She Recovers Brings High End Feminist Recovery to Los Angeles

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She Recovers Brings High End Feminist Recovery to Los Angeles

By Antonia Crane 10/18/18

I could say a hundred things about every incredible woman I encountered over the weekend and it would not hold a candle to the inspiration I felt. The only catch? The price of admission.

Image: 
She Recovers postcard with smiling women gathered and a shot of palm trees.
“I love the She Recovers philosophy that every woman’s path to recovery may be unique. Not everyone finds solace in AA.”

One year ago, Harvey Weinstein and men like him were purged from their high positions in industry jobs due to allegations of sexual assault, misconduct and worse. Across the nation, dominoes fell while survivors locked arms and commiserated. Crooked Rehabs and their rapey cult leaders were dethroned or taken to prison along with Bill Cosby—their paternal halos were tossed back into the stream that raged forward without them. Me Too and Time’s Up have gained momentum as women insist on equity and diversity in every corner of our lives whether it’s work, rehab or the Olympics.

On Friday, September 14th, hundreds of women redefined recovery for themselves with a fresh, feminist lens at She Recovers, a conference held at The Beverly Hills Hilton. She Recovers was founded in 2011 by Dr. Dawn Nickel, a warm, honey-haired overly credentialed sober badass from Victoria, Canada who has accumulated decades of 12-step recovery and one prescription drug relapse after she lost her mother to Leukemia. With years in NA, Dr. Nickel saw a missing piece of 12-step recovery that excluded women. She wanted to offer an alternative for women who long for that missing piece.

She Recovers is branded around the idea that we are all struggling to recover from something—not only drugs and alcohol. This expanded view of recovery has the potential to reach women who have survived sexual assault, abuse, cancer, heartache, self-harm, homelessness, eating disorders and all kinds of suffering. The weekend was dedicated to healing. The only catch? The price of admission.

I received a few emails from Dr. Nickel confirming the schedule of events and I was really excited to attend. Not only did the line-up include comedians and authors I’ve long loved like Cheryl Strayed, Janet Mock, Amy Dresner, Sarah Blondin, Tara Mohr, Mackenzie Phillips, Laurie Dhue and others, but there were several workshop panels offered with helpful, vital topics like “Changing our Relationship with Food" (Shelly-Anne McKay), and “Money as Power” (Allison Kylstad), “Standing our Ground” (Darlene Lancer), and even “Finding Forgiveness” (Ester Nicholson). The mind, body, spirit approach to recovery was factored into the weekend to include fitness classes like Yoga by Taryn Strong, Pilates, meditation, and an early morning run.

I drove to the Beverly Hills Hilton and arrived after registration opened at around 3:30 p.m. After getting off the elevator, I stepped into a conference room that was turned into a temporary mini-marketplace. Tables and fashion racks displayed oceans of lotions, soaps and mood lifting supplements, dark chocolate and yoga pants. Postcards and stickers offered the promise of energy shifts and emotional well-being. I figured if I was going to focus on recovery all weekend, I wanted a mental lubricant in the form of a dopamine supplement. I was being marketed to like a mofo and the rhetorical trope was tailored to fit. The buy message on tap was this:

You are perimenopausal and you are raging. Your sleep is shit and your relationships are strained. You are horny. You are prickly. Take the gummies and no one gets hurt.

I snatched the vegan, non-GMO dopamine-enhanced gummy bears and pocketed the chocolate for later.

Around the corner, a half-dozen aggressively kind, smiling women sat behind long plastic registration tables handing out laminated passes. They directed me to where the opening reception was held.

The Beverly Hills Hilton is a fancy place. And She Recovers attracts fancy women.

According to their website and other sources, the bulk of paying attendees are the wealthy, white feminist elite ages 30-69 with a household income of 80K and over. Registration costs $500, not including the rooms or the parking.

I asked Dr. Nickel how she planned to engage younger women, women of color, other-abled and the LGBTQ community. She replied, “The thing that we are most proud of related to LA is that we awarded 40 scholarships. We have been attracting WOC and members of the LGBTQ to our community – especially LGB – but we recognize much more needs to be done. We also need to work harder to include other-abled women to join us. We were very fortunate to have already made close connections with some amazing WOC and thus our program exhibited much more diversity than we had been able to do in NYC. Janet Mock is a powerhouse – and we loved having her – but despite efforts to do so, we didn’t have any success making direct contact with influencers in the trans community in LA to ensure that the trans community knew about our event.”

Given the steep cost of the weekend and the fact that registration for the conference was sold out, I wondered if presenters were paid or not, so I asked around. Those who answered requested anonymity.

Some presenters were not offered payment, but their registration fees were waived. The speakers and presenters who were not paid were happy to be asked but some were disappointed they were not offered the opportunity to have a book signing. Two of the speakers were paid high fees (between 16 and 20K) to speak. Those who were not paid used the weekend to promote their materials and businesses; they also wanted to share their experiences and connect to other women in recovery. So, who gets a seat at the table? Follow the money and you can see that She Recovers prioritizes celebrity.

This is where AA (and other 12-step programs) and She Recovers part company: AA has no red carpet; AA doesn’t cost money to attend and speakers are not paid at meetings. AA is an anonymous program that does not acknowledge celebrity or participate in the cult of personality—at least not as outlined in the traditions. While it has its own shortcomings, AA welcomes everyone.

