Peg O’Connor on How to Achieve Great Success after Recovering from an Addiction

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Published in
9 min readMay 29, 2022

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Each person can define his, her, or their own recovery. A person’s definition of this may change over time, which should be expected. We need to be nimble in our recovery because we are always changing, which means our needs change too.

When people are trapped in a severe addiction it can feel like there is no way out and there is no hope for a better future. This is of course not true. Millions of people are in recovery from an addiction and they go on to lead successful, fulfilling and inspiring lives.

Authority Magazine started a new series about women who were able to achieve great success after recovering from an addiction. The premise of the series is to offer hope and inspiration to people who feel trapped in similar circumstances. As a part of this series we had the pleasure to interview, Peg O’Connor.

Peg O’Connor, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Her training is in moral philosophy, feminist philosophy, and addiction studies. Peg is a recovering alcoholic who maintains that philosophy has helped her to stay sober. Dr. O’Connor is the author of the new book, Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering (Wildhouse Publications, 2022) and Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery (Central Recovery Press, 2016).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I had a happy childhood and always felt a sense of belonging in my family. I was a handful in class; I usually was looking for some way to have fun and got into a lot of mischief. I went to Catholic school, which may explain why I still bristle under authority. Punishment often involved being sent to stand in the corner, where the water bubbler was located. I “baptized” many friends while I was in that corner and never got caught. I loved sports and would play anything but was completely taken with tennis. I would play for hours a day during the summer. I was also a reader rabbit, read anything that was in front of me. No cereal box was too boring for me.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers how you were initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?

Catholic elementary school led to Catholic high school where I started to feel as if I were different from my peers. I found myself drawn to the fun smart girls in my classes. I never noticed boys unless they were across a tennis court from me. I soon realized that I liked girls, which was not a welcome revelation in the late 70s/early 80s. I knew the Catholic Church taught that homosexuality was a sinful abomination. I was an abomination, a queer. I always felt so uncomfortable and terrified of being found out. Alcohol became my aider and abettor. I drank to fit in, but my drinking rapidly become dangerous. Soon I was a double outsider: a queer and someone with a drinking problem.

As you know, addictions are often an attempt to mask an underlying problem. In your experience, what do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place? Can you explain?

I was grappling with coming out at a time and in a context when homosexuality was forbidden. And my drinking quickly became a bigger problem. My shame about each was immense; compounded it was unbearable. Shame stains a person’s entire being. I became ashamed of my body for wanting what it shouldn’t. I became ashamed of being an alcoholic, which I knew I was after my first year of drinking. That shame governed me. Everything — taking a test, hitting a tennis ball, whether I made someone laugh — was a referendum on my worth as a person. If I lost a match, it proved I was worthless. If I won a match, well, it had to be a fluke. My internal voice was always saying, “Someone like you….”

Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?

My drinking was out of control my sophomore year of college. Once I started, I could not stop. I had the misfortune of contracting both mononucleosis and chicken pox at the same time. I was terribly sick. The physician at the health center said it was important not to drink because mono affects the spleen. He said, “that won’t be a problem, will it?” Well, it was a massive problem but I would never admit it. I kept drinking and am lucky I did not rupture my spleen. I knew what the sharp pains were, but I kept drinking. I almost drank myself to death.

Was there a tipping point that made you decide that you needed to change? Can you please share the story?

Two months after graduation from college, I was in a terrible automobile accident. I was not drinking but was meeting up with my friends at a lesbian bar, where I would have been drinking and dancing to Michael Jackson. I had a serious concussion and woke up in the hospital where the police were awaiting results from blood work to check alcohol levels. I didn’t know what had happened at that point, but I thought I probably had been drinking. A day later in the hospital, a nurse came to ask if I needed any pain medications. I had the distinct thought, “Betty Ford, here I come.” I knew if I started on pain meds, I’d keep going until the end of the line.

Can you tell us the story about how you were able to overcome your addiction?

Immediately after the offering of pain medications in the hospital, I decided I would try to stop drinking entirely. I had been able to stop for some stretches of time in college but once I started up again, I was off to the races. I made a deal with myself: I would treat not drinking as an experiment and I would see how long I could go. I am still going nearly 35 years later. In some ways, I still treat my sobriety as an ongoing experiment. I make a choice every day and today I am still choosing not to drink.

How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them? Can you please share a story about that?

