Ray of Light Interview No. 25 :: Laura McKowen

Every Friday for the entire 2017 calendar year, I will release a new interview + accompanying artwork as part of my weekly Ray of Light Interview Series: Women in Recovery. This series will feature brave, kickass, beautiful women who have chosen to embrace an alcohol-free lifestyle. The light was dimmed for these women when they were struggling with alcohol (either a little or a lot).  I wish to honor them for their brave choice to ditch alcohol, rediscover themselves through sobriety + shine bright in the process.  You can access links to the entire series by clicking here.

Laura McKowen
Writer + Teacher
Instagram: @laura_mckowen
Personal Blog: www.lauramckowen.com
Twitter: @lauramckowen
Facebook: Laura McKowen

HOME podcast website: www.homepodcast.org
PATH website: www.pathtribe.com

Do you remember how we first came to know each other? 
I believe I discovered you on Instagram through our web of connections. You were posting as Small Town Goods and I loved your art. I took notice of your unique style and pretty early on you sent me a few sweet quotes you’d done - one was Maya Angelou, “When we know better, we do better.” I still have them. From the beginning I was drawn to your artist’s heart, your style, your grounded energy, your honest account of sobriety, the pictures of your home, and generally just your way.

The first time we met in real life you actually came to visit me and a mutual friend and you stayed at my house for a weekend. Even though we’d never met I felt like I’d known you for a long, long time.

I first stumbled upon your online presence when I saw a mutual friend of ours holding up a piece of paper with the hashtag #ichooseclean written on it and posted to her Instagram feed. I clicked through that hashtag and found you and 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?
Oh, my, flashback! Holly and I started that as a way for people to bring themselves out into the light as sober. I believe we made it before we started HOME. My #ichooseclean post was the first time I came out as sober and I was only a month or two in. I posted it on Instagram but also to my personal Facebook page. Things kind of took off from there, but I often forget this was such a big catalyst. In the first few days of posting that, Holly and I had hundreds of emails and requests from women to add their photos and stories. It blew my mind and really gave me the courage to move forward in what I was doing. There was a lot of energy and momentum behind those initial posts--like a whole group of women who had been waiting to jump were given permission, held hands, and leapt together.

What is your sobriety date? 9/28/14

How would you describe your own recovery modality?
I would say I have a “throw the book at it” approach to recovery. I do anything and everything that feels supportive to me and the mix has shifted over time. In the beginning I had to do everything I could just to focus on not drinking. Now it’s a little more broad.

I went to AA and credit that program and the people in it for my start. It was the first place I heard people talk in real life about what I was going through and the first place I got real about my drinking. I worked in Boston so I had a lot of different meetings available to me--women’s meetings, step meetings, open meetings, beginner’s meetings--and there were a lot of people who looked like me in there. That’s not the case everywhere, but I was lucky in that way.

Although I was incredibly skeptical, I don’t think I would be sober had it not been for certain meetings and certain people. I learned how to start telling the truth, I met people, I saw people get better, and all of that was so important because I didn’t really know anyone who was sober then.

I also started to talk online (on a separate account I created on Instagram) about my journey before I was actually sober and found there were quite a few other people out there doing the same. I got a lot from putting my words out there in that way...it was something I’d always wanted to do, but had never really been able to be honest. I was keeping a lot of secrets then and my life was so compartmentalized--there were people who knew I was trying to get sober, people who thought I *was* sober, people who had no idea, co-workers, all of it. Anyway, Instagram was where I met Holly and so many others. I also started to write about it on my blog (then “I Fly at Night”). Writing has been a massive part of my recovery.

I also started to teach yoga again, something I’d started ten years prior, and the yogic teachings play into my recovery as well. I listened/listen to podcasts, I move my body a lot (running, yoga), I get regular sleep, I talk with women in recovery daily, I respect my energetic limits, I pray, and I try to stay teachable. I attend meetings, although far less frequently.

Do you identify yourself as an Alcoholic? Why or why not?
Only when I’m in meetings, and sometimes not even then. Why? I’ve never really identified with the label and it doesn’t feel real to me. When I say it in meetings it’s to count myself into those rooms, and I’m fine with that, but outside of that I don’t feel it necessary. I think the label can be helpful, but also--as with every other label--it can carry unnecessary weight.

For me, arguing about whether or not to call myself an Alcoholic in the beginning of my sobriety was just another way I was trying to circumvent having to actually get sober. It’s sort of a luxury thing to debate at that point. Now that I’m sober and have more space to breathe into this stuff, I can think about such things. I wrote a piece about the label Alcoholic that summarizes my current stance on the subject.

How many tattoos do you have? What are they and do they have any particular meaning to you and your recovery?
Eight. Yes! They all have meaning to me and my recovery, even though I got many of them before I was sober.

  • One is a phoenix. Self-explanatory. Got it after my daughter was born.

