Polish, all after a chance encounter in her family’s furniture store. “Joe [Polish] came in the store about a year and a half ago,” she says, “and I had paintings in there. And he walked up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, can I get some information on this artist?’ And I said, ‘That happens to be me.’”

Using his own experience as a recovering addict, Polish’s new project serves as a resource for addicts looking for recovery groups, sobriety-themed websites and education on addiction-related issues. After their auspicious meeting, Polish got Parnian involved in his other recovery-related initiative, Artists for Addicts.

Though Parnian was never an addict, her experiences have made her a perfect fit as an advocate for the program. “I’m technically addicted to my cell phone if you want to count that,” she says, “but I dated an addict. When I found out what Joe was doing, it really fueled me wanting to help him because I had been in the shoes of someone dealing with the other side of those issues.” In her most recent relationship, Parnian says she saw the raw reality of addiction. “I was dealing with the lies, the stealing of money, the abuse,” she says. “When someone needs a fix, they’ll do whatever they need to do to get it.”

While her own artistic style is very deliberate and controlled, the approach that Parnian and Polish came up with together to teach recovering addicts was the result of another synchronicity. “Pour art is something I started about six months ago,” Parnian says. “A few months ago, Joe and I were talking and I was like, ‘We should start doing pour art for Artists for Addicts.’ Ironically, he had gone to an art store and seen an employee doing pour art too. We had the same idea without talking to each other.”

As the name suggests, pour art involves putting paint and chemicals in a plastic cup or bucket, giving it a light mix and pouring it directly onto a canvas. “The reason I was so drawn to it was that you don’t use a paintbrush,” Parnian says. “This type of art is so freeing and therapeutic because you have no control over what goes in your cup and when you flip it, you have no idea what’s going to happen.”

The final canvases produced through the pouring technique result in psychedelic images with roiling waves of color. As the art itself requires surrender to the process, it has proven cathartic for those who’ve tried it. “I’ve done pour art with at least 50 to 60 individuals so far from all walks of life,” Parnian says. As an added flourish, she’s also had her students write their personal goals (and demons) on the back of their canvases. “They’re creating these paintings with an intention. When they release the cup, it’s like they’re releasing whatever that is into the universe.”

To hear Parnian tell it, the work is a grace note at the end of a symphony of dysfunction. “I know I can’t necessarily change a person’s life overnight,” she says. “Around Thanksgiving, [my ex] called me on FaceTime because he was going through something and I almost watched him commit suicide. I was able to talk him out of it but it was pretty traumatic for me.” A few days later, he called her back, thanked her for listening and told her he’d been inspired to start painting more. Then they went over pour art together.

Having seen the stakes already, Parnian brings a grit to all her output belied by all the colorful surfaces. “These aren’t just pretty paintings,” she says. “There’s a meaning behind it.” For recovering addicts, that meaning can be any number of things. For Parnian, it’s transmuting her pain into something beautiful. “I’ve really,” she says, “poured everything out.”

3 Questions for People in Rehab to Ask Themselves (AKA Hard-Learned Lessons from my Relapses)

Twelve days after getting out of my second stint in a 30-day inpatient rehab facility, I woke up on the concrete floor in a jail cell.  With echoes of screams and cries from the back seat of the car still ringing in my ears, I sat there trying to piece together that DUI debacle—how I picked my daughter up from preschool in a blackout, how I pulled the car over to “rest” a minute, how I tried desperately to come out of that alcoholic fog and make everything go back to being okay. But mainly I just couldn’t understand why in the hell I decided to drink again. Jesus, I had just crawled my way out of that nightmare and now there I was again…only worse.

I’m certainly not the smartest person in the room, but I know a thing or two about rehabs. In the course of my sobriety journey, I’ve been to seven of them, ranging from the fancy to the basic, from one side of the country to the other. And now, with a couple years of good quality recovery under my belt, I’m putting the pieces together.

The first time I got sober in 2002, I just walked into a meeting and that was it. I was done. But addiction is progressive and chronic, and soon I slipped into a space filled with 24-hour drinking that was jeopardizing the safety of my children. And I was incapable of figuring out how to stay away from alcohol long enough to even collect a decent number of days. Believe me, I tried every time. The damage I was causing to my family and to myself had grown so out of control that even my recovery community had lost hope in me. I had to get out in order to see what I was even doing.

What have I learned from my experience? Enough to compile these questions for anyone currently in a 12-step-based rehab to ask themselves:

What’s Your Expectation?

I walked into the doors of rehab the first couple times thinking I was going to “find myself” in there. Ha! On my best days, I found the guts to look at what a mess I was and had the courage to be honest about it—to cry about it or get pissed off about it. I had a thousand pounds of bricks built up around me to keep everyone from looking at myself. Hell, we all did. Most of the things we found out about ourselves and each other were the exact same things that sent us running for a drink or a drug.

But rehabs don’t offer cures. Ever. It’s best for everyone involved to keep expectations realistic and that includes the family at home. If you think you’ll walk out with answers to all your problems, trust rebuilt in relationships and a guarantee you’ll never drink or drug again, good luck with that.

What’s Your Goal?

Rehabs are not a quick fix, and good gracious, they are full of distractions. It’s easy to get sucked into the gossip circle-jerk out at the smoking hut or hunt down the most eligible hottie of the opposite sex if you’re desperate enough. It happens everywhere. And even if you’re not participating, you have to sit and listen to the dramatic bullshit that unfolds in the aftermath. Here’s the deal: you are likely not going to meet your lifelong friend circle in rehab, so my recommendation is not to going into it trying to win popularity. At one of my stays, a counselor said to the entire group of us, “Look at the person on your left and introduce yourself. Now do the same to the one on the right. Then say you are sorry. Because only one of you will stay sober.”

Of course, none of us thought it would be us.

