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Inspiring Success on the Road to Recovery

Monday, July 7, 2014

Nothing Short of a Miracle

A conversation with Barbara Nicholson-Brown by Allen Nohre

I recently interviewed Barbara Nicholson-Brown, the editor, publisher and owner of Together AZ because I wanted to learn about her journey and passion for the newspaper. More than 15,000 copies are distributed each month to Arizona’s leading treatment facilities, counseling centers, behavioral health providers, college campuses, sober living homes, physician offices, therapists in private practice, and Twelve Step fellowship halls. Together AZ is a major source of help for those who are struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as support for those who are progressing in recovery.
I especially wanted to know how Barbara and her late husband, Bill Brown, the founder of Together AZ, were able to successfully sustain and deepen their respective recoveries working side-by-side and coping with deadlines and business challenges.

Barbara and Bill were married in 1994, three years after Bill started the paper. They co-published the paper until 2010 when Bill died at the age of 68. Bill’s death threw Barbara into agonizing loss and grief. In her honest and candid way, she shared with me how she was able to cope, sustain her recovery, and keep publishing the newspaper.

Barbara is also the founder of The Art of Recovery Expo, the one-day, free public event held each September at the Phoenix Convention Center. The first Expo was held in 2005 with 2,000 people attending. Last year, over 6,000 people attended, along with 100 sponsors and exhibitors who provided information for visitors on the resources and many avenues that are available for help with all addictions and behavioral health issues.

Allen: You are a unique champion of recovery for people in the greater Phoenix area. How did this happen? 

Barbara: It is nothing short of a miracle. I got sober in 1990 from alcohol and drugs, and by the grace of God I was given the opportunity to start my life again. I met Bill at a Twelve Step meeting. We were both babes in recovery. He was the publisher of what then was called Recovery Together. I had recently moved from New York City and did graphic design and production for a tech magazine in Scottsdale. I thought the content of Bill’s publication was great, but the design and layout could use some help. I asked if I could assist with the newspaper, and began as a volunteer.

Allen: Bill started the paper in 1991. Why did he want to publish a newspaper on alcohol, drugs and recovery?

Barbara: Bill was newly sober when he came to Phoenix from Virginia in 1989 to live at Progress Valley, a men’s sober living home. His life before sobriety was filled with lots of money, wild living and success, and he lost everything to alcohol. He was a man who lived large, but by the time he arrived in Arizona, he had $200 in his pocket and one suitcase. He didn’t have a car, and his first job in sobriety was as a bus boy at a downtown deli. He needed to start his life over from the ground up, and as he did, his recovery kept progressing.

He had a lot of questions about addiction and recovery, always searching for answers. It was probably a “God thing” that he wanted to publish something to help other alcoholics and addicts, and their families understand this disease.

Allen: You met Bill in 1994, fell in love, got married in 1995, and began working together on the paper. You brought to the venture a background in design, layout and production as well as your experience with addiction and recovery. Describe how you merged your professional skills and life experience.

Barbara: When I first got sober, I was a bit of a snob. I thought because I wasn’t drinking, I didn’t need to continue to change and grow. Fortunately, I had a great sponsor and my sobriety has grown through the years. So many people have gone on before me, so I learned early on, if I wanted what they had, I needed to do what they suggested. I could not go off in my own direction and do it my way, because my way never worked.

Allen: I assume that producing a popular and financially viable newspaper can at times be stressful and threaten recovery. How did the two of you handle that?

Barbara: It was a bit of a power struggle in the beginning. Bill used to call us the two “street kids,” one from New York and one from Chicago — both of us emotionally damaged, fearful and over confident at times. We battled about cover stories and layout. It was very difficult for him to let go because he had created this.

Allen: It was his baby.

Barbara: It was. I came in and wanted to change things and it took us some time to figure out how to work together as professional people. We always talked about recovery and what would be of interest to people. Some of the questions we asked were: “What are people in recovery struggling with? How do you rebuild relationships? How do you regain trust from others?” These were our issues and we felt others may also have similar questions or challenges.

Allen: The stress didn’t threaten recovery?

Barbara: Never. While it exposed our weaknesses to one another it also enhanced our recovery. We had a very important rule that neither one of us would tell the other how to do their recovery program. That was something we lived by — each of us responsible for continuing our own recovery.

Allen: Probably a lot of couples could benefit from that rule.

Barbara: It took time and some professional help, but it worked for us. He wasn’t my sponsor and I wasn’t his. We couldn’t say to each other, “You need more meetings, or you need to call your sponsor, or you need to...” We needed to learn how to listen to one another and respect each other’s opinion.

Allen: Bill died from cancer in 2010 at the age of 68. You lost your life companion and your work partner. How did you stay sober and what gave you the desire and courage to continue publishing?

