Conversation with Jen McNeely, She Does The City
“We explore everything from bizarre fashion trends to battling the tough stuff, because we believe that living life means taking the good with the bad and the big with the small. We’re still trying to wade our way through the muck just like everyone else, and we’re happy you’re here to experience this with us. Because as challenging and messy as the journey may be, it sure as shit isn’t boring.”
Kitchen Table Conversation
Writing has been a very important part of my recovery. I credit AA for getting me sober, but I credit my writing for keeping me sober…”
A bowl of oatmeal with 2% milk, 3 coffees (been up since 6:15am), one piece of multigrain toast with butter. Not exactly interesting, but solid sustenance to power through a morning
Liv: Moving to your story. In an interview with Meghan Telpner, you said that you first talked about recovery in an anonymous article. You wrote it anonymously because at that stage, 5 months sober, you didn’t know what the future held. Tell me how writing helped process that experience for you?
Writing has been a very important part of my recovery. I credit AA for getting me sober, but I credit my writing for keeping me sober. (I’ll probs get a whole lot of feedback for saying that, but it’s what I believe to be true.)
In that first piece for Fashion Magazine, the writing allowed me to process thoughts that were muddled in my head. Being five months sober is an extremely vulnerable space to be in; everything is new, everything (every single thing) is really hard. You have no idea what tomorrow will look like, or what next week will look like. Your life is broken down into days, hours, and minutes and you do what you can to move through it. Days are filled with a bunch of small steps: eat, do the dishes, have a shower, go to a meeting, buy a coffee, call a friend. It can sometimes feel like you’re not making progress, or that you are forever stuck in this step-by-step zone of tiny achievements; however, by sitting down and consciously reviewing time, I was able to see progress. Writing that piece made me feel proud of what I had accomplished, even though I was genuinely fearful of not being able to continue a sober life.
It wasn’t until I was nearly two years sober that I found the courage to publish pieces on my recovery under my name. This is when I really noticed the benefits of how writing helped my recovery. It allowed me to let my secrets out. It was liberating and cathartic; for the first time in a long time, I felt like I could be myself in social settings without hiding my addiction. I began to own my recovery as a positive thing instead of letting it burden me with shame. Receiving feedback from friends and family from those first few pieces of writing in 2012 was incredibly powerful. My circle of support grew exponentially in one day.
Of course, when you put it all out there, you also make it very difficult for yourself to ever drink again. The stakes are much higher when everyone knows. That in turn becomes another tool in your toolbox for staying sober.
- Talk about it/Ask about Recovery
- Join in the habit breaking in forming new activities that don’t involve drinking
- Change the scenery
- Be patient
Talk to me about patience and how recovery can be a long road?
Recovery is the longest road, because it never ends. You do not arrive at a place where you are done or recovered; it is something that you manage, grow with, and work on continuously until the day you die. Thankfully, it does get easier. During the first few months of my recovery, a wise mentor told me that one day I would be strong enough to lie in a bathtub of vodka and not take a sip. Considering my partner is a sommelier and our home is always full of wine and spirits, my life is pretty much always like lying in a vodka bath and not drinking. I probably sign for more wine deliveries at the door than just about anyone in Toronto. This is not a path I recommend, but it is my reality, one that I chose knowing the difficulties. Do I ever want to open a bottle and pour myself a glass? YES. I do. Six years into my recovery, I still want wine. I still wish that on a Friday night, I could unwind with a bottle like so many of my friends do. I wish I could attend your holiday party and get blitzed. I still dream of one day walking through a vineyard in France and breaking all the rules. But these are thoughts, and I think it’s okay to let your mind wander as long as your actions stay strong. (I eat a lot of chocolate.)
Back to your original question: Yes, patience is a requirement for sobriety. Patience and persistence. To be honest, the four years of sobriety I had under my belt before I had my son have really helped me as a mother. For me, motherhood requires more patience than sobriety; I’m glad I began working those muscles in advance. Now, they feel very strong and they get stronger every day.
Six years as of last week! When I was drinking, life was dominated by escapism. Every Fridaynight, I would relieve all my stresses of the week by getting blackout drunk. Stresses about work, my relationships, or just ANYTHING. I would ignore problems in my life by washing them away with booze. Now, I work through everything. I have to sit with challenges and let them move through every pore of my body. I have to feel everything. Sometimes they move slowly and burn all the way down. But I feel them. Every bit of them. I’m grateful that I can handle life without running from it. Of course, six years ago, I also lived with hangovers. I smoked when I drank and I started to look horrible. I remember throwing up in toilets and then looking at myself in the mirror after and being so disturbed by my appearance and angry with myself. Even when I’m really tired these days, I’m never ashamed of my reflection; I’m proud of it.