So make a goal to set a foundation. Do what you can to remember why you are there. Strange as it sounds, it’s easy to forget some days. Time will drag by slowly but before long, if you’re doing it right, your time will be up. Supposedly, you are ready to go back to the scene of the crime, to walk right back to where you came from…except this time you’re choosing to do it clean and sober. Make sure that rehab has done everything in its power to help you in that transition.

Are You Ready for Anything?

Any good quality rehab is going to tell you that you need more help—that 30 days just isn’t going to cut it. And at that point you will have some choices to make. By the time I got to my seventh rehab, I knew this would be coming, but I still stood out in the parking lot defiantly smoking one last cigarette before half-assing an agreement with my husband that I was willing to do whatever was suggested. I was ready, but I didn’t like it.

I’ve tried different plans upon leaving—I’ve gone home after 30 days with a plan. I’ve stayed at a facility for extended treatment for an extra six weeks, and I’ve gone afterwards to a more intensive treatment across the country for an extra 10 weeks. Every choice was a gut-wrenching, learning experience.

So I say don’t be afraid to make a commitment, but for God’s sake, stick it out. You will probably get incredibly uncomfortable. Any time I saw someone throwing an all-out blood curdling meltdown, I got really excited because I knew they were onto something. It was the bottled-up people-pleasers that scared me—probably because I saw too much of myself.

I used to have a sticker on my mirror that said, “You’re looking at the problem” but my kids didn’t get it so I took it down. Obviously, the ultimate answer here is that I am responsible for my sobriety. No one was pouring the drinks down my throat. But good God, can treatment centers learn anything from people like me? I promise you, I am not the only one who’s had to go back or who’s relapsed after treatment.

Being a mother of four kids put me in a minority at rehabs. I had a breast pump at one of them, so an aftercare program filled with messages of sober living homes was out of the question. I always understood the importance of a 12-step program, but rarely felt anyone was listening when I spoke about the reality of the newborn, the toddler, the preschooler, the daughter in elementary school, and the overworked and exhausted husband all waiting for me to get home. My treatment teams continued to preach nightly AA meetings, counseling sessions, an intensive outpatient program during the weekdays. Oh, and self-care. Meanwhile my poor kids just wanted their mom back and my heartstrings always broke at the sight of them.

Treatment centers can only do so much. They are limited by insurance demands, faculty qualifications, industry standards and patient participation. But if your aftercare advisor is searching Google for a therapist recommendation for you, there’s a problem. If your meds are way out of whack and you can’t see a doctor for a week, there is a problem. And if your small group looks and sounds like an out-of-control dysfunctional family reunion, your counselor sucks.

Not every issue is going to get addressed, but you still have the right to be your own advocate. Make an appointment to talk to the top dog if necessary. I did. But don’t forget that you don’t make the rules (I hated that part).

What a collection of knowledge I got from all that failure. Out of all of it, the one thing I’d pass on above everything else, the best gem I ever got, was from my very last rehab. It was this: No matter what else you do on your first day out, if it’s a 12-step based rehab and they recommend 12-step meetings, just go to a meeting. No exception. Leave your rehab and go straight there. I finally did that, this last time. And I certainly haven’t regretted it.

It Turns Out My Secret Shameful Habit Has a Name

“It’s hairy down here.” That was my boyfriend’s four-year-old son alerting us to the amount of hair that was on the carpet where he was sitting. I had developed a habit of running my fingers through the back of my hair while watching TV and depositing the strands onto the floor next to the couch. Once or twice a week, I would drag my hands across that patch of carpet, gathering up the hair that had accumulated. Clearly, I was behind on my clean-up duty that day, and I was humiliated in front of a small child.

My boyfriend had already observed this practice and expressed concern that I was pulling out my hair. I argued that I wasn’t really yanking it out of my scalp—I was just helping remove the strands that were already loose but hadn’t yet fallen out due to my tangle of curls. I even demonstrated for him, pulling softly on his hair. See! I don’t really have a problem!

This hair-tugging habit went on for years, coming to an end (for the most part) a couple of years ago. My once-thick hair had been thinning on its own since my mid-20s, and I could no longer tolerate the possibility that I was helping it along. Even as I struggled to stop, I saw it as just a quirk. I never thought it actually had a name.

Recently, thanks to an online conversation amongst writers, I discovered that I have several Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs), and that people I know and admire also suffer from them.

According to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, the term BFRB covers a group of related disorders, including hair pulling, nail biting, skin picking, tongue chewing, and lip or cheek biting. TLC explains: “These behaviors are not habits or tics; rather, they are complex disorders that cause people to repeatedly touch their hair and body in ways that result in physical damage.”

Body-Focused Repetitive Disorders are now categorized under Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s updated manual, known as the DSM-5. In addition to experiencing harmful effects, one of the common threads running through these disorders is repeated attempts to stop, with the behavior going in and out of remission over time.

While I don’t believe that my BFRBs rise to the level of serious disorders, I have endured varying levels of discomfort and even injury from them. Learning more about what is sometimes referred to as “pathological grooming” has been eye-opening. Much like substance abuse, I believe that we can help lessen the shame and promote treatment by talking more about these behaviors. So, let’s take a look at three of the more common BFRBs.

Trichotillomania: Hair-Pulling Disorder

As I was researching this piece, I kept running across details that made me feel like I had been spied on throughout my life. The Mayo Clinic lists a number of hair-pulling symptoms on its website, with one describing the act of “[p]laying with pulled-out hair or rubbing it across your lips or face.”

Since early childhood, I used to “twirl” my curly hair. Once I succeeded in rolling the hair into a smooth lock, I would run it across my lips. I did this for decades. When my hair became too thin to grow long, I was effectively forced to give up this practice. That’s when I moved on to the soft pulling that may or may not actually remove hair from my scalp.

