A moment of clarity changed Jane Velez-Mitchell's life

When Jane Velez-Mitchell got sober in 1995, she went a lot further than 12 steps.

For the longtime broadcast journalist, recovering from alcoholism was just the first phase of changing almost everything in her life: how she ate, shopped, worked and loved.

"It's an ongoing process, totally," Velez-Mitchell, 53, said in a recent phone interview. "I just had a revelation last night in a meeting. It's a way to uncover who you really are."

Now the host of Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell at 7 every evening on HLN, she has chronicled those changes in her new book, iWant: My Journey From Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life.

Velez-Mitchell will be a featured author today at the Times Festival of Reading at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Alcoholism was something of a family tradition. Throughout her childhood in Manhattan, Velez-Mitchell assumed everyone drank as much as her dad, an advertising executive, and she was finishing off the leftovers in highball glasses after her parents' parties while she was still in grade school.

She drank her way through high school, college and into a career in television journalism. She functioned at work, but a marriage failed, as did other relationships, because of her drinking.

She not only tried therapy, she spent a decade in a relationship with a man from a whole family of therapists. "I imagined the prospect of round-the-clock analysis. It was very enticing," she writes in iWant.

None of it helped. "Therapy does not get you sober," Velez-Mitchell says. "It's really important for therapists to tell their patients who are addicts about 12-step programs. It's irresponsible not to."

What finally propelled Velez-Mitchell into sobriety wasn't a catastrophic event. "I never crashed my car and killed somebody. I thought I was so bad, but once I started talking to other addicts, I realized I was kind of a piker."

She simply blacked out at a party and woke up the next day feeling ashamed. But that was nothing new. "I had been through all those situations before, and it didn't all come together."

The difference: "I had a person to call.

"I had a best friend from college who had gotten sober and had been bugging me to do it. I was finally, as we say, sick and tired of being sick and tired."

And, she says, it was a matter of attraction, of seeing her friend and saying, "I want what he has."

Hence the title of her book, and its chapters detailing all the things she found she wanted. Once she stopped drinking — on April Fool's Day, as she notes — and smoking, she started to gain weight.

"Lots of recovering addicts and alcoholics get fat," she writes. "That's because addictions jump! You give up one thing and something else pops up to take its place. The reason for this is obvious. Addicts will use whatever substance is available to escape and self-medicate.

"In my case, I couldn't afford to get fat. I'm on television."

Velez-Mitchell had already become a vegan, but she had to learn that going on an eating binge — even if the candy was organic and fat-free — was still a compulsive behavior.

Using the constant personal inventories that are a foundation of 12-step programs, she learned to control her eating, then turned to dealing with addiction to shopping. ("Me, I had gadget lust.") She also came to terms with her own sexuality and came out as a lesbian, a change that she says has had only positive effects.

Velez-Mitchell also realized that being a workaholic was an addiction, and a dangerous one.

Having put off medical checkups because of a demanding work schedule while covering Michael Jackson's trial on child molestation charges, she finally had a mammogram after Celebrity Justice, the show she was working for, was canceled.

"I better go get all my medical checkups before my insurance runs out," she told her girlfriend.

She had breast cancer.

Learning of the diagnosis became another life changing moment, she writes. "My everyday worries suddenly seemed trifling."

Surgery and radiation left her cancer free, but awareness of the disease became another cause, like veganism, environmentalism and animal rights, that she often deals with on her television show.

Velez-Mitchell says that, although recovery depends upon the addict taking responsibility for his or her own behavior, her personal journey has taught her that she's not alone.

"I think we're addicted to overconsumption" of all kinds, she says, and that's what prompted her to write the book: helping other people.

Part of the ongoing process of changing her life is thinking about others, she says, both living and dead. "I'm sober for myself, but I'm also sober for my dad, and sober for my cousin Billy, a Vietnam vet who died at 45 of cirrhosis of the liver.

"Whenever I'm tempted, I think, 'Billy can't even have a cup of coffee.' "

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.

iWant: My Journey From Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life

By Jane Velez-Mitchell

Health Communications Inc., 268 pages, $24.95

Festival of Reading author

Velez-Mitchell will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading, today at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 10 a.m. in the Campus Activities Center. The event is free; for information go to www.festivalofreading.com.

An excerpt from iWant: My Journey From Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life, by Jane Velez-Mitchell

(At a party in the Hollywood Hills) I got the brilliant idea of teaching everybody how to do "snakebites." That's when you down a jigger of whiskey or tequila and then, as a chaser, suck the juice out of a lemon wedge that a friend is holding in his or her mouth. It's a real icebreaker. This got a lot of laughs. It was silly and fun. However, at a certain point, the snake bit me and I blacked out.

This is the definitive mark of alcoholism, where you are there but then again, you don't know that you're there. The most terrible DUI car accidents are usually committed by a driver in a blackout, who doesn't know, for example, that he's even driving, much less that he's driving the wrong way on a freeway.

My blackout wasn't tragic, but it was pitiful. I am told that I knocked the host down a flight of stairs after I tried to kiss him. Apparently, I became the kissing bandit when under the influence. The host was a very good sport, but Stephen (Velez-Mitchell's boyfriend of 10 years) was not amused. He was actually quite livid.

"Why do we have to go?" I implored him as he carried me out of the party over his shoulder.

"Because you are drunk and out of control!"

"But why do we have to go?" I implored again, like a child, unable to grasp the answer he gave me repeatedly.

The next day I woke up to an empty bed. The sun was streaming through my oceanfront condo. People were playing volleyball right outside. I was assaulted by the brightness and the shouts of the players. My head throbbed. There was that horrible sense of remorse as the night before came back to me in flashes, a PowerPoint presentation of unladylike behavior. Looking around the room, I immediately assumed Stephen had followed through on his threat of leaving me. I felt sick.

But another part of me went click, click, click. There was this convergence of factors. I had just destroyed yet another relationship. I felt totally alone, and I hated myself. I was also too tired to do a damage assessment or engage in my customary rationalizations.

At the age of 39, I was getting too old for this. What might have been brushed off by a teenager as a silly escapade felt really ugly as an adult. I felt totally spent. At that moment, I finally admitted that I needed the kind of help that went far beyond talking to a therapist. It was a brief moment of clarity where everything changed, and I surrendered.

I felt a rising tide of relief as I walked down the stairs toward the phone. I was an army general waving the white flag at the enemy. Finally, the war was over. I headed straight to my office, picked up the phone and dialed an old friend from college with whom I had recently reconnected. He had just gotten sober and had been bugging me to join him.

"Abbott, hi, it's me. You win. I had a bad one last night. I'm done. Seriously. I'll do whatever you want me to do."

"Great, I'll pick you up in an hour," he said.

I hung up the phone and walked from my office into the living room. There was Stephen, sleeping on the couch. If I had noticed him on the way into my office, I would never have made the most important phone call of my life.

A moment of clarity changed Jane Velez-Mitchell's life 10/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 6:14pm]

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