Ray of Light Interview No. 18 :: Holly Whitaker

Holly Whitaker really should have been one of the first women I featured in the Ray of Light Interview series this year, but for some reason I was too nervous to send her the interview questions. For one, I needed to tailor her questions a little differently and secondly, I was a little intimidated. I mean, she's Holly-Freaking-Whitaker, Ms. Hip Sobriety, right? She's also my teacher, my creative partner on The Mantra Project, co-host of the HOME podcast, occasionally my muse and now a very trusted friend.

But you know what? She is also human, down-to-earth and has been known to drop an F-bomb or two. She's sensitive and brave; courageous and kind; and has a heart so big I can't understand how her petite frame holds it all in. She's pretty special and I knew I would just gush about her here in this space and that felt vulnerable, too.

Initially, I came to know Holly's work through mutual friends on social media. Back in August 2015, I spotted some of her words being shared on Instagram. I was a little over six months sober at the time, navigating sobriety on my own with only sheer will and an intense hiking routine. I also had exactly zero friends in recovery in my real life. On this particular summer day, I kept reading her words over and over again like a mantra, like a prayer. They made more sense than anything I'd come across in my 180 days of white-knuckling my sobriety.

A page from my journal using micron pens + colored pencils

A page from my journal using micron pens + colored pencils

The goal isn't to be sober and barely hanging on, which was exactly what I was doing. No, she was definitely onto something here. The goal absolutely was to love myself so much that I didn't need to drink. But how? I felt like these words unlocked something in me and tapped into the feelings of shame and regret and self-loathing that I wanted to rid myself of now that booze had been eradicated from my days and nights. Could it really be as simple as loving myself? Yes and no. There was much work to be done in this department, but this phrase and her life's work was the beginning of a new chapter in my recovery from alcohol. I was about to start recovering bits of myself that I'd long pushed down or forgotten. Holly and Hip Sobriety would help to lead the way, only I didn't know it when I initially illustrated these words.

On November 11th of 2015, we would meet in San Francisco for pastries and coffee and start collaborating on The Mantra Project, a 40 day sobriety email course (click here to check it out). I would quickly assess that this woman is a powerhouse of knowledge about addiction and that she could make a mean spreadsheet! She graciously gifted me a spot in her Winter 2016 Hip Sobriety School where I would learn more about her, her process and an abundance of tools to help keep me sober.

Today I'll hug Holly at the She Recovers NYC 3-day event and meet hundreds of other women in recovery. Community, tribe and meeting people who say "me, too" is something that will never get old.

Let's get to it, shall we? Grab a cup of tea or coffee and learn a little bit more about this fierce sobriety evangelist, Miss Holly Whitaker.

Original photo by: Danielle Coulter Mixed media using black/white image + acrylic paints

Original photo by: Danielle Coulter
Mixed media using black/white image + acrylic paints

Holly Whitaker
Writer, Sobriety Evangelist, Founder of Hip Sobriety.
Instagram handle: @hipsobriety (for work/life) @hollyglenn79 (for amateur photography).
Blog: Hip Sobriety

Do you remember how we first came to know one another?
I was sitting in my childhood bedroom at home in Fresno; I'd just declared that I'd be leaving San Francisco for good, was homeless/living with my mom (again, at age 36).  Then on top of all that, Laura and I had started this secret Facebook group for women that listened to our podcast, and as soon as we opened it up, I felt like I didn't belong there at all. I felt like Laura had this natural ability to talk to people, and that I was this girl that no one liked (womp womp). Anyway, from what I remember, I mentioned that I felt like an alien, and you said that you would meet me for donuts if we were in the same city, and that was when I knew we would be friends forever. Shortly after that, you, Donut Savior, shared a piece of art you'd made with your friend's words, and that was when I asked you if you'd make art out of my words. And, um, we did just that together with The Mantra Project 40 Days of Sobriety email course, and still do that together. #MAGIC.

