Sometimes, no matter how wonderful your life may seem, there can be trauma that exists inside that keeps you from fully living at your best. In this episode, Mrs. American 2021 Hannah Kirkpatrick shares how self-reflection brought about a pivotal moment she needed to turn her life around against alcoholism and depression. And just like you, she’s had disappointments that caused her to question her worth. Worse, what she thought was her leverage ended up being her destruction. She takes us into the ways family support and therapy helped her in the recovery process, transforming her life and seeing through her dreams. So tune in and learn from Hannah and get sober and stay sober. Because you too can win in this pageant called life.
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Getting Over The Bubbly: Mrs. American’s Journey To Recovery From Alcoholism And Depression With Hannah Kirkpatrick
This episode is sponsored by Camelback Recovery, Arizona’s preferred sober living option to help AA newcomers stay sober during their first year in the program. If that’s you or someone you know, you are in the right place. Let’s get clear on one thing. We believe that a relapse or a slip is not a part of recovery, and that’s exactly why this show is dedicated to you or any loved one you know in their first year of striving to live a clean and sober life.
The purpose of this show is to come clean with all of the misinformation that’s out there about recovery, addiction treatment, mental illness, and the strategies to stay sober in general. If you believe you are in the right place or know someone who is struggling with addiction, it’s my privilege to share this show with you. I have no idea if you and I have ever met but what I do know is that AA saved my life.
I also know that defining long-term recovery and live happy, joyous, and free, it’s not about stopping your drinking, drugging, gambling, sexual indiscretions, or any other addiction you may have struggled with or suffered from because, at Camelback Recovery, we believe that sobriety can and should be fun. Any recovery process is not easy.
It is challenging. It can sometimes be annoying. For most of us, it is often difficult to stay on the path but here’s the good news. The self-awareness you gained from reading this, especially if you are in your first year of recovery, will help you make better choices, which will ultimately lead you to live a kick-ass sober life. Visit CamelbackRecovery.com to learn more about our treatment strategies for alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental illness. We even offer recovery coaching so that you can enjoy the freedom and happiness you’ve always searched for.
I’m going to have a conversation with a woman that was crowned national pageant winner, Mrs. American 2021, and earned top six finalists at Mrs. World 2022. She loves her roles as mama to three kiddos and dedicated wife. She co-hosts a podcast with her husband called Business with Benefits, helping couples build successful lifestyles without sacrificing marriages in the process.
What if I told you that this woman’s life was destroyed by a variety of addictive substances and behaviors in 2009? What if I told you that getting clean and sober and continuing to live a sober lifestyle along with staying connected to the recovery community gets all of the credit for all she is and has now?
She has transformed her life and being clean and sober gets all the credit. Her most important calling is her role as a Recovery Advocate and Inspirational Speaker. She’s passionate about sharing her transformational story. Her dynamic life demonstrates that recovery delivers dreams. I’m here with Hannah Kirkpatrick. We’re going to talk about her story, her experience, strength, and hope. Hannah, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. What an introduction. That takes me through such journeys, even listening to that amazing intro. It’s incredible.
I’m so looking forward to learning more about you. We met on LinkedIn, of all places and it happens that we’re both in recovery, both speak about recovery, and both live in Arizona. Here we are and I’m excited to learn more. There are lots of other people out there that are going to gain something from hearing more about you and your story.
I certainly hope so. I’m not here for profit. Those of us that talk about our recovery stories volunteer our time to do it. I volunteered my time when I was Mrs. Arizona American and prior to that, but then even more. I turned up the volume of my service as Mrs. Arizona American. When I went on and won the national competition, there are bad judges of character, apparently, at the national level.
I gave another year of service to share my story and give people in recovery hope that there is an awesome life on the other side of recovery. I prepared for Mrs. World and it’s all just of service. Every day I wake up and go like, “Higher Power, use me in whatever way I can be of greatest service to you and to my fellows.”
That’s all stuff that I learned in the twelve steps. Prior to that, it was all about me. What can I get? What a cool transition. I’ll be honest. At 40 years old, all of a sudden, I’m having these life awakenings that it’s like, “It’s about the giving more so than the receiving.” The gifts come when my focus is on giving. I’m glad to be here. I’m super excited that you took time out of your day when you’re traveling to have a chat with me as well.
You’re talking about being of service. We all want fulfillment. That’s why people lie, cheat, and steal. They want a big house, a nice car, and all these things. Everybody’s after fulfillment. The way we get fulfillment is by being of service, other-centered, and making it about someone else. It’s the crazy thing. It took me forever to learn that. I know it took you forever to learn that, but now that we’ve learned it, it’s like, “Here we are. Life is good.”
It’s the greatest news and the biggest secret that nobody ever told me. Out there in the world outside of recovery programs, except in some spiritual and religious traditions, people don’t talk about it in those terms. Especially if you’re business-oriented, Type A, and goal-driven, set your long-term goals, and create your midterm and your short-term goals, and your daily habits that are going to support those things so that you can climb your way to what you want to achieve. While that’s amazing for certain things, such as this dream of having a national pageant title that I have had for a long time. That was a goal. I had to break that down. There was a ton of work that went into that.