Writer Jessica Yarbrough recently wrote for SELF about her struggle with trichotillomania. For 15 years she has pulled out the hair in her eyebrows. Yarbrough says, “I posted this on my Instagram and had over 10 friends/acquaintances reach out to say they had a similar struggle. I think these ‘disorders’ are way more common than is currently thought.”

The Mayo Clinic explains that hair pulling is often associated with stress and anxiety, and the act can provide temporary relief from negative emotions. Some people pull out their hair intentionally and even develop rituals associated with the behavior. Hair pulling can also be automatic and take place when the person is bored, lonely, or tired.

The disorder can leave bald spots, ultimately affecting the sufferer’s confidence and comfort in public and social situations. Yarbrough describes how “the feeling of shame and ugliness that stemmed from having my disorder emblazoned on my forehead . . . was stressful enough to trigger a fresh episode.”

The good news is that the TLC Foundation is conducting research to advance knowledge on trichotillomania and other BFRBs.

Onychophagia: Nail-Biting Disorder

Who doesn’t know someone who bites their fingernails? An estimated 20 to 30 percent of the general population suffers from a chronic form of this behavior, and the number may be even higher. The same boyfriend (and now husband) who gave me a hard time about my hair pulling frequently gnaws his nails down to jagged nubs.

I started biting my nails as a young child, and it has stuck with me for decades. I’ve been able to quit for short times, but I always come back to it. I’ve been taking Biotin and eating healthier for the past few years, which has made my nails stronger and harder to bite. Sometimes, I end up with a little bit of white on every nail at once—a major accomplishment!

When busy or stressed, however, I might compulsively chew all of them off in one brief period. Often I’m not aware I’m doing it until I’ve gone through almost every finger.

Psychology Today reports: “In addition to tissue damage to fingers, nails and cuticles, nail biting can cause mouth injuries, dental problems, abscesses, and infections.”

Given how long I’ve been doing this, it’s a surprise that my first infection requiring medical attention came only last year.

It’s unlikely that my husband or I will ever completely give up nail biting. An article for NPR suggests coming to terms with the behavior and even reframing it as a choice.

Dermatillomania: Skin-Picking (Excoriation) Disorder

About eight years ago I was at the podiatrist having an ingrown toenail examined. The doctor inquired about the collection of bandages on my heels. I confessed that I often picked at the thick skin on my feet, ripping off large pieces.

The doctor prescribed a special lotion that didn’t work despite dutiful applications. In fact, nothing seems to work to prevent the build-up of hard skin on my feet, and once it’s thick enough I can’t seem to resist tearing at it. I do the same thing with the calluses that form on some of my fingertips.

The action itself doesn’t hurt when I’m doing it, but hours later I realize that I’ve picked myself raw. I keep all sizes of Band-Aids in my medicine cabinet and go through them like crazy. Some days it hurts to put all my weight on whichever foot I was focused on the night before while watching TV or working on the computer.

Learning that this compulsion has a name and that people I respect also experience the same frustration and embarrassment has been a huge relief. Mental Health America reports that Excoriation Disorder occurs in about 1.4 percent of the adult population in the U.S. and is more common in women. People suffering from the disorder often suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, and hair pulling and nail biting as well. So it is not unusual that I have been surreptitiously picking up hair, skin, and fingernails inside my home and car for years.

Treatments recommended include medication, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—antidepressants that can help reduce obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has also shown success. NPR reveals that “there’s increasing interest in an amino acid called N-acetylcysteine. One study showed that NAC helped lessen urges for more than half of participants.”

I’ve been on an SSRI before, and I’m not eager to go back on one. But I will probably give CBT or other therapies a try. If I can quit smoking and drinking, I should be able to quit anything, right?!

Mostly, I hope to bring these disorders into the light and tackle the stigma around BFRBs. If you struggle with these kinds of behaviors, know that you are not alone.

A New Year’s Intention: Quieting the Tyrant Within

Over the past couple years, I’ve come to see my life as an ongoing project. I have established a fitness routine, embarked on a major career change and crossed items off my bucket list, not to mention quit drinking.

I could choose to take a breather and rest on my laurels for a bit, but New Year’s is a time for dreaming big. So, I’ve been wondering for weeks now…what should I resolve to do in 2019?

Digging deep, I realized that what I could really use is more compassion for and acceptance of others. But how does one go about getting that? And why is it so hard to resist criticizing people, especially those closest to us? As I began exploring my motives, a surprising inspiration surfaced: an unforgettable biopic.

Back in the 1980s, the Jessica Lange movie Frances made a profound and lasting impact on me. Recently I watched it again, and three decades later it still has the power to reach in and prod at one of my tender spots.

Frances Farmer was an actress who rose to fame in the 1930s. The film depicts her as an independent thinker who doesn’t care much for authority or convention. Farmer appeared in a number of movies, but she chafed against the Hollywood studio system, eventually running into trouble with the law and spending time in multiple psychiatric hospitals.

There is little doubt that Farmer suffered from mental health and substance use issues, but the intervening actions taken by her family and medical professionals come across as severe and designed to break her nonconformist spirit.

In two different scenes in the movie, Frances is dragged into police custody kicking and screaming. Her eyes and hair are wild, her anger and fear palpable. I was only about 20 years old when I first saw the movie, and Farmer’s desperation and utter abandon in those scenes terrified me. I was afraid that one day I might lose control like that, but at the same time, I was afraid that I wouldn’t.

***

When a child puts their hand on a hot stove, they learn quickly not to do it again. That was me. Always the observant and obedient child. I was raised to be a good girl, to be nice and agreeable, and to follow the rules. Hell awaited me if I sinned, and on Earth there was shame to keep me in line. I wouldn’t have had the guts to write an essay like the one Farmer penned in high school, entitled “God Dies” — though I shared her early skepticism of religion and an all-powerful god.

