As told to Emily Kestel
Angie Chaplin is the founder and owner of Mindful Leadership, a consulting practice that works to build leadership capacity in individuals, groups, teams and companies. Chaplin started her business following a decadelong battle with alcohol addiction.
The following story has been formatted to be entirely in her own words and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This story discusses unhealthy alcohol consumption behaviors and addiction. If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol addiction, resources are listed at the bottom of the article.
My relationship with alcohol was normal – a cocktail when out to dinner with friends, a glass of wine at home to unwind – up until about 2011.
My position was eliminated at a job I had worked at for 10 years, when new leadership chose to go in a different direction. I started doubting myself. Then a close friend of mine passed away from cancer. I was really struggling with loss. There was grief not only of losing my friend but of losing my job. Like many people, I had connected my identity to my job. We women often identify ourselves by our roles. So that was an epiphany, that I didn’t know who I was.
Those things combined to make the perfect storm of things I couldn’t cope with in a healthy way. Alcohol became a way to attempt to cope and escape my sense of a lack of identity. I was a heavy binge drinker. Once I lost my job I had nothing else to do other than look for jobs and stay isolated and drink.
My marriage deteriorated and eventually ended in a divorce, which increased my alcohol use. I would drink as a way to escape isolation, which would only add guilt and shame, so I would drink more and continue the cycle. That continued to escalate.
The more that increased, the more it had an impact on my parenting, on my ability to be productive at work, on my relationships with my parents and my friends – with everything. I hear this from other people who struggle in recovery; we don’t see the bigger picture. We think we’re only hurting ourselves. We think, “I’m only killing myself by drinking.” That’s not the case at all. We’re killing our family relationships. We’re killing our chances of being a productive member of society. It took me a long time to realize the gravity of alcohol’s impact on everything.
I found I could not remember things. I would have a conversation with my kids and they would say, “Mom, we talked to you about this yesterday.” I would have to go through my texts to see what I said because I wouldn’t remember. If I had a phone conversation with them, I wouldn’t remember what we talked about.
At the peak of my addiction, I would drink up to three bottles of wine a day, primarily in the evenings. Then I got into the game of thinking, “Oh, I’m not the problem, wine is the problem. I’ll stop drinking wine and I’ll go to beer.”
With beer, it would be 18 to 24 cans of beer a day. Because I didn’t want evidence of all the cans, I would buy tallboys and I would go to different convenience stores or go to different Hy-Vees so that people wouldn’t necessarily think, “Oh, here she comes again, buying her stuff.” At one point, the HyVee in Waverly knew what wine I drank and they would always make sure to have it on hand. I’d go in and they’d be like, “Hey, we got a shipment in for you.” It just makes me cringe now when I think about that.
My first hospitalization was in December of 2018. I had been sick and didn’t really know why, and when I had finally gone to the doctor, I was diagnosed with an inflamed pancreas. So that was the first inclination that this was more than just a bad habit, that this was having a serious impact on my health and my life.
I accepted a job and moved to Dubuque in January of 2019 as a way to start fresh. Like many people who struggle with addiction, I thought it’d be a new start, a clean slate – I’d move to a different community and magically everything would fall into place. That didn’t happen. Job stress increased and I was more isolated. All that continued the vicious cycle of addiction, and that’s when I hit multiple rock bottoms, including an arrest for DUI in April 2019.
I hit two parked cars and totaled my vehicle. Thank God I didn’t hurt anybody. I was taken to jail. The accident happened at 7 p.m. and I got out of jail the next morning once I blew a 00. I participated in a jail diversion program where I learned about the impacts of alcohol. I had a Breathalyzer in my car that I had to blow into. I went to substance abuse counseling and I dabbled in AA.
I was able to stay sober through August. At that point, I got cocky.
I distinctly remember that it was a warm day. I thought, “I’ve got this continuous sobriety down, I can have a drink.” So I stopped at Kwik Star and I bought a tallboy. Then the next day, it was two tallboys. Soon it was up to a case.
I knew that I had a problem. I thought that I could just stop drinking and it’d be fine. When I would attempt to do that, my body would go into physical withdrawal. I would shake, I would be unable to focus, I’d have brain fog. The only thing to fix it would be to drink. That just repeated itself over and over.
My health continued to decline pretty much until my hospitalization in February 2020.
It was Super Bowl Sunday. That Saturday I had been on a bender, and I stopped drinking Sunday morning because my parents were coming. After binging for I don’t even know how many days, the shakes started. I was not coherent. I couldn’t sleep. When I’d lie down, the room would start spinning. Monday morning, I woke up and I told my dad that I needed to go to the hospital. He said to lie down and relax a little bit, and I tried and I couldn’t. When I went to get dressed, I slumped to my bedroom floor.
