Author Laura McKowen on facing pain, telling the truth and looking inward

    In this episode of Heart of the Matter, Elizabeth Vargas is joined by Laura McKowen, author and founder of The Luckiest Club.

    When Laura first stopped drinking, she thought of it as “the end of all the color” in her life. But after weathering one particularly challenging night, she realized the magic that comes with being in recovery and feeling fully present in her life. Together, Elizabeth and Laura discuss the pain that lies at the root of drinking, the glamorization of alcohol, the power of truth-telling and why Laura considers herself “lucky” to have faced addiction.

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    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Laura, welcome to Heart of the Matter. It’s great to have you.

    Laura McKowen

    Thank you, so good to be here.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And I have to tell you, I bought your book when it first came out. I didn’t read it when at first came out, it took me a few months to get to it, but I bought it because of the title, “We Are the Luckiest.” Because it felt so counter-intuitive to think we’re lucky to be in, you know, yes, we’re lucky to be in recovery, but lucky to have suffered from the disease of addiction. What? It was sort of mind blowing. Tell me about that title.

    Laura McKowen

    Right, well, that’s kind of why I picked it because like most people, when I was faced with getting sober, I thought it was the end of my life. There was nothing I could imagine that would have been a worst fate. And that’s very dramatic, but it was actually true. My identity was so wrapped up in that and I thought I needed it to sort of exist and to feel okay and to manage life that I just, and I thought all the fun would be gone. And how do you do dating and how do you do love and how do you do friendship and how do you do work? All those things. I just, I thought it was the end of all the color in my life.

    And that was the tune carried for a while. And then when I finally did get sober and started putting a little bit of time together, I had a moment where I was at home one night with my daughter, she was very young then, and we had a rough night just like kid stuff. And she was crying and I was crying and I got into bed safely and she was asleep. And I thought like, I weathered that I didn’t drink that night. And I knew the next morning I would create, there would be no new destruction. And it felt sort of magical, like, oh, this is, we’re lucky that we, we’re lucky, I get to be in my life now.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. Because when we’re drinking, we’re not in our lives. We’re not present. We’re not present with other people. I don’t know, I felt like when I was drinking, I had these very thick walls around me because I was being so dishonest about my anxiety, separate from my drinking. Sometimes the drinking itself, obviously, at the end, when I was hiding it, all those secrets. The secret that I felt like shit every morning when I woke up and pretending to be feeling okay. I mean, it was just, you don’t realize until you start to knock those walls down, how walled off you were.

    Laura McKowen

    Totally. And you’re also walled off from the good things. I felt like I knew how I was supposed to feel in certain moments that were great, connecting with my daughter, friends, or I knew it was supposed to feel, even getting married, because I was well into drinking it and then problematic drinking at that point, I knew how I supposed to feel, but it was like, a wall is a great way to put it. I just couldn’t get there. I couldn’t touch all the way down.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. The book is not just about drinking, though. Your book, “We Are the Luckiest,” you said, is really about pain. What do you mean by that?

    Laura McKowen

    Yeah. So a big theme of the book is it was really important for me to talk about that I felt that my experience of addiction was really not that unique. It was like, it was one way of pain manifesting or coping with pain and the results of that. But underneath, whether it’s addiction or some other behavior, which there are so many, there’s always pain, pain and trauma.

    And in the book, I call it “things.” We all have a thing. Many things but usually one that really kind of snags us at any given time. And it could be a divorce, it could be death, it could be addiction, it could be being ill, but we all have something. And addiction to me was not that unique. And what it really is, and I’m not the one to make this up, Gabor Mate, who is a brilliant person in this field says, we should never ask why the addiction, but why the pain? And what I heard that for the first time, it’s like, of course, yes. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about Laura has a problem with drinking. I did. But that’s not what it was about and all the stories we carry around, problematic drinking and the labels that we have and the stigmas that are there, it was about pain.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It’s really, the book is about trying to work through, to look inward. I think you said, pain is anything that causes us enough pain that we are to look inward. So it doesn’t have to be that you’re drinking too much. It could be that your relationship with food, it could be your self esteem, as you said, all the other everyday traumas that everybody on earth, I love that, everybody has something because it’s true. You know, you see the Facebook or Instagram life and it’s completely false, you know? It’s not that shiny, pretty picture of this is how lovely and curated my fabulous life is. I mean, everybody’s struggling with something and some people, as you said, really get snagged on it. What do you, I mean mean, the book is about helping people get unsnagged, right? What is the first step? The first step is just identifying what it is that’s catching you, right?