There is an awesome life on the other side of recovery.
What I believe to my core allowed me to win this time when I hadn’t in the past was because I let go of the outcome. I wasn’t in it to win it or for what it would give to me. I showed up to be of service. I didn’t know whether that was going to be to fix somebody else’s heels on the way out onto the stage when they tripped or whether it was going to be to do that year of service. What a cool secret that things ironically come to you when you give up the understanding that they’re going to give you the fulfillment. You have to find the fulfillment first, and that magnetically attracts the wins into your life. If I had known that, wouldn’t it have been cool to be taught that as a kid?
Life happens for me, not to me. We all had to do the things that we did to get to where we are and now, we get to share it. Let’s get into it. Tell me about your upbringing.
I grew up in Vermont in a relatively small town and had two parents that were married mostly happily and an older brother. I grew up with unconditional love and pretty high standards I feel like. That was okay with me because from the earliest time that I remember, I wanted to achieve and perfection. I was not okay with anything that was “less than that.” I’ve since learned that perfection isn’t a thing. It doesn’t even exist. From the youngest memories that I have, it was like, “This would be perfect if.”
I did a podcast interview with Brandon Lee, who is another celebrity here in the Phoenix area and this amazing five-time Emmy award-winning journalist. He does so much cool work in the recovery space to let people know that it’s based on trauma. I came into his interview and he was like, “Hannah, what was your trauma as a kid?” I went, “I don’t have any trauma.”
I’m one of the few people that there isn’t that major trauma in my early story. I feel like I was an alcoholic mentality, meaning I was compulsive and self-centered. I have seen the world in black and white, like extremes with a very little gray in the middle since I was born. I had that all the way through, even despite an amazing childhood. I don’t have a great story, but that’s important for people, too.
I was a three-season athlete. I was a Straight A and B student. I was a perfect little church girl. I didn’t swear, smoke, and date boys. The only trauma that I can think of that we discovered for me was I was an ugly duckling in high school. I had severe acne. It was so bad that I had to take some days off of school here and there. It was all over my face, my chest, and my back.
I was tall, super skinny, awkward, and gangly looking. I cut off all my hair and tried to dye it blonde and it turned out orange. I was a mess and got picked on as kids do. I internalized that at that stage in my life, or maybe younger. I don’t know that I wasn’t enough. I never felt smart enough. I hung out with kids that were all smarter than me. That isn’t that hard to do. You may have figured that out already, but I always try.
The one thing I do well is to spend time with people who are smarter than me. I was on the track team and not fast enough. I didn’t feel like I was pretty enough. I wasn’t good enough at business to make my dad happy and the domestic stuff to make my mom happy. From my earliest recollection, despite an amazing upbringing, I have that memory of never feeling enough or worthy.
Let me stop you for a second. That right there sounds like a lot of traumas to me. All of the things that you listed are all traumatic events. Have you ever heard there’s the big T and the little T?
No, I haven’t done any trauma training because I never identified with it.
I did an interview with a guy named Shalev Amar. He’s not a doctor. Trauma was the focus of the interview. A little T can be somebody’s cussing you out or somebody saying something to you that makes you feel uncomfortable. A big T can be a car accident or somebody maybe you got in a fight when you were in high school. Trauma is on a spectrum. There’s trauma everywhere. Just because it’s not this big event or this big ordeal doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not traumatic.
That’s a new understanding for me. I grew up in this family of like, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Feelings weren’t a thing. It was, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. Shut up. You’re being a sissy,” if you’re showing any emotion whatsoever.
Even that comment could be traumatic because you did have feelings and your feelings aren’t validated. You’re told by your parents or people that are older than you to sit down, shut up, and stop crying because it’s not a big deal.
What do we do with that trauma? I could turn around and hurt others, hurt myself, or pretend that it doesn’t exist. Those are the options that I see for how to deal with it. I chose the, “Let’s have it not exist,” and I internalized everything by hurting myself. That’s the only way that I know. It starts with the self-talk of, “You’re not enough. Nobody wants to hear from you. Your life isn’t worthy. You’re not worthy,” and all of that stuff. That’s how I always dealt with it.
That’s what eventually turned into an eating disorder. It turned into starting to use alcohol, drugs, and validation seeking from men once I started to get male attention and figured out how to use that to feed my own sense of self-worth and food and compulsive overeating to hurt myself, and to stuff the feelings to not have to feel.
I feel like I used so many behaviors to try to either numb out and not feel or to get a little bit higher or better than my normal. To me, that is what addictive illness is. It’s using something other than me, whether it’s a behavior or a substance to check out and feel a little different than I do naturally. That started when I was eighteen years old.
The addictive behavior or substance is the solution, not the problem. The problem is the way that you feel. You don’t like the way you feel. Therefore, you reach for a drink, a drug, shopping, gambling, sex, or whatever it is to feel better. Dr. Gabor Maté says, “The question is not why the addiction. The question is why the pain.”
I love that model. One of the hardest pieces of hearing about how a lot of the world talks about addiction in America is that we have to stop addiction, the drugs, and the actual taking of the substances. That’s their focus. I grew up in the Dare Era when it was, “Don’t do drugs. Say no to drugs.” It’s so nice to come around now. I still believe in not doing them and that won’t send your life into a downward spiral, but it’s so nice to get to that place where we realize we need to look at the symptoms. That’s the band-aid. Not feeling good in your own skin is all about.
