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Alumna, MSU students inspire each other to live “hope-rich” life of recovery and sobriety

Michigan native and MSU alumna Susan Packard is a media entrepreneur, who along with many talented people, created popular TV channels like CNBC, HGTV, and Food Network. Today, as she says on her website, susanpackard.com, she writes, teaches, and shares practices of good emotional health, which have at their core, hope.

She's also open about being sober and how her ongoing recovery has transformed her life from, as she says, a stark soul-sick place to one rich with friends and activities she loves to do like reading by the lake on a Michigan summer day, supporting working women in any way she can, and connecting with college students and young adults who have courageously found their way to recovery.

Susan was both Homecoming Grand Marshal and an MSU Commencement speaker in 2019. She has bachelor’s and master's degrees in advertising and public relations from MSU. She's also a prolific author, and her latest book is titled The Little Book of College Sobriety.

Susan tells why she chose MSU for college and describes how MSU prepared her for her career. And she talks about going from writing questionnaires to working at HBO then on to helping create some of America’s most-watched television channels. And she talks about her own path to sobriety.

“I'm one of those people who never had any real consequences from my alcohol use, but I was at a place of horrible loneliness and just feeling utterly alone. And it made no sense because I was happily married, starting a family, and had a great job. I didn't understand it.

“But what helped to numb it was many glasses of wine every night when I got home. I was in high stress roles. Alcohol really helped with that up until the point where it didn't anymore, it just stopped working. And then it was a very dark place and I realized that I needed to do something to help myself. And while I was at HGTV, I started that sort of slow, painful walk toward recovery.

“The book is called The Little Book of College Sobriety: Living, Happy, Healthy, and Free. There are 12 stories in the book, and they're from all over the country. I do have four or five MSU stories, but then I have stories from Colorado and Texas and Virginia and Ohio. The students helped me with everything from the title of the book to their stories themselves, which they put in there.

“And their stories are about their journey from despair and addiction into this hope-rich place of recovery. And their stories were so tremendously inspiring to me. I have written two books, so I know how to write a book. I thought I could capture their stories. And I put my story in there, too. This as a book that students who might be questioning whether they should be experiencing college sober could pick up, and maybe they could learn something from it.”

You're very involved with MSU's Collegiate Recovery Community. Why is it important to you to talk about substance use disorder and recovery with college students?

“It's important to me because I remember when I was a college student and I felt something was wrong with me because I drank so much and abused drugs. And yet, I was in the Honors College. There was just something that was completely disjointed about that. If I had known the questions to ask myself back then and if there had been a Collegiate Recovery Community for me to walk into a lounge and to see people who were happy and who were experiencing college sober, maybe my whole experience of college would've been very different. And maybe it wouldn't have taken me two more decades to get to that place of recovery.”

And what do you get from being involved with college students?

“Oh, I get so much. It's all about the students. They inspire me every day. They'll send me little notes, and I'll send them notes congratulating them on a sobriety date. They'll tell me about their trips. I feel like I'm sort of the aunt. I'm not anybody's mom. I'm not really related to anybody. They're more open with me than they might be with others who are family. And they've become very dear to me, all of them. And they inspire me. They helped me with my sobriety and my recovery.”

Why is the transparent discussing of recovery important?

“It's important because mental health is just a part of who we are. We basically are our physical selves, our mental selves, and our social selves. And we try to take care of our physical selves. I mean, not all of us do, but we know about taking care of our physical selves. We know about taking care of our social well-being, especially after COVID, and the importance of being interconnected. But when it comes to our mental health, no one wants to own it or talk about it. It's our culture and I think it's ridiculous. Our mental health is just one part of who we are and it's not even the most important part unless you don't care for it, then it may become the most important part with a lot of negative consequences. I try to model for others that you can live a life of recovery, and you can talk about mental health. I think that hopefully some people will listen and maybe it'll open them up a little bit.”

When you think back, what do you imagine the college version of you would've done with the content of the book?

“I would have been steadier. I would've had better peace of mind. I would've had more friends, real friends, safe friends. College for me, I mean, it was fun. I would always use that word if anybody asked me, yes, it was fun. But it was also an emotional struggle for me in large part because of the drugs and alcohol.”

What would you say are some key takeaways from the book that you'd like people to have and your advice for anyone struggling with substance use disorder?

Russ White, Susan Packard in the MSU Audio Studios in 2019
Russ White, Susan Packard in the MSU Audio Studios in 2019

“I personally believe that substance use disorder is a disease of disconnectedness. I believe that an individual just feels completely apart and utterly alone. The antidote to that is finding a community. One of the reasons I wrote the book is only 5 percent of universities around the country have these communities like Michigan State has. All the proceeds from the book are going to a national organization that will grow these recovery communities. You just need to find people who you can feel comfortable and safe with. And after that, recovery is a beautiful, hope-rich way to live.”

And what message, Susan, do you have for alumni interested in getting involved with Michigan State University students and initiatives of all kinds?

“It starts with what's your passion. Let's say you're a veteran and you want to have some sort of engagement with the vets who are on campus. You can do that. Let's say you love music or you're a musician and you want to have some connection with the musicians at the music school on campus. You can do that. It really depends. I love the students. It may be that certain individuals would prefer to teach a class, or suggest some curriculum, or make donations. There are all kinds of ways you can get involved. For me, though, it begins and ends with the students.”

I have one other question on your TV career before I let you go. We hear about cord cutters and how many are paying more for apps than they were for cable. Where is this crazy world of TV and media consumption going in your view?

“I feel like we're going in a cyclical way. We're going back to the way it was. Yeah, there are a lot of cord cutters and people are just buying individual networks like Netflix and Amazon Prime and others. That sounds to me a whole lot like Cable TV was 10 or 20 years ago. I believe that we'll have more ability to choose what we want, but there will be a price point issue just like there always has been. And a network like Netflix is now looking at an ad-supported option. When we built cable networks HGTV and CNBC, we had two sources of revenue. They have only always had one source of revenue, which is subscribers. So now they're looking at, ‘Oh my God, how do I grow more revenue?’ And this may work for certain people. They might be okay with it for a lesser price point. I feel like it's so much of the same, only being repackaged and called something different.”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.