Barbara: This has been quite a process. I had no idea what grief was until Bill died. I read about the stages of grief from shock to acceptance. Believe me they don’t come in order. I think I was in shock for months just going through the motions with a determination to keep the paper going. I told myself I could not miss an issue; and, I didn’t. There wasn’t an Expo that year; it would have been too much. Staying sober wasn’t a problem. I never once thought about drinking. I had tons of support from my friends in Twelve Step programs, and family and friends who were surrounding me — just letting me be me.

And then, all of a sudden, the shock wore off! Bill died in April, and in July, “my egg cracked.” It happened while I was in Nordstrom’s. I don’t shop there much, but Bill loved it. I walked in the store and had a panic attack. Suddenly, I realized Bill wasn’t there with me. He really was gone. I ran through the mall, got to my car, and shaking so badly, I was barely able to drive. When I got home, I fell apart lying on the floor screaming and crying, and the pain I was holding in started to release. Many people had told me, “Barbara, you are strong. You can handle it.” I wanted to be strong, but I couldn’t hold it together anymore. That was the real beginning of my grieving process.

Allen: Through this stage of panic and unraveling, were you still doing the things to keep yourself in recovery? 

Barbara: I went to more meetings, talked to my sponsor more, and prayed more. Yet, I was full of fear realizing for the first time that Bill was never going to come back. It brought me to my knees and closer to God. When I look back on it, the process was an extremely unique and personal spiritual experience, yet the most emotional pain I have ever been in.

Allen: How did you deal with the panic attacks?

Barbara: My panic attacks and insomnia continued for several months. I needed to get help. I remembered a physician, an addictionologist, who was at Bill’s memorial service, and he said, “If you ever need anything, call.” At the time, I thought, “What would I ever need you for?” Luckily, I had his cell phone number and called him at 6:30 in the morning, and saw him in his office that very day.
I was fearful of taking any medication, as is true for many people in recovery. I had heard years ago, alcoholics and addicts couldn’t take anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications. Believing that, I chose to suffer. But, it got so bad I made the call and asked for help. In his office, I was all wound up telling him what I would and would not do. He listened patiently until I was tired enough to listen, and then he said, “Who’s the doctor here?” He is an addictionologist, as well as a psychiatrist. Finally, I relaxed and began to trust him.

This is important because there are people in recovery who aren’t qualified to tell another person what to do on this matter of medication. I truly believed I couldn’t take any medication for my anxiety and my lot in life was to suffer with panic, anxiety, and sleeplessness. But the medication calmed me, and I was able to sleep. The medication I take is not addictive, I don’t have panic attacks, and my recovery was never threatened.

Allen: Let’s go back some twenty years. I believe you were living and working in New York City. You told me your years of drinking were pretty wild, crazy — even dangerous. What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

Barbara: I didn’t know much then. Now I know that as many people as I lied to, I lied to myself the most. I truly am an alcoholic and I absolutely cannot have one drink and walk away, no matter what I tell myself, or what tricks I used to drink and avoid getting drunk and blacking out. It is not possible for me. I can’t control it. It controls me. I had 24 years of bad drinking and bad living.

Allen: Why did you move from Chicago to New York City?

Barbara: I went to the American Academy of Art in Chicago, and my passion and talent lies in art, painting abstracts in oils. I got married young and my husband and I wanted to become pot farmers. We were young, silly, and the marriage only lasted three years. After that, I floundered around with no purpose, drinking a lot and working to support my addiction.
I moved to New York City in 1982 and began working in my brother’s graphic design firm. It was an exciting time. He was my mentor, and I was learning the business. It was thrilling living in New York and going out anytime, day or night. But the boss had rules like, “I don’t want you coming to work with a hangover or drinking on the job.” To make a long story short, I screwed up and was fired within six months. With a huge resentment and not many options, I found a job in a restaurant where I waited tables and assisted at the bar. Those were not pretty years for me. Eventually, I found a career in advertising. I loved it, lots of late nights and late drinking. That is why I love the show Mad Men. It’s right on target with what went on.

Allen: And the drinking continued?

Barbara: It sure did. There was a little span of time when I stopped drinking completely after I woke up from a blackout and was black and blue with scraped arms. The hardest thing for an alcoholic coming out of a stupor is to ask someone what happened. Shame kicks in. I looked like I was dragged across Broadway Avenue in the center of New York and that’s exactly what happened. I fell off a curb and even though I weighed only 110 pounds, nobody could pick me up. My friends had to drag me off the street and literally carry me to my apartment because no cab drivers would stop for us.

So I told myself, “This is it, I‘m never drinking again.” For a while I didn’t, but I did switch to drugs. It was the 80’s and cocaine’s heyday. Valium was my new alcohol, and in my mind, I was sober because I wasn’t drinking alcohol. I continued to feed my addiction anyway I could.

Allen: When did your nightmare end?

