Jane Velez-Mitchell on Coming Out, Going Vegan, and Carrying the Message of Recovery

By Cathy Cassata 02/15/18

"I remember saying 'It's not that I won't drink today, it's that I don’t have to.' It was the revelation of the obvious, but I got there."

flyer with image of Jane Velez-Mitchell and Experience, Strength & Hope Awards

Jane Velez-Mitchell didn't grow up socializing like typical kids her age. Her days away from school were spent surrounded by adults and cocktail parties.

Her dad was an executive at a New York advertising firm and her mom was a professional dancer who traveled the country. They took their daughter on all their social outings.

"We lived in midtown Manhattan across from Carnegie Hall on the 9th floor. There were hardly any other kids around me. My parents were great parents and they took me everywhere, but I was always surrounded by adults, so I was kind of isolated and read a lot."

She says she learned young that alcohol and socializing go hand and hand.

"They'd take me to cocktail parties a lot and they'd throw them at our home too. This was the 60s; it was a very Mad Men-like feel," Velez-Mitchell said. "At parties, I'd run around drinking leftover or lost drinks. I remember these fluted glasses my parents would use at their parties, and I'd look for ones that had just a little bit of alcohol left at the bottom, and drink those." 

By the time Velez-Mitchell was in high school, she was also buying alcohol for her father.

"He was a high functioning alcoholic. There were a lot of alcoholics on his side of the family. He only drank after work and showed up sober to work," she said. "When I was in high school, he started asking me to get him alcohol. He'd say, 'Bring me a carton of Pall Mall and Gordon Gin from the corner liquor store.' Since he had a business account at the store, I'd get some for my own stash too."

She eventually used alcohol as an avenue to make friends.

"The first few years of high school were hard. Puberty was hitting and I didn’t have any friends my age. I was a book worm. But one day I decided I'd change that and that's when alcohol really became part of the picture."

She came across a group of kids who organized a Libertarian political club. Somehow, they convinced a wealthy man to lend them an office to hold their club meetings. Soon, the meetings turned into drinking parties.

"I remember the moment when I think it all came together and I achieved what I wanted to achieve. We were at a bar where they allowed underage drinkers. I was there drinking Harvey Wallbangers, smoking, listening to the song 'Maggie May,' and I was wearing bellbottoms from a store where the cool kids buy their jeans," she said. "I remember thinking, This is it. I've arrived. I was feeling really great about having a pack of friends, and I knew alcohol got me there, but as they say that was the moment that I kept chasing."

Hitting Rock Bottom

Velez-Mitchell continued to party throughout high school and then afterwards as a student at New York University. While she says she hit rock bottom many times, her 21st birthday moved her to make a change.

"I had a wild party and got really drunk and woke up with that terrible feeling of remorse and incomprehensible demoralization. I looked in the mirror and said to myself what's wrong with you? You're starting your final year of college. You're a wreck," she recalled.

She made the decision not to drink for her entire senior year so she could focus on graduating and getting a job.

"I can't say I never had one drink that entire year, but I got it together."

Her plan worked and right out of college Velez-Mitchell landed a job as a reporter in Fort Myers, Florida. But the stresses of a new state pulled her back into drinking.

"Another reporter asked me out and I told him I didn't drink. But here I was all by myself, looking to make friends and so I had one drink, which meant I was off to the races again."

After-hours bars, dancing and drinking became the norm, and just like her father she never let it interfere with work.

"I was like a split personality. When I was drinking, I was having fun, but out all night and not sleeping, and when I stopped drinking, I was back to be being a book worm, which part of me really wanted to be all the time."

At this time, it was the mid-1970s and her journalism career began to take off. She left Florida for a job in Minneapolis, where she began dating another reporter.

"We lived together for two years. We had a lot of fun, but I was drinking as usual when I wasn't working." 

It wasn't until the early 1980s that she began to realize she needed professional help for her drinking problem.

"I was working as a reporter in Philadelphia, and my much older half-sister's daughter said something to me like 'Every time we see you out you're drunk. Here's a number for my therapist. Why don't you check it out?' That was hard to hear from my niece."

It hit so hard that Velez-Mitchell called the therapist.

"We talked about my drinking and other issues for a long time. I discovered a lot during those hours, but what I've learned is that therapy should be in conjunction with a program, not a substitute for it," she said. "If I could do it all over again, I would have gone straight to a sobriety program."