    Laura McKowen

    Yeah. I mean, sometimes it’s saying, it’s just saying, I’m in pain. I mean, how far did I go to not say that, to not admit it. My anxiety, I share an anxiety story with you. It was one manifestation of that. The drinking was a manifestation of that. There were many other things, but to admit that you’re in pain, I think is a good thing and a first step. And then, yes, what you said, name the thing that snagging you. Because we have a really hard time doing that.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I was struck by something you wrote at the very beginning of your book, right, you, you talk about the night when you finally, it finally clicked and fell into place. The penny fell so to speak. And you write, that night, the two worlds have been trying so diligently to keep separate, collided. My interior life full of secrets and coverups, nightly blackouts with wine and Ambien, crushing anxiety and exhaustion, and a growing fear of myself. And the external one where I hosted dinner parties and brought my daughter to play dates and got better jobs and more promotions and dressed well, and regularly ran six miles around Boston at lunch. I so related to that. And the utter exhaustion of keeping those two places spinning.

    Laura McKowen

    Yes. When just hearing you read those words, I got like this in my throat. Because my not my life is not like that anymore, but it was extraordinarily exhausting.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Why do you think we should continue to do that then? I mean, what is it? You know, I had to be dragged, kicking and screaming to recovery. I know you write about that in your book as well. And a lot of other people have the same story.

    Laura McKowen

    Yeah. I mean, there’s many things. You can’t deny the cultural phenomenon of drinking and how it’s glamorized and totally normalized and everywhere and seen as a romantic, celebratory accessory to a good life. We talk about that a lot, or at least I do, but you really can’t overstate that because there’s no, and this is something I think we all, we’re so in it that we don’t even know the water that we’re in until you really, really step back and go, it’s not even that like our entire paradigm around this is just wacky. It’s the only drug you ever have to explain, not using.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. Nobody ever says, why aren’t you doing this or doing that? But they all say, why aren’t you drinking?

    Laura McKowen

    100%. And it was just ubiquitous in my life growing up. And not just in my home, but also in my home, but in college and then work. And then it was just everywhere. I didn’t even question it. And in fact, there were the jokes about, we don’t trust people who don’t drink. Ha, ha, ha. And it was very… So you can’t, we are animals that want to belong, period. And to go against norms, some people can do that, most people don’t. Right? And then, okay, so that’s one piece. And then you add in the fact that it’s a highly addictive substance. It is. I could go on and on about alcohol. We don’t need to focus on that, but it is an addictive substance. So it’s doing what it is intended to do when we get hooked by it and that doesn’t always manifest as full on acute alcoholism.

    There’s a whole spectrum of dependency in there and we don’t put up those flags. I mean, in my circles, we promoted over drinking. I worked in advertising. Everyone was hung over on Friday. Because everyone went on a Thursday and it was like, you belonged if you were hung over, you belonged, if you over drank. Same with my mom’s circles eventually. And so you start to connect that with belonging and connection. Why would you admit that, why would you take yourself out of that? And look, it works to some degree for a while. I mean, alcohol did me a lot of favors. It really did until it worked against me and because of the way that our brains work and the pleasure reward centers work is you still, even after it’s not delivering, what you think it is, you still, you get that hit of dopamine and there’s nothing, like, we were wired to chase that.

    I always felt like even in the, sort of the darker phases of my drinking that felt like the lights turned on when I had a drink like, oh, I can finally breathe and I can see everything. And I felt like, love coming out of me. And it’s a very powerful substance. So of course we don’t take ourselves out of that.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You started while you were trying to get sober for that year, you started a private Instagram account where you wrote about your struggles with staying sober. Why did you do that?

    Laura McKowen

    I had wanted to be a writer and write, and I wanted more than that, I wanted to… I had this thing in me that I really wanted to express myself and quotes, I’m a lover of words and literature, and I always have been, and I wanted to express those things, but I didn’t know how or think that I should or could because it’s like who cares? You know? And so I now had something to write about. Jason Isbell, musician said, “sobriety gave him a story to tell,” and I felt, that’s how I felt. And I wasn’t sober yet, but I needed to talk about it. I had things that I wanted to say. And I don’t know if you have experienced this with writing or something else, but you just, it gave me something to reach for, too. Like all of this energy that I had been tamping down with drinking, this creative energy needed to go somewhere. And that gave me a place to put it.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    How honest were you in those posts? And because what you’re describing is basically journaling only you’re letting other people read it.