I first stumbled upon your online presence when I saw a friend holding up a piece of paper with the hashtag #ichooseclean on it and posted to her Instagram feed. I fell down the rabbit hole of your Instagram account and later devoured every square inch of your blog. Who started the hashtag #ichooseclean? And, why?
Laura (McKowen) and I did. First, because the common idea is not I CHOOSE NOT TO stop drinking, it's I HAD TO. I don't believe that. I believe it's a choice we make (even if our hands are forced to make said choice because we could have of course chosen to keep drinking), and an empowering one. So we wanted to put that out there - this is a choice for a better life, not a consequence of our "bad behavior." So I CHOOSE. Second, we thought it would be a beautiful thing if people could see other people on this path who were out with their sobriety. I get asked all the time "How do we change this alcogenic culture" and the answer - always - is WE change it, and WE change it by showing people how liberating and beautiful a life outside the bar scene is; we change it by showing people that everything starts here.

Hip Sobriety School is, for all intents and purposes, your baby. What was the impetus for starting the school? When did you launch your first school?
It is my baby! My first school launched in May 2015, with I think about 12 participants.

I was lucky enough to participate in your Winter 2016 Hip Sobriety School and was floored by the amount of research, data, resources and soul that went into your school. How do you refuel yourself after the school is over?
The first school I did, I was sick the entire time. I slept about 11 hours a night; I could barely get out of bed in the morning. Catatonic is an excellent way to describe this period of my life. Right after it was over, I went to Rome for a few months, and that brought me back to life. I ran another school in January 2016 with over 100 people in it this time and died again, and then took a month off right after, went to a meditation retreat, came back and did another school (in May 2016), and again I was sick most of the time. I ran back to Rome in July 2016, got my groove back, came back and did it AGAIN in October 2016. The trick for me was that the more I did it, the less it hurt, and also, the better I got about drawing boundaries. When I first did the school, in 2015 with only a dozen women, I felt like I was failing all of them the whole time - not because of how they acted (they were so grateful and generous and KIND) but because I just couldn't believe my best was good enough. But you know, I teach that we are ALWAYS doing our best, and I teach self-love, and I guess after telling other people to go easy on themselves a few thousand times and to give themselves a break, I finally learned it myself. The last time I ran the school, this past winter (January 2017, for the fifth time) I didn't burn out. I looked just as healthy at the end as I did at the beginning, if not more healthy. Boundaries, delegation, and balance. So the answer is - I don't need to refuel myself as much as I used to, if at all - I am learning to be in a constant refuel mode (which sometimes just looks hella lazy).

You’ve shared on your blog that your mother had breast cancer and when she was in recovery people brought casseroles and were very supportive. As we both know, recovery from alcohol is not at all like recovery from cancer or any other disease. People don’t seem to have the same level of compassion for those of us who have a drinking problem. They often think it’s self-inflicted. What would you say to those people?
Well, I wouldn't say anything to them. They aren't the people I'm here for. Here's the thing. We live in a society that rewards one human's success at the cost of another - our entire system is entrenched in a belief that it is every man for himself. Most of us wake up every single day to an uphill battle and a purse of fears - how will I save enough for retirement, get out of debt, deal with my asshole boss, keep my kids safe, lose those damn ten pounds, stop fighting with my mother, feel less lonely/stressed/depressed/anxious, etc. Most of are walking around just trying to survive, chained to a system that doesn't work for us, with an un-lived life beating a second heartbeat. What I'm saying is that most people aren't in that "You did it to yourself/you're not my problem" mindset because everything is going super great for them and their really happy people. I think it's our responsibility as people in recovery to both teach by demonstrating - and that means NOT telling other people what they are doing right and wrong - and to also be what WE needed for those that come behind us. We don't tell other people what they need to do to change the world. We just go out and change it by being the change.

Many of the women interviewed for this series are referencing you as one of their teachers. How does that make you feel?
Old. In my bones. Scared. Overwhelmed. Humbled. Honored. Blessed. Lucky. Every time I've tried to tell my teacher Stephanie Snyder "You are my teacher" she tells me "What you see in me, I see in you." So that's what it makes me feel the most. That if someone sees something in me, it's a perfect reflection of what I see in them. Oh and also it makes me want to say "No...stop!" and deflect it instead of receiving it, but that's just another ego trick so I try to just take it in with as much humility and grace as I can muster.

