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Young Betsy Hodges’ choice: Alcohol and chronic misery — or a life of possibility?

Mayor Betsy Hodges reflects on the choice she made, at just 19, to stop drinking. It was a bet with herself that has paid off, she said.

Mayor Hodges: “No limit on what my life could be like or how happy I could be if I am willing to deal with whatever's behind all these addictions — to walk through that fire. If I'm willing to place myself in that crucible and get distilled down to the essence, I can do anything.”
MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams

During her June 2013 DFL Convention speech, now-Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges drew a personal analogy between the challenges the city faced and the challenge she faced as a young college student. Here’s what she said:

Twenty-four years ago, I was 19 years old, sitting alone in my room with a bottle of bourbon and a pack of cigarettes, the same as I had been for days, weeks, months. I had a choice. I could keep repeating my miserable past of drinking and life passing me by or I could let the bottle go, face my demons, and head into a brighter future. I am proud to say that for 24 years I have chosen a brighter future every day.

We are at our own crossroads, Minneapolis. We are faced with the same choice. Will we go back to the ’90s, when elected officials thought our city had so little to offer that people and businesses would only come here with a subsidy? … Or will we elect a new leader who truly believes in the greatness of our city and its bright future?

We caught up with Mayor Hodges last week to ask her more about the circumstances that brought her to that juncture at such a young age — and about alcoholism, stigma, recovery and maintaining sobriety.

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With me during the interview was Elísabet Jónsdóttir, 16, a visitor from Akureyri, Iceland, and a member of my extended AFS host family. Elísabet explained to Mayor Hodges that this fall she will enter framhaldsskóli, the country’s four-year upper-secondary school program for 16- to 20-year-olds. It’s a time when many teens feel pressured to try alcohol for the first time (the legal drinking age is 20).

Here are excerpts from our interview, including the questions that Elísabet asked.

MinnPost: Nineteen years old — that’s so very young to become aware of an issue like this and to make the choice that you made.

Mayor Betsy Hodges: Well, it was 1989. I had the advantage of being from Minnesota — you know, the land of 10,000 rehabs — and I had adults close to me in my life who had been dealing with their own issues around alcoholism and …  they sort of steered me in the direction of thinking about ways that alcoholism could affect my life.

One of the advantages of the ’80s is that part of the health curriculum in high school was about addiction. I don’t think it’s the curriculum anybody now would create, but it was good enough in the 1980s for me to know that addiction was a thing, and that there are places people could go to get help for it.

I started smoking when I was a junior in high school. I drank some in high school, but in my first two years of college I drank progressively more and more. I went to Bryn Mawr College — it’s not a huge party school. I mean there’s drinking that happened, but it’s all women, all academic — you know, focus, focus, focus. And so a lot of my drinking was me sitting alone in my room with a bottle of bourbon.

I was a psychology major and … in psychology class they taught me that you should take the exam in the same state in which you studied for the exam — you do better that way. So I would take exams drunk because I would study for them drunk. And I got great grades. I will say that: My grades were great, they never slipped.

But … eventually I was having 10 drinks or 10 shots of tequila plus a whole bunch of something else, and I wasn’t really getting drunk. This happened in a very short period of time.

I went to visit a friend in his summer program down in New Jersey and he had always wanted to get drunk with me. And I said OK. And then I woke up and we talked and we talked and we talked. I remember talking to him about addiction and what I was learning about addiction in the context of other people’s challenges. And I said, you know, if I’m going to think about other people’s addictions I’d better stop drinking while I do that. It’s weird to talk to somebody about other people’s addictions when you’re drunk.  And so I said, just for the summer, for the next three months, I won’t drink.

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I had quit smoking in February for purely vain reasons. And that sort of opened a door. … stopping one addiction. It brings up some stuff I started exploring. …

Somewhere over the course of that summer … I realized that I was an alcoholic.

I was moving into an apartment … and somebody had left a bottle of — I don’t even know what it was — a bottle of wine, I think, in the refrigerator. And I wasn’t just excited that there was a bottle of wine, I was very excited that it was full.

I just look back on that moment, and the addictive personality that is evident — of not only loving that there’s a free bottle of booze but loving that it’s full to the brim and that I will get to drink the whole entire thing — sort of hit me. This was during the time I wasn’t drinking, and so I don’t think it would have hit me the same way if I had been drinking.

It was at that moment that I thought, oh my God, I actually think I have a problem. This isn’t about someone else, this is about me and my problem. And so I said, you know what? I’d better not drink until I get my head together around it.

And I haven’t had a drink since that night I drank with my friend on July 16th, 1989. So for 25 years I haven’t smoked, I haven’t had a drink, and I haven’t had sugar.