    Laura McKowen

    Yeah. I was really honest. I was careful when I talked about other people, because I was still going through a divorce. He didn’t know the extent of my problems with drinking. He knew, but he didn’t really know. No one really knew. No one ever does because we’re expert hiders. But custody wasn’t determined, we were separated, but not divorced. And so I didn’t want to, not only did I not want to tell someone else’s story, but I didn’t want to potentially damage something for my daughter. So I was careful, but I was very honest and that was the real medicine I had, for the first time, been honest. And I talk in my book about like, I had so many versions of myself everywhere and I really desperately wanted one version of myself. And I started to do that in this Instagram account. So I was pretty honest.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    The Instagram account is what led to eventually the book. You now do seminars. You’ve got a newsletter. You have a huge following of women who are… Do you have any idea by the way of like all these women, are they almost all in recovery or trying to be in recovery or are they dealing with other things? I mean, how broad has the appeal of the message in “We Are the Luckiest” gone?

    Laura McKowen

    I would say it’s mostly people in recovery and you know, mostly women, although there are some men in there, too. But just today, like I got an email right before this because I had sent a newsletter out and she wrote, she wrote back and said, I love your content. I don’t have a problem with alcohol, but it has helped me both watch my consumption and just want to go for bigger things in my life. So there’s definitely a contingent of people that don’t struggle with alcohol, but they either love someone who does, or they just have their own thing. They have their own thing.

    And so I never imagined I would be writing about sobriety and alcohol and although I will always kind of talk about that, it is a bigger story. It is a bigger story about pain and going inward. And partially, I want to sort of normalize conversations around drinking sobriety, alcohol addiction, and part of it is that normalizing and conversation around pain and facing it and that these are invitations, really, almost always to wake up and be in your life like we were talking about.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Do you think the conversations, I mean, it feels, I don’t know if I’m just paying more attention, but it feels like there are a lot of really eloquent voices, yours is one of them, out there right now having these conversations. Do you, do, do you feel like there’s something, some sort of shift change happening right now?

    Laura McKowen

    Yeah. I don’t think it’s just because you’re paying attention. I think that there is. Okay, here’s a good indicator. “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk has been on the New York Times Bestseller, this is a pretty clinical book about trauma, has been on the New York Times Bestseller for like two years.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Exactly. Which, what does that tell you? How many people out there are grappling with a secret trauma, right? Because that book wouldn’t be there if everybody wasn’t-

    Laura McKowen

    It came out 10 years ago or more.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I have it on my bookshelf and my best friend in the world was here last weekend, staying with me for the weekend. She picked it up and started to read it herself. Everybody has something as you [crosstalk 00:17:25].

    Laura McKowen

    No one even talked about trauma outside of therapy or war veterans and PTSD. So there is more openness around talking about mental health. There’s more openness talking about trauma. I don’t think it’s just you. I think that this generation coming up, my daughter’s generation, she’s 12, they openly talk about mental health, anxiety, depression, all kinds of things. That was never part of the conversation when I was growing up. So I think there’s much more openness to it and awareness of it.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And yet we look at statistics, drinking overall in this country since the year 2000 has gone up dramatically. And has gone up dramatically, mostly with women. The Atlantic magazine just did a huge article called “America Has a Drinking Problem.”

    Laura McKowen

    I know, I read it.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And there’s this one part of the article that really jumped out at me. Although both men and women commonly use alcohol to cope with stressful situations and negative feelings, research finds that women are substantially more likely to do so. Almost all of the heavy drinking women drank alone. They did so not to feel good, but to take the edge off feeling bad. I mean, whoa, did I relate to that one. But it’s, gosh, I wasn’t the only one and you weren’t the only one. And there’s a huge collective, we aren’t the only ones, that is massive.

    Laura McKowen

    Massive. And I felt that when I was struggling to get sober, I just had this like rage almost that I knew it was a bigger story than Laura has a drinking problem. And Laura needs to go deal with it in some room and be quiet about it. It was like, this is everywhere. This is a major problem. And even the numbers will tell you that. But it’s very rare that we have a such a cognitive dissonance in, well, it’s not very rare, we’ve seen it happen with cigarettes, we see it happen with all kinds of things in our society. But alcohol seems particularly fascinating because we adore it. We put it in beautiful bottles.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    We romanticize it.

