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The founder of a female-focused recovery program offers a radical new path to sobriety.
“You don’t know how much you need this book, or maybe you do. Either way, it will save your life.”—Melissa Hartwig Urban, Whole30 co-founder and CEO
We live in a world obsessed with drinking. We drink at baby showers and work events, brunch and book club, graduations and funerals. Yet no one ever questions alcohol’s ubiquity—in fact, the only thing ever questioned is why someone doesn’t drink. It is a qualifier for belonging and if you don’t imbibe, you are considered an anomaly. As a society, we are obsessed with health and wellness, yet we uphold alcohol as some kind of magic elixir, though it is anything but.
When Holly Whitaker decided to seek help after one too many benders, she embarked on a journey that led not only to her own sobriety, but revealed the insidious role alcohol plays in our society and in the lives of women in particular. What’s more, she could not ignore the ways that alcohol companies were targeting women, just as the tobacco industry had successfully done generations before. Fueled by her own emerging feminism, she also realized that the predominant systems of recovery are archaic, patriarchal, and ineffective for the unique needs of women and other historically oppressed people—who don’t need to lose their egos and surrender to a male concept of God, as the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous state, but who need to cultivate a deeper understanding of their own identities and take control of their lives. When Holly found an alternate way out of her own addiction, she felt a calling to create a sober community with resources for anyone questioning their relationship with drinking, so that they might find their way as well. Her resultant feminine-centric recovery program focuses on getting at the root causes that lead people to overindulge and provides the tools necessary to break the cycle of addiction, showing us what is possible when we remove alcohol and destroy our belief system around it.
Written in a relatable voice that is honest and witty, Quit Like aWoman is at once a groundbreaking look at drinking culture and a road map to cutting out alcohol in order to live our best lives without the crutch of intoxication. You will never look at drinking the same way again.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Quit Like a Woman
Addiction begins with the hope that something “out there” can instantly fill up the emptiness inside.
People are often shocked when I tell them that addiction was the best thing that ever happened to me. But it’s true, it was. Most people go through this life living each day not much different from the next. We are born impressionless, doughy little babies into a world that carves its fear and love of conformity into us. We are told to pick the safe path, to get a job that pays well, to marry a man who provides, become a woman who provides, save our money, buy property, procreate, and die with as few wrinkles as humanly possible. We are sold the lie that if we do the things that keep us safe, we will be okay. As if it were a proven formula: 401(k) = safety = happiness.
When I was fourteen years old, my parents divorced. My mom was born with congenital hip dysplasia, and by the time I graduated junior high she’d already had both her hips replaced. (As of this writing, she’s had eight hip replacements.) She’d been a stay-at-home mom for my entire childhood, and with my parents’ divorce came economic uncertainty—she had to go back to both work and school. She never said it to me directly, but I knew enough to understand that we were barely making it and that our new circumstances wore her health down and her hips out. I hated the fragility of our situation, I hated the idea that we were poor, I hated how much money ruled our lives. But mostly I hated that when my mom felt pain in her hips, my first thought wasn’t whether she was okay. No, my first thought was always: I wonder if she’ll have to stop working. I wonder if we’ll run out of money.
If there was one thing I wasn’t going to be when I grew up, it was poor.
When I was thirteen, my family had Thanksgiving at my cousin Sarah’s in Pasadena. Sarah is twenty-five years older than me, and she’d just gotten her CPA, married an oil executive, and bought a four-bedroom Spanish-style house in a neighborhood that bordered San Marino (the best schools). She drove a Volvo and made dinners that rivaled Martha Stewart’s and was the kind of woman that kept truffles in the pantry. She bought me my first Starbucks on that trip, and I remember wanting to be her when I grew up, and her exactly. Or Amanda Woodward from Melrose Place. Either would do because both had everything I was supposed to have.
Not long after that Thanksgiving, my parents’ marriage started to fall apart, or rather, my dad’s closeted gayness outgrew the walk-in. I imagine that in his desperation to not have to come out and in my mom’s desperation to not know he had anything to come out with, they thought a series of weekend getaways to reasonably priced motels on the central coast of California might do the trick. It was the summer before my freshman year of high school, and their Hail Mary attempt to save their marriage meant weekends of my sixteen-year-old sister and my thirteen-year-old self alone in our house. The first time I got drunk was during one of these weekends, and while I don’t recognize myself in the stories that recovered alcoholics tell of the first sip being the answer to every prayer they ever had, I do remember trying to drink as fast as I possibly could. I wasn’t hungry to feel something different; if anything, I was hungry to be someone different. Or: maybe I was just hungry to be bad.
My parents’ divorce was finalized in 1994, and my dad told me he was gay around the end of my freshman year. If high school was anything, it was the letting of air out of the balloon that was my potential. I entered with a 4.0 and an eye on Stanford, and when I left I was at the height of my anorexia, a daily pot smoker, weekend partier, and giver of many blow jobs. I barely graduated, and I settled on a coastal community college that promised a social life over a future.
