You Are Not Alone
An Interview with Dr. Michele Kenny; author of Keeping Covid Sober: One Isolated Drinker’s Journey through a Quarantined Pandemic. Michele is an active LifeRing Member, Convenor and Committee Coordinator.
Michele is a guest speaker at the LifeRing Secular Recovery Annual Meeting on June 5th, 2021.
Dr. Kenny published her memoir: Keeping Covid Sober: One Isolated Drinker’s Journey through a Quarantined Pandemic on January 6, 2021. Her book has received a 5-Star rating from Amazon Readers and prompted an invitation to speak as part of the University of Hong Kong’s Alcoholism in Journalism lecture series.
Interviewing Party (IP): Michele, what was it like to write about your own recovery path? And what did you learn from your literary journey?
Dr. Michele Kenny (MK): Some parts [of] writing about recovery and relapsing in the alcohol life that I made is very painful because in order to write it, I had to relive it in my head.Telling my own story took me to some dark places that I hadn’t gone to for awhile, so I was surprised that I needed to stop writing at some points and just deal with the thought process, but also the writing was cathartic in the way that it helped.
[My] writing took place during the self-restriction of Covid and there is a lot of fear here for me about me being isolated. One of the things that writing did for me was help me work through that fear -- that fear of I’m going to be a mess, I’m going to drink, I’m not going to make it, I’m not going to be able to do this by myself. And so it was two-fold: There were painful moments, but at the end of it, I learned that it was actually a way for me to get my fear out on paper and make it less of a strong feeling in my head.
IP: How long did it take for you to write your memoir?
MK: I decided to only journal the first three months of the pandemic because that’s when everybody was under the strictest quarantine, so I just wanted to write about that. I wrote during that 3-month period of time and that was from March until June. And then I wasn’t really prepared for it to grow into a manuscript at that time. It really was more of a journal or diary.
When I saw how much material I had written in June, I decided to look at it a little differently. I looked at it as a manuscript and so with June through August came a lot of rewriting, restyling,reforming --- not adding to what I had already written. And then in October 2020 -- I started looking for publishing managers to help me self-publish and then the book came out in January of 2021.It was fast. The writing itself took six months. The editing took lots and lots of time. I think I went through 14 full edits with my editor. Once the editing was finished, the publishing came rather quickly. So, it was almost a full year from the beginning of the journal to the publishing of the book.
IP: Do you feel your commitment to sobriety supported your commitment to finishing your book? That your experience with fighting your urges to drink helped you fight the urge to abandon your project when, as you say, things turned dark?
MK: No. Actually, it was just the opposite. That’s one way to look at it, but my theory is that when I was the most triggered, I wrote the longest. When I was the most afraid, I picked up a pen. It was a real tool; a coping mechanism for me to work through the triggers that I did have.
IP: Your recently published memoir Keeping Covid Sober, One Isolated Drinker's Journey through a Quarantined Pandemic is being recognized across the world. You were recently asked by the University of Hong Kong to speak to their students. What was that like? How were you received?
MK: I was told beforehand by the professor for that course that their culture doesn’t talk a lot about the nuts and bolts of alcoholism and Substance Abuse Disorder. They know about it intellectually or academically or clinically. They understand that it is something that needs to be treated, needs to be dealt with, is a disease that people don’t ask for or they don’t want. They don’t -- and this was a university lecture -- they don’t talk about the war stories.
So when I started doing the lecture I was prepared. I talked about the book. I talked a little about writing, but this was [the students’] opportunity. They’re highly educated students. They’re in a college classroom. This was an opportunity for them to ask the questions like: We want to know what it feels like. We want to know what you went through.. We want to know what it was like to try to stop drinking. We want to know was it worth your hangovers? Was it worth alcohol poisoning? Was it worth getting sick to continue to drink? What led you back there?
IP: Those are some serious questions. That’s very intimate, Michele!
MK: Yes. It was. “What about your fantasies?” “What about your blackouts? What’s it like coming out of a blackout?” “What’s it like stealing to get the money to buy alcohol?” “How did you figure out how many stores to go through during the week to buy alcohol so it would look as if you’re not buying it every day?”
They wanted to know the stuff they could not talk about at their dinner table. [In their culture,] it is not permissible. It is not appropriate to talk about grandma’s drinking and the fact that she fell down the stairs and broke her hip because she was so drunk she couldn’t walk right. That’s not spoken.
So I was prepared for that by the professor who told me I might be asked these questions. And those were the majority of the questions. The whole course was about addiction in journalism, so they’re getting all the clinical stuff. And in their [classroom] they’re getting the intellectual understanding of what alcoholism and substance abuse is, but nobody talks about what it’s really like. And that’s what they wanted to know.
In preparation for the lecture, I gave them a portion of the book that talks about a very painful story … about my own experience with the desperation and the hopelessness and the point where I thought I was at the point of no return. They read that and I think they appreciated there was someone open and honest enough to just [say] “Here it is! This is the untarnished, unabridged version. This is what happened to me. This was one of the things that I went through.” And the feedback that I got was that they appreciated knowing that they could ask me follow-up questions based on that entry that they read. So, we already had that intimate connection going in … and I agree with that.
I think that alcoholism and substance use needs to be talked about at that level. I think there are people who are normal drinkers or maybe normal users who don’t understand the kind of emotional pain and the mental struggle and how difficult it is to stop drinking or using and staying stopped for the alcoholic or substance use person. Those are the kinds of stories that are difficult to hear for the normal drinker or the normal user, because it gives it a reality. “Oh -- this isn’t like reading a story or watching a Lifetime Movie on this. This is what’s really happening to my mother or my sister, my husband or wife. Oh. I didn’t understand. I thought you were just over there drinking in the corner.” [They] didn’t realize the pain and the anguish that an alcoholic or a substance user goes through when they get to that moment of hopelessness and they know that they need to make a change and the process that they go through in making that change.