    Laura McKowen

    Talk about it and we plan it. It’s just, we love our alcohol. And yet it kills more people than all the other drugs combined, including prescription drugs every year. It is just this… I heard also that this clinical psychologist that did his PhD around drugs and alcohol say that if alcohol was introduced today, it would never be, it would be banned. They would never allow it to be a drug out on the market. I thought that was wild.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. You, in the book, when you talk about your own recovery, talk very movingly about the connection that you found in the rooms of AA for you. And I want to read that one part of it because it really spoke to me, at least. You write, “I had created a totally separate internal world that didn’t match my outsides. And this incongruence left me feeling terribly alone, even when I was surrounded by people. I Had been carrying around 1 million heavy secrets and was convinced I always would. As it turned out, those secrets were not just mine. Nothing is such balm for a broken soul as this, to know you’re not alone. And so even if I agreed with nothing else, I found others who occupied the same quadrant of hell as I did. I heard people describe my inner life when they shared theirs. That power of sitting in a group and hearing other people tell your story or tell a story that might be completely different from yours, but it’s still completely relatable, talk about that power and why that’s so important and key to recovery.

    Laura McKowen

    Yeah. And I’m still wrapping my head around this because I’m not really a joiner at all. And I still resist it, not just joining, but sort of connection in a way. And I resisted AA and I talk about that a lot. And AA is not the only place where this happens, but it was my landing place. And so I think it has to do with truth, telling the truth and hearing the truth. It’s the best medicine I know for, it’s the best medicine I know. Because I think when we, especially when we’ve gone through something traumatic or difficult or painful, and especially when we have so much shame, which I did, and I’m sure you did. I know you did because I read your story. [crosstalk 00:22:48].

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah, I wrote about it a lot.

    Laura McKowen

    And anyone that goes through this is just buried in shame. That’s the number one thing they’re carrying around, even if they don’t know how to call it that, it’s there. And it’s a release valve for that. So because you realize that you’re not the worst person in the world, I thought I was the worst. We all think we’re the absolute worst. And I heard other women, other mothers, especially, because that was the worst part for me say the things that I felt and the things that I did and sometimes worse. And they were there and they were fine and they were thriving and they had forgiven themselves. So that helped me. It helped me, it did more than help me. I mean, it saved me.

    And then we learn that, and we, it’s like we have this very narrow, limited story of ourselves. And then we start to connect with others. And through, it’s like this negotiation with ourselves and with others are the aperture widens and we start to understand the broader story of who we are, which is the broader story of being human. It’s humanity. And you see that we all contain everything. We all are capable of everything. Good, bad, light, dark. And that inevitably leads to compassion. First, sometimes we can just have it for others. We are usually the last ones to grant it to ourselves, but that’s where it’s at. I mean, that is healing. Whether it’s done in the therapy room or a recovery room or in a friendship, that’s how we survive and heal and experience.

    I mean, Brene Brown, and I do love her work and she said, I didn’t really get this, but she always says, we heal in connection. This is where, and I resisted that, I think, because I’m not a joiner. It’s like, I’ve always wanted to do it by myself. But that’s it, this was my first experience really feeling that. And I was just so desperate that I had nowhere else, literally I was at the end, it’s like, fine. And that’s fine. That’s how I got in and felt it. But now I know that to be true. And so I make sure that I have that in my life.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Right. Well, it’s like, as you said, it can be in a room, in the rooms of AA, it can be in a group therapy room, it can be just with your best friend. But the point is, is if we keep it all secret and inside of us, we lose all context and you begin this sort of cyclone of self judgment and self-flagellation and Just like, oh, I’m the worst-

    Laura McKowen

    And self obsession. Yeah. It’s hell.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    The best thing about these rooms is yeah. Not only do you get outside of your own head and show interest in empathy and compassion for somebody else, but you hear other people talk about what you did. And you’re like, oh my God, I’m not the only one, which is so obvious and yet revelatory if you’ve been caught in that echo chamber of judgment, of bad self judgment. I quickly, I found out that, because I too am not a joiner. I would just go and listen, but listening helped me connect.

    Laura McKowen

    Sure. It’s a great [crosstalk 00:26:24] step.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. When I heard other moms telling stories, all of a sudden my story wasn’t so singularly horrible and awful. And you begin to show empathy and compassion toward these other people, for the things that they did, which are exactly the same things you did that you are judging yourself so harshly for. Like, it takes a while, but you start to sort of learn that, wait a minute, if I can be compassionate and empathetic toward you and forgive you, why can’t I forgive myself?

