In the best of times, pursuing recovery from substance use disorders and maintaining sobriety are a daily grind. Factor in the pandemic, its isolating effects, the social and economic upheaval that has followed, and those personal challenges are made all the more difficult.
Today, we're joined by Dawn Kepler, coordinator for the MSU Collegiate Recovery Community, and Chris Anthony vice president of US Consumer Goods at Salesforce. We're discussing recovery, sobriety, and the de-stigmatization of both on college campuses and in the corporate world.
Dawn's passion for helping others struggling with substance use stems from her journey with recovery, 18 years in the making. With a BS in psychology and work in the substance use disorder prevention and recovery fields, Dawn strives to improve behavioral health services by incorporating research on program design with the ultimate goal of achieving sustainable outcomes for those in recovery.
Chris studied marketing at MSU and has established himself as a business leader, public speaker, coach, mentor, and lifelong student striving to be of service to others. With over 25 years of experience in technology, he currently serves as the vice-president of US Consumer Goods at Salesforce Marketing Cloud, where he grew from account executive to vice president. Chris recently opened up about his 15-year journey with sobriety and established thesoberexec.com to help others navigate recovery and sobriety.
“Our Collegiate Recovery Community here at MSU has been on quite a journey,” says Kepler. “From the very beginning, it has been spearheaded by students. It's for students and by students who have come to MSU. It was approximately three years ago that a more formal program was established that is similar to what we have today, the Collegiate Recovery Community. MSU has the first on-campus recovery housing in the state of Michigan. It all stemmed from needs being identified then students advocating for them and working with staff and faculty on-campus to make things happen. The ultimate mission of the Collegiate Recovery Community is to help students achieve their goals - their academic goals, their personal goals, and their recovery goals - and live a full college experience feeling supported in their recovery from a substance use disorder.”
Kepler and Anthony talk about the need to destigmatize recovery and sobriety, and they discuss how they dealt with their own recoveries while on campus. And they talk about how the pandemic is impacting recovery and sobriety.
“It’s a really challenging situation we’re in for a lot of individuals,” says Anthony. “It's hard enough for people to make themselves vulnerable to reach out and ask for help. When we're quarantined or locked in place, it makes it harder sometimes to reach out to others. And with so many of us working from home, the challenge around addiction in any form whatsoever is hidden more than ever right now because we're all on Zoom; we're all on video. Someone can easily be living a very dark moment in their life and get on camera and smile to everybody. When that camera turns off, they're back in their dark dungeon of whatever misery they're experiencing. They're not going into an office space where someone can notice that they're declining, or it's easier to hide use now because you can have a coffee cup with wine in it and sit on a Zoom and do that all day long and no one knows the better.”
“There's a lot of awareness, think goodness, around other mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety,” Kepler adds. “I think that's the direction we need to go with substance use disorders. Some of the students we have in our Collegiate Recovery Community have told us that they were diagnosed with depression years ago and sought treatment for the depression, but they weren’t made aware that their substance use might be part of the problem. They didn't see that turning point until they were diagnosed with a substance use disorder and began receiving treatment and assistance for the substance piece.”
Kepler says students in the Collegiate Recovery Community “are some of the most successful students at colleges. We see it here at MSU and the research that's been done across the country. Our students have gone on and graduated and done amazing things. As anyone who knows an individual in recovery knows, you will be able to recognize the resilience and strength and dedication of that individual. On top of that, most of our students also have jobs and do a lot of work through community service. Our students are very busy, they're very dedicated, and they do go on to do amazing things after they graduate MSU.”
After 15 years of sobriety, Anthony felt comfortable with the vulnerability of becoming an advocate for recovery and sobriety and made his feelings public in a LinkedIn post. He explains how working with both Navy Seals and the band Metallica helped him come out publicly about his sobriety. The Seals thought Anthony’s sobriety was “cool,” and Metallica thought Anthony’s talking about it publicly would help others.
“I knew that I was creeping up on 15 years of sobriety, and I was thinking a lot about the fact that here I am hitting almost 15 years and yet I really don't talk about it publicly. People around me who worked with me would know, but I didn't talk about it publicly, and that was really bothering me a lot.