Two things are very difficult for me: receiving forgiveness from others and forgiving myself. I know I put my parents through hell. In the early 1980s, sending a young person to rehab was not really an option. I think they honestly had no idea what to do with me. Once I came out to them as a lesbian, it gave them a framework for understanding what was going on with me. Opening myself up to them allowed us to have a much better relationship. This was especially true with my mother. When I was still not out to them and keeping a great distance, my mother referred to me as “her stranger.” That still makes me cry. Since I have started working on addiction matters, she and I are even closer as we have untangled generations of alcoholism.

As for forgiving myself, one of the legacies of my addiction is holding myself to unmeetable standards and then pillorying myself for not meeting them. I have gotten much better, and working on addiction has helped me to put the stick down a bit more. I’ll be honest; that’s still very much a work in progress.

When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?

When I initially stopped drinking, I was, unbeknownst to me, suffering the effects of a severe concussion. I described myself as having mentally and emotionally flatlined. Nothing mattered to me. I didn’t care that I had survived that car accident and I was sick of people telling me that I should be grateful to be alive. I wanted to punch those people, honestly. It took me a few years of making deals with myself not to drink. If I didn’t drink, I’d find a way to reward myself in some small way. I had to build up a little confidence I could keep promises to myself. I also needed to figure myself out. I had no career aspirations, no goals, and no sense I could do anything. I went to grad school but didn’t even make it through orientation because I decided I didn’t like the people. I reached this decision based on little information, mind you. But then I got a job in publishing where I started to feel my intellectual curiosity fire again. I researched graduate schools and made a great decision with my next graduate program. Surrounded by smart and fun classmates, finally out, and having a goal to work toward a PhD, I started to feel like I could make myself a good life. More importantly, I started to feel as if I had something to give others.

What positive habits have you incorporated into your life, post addiction, to keep you on the right path?

I have always been a creature of routine, even when I was drinking. Routines help me to stay focused and directed. Of course, the line between loving routine and being regimented and rigid is one I have traversed a few times. I am able to prioritize much better now, which is equally a consequence of being in recovery and being older. I am better able to recognize what is in my control and what is not. My attitude and my responses are in my control. I cannot control what others may think of me, but I can have more control over how I think of myself.

Can you tell us a story about the success that you achieved after you began your recovery?

If I were still drinking, there is no way that I could be doing the work on addiction that I do now. I’d be far too busy causing damage and then cycling through dramas of repair and repentance. I would operate from a mindset of grievance, and I would constantly be comparing myself to others and coming up short. Where’s the success, then? I can celebrate when a colleague has a wonderful achievement. I can be the first to applaud my opponents’ winning shots on the court. I can hug my dog every day and feel enormous gratitude for all the goodness that I have in my life. Some of that goodness is a matter of luck, but much of it comes from cultivating gratitude.

What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your current achievements? Please share both the positive and negative.

I have always been a worker bee but have toed up to the line of workaholic. Thankfully I have always been able to walk that back. I am fiercely loyal to my friends and loved ones. I think my struggles make me a better teacher because I have empathy. I am able to hear volumes in silences. I would be utterly lost without my sense of humor. I keep myself right-sized. Any accomplishments I have are not due solely to me; I am no better than anyone else. A friend relayed words of wisdom from her grandmother that the higher a monkey climbs, the more he shows his rear end. If I ever start to feel as if I am somehow better than someone else, I think “monkey behind!”

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you share five pieces of advice that you would give to a person who is struggling with some sort of addiction but is ashamed to speak about it or get help?

There is no one right way to achieve sobriety. For as many paths as there are to addiction, there must be as many or more out of addiction.

The notion of “rock bottom” is misleading and dangerous. A person doesn’t have to lose everything or suffer catastrophic losses before he, she, or they can change.

Self-trust is an early casualty of addiction and is often late to return. Try to build it by starting small.

The people around you matter enormously. The right friends build you up and help you to become a better person because they genuinely have your best interest at heart. My friends help me to stay sober because they remind me of who I am and who I want to be.

Each person can define his, her, or their own recovery. A person’s definition of this may change over time, which should be expected. We need to be nimble in our recovery because we are always changing, which means our needs change too.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I will limit myself to three, though that’s tough. Margaret Chisolm for her work on the benefits of spirituality and religion. Venus Williams for her work off the tennis court, especially founding Happy Viking. But I can’t lie; she’s tennis royalty! Lisa Marsh Ryerson for her work with vulnerable seniors. Seniors are especially vulnerable to alcohol and drug issues.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

pegoconnorauthor.com

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/philosophy-stirred-not-shaken

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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