  • “Beauty and Terror” is from the a Rilke poem - Let everything happen to you / beauty and terror / Just keep going / No feeling is final. This has long been one of my favorite poems and I got it after my husband and I separated. It’s come to mean a lot in sobriety, but it applies to everything and is a bit of my mantra for life.

  • “And yet” is on my wrist, and it’s a phrase from my favorite book, “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss. It’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over throughout the book, and to me it means continuance - that we experience all of these things in life that might break us, and yet, we go on.

  • I have the album art from Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” on my back. Just because I love that band and I love the art.

  • “Devo farmi le ossa” means “I need to make my bones” in Italian. I got that on my 37th birthday when I had been trying to get sober for a year and couldn’t put together more than 30 days or so. It was sort of a stake in the ground for me. Time to grow up, toughen up, show up.

  • Raven carrying the message “Winter is dead” which is from a poem by AA Milne: http://www.dltk-holidays.com/spring/poem/mmilne-daffodowndilly.htm. This is my most recent one and I got it as a bit of a fuck you to the darkest times.

The first Ray of Light image I did of Laura back in late 2015

The first Ray of Light image I did of Laura back in late 2015

Last year you quit your job in marketing/advertising. What prompted you to take that leap?
I chose my career path (if you can call it that) by accident, in a way. Marketing and advertising were a natural fit for my personality and my lifestyle: lots of partying, a work hard/play hard mentality, a mix of creativity and business, and continual change. All those things really worked for me and they work for me still (minus the partying). But it was not really an intentional choice to do that for 15 years. I kind of just kept going along the path. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t really love it, either.

Once I got sober, though, I started to see myself in that world less and less. I was really good at my job but I didn’t feel like it made any sense anymore. I wanted other things more. I wanted to write, to teach, to produce different things, to spend my time more intentionally. Holly and I started HOME, I was writing regularly and getting published, I was teaching yoga again, and really my whole world started to shift. At one point I was definitely doing two jobs. It was a foregone conclusion that I would leave my job and the industry, but I didn’t know exactly what that would look like...I’m still figuring that out. When I quit the circumstances had just tipped enough that I was able to leave and make the leap. It was a big leap, but I also had this sense that I’d been carried to where I was and I wouldn’t be dropped. I was sober and as long as I stayed sober, things would be just fine.

You recently launched PATH with Meadow DeVor. Can you share with my readers about your newest endeavor?
Yes! Meadow and I launched PATH because we wanted a really accessible way for people to stay connected to the work we’re both doing. It was born from our retreats. The people who attended kept asking how they could keep going with the work they did during our retreats once they left and went back into their lives. So we thought, why not make an online program with a weekly class and create a community around it? And so we did.

I identified early on with your recovery because you are also a mother to an only child. I found it intensely brave of you to share your story and because of that, I felt brave enough to start sharing mine. How has motherhood changed for you since you got sober?
It’s changed in every way, really. I was fiercely in love with my daughter but I couldn’t connect to that love very easily, if that makes sense. Alcohol was more important than her and I chose it over her all the time. A really wise woman in one of my first meetings said, “Addiction is stronger than love, until it isn’t” and I identified with that. I was really sick. I loved my daughter but I couldn’t take care of her. I wasn’t present. She was just another thing I had to deal with so I could drink the way I wanted to drink.

Since I’ve been sober, I connect with her more. It’s not easy at all--it’s the most challenging job I have--sometimes my rage and anger surprise me. But, I keep showing up. I’m honest with her. When I mess up it’s not because I’m too hungover or I’m drunk. I have a little more patience. I want to spend time with her and can actually see her.

What are a few of your go-to items in your own sobriety toolbox?

  • Writing
  • Running
  • Yoga - teaching it and taking it
  • Essential oils
  • Honest talk with other women in recovery

Can you recommend three books, bloggers or teachers that have helped you on this path to sobriety?
It’s hard to name just three! I’ll pick people that are alive, to make it easier.

  • Augusten Burroughs, and specifically his essay on how to put down your drink in “This is How” really sort of tipped me into sobriety. I struggled for a year and a half to really “get it” after I first started to try and that essay made me get very real. I wrote about it here.
  • I’ll also go with Anne Lamott and Pema Chodron, just because they were so instrumental in getting me through that initial awakening. Long before I got sober I found them and they were the ones who started to crack open the possibility that I was okay, regardless of how ugly my truth was.

How did you and your HOME podcast co-host, Holly Whitaker, first meet?
We met on Instagram. She commented on a post I made about concert tickets, saying we were kinda soul sisters, and that was that.

The HOME podcast was recently rated #200 in iTunes under the Society + Culture section. How did that make you feel?
It’s wild. Honestly, a lot of that stuff just doesn’t make sense to me. We see it and we’re like, huh? What? I know that can be annoying to hear--like it’s some faux humility--but really, it doesn’t make sense. We just wanted to start talking about this thing. We knew it was important, but we didn’t know what would happen with it. It still just feels like her and I sitting there having conversations in our house every week, so to see these big stats or to have recognition like that, it’s funny. Very grateful, though.

