Portraits by ChiChi Ubiña
September is National Recovery Month. It is a national observance to promote and support new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices, the emergence of a strong and proud recovery community, and the dedication of service providers and community members across the nation who make recovery possible.
Stephanie Hazard is a successful business development executive, who co-founded the Greenwich Theatre Company and is following her passion to help people recover from alcohol and substance abuse disorder. Welcome to our series on recovery with Stephanie as our guide.
My recovery journey began twenty-three years ago as a single mom. No doubt my passion for helping others who struggle with substance use disorder was born out of the compassion, help, and support I received over the years. I formalized this role when I became a recovery coach professional and a certified eating disorder recovery coach. I work with a myriad of clients across the country including women, men, and families. What I know for sure is that some of the most beautiful gifts come in the ugliest wrapping paper. In other words, it is my most painful experiences that have become my greatest asset – a spiritual alchemy of sorts.
Alcoholism runs on both sides of my family. My grandfather spiked his morning orange juice with vodka, and my mother’s mother strategically hid bottles of scotch in her linen closet. Both my parents drank socially, but my father’s drinking progressed, and he did things, and hurt people in ways I believe he wouldn’t have otherwise. Those actions severely damaged my family, and my parents divorced as a result.
Growing up, I was consumed with managing an eating disorder, and deeply saddened by the alcohol related incidents in my family. I never fathomed becoming an alcoholic. I also vowed I would never marry anyone who was married to their drinking. I dated a few guys who drank too much, and a lot of my college friends drank more than I did. My drinking compared to theirs reassured me that I was in check. My former husband drank socially, but after we divorced, I again dated men who had serious drinking problems. I stepped into the role of Florence Nightingale (virtue signaling to myself that I was ok) determined to help them. I snuck into a few AA meetings to eavesdrop on what made them tick and “audited” a few Al-Anon meetings hoping to learn how to crack the code on their drinking. Little did I know I was blossoming into an alcoholic right alongside them.
I moved to Greenwich, and lived in a charming house on Lake Avenue, ran my own company representing TV commercial directors, volunteered, sat on various non-profit boards and committees, attended book club, played in a tennis group, and had a beautiful little boy, Jack. On the outside you might not have known there was a problem, but just under the surface was the undertow of this disease – a strong current with a relentless pull. What wasn’t noticeable was that I drank at home almost every night. I “pre-gamed” before dinner parties, and social events, and was hungover at least three times a week. Having a glass of wine had become my companion, my friend, a habit, and something to look forward to and depend on. When did I pass through the looking glass? When did my social drinking evolve into problem drinking? It was when unacceptable behavior became acceptable. When I began to do things that only problem drinkers or alcoholics might do. I drank to get over a hangover and when that didn’t do the trick, I popped a Percocet. I drank on Sundays, I drank before 5pm, I drove with a “roady” in the car on my way to pick up Jack and his merry band of friends from evening hockey practice, and I drank alone. I also physically craved alcohol. But it was when the ability to take care of Jack began to falter… that got my attention. In fact, that frightened me. With a pounding headache, I would pack his lunch box, put him on the school bus, and then crawl back into bed calling into work sick. At night, I would read him a bedtime story with a glass of wine on the nightstand and intentionally skip some pages so I could get on with my night. At the time, I was also in a volatile personal relationship and by staying in that relationship I was exposing my son to things I would have never exposed him to: arguing, late nights, my being too hungover to have the energy to play with him outside, unexplained behavior – and it all came rushing back to me. I was beginning to do to him what had been done to me. I swore I would never, ever, let the disease of alcoholism in, and I was the one who opened the door.
Being a single mom in recovery was tough. I was going to 12 step meetings, and on many occasions had to bring Jack with me; we called them my “feelings meetings.” I didn’t have a partner I could lean on, my family was not nearby, and I couldn’t always get a sitter. I would pack up his backpack with goldfish, a juice box, and his plastic action figures, and have him play in the hallway while I sat in a chair and listened. Everyone who I first got sober with knew my son. A man who had done time at Sing Sing was a friendly face and playmate along with a man who had been homeless, living on the streets of Costa Rica. We all had something in common – we were trying to stay sober a day at a time. I trusted this group of people with my son like they were family. After a full day of work and a quick dinner at home, I would sometimes go out again to go to a meeting. One night Jack said, “Mommy, why do you always have to go to those meetings? It gets in the way of us spending time together.” That slayed me. But I was told that I would be a better mother, sober. I had to have faith that being sober, being present, being responsible was what my son needed in the long run.
Getting remarried and moving to New Canaan began a new chapter. Although I continued to work as a business development consultant, I also spent a lot of my personal time volunteering and working with non-profits aligned with addiction awareness and recovery. As a board member of Liberation Programs, I was the keynote speaker for their 2010 Spirit of Hope event. I also worked with Shatterproof, producing branding videos, and volunteered at Silver Hill Hospital. Balancing my passion for all things theatre and film was always in play, and as a member of Theatre Artists Workshop (founded by Keir Dullea), I performed in and produced numerous play festivals both in NYC and CT. I then co-founded Greenwich Theatre Company in 2019. With our inaugural production, God of Carnage, we were off to an auspicious start, but when the world shut down on March 13, 2020, so too did GTC. Our theatre base, Arch Street, became the interim home for Neighbor to Neighbor to help serve the community. COVID enveloped the world and compounded our mental health and substance use disorder crisis – a secondary pandemic we are still seeing fall out from. As people from all walks of life were struggling more than ever, my work as a recovery coach took center stage in my life.