At the age of 16, I finally broke loose, rebelling in the ways of many teenagers. I played stupid pranks with my friends and shoplifted. I got drunk and messed around with lots of boys.

Yet something was always holding me back. An alert system had been planted inside my psyche that kept me a safe distance from the edge. I learned to be my own mini-parent, with internalized restrictions and punishments.

I flirted with eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drugs, promiscuity, and self-harm. Still, I never fell down the rabbit hole into any of them. I came the closest with drinking, but I did not hit what could be considered a typical rock bottom. When I finally quit, there was no big crash and burn. Just my sensible innate guardian kicking in and telling me to get sober.

***

Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behavior have all whispered to me throughout my life, but none shouted me down the way depression did with my mom.

I was 15 years old when my mother suffered a severe depressive episode, or what was referred to back then as a “nervous breakdown.” Most of my memories of what happened during that time are locked away in a corner of my mind that I prefer to leave untouched. One image that rises to my consciousness is that of a hesitant daughter taking a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the lightless bedroom where her mom was spending most of her time.

Seeing my mother that way was agonizing. Feelings of worry, sadness and resentment competed for my attention.

In the midst of adolescence, there was already a part of me that envied my mother’s apparent willingness to answer a call from the dark side. I didn’t understand if her depression was inevitable or a choice she had made to withdraw from our family and the world. What I do know now is that my mother peered into an abyss I will never glimpse.

***

Weird, morbid impulses hum softly inside me. Sometimes I think about shouting something horribly offensive in a public place. At random times, I envision how awful it would be to get stabbed in my eyes or my throat in some freak accident. This leads me to wonder if I would ever stab myself intentionally. Of course, I wouldn’t — I’m confident of that.

When I hear a suspicious sound in the middle of the night, I panic that someone could be breaking into the house to kill us. Maybe I want a crazed killer to burst into my bedroom, so I would be justified in screaming out in terror and fighting for my survival.

Years ago, I wrote a short story called “Wednesdays” about a woman in an abusive marriage. Every Wednesday she would risk her husband’s wrath by taking his classic car out for a drive by herself while he was at work. At the end, she takes the car out one last time and intentionally wrecks it, walking away to start a new life.

I find it telling that I put my own character through violence, humiliation and potential self injury in order to give her permission to choose herself.

***

We’ve all encountered people who can hold their hand on a version of that hot stove for what seems like forever. You wonder how they do it, why they do it.

When I see a friend or family member headed down a hazardous path, I can be, as someone once accused me, “judgmental, pious, hypocritical.”

In preparation for cultivating my compassionate side in the new year, I’ve been exploring why I’m so judgy. Naturally, I was drawn to Holly Glenn Whitaker’s recent piece for SELF, “Ask a Sober Person: Why Do I Judge People Who Still Drink?” In it she talks about the Jungian theory of a “shadow” self — all those unpleasant traits that we have trouble facing in ourselves but can see clearly in others.

The notion that I’ve been judging a reflection of my shadow resonates with me. But I suspected that there was even more to it. That’s when I recalled Frances, and it occurred to me that I might be envious of these people as well.

***

I sat down and wrote out a list of how I could possibly be jealous of people experiencing serious mental health issues like depression or addiction. First, I listed my foolish belief that these disorders are a badge of honor and a sign of depth. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as effortlessly “cool” (whatever that is), and I don’t like being reminded that I lean in the direction of being ordinary. Basic. Vanilla.

Next, I considered that perhaps I’ve been longing to send out a cry for help by surrendering to my bleakest impulses, but I know I’ll never have the courage to do so. That one had a slight ring of truth to it, but it didn’t sound quite right.

When I got to the third reason, I exposed fertile ground: The concept of “letting go” sounds enticing to me — a welcome relief from both the societal expectations of adult life and the self-imposed pressures that keep me in check.

The mini-parent inside me can be more like a tyrant than a kind caretaker. This dictator berates me to pay the bills on time, weigh myself every morning, replay conversations over and over, and do just one more thing, one more thing, one more thing before I can relax.

My desire to be in control at all times makes life so stressful that a downward spiral starts to look like a vacation. The problem is, mental health issues are not voluntary — we don’t buy a ticket and schedule time off for a breakdown. Even if we could, being depressed or in the grip of addiction is not a holiday from responsibility — it is brutal and confining.

If I want to be less judgmental and more compassionate toward others, I need to start with the one person I can best influence — me. I must give myself a break so that the idea of being institutionalized like Frances Farmer doesn’t seem so absurdly appealing.

Once I’ve learned to quiet my internal tyrant, I can be genuinely grateful — at long last — that I’m so damn stable. What a great gift for myself, and those I love, in 2019.

But I Thought the Rules Didn’t Apply to Me?

I can’t believe this is happening but it is.

Yep, it’s true. I’m growing older.

Look, I get it—most of us are appalled by aging. But I feel like it’s different for me. Every day that it happens, which is to say every day, I feel more and more like one of those people you hear interviewed on NPR after they’ve survived a disaster—the ones who say, “I’d always heard about this happening to other people. I just never thought it would happen to me.”

In other words, I’m flummoxed, stymied and every other SAT word we had to memorize over the fact that time is passing and with it, I am aging. Because I truly never, ever, ever thought it would happen to me.

I’m biologically programmed to be shocked by this turn of events. Both my grandmothers were obsessed with defying their age and had face lifts long before this practice was more common. My mom, at nearly 80, looks no older than 60. And my brother, after helping to invent a product that prevents people from looking older, is now quite literally working on the cure for aging.

(None of this is BS hyperbole. Google “Nathaniel David.” Yep, one of the world’s leading experts on anti-aging.)

I don’t think it’s an accident that my family is obsessed with not aging. We are a family, you see, that lives by another credo: the rules don’t apply to us.

No one ever said this to me. They didn’t need to because I absorbed it.

