How Ten People Found New Passion in Sobriety
How do you fill that gaping hole in your soul when you're no longer hammered? The Fix spotlights a diverse crew of addicts and alcoholics who are supplementing sobriety with a host of new adventures.
“I used to sit on the bar stool and talk about my compassion and love for animals while downing chardonnay and not doing a damn thing,” says Jane Velez-Mitchell, 55, host of HLN’s Issues with Jane Velez Mitchell. Since she rose from the stool 16 years ago, Velez-Mitchell has instead become a strict vegan, environmentalist, and multi award-winning animal rights activist. She was given the Animal Activist Award by the Farm Animal Rights Movement in 2009, and her TV reporting on animal cruelty has garnered three Genesis Awards from the Humane Society of the United States. In her latest book, Addict Nation: An Intervention for America, Velez-Mitchell confronts the many addictions Americans face—including fast food and its detriment to the environment. Citing a United Nations report, she points out that meat production is the biggest contributor to global warming. As she puts it, “A vegan in a Hummer is more environmentally sound than a meat eater in a Prius.” Not only does her activism feed the soul of the former meat eater within, but it’s also given her that all-too-rare quality among the bold-faced names: humility. “Far brighter people than me have said that the only way we are going to evolve as a human species is to be compassionate,” she says.
“I feel like I’ve tapped into my inner Mia Farrow,” enthuses Mickey Boardman, 44, of his unlikely role as a fund raising maven on behalf of humanitarian causes. Known as Mr. Mickey, Boardman is the longtime editorial director of fashion and nightlife magazine, Paper, and an established tastemaker in New York City’s downtown scene. But Boardman says his 14 years of sobriety have shined a spotlight on how ridiculous the oh-so-fabulous world can be, so he channeled his fashion passion and high-profile contacts to host “Mr. Mickey’s Celebrity Sidewalk Sale,” where he and fellow shopaholics annually purge their closets of designer and vintage threads and sell them at eye-popping discounts—and cocktail parties (the irony isn’t lost on him) with such luminaries as David Byrne, Parker Posey, and Matthew Modine. In the last three years, Boardman’s events have raised nearly $80,000 for charities like Citta (which builds women’s shelters, clinics, and schools in India and Nepal). The high he gets from his charity work is, he claims, addictive. “It’s like shopping in reverse, only there is no guilt about the spending,” he says. “There is something about working for a cause, rather than personal gratification, that is much more satisfying. The more I do, the more I want to do. I can’t say no.”
The best advice that former stockbroker Chris Foley, 37, ever received came from a career coach four years into his sobriety: “There is no such thing as ‘someday,’ and it’s not a BMW-sized hole.” A year into following his dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, “someday” is today and the hole is filled with laughter. “There is no comparison between receiving a fat paycheck from a job I loathed to the thrill I get today from making others laugh,” says Foley. “I spent those fat paychecks on the sofa with a bottle of wine watching Inside the Actor’s Studio, fantasizing that I was the one being interviewed.” In the last year, he has performed at comedy clubs all over New York City, written a treatment for a comedy cable TV series about those wasted years on Wall Street, and appeared as a cop on the hit TV show The Good Wife. Some of his biggest laughs come from his bottom, the night he spent $8000 in a strip club and never got laid. “If it weren’t for being sober, I’d still be on that couch dreaming,” he says. “That is, if I were still alive.”
In her first year of sobriety, 44-year-old Sandra Huffman was recruited to help raise funds for the homeless. A survivor of a tumultuous childhood in the foster care system she currently with the Ft. Lauderdale Department of Juvenile Justice to bring in sober speakers to address first-time juvenile offenders. “I went from being chased by the Ft. Lauderdale police to receiving a letter of recognition from them for the work I do today,” Huffman marvels. Her most ambitious endeavor is Sandra’s Walk, a 1,300-mile journey she will make on foot beginning June 4th from her home in Ft. Lauderdale to Washington, D.C. on September 11th to celebrate National Recovery Month, and finally to the start of her life journey, Philadelphia. The money she raises will go to a selection of 20 different organizations for the homeless and for addicts. “I was the epitome of self-centered self-pity,” she says of her past. “My service work is a way to mend my karma and my self-esteem at the same time.”
For Tamera Grace, 41, giving back to other addicts is what fills both the hole and the pocket book. Just four years into sobriety, she runs the three-year-old, five-star sober living facility Sunset Statue in Malibu Beach, California. According to Grace, a former photographer, model, and actress, it took several rehabs for her to get clean and sober, and once she did, she was staring at a hole the size of the Grand Canyon. She worked with a life coach, therapist, and sponsor to try to find her passion in life, and eventually learned that it was in helping others get sober. (Her coach and therapist also helped her gather a talented team of people at her facility.) “I’m joyful every day because this work feeds my soul,” says Grace. “There’s nothing like seeing a mother get her child back, or out-of-work addicts find their passion and get a job.” Next on Grace’s agenda: opening a non-profit sober living house for low- to no-income mothers and children.