You’ve created several communities within the HOME podcast Facebook group and now PATH. How important is community to your own recovery?
The most important. From what I’ve seen over the past few years, I think the difference between people that are able to get and stay sober and thrive in recovery and those who aren’t--the biggest thing is community. We’re wired for it. We need it so badly. And when we think we’re alone, when we can’t talk specifically about what it’s like to go through this thing, I don’t think we can really heal.

What are three of your favorite podcasts right now?

  1. Rob Bell’s podcast, The Robcast
  2. WTF with Marc Maron is still a long standing favorite
  3. And I really like Reply All, for something totally different. Those dudes make me laugh.

I know you’re in the process of writing a book and are probably tired of people asking you how that’s going, so I’ll ask this: What workshops, classes (in person or online) have you taken that have helped you with this endeavor? Or, what writers have influenced your desire to write a memoir? 
I attended a retreat with Dani Shapiro and that really helped me move my memoir forward. It’s funny because I didn’t write for three months after that retreat. I realized I needed to live more of my story before I could write about it, which was kind of devastating, but important nonetheless.

Honestly, anything I’ve attended or listened to or read by Rob Bell keeps me moving forward. I’ve seen him live a few times--where he’s doing anything from teaching on a specific topic to doing stand-up comedy--and he always touches the place in me that remembers that I have to do this work. That it’s a total privilege to do it. He also reminds me that it’s both a really big deal and no big deal. He keeps me in the paradox, which is important.

Cheryl Strayed’s writing was the most influential for me, both because of when I read it and how she writes. I go back to Tiny Beautiful Things all the time to be reminded of what that direct transmission between a writer and a reader feels like. That book and Wild are two of the only memoir style books I’ve been able to read while writing my book.

What are you most proud of with regards to your sobriety today?
Hmmm. I’d say that I keep growing. That I keep trying new things and pushing myself and taking risks.

Any future projects you’re working on that you feel like sharing?
One thing that’s come about unexpectedly is I’ve been working 1x1 with people to do their marketing and branding. I’m helping my friend Tosha Smith launch her personal brand and her studio (www.toshasmith.com) and that’s been a total joy. I’ve also been working with two other clients in the same capacity. I really love doing this because it brings together my old and new work in a way that feels really honest and exciting to me. I will probably always keep a couple clients like this. I love helping people hone their vision and put it out into the world. Especially women.

Okay, last question - what has delighted or surprised you most since you removed alcohol from your daily life?
That even though my life is pretty busy and sometimes even hectic, there’s a lot more space. I can breathe.

And waking up sober--it’ll never get old.

It's such an honor and full circle moment to interview Laura. In early 2015, a few months after I stopped drinking, I stumbled upon Laura's Instagram account and immediately liked what I saw there. She was open, totally honest and her words spoke directly to my heart. She also attended AA and wasn't anonymous about it. She demystified it for me and removed some of the stigma, so I gave it a go and it clicked for me. I started illustrating words that she wrote, tried my hand at drawing images that she shared on her own blog and really just wanted what she had - a sober life. 

Laura's words + my illustration of them

Laura's words + my illustration of them

When she got her very own p.o. box for her blog, I immediately wanted to be her pen pal and sent her a few things in the mail.

Laura and I used to text on Friday nights because, you know, Friday nights are hard when you first quit drinking. It's the night that used to kick off my heavy drinking. She talked me through anxiety and generously offered the two most important words I think you can hear in recovery when you're struggling - Me too.

Last summer, Laura graciously allowed me invite myself to Boston and connect with a dear mutual friend of ours in her home over the weekend. I needed that real life connection and support so badly at the time and left knowing I would have lifelong friendships with these two women.

Recently, I've started to co-host my own podcast that was very much inspired by Laura + Holly's successful HOME podcast. And while it may sound like I've been mildly stalking Laura for a few years, I assure you it's not like that. What she's done for me has been to deeply inspire me and show me what I can do if I just dare myself to do it. Since Laura has come into my life, I have dug deeper into living a creative existence. Over time, I've decided instead of hiding my work that I will just openly share it with the world, let it go, move on and see what happens.

Laura has this beautiful, simple phrase that she often says that settled into my heart early on and it's this:

And, I wholeheartedly believe this to be true. Removing alcohol from my life has shown me another way to live and it's something you can't un-know once you know it. A veil gets lifted. You become awakened to your own existence. You start living an examined life.

Laura celebrates 1,000 days of continuous sobriety today!

Thank you, Laura. For your generous spirit, for sharing your writing on your blog and part of yourself with us every week on your podcast. But mainly, thank you for being the first person who had what I wanted. You made sobriety look really good. You talk the talk AND walk the walk. You've been a guiding force in my own recovery from alcohol over the past two and a half years and for that - I am truly the luckiest.