And what rule is more unfair and yet more unavoidable than aging?

My point is this: I always understood that aging would happen to you. I just thought I would stay eternally, say, 38 while you guys would get grey hair and clogged arteries and other, far worse things. Whenever I’ve spied a grey hair, I’ve felt inarguably, stupefyingly betrayed by my body. As I tweeze it and then pretend the whole thing never happened, I all but scream at the sky, “How could you do this to me?!”

And that brings me to my years of sobriety. While it’s lovely in many ways to be sober for 18 years, that also means not being able to avoid one completely horrific fact: unless you got sober as a prepubescent, you simply can’t be 18 years sober and not kinda, well, old.

But aging isn’t the only horror I’d assumed I’d be able to avoid throughout my sobriety. I’d also had this idea that I’d be able to duck some of the other issues I’d heard other people discuss—namely, depression.

Now I understood from the beginning that it’s not like you get sober and then things just get better and better all the time. I got that there were peaks and valleys only followed by more peaks and valleys. Still, at a certain point—SAY, 18 YEARS OF SOBRIETY—you sort of just maybe kind of think all that’s over?

See, I’d heard early on that years seven through 10 of sobriety were not easy but I buckled through. Cool, I seemed to think, survived that, scratch it off the list, move on, share in meetings about the gifts of sobriety, keep meditating and praying and all that and the tides rise and stay there. Right?

Er, not really.

The bumps have continued and I feel as betrayed by them as I did by that grey hair I tweezed this morning. Don’t all the happiness studies claim people get happier as they get older? Isn’t that how I consoled myself over the fact that the aging rules did apply to me? When the fuck, I want to ask that deity that I seem to have a hard time finding when I’m going through the shit, does it just get easy?

Never have I been more gobsmacked by that question than early this summer, when early childhood trauma I’d spent a lifetime trying to avoid came screeching out. This all happened to come along at a time when I had truly established myself “out there” as a person who shared her dark to find her light. My company, Light Hustler, was successfully helping people write and publish and sell books. I had made my life philosophy clear in the world: if you share the things that have brought you the most shame, you will heal and help others to as well.

In a certain way, I was the perfect person to lead this charge. After all, I had been doing that since I published my first book about addiction in 2007.

For years, I’d been receiving accolades for my bravery when it came to sharing about my addiction. I’ve received hundreds of emails and social media messages and in person declarations from people who tell me that my podcast or something I’ve written or said has helped them to come to terms with their own addiction. They often add something like this: “Even though I may lose my family or career by coming clean, your bravery has given me the strength to do so.”

For a long time, I accepted this praise, no questions asked. God damn it, was I a brave person, I would tell myself. And I didn’t even have to try!

But that shield of self-congratulations I’d created to honor my bravery fell apart in the face of my summer breakdown. I am generally not a crier but I became someone who cried so hard, so publicly and so often that it wasn’t even surprising one day when I was walking down the street, sobbing, and a homeless man asked me if I was all right. Humiliated, defensive, I responded, “Yes!” He looked at me, said, “You don’t seem okay” and shuffled off.

It just happened that I had a book coming out at this time—a book I needed to go out there and promote. I dramatically told a friend one day between sob sessions that I couldn’t be publicly together so I was going to cancel everything.

She shook her head. “I don’t get you,” she said. “This is your whole thing. Sharing your dark to find your light. Why wouldn’t you be open about struggling?”

So I had to ask myself the same question. And that’s when I saw that I’d never been ashamed about being an addict but I’d always been deeply, horribly ashamed about suffering from depression.

The truth, I suddenly saw, was that I seem to think sobriety is cool and that you, whoever you are, want to hear about it. I remember going to a restaurant early on in my sobriety, ordering a Diet Coke from a waiter and then adding, “The reason I’m ordering a soda and not a drink is that I’m newly sober after a crippling cocaine addiction and if I have a drink, that will just lead to more and next thing I know I’ll be calling my dealer and then it will be 6 in the morning and I’ll be wired to the gills, hearing the birds chirp and thinking about killing myself.”

And I recall him nodding warily and, while backing away, telling me my soda was on the house.

Even if I haven’t overshared about my addiction with you, I’m just a genre of person whom most people in the world would expect to be an addict. In LA, they say, you throw a rock and you’ll either hit a sober person or someone who needs to get sober. People in recovery are so out and proud here that we don’t even realize there’s any other way to be. And writers? Well, we’re supposed to be drowning out our senses to near incapacitation in order to access our creativity.

Point being: I was never going to not get a job because of having been addicted to drugs; if anything, it would help me get hired.

In other words, I wasn’t nearly as brave as the people coming to me for help sharing their recovery stories.

I was a hypocrite.

Unlike a movie character’s epiphany, however, I didn’t have this realization and then change. This wasn’t Grease and I wasn’t Sandy, ready to have Frenchie convert her from the person she’d been to the person she wanted to be.

In fact, when I signed on, puffy-eyed, to do a video interview the day after my friend confronted me, I told the person interviewing me that I had “just gotten some bad news” and might not be able to do the interview. This was about a month into my crying jag so the “bad news” was a lie.

Ignoring my attempt to duck out of the interview so I could surrender some more salt water from my eyes to the pillow, he said, “Well everyone here loves and supports you” and I realized that I wasn’t just talking to a friend but to the hundreds of people who had signed on early and were already watching online. I felt humiliated.

The truth I had to face is that I only wanted to share dark experiences if they were in the past…that I wanted to look perfect but talk about a broken past so that I could be respected or even feel better than other people. “I struggled once, just like you’re struggling now,” I wanted to communicate. “But look at me now!” I wanted to have the ugliness be a funny or meaningful story from my past.