It’s so nice to be having those conversations. I feel thankful in a weird way that I went through everything that I went through. I get to be part of those conversations to help enlighten others to the idea that nobody starts out looking to be an alcoholic, a drug addict, or any other of the isms that you described. It attacks anybody. There’s no one that’s immune to it. I would have been that perfect example. People would have been like, “That would never happen to Hannah.” Yet, it completely took me down. It’s a great thing that we’re even breaking the stigma by acknowledging that addictive illness does happen and can happen to anyone.
When did you first start experimenting with drugs and alcohol?
You have to find fulfillment first. That will magnetically attract the winds into your life.
My spiral began at the end of my junior year in high school. I had applied early decision to an Ivy League school. I came from this family and that was an expectation for me. I know that the bar is extremely high, but I had not prepared myself that it may not happen and I could be okay if that didn’t happen. Needless to say, even with all of the things that I was trying to do in my life to be perfect on paper, to look good on a resume, I got denied from this college that I had planned on going to for years. It rocked my world.
It brought me to that precipice of, “If every single thing I’ve done was to achieve this goal and it still wasn’t enough, why the bleep would I even try?” It was an epic moment. Screw it all. I’m not going to do all the right things if it doesn’t give me the right outcome. I turned around and remembered looking at the kids who partied instead of those who studied together on Friday nights. I looked at them and saw the alcohol, the gathering, the field parties, and all the stuff.
I was like, “It looks like they’re having way more fun than I’m having. If I’m not going to get the results that I want anyway, screw it. I want to go see what that’s like instead.” I made an intentional decision to go try the other path. It was a quick slide downhill when I jumped onto that because, like anything, I’m an addictive personality. If I do something, set my mind to something, I’m like 0 or 100%. I don’t do much in the middle.
I took to partying in that same tenaciousness with which I do everything. I went out to Arizona State. I started drinking my senior year of high school. I was like the co-captain of my ski team. I started drinking and ended up showing up hungover and drunk some mornings. I would fall off the course. I would potentially run into trees. It started to become a big mess, but nobody knew that’s what it was. I went overseas and did an exchange program. I started to drink seriously in Germany because that’s what you do in Germany. It’s beer and bratwurst.
Where were you in Germany?
I live in a little town called Helmond. It was a high school tour. We stayed with a host family and went around, but the drinking age there was eighteen. We all got it in and went into the clubs. I tried drinking the first time. Everybody’s got hammered all the time. From the very beginning of my drinking, it was never to have a drink. I don’t remember ever being like, “I would like 1 cocktail or 2, 1 wine cooler or 2, or 1 beer or 2.” It was, “Give me 1, give me 10, and give me a blackout.” I don’t want to feel, think, or know anything. That was my drinking from the beginning. I chose Arizona State on purpose because I wanted a pretty life.
You have an Ivy League school over here. That doesn’t work, so screw it. I’m going to go to ASU. It’s one of the top party schools in the country.
I’m going to let them teach me everything that they can. I had never seen a football player or a marching band. My hometown was 40,000 people and I knew almost everybody. I came out to the big city and immediately took on the identity of being a party girl. I let other people who are more experienced with it teach me. They taught me about femininity, how to put makeup on, and how to wear high heels because I was a tomboy my whole life. I would be the kid who was out climbing trees and catching salamanders. I’m not that kid who wore heels or a skirt until I was dared to try a pageant because I was a tomboy.
They taught me how to be a girl. In that, the lubrication to start to use my femininity as something that would reaffirm me and get me attention and validation was that I would drink like everybody does to go have confidence with people of the other sex. It became this cycle of validation and partying. When everyone around you is doing it, it doesn’t feel unhealthy. Everybody was binge drinking, blacking out, going to Rocky Point, Mexico, and doing crazy stuff. I looked back and the number of times that I put my life in danger, by the grace of God, I should have had much worse times there than I did.
When did you realize you had a problem?
It was easy to disguise for a long time. It all came crashing down in 2009 when I had what looked on paper to be a great life. I had achieved this job that the glass window is looking over the lake. I had the car with the three letters, a husband, and a house. I thought I was making it. I was 28 years old. I hate telling these stories. It’s awful to go back to this place, but it’s important for people to know who you can be when you’re not sober versus who you can be when you are.
A person that I thought was my first love ended up being my first addiction. He was a person addiction. Emotionally and psychologically, it was an incredibly abusive situation for me to be in at a young age when I was eighteen. He returned to my life when I was 28. I had always thought that that was my ticket out. That was the night on the white horse that came in to rescue me like all the fairytales. If you ride away with this prince, you’ll never have a worry again. You will never have to worry about money or anything.
I left my husband and went and pursued this fantasy of being with this other person. In that process, I lost my job and my car. My family sided with my husband because my husband was amazing, sane, and awesome. I was not at that moment. I left everything to go pursue this fantasy and very abruptly, that became boring for him and that ended. I was left with nothing.
