Conversation with Dawn Nickel
Dawn has been in recovery since 1987. Alcohol free since that time, she struggled until 1989 with a marijuana addiction and was then both alcohol and drug free for nearly 11 years before relapsing on prescription drugs for 2 days in May 2000. Dawn will celebrate sixteen consecutive years of complete abstinence from all drugs in May 2016. In the summer of 2011, while recovering from a nasty case of workaholism, Dawn created the Facebook page She Recovers to reach out to other women wanting to recover their lives and their potential. Building on her degrees in women’s studies, women’s history and a PhD in health care policy (all of her degrees earned while in recovery), Dawn completed recovery coach training with Crossroads Recovery Coaching in September, 2013. Today, in addition to operating a full-time health and social policy research consultancy, Dawn has been running She Recovers Retreats since 2012. In Dawn’s view, we are all recovering from something, and we’re stronger together. She is a strong advocate for the view that each woman in or seeking recovery needs to be supported to find the tools and pathway that will work best for her as an individual.
Kitchen Table Conversation
Hi Dawn, I am over the moon that you agreed to be interviewed, I could talk to you for hours. I’ve been following your Facebook page and website since I came into recovery and, amongst thousands of other women, I find truly wonderful. Congratulations on such a long period of sustained recovery. It gives me such a sense of hope that long periods of recovery are possible.
Liv: What have you had for breakfast today?
Dawn: I haven’t had breakfast yet but I will have my usual fruit (berries, mango, banana), greek yogurt and granola. And decaf coffee.
Liv: One of the beliefs you describe on your site is that even women who have years or decades of recovery need to tap into the wisdom of others who came before and who are able and willing to share positive life experiences. What are the benefits in tapping into that wisdom and shared experiences?
Dawn: Getting clean (and sober) doesn’t mean that we have all of the answers. Living life on life’s terms can be really hard and I need to be able to share what’s going on for me and hear women with more life experience in recovery say “Yes, Dawn…me too.” It’s as important now to me as it was when I first chose recovery. I really need positive, older and/or other female role models in recovery. I can’t do this thing called life alone.
Liv: Is there power in collective empathy and sharing?
Dawn: Absolutely. As the years go by I believe that I have stepped into my personal power with both feet and I can do a lot on my own steam these days – but I still need to be able to share it and have other women share back. I’d be pretty lonely without the tribe of women that surrounds me. Not just in my real life – but my cyber-besties too.
Liv: Your page and site welcomes women of all types of recovery – whether it be addiction, alcoholism, codependency, workaholism, eating disorders, depression and other mental illness, burnout, anxiety, stress, trauma, post-trauma, grief, abuse, cancer and chronic illness, from having our hearts broken, from losing our marriages, our homes, or our jobs – would you say there is a general theme running through the recovery of these women? For example, are women looking for healing resources, or practical tools?
Dawn: Ultimately, on She Recovers – I think that we are all looking for…connection. With each other but also with messages (a meme can be worth a thousand words, right?) and with stories. We like to provide resources and tools too, of course. But it’s connection that most of us are seeking.
Liv: You say that we all have our own methods of recovery, a personal choice – can you expand on that? Does one-size-fit-all?
Dawn: I used to think that there only one way – and that it was the 12 step way. But that’s because I had no idea how to do recovery – and everybody around me told me that recovery meant working the 12 steps. They worked for me – and there didn’t seem to be other options for us back in the late 1980s. I love the 12 steps – but I completely understand how they might not work for everyone and I am so very grateful that increasingly – we are waking up to a much broader array of options. I like the idea of a “blended recovery model” best of all. A smorgasbord – load ‘er up.
Liv: Leading on from the previous question, what are the benefits of trying different methods of recovery, of expanding one’s toolkit?
Dawn: In recovery – we start figuring out who we are and what we like, what works for us – in all areas of life. If our recovery model isn’t working – we aren’t going to stay clean. From what I have witnessed – when people try a lot of different options “on” – and do so with intention – something will eventually “click.” It’s an exciting moment – not just for that person – but for those of us watching.
“I try to practice self-care. I walk – with other women in recovery. I’m actually okay to tell you that I don’t have to work very hard at recovery today – it’s just part of my life.”
Liv: Moving on to your journey, I think it is wonderful that you share your recovery from all aspects of your addiction (both alcohol and drugs); how would you describe your addiction to drugs in your early sobriety? For you, would you say it’s a further manifestation of your disease (if you believe in the disease model)?