IP: What section of Keeping Covid Sober did you suggest to the University of Hong Kong students?
MK: The book is broken into three muses. The book was also written to approach the urgent needs of the pandemic. I found a lot of similarities that road along with alcoholism and Covid. At the end of each muse, I pieced together a story of a moment … in my life when I was probably the most desperate and my drinking.
One of the reasons I drank was that I used to have chronic anxiety attacks all the time, and this story takes place around a time where I was alone and I was drinking and the alcohol wasn’t getting me drunk anymore. It was something that I couldn’t stop and I had run out of alcohol. Just kind of spiraling down into a total breakdown of horrific anxiety and panic attack and the desperation of not being able to find any alcohol, because I couldn’t stop drinking. I could not stop drinking. So that’s the story I had the students read before I spoke.
IP: How do you think your lecture was received? It sounds like the students were engaged and very curious. Did you get any feedback afterward?
MK: I did. I got feedback from the professor, but more importantly, I have a webpage where you can connect with me and I also have an email that I publicize in the book that you can use to connect with me. I had several students after that lecture who private emailed me to talk with me about some of the issues that they were going through and some of the things that they could identify with or “could you tell me more about this or that.” The best feedback is when the audience or students … want to keep the conversation going. And there were several that did. It was well worth sitting through some of the uncomfortable questions; to get past that to get the student to ask “can I tell you about me?” Absolutely!
IP: I think you’re incredibly brave! Let’s talk a little about your LifeRing Experience. As a PhD and certified Peer Recovery Supporter, how do you see LifeRing fitting into traditional and your personal recovery pathways?
MK: LifeRing was an eye-opener for me because I didn’t even know it existed until we were in Covid. No one had ever told me about it in all my years in recovery and out of recovery, in treatment, in IOP, and counseling. I never heard of it. The reason I found it is, journaling isn’t enough to keep my mind occupied during the quarantine. The DIY projects, extra books I was reading, the more movies I was watching, the Netflix series I was getting caught up on, the 100,000 piece jigsaw puzzle just wasn’t enough. I have an obsessive mind and I really have to work hard to refocus my thinking.
I live alone and I was very lonely and I’m an isolated drinker.I knew I was falling down a hole I could see myself not coming back from. So I decided, with the wonderful invention of Zoom, to see what online meetings might be available. I’d done 12-step meetings for many years and when I needed them, they were there and they worked, but I always had trouble with the Higher Power concept. So I was looking for a secular 12-step meeting.. And found LifeRing completely by accident.
There are a couple of things I like about LifeRing. It fits really well, I think, in anybody’s recovery plan because LifeRing honors each person’s pathway to recovery and what may work for some individuals doesn’t necessarily work for others -- and that’s okay. Peer support is all about that.
Peer support, at least here in Ohio, is getting farther away from putting 12-step programs as the centerpiece to putting the person as the centerpiece of recovery. And saying, “Y’know, you’re the one who’s living your life and you're the one who’s going to be living a recovery program. Let’s work together to make sure you’re comfortable with what it is that you need to do, to not only stay sober, but to live a meaningful life.” And that’s why we get sober. To live a purposeful life.
The LifeRing philosophy about self empowerment rode right along with the book in that I talk a lot about people needing to design their own pathway. Whatever coping mechanisms you have that works. It might not be clinical textbook coping methods, but if it works and it isn’t harming yourself or anyone else, then these are the right coping methods for you.
As I was writing, I didn’t know I was getting involved with an organization that also had the very same philosophy that I do. That was a nice fit. And actually, I talk about LifeRing in the book without naming it, because the philosophy fits so perfectly, I think, with where recovery is currently at and definitely the direction I feel recovery should be going.
IP: Are you considering writing another book?
MK: I am. From where I left the book. It’s great for one person to be introspective and talk about belonging to a community of people that have the same issues and being able to feel a part of. But that kind of story really needs to be written with a multiple number of voices. Not just one. It was great to start out talking about my observations, my experiences with Covid, my recovery and where it is today. But really, there’s a call to action here.
The vaccine is wonderful. It’s great. But it’s not going to treat the mental and emotional disorders that have occurred as a result of Covid. Substance Use Disorder. PTSD. Depression. All of these things have skyrocketed during the isolation of Covid. I feel we can’t just leave these people behind. I really don’t think there are going to be enough resources out there to help individuals with mental and emotional disorders.
My goal now is to create a community of people where others can go when they’re suffering and know they’re not alone. Get the kind of support and encouragement and compassion that they need. I think that’s the next story that needs to be written.
We’re living in an unprecedented time and we’re getting through Covid working together. The aftermath is going to be here a lot longer and we won’t be able to just return to our pre-Covid lives. I feel I have a responsibility to put the message out there that together we can create a community of help and support for each other. That book can’t be written in a singular voice. It has to be a plurality of voices. I see that as the next book.
|Michele Kenny is a freelance writer and staunch advocate and supporter of those struggling with alcoholism and other substance use disorders. She has worked alongside alcoholics for over two decades. She also is a recovering alcoholic. Michele has been a passionate member of LifeRing Secular Recovery since it launched on Zoom more than a year ago. She is a meeting convener as well as active in several committees to spread the LifeRing message of “empowering your sober self.” Connect with Michele at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.voicepatterns.co.|