Interview with Mary Ellin Lerner, Author of Sober Heart: Reflections on Life and Love in Recovery

October 6, 2019 at 4:10 pm 1 comment

Sober Heart Cover

Mary Ellin Lerner is a journalist, blogger and author of the recently-published Sober Heart, a delightful collection of essays, meditations, and musings on her sometimes difficult, often amusing, always honest and heartfelt, and ultimately successful road to recovery from addiction. She is also a devoted mother, a dog-lover, a singer, and a very good friend. She recently agreed to answer my questions about her road to recovery, and her new book, which can be purchased at the wonderful Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. (And can be mail-ordered from them by clicking here.) Our interview, which follows, was conducted via e-mail.  

Janet: Can you describe briefly how you realized you were addicted and that you needed help? Was there one crystal-clear moment of truth? Or was it more an evolving awareness? Once you knew you needed to do something, how did you take your first steps toward recovery? 

Mary Ellin: I think my awareness of my own addiction was a gradual thing. For years I had been a moderate drinker; indeed there were years when I drank very little at all. And then in my late 40s I began to notice that I was drinking every night, the amounts were increasing, I was becoming dependent on the feeling of being high every night, and alcohol was having a debilitating effect on me mentally and physically. So basically I was moving from what was considered acceptable drinking in our drink-friendly society and what was physically and emotionally manageable for me to a level of drinking that was not acceptable, because it made me unable to function very well. And it was more than I could handle both physically and emotionally. At that point I was consuming almost two bottles of wine a night.

I have a dear friend who passed away recently who used to call me a “white wine lady.” He was someone who drank hard liquor alcoholically in large amounts for almost forty years, and he would tease me about not being a very impressive alcoholic. But it isn’t about the flavor or the amount. It’s about the fact that you can’t stop, and you can feel the substance taking over your life, and hurting you and those around you.

As far as needing help goes, I never went to inpatient treatment. I guess I was just shy of being an extreme case, or what they call a “low bottom” alcoholic or addict. I walked into an AA meeting in the summer of 2010 and started going regularly. For some reason at first I didn’t quite understand that complete abstinence was required for sobriety to work, but I figured it out eventually. In June 2011, I stopped drinking completely, and have not had a drink since. I don’t know why it is but once you have crossed over into addictive and debilitating daily drinking it’s very difficult to go back to moderate consumption. You tend to pick up at the same level you left off and that’s not moderate drinking; it’s a relapse, unfortunately.

Janet: What do you think is the hardest thing about becoming sober? And about staying sober?

Mary Ellin: I think the hardest thing about becoming sober—and a lot of those struggles are described in my book—is reprogramming yourself to live without the crutch of alcohol (and of course the same thing applies to drugs or addictive behaviors like gambling or overeating).

What I mean by that is that whatever you are using alcohol for, psychologically or physically, has to be addressed in some other way. So if you are muting certain feelings, or coping with certain situations by becoming high, you have to figure out how to handle those situations and those feelings differently. You may end up, as I did, having to face a lot of uncomfortable situations and feelings in your life, and make some adjustments if you can no longer cope with X or Y because you could only handle it when drunk. You have to be able to live in a more honest fashion, in a way that is truer to who you are and what you feel, when you don’t have the alcohol or drugs to change your behavior or falsify your feelings. And beyond becoming more honest, you have to face a lot of your own character defects. AA recovery is all about owning up to one’s own part in various situations, and if that means working on your own shortcomings, you have to work on them.

The hardest thing about staying sober is once in a while you just get plain old nostalgic for a glass of wine or champagne because not all of your drinking associations are negative. Most drinkers find that they have pleasant memories of alcohol, especially from early in their drinking careers. I certainly have fond memories of sitting around the table with family and friends, drinking wine and enjoying the feeling of being pleasantly high or relaxed. Sometimes I wish I could go back to those times and that kinder, gentler relationship with alcohol. But because I took it to another level, even if I was just “a white wine lady,” I don’t want to risk escalating to that bad, addicted place again, so I don’t drink at all, even when sorely tempted. It says in the AA literature that “half measures availed us nothing,” and I agree with that. You can’t be partially sober.

Another thing that is tough about giving up alcohol is that it definitely puts a crimp in your social life, and I am not just talking about losing drinking buddies. A lot of people find you a lot less desirable to be around, or hesitate to invite you over if you don’t drink. Not real friends, but those more superficial friends who may have invited you into their social circle because you were amusing at parties, or whatever. You lose some of those people. And you have to explain to all of your drinking friends, the ones that do stick around, that you don’t mind them drinking in front of you. That you are capable of spending an evening at their home if they are having alcohol (especially after a few years in sobriety), and that you are not judging them or looking down on them when they drink.

Once you get past those misunderstandings it is easier socially. I once had friends show up at my house for dinner already drunk because they did not think I would allow them to drink wine at my table, when of course I would. I don’t want to put myself at risk for relapse by being around people who are drinking heavily, but light social drinking does not bother me, and I certainly don’t judge those who engage in it.