I had no house. I was completely destitute. It was like a country song backward. I lost my house, my car, my dog, my family, my husband, and the whole thing. I went and stayed on a friend’s couch. I remember him driving away and being left feeling so hopeless that if this dream didn’t give me everything in life, why bother with relationships? Why bother with jobs? Why bother with family? They leave you when it gets rough anyway.
That was my thinking, all or nothing. I became suicidal. I felt so hopeless and helpless that I wanted the pain to stop. I ended up checking myself into an IOP or an Intensive Outpatient Program for depression. Alcoholism or anything with addiction in it was not okay in my family. No one would ever admit that, but you could admit maybe to depression. Mental illness was a little softer. They could tell their friends. I’m not blaming them. I’m saying that was the social construct we’re in.
When you showed up to the IOP, did you tell the IOP, “I have depression and also maybe a little alcoholism?” Working in the business, we get people like that. I imagine that. They show up. They’re like, “I don’t have a problem with drugs or with alcohol. It’s depression, anxiety, or whatever.” We quickly find out that you’re probably not being totally honest.
I was being as honest as I ever could be, but I had no idea that was an issue. I self-defined as being a party girl and that didn’t mean I had a problem with alcohol. It meant that’s what I did and was good at. I went down to the clubs and to the bars. I knew people and people knew me. I felt like that was where I got my identity from. When I went into the treatment program, I remember the first day after the intake, the director handed me this sheet of paper and it was a list of 100 feelings. She goes, “You probably have some trouble identifying these.” I looked at them and was like, “I didn’t know that there were 100 feelings.”
Not only do I not know how to identify them, but I also couldn’t have written them all down on the list. That’s how it began. They said, “As part of this 30-day program, you have to not drink alcohol for 30 days.” I started laughing and was like, “I don’t have a problem with alcohol. I’m here for depression treatment. I’m here for you to fix everyone else in my life and help me to manage them because if I can get them under control with their expectations and their behaviors, I’ll be okay.” That’s what I wanted. They were like, “Let’s start with you not drinking for 30 days.” I was like, “What part of that didn’t you understand? I don’t have a problem with alcohol,” and they’re like, “Good then show us.”
We have sober living homes. When people come to us with depression and anxiety, it’s like, “Since alcohol is not a problem, it won’t be a problem not to drink for 30 or 60 days while you’re here.” It’s like, “Wait a second.”
I got cocky about it and was like, “Fine, I can do that because I don’t have a problem.” If that was what I needed to do, I was going to fly through that test. Sure enough, it ended up a lot harder because, without the alcohol, it was no fun to go to the bars. At the bars was where I sought validation from guys. That was what filled my own self-worth. If I wasn’t at the bar, I found out I would be at like Ben and Jerry’s bingeing ice cream to make myself feel better, or in the kitchen, it would be like 20,000-calorie binges to numb the angst, the heebie-jeebies in my skin.
Perfection isn’t a thing. It doesn’t even exist.
Pretty quickly, it became apparent that I couldn’t leave my house. I had to lock myself in on a Friday and a Saturday night so that I wouldn’t go out and do all of this stuff that started with drinking. Drinking allowed me to do all of the other behaviors. It wasn’t necessarily what the end all be all for me. It was the lubricant to do anything that I wanted at any time without having to answer to anyone. I realized pretty quickly that it was at least part of the problem. I realized that there were layers.
There was a validation seeking or call it sex and love addiction. That was a real thing that was buried in there. Now that we’re talking about trauma, it probably came from so many years of being so unattractive. I went to the extreme on the other side. I used men to feel powerful. The wealthier, more powerful, or influential they were, the more I could ride on their coattails and feel like I was those things too. I would get to pretend.
I didn’t have to sleep with them. I needed to know that I could get them to like me more than I could get them to like their spouse or whoever in their past. It feels so gross to say this out loud. I hate this part of the story, but that gave me a sense of power. I ended up feeling like I was using them instead of the classic story of the man using the woman. I became the huntress that got what I wanted. I thought that it was empowering. It ended up being that it was destroying me.
There’s a lot that I hear from you. You went to this IOP for depression. Was that when you realized you were an alcoholic?
It was in that program I realized that I had a major problem with alcohol. I wouldn’t say the word alcoholic for probably six months. Alcoholics were the guys under the bridge with the paper bags. That was the only definition or visualization I had ever seen of a personification of an alcoholic. I had seen two people in my history not drink alcohol at events. Both of them were the awkward and quiet people in the back corner of the room that wouldn’t talk to people. They were socially awkward. Between the alcoholics and those non-drinkers, there was nothing about them that I was going to relate to.
It showed me that I had a problem with alcohol, attention for men, and food. All of those things were a big, hot jumbled mess at that time. We worked through a lot of it, some coping skills, and some different life training in 30 days, but you don’t get a ton in 30 days. Right after those 30 days were over, I realized how problematic my thinking about life was. I went, “Hannah, you were trained in the business. If you look at your life as a business, what are the returns that you’ve gotten? You’re 28 years old, what do you have to show for this?”