I think sharing stories about recovery accomplishes three very powerful things:
1. It allows women to identify with one another and thus not feel totally alone. It blows my mind that in this day and age, there are still mixed messages of what an alcoholic is / what he or she looks like. I’m an alcoholic. I’m not an old man, I don’t sleep on the streets, I don’t have a big red nose, I didn’t lose a job or a house. When I was drinking, I blended in very well. I was the girl in the fun dress, laughing and dancing at your party. You didn’t know I was barfing in your washroom. I kept a good cover. If people are able to see themselves in others, then they might be able to recognize that they too have a problem and are not alone.
2. Shame is toxic. I think of it as a poison in your body. When you write and share your experiences, it’s like deflating a balloon. The shame begins to release and with that, you become a stronger version of yourself.
3. Both the writing and reading about addiction acts an important “remember when…” reminder. The minute I choose to ignore my past is when I can easily fool myself into thinking that I’m not an alcoholic, that I can handle drinking. When I read my writing or writing by other women, it brings me back to my bottom. Just like lessons in history, you need to learn from your past. To move forward with strength and clarity, we must always look at the ugliness in our history.
Liv: As part of your job, you often attend events in the evening where alcohol is present. How do you feel about that today? Do you ever feel left out?
For the first two years, all social events were painstakingly difficult. I had to relearn how to socialize without booze. I remember this even manifesting in the way I held my hands. For the first few months, I didn’t know how to use my hands in social settings; I was so used to holding a glass. Nowadays, I still find celebrations like birthdays or weddings difficult. I can get silently resentful at everyone and begin to feel sorry for myself, but it’s really lovely to wake up each morning feeling clear-headed and to never have to apologize for drunken behaviour. I tend to avoid settings in bars or where drinking is the only social activity. For work events, I’m in and out within an hour.
Liv: What inspires you today and what are you passionate about?
My son inspires me. Life inspires me. When I was partying all the time, so much of my headspace was consumed with planning on when I would drink next. When I got that rush of excitement for a night on the town, I could not see anything but the drink in my hand and the next drink coming. Ever since I got sober, I see and feel and taste on a level that I was missing out on. Food, flowers, trees, art: I see it all more clearly now, and it takes my breath away each and every day. In this respect, I am a grateful alcoholic. Recovery has taught me how to experience life fully.
Liv: Your partner, Jamie Drummond [pictured right], co-produces The Good Food Revolution; Canada’s Good Food and Wine News Site, ‘a not-for-profit company with a mandate to educate the public about artisanal food.’ That sounds amazing! How does good food nutrition feature in your life?
I grew up in a household where nutrition was always important, and from a very young age, my mother instilled in me the importance of a plate with many colours (oranges, greens, reds, purples are all rich in nutrients), but feeding myself regularly is still something I need to improve on. If it weren’t for Jamie, I would probably eat bowls of cereal for dinner quite often. I’m lucky to be with Jamie for many reasons, but certainly being fed delicious, wholesome, home-cooked meals is one of them. When I remark on a dish he’s made, he often turns to me and says, “Made with love,” and I know it is. So in that respect, food in our home is not just about eating well, but it’s also about sitting down together as a family and valuing the time and energy that has gone into the food on our plate.
Liv: And, what is it like having a relationship with someone not in recovery? Are there any adjustments you need to make to that relationship? Would you say you’re more open and communicative?
I’ve never had a relationship with someone in recovery, so I have no means of comparison. Communication and respect are key in keeping things safe and comfortable. I imagine we have a lot more conversations about alcohol than most couples, but when an alcoholic falls in love with a sommelier, this is a given.
Liv: How has your relationship with food changed in recovery?
I enjoy food much more. I taste it better.
Liv: Penultimate question: what is your favourite meal/dish?
I’m a sucker for French bistro food: Steak frites / moules et frites / cassoulet / confit du canard.
Liv: Last, what are your top five recovery tools?
1. Be honest with yourself
2. When you are feeling unstable, reach out and get help
3. Surround yourself with people in recovery that you admire
4. Remove yourself from difficult situations. (For instance, when friends are arranging to meet for drinks in bars, I never attend.)
5. Nourish your body and your soul
Are those tools? I’m not sure, but they work for me.