Female Disruptors: How Amy C. Willis of HOL + WELL is shaking up the way we think and talk about addiction
The term “alcoholic” serves as not only a label but also as an identity, something you are rather than something that you’re experiencing, which is tremendously problematic. Tackling language and how we talk and think about addiction is a huge part of my work and a notable way that I am disrupting recovery spaces and alcohol culture.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy C. Willis, Sobriety & Mindset Coach and founder of HOL + WELL, a coaching company that focuses on empowered transformation.
Amy struggled with alcohol addiction for 15+ years and is celebrating 4 years of sobriety in August 2020. Through her own journey in recovery and creating massive sustainable change in her life, she’s inspired to support other women on their paths to sobriety and does so through her coaching practice, writing and speaking engagements. Amy also offers consultancy services to support companies, organizations and businesses in critically and mindfully engaging with alcohol culture.
Amy is a dual-certificated coach and is also a certified meditation teacher and a certified EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) Practitioner, which are modalities she brings to her clients. The foundation of Amy’s coaching practice is radical honesty, mindset transformation, habit change and resilience building. Prior to coaching, Amy worked in HIV prevention research at various academic and global institutions and earned a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from York University.
In addition to coaching, consulting, speaking and writing, Amy loves to travel, read, build community, move her body and meditate. When Amy’s not working, she’s hanging out with friends, spending time outdoors or planning her next trip. Amy works with clients globally both in 1-on-1 and group coaching programs and calls Toronto, Canada home.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! It’s an honor to be here. As you know, I’m a Sobriety & Mindset Coach for women and I came to this work through my own significant struggles with alcohol addiction that lasted 15+ years; in August 2020, I will be celebrating 4 years of sobriety. In addition to my own struggles with alcohol addiction, I grew up in a home where my dad also struggled with alcohol addiction, which ended up being a significant factor in his early death. While my dad’s untimely death catapulted my addiction to new depths, it also acted as a catalyst to my sobriety. I know that if my dad were still alive today, I would 100% still be drinking and in my active addiction. Witnessing my dad’s slow and decidedly fatal demise into his addiction, I had a preview of what my life and death could look like and I knew that I needed to create significant changes in my life in order to prevent following in my dad’s steps. While my dad’s death was tremendously devastating, it also served as a gift. I struggled immensely with my grief and my addiction, which gave way to my sobriety and ultimately, led me to use my struggles to support other women in finding their freedom and power through sobriety.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
As a Sobriety Coach and someone who struggled with alcohol addiction for 15+ years, I am deeply aware of the problematic beliefs and narratives used when it comes to speaking about addiction. Part of my mission and work is to disrupt the ways that we talk about and treat addiction, including moving away from the dominant brain disease model of addiction (BDMA), which tells those struggling with addiction that they are and always will be sick and that they will have to toil daily to stave off their illness in order to avoid the shame and consequences of relapse. The BDMA became popularized largely through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). One of the most significant issues with the BDMA is that it’s disempowering to those who are struggling with their addiction, through repetitive messaging that enforces the belief that those who struggle with addiction are powerless and can never outrun their sickness. When it comes to overcoming addiction, it is essential that folx are empowered to believe they have the capacity to change and heal. In addition to changing the addiction conversation, challenging the norms of alcohol culture and seeking to empower people, I also infuse an intersectional feminist, anti-racist and anti-oppressive approach in my work. Again, largely influenced by AA — which was created by 2 middle/upper-class white men in 1935 (and largely hasn’t been updated since) — addiction and recovery models and language continue to center the experiences of white, cis-gendered men, resulting in the exclusion of women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized folx, which is troublesome as addiction impacts these communities in distinct and disproportionate ways. Within my work, I seek to empower, challenge the notion that addiction is a disease and work towards inclusion and diversity in recovery spaces.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I have had the privilege of being mentored and supported by many along the way. Some of the most notable include my dear friends and sisters, Alana Nugent and Bianca Sprague. Bianca is the CEO and co-founder of an incredible birth worker education and training organization, bebo mia. Alana is the Marketing Director at the same organization. Alana and I have been friends for more than a decade and on top of having the privilege of her friendship, I also get the benefit of having a close friendship with her wife, Bianca. They both inspire me in unique ways and have taught me so much in terms of how to run a feminist, anti-racist, anti-oppressive business. They have also supported me endlessly in my personal and professional lives. They (and their team) are shifting the landscape of birth work globally and are making massive waves in their industry. While our industries are different, I have learned so much from them and am eternally grateful. On top of being awesome, queer feminists, they are both also sober.