How would you describe your own recovery modality?
Slow, extreme, well-rounded, forgiving, kind, whole, patient, veritable cornucopia.

I know that you do not identify yourself as an Alcoholic. Can you explain to my readers why you do not use that word when describing your relationship with alcohol? 
To keep it simple (ha!), I don't because I don't think there is such a thing a "normal drinker" - it's not normal to consume cocaine, nicotine, heroin, crack, meth. But with alcohol - a substance that has been ranked THE most dangerous drug in the world - we believe as a society that people *should* be able to consume it. In other words, we believe that there is something wrong with people who have trouble consuming alcohol, instead of thinking there might be something weird about being able to tolerate consuming the same thing we fuel rockets with. I don't identify as an alcoholic because I don't think any amount of alcohol consumption is normal. There's not something wrong with just a few of us - there's something wrong with the whole damn picture here. So that's one reason. There's a lot more, you can read the article I wrote on the top 9 reasons. Primarily I don't because I don't have a problem with alcohol anymore - I choose not to consume it. End of story.

You recently wrote a blog post about how to fix the addiction epidemic through rebranding and social proof. I’ll link to it here, but wanted to ask you if you got any feedback about that post - positive or negative?
All positive.

That post helped start a conversation about using the phrase Teetotaler, a person who never drinks alcohol, instead of Alcoholic. What are your thoughts about the stigma associated with the word Alcoholic? Do you think that by assuming this new phrase of Teetotaler that we are helping to keep the A-word stigmatized?
I don't think it's the A-word that holds the stigma. I think the thing that bears the weight of the stigma is our very human experience of saying "I can't drink" and what that means for our lives. Teetotaler and Tt aren't intended to reduce the stigma around the word alcoholic; they are meant to provide an entry point into mainstream culture for an idea that more and more people are choosing not to drink. There's no baggage attached to the words; most people don't even know what the hell Teetotaler means. So we have this new word, with no real qualifications for it except that you don't drink, and that's something you can wear in public without a long back story. The piece I wrote discussed that when there is an observable behavior (think white headphones say you are part of the Apple consumer culture, yellow Livestrong bracelets indicate you support cancer research, mustaches in November are ubiquitously known as the Movember/prostate cancer awareness), it provides an opportunity for people to SEE that behavior. If you're walking around hiding the fact that you don't drink, we end up with what we have - a sub-culture that can only find each other in meeting rooms and online forums, that has no real representation above ground. Creating a word and a symbol, and then wearing that word and symbol, starts to create social proof around something that hasn't been observed in mainstream society. In other words, it's less around saying "We're proud non-drinkers" - it's more about showing up in our real lives as who we are, and in a way that helps our people find us. Another thing here on this - we know from both the AIDS epidemic that people didn't get real help until they showed up in society and were seen as a population. An original campaign in the early AIDS movement was called Silence = Death. we know for a fact that addicted populations are silent, and they are dying in record numbers. So this also changes that dynamic - the more we talk about this stuff and are seen in real life - not just as statistics - the more weight we have in the public sphere to change long-held beliefs about addiction and recovery, as well as to campaign for more resources, equal treatment, better and more affordable recovery modalities. I see this as the lynchpin in much of the work to be done.

What does it feel like to have women branding their bodies with the Teetotaler tattoo that you designed?
Proud as hell of my sisters and brothers brave enough to go first.

You turned me onto the idea of building my own sobriety toolbox once I read your blog post titled How to Build A Sobriety Toolbox. What are the top three tools in your own sobriety toolbox?
In the sense of "what do I turn to when I'm freaking out?"  - Kundalini meditation, breath work, baths.

How did you know or decide that you had to quit drinking? How many times did it take for it to stick finally?
I guess the moment I KNEW I had to quit drinking was a specific moment with a girlfriend - we were out in the Mission District in San Francisco, she was drunker than I was, and she'd gotten kicked out of a cab. I'd already been thinking that my drinking days were numbered, this sealed the deal. I quit in late October 2012, starting drinking about 60 days later, stopped again on March 31st, 2013, and for good on April 14th, 2013.