Dawn: Honestly – I view alcohol as a drug – so when I say I am clean I mean I am clean from all drugs including alcohol. It didn’t matter to me if I was swilling vodka, snorting coke, popping pills, smoking pot – I was trying to escape reality. I believe that addiction (to all of the above and more) is a disease of the brain. But I don’t get too caught up in the debate over whether it’s a disease or not. I don’t view myself as a “sick” person anymore, although I was clearly very ill before I got clean.
Liv: You explain that for you, abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances forms the basis of your recovery. Leading on from that, what is your recovery strategy?
Dawn: Gosh. I don’t feel very strategic these days. I would have to say that over the past few years a lot of my recovery comes from hanging with my close female friends in recovery.
I’m married to a man with 27 years of recovery – he is a big piece of my recovery – we seem to keep each other honest. I still attend recovery meetings (although not religiously these days – that changes all the time). I have a relationship with a higher power. I read a lot of books. I do yoga but not often enough. I try to practice self-care. I walk – with other women in recovery. I’m actually okay to tell you that I don’t have to work very hard at recovery today – it’s just part of my life. Granted – I might have to work at it really hard tomorrow, next week or next month – but I’ll know how to do it. I’ll just do more of the above.
Liv: I love the blog post Five Years Later, about your recovery from workaholism, in 2011. I can’t begin to imagine how you coped with all of those undertakings. How did you approach your recovery from overcommitting yourself in this way?
Dawn: I was so numb that I had no idea that I was as screwed as I was when I hit the wall. It scared me. A lot. I just went back to basics. I admitted that I needed help and asked for it. That always works – regardless of what I am struggling with. Maybe some people can figure out how to get out of their messes on their own – I don’t like to be alone in my messes. I went back to therapy for two years to really explore some more childhood issues. I hired a life coach! I’m not going to lie – I still overcommit. But I try to get others on board to work with me on major commitments. I don’t do it all alone any more. And I’m very lucky – we hold 3-4 retreats a year where I can (nearly) unwind. I work hard but I play hard too.
“That lovely poem tells us that in the end, all that will matter is how we live on in the minds and hearts of the people who love us.”
Liv: I love the post ‘What Will Matter’ in which you share your reflections of recovering from a near death experience with colon cancer. In that reflection, you shared the poem of Michael Josephson, entitled What Will Matter. You said that poem holds such meaning for you, can you elaborate how that resonates with you?
Dawn: That lovely poem tells us that in the end, all that will matter is how we live on in the minds and hearts of the people who love us. Today – and I have to remind myself of this sometimes – all that matters to me – is that I get to spend time with people I love. My family first – and especially my brand new baby grand-daughter (Marley Dawn). I swear she is the best cure for workaholism I have found to date. I would rather make memories than money today. I live in a crooked little old house and drive a funny little car (a Nissan Cube). I don’t care about stuff. I deeply care about the family and friends who love me and put up with me, and about the women I connect with through She Recovers.
Liv: You’ve said that you believe passionately that recovery should be lived one day at a time, what do you mean by that?
Dawn: I could have died a dozen times in my addiction – and came very close to dying from colon cancer. I don’t take time for granted. Okay – I try not to take time for granted. I’m only promised this moment. Also – the crap that happened in my past is only that – the crap that happened in my past. It doesn’t define me.
“When I find or create and then share something inspirational – I can’t help but be inspired myself.”
Liv: Part of your meditation practice is to visit the She Recovers page, can you explain a little more about that practice? And how it helps your recovery?
Dawn: It’s tricky. She Recovers (the FB page) has been a part of my daily practice since summer 2011. I love seeking out inspiration from all of the other amazing recovery-related FB pages and I love reading the comments from the women who visit my page. It’s kind of a daily discipline and challenge to keep the content on the page fresh and meaningful. When I find or create and then share something inspirational – I can’t help but be inspired myself. And yet – it’s also such a habit that I don’t feel complete if I go a day without posting. Taryn (my daughter) has started posting daily lately too – it’s wonderful!
Liv: What I particularly like about your site is that not only is it a great resource for those in recovery, but it provides a holistic approach to it; for example, you have pages for yoga, recovery coaching,resources, retreats and mala beads. How important are these individual elements to your recovery?