I’ve lost everything. I had no relationships and no material possessions that were meaningful and no peace. I was like, “You have failed. You’ve bankrupted this business called your life. You should probably go hire a different CEO because you sucked. You tanked this.” I checked myself into three twelve-step programs all at once. That became the basis for relearning how to think and how to be in the world as if I were a newborn starting over, learning from different people, different philosophies, and different ways of thinking. They helped me to rebuild my life from the ground up in a much stronger foundation than I ever had.
What was the final straw before you checked yourself into three different twelve-step programs?
Knowing that I was getting out of a treatment program, I didn’t know how to do life. I didn’t know how I was going to achieve better results with the same thinking and the same behaviors that had brought me to the place that I was in. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
I was scared to death to go out and do the same thing. I looked at it objectively and was like, “If my best thinking got me here, this isn’t going to work. I need to press reset.” I completely did a start over. That’s the gift of rock bottom. My family had abandoned me at that time and as they should have, and that’s okay. They needed to do that at that moment.
My husband was trying to move on with his life. I became, rebuild Hannah and do a different way of living mode. I did three twelve-step programs day and night. I did at least 3 meetings a day and 1 hour a day on the phone with a sponsor. Every single day I pulled pennies out of the couch. I would bum rides, take the bus, and walk to meetings. I would do whatever was necessary for about eight months. That was what began to rebuild Hannah.
Was that 2009?
How many times did you try to get clean and sober? Was it one time?
The first couple of months were slippery. I wouldn’t say that it was relapsed, but I had to drink alcohol, for example, to show up at an AA meeting. I would be drinking wine with girlfriends that would come over to the house. I was like, “I got to run. I have to go to an AA meeting. Can I pour that wine into a to-go cup?” I would take my coffee cup and my white wine to my AA meeting driving, which is awesome looking back. I would show up buzzed enough that I could make it through the meetings. That was probably the first three months. I had to be under the influence of something to make it to all of these meetings to hear the love that they were giving me.
In that timeframe, there was fluidity. When it hit, it was one of those moments. Giving up the alcohol, it wasn’t like I ever white-knuckled. It was lifted from me. It’s the same with the validation seeking from men. At some point, doing all of the deep work released the need to fill my soul with that behavior and attention from other people outside of myself. I had to learn to look within and connect to a higher power instead of connecting to people around me to get that validation.
It sounds like some codependency. Ken Richardson, the Founder of CoDA, say, “Codependency is the root of all addictions. Seeking validation and people-pleasing are all part of it.” What’s your sobriety date?
It’s September 25th, 2009.
Tell me about your first year. This show is dedicated to people in their first year of recovery because my belief is that the first year is the hardest and getting to the first year is the first milestone that people got to get to. More than 90% of people can’t make it to a year. The first year is the hardest. You told me a little bit. For 8 months, you went to 3 meetings a day. You called your sponsor for an hour a day. Are you willing to go to any lengths to get sober and stay sober? Tell me about your first year.
You hit the nail on the head. Those first three months were unequivocally the hardest time in my entire life. I would probably birth another child before I would do those three months of early sobriety. Everything hurt. I love that you’re talking to the newcomer in this. This is the reason that I share my ugly story and my dirty laundry. I didn’t have an example back then of what a sober life could look like. Why would you go through all of this pain of early sobriety and all of the awkwardness and the weirdness? Every single event in your life, like relationships, you’re going to have to learn how to do differently. Why would you go through that?
Spend time with people who are smarter than you.
I love that you’re talking to people because I also feel like we can handle anything that we expect. If people know in advance that the first year is going to suck but it’s worth it, they can program their brains like, “This is going to be bumpy, but hold on because, in the end, it’ll be worth it.” That’s how it was for me. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I never had a picture of someone who had been through recovery before to be an example or a guiding light in some way for me. I was doing it blindly. I didn’t know how challenging it would be.
I knew at the core of me that the way I was doing life, which started with my thinking and my belief systems, was no longer going to serve me. That was not the path to get me to the life that I truly wanted. I have already tried the other direction. Doing it all externally, the right way, according to the business books and the business schools and how you achieve greatness and all this stuff didn’t work. I knew that I needed to give it all up. Recovery in the early days was me going, “I surrender. I’ll do what I’m told for the first time in my life.”
Before I would wake up in the morning, I remember having the covers and this was at a friend’s house, on the couch. I would have the covers and my body ached. My body hurt from withdrawals and my mind hurt. It was foggy and everything was so unclear. I hated myself and life. I didn’t know any alternatives and my blanket would be up, but I would get on the phone with my sponsor and be like, “What?” I didn’t know what to ask or say, and she would keep me on the phone. She would start asking me these simple questions. That somehow became showing up to three meetings and meeting people for coffee.
Slowly but surely, I couldn’t do something like I used to do. I remember being in Barnes & Noble. I had forgotten how to not engage in flirtation. I know that sounds so weird, but I didn’t even know how to not flirt. I did it so often with so many people that I had to call someone when I was in line in Starbucks and put my head down in Barnes & Noble and in the grocery store.
I would get on the phone with somebody from the program and be like, “Talk me through this. I’m going to keep my head down,” or how to go through a grocery store without doing the liquor section first. That’s all I cared about. I remember in the first year that every event was a brand-new thing. To do your first Thanksgiving sober or to go to my first football game without drinking was monumental. Every event had alcohol that was associated with it.