Velez-Mitchell didn't get herself into a program until years later when she was working in Los Angeles as co-anchor for a local TV station.

"I had been married to a man and got divorced. The new man I was dating told me I had three more times to get drunk and that was it.”

When the third time came around, she was at a Hollywood party with people she knew, including her ex-husband and co-workers.

"Tequila entered the picture and I decided to teach everyone how to do snake bites, which involves you pouring salt on someone's neck, then licking it. Anyway, I think I kicked the host down the stairs and I know I blacked out. My boyfriend carried me out," she said. "Again, I woke up with terrible remorse."

Finding Sobriety

The morning after the party, Velez-Mitchell called a college friend who happened to live in the same neighborhood as her.

"He had recently gotten sober and bugged me to do the same, but I kept pushing him off. That morning I called him and said, 'Abbot, I'm turning myself in.' He said, 'I'll pick you up.'"

He brought her to a program and she immediately realized she was in the right place.

"I had a psychic shift. I had talked myself blue in the face about the disease, but that one moment surrounded by other sober people and seeing that I was not alone and that they had done it, shifted something in my brain.”

22 years later, she still remembers being emotional and her “aha” moment: "I remember saying 'It's not that I won't drink today, it's that I don’t have to.' It was the revelation of the obvious, but I got there."

However, the journey afterwards wasn't easy. Velez-Mitchell had already scheduled a vacation at a resort the following week.

"Everywhere around me people were drinking. I distracted myself with everything that didn't involve alcohol like getting beads in my hair, and visiting the art craft area," she said.

When she got home, she said suppressed feelings started to come to the surface.

"I didn't have a drink to hide behind. I was going to a therapist in LA and told him I think I might be gay. It was difficult to say, but it wasn't long after that I ended up in a relationship with a woman."

Today, she lives with her long-term girlfriend of seven years.

"When I was growing up there were a lot of feelings I wanted to suppress and when I hit puberty it took off. I look back and realize I had a crush on a girl in high school, but at the time, I didn't interpret it that way," she said. "As long as I had alcohol, I believe I would never have come out."

While she was married to a man and had great relationships with other men, she says she tried to conform to what she thought she should be doing.

"I worked very hard to be heterosexual, but these feelings kept coming up. There was something about my life at that time where alcohol made me more comfortable trying."

Going Vegan

While Velez-Mitchell's mother raised her to be pescatarian and to respect animals, she says once she stopped drinking, she really delved into animal rights.

"I believe sobriety is all about practicing a lifestyle of serenity, kindness and peace and being of service to others, not just other people. If my values as a sober person [in] recovery are to keep my side of the street clean, and be of service to others, why does that only extend to humans?"

Velez-Mitchell went vegan 21 years ago after interviewing Howard Lyman, a 4th generation cattle rancher. "He came up to me and said 'I heard you are a vegetarian but you eat dairy. That's liquid meat,'" she recalled. "That's all I needed to hear."

She is also vegan for health and environmental reasons. Her blog JaneUnchained.com and Facebook page both focus on the vegan lifestyle and animal activism.

The Humane Society has honored her work by awarding her four Genesis awards.

Writing Her Story

In addition to being a successful broadcast journalist and a recognized animal activist, Velez-Mitchell is also an award-winning writer.

In addition to Secrets Can Be Murder and the New York Times Bestseller Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias, she also wrote Addict Nation: An Intervention for America, which examines what she believes to be growing levels of addiction in the United States from both illegal and prescription drugs to the Internet and fast food.

On February 22, 2018, Writers In Treatment, an organization which supports recovery and the arts, is honoring Velez-Mitchell for her New York Times Bestseller memoir iWANT: My Journey from Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler Honest Life, which details her life growing up, addiction, sobriety, coming out as a lesbian, and going vegan. The award is given in recognition of an individual’s memoir including their honest journey from addiction to recovery, and their dedication and enthusiasm for carrying the “message” to a society awash in addiction.

"It was really cathartic to write it, and I've had people come up to me and say 'Wow. Your book really helped me,' and that's what it's all about," she said.

Tickets for the 9th Annual Experience, Hope and Strength Awards are still available here.

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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at https://cathycassata.contently.com. Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.