“I have a very different life experience from a lot of the other pundits," Jane Velez-Mitchell says. • The host of HLN's Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell and longtime crime reporter says, "People meet me and expect a certain kind of person. They get this sober vegan environmentalist, and they go, 'What was that?' " • Velez-Mitchell's new book, iWant: My Journey From Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life, chronicles her childhood and career but focuses on her experiences with recovering from alcoholism and other addictions, confronting her own sexuality and dealing with breast cancer. • Velez-Mitchell published her first book in 2007, Secrets Can Be Murder: The Killer Next Door, about some of the high-profile crime cases she has covered. "Even with that book," she says, "I was writing about the dangers of toxic secrets."
When she pitched a second book to publishers, she says, "First I proposed a book abut solving America's overconsumption crisis using the 12 steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction-treatment organizations, "because I think we're addicted to consumption."
But, she says, "You can't lecture an addict. They'll just go on a binge. That's what I did."
Her publishers suggested writing the book in first person, basing it on her own experience as a recovering alcoholic.
It made sense to her. "Instead of pointing the finger at someone else, I'd point it at myself, at all the mistakes I'd made over the years, and how all that led me to living a more evolved lifestyle.
"That's what you do in 12 step: Tell your story. It's a giant share."
And tell it she does in iWant, which despite its seemingly grim list of subjects is an engaging and often funny book. In it, Velez-Mitchell, 53, relates her unusual childhood, growing up in Manhattan as the daughter of a successful advertising executive and a glamorous professional dancer.
Her father was charming, intelligent — and an alcoholic: "I thought it was normal to have three martinis every night." People from show business, the arts and Russian royalty flowed through the family's apartment, and Velez-Mitchell traveled the world and took classes in everything from classical piano to Hindu dance. She made her performing debut at age 7, singing at Little Carnegie Hall ("right next to the big one").
She didn't realize how unusual her childhood was at the time. "I just wanted to live in the suburbs," she says. "I wanted to go to one of those big high schools with lockers and sports teams." And it wasn't all glamor — her father's drinking had social, emotional and financial consequences.
Velez-Mitchell herself was drinking heavily by the time she was in high school; it wasn't until April 1, 1995, that she got sober. Like her father, she had a successful career, but nothing — drinking, romances and a marriage, food, shopping binges — made her happy for long.
She relates her "click" moment in the book, which happened after a blackout, when she thought a long-supportive boyfriend had finally had too much and left her.
But her story of recovery doesn't just cover alcoholism. "All those years I was just shoving whatever I wanted into my system, into my apartment." Taking the 12-step inventory of her life led her to examining how she ate and how she shopped as well.
And that led her to passionate interests in animal welfare and environmentalism. Instead of grabbing whatever tasty meal or shiny gadget she desired, she began thinking about carbon footprints and factory farms.
"The greatest possible outcome would be to get people conscious about what they're buying. If there is one original idea in this book, it's 'Let's have a kindness inventory. Let's view these things as political, moral and environmental choices.' "
Her personal inventory also led her to look at her relationship history, admit to herself that she was a lesbian and come out publicly. "I haven't had any negative reaction," she says. "My career has only gotten better. I can't speak for other industries, and I wouldn't want to give anyone else advice, but I think a lot of the fear about that is self-generated."
Velez-Mitchell's career moved from covering crime as a reporter to hosting her own show as a commentator in 2008. "I was so frustrated as a reporter," she says. "If I stood in front of one more makeshift memorial to someone who got shot on a street corner without saying, 'What are we learning from this? What can we do to turn this around?' I'd go crazy."
Issues deals with crime-related stories often, Velez-Mitchell says. "Our nation is addicted to crime. We use it for information and news, for entertainment, movies, everything. It's a culture focused on violence.
"On Issues we try to look at it from a different perspective. We try to be solution-oriented, to find a teaching moment."
Velez-Mitchell says that some of the best advice she got from her father was to choose a career that was "something you would do for free, but someone has decided to pay you for it. That's what this is. It feels validating."
Writing iWant has been a similar experience, she says, another way of working through many of her own issues, such as anger about some of her experiences growing up.
"Now I live with my mom. She's 93. I sleep in the same bedroom I slept in when I was a kid. We get along great.
"She wasn't the alcoholic. She was the one coping with the alcoholic. I'm just sorry I never got to know my dad without the alcohol."
Although she hopes the book will inspire readers to take a fresh look at their own habits, Velez-Mitchell says sharing the less-than-flattering details of her life has been liberating.
"In our culture today, I don't think there's a downside to telling the truth. You're only as sick as your secrets."