So I’m here from the front lines to report: I’m not cured. I still fall apart. And I can quote Leonard Cohen all I want and talk about how the crack is where the light comes in but the reality is it fucking sucks when I’m going through it. Even though, of course, just like all those people promised, I always come out on the other side having learned something invaluable. It just can take a long god damn time—unlike aging, which seems to happen in a millisecond.

In other words, it’s taken me this long to truly accept the fact that the rules do apply to me. I even have the grey hairs to prove it.

My New Sober Holiday Traditions

Christmas shopping followed by drinking alone.

Hanging out in a dive bar where the cocktail waitresses had Santa hats on.

Making jokes about having a “White Christmas” while snorting cocaine in the bathroom of a dingy Hollywood gay bar.

While I’m not exactly Julie Andrews and these are not exactly my favorite things (which is still not a Christmas song, by the way) these are definitely real life ways I used to spend my holiday season. Being not only a person who struggled most of his adult life with drugs and alcohol but also a person with depression, the holidays when I was using always wreaked with a fake scent of desperation to make things look merry and bright when the reality was I was dying on the inside. I wanted to be present for holiday functions, to buy perfect gifts for people and to generally nail all things holiday but I just couldn’t. When I finally got sober in 2009, I knew everything had to change—including how I celebrated the holidays.

It should be noted that my sobriety date is January 2nd, which means that even in my hot mess alcoholic state, I knew maybe trying to get sober during the holidays might be a terrible idea.

I am, after all, a very festive person at heart.

Whether it’s Christmas or Flag Day or Tuesday, yours truly was always ready to turn anything into a booze-soaked, drug-fueled party. Thus trying to stay clean during the most wonderfully drunk time of year would be tough.

That first year sober, I turned down all kinds of offers to be around drunk friends decking the halls. I said no to family things that would be triggers. I even said no to a few sober parties because I felt too awkward and frankly too sad to be around people. For an eternal people pleaser like myself, saying no to party invitations was hard. What if people were mad that I wasn’t coming? What if I said no and never got invited anything ever again? What if I said no, only to regret it later and come down with a very special Christmas edition of FOMO? Yeah saying no was tough at first but 100% worth it. What replacing “ho, ho, ho” with “no, no, no” did was it allowed me to make the holidays totally my own and come up with new traditions.

As I write this, I have a freezer filled with sugar cookies, lemon bars and other treats ready to be popped in the mail and sent to family and friends around the country. To say that baking is an obsession of mine is an understatement. I always loved it but as I got sober baking became therapeutic and something that helped me calm down. Turns out, I’m not alone as baking as therapy has become somewhat of a trend. People all over are finding zen by spending time with their oven and I am certainly one of them. There’s something incredibly gratifying about baking something and sharing it with people you love. Therefore, my holiday tradition of baking treats and giving them away is one of most my cherished activities of the year. This year, I went a tad over the top, in true addict fashion, and read all kinds of cookie articles and researched the best sorts of tins to mail. Like I said, I’m obsessed but it sure beats day drinking and listening to Bing Crosby.

Another favorite new sober tradition of mine is flocking together with likeminded people. Whether it’s for a meal or some sort of festive outing, surrounding myself with other sober people during the holidays is paramount. The social calendar for clean and sober people around this time of year can be intense because of this very thing. We need one another more at this time of year and I try to attend other people’s sober functions and host some of my own too. This year, for the second year in a row, my husband and I had sober friends over for Thanksgiving. For an amateur Martha Stewart like myself, Thanksgiving is like the Oscars. But it wasn’t even about my four side dishes and three different desserts. What made it special was the people. All of them were sober and, like my husband and I, not from Portland. So our sober orphans Thanksgiving was perfect and a tradition I hope goes on forever.

A holiday season without hangovers, guilt and family obligation means I get to do whatever I want to on Christmas day and what I always want to do is go to the movies. For several years in a row, my husband and I have eaten brunch and then gone to the movies. Sounds simple enough but what’s special about it is it’s a tradition that belongs to us and is authentically me. How many years did I take my hungover ass to things I didn’t want to go to? How many times did I dishonestly agree to go to things all in the name of approval? No more! This little movie and brunch tradition is powerful because it’s real, low-pressure and all ours.

The best thing about finding new holidays traditions in sobriety for me is that I get to reframe the entire holiday experience. Like the rest of my life, the holidays can look however I want them to now that I don’t drink or use drugs. Granted, the halls of recovery are filled with hype about how horrible the holidays are and a lot of it is justified. We have the ruined office parties and knocked over Christmas trees in our past to prove it. But just because it was that way doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. So I can saddle myself with this idea that the holidays are hard and terrible and stressful now that I don’t drink. Or I can can bake up a storm, eat mashed potatoes with sober friends and head to the movies. I think my choice is clear.

The Miracle Morning for Addiction Recovery: The Animated Version!

Before you let the holidays officially take a hold of you, we have one final gift…a delightful* illustrated video for The Miracle Morning For Addiction Recovery: Letting Go of Who You’ve Been for Who You Can Become. Check it out below and please share your own morning routine in the comments!

 

*We can say that without sounding too boastful since we didn’t make it ourselves—for that we have to thank our friends at Drawshop

The Yellow Brick Road of Recovery

When I was a few years sober, I ended up choreographing The Wiz for a free rehab that housed recently incarcerated men in downtown LA. How a Marin County girl ended up trekking to the hood twice a week to teach a group of ex-cons how to do a munchkin dance isn’t nearly as interesting as the fact that it happened at all.

In short: I didn’t have any sponsees and was looking for a way to be of service. I toured the rehab and saw a sign that there were auditions for The Wiz.

“A musical!” I exclaimed to the person giving me the tour. “I love musicals!” I talked about how I’d had lead dancing parts in Bye Bye Birdie, Hair and West Side Story in high school and how I’d later danced and choreographed professionally. Before I knew it, I’d made the commitment.