    Laura McKowen

    Right. It’s and it’s a process, but that’s yes, you described it so. Well, my dear friend, Jim says, there’s sanity in community. And that’s the other piece of it too, is there’s sanity in community. We need each other to be sane about our choices, about what’s going on with us, we need to other people’s perspectives. You know, other people who love us and can see the bigger picture because whether you’re in recovery or not, this is true. We don’t all… Anne Lamott said, we don’t all go crazy at the same time, that’s why we survive. And we don’t all lose it at the same time, like in a community some people are having a hard time. The others can lift them up and then it switches and oscillates that way. So there’s that, too. I mean, again, I just, I know there’s people out there going, I don’t want it. I want to read books. I want to listen to podcasts. I don’t want to connect and join. As far as I can tell, there’s no other way.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You, in the very start of your book, lay out the nine principles for someone struggling with addiction. And I loved these.

    Laura McKowen

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And here they are. “It’s not your fault. It is your responsibility. It is unfair that this is your thing. This is your thing. This will never stop being your thing until you face it. You can’t do this alone. Only you can do it. I love you. I will never stop reminding you.” Those are fantastic and contradictory. And yet absolutely true. Both things can be true that it’s not your fault and it is your responsibility.

    Laura McKowen

    Yeah, yeah. Those came from a letter that I had written to a woman who was struggling with her sister’s drinking. And she was scared and terrified and angry and frustrated and all the things that we are when someone we love is caught in addiction, it’s still up. It’s called, “When Your Lobster is Addicted,” it’s on my blog if people want to look it up. But I wrote her this long piece. And then I said, if this is all too much, just give her this list. And then the list actually has turned into something and people really have gravitated towards it. So I started a customer ID community last year in the pandemic called The Luckiest Club. And these are our sort of manifesto. We read them at the end of every meeting. And then I just signed on for book number two, which is-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yay. Congratulations.

    Laura McKowen

    Thank you. Which is called push-off from here. And it’s an exploration of the nine things.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    That’s fantastic.

    Laura McKowen

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Okay. Did you ever dream that this would be your life? I mean, come on.

    Laura McKowen

    No, I did not.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Back when you were like the person I read about in the beginning of “We Are the Luckiest,” when you were waking up in the morning and making sure your daughter was still breathing and making sure that the house wasn’t on fire.

    Laura McKowen

    No.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    You know, seriously.

    Laura McKowen

    I know. I just wrote a little thing about this because I was talking about my second book coming out and I’ll just read if you don’t mind, because it’s better. I don’t think I could say it better. And it’s, it’s small, but yeah. No, I can’t believe it. In a way I can, because like, maybe you felt this, too. I felt like there’s something in me. This sort of create, I call it big energy in the book. I didn’t know what that meant. I certainly, I couldn’t have imagined this life. And so what I said is, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, and I’ve also worked hard. And every single day I have a moment, sometimes many, where I feel just how easily it could have all been otherwise. Which is to say, I am grateful, but also something more, I am in awe. Every day, literally. And that doesn’t mean I’m happy every day, and everything’s great, and I get dressed by blue birds, but I mean, I have really shitty times, but I’m always grateful.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. Yeah. Clearly your writing has touched a nerve. Clearly there are many, many, many women out there struggling with something. This book came out of a private Instagram blog that you were keeping when you were deep in your struggle. And your honesty in your struggle led to the honesty that you see in the book, “We Are the Luckiest” and the connection that women felt to that book has led to the different clubs and newsletters and support groups that you’ve established and a second book and a podcast that you’re going to start very, very soon. So clearly there’s a thirst for that connection. It’s so ironic that the connection is being led by a person who’s not a joiner and doesn’t like to connect.

    Laura McKowen

    Well, that’s what I mean. It’s like, I never thought, yeah. Yeah, and you see all kinds of people like that, where it’s like, I didn’t know this was going to happen. I just was following the next, like-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I was just doing the next right thing. Yeah. Well, Laura, it was so great to have you on Heart of the Matter, and wonderful to speak to you. And I will check out that second book. I love those nine principles. They’re amazing. And they can, by the way, you can apply that to anything, not just alcohol, not just addiction.

    Laura McKowen

    Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Anything.

    Laura McKowen

    Yes, yes. I will make sure that you get an early copy.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Thank you. Alright. Thanks so much. It was great to have you.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Thank you so much for listening today to “Heart of the Matter.” You can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and on our website at drugfree.org/podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who is struggling with substance use, you can text 55753, or visit drugfree.org. We’ll talk to you soon.

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    Published

    August 2021