One Saturday night during my freshman year of college, drunk and high on meth (but let’s say cocaine because that sounds way better), I was walking with my best friend’s boyfriend in between parties in San Luis Obispo, and we kissed each other. I’ll spare you the details, but I will tell you about the part that matters, which is how he was judged innocent by our circle of friends, and how I was judged a scheming whore. I was cut off at the knees from everything I cared about, everyone I cared about, and whatever minute fraction of self-esteem I might have had before the incident. I left town with a deficit of self-worth that was the size of me, and for the next five years I took it upon myself to warn whatever new friends I made about what I’d done, like some sex offender moving into a new neighborhood. Maybe it seems like a trivial affair, but it destroyed parts of me and made me into a woman who assumed eventually everyone would leave, or possibly turn on me, if I wasn’t important enough.
Not long after that kiss, I moved back in with my mom, cleaned up my grades, and cleaned up my life. If worth wasn’t something I could get socially (and try as I might, I could not), it was something I could get through success. I got into UC Santa Cruz, and at the age of twenty-three, I graduated with a degree in business management economics. Upon graduation—while most of my friends organized tree sits or went to grad school or kept the same minimum wage jobs we’d had throughout college because the tech bubble had burst and the Twin Towers had collapsed and we were at war—I secured a job at a Big Four accounting firm in Silicon Valley that started me at $52,000 a year. When I got that offer letter, I remember thinking: This will show them all.
Because this is a book about drinking, this is the part where I’m supposed to explain the way alcohol showed up in my life, to paint you a picture of a woman who was destined to drink in the morning. But the thing is, my drinking wasn’t notable, or specific, or linear, and I didn’t ever really think in terms of alcohol the way, say, Caroline Knapp did in her memoir Drinking: A Love Story. It was never a love story. The story was always about my not-enoughness and my black-sheepness and my total inability to not feel like an empty piece of inconsequential shit who couldn’t do life. Alcohol was just part of the story of me, and it shape-shifted as I shape-shifted. There’s enough of a story to convince you how entirely normal my drinking was, and there’s enough of a story to foreshadow a problem.
In those dark years of high school where I forgot how to eat and study for tests, drinking wasn’t what I did—I didn’t have some sort of precious relationship with it—it was what we did. We drank in fields after football games and at house parties when our parents were out of town, and we took turns being the one who slept on the bathroom floor, and we spent Mondays rehashing the weekend’s debauchery. And the most significant thing I can tell you about it was that I liked that it afforded me status, that it helped me to fit in and get finger-banged by soccer players, and also that I really hated it for how much it already seemed to have taken from me. It didn’t feel like outlying behavior; it felt exactly like being in high school. Or: Maybe it will help to know that in certain circles and by certain parents, I was often thought of as a slut and a bad influence and a party girl, the kind of girl who might show up on a Girls Gone Wild clip. Maybe it will help you trace it to the beginning if I tell you that when I stopped eating food, I also learned how to drink an entire six-pack without puking.
In my first few years of college, where I learned how to eat again but also how to make myself throw up and where I got my first Fs and slutted it up with my bestie’s man, drinking was still not something that I did but something we did. We drank on the weekends and sometimes during the week, and our weekends were spent piecing together the nights before and eating takeout from Gus’s to cure our hangovers. It felt like extremely normal, clichéd college behavior. Or: Maybe it will help if I tell you that I ended up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning, and that I wrecked my car while under the influence not once but four times. Maybe it will help you piece it together if I tell you: This one time I was so drunk, it took me ten minutes to realize I was being sexually assaulted, and I do remember thinking that if I was ever murdered or kidnapped, people would probably have a hard time speaking about what a loss it was, or have much more to say about me than “She partied and smoked a lot of pot and loved Kenny from South Park.”
In the years following my slut-shaming for that kiss, something shifted. I didn’t want to be the kind of girl who drove her car through fences and gave handjobs to men who wore hemp chokers to Dave Matthews concerts. I didn’t want to worry about how my eulogy might read, and I absolutely didn’t want to end up living with my mom through my early twenties because I failed out of community college. I wanted what thirteen-year-old me wanted, which was money, security, status, purity, normalcy, a home with a white picket fence. Only now the home wasn’t really a home so much as it was a high-rise flat in San Francisco because I’d watched Pirates of Silicon Valley starring Noah Wyle and decided that Amanda Woodward wasn’t a high enough aim anymore—I wanted to be more like Steve Jobs.
Holly Whitaker is the founder and CEO of Tempest (formerly Hip Sobriety). With years of experience in the fields of healthcare and tech, she created an individualized recovery program in 2014 through a virtual platform that offers education, community, and support services. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat, Mary Katherine.