MP: What a gift — that early self-awareness. It’s so often that a series of unfortunate events brings people to that decision.

MBH: Traditionally people think of alcoholics as people who hit the lowest bottom possible. But because of all those alcoholics who came before — who did the work and who created the structures for people to see, identify and do something about alcoholism — subsequent generations have had the opportunity to [become aware] at younger ages before we hit the worst bottoms possible.

There’s one other thing I will tell you about what happened that summer. As I was considering everything, I had this realization that I was 19 years old and I was miserable, right? I had been smoking, I was drinking, I was heavy. Not that those things have to make everybody miserable. But the way I was doing all of them [created] this low-grade level of constant misery. 

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I said [to myself] if I kept living this way I could hit 29 and never have a boyfriend and not know what I’m doing. … I could probably live with that low-grade level of misery for the next 10 years, not understanding how progressive the disease was and how bad it would get.

But from that snapshot I was like, well, I could live like this for the next 10 years and hit 29 and be just as miserable as I am now … or I can endure a high-grade level of misery for a shorter period of time, but then after that there’s no limit on what I can do. No limit on what my life could be like or how happy I could be if I am willing to deal with whatever’s behind all these addictions — to walk through that fire. If I’m willing to place myself in that crucible and get distilled down to the essence, I can do anything. 

I don’t know how I knew there was a trade-off between low-grade, longtime misery and high-grade, short-term misery, but I did. And I took a bet. I took a bet that I was right on there being a transition trough. And I remember when I went out with some friends to celebrate 20 years of sobriety, that’s when I fully realized that the bet paid off and I wasn’t wrong.

MP: Certainly not. And you got the boyfriend, too.

MBH: I did, I did. And now I’m married to the best man on earth.

MP: So fast-forward to the convention speech. I don’t know if that was the first time you were public about your recovery, but it must have been the biggest forum in which you had been?

MBH: Yes, it was the biggest forum in which I’d been public. It’s something I’ve talked about with people — certainly it’s not something that I don’t share. Because I think it’s useful for people to know that it’s possible to live without alcohol and have a good life, and that it’s possible to get from A to C even if B looks impossible.

MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
“… I just do my best to live a really great life, incorporating things that I know will keep me moving away from a bottle rather than toward a bottle.”

MP: What was your hope in doing so?

MBH: I think it became increasingly important for me to show myself to people, for people to know that there’s a human being embodied in the candidate or the quote unquote politician. To show people that you wouldn’t necessarily read my bio and know that I understand what it’s like to be in the grips of something powerfully discouraging. And that having had those experiences gave me a unique vantage point from which to lead.

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MP: I’m curious about how you define and maintain sobriety.

MBH: I define it as refraining from drinking alcohol and compulsive eating. …

I get and I have gotten for many years a lot of social support from other people experiencing addiction and … I have a whole set of tools that I can use in place of drinking when hard times happen or good times happen or anything happens and I’m tempted to drink. Those moments are rare these days — not unheard of, but the powerful compulsion has not gripped me in many, many years.

If I even think about it, that’s enough of a red flag … I’d better call somebody.

I pray and meditate first thing in the morning. I journal at the end of every day, and just keep track of how things are going. I have people I talk to on a regular basis about what’s going on in my life, what am I struggling with, and where my faith is at.

Politics is challenging for every one’s integrity.  …  I have to wake up with myself every morning and I have to be OK with the person I wake up with. If I string together too many days of waking up with a person I’m not happy to be, I have a lot bigger things at stake in my life than an election or a job. And so I try to live every day with as much integrity as I can. For me it means trusting friends and advisers to give me perspective, it means doing my best to let go of my resentments, which is a big challenge as an elected official [smiles].

… I just do my best to live a really great life, incorporating things that I know will keep me moving away from a bottle rather than toward a bottle.

MP: Is there a person or persons who inspired you along the way?

MBH: I have a set of best friends and advisers, some of whom are involved in the political world, who I turn to in challenging times, who sort of know my history and know that I’m asking not just for political guidance but for human, social, spiritual, keeping-the-full-person-in-mind guidance. One of those people helped me write my convention speech and helped make sure that it was coming from my heart.

There are some elected leaders at various levels of government who are sober — we tend to find each other — and I have turned to them on occasion as well for inspiration, even if I don’t know them very well. When I was thinking about running for mayor, it was very inspirational to me that there were elected officials at higher levels than I who had taken on these jobs that were very, very challenging.

MP: From a public policy perspective, how do you think we are doing on access to care and treatment?