For me, everything revolved around drinking and doing drugs, concerts, football games, baseball games, weddings, parties, birthday parties, Christmas, Thanksgiving, July 4th, Memorial Day, and all of it. That first year is not just your first year and the hardest, but you’re also doing all of these things for the very first time in your life while trying to stay clean and sober.
Everything has associations with it. It was impossible. I was white-knuckling to go sit at a baseball game and not drink beer until I dropped out. In the early days, there was controversy around whether to do or not do this, but at times I would drink non-alcoholic beer at the beginning so that I could still have that sensation. I could practice going out and not getting hammered at a baseball game, but I could still enjoy the cold frosty experience until eventually, I no longer even needed that. I could find something else, a soda or something that would work instead. I tried to replace it with non-alcoholic. If I went to someone’s house, I would go get some non-alcoholic wine from the grocery store.
There are 2 or 3 brands back then. I don’t know how many there are now because I don’t even do that anymore. It’s essentially like Welch’s but it helps to switch the habits that were so thoroughly ingrained. I would still drink wine at night, but it was non-alcoholic wine. For me, it wasn’t a completely cold Turkey all the time. I had to move into switching things here and there slowly. I would have to hang out with different people.
The first year is a complete unraveling of everything that I thought I understood about how to do life. The coolest part for me was the gift of that rock bottom of being, “I’m looking for peace and some contentment in this life.” The only people that I saw that truly in their eyes were the people in recovery. I was willing to do whatever they told me to do to get that. That’s what the first year looked like.
You realize that your best thinking got you where you were. You realize that you had to take suggestions. That’s probably the number one suggestion. Be willing to take suggestions because your best thinking got you where you are now. If you want to go somewhere else and want your life to look different, you got to listen to somebody else. Tim has to listen to somebody else besides Tim. Hannah needs to listen to somebody besides Hannah if you want your life to look different. That’s what you did. That’s why you were able to make it through that first year and you’re still here.
What was amazing, too, are the gifts of doing that work. I didn’t do the work for my husband. At that time, we had divorce papers on the counter and were moving towards separation. He was trying to move on. I didn’t think that he was the one for me anyway. At that point, that was my own belief system. My sponsor was like, “You are not to date or call any formers. You are not to engage in a flirtation with a single male, whether you know him or don’t know him. You are to do you for a year.” She was adamant about that. That was part of breaking the codependency, the validation, and all that stuff.
Honestly, that saved my marriage. We hadn’t completely finalized the separation yet. We still had a dog together and touched base every once in a while. He watched this process for me that I did me, not him. At the end of eight months, I can’t say it without choking up. He goes, “Hannah, you have finally become the person that I always knew you could be and you never allowed yourself to be.”
At that moment, I realized that I did have a deep love for him that I never allowed myself to feel and experience because that would be commitment. That would disallow me from doing these other behaviors. We got back into couples therapy that had failed to save us prior. We went back in and we said, “Is this relationship possible on new terms?”
We had been together for a decade when that happened. We said, “If this can work, we have to start from scratch and make new expectations completely.” He had to practice radical forgiveness of a long history of my indiscretions in every way possible. His forgiveness makes him the hero in this story, quite frankly, not me. From there, we said, “We have to put recovery number one. Our Higher Power has to be in there, our marriage, and anything else comes below that.”
He knew that from the onset. When I started to do this spiral downhill, my husband, Chris, picked up all these books on addiction. To his credit, he started to learn about the addictive illness as the disease that it is. He started to see that it wasn’t Hannah that was doing all of those awful things. When you put some alcohol on me, I become a different person. Any moral foundation is gone through the window, out the door. There’s no playbook for being a good human for me when you put alcohol into this body.
He came to this understanding through learning and reading about addiction. It was alcoholism and addiction that are like a parasite. This is how I describe it now. That was inside of me. The parasite has a single objective. It’s to stay alive, even if it has to kill the host. He started to look at all my behaviors as the parasite acting out within me because it was alive and well. Once we killed that parasite in me, he could start to see the real Hannah and the real Hannah doesn’t act like that.
He forgave me because he acknowledged that it was the disease that was moving during those times. Now we know recovery has got to be number one in our relationship. We’ve been together ever since and we’re stronger. He shares his story openly, too. We said, “If we could make it through this, our way of giving back is to be willing to be an open book for an ugly story that other people might be able to be helped in the process.” We both talk about it.
There is a guy who is pretty well known. He had some sexual indiscretions. It was in the news and a big deal. They were all but divorced. He went into treatment and started doing his own work. One of her mom’s friends, who’s a psychologist said, “I understand that he’s the motherfucker. I understand that he’s the one that did all of those bad things to you. If both of you guys don’t do the work, you’re never going to make it.” I saw him. I was having coffee with him. This was about two years after the fact that I said, “How are things going with you and your wife?” He said, “They’re amazing.” They’re better than they’ve ever been.
That’s what I think of when I hear you talk about your relationship with your husband. He realized that he had to do his own work and come to his own realization. It wasn’t all on you, even though you’re the one with the behaviors. I see that all the time. Parents or loved ones are like, “I’m not doing any work. It’s him. He’s the problem.” That is never going to work. If someone wants to make it to the other side with their spouse, their loved one, or their child, everybody has to do the work.