Barbara: I went back to drinking in 1989 and the last time I drank was a horrible night, a really bad drunk. I was scared to death, didn’t want to live and didn’t want to die. The following evening, my younger sister called and she said, “If you don’t get help now we’re all done with you.” And she slammed the phone down so hard I can still hear it. That was my moment of clarity, maybe it was divine intervention. After she hung up, without thinking about it, I immediately called a sober girlfriend I had been avoiding her for years. That night, for the very first time, I said out loud, “I’m an alcoholic, help.”

Allen: Then what happened?

Barbara: She came to my apartment and spent the evening with me and said she was taking me out the next day. It was Father’s Day, a beautiful Sunday in New York. I didn’t know where we were going. We walked down to the Jacob Javits Convention Center where there was the 50th anniversary celebration of Alcoholic Anonymous. As we walked through the doors, I saw what seemed like thousands of people and it scared the crap out of me. The feeling I had when we walked through the doors was that everyone was going to turn around and point at me and say, “Oh, there you are!”

That was my first meeting. I was in a fog and my friend with 14 years of sobriety, made me stand up — she pushed me out of my chair — to identify myself as a person within my first 24 hours of sobriety. That is when this journey began, June 17, 1990, my sobriety date.

When we left that meeting, she gave me a copy of the Big Book and said we were going to a meeting every night. She was a great first sponsor who had me on a short leash. I went to meetings every day for eight or nine weeks until the day I moved to Arizona.

Allen: What did those meetings do for you?

Barbara: At first, I was so into my denial I was hoping I would learn how to drink without getting drunk. But, I found out I never had to feel the way I’d felt, ever again. I could stay sober 24 hours at a time. Something occurred during those weeks within my spirit and my mind. I realized I was done. I could not do it anymore.

Allen: You told me a friend had once said you needed to get out of New York and you called your parents who were now living in Arizona and they didn’t want you to come out here. This time, with nine weeks of sobriety, you did move to Arizona. How did your parent’s react when you showed up? 

Barbara: I think they were on edge. During my childhood years, my mom was the alcoholic. I was always so embarrassed by her behavior, especially at family gatherings. One day mom was really drunk and I remember telling my younger sister I would never be like her. But I have the same disease.
As soon as I arrived here in August of 1990, my mom handed me a local AA meeting list. By then, she had been sober for over 12 years. And they had rules too — get a job, an apartment and a car within 90 days or you are out… and go to a meeting a day! It was humbling to move in with them as an adult.

Allen: In addition to the newspaper, you put on the annual Art of Recovery Expo for the past nine years. What gave you the idea and motivation for this event? 

Barbara: Bill traveled to many conferences throughout the year, which were strictly for professionals in the world of treatment and recovery. I wanted to have a day for Arizonans to be able to come to a venue where they too could find out about the many resources and options available. There are so many services that provide a variety of help and care. Recovery is not one size fits all. I wanted to get information out to the public for help right now or in the future. Even nine years ago, the stigma about addiction and alcohol was still holding many people back from getting help.

The Expo is a non-threatening venue. It is free. No names are taken. People can come in and talk to professionals, listen to speakers, attend workshops and ask questions such as, “What is happening today in the world of recovery? How can we help each other? How do we educate our kids on the dangers? How do we talk to them about making the right choices?” Parents, as well as kids, need to be armed with information. And family members need as much help as the person who is struggling with the addiction. As we know, this is a family disease.

Allen: What do you want people to know about why you keep publishing Together AZ and coordinating the Expo?

Barbara: I want them to know there is an amazing life out there without drugs or alcohol. It’s about living from your heart and not being ashamed. If we are addicts or alcoholics, we are still God’s kids — and we must help one another. The recovery community, whether located in self-help groups or treatment programs, is a shining light.

Allen: Finally, what is most satisfying about publishing Together AZ and putting on the Expo?

Barbara: I feel I am doing what I was put here to do — helping another person live a good life. And it keeps me sober. I’ve been blessed. I never thought in a million years I would celebrate 24 years sober.
It would have been easy for me not to be here, either by my own hand or someone else’s. There is a divine plan. We try to control our lives but our Higher Power, or God, or whatever you want to call it, has greater ideas. No matter what comes our way, it is possible to stay clean. I think one of the biggest barriers for any addict or alcoholic is asking for help. So far, it has been extremely fulfilling and satisfying to give back. That is what it is all about. Bill always said, “Good things happen to drunks who don’t drink.” He was right.

Allen: What is the date and place of this year’s Recovery Expo?

Barbara: We are back at the Phoenix Convention Center on Saturday, September 20, 2014 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and as always the admission is free to the public. Our keynote speaker is Tara Conner, 2006 Miss USA, and Recovery Advocate. We hope everyone will attend.

Allen: Thank you Barbara for sharing your amazing life and thank you for what you do for the people of Arizona.

Allen Nohre is a staff writer at Terros, where he interviews clients who have inspiring stories of overcoming personal challenges and finding better lives for themselves and their families. 
 At Terros, we inspire change for life. Through our core values of integrity, compassion and empowerment, we help create life solutions for children, families and communities. For information and assistance, call 602-685-6000 or visit www.terros.org