An interview with Bryan Wempen, whose new book Sober Is Better: My Note to Self talks movingly – and with great warmth and humour – of his life, his experiences of addiction, and his journey of recovery and discovery.
“Starting over isn’t a failure; it’s a smarter beginning.”
I’ve always loved these words from Bryan Wempen’s first book, Note To Self. We still have a choice. We always have it in us to improve our lives, and how we approach the world. We can always do better for ourselves and others. Bryan’s mission in life is to strive to achieve this daily, and generously to share his words so as to help others along the way. In his new book, Sober Is Better: My Note to Self, he writes of his struggles with addiction, of how his complex early life lead him there, and of his subsequent journey of recovery and discovery.
I am honoured to be able to share this interview with Bryan, in which he talks through the themes of Sober Is Better: My Note to Self, how the process of writing helps him, and how we wants to help others who might be considering or who are already embarked upon their own journey of recovery.
MC: Your first book, Note to Self, touches on addiction and recovery. Your new book Sober Is Better: My Note to Self delves deep into these topics. What inspired you to talk about these issues? Is it difficult to be so open about them?
BW: It’s a great question and one I get quite frequently, which tells me that many people are contemplating sharing what’s truly going on with themselves, whether it’s something good or something more challenging.
The first book was inspired by my own recovery from alcohol dependency. I’d gotten a few years of sobriety. Life was improving quite consistently because of the recovery work I was doing for myself. I wanted to share that it’s possible to get better, and that life can get better. When I wrote the first book four years ago, I was about six years sober. It was intermittently challenging to share about certain things, but working through shame and guilt is part of being in recovery, so the book was just part of my getting healthier. Now, 10 years into sobriety most things aren’t that difficult to share anymore – although I have brief moments of panic when I remember what I shared then. But that goes away when I remember it’s about helping other people, not about being fearful with my story.
MC: Your writing style is so warm, so informal and conversational, so you. What writers or people influenced how you write?
BW: I love this question, I’ve actually acknowledged many who inspired me at the beginning of the new book: Brené Brown, Lisa Johnson, Father Gregory Boyle, Steven Pressfield, Trevor Noah, Charles Duhigg, Kate Bowler, and Amy Dresner just to name a few.
MC: What do you most want to achieve when you sit down to write?
BW: My mind seems to churn and turn quite regularly. Writing slows my brain down then helps me organize my thoughts. It’s incredibly cathartic, exhausting, and fun to write.
MC: Why do you think addiction is such a growing problem in the western world?
BW: I appreciate you asking this question. My theory is that untreated mental health conditions combined with a marketed and normalized culture of drinking, smoking, and medicating (rather than communicating) are approaching critical mass within western society. It’s approaching the level of a public health crisis.
MC: What is people’s biggest misconception regarding addiction?
BW: The biggest misconception is that addiction is a moral failing, combined with a lack of willpower. There are many objective and subjective perspectives on addiction. I subscribe to the school of thought that substance use disorder aka addiction is a health condition, one that is progressive over time. The use of substances changes your brain chemistry, it changes your body to become physically and psychologically dependent. I don’t claim to be a healthcare professional, I’m a person in long-term recovery who researches, participates in, and writes about addiction recovery.
MC: What you have written in your new book provides great insights into your recovery journey, and I am certain that it will be of great help to anyone that is contemplating or already embarked upon their own journey of recovery. Who or what most inspired you to stay on the path of recovery?
BW: These are interesting and important concepts to reflect on, I feel they provide reference points with the past, with now and with what could be in the future. I’ve found spirituality and meditation in whatever form it might take to be essential and inspiring. It connects me with something considerably more significant and more complex than I can get my brain around anytime I need to fill in the gaps, whereas previously I used other things to fill in these gaps. As far as people, there are many people also in recovery that have been authentic and kind to me, and who have supported me unconditionally. They are essential for support, and I do all I can to support them.
MC: What resources or advice would you recommend for anyone who is going through or planning to go through recovery?
BW: 1) Muster up as much willingness and courage to step away from those who don’t support your decision to get healthier.
2) Keep trying, keep trying, keep trying until it sticks. Life will get better. Not always easier. But better.
3) You’re not alone, many of us are going down or have gone down this path. Use whatever resources you need (eg therapy, support groups, exercise, meditation).
4) You can’t do this alone. It’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find the peace and serenity you seek without connecting with others.
MC: What is your own biggest learning from your ongoing recovery journey?
BW: I can change anything if I’m willing, honest, and ask for help.
MC: What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
BW: Two things: Read more books and ask for help.
MC: If you had the chance, would you do it all again?
BW: Yes, I wouldn’t change a single mistake, wrong decision or turn I’ve taken. Not because my life is or has been perfect. But because I have to utilize all these experiences in what I can give back to others. I don’t want to take away from something that could help someone, myself included.