That’s so good. It’s an awesome message. You’re in treatment centers on a daily basis, helping families navigate that. If your family member or your spouse has cancer, you don’t go, “That’s their problem. They did that. That is happening to them. I’m going to wait until they’re healed and I’ll come back.” You go, “How can I be an advocate for you to help you become well?”
It’s important to know who you can be when you’re not sober versus who you can be when you are.
Addictive illness becomes a little trickier because you don’t want to be too unmeshed. My husband would not have been able to be with me through that process. I didn’t even think I loved him at that time. I would have said straight up, like, “Nope, next.” That was my own sickness. Some separation was healthy. Once I was healthy enough to acknowledge that I did truly love him and it was the addiction that was making me crazy, he did step up and realize what he did that contributed to it.
It was for him to realize that he was codependent on me because I became aggressive when I was drinking. I would pick fights so that it would allow me to go out and do whatever I wanted it to do. I diminished him. I broke him down and he became smaller and smaller. The more he did, the less I respected him. The less I respected him, the more I would like verbally crush him.
It became this nasty cycle. We needed that space for him to come out and say, “Whether this is going to work with you or not, I’m not going to put up with this in my life. Here are my boundaries.” I learned my boundaries in that break and he learned his boundaries and only if they would work well together where we’re willing to renavigate that. He acknowledged that it was his duty to learn about this and to do his work, too.
I’m sure that’s the only reason why you guys have the relationship that you have now.
We practice what we learn. Crazy honesty is a massive part of our relationship and that has to both directions. Somebody can’t be honest with me if I don’t create a safe landing spot for them to be vulnerable with me. If I go to him and I tell him that I’m thinking or doing something that makes him feel uncomfortable or threatened and he reacts defensively, that’s not a safe space for me and vice versa.
We both committed way early on that. We can tell each other things that might hurt, but we will not respond from a place of defensiveness. We’ll take it. We can tell each other things. It sounds superficial but if you’re putting on a lot of weight and it bothers me, it can go both directions. We’re allowed to say those things. I’m allowed to say to him if I’m triggered by another man that crosses my path and I’m like, “This is a thing. This is an issue for me.” I not only am allowed to, but I have to tell my husband this because then together, we can diffuse that energy.
I have to tell him if we’re at a restaurant and that margarita with the rocks that he’s drinking is tempting. I’m going, “I want to hang with you tonight, but that’s got me going.” He doesn’t get aggressive about it. He has to be like, “I hear you. The next drink, I’ll order something different.” It goes both ways. That radical honesty has to become a thing for people to make it through this recovery long-term. It’s not always pretty. Couples not in recovery think the stuff we talk about is crazy because it’s everything. There are no limits on what we can talk about. That’s the only way that I can stay sober because secrets would keep me sick.
You’re as sick as your secrets. What has it been like to air your dirty laundry?
At first, I met a lot of resistance from my immediate family. It was this beautiful family, but one that said, “Put a smile on your face and everything is okay. How you appear to the outside world as long as you appear great, then all as well.” That quest for perfection nearly killed me. When I started to air the dirty laundry, they were not in love with it.
It was a small town and not a thing that you wanted your kid to be acknowledged, to be an alcoholic, to be in recovery, any indiscretion or shameful thing. At that point, I didn’t care. I had Chris back and we said, “This is our promise as a thank you to the Higher Power that allowed us the second chance. We’re going to share it.” I started to share my story quickly with my town and the results of that were mind-blowing.
Are you in Arizona though?
I’m in Arizona now. Early recovery was in Vermont.
You were still in Vermont because you went to ASU.
I went back and forth. After my first year at ASU, I over-partied and went back to Vermont to try to sort things out. It didn’t go away. The geography here didn’t work and it didn’t all go away and heal itself. I was in Vermont at the time that I got sober. My family did not have it. What was amazing is that for the first time in my life, people started to respond to me in a way that was authentic. My whole adult life, the feedback was that there’s something that’s not really about Hannah. She seems fake. She seems phony or not all there. We can’t get to the inside thing.
It always made me mad because I didn’t realize that I wasn’t being authentic to myself. I didn’t know who I was. I was anything to anybody. Tell me who you want me to be and I’ll be that. In early recovery, I started to be vulnerable. I was taught previously that in the business world, you don’t show vulnerability. When I did, it was a big risk but immediately, people started to respond in the most positive way.
When I shared something that was a weakness in me, a concern, or a failing, instead of always talking about my resume of successes to try to impress people, I talked about what I was failing at. Somehow people started to like me for the first time in my life. I had real conversations with people. It ended up being a gift. Even in the business world, people trusted me more when I told them that I was an alcoholic and in recovery because I blew my life up. “Now I’m on track, but that’s it.” They were like, “Tell me more. What?”