When I was released from the hospital, I had a doctor who sat down and looked me right in the eye and said, “You have two choices here. You can keep drinking and you will die. Or you can stop drinking and have a chance at a better life.”
Maybe it was because he was direct with me and didn’t sugarcoat anything, but at that point, I made a commitment to choose a better life. I was scared to stop drinking and I was scared to keep drinking. But the fear of dying and leaving my family, especially my kids, was greater than the fear of taking control of my life.
I went into an intensive outpatient program that was hospital-based. I was doing nine hours of face-to-face counseling a week. That meant group therapy, individual counseling and substance abuse counseling. I was all in. I was attending the meetings, I was doing the homework, doing the reflections – and about 40 days into my sobriety, COVID hit.
That put a halt to all of those in-person services that I had built my sobriety on. I panicked. I knew I didn’t want to go back to drinking, but I didn’t know what was available. AA was not a good fit for me. There were aspects of the 12 steps that I just couldn’t embrace.
I surrounded myself with as much positive sobriety material I possibly could. I started brainstorming what I could tap into from my background that would help. I remembered an activity we did in graduate school that was about finding your values, using your values and clarifying your values to find your voice.
I sat at my kitchen table by myself and I did the activity. When I landed on my five core values of love, growth, connection, gratitude and well-being, I knew that alcohol had no place in that. That became the catalyst for continuing to move forward.
As part of that journey, I left my job and I moved to Marion in July of 2020. I was unemployed, and I had three goals: to protect my sobriety, to find a job doing what I thought would be an HR/business partner type of role, and to find joy. What I discovered is that by keeping the goal of protecting my sobriety as the No. 1 thing, all of the other values would be presented to me.
I decided to start my own business. Through Mindful Leadership, I’ve been able to stay grounded in my values. Leadership for me is a way of life – and that is leading myself first, based on my values and aligning my behaviors with my values.
I came out on social media when I was 30 days sober. I didn’t go into all the details about it, but I was shocked at how many mentions of support and encouragement I got rather than people looking at me with disdain or disgust.
Realizing that who I am is separate from what I did gave me the encouragement and the power to keep living my recovery out loud, piece by piece. At one year, I was like, “I feel empowered. I’m no longer ashamed of myself. I am not OK with the behaviors I did back then, but I’m OK with who I am today.”
I’m someone who currently drinks but wants to stop. Alcoholics Anonymous connects individuals who have or have had a drinking problem. AA uses a 12-step approach to recovery and holds regular group meetings. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers information and resources around a number of different substance abuse disorders. Its free, confidential help line is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 800-662-HELP. Women for Sobriety is a nonprofit that caters to women seeking recovery for substance use disorders. Its moderators and chat leaders lead mutual support groups online and in person. Phone volunteers are also available for one-on-one support. They welcome all expressions of female identity. Self-Managing and Recovery Training (SMART) offers free assistance for a broad range of addictive behaviors and substances, including alcohol. Using social support groups and other tools such as self-assessments and worksheets, SMART Recovery uses a self-empowerment approach for treatment.
I’m someone who is a friend or family member of someone who needs help. The Addiction Center recommends approaching the loved one with respect and avoiding accusations by focusing the intervention on how their alcohol use has caused emotional or physical distress for you or others. “Make sure they know your intervention is coming from a place of concern and not of judgment,” its website advises. Al-Anon Family Groups is a support group for those with a loved one who is affected by alcohol, regardless of whether they’ve admitted to a problem. Al-Anon also offers special assistance and support for teens with loved ones with an alcohol addiction. Additionally, it’s important to know that many people who experience alcohol use disorder prefer person-first language, because it helps reduce stigmas. For example, they may prefer to be referred to as “someone with a substance abuse disorder” rather than an “alcoholic.”
I’m someone who has decision-making power in my workplace or community space and I want to help. Experts encourage businesses and organizations to make sure employee assistance programs, including those that counsel people with addiction, are within their benefits packages. Some advocates have also called for open discussions about addiction within the workplace, as doing so helps remove stigmas. Angie Chaplin, founder and owner of Mindful Leadership, said one of her favorite quotes about addiction is from Johann Hari and reads, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety – it’s connection.” She encourages taking sobriety conversations “out of church basements and into boardrooms.”“Even for businesses to start holding conversations … bring in an EAP provider or counselor or speaker and talk about it in the workplace. Rather than pushing people out to take care of their recovery, let’s bring people in and understand that it does take a community to recover from whatever we’re recovering from.”