To say I did not know what I was getting into would be the understatement of the decade. I seem to have this blind faith that can be considered wonderful or dangerous depending on the day but I just kind of naively assume if something’s come along, it’s meant to come along and I will be protected.

The faith was really, really blind in this case.

The fact is I was a woman showing up to teach a bunch of questionably sober ex-cons how to dance for a musical they were being forced to perform in if they wanted their parole officers off their respective backs.

In other words, they were not remotely interested in learning the munchkin dance I’d painstakingly choreographed in my living room.

A typical rehearsal found me teaching the dance and them sort of not really trying to learn it. Then they would ask me out. Or hand me love letters. Or give me gifts that they’d clearly stolen, usually clothing that was a few sizes too small.

I don’t tell you this to be self-aggrandizing. I tell you this to explain that I was the only woman they’d been around in a long time and they didn’t seem to understand why I’d want to show up twice a week for months at a time to teach a munchkin dance.

To be honest, I was starting to wonder the same thing.

But it was service! Service, as people in recovery often said, wasn’t supposed to feel good! It was supposed to get you out of your head!

Get me out of my head this did, particularly when I would show up and see two guys nursing black eyes and be informed that they’d gotten in a fist fight over me. While I normally will accept any opportunity to get that damn ego of mine fed, I was starting to get freaked out.

But I kept at it, even though I would be faced with a new bunch of munchkins every week since most every resident either relapsed or was kicked out at some point. By the week of the show, there was actually only one guy who’d been a part of the group when we’d started a few months earlier and he wasn’t, to be kind, Fred Astaire.

After all those months of driving there, pretending I wasn’t a sheltered girl and that teaching ex-cons a munchkin dance was an appropriate use of my time, it was determined that none of the munchkins knew the dance. It was determined that I would have to be in the play, playing a munchkin, so the rest could follow my steps.

The show had to go on and go on it did. I’ll tell you the truth: I killed as a munchkin. I know this because two of my friends came to see the show but I only learned it later since they both left at intermission—scared that they would be mugged or their cars would be stolen. That was really the first time I understood quite how dangerous the neighborhood was.

Years later, I encountered criminals of a different sort. These criminals were cleaner, a bit more suave and a whole lot more awful. These criminals hired me to edit a recovery magazine.

Now I’ve worked for so many crazy people that when the lackey who’d hired me explained that I was going to be taking orders from someone in prison, I didn’t even blink.

Instead I asked, “What’s he in for?”

Embezzlement, I was told.

I shrugged. At least, I figured, it wasn’t murder.

The problem, as I saw it, wasn’t that the guy running the show was a criminal. The problem was that he was an idiot. A few days into the gig, Lackey called to tell me that the celebrity we were planning to have on the cover was going to be replaced with a dog.

A dog?

It’s the boss, he said.

He explained that the boss really had a soft spot for this certain rehab that gave everyone a puppy.

We both laughed. Jesus.

Then Lackey said that maybe it would be better if I communicated with the boss directly.

And thus began a month of me learning how to communicate with prisoners. Yes, plural. Because, as it turned out, the boss wasn’t the only person I was taking orders from. There was also a man we can call Gary. It was never clear to me who Gary was in relation to the boss—a lover, a prison mate, the guy he’d embezzled with? It clearly didn’t matter. I grew accustomed to getting two prison-sent missives a day, always filled with terrible ideas that I always acted like I thought were great.

One day, one of these messages from Gary explained that he’d written a book and wanted me to write the foreward to it. He attached it.

Unsurprisingly, said book was unintelligible.

But I needed this job, I told myself.

I wrote him back that of course I would write the forward.

A therapist would call my agreeing to do this subscribing to a “scarcity mentality.” I thought of it as just doing what I had to in order to remain employed.

A few days later, after thinking it through and talking to my sponsor, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t been hired to add my name to illiterate books written by the incarcerated. I wrote Gary that I was very sorry but I couldn’t write the foreward.

I went back to finishing the current issue. I continued to work long days, forwarding stories and ideas to Lackey and his lackeys. But suddenly, they had all gone MIA.

Two days later, I woke up to an email from Lackey saying that he was “beside himself” because he had received the galley for the September issue. The email accused me of hiring writers who were plagiarists and then listed a series of inadvertently hilarious accusations about editing stories badly and promoting my podcast on other sites. It concluded, “It is obvious we need to hire a forensic researcher to determine the extent of plagiarism, recycling, and exposure to claims of copyright infringement.” He asked for my resignation, saying that this, “together with a crafted message, mutual release and confidentiality/non-disparagement would obviously be in your best interests well as ours, and we could all avoid a public discussion about your departure.”

We were, to put it mildly, not in Kansas anymore.

Now I’ll admit I cried when I got this. It doesn’t matter how outrageous someone’s accusation is; it doesn’t matter how illiterate the email; it doesn’t matter that you know it’s written by a pathetic lackey answering to the demands of a prisoner’s friend, who happens to be his boss.

It sucks to be told you suck.

I let myself cry for a day.

A few days later, I had forwarded the email to several people who are far more intelligent and litigious than I am, and all of them pointed out that these people had a hell of a lot to lose. It’s illegal, of course, to run a company out of prison.

For several weeks I received emails from someone at the company asking me to sign an NDA. The more I refused, the harder he pushed. I just kept saying no—that they were free to tell anyone they wanted that I hired plagiarists. Then a friend pointed out that since they had everything to lose and I had nothing to lose, they probably would be willing to pay me to keep quiet. My responses to the business affairs guy began to hint at the fact that I would keep mum on the way they were doing business if they paid out my contract.

The guy in business affairs didn’t bite. He did, however keep asking me to sign something.

One day he stopped emailing.

Shortly after that, I realized what a blessing this was. If I asked to be paid to keep quiet about their criminal activities, wouldn’t I be as bad as them?