It is also very challenging to your dating life. I became sober as a single middle-aged woman who had been dating for a few years, and my dating life stopped when I stopped drinking. To be honest, I have found in exploring dating websites that men—even those who are sober—tend to prefer to date women who are able to loosen up on the date with a glass or two of wine—or at least it seems that way from the preferences they note on their profiles. I do understand this. Culturally it is assumed that dates will be helped along by alcohol or weed. But it is challenging. And I also think, to be completely honest, that I was quite dependent on alcohol to embolden me socially. I am going to have to learn to reach out romantically without it. I wish someone would set up an online dating site exclusively for sober people. It would be interesting to see how that went.

Janet: What is the best thing about being sober? How has being sober enriched your life? 

Mary Ellin: The best part about being sober, first of all, and most immediately, is that it improved my physical health enormously to give up drinking. Not just the stuff you hear at a medical appointment—your blood pressure and your blood sugar, and other things that can be elevated by consuming much too much wine—but an overall sense of physical wellbeing that you experience when you are not assaulting your body with drunkenness and hangovers on a daily basis.

But I think for me the most enduring gift of sobriety, and the one that keeps on giving, is that with AA recovery there is a lot of emphasis on becoming a better person: less selfish, more giving, kinder and humbler, more thoughtful, a better listener, more patient. It has really helped me in my relationships with the people in my life, and with the world in general. I am incredibly grateful for the way in which recovery, and the principles of 12-step sobriety, have encouraged me to behave better. Also, in my case being sober was literally a lifesaver for my son, whom I was able to help when he became addicted first to prescribed painkillers and then to heroin, which almost cost him his life. Ultimately it was Ben’s own courage and resolve that brought him into treatment and allowed him to stay there long enough to get well; but I think I was able to help him initially by taking him to AA meetings and supporting his efforts to recover from addiction.

Another aspect of being sober that has enormous appeal to me is that AA recovery is a spiritual program: it emphasizes getting in touch with some spiritual entity beyond oneself, which works wonders with the selfishness, egotism, self-pity, and grandiosity that are part of alcoholism. AA does not advocate any specific organized religion or a specific definition of God…but each member of the group is encouraged to define a “Higher Power” for him or herself. I have always been a believer in some sort of spiritual force, so I am very happy to have been encouraged to look at life that way.

Finally, the recovery journey has given me, as a writer, a wonderful experience to document. There is a lot to write about in the experience of trying to give up alcohol and to endure daily life without a crutch while simultaneously trying to be a better person. The experience has joy and sadness and silliness and a great deal of humor in it (it is not at all stoic and boring and grim), as you can see in my book.

Janet: You have found Alcoholics Anonymous to be very helpful to you in your journey toward sobriety. Do you think AA offers the best road to recovery for everyone? Or are there other paths that can be helpful too?

Mary Ellin: For me, AA worked. And millions of other people, literally millions, have found relief from all kinds of suffering through AA. There are twelve-step programs for alcohol, drugs, overeating, overspending, negative and neurotic relationships (such as codependency), family problems (for example, the adult children of alcoholics), sexual issues, and on and on. But one of the traditions of AA is that it is a program of “attraction, not promotion.” AA does not advertise or market itself to people. It is all through word of mouth. And AA would never claim that it is the best or only program for everyone.

The reason it works for so many people, I think, is that first of all it is free of charge and widely available. If you are suffering from an addiction or a compulsion, you can walk off the street into an AA meeting, or find one online, without making an appointment or going through any other kind of fuss. It is just there, open and welcoming. Another factor that I think works for a lot of people is that it is a group of other alcoholics or addicts who understand exactly what you are going through; not some doctor or specialist talking down to you. I think there is a lot of credibility, inspiration and comfort built into that. And the twelve steps themselves are a pretty great antidote to drinking, since they involve looking to a spiritual force beyond oneself, taking responsibility for one’s own part in things, and focusing on helping others. All of this encourages alcoholics to get outside of themselves and their feelings of self-pity, and their own pain.

But does it work for everyone? Not necessarily. Some people have a hard time feeling inspired and strengthened by the spiritual side of AA because they are atheist or agnostic, or bitter about the religion in which they were raised. And even with the idea of defining one’s own Higher Power, they still find there is too much talk of God for their comfort. There are other approaches to recovery out there and anyone can research those online–we are blessed nowadays with a variety of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, some of which include AA meetings, and others that do not. The main thing is to do the research, ask around, and find help for you or your loved one. The good news is that help and hope are out there.

Janet: You’ve recently published a book about your journey through recovery, to sobriety.  It’s called Sober Heart, and I think it’s wonderful. How did you come up with the idea to publish this book? And who is the audience for it, do you think?  Is there helpful wisdom for people who are not necessarily addicted, or in recovery?