While I don’t know her personally, Holly Whitaker’s work and voice have been foundational in the development of the work I’m doing. I am so grateful for her forward-thinking, radical approach, and for her audacity and boldness.
I feel deeply grateful for Jam Gamble, who is a speaking coach who seeks to support people in making their voices their ultimate superpower. I have learned (and continue to learn) so much from Jam and have a profound reverence for her fearlessness and her unapologetic approach to speaking her truth and showing up as her authentic self. My voice is louder because of her.
The She Recovers movement, founded by a mother and daughter in recovery, has profoundly impacted the way I think about recovery, especially in the early days of my sober journey. I felt incredibly lost, didn’t know where to turn other than AA and fortunately, found She Recovers, which promotes a strong, community-centered approach to recovery that believes we get to design our own pathways and patchworks of recovery. This was tremendously refreshing in the early days and opened my eyes to a gamut of possibilities that I didn’t know existed.
While my clients aren’t necessarily my mentors, they motivate, inspire and propel me forward in my work. I am in awe of their bravery, tenacity, and willingness to continuously show up and do the heavy lifting that’s required in sobriety.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Try to reframe your struggles as your strengths. I have done this in my life and business and by doing so, I am not only in alignment but in my purpose and am having an impact that’s greater than I could have imagined
- Don’t get attached to the outcome; show up in service and serve from the heart
- Your impact will grow as you do so keep learning, growing and expanding
How are you going to shake things up next?
I have big plans to shake things up in a variety of ways!
First, I am deeply committed to bringing more trauma-informed approaches to my work in addiction and sobriety. Again, many traditional approaches to treatment fail to acknowledge or adequately work with trauma experiences of those seeking recovery. As a result, those in recovery work are often re-traumatized, which can negatively impact their success in sobriety. Thanks to the work of trauma and addiction specialists like Dr. Gabor Maté and studies like the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, we have a clear understanding of the role and impact that trauma — especially when it occurs in adolescence — has on the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction. According to the ACE Study, for every ACE (examples of ACEs include things like physical or sexual abuse; the death of a parent; parental divorce; family violence; drug or alcohol abuse in the family, etc.), the risk for the early initiation of substance abuse increases by 2–4 times and those who have experienced five or more ACEs have a 7–10 times greater risk of substance abuse compared to those with none. While not everyone who experienced adolescent trauma develops an addiction, almost all of those who develop addictions have a history of unhealed childhood trauma, which is why bringing more trauma-informed components to my work, is essential.
Speaking of trauma, one community that experiences a disproportionate amount of trauma and increasing rates of addiction is the LGBTQ+ community. Where I live in Canada, the LGBTQ+ community experiences rates of addiction that are 2–4 times higher than straight, cis-gendered folx, which can be accounted for by a variety of factors including rejection from family and friends, inadequate support systems, violence and discrimination, concurrent mental health issues like anxiety & depression, and stigma, to name a few. As a queer woman who struggled with addiction for 15+ years, I am keenly aware of the intersections of addiction and queerness, which is why I’m so committed to contributing my expertise in this area more moving forward. On the topic of intersections, I am also deeply committed to consistently applying an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, intersectional feminist framework to ensure that my work and offerings are inclusive and supportive of a wide range of folx. Recovery spaces have become largely whitewashed and fail to take into account how race (not to mention ability, sexuality, gender, class, etc.) impacts addiction, access to treatment and so on. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of coaching and the magical transformations that can occur and I can also recognize that working with a coach in a 1:1 capacity can be financially prohibitive. With this in mind, I created the HOL + WELL Patreon Community for Sober Support with the intention of creating a safe, inclusive community that provides resources, support, and coaching at a more accessible price point.