The day I let go of this debacle is the day I decided I would never again work for crazy and abusive people.

But a crazy thing happened when I made that decision. My little side hustle—a company actually called Light Hustler, where I help people share their light, grow their businesses and be of service to a world that needs them—took the f off. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something I’d always considered an adjunct income started bringing in more than editing the prison magazine did—by a landslide.

And that’s not the only thing that happened. I also ran into a munchkin.

Yep! A few months ago, I was sitting on a couch in the VIP room of a rock show—in other words, the last place on earth one would expect for this to happen—when a guy came up to me and told me he was 14 years sober and I was a large part of it.

“I was one of your munchkins,” he said. With tears in his eyes, he told me how much the play had meant to him and what a large part of that I was.

“I still remember the dance,” he said.

I myself do not. But this encounter reminded me yet again that you never know what’s going to happen. I never thought when I was teaching a bunch of seemingly indifferent ex-cons a dance that I’d run into one who told me that changed his life. I also never thought I’d be called a plagiarist by a wanna-be writer in prison.

I guess it comes down to this: my former munchkin, the criminal running the recovery magazine and the rest of us are all on our own yellow brick roads, headed to our own emerald cities.

How we dance on them is up to us.

How Making Art Can Change Your Recovery

Expressive arts therapy is a time-honored approach to healing that gives people from all backgrounds, especially those of us in recovery, a path forward for getting it out in as healthy a manner as possible. As the name of the modality suggests, expression is imperative. Some examples of expressive arts practices include but are of course not limited to:

  • Dancing & mindful movement
  • Visual arts (painting, drawing, collage, mixed media, pottery, sculpture)
  • Writing (short stories, novels, other fiction, poetry, scenes, memoir, other non-fiction)
  • Music (drumming, playing an instrument songwriting, making playlists and listening to music)
  • Drama and spoken word performances
  • Photography
  • Filmmaking
  • Fashion design & hair design
  • Cooking, baking, and other forms of food styling
  • Gardening

Did Music Therapy in Rehab Count?

While there are individual forms of therapy some rehabs encourage, there’s a reason I’ve chosen the path of practicing and becoming an expressive arts therapist.

In expressive arts therapy, we are encouraged to adopt an all of the above approach to the arts in recovery. Engaging in any combination of expressive arts practices—the multi-modality being a vital part of what defines formal expressive arts therapy—allows the metaphorical nature of the ocean within us to flow forth. This means combining dance/movement therapy, art therapy. music therapy and more.

Using all available tools for creative expression, we may be less likely to feel stuck and stifled because the world of our emotional experience has an outlet. This is a vital aspect of both trauma recovery and addiction recovery. The expressive arts challenge us to work with as many practices as we are willing to engage and to notice what the interplay between the practices may reveal.

Don’t Let Old Ideas Limit You

Does the idea of letting loose in a dance frighten you? Do you think you can’t draw a stick figure? Did you barely pass your language arts classes in school? None of that matters.

As a trauma-focused expressive arts therapist and expressive arts practitioner myself, I’ve heard all the excuses. I’ve even made some of them myself over the years.

The beauty of expressive arts and the multi-modal buffet of practices and options it inspires is that we can begin to practice expressive arts with whichever modality we are most comfortable. In fact, the real challenges and growth opportunities often arise when we endeavor to explore those practices we initially resist.

If your resistance takes the shape of “I’m not a very creative person,” I hear you and I relate. Many of us believe that to be creative, we have to be original and especially talented. Think of how the word expressive may feel different for you. We all have something to express, no? So why not embrace the use of any or all of the art forms I suggested earlier in the piece to let it out?

Here’s How to Start

The time has come! I recommend setting aside a significant amount of time and the following these instructions:

1) Identify the block or negative core message that you may experience around emotion. If nothing is coming up immediately, maybe use another negative message with which you struggle, especially around being creative or expressive.

I invite you to try out a sampler expressive arts practice to address whatever blocks may be coming up for you around your emotional world. Even at 16 years sober. I can still tell myself some very unkind things about my emotions and my right to express them such as “You’re too damn sensitive” or “If you show what you really feel, people may not like you.”

What internal message might you still carry about having emotions or being able to safely express them? Other examples can include: “I cannot show my emotions,” “I cannot let it out,” “It’s not safe to have feelings,” or “Emotions make me weak.”

2) Have some material nearby for drawing. A few blank pieces of paper and some markers, crayons or colored pencils or even a basic pen or pencil will do. Use what you have.

3) Take a moment to breathe and notice where you may be feeling any tension or stress in your body around the block or negative core message. Now give yourself at least five minutes (I suggest setting a time) to gush or free draw onto the page. Try to avoid using words. Stick to images or patterns, even if you are just scribbling.

4) Take a breath and notice your body. From here, perhaps put on a piece of music that’s on your playlist or (if you wish to take this a step farther) make a playlist using some songs that you find very expressive (think the ones you’re likely to sing to in the shower or the car).

Listen to the song completely through once. On the second time through, allow yourself to move to the music in whatever way feels expressive to you today. Even if you have physical injuries or limitation, consider what you may be able to do from a sitting position.

Complete the process by taking it to the page. Set your timer for five minutes or even 10, and allow yourself to free write (without over thinking it) any words or phrases that describe your experience. What did you notice? Might the words that flow out string into a poem? Or even  a reflective essay? Or just a collection of words that express just where you are at in the moment?

Lean on Your Team

If expressive arts practice is new to you, consider reaching out to a sponsor, a counselor or a trusted friend if you find yourself getting stuck or overwhelmed with any part of this process.

Show them this article if you’d first like them to check out what expressive arts is about before you share.

Please bear in mind that whatever you express genuinely is exactly what we are going after in the practice of expressive arts. This is never about creating pieces that you intend to hang in a museum or publish in a book (although if you’re called to share in that way, fair play to you!)