Mary Ellin: The book developed gradually. I guess the true origins were in my childhood when my parents, both writers, taught me that challenging or disappointing experiences can be turned into great stories. They were always saying to me, “That would make a fabulous short story,” or “That would be a great article.” I have been a professional writer since college, writing for newspapers and magazines. Then, about ten years ago, when I realized that the writing business had packed up and moved onto the Internet, I decided to try my hand at the relatively new (back then) medium known as blogging. I was a little shy about writing in the first person because my favorite professor at journalism school had told me that I should never write anything in the first person until or unless I became “somebody.” I never did become “somebody” according to her definition, so I guess it was a rebellion of sorts to embark on first-person blogging.

Another source of inspiration, oddly enough, came from my adventures in online dating.  While I was not hugely successful at cyber-romance—I never met my One and Only—I did get a lot of compliments on the way I had written my profile. A lot of guys told me they liked my writing, and liked the way I wrote about relationships. So I thought, well, maybe I should give up on dating and just become a first-person writer. Thus my blog about relationships and recovery was born. And I have been doing that for about nine or ten years now. Every once in a while I change the name and the focus of the blog but they are all first-person stories, and they are all about recovery in some way.

My latest blog is called Sober Words: Reflections on the Language of Recovery. In the past decade, I probably have written close to 200 posts. So a couple of years ago, I decided to choose the best ones, rewrite and polish them, and then thread them together into a memoir of my life and my relationships as a woman in recovery.

The audience for my book? I hope that my stories will appeal to women and men in recovery. I certainly am grateful for a lot of the positive feedback I have gotten on my blog posts from my sober sisters and brothers; but I also hope the book will have appeal to anyone who likes reading first-person essays by women writers or writers in general. A lot of my readers tell me that they think I am funny, for which I am grateful. I would like to think that I have the ability to amuse people. I do like to be able to laugh at my foibles and my experiences, and hope I can share with my readers the silliness and absurdity I experience. (Yes, even as a sober person, life is pretty funny at times.)

Other people say they find the stories touching or comforting, and I am certainly glad if my stories are able to help them in some way. That’s a big part of recovery, being helpful to others, and since writing is what I do, writing is my best hope for being a useful human being.

Janet: Do you have any general advice that could be helpful to someone who is hovering on the brink…thinking they need help with an addiction, but is hesitant to ask for it? What would you say to such a person? 

Mary Ellin: While I am not a medical expert, and my book is not a medical or addiction advice book, my basic advice to anyone who is concerned about addiction–whether it is yourself or a loved one–would be the following:

First of all, if you or a loved one are in an emergency, or in despair, or in an extreme physical situation, get yourself or your loved one to a hospital. Call 911 immediately!

If your addiction concerns for yourself or your loved one are serious but not a life-threatening emergency, consider getting yourself or your loved one into a treatment program of one month or longer. There are many treatment programs to choose from in the U.S. and worldwide, and there are many online clearinghouses with helpful information. Calling your local branch of Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous can be helpful, because those groups will have many members who have been in rehab and can offer suggestions for good programs near you. Also, there may be people in your community who have been in treatment or have had loved ones in treatment. If you are comfortable reaching out to those people, they can be a good source of recommendations for treatment. (I would add, as the mother of a drug addict now in recovery, many, if not most, parents are eager to share treatment options and suggestions with others.) But the greatest variety of information will be found online, so that might be a good place to start.

If you have a nagging suspicion that you may have a problem with alcohol or drugs, but you are not sure, I would recommend, especially to people troubled by alcohol consumption, that you start by contacting your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Narcotics abuse accelerates pretty quickly to a bad situation requiring inpatient treatment, but if it has not gotten to that point, a call to Narcotics Anonymous can be helpful.

Whether you need immediate advice, or want to just visit a meeting, there are phone numbers and websites where you can get advice 24/7. Call a help line. Call AA or NA. They are eager to help you get the help you need. And again, if you prefer to look for non-AA, non-twelve-step programs, there are plenty of other resources available online.

Janet: You’re such a wonderful writer: now that you’ve published Sober Heart, do you have other writing projects you’re working on? What’s next for Mary Ellin Lerner? 

Mary Ellin: What’s next? Beyond this project, I am considering writing a novel about a love affair between two alcoholics who go in and out of recovery over the course of their relationship. Maybe told through various perspectives. The man and woman, of course, but a few other players as well.

Or maybe I will try genre fiction: a book about a sober detective. Would that be a soft-boiled thriller? A refreshing spin on the tradition of the hungover gumshoe?

I am not joking, not really. Genre fiction is great because it has such a loyal built-in audience, tons of bloggers who like to read and review it, and mainstream publishers eager to sign up new authors for the insatiable readers. So why not?

However, for now I am focusing on getting the word out about Sober Heart. I really would love people to read it. I hope they will find their way to the book and, when they do, I hope that there will be something in it that helps or amuses them–or does both.

I think people will be pleasantly surprised by how much fun the book is!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “A Long Way from Iowa.”  You can learn more about Mary Ellin Lerner’s new book, Sober Heart: Reflections on Life and Love in Recovery on the Sober Heart Facebook page.


Entry filed under: About Writers and their Work. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

The grapes are in, the harvest was good… Autumn in Champagne

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Timothy Dunn  |  October 6, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this interview!


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