Outside on the grass, several women stood in small clusters by a table of pastel colored macaroons. One of them was Shelly-Anne McKay, a delightful woman from Saskatchewan, Canada who led the panel on our relationship with food. Another woman told us she had just arrived from France. Others chimed in from the Bay Area, Washington and Oregon. When I asked the group what they were recovering from, the ones that replied stared up at the cerulean late afternoon sky and said, “Everything.”

I asked Shelly-Anne McKay what brought her here. She replied: “I love the She Recovers philosophy that every woman’s path to recovery may be unique. Not everyone finds solace in AA.”

I should tell you now I’m 23 years sober in AA and have studied the Big Book (the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous). It was written by and about men. The language is old-timey and urges men to check their overinflated egos, to give up “golf fever” and to dive into service instead. The narrative of the shattered, broken self is a theme that is relieved by the belief in a higher power. The one chapter to women, “To Wives,” is heteronormative and sexist, designed to pacify neglected women and encourage them not to make waves.

She Recovers was designed for wave-makers.

Back in the ballroom, the first keynote speaker was wave-maker Cheryl Strayed. Interestingly, Strayed is not in AA and does not consider herself an addict (to my knowledge). But before she spoke, Paula Williams took the stage.

I was concerned for Williams the same way I am for any person with no public speaking experience who collapses under the pressure of adrenaline and stage fright. She seemed mortified to be center stage and she spoke to that. In that moment of terror, I fell in love with her rawness. Williams constructed an art installation — definitely my favorite thing in the mini-marketplace room — called “Shame Booth” (also the name of her podcast) where a person could sit alone inside a vintage phone booth and confess their secrets into a silent ear piece and then leave. Segments of their voices are recorded here: Shamebooth Audio. The only piece of that secret they took home was a new pair of strangely oversized white briefs with the big red words “No Shame” on the butt. And yes, I got my granny panties.

Cheryl Strayed brought the house down with her seasoned message that illuminated the question: how do we do the thing we cannot do? Her personal stories contained humility, resilience and heart. I’m very familiar with her content because I teach her memoir and essay collection “Dear Sugar” to my nonfiction students at UCLA extension. The crowd was enthralled as Strayed discussed the suffering she endured due to her mother’s illness, the aftermath of her grief, and the hopefulness she offered as a reprieve to that grief. She answered questions that were not really questions for a long time. At some point while listening to her, I realized that — whether we were addicts or not — the room vibrated with undeniable hopefulness and willingness to carry that which we thought we could not carry; but in the end we find that we can, we have — and we will.

I could say a hundred things about every incredible woman I encountered over the weekend from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon and it would not hold a candle to the inspiration I felt. I only wished there had been some scheduled time for us to all connect and mingle in one place away from the speaker/workshop/formal dinner format. The schedule was jam-packed and felt a bit rushed. The highlight for me was Saturday night: The Gala Dinner.

I never know what to wear to formal events, so I brought a couple of options. I decided that nothing says Formal Gala like clear stripper heels with red rhinestone hearts in the middle and shiny black Bad Sandy (from Grease) pants. A petite brunette with tattoos on her arms was looking around. She looked as lost and overwhelmed and alone as I felt so I asked her if she wanted to find a place to sit with me.

The dinner honored celebrated change-makers and wave-makers who dared to break the silence of addiction and alcoholism like Betty Ford and the woman who started a movement to disrupt sexual violence, Me Too activist Tarana Burke, but the speaker who got a standing ovation (which seemed to befuddle her) was My Fair Junkie author and comic Amy Dresner.

The opulent ballroom fell silent as Dresner walked up to the podium wearing a vintage Indian jumpsuit with billowing legs. She did a funny dance and squatted.

“I was attempting 70’s super model but I’m way more Genie, don’t you think?”

After explaining how neuroscience proves we can burn new pathways of stability in our minds by taking consistent, disciplined action, she said, “If you’re waiting to take the action, you’ll be waiting forever.”

Dresner’s journey of addiction to recovery was a beacon of inspiration and the best part of the weekend. Her talk embodied all that She Recovers hoped to convey because her story contained universal, gritty humor and you can’t package that. Her message was the very thing I craved the whole weekend. She told us the worst thing that ever happened to her was definitely the best thing that ever happened to her, but she could only see that after experiencing jail and street sweeping. The room erupted in laughter.

Dresner ended by telling us that after getting three years sober for like the 14th time, she asked her dad, “Are you ashamed of me? When you talk to your friends do you feel ashamed?”

“My friends wish their kid was as unbreakable as you,” he said.

Then, looking out at the 500 wet faces, she told us: “Remember, that’s what all of you are: unbreakable.”

And dropped the mic.

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Antonia Crane is the author of the memoir, Spent (Barnacle Books, Rare Bird Lit). She is a writing instructor and stripper in Los Angeles. She has written for The New York Times, The Believer, The Toast, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Salon.com, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, DAME, The Establishment, The Los Angeles Review, Quartz: The Atlantic Media, Medium.com, Buzzfeed, Lenny Letter, HuffPo and lots of other places. She is a producer for several episodes of the scripted internet series DRIVEN, with “Episode Poppy” starring Breeda Wool and Sam Ball, written and produced by Antonia Crane. 

She has appeared on CNN’s This is Life with Lisa Ling and has been interviewed on WTF with Marc Maron and Michael Smerconish on https://www.siriusxm.com/potus where he compared dancers to Uber drivers. She is currently making cool shit by and for the sex worker community. Visit Antonia's website and find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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