Dawn: I wish I had more time to spend sharing more resources – I think the most valuable thing that we can do on our web site is point people in the direction of recovery resources. I think that retreats and life coaches are great resources for recovery but we have a whole page of other resources that don’t cost money. Our malas are intended as meditation tools but they are also very beautiful. We sell our bracelets at a very reasonable price because we want women with financial difficulty to be able to treat themselves to one, and wear it as a symbol of their commitment to their recovery. And they do.
She Recovers Retreats
“I think I love lying in a room full of women who are just focused on being in the moment. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s even more extraordinary when we are doing it lying on the rooftop of our retreat villa in Mexico.”
Liv: It is a personal dream of mine to one day attend your retreats – I recall Jean @UnpickledBlogspeaking so enthusiastically about it – just how powerful is yoga in recovery?
Dawn: Honestly – I’m a pretty lazy yogini. I always say that I prefer “laying down” yoga. I don’t like sun or moon salutations because I don’t like “jumping around yoga.” But I love the breathing, the meditation that comes with yoga. I’m spoiled – my daughter is an amazing yoga teacher and she shares her passion for it and her wisdom from it. I love the music and the readings that she shares in her classes and on retreat. I think I love lying in a room full of women who are just focused on being in the moment. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s even more extraordinary when we are doing it lying on the rooftop of our retreat villa in Mexico. But truthfully, most of what I know about the power of yoga in recovery is from having witnessed that power as I hear or watch others. I’ve seen recovering women completely transformed by yoga. I love that.
Liv: You’ve often spoken of the healing properties of Mala beads, and your love of making them; can you explain more about them and their significance?
Dawn: My daughter Taryn designed the mala line and we started selling them so that she could quit her day job and focus on teaching yoga, running our retreats, and selling malas to support herself. She got really busy with the malas and so I offered to make the bracelets last year. Now it’s sometimes how I unwind many evenings after being in my work-head all day. Making them is yet another healthy, healing meditative practice. Using them to recite mantras such as “I am worthy” or “I am okay” is pretty powerful too. I use mine for the latter – always.
“We are a work in progress – it’s not always easy and it’s never perfect. But just as being in recovery is about recovering our individual potential – as a recovering family we can always keep working to be the best we can be with and to each other. We are there for each other – always. We have fun. We’re all a little bit nuts.”
Liv: I really identify with a family addiction and recovery; it is heart warming to see your daughter, Taryn not only sharing her experience of addiction, but collaborating with you at She Recovers. What have been some of the challenges of addiction running through a family? Is there a familial link in addiction, in your view?
Dawn: Absolutely. The amazing piece of our story is that our being in recovery (my husband and I) meant that we knew how to deal with Taryn when she started doing heavy drugs at 16. Taryn often says that she tried to become an addict but her parents wouldn’t let her. She recognizes how easy it would be for her to become a full-blown addict (from her experiences at 16) so for most of the past many years she has chosen a lifestyle that doesn’t include drugs or alcohol. She also works really hard on her recovery from codependency. Who is to say what comes first, really?
Liv: Conversely, what are some of the benefits of a family recovery?
Dawn: We are a work in progress – it’s not always easy and it’s never perfect. But just as being in recovery is about recovering our individual potential – as a recovering family we can always keep working to be the best we can be with and to each other. We are there for each other – always. We have fun. We’re all a little bit nuts.
Food & Recovery
“I think food and nutrition is a key piece of everyone’s recovery.”
Liv: How does food and good nutrition feature in your recovery?
Dawn: I think food and nutrition is a key piece of everyone’s recovery. I am fortunate that I have a partner who prepares beautiful, healthy food for me all of the time. But I must also confess – I struggle with sugar cravings. Ice cream is my nemesis. I try to be gentle with myself around it.
Liv: What is your favourite meal?
Dawn: Any grilled protein (chicken, prawns, steak, salmon, halibut) with rice and grilled veggies (asparagus, green and red peppers) accompanied by salad. Again – I’m fortunate. I don’t cook but have someone who is an amazing chef take care of all of our meals. Life is good.
Dawn’s 5 Recovery Ideas
Liv: Whilst I could ask a million more questions, I will ask my last: What are your top five recovery tools?
Dawn: I prefer to list five recovery ideas, is that okay?
1. Find a recovery pathway that works for you;
2. Create a vision for how you want your life to be – and believe in that vision;
3. Create a circle of support – other women (or men) in recovery, professionals – whoever you need;
4. Set and achieve one small goal that will help move you towards your vision. Then set another;
5. Learn how to practice self-care. Lots of self care.
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