What has delighted or surprised you most since you quit drinking alcohol?
The freedom. It will never, EVER get old going to a wedding/dinner/brunch/party/whatever and passing up on the alcohol. It feels like a privilege - like I don't have to do that anymore. As Rob Bell recently put it, I'm no longer caught up in a game that a lot of people are still playing.

Can you recommend three books, bloggers or teachers that have helped you on this path to sobriety?
JUST THREE?! Yes. I love Ann Dowsett Johnston's work (her book Drink is phenomenal for women), Stephanie Snyder will forever be the one I have the most reverence for (do her yoga classes on Yogaglo or watch her Ted talk or see her live in San Francisco at her new studio Love Story Yoga), and Pema Chodron (her talks on Audible are everything). I also have to give a huge shout out to Allen Carr, who wrote The Easy Way To Control Alcohol, which without I would not be here.

How did you and your HOME podcast co-host, Laura McKowen, first meet?
On Instagram! She found me first, and there was just what I could only describe as an instant mutual fascination.

The HOME podcast you co-host with Laura McKowen was recently rated #200 in iTunes under the arts + culture section. How did that make you feel?
Like we've got a lot of work to do.

You are approaching your 100th episode of the HOME podcast. Any special plans for that episode that you can share?
Yes - it's going to be amazing.

You’ve created several communities within your Hip Sobriety School sessions, as well as the HOME podcast secret Facebook group, both of which have made it possible for me to connect to dozens of other sober women. How important is community to your own recovery?
I'm a strange bird. I share a lot publicly and am in community online, but in my real life, I keep it tight. My first year of recovery I had no community outside of my yoga community and my (paid) healers. In the second and third year, I developed a few tight, private relationships. Community is something that I am rich in, and yet there are times that I feel like the loneliest woman on the planet. So I guess I'll say I am so lucky and so rich in people and relationships, and community is everything, and there are days where I think I'll die of loneliness still.

What are three of your favorite podcasts right now?
Um, I hate podcasts. REALLY! If I didn't have to listen to HOME to edit it, I wouldn't listen to it at all. But I do love me a good Robcast, Don't Freak Out! podcast with Allison Micco is new and good and I've been loving it, and I also don't watch the news or read anything but Bloomberg Businessweek, so to stay a little bit in the loop on current affairs, I love The Daily by the New York Times - 20 minutes a day of the bare minimum to keep me informed.

What are you most proud of right now?
How much I'm growing up in the way I relate to the opposite sex romantically. I've done more work on this whole staying with myself thing, learning to ask for more, setting standards. I never knew I could be such an adult or that I was capable of being this woman I am today - men have always turned me into a Gremlin (or rather, I've always turned into a Gremlin when I try and relate to men). I like this girl I am a lot. She's doing pretty good work all around.

Any future projects you’re working on that you feel like sharing?
A book and growing my blog and brand, and expanding my school. And of course, our collaborative project.

Holly was one of my first experiments working with the Ray of Light concept. I quickly realized I wanted to feature women in this series that have shed their addiction and how they shine brighter without the need or booze in their lives. Holly embodied that concept for me and I wanted to gift her something to show my appreciation for her and all of the work she was doing.

Initially, I worked on large 8" x 10" images and slowly taped them off and painted layers and layers of color to create the rays. Working on the first few felt wobbly, but over the next year this idea and concept would percolate in my mind and find its way into much of my work. The bands of color and the lines were my calling to create and I felt like this body of work could really honor the women who worked their asses off to reclaim their lives after their addiction alcohol. These women absolutely couldn't help but shine brighter in the next chapter of their lives and I felt honored and called to do this work.

Original image courtesy of Holly Whitaker

Original image courtesy of Holly Whitaker

If you're interested in learning more about Holly's work, please use the links referenced throughout this blog post. I'd also be honored if you checked out The Mantra Project we worked on so hard together. Holly wrote the content and I illustrated her beautiful words. More to come with this project with future offerings coming to you later this year.