It took almost eight years in recovery for Tere Karabatos, 36, to find his true calling, and he was more than surprised by the news. “It was one of those moments when a suggestion I took from another 12-stepper was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he says. Disenchanted with his career in the art department of television and commercials, Karabatos was intrigued when a sober friend, who happened to be a noted Hollywood hair stylist, saw his silkscreen work, said he was impressed by how Karabatos matched colors, and advised him to enter the hair styling profession. Now, after a year-and-a-half as a cosmetology student at Culver City Academy of Beauty in Los Angeles, Karabatos cuts the hair of the elderly who can’t afford to go to a salon. “I am able to be of service by changing someone’s life for that day and making them feel good within an hour,” he says with gratitude in his voice. While he’s still in school, his business model for cutting the hair of friends is akin to a fellowship program. “It’s free,” he says. “But they can give a donation.”
Art and recovery unite on a daily basis for 41-year-old Troy June of Weehawken, New Jersey. Four years into his 10 years of recovery, June stumbled into his present job as a Chemical and Substance Abuse Counselor. A painter and sculptor, June was trading his paintings in exchange for therapy at a treatment facility when a therapist suggested that he take some of the clients on museum tours. Combining his natural interest with his experience in recovery was so rewarding that a full-time job at the facility followed. He became a certified CASEC three years ago and uses his art, specifically sculpture, in his work with clients. As he explains, “It’s very important to show how compulsive behavior can be transformed into constructive hobbies.” June’s career allows him both to keep perspective and to always be growing. “Working with others,” he says, “helps me understand where I came from. It teaches me that recovery is a daily process, no different from any other major illness, and that there are as many roads to recovery as there are people.”
Ursula Vari, 35, didn’t turn to yoga because she was on a spiritual quest but because she was desperate. “I was detoxing solo from benzos,” she recalls. “Doing yoga twice a day was the only way I could get through it.” The ancient practice ended up doing a lot more than helping Vari get sober: she soon discovered a peace she’d never known before during Shavasana (Corpse Pose), the last few minutes of a yoga session in which one fully surrenders to a higher power to reconnect with the true self. “It was the only time when I could completely check out and get that release that said, ‘Okay, I’m good,’” she explains. A year and half into recovery, she thought, “If I could do this for the rest of my life, get paid for it and give away what I have, then I’m set.” A week later, she left a high-paying development job in the entertainment industry and started training. She’s been a Certified RYT Power Yoga and Vinyasa for the past seven years.
Nursing is in the blood of K.C. Carrel, 42—his mother and sister are both nurses—but as long as liquor was flowing through his veins, it was a vocation beyond his reach. “I was the king of 75 percent,” the former enlisted U.S. Military confesses. “I would go three quarters of the way and then lose interest and move on to something else.” The fear that he wasn’t smart enough to finish anything was confirmed when he flunked out of college—despite the fact that failing was due to booze, not a lack of brains. Midway through his 12 years of sobriety, he faced his fear and went 100 percent with nursing school. Now a nurse distributing medications to mental health and substance abuse patients at a hospital in Santa Barbara, California, Carrel feels he works in the field for which he was destined. Sounding awestruck, he says, “I go to work every single night and have the chance to turn someone else’s life around.”
Jamie Brickhouse is a freelance writer who works in publishing in New York City. He also wrote about the sober social networking site In The Rooms for The Fix.
“The only suggestion I took from Living Sober was ‘get a hobby,” says the outspoken Bob Di Napoli, a 71-year-old gay grandfather who’s got over two decades of sobriety. “Mine’s needlepoint.” These days, Di Napoli can be seen at A.A. meetings in New York City and Bar Harbor, Maine perfecting his craft. The reason he loves it? “Needlepoint allows me to listen and focus on what’s being said rather than take everyone’s inventory—which is my default,” he admits. Di Napoli tends to give the pillows he makes to his four grandchildren to mark milestones in their lives—a far cry from his activities of yesteryear. “I used to only care about the hot guy I may have slept with on Thursday or who I was going to meet at Studio 54 on Friday,” he reveals. “I’ve had to redesign myself in sobriety to be a caring parent and grandparent—and I’ve become damn successful at it.” So successful, in fact, that one of his granddaughters chose him as the subject for a school application essay about the person she most admired. “Me!” Di Napoli says incredulously. “This is what you get sober for.”
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