I never anticipated becoming a recovery coach. In fact, I had never even heard of the term until a meeting I had with Trey Laird, the CEO of The Lighthouse, back in December 2018. I had reached out to him to talk about marketing initiatives for the new women’s sober residence he was planning to open in New Canaan, CT. As a member of the local recovery community, I wanted to do more to support women. Although Trey’s plans were to broaden female centric support services and would need help in the future, he said, “Ya know Steph, in the meantime, you would make a great recovery coach.” A recovery what? I had no idea there was such a thing. He encouraged me to find out more about this recovery support role and to investigate the necessary training. A seed was planted, and as a result, my personal life and professional life are now fully aligned. I have been a full-time recovery coach for the past four years.
LOOK: Based on your story – there are many people we know and love who could be in your old shoes, as drinkers who don’t even realize they have a problem. What would you say to them?
I would say ask yourself deep down inside if you think you have a problem. Search your own heart and be honest with yourself. And if you think you’re drinking too much and might be sober curious, give it a try. If drinking isn’t a problem, then it won’t be a problem to take a break, right? Drinking is woven into the fabric of our lives, but when it begins to dictate your actions or have negative consequences or when you start moving the goal posts on what is acceptable… then it might be time to take a break. That’s how I started. I knew I needed to take a break.
I would also ask them to consider the health benefits of not drinking. There is a proven link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption, but no one talks about that openly. If health and wellness are important, then put drinking on the back burner. You’ll probably reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, see weight loss, have more energy, sleep better, and improve your focus and concentration.
If you are concerned about your drinking, talk to your doctor or to someone who is “alcohol free” and ask them about their experience. Taking a break is a good place to start. I had no intention of staying stopped. But I began to feel better emotionally and physically and have never looked back.
LOOK: What would you say to someone’s family member who might be concerned about a spouse or relative who may have a drinking or drug problem?
First, I would ask what are they doing to take care of themselves? Substance use disorders effect the entire family system, and it is crucial that family members seek help for themselves. What that helps looks like depends upon the individual, but it is in the form of self-care. Worry and sleepless nights takes its toll.
I would also encourage the family member to communicate with the spouse or relative from a place of concern and compassion. Communication is key. Harris Stratyner, a nationally recognized psychologist in NYC, talks about “carefrontation vs. confrontation.” I second that! Ultimately if your loved one has a problem, it will be up to them to get help, but how you help yourself is equally important.
The New Canaan Recovery Corps is a group of volunteers who are recovery advocates and coaches, and who are available 24/7 to answer questions and provide guidance and resources to the concerned individual. We’ve had all sorts of inquiries from children, spouses, and grandparents. There are a ton of local recovery and support services and resources. Breaking the silence and asking for help is where it all begins.
LOOK: How does one avoid conflict and shed light on a loved one’s drinking or drug problem?
Some conflict may be unavoidable, but a good place to start is by coming from a place of compassion and concern. Start by inviting the person to have an open-hearted conversation. One way to shed light is to ask the loved one what they are noticing? What are they experiencing? Often if you ask someone to share about how they are doing, and they don’t feel judged, they will turn the dial on their own honesty. If a person feels judged or accused, they will most likely clam up, and you’ll be dancing with denial and resistance.
There are many parents and loved ones who may feel the drinking and/or drug problem is glaringly obvious and have had to trouble shoot a whole host of negative consequences and as a result may feel frustrated or frightened. It is so hard to see a loved one pulled down a path that is clearly dangerous. At the end of the day, the individual who may be drinking too much or be abusing or misusing drugs needs to want to make a change for their own health and well-being and inviting them to do that vs. telling them to do that can help steer the conversation in a more positive direction.
Lastly, you might consider going to a recovery support group meeting together to hear what other folks who are substance free have to say about their experience, strength, and hope.
LOOK: What sort of mindset does a person need to have to pursue getting help?
The most optimal mindset would be having the desire to change. I gauge a client’s mindset according to the stages of change. Someone in the pre-contemplation stage is not even considering changing their drinking or using behavior. Contemplation is when a person comes to realize they have a problem. The person may want to change but feel they can’t commit to it so this can be tricky. Determination is the stage where the change begins. Pros and cons have been weighed and a decision to make a change is made. An action plan is created with the help of a professional and the plan is put into action. Typically, the person will share their commitment with their friends and loved ones and receive encouragement. They may go to in or outpatient treatment or start attending a recovery support group or start working with a therapist and/or a recovery coach. They are walking down the path of a drug and alcohol-free life. The maintenance stage refers to a sustained effort over time where a person becomes adapted to their new lifestyle and as they become stronger, the threat of returning or relapsing decreases.
Important to note: Given that substance use disorder is a chronic disease, the risk of relapse is a reality. The goal is termination which is where the person no longer feels threatened by their drug or drink of choice, and they’re living a substance free life.
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