Finally, I am partnering with an international organization to challenge and disrupt Big Alcohol, tackle societal norms around drinking culture and upend the ways we think and talk about alcohol and addiction. I have always been very particular and intentional in the language that I use in my work, when talking about my own experiences and when working with clients. For example, one word that’s commonly used in the context of alcohol addiction is alcoholic, which is a word I intentionally do not use for a variety of reasons.* By using the term “alcoholic”, instead of acknowledging that alcohol is a highly toxic, highly addictive substance, we place the blame of alcohol addiction onto the individual, making it their problem that they became addicted to an addictive substance. This language largely glosses over the complexities of addiction, the individual’s experiences and unhealed trauma, which are important to acknowledge in the process of recovery. I find it unusual that we don’t do this with any other drugs. The term “alcoholic” serves as not only a label but also as an identity, something you are rather than something that you’re experiencing, which is tremendously problematic. Tackling language and how we talk and think about addiction is a huge part of my work and a notable way that I am disrupting recovery spaces and alcohol culture.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
I’m a huge bibliophile and love reading so narrowing this down feels challenging but there are a couple of books that have been extremely influential in my work and my thinking around addiction and sobriety.
The first book is “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease” by Marc Lewis, Ph.D. As the name suggests, this book seeks to challenge the brain disease model of addiction (BDMA) by offering a science-backed, evidence-based alternative which is this: addiction is an extreme manifestation of the naturally occurring cognitive process of habit formation. While this may seem overly simplified, it’s actually still quite complex. Lewis, who is a neuroscientist and someone who struggled with addiction for many years, speaks to the neurological complexities of habit formation and how, like other behaviors that are learned and with time and repetition, automated, so too is addiction. I never felt aligned with the BDMA, the label “alcoholic” or the notion that I was diseased and would struggle with my disease of addiction until I die so I was thrilled to find a book and perspective that provided a powerful, science-based alternative to addiction that not only made sense to me but also felt quite empowering. Habits are learned behaviors, which means they can be unlearned as well.
Another book that has had a tremendous impact on my thinking and work is “Quit Like A Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol” by Holly Whitaker. In many ways, this book feels like a book I would write as it contains so many elements that are reflected in my work including an intersectional feminist approach, tons of fascinating research, tangible tools and tips to support its readers, and a critical analysis of the deeply engrained and wildly problematic role that alcohol plays in our world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I envision a global movement where people truly knew and embodied their power, capacity and freedom, where healing and holistic wellness were truly prioritized and where alcohol had no use in the world. If alcohol no longer existed as a barrier to wellness, healing, authenticity, mental health, true connection, and prosperity, the world would be a much different place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are a couple of quotes that I especially love. The first is by Alice Walker, who said: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” I used to drink because I believed I couldn’t handle the challenges that came my way. When my dad died, for example, I truly did not believe that I had the capacity to feel and manage my feelings; I thought they would break me. It wasn’t until I got sober that I truly re-connected to and embodied my power. A huge part of my work with women is supporting them to reclaim their freedom and power through sobriety and in many ways, this approach is counterintuitive to many of the dominant approaches to addiction treatment. Within the AA model for example (which is the foundation of many medical treatment programs despite the fact that it’s not evidence-based, trauma or clinically informed), the first step is to admit that we’re powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable. While I can appreciate the intention behind this step (which is to honestly address that we have a problem with alcohol), the last thing that folx struggling with addiction need is to believe that they are powerless, which is especially true for women, as we have repeatedly been told that we’re powerless. This is messaging we have been hearing our whole lives from individuals, institutions, the law, organizations, corporations, etc. In my opinion, believing that you have the power and capacity to create lasting change in your life is essential in finding and sustaining sobriety. Adopting the belief that you’re powerless against your addiction feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Within my coaching practice, I seek to support my clients not only in reclaiming their freedom and power but to do so in an empowering way. I do this by helping them strengthen their intuition, trust themselves, commit to their healing and importantly, remind them that they have what they need inside them to create the change they desire. This too is a counterintuitive approach to supporting sobriety as many treatment programs operate from a prescriptive place where treatment is largely one-size-fits-all and assumes that those struggling with addiction don’t know what’s best for them and that they can’t be trusted to make decisions of that magnitude.
The second quote I really love is: “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.” by Ava DuVernay. Within my work, I am deeply committed to having a significant impact on the world within the context of addiction, sobriety and alcohol culture and this quote really reminds of my dreams and goals of having that impact. While I have used my own experiences as a springboard to create change, at the end of the day, while my own experiences of addiction and sobriety are deeply important to me, the work that I’m doing and the impact that I stand to have is ultimately what fuels me. My dreams include supporting and having a positive impact on all the women and folx in the world who struggle with addiction, to let them know that they aren’t struggling alone, to remind them of their strength and power and importantly, that it’s never too late to create change and that they have the capacity to do so in their lives.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thanks for having me and thanks for reading!