“My wake-up moment was, I'm like, ‘OK, if Navy Seals think it's ok that I'm sober, and the Metallica community thinks it's cool that I'm sober, I'm like, What is my problem? Why am I so ashamed and hiding this?’ On June 20th of this year, I decided to, quote unquote, come out about my sobriety. I posted an article on LinkedIn 15 Things I've Learned in 15 Years of Sobriety, and I put it all out there. I was scared as could be, and I put it on a couple other social media channels as well.
“Exactly zero bad things happened to me. In fact, just the opposite occurred. In that very moment, I had discovered my why in life. I discovered my purpose in life, and I knew right then that it was simple, to be of service to others. Literally every day, since that post, I get asked for help. It's been an outstanding experience. Here I am, and it's the greatest feeling ever. And if it gives anybody an ounce of encouragement that they can speak up about being sober and be proud of it, I'm doing my job.”
Both on college campuses and in the corporate world, there can be pressure to celebrate and commiserate with alcohol or substances.
“Look, I work in sales,” adds Anthony. “Anybody in the sales culture knows that alcohol is central to it. The phrase, ‘we wine and dine customers’ denotes alcohol. And celebration often focuses on alcohol. I think in the business world, it's very typical and normal.
“I've been navigating it for 15 plus years. To me, it's about saying no, and it's about remembering that I'm simply just trying to be healthy. Never, ever apologize or feel sorry about it. For whatever reason, there is often a massive stigma attached to saying, ‘I don't drink.’ That doesn't happen with mayonnaise or cilantro when you say no to it. People don't say, ‘What do you mean? You’re not addicted to cilantro? Are you addicted to mayonnaise?’ Nope. You just have to get comfortable in your own skin answering it.
“No apology is ever needed. There is no need to ever feel bad for choosing a healthy lifestyle. Now that I've opened up about my sobriety, I hear horror stories. But I am here to say that part of my other mission is I'm going to end the stigma, but there is no need ever to apologize for being healthy.”
Anthony talks about why he refers to his sobriety as his “superpower,” and says “there’s an old saying for people who have challenges with addiction that says you either get locked up, covered up, or sobered up. I chose to get sobered up and it has paid dividends since the day I made that choice. It's my superpower.”
Kepler and Anthony talk about how we can all be allies to people fighting substance abuse or in recovery like offering non-alcoholic options at gatherings.
“I really like what Dawn talked about with the idea of just being thoughtful with our language,” Anthony adds. “I think back to the stigma concept, too. We're running into this territory again where when someone makes the declaration, ‘Hey, I'm not drinking,’ they find themselves on their heels trying to defend why. It is really possible with just sparkling water or a Red Bull to have equally as a good a time.
“For the individual who's on the receiving end of that type of questioning and stuck with managing through that, it can be scary. It is just ominous for so many individuals, and it keeps people cooped up in their homes because they don't want to go out for fear of being asked that question. There are a lot of different paths to start to open up this dialogue with others so you can get comfortable with that conversation and almost be ready and excited to answer the question about whether you're drinking or not. It's a matter of seeking some community and knowing that you're also not alone.”
“Many of the stereotypes around what an individual who struggles with substance use looks like are not, in fact, what we see,” Kepler says. “Often when you start discussing your recovery and sobriety, other people will join in the conversation because they personally have been affected by addiction as well. It is very widespread. It is a disease like any disease, and it is something that should not be silenced because people feel shame or guilt over it. People in recovery go on to lead hugely successful, happy lives. Raising awareness will help more and more individuals to be able to achieve their goals and live that healthy, happy life.”
In closing, Anthony says the most important thing to do is ask for help.
“Ask for help, full stop, ask for help. If you are struggling or if someone you love or care about is struggling, ask for help. I don't care what walk of life you're from, there are tons of resources that we'd be thrilled to help you with. You can reach out to me on LinkedIn, and I have a website that I created in all this called thesoberexec.com. You can reach out to me there. Nothing would make me happier than to point you in the right direction.
“And if any current student in recovery now hears this and is scared about going into the corporate world or on to a career because they think their sobriety and choice to be healthy is going to put a cap on their career, I'm here to tell you that it will not. You may have to manage it. You're going to have to learn to manage some conversations, but you should not be fearful about achieving everything you hope and dream to achieve in your life.”
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