Now, I don’t do small talk. When I have a conversation with somebody, I want to know something that’s a pain point for you. I want to talk about the things that we’re struggling with and we can connect on that level. That has been the greatest gift that I have found out of all of this. It is the power of vulnerability and the connections that that creates. I try to lead most conversations with, “Here’s the stuff that I suck at. Here’s what I feel like I’m seeing. Here’s a big blemish. Here’s the thing that I screwed up.” Ironically, I’ve found that to be what has helped me in relationships and in business. It’s unexpected, but how cool.
Tell me about your life now.
It’s beautiful chaos. I had this crazy blessing two years after my recovery anniversary. On September 25th, 2011 to the day our first daughter was born. Call that a coincidence. I think not. I remember laying in the hospital bed being like, “This is a special day and I can’t remember why.” I was like, “Was it a great aunt’s birthday? Is there some federal holiday?” All of a sudden, it hit me. It was like this whoosh going, “This is your recovery anniversary. This baby is your Higher Power telling you in uncertain terms that you are given your life because of being sober.”
She annoys the geezers out of me a lot. She was like a preteen crazy. I love her, but she’s crazy. Sometimes I look at her like when she’s sleeping and I’ll be honest. I’m like, “She’s a little angel.” God gave me her because of recovery. I look around and have this beautiful home now. We live in Southwest Chandler. I work in real estate. I have clients that I care about and I treat them like family. I connect with them on vulnerability, which is amazing.
Connect to a higher power instead of people around you to get validation.
My husband and I are stronger than ever. My family and I are back. My parents moved out here to Arizona from Vermont a few years ago. It was right before COVID happened. They live three miles away. We have three kiddos. My brother and sister-in-law moved out here. It’s the peace and contentment of knowing that I’m probably not going to do something to blow my life up now.
I’m going to be able to mitigate any damage that I might cause if I say something not nice or if I act in a way that is unbecoming the person that I want to be, which is someone of complete honesty and complete integrity. I can now easily and quickly apologize. I don’t have to like linger with those resentments and self-hatred. I don’t have to hurt myself anymore over hating who I am because I clean up my side of the street on a regular basis.
I connect with other humans in recovery. They are my tribe. I get to do things like pageants and use that as an opportunity to practice showing up in a high glam environment as the authentic version of me. It’s a stretch at times, but it’s a beautiful practice. They said earlier in recovery that you may be given a life beyond your wildest imagination if you’re willing to go to any lengths and I’m living that.
Why are you passionate about sharing your story?
I wish that I had an example when I was younger and struggling that somebody who had a life that looked cool could do it without alcohol, substances, or behaviors of any kind. It’s important to me that this is how I turn around and offer my hand to the people who are behind me. Anything that I am, anything that I have that’s either relationships, material, or internal in any way, I owe to recovery.
It feels like with great gifts come great responsibility. I show up to say, “This is what can happen. This is who addiction can happen to. Surprise. This is what recovery can look like,” because I never saw that. If I can inspire a couple of people in my imperfect story by sharing vulnerable stuff and talking about the hard and the ugly, I hope to make a difference in somebody’s life.
Is there a question you wanted me to ask you that I did not ask?
I can’t think of anything.
What advice do you have for newcomers?
Go all in and take the same intensity with which you drank, partied, lied, and manipulated to try to get your way, your butt in a chair, listen to what other people have to tell you, and actively change your life. The amount of cajoling, conniving, and manipulation that I used in my life, when channeled properly, can create miracles. The things that you feel like are holding you back from anybody who’s new, eventually, if you do this long enough, are going to become the things that are your greatest gifts. Hang in there, don’t give up.
Acknowledge the power of vulnerability and the connections that that creates.
People told me, “Let us love you until you learn to love yourself.” I heard that over and over. At first, I hated that expression and wanted to punch them in the nose. I didn’t understand it, but I finally got it. I want to say the same thing to all the newcomers, “Keep showing up and let us love you until you learn to love yourself. You’re worth it. You’re worth the life that you dreamed of. Only by getting sober and doing what you’re going to learn in recovery do you have a shot.” That’s my experience and that’s all I can share. I can never tell people what to do. I can tell them what worked for me. The only way that I have a shot is if I stay connected and share what was given to me with other people. It reminds me.
Where can people find you or how can they find you if they want to stay connected?
I’m not that awesome on social media, but you can find me on social media @RealHannahKirkpatrick. When I was up on social, it was during the pageant year, and showing a lot of my travels and exciting stuff that happened during that year. Those are my personal accounts. I do real estate in the Chandler area, in the Southeast Valley.
I work with investors and all different types of wonderful people. You can find me if you want professionally at Arizona Dream Living. I would love to get a direct message, whether it’s inspiration or to say, “I’m in long-term recovery, too. I love chatting about it.” I love and admire anybody who’s open about their story. I would love to hear from people.
Hannah, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. I had a good time. It was great.
It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
- Business with Benefits – Apple Podcasts
- Brandon Lee – Mrs. American Uses Her Platform To Talk About Sobriety
- Shalev Amar – Previous episode
- @RealHannahKirkpatrick – Instagram
- Arizona Dream Living
About Hannah Kirkpatrick
Addiction Recovery & Inspirational Speaker to adults and teens, sharing encouragement that sobriety is amazing from her decade-plus experience. Also co-hosts the Show/Podcast “Business with Benefits” with her Entrepreneur husband.