MBH: I think about the violence that happens anywhere, certainly in the city I represent. And I’ll ask people how many of these episodes involve drugs and alcohol? And they [say], “all of them.” So one of the ways of preventing violence is creating options and opportunities for people to get chemical dependency treatment and help. And there are a whole lot of modalities people can use without a huge investment. … I think it costs more to imprison people that it does to help them get sober.

MP: Were you aware of stigma when you were struggling yourself? And do you see that as more or less of an issue now?

MBH: I was so young, you know, and the great thing was I didn’t know I couldn’t do it [get sober]. But the stigma piece, well I mean it’s even a little nerve-racking to do this [interview]. …  It’s a vulnerable place to talk openly about it in the media.

But by the same token, if there’s anybody struggling out there who wonders if it’s worth it, I will say 100 percent yes. And if you had told me on July 16th, 1989, that some day I was going to be the mayor of Minneapolis, I would not have believed you because I would not have believed in myself. And I didn’t get sober to become the mayor of Minneapolis. I became sober to … not be miserable anymore. And it turns out that a lot more things than lack of misery are possible when you get sober. But lack of misery itself is a pretty compelling reason.

I don’t have an awareness of telling people, hey I’m a recovering alcoholic, and having them recoil. But I’m from Minnesota. … Mostly people are supportive — they’re surprised, and then they’re supportive. And some people ask, how did you do that? And I’m always happy to tell them.

MP: How do you respond to people who approach you for advice?

MBH: You know I posted on Facebook a couple weeks ago that I had 25 years of sobriety … and I got maybe a dozen [responses] from people saying, “I’m taking someone in my life to rehab tomorrow,” or “I have this many years myself,” or “How did you do that,” or “Hey I’m struggling.” And I did my best to reply to everybody. If I didn’t, I apologize. But it’s a very important and meaningful thing for somebody who is recovering from alcoholism to reach that hand out to somebody else and say: You don’t have to be drunk all the time, and to stop you do not have to do it alone. There are supports out there. … There’s an entire world of people who have quit drinking on whose shoulders you can stand. And there is an entire world full of people who are living sober lives whose hands you can hold and who can hold yours back. It’s completely possible.

That’s the message I want to carry to people — that it’s worth doing, that there’s a set of tools, that there are people who can support you every step of the way, and that it’s completely possible.

Elísabet Jónsdóttir: There’s this very special relationship between first-year students and fourth-year students [in framhaldsskóli ] — they go together to parties. A lot of young people start to drink at that point in their life. I’m planning to go sober, at least for the first two years. But to start drinking — is this a decision that you regret?

MBH: The first thing I would say is I think it’s probably going to be useful to wait until you have a couple years under your belt before you try it, because I think you’ll know more. First of all, you will have seen what people do when they’re drinking. You’ll see it up close while you’re sober, which matters. I know people for whom alcohol brings joy into their lives and they enjoy it. I see more people for whom alcohol is the tool that they use in less-than-useful ways, but they’re not alcoholics. And then I know a lot of alcoholics — recovering and otherwise. 

But do I regret it? Here’s the thing: Being a recovering alcoholic and recovering person is the best thing that ever happened to me because it exposed me to a set of tools about how to live my life that I don’t think I would have been exposed to otherwise. … If I were to go back in time, knowing what I know now, would I tell myself not to take that first drink?  If I could also tell myself a whole set of things to pursue, I probably would say, don’t take that first drink.

But it was the only tool I had at the time to deal with some stuff that I didn’t have any other tools to deal with. If you just took it away from me at that moment I think I would have gotten totally overwhelmed without any other supports. I don’t know, honestly. I will tell you this: I wouldn’t have my life any other way than the way it’s gone — good, bad or otherwise. I am the luckiest woman on the earth. I’m married to the best man on earth. I have the best job on earth.

MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
Elísabet Jónsdóttir with Hodges

EJ: Would you tell teenagers to go sober? Or would you tell us to try it when we’re ready, or when we’re 20 and it’s legal?

MBH: I wouldn’t forbid people from drinking, just because that only enhances the allure. Most people seem to be stupid with alcohol, and then get smart about it. But some people get lost along the way — that’s the thing. So I would probably say waiting until you’re a little bit older … is actually a very wise stance to take because you just have a little more maturity under your belt on how to handle things.

EJ: You don’t want to wake up every morning and regret.

MBH: Right, why would you do it if that’s how it makes you feel?  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not necessarily a rational choice all the time: You know, oh God, why did I eat such a big dinner when I knew I was going to feel gross afterwards? There are things like that in life all the time. But if that becomes chronic, at some point the question is, what’s going on there?

So if you do start drinking, and it becomes a problem, you can call me.

EJ: Thank you.