In February 2014, I attended the annual Writers in Treatment Experience, Strength and Hope award ceremony at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. This year the award went to Carrie White for her book, Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life. Numerous celebrities turned out to celebrate with her.
To my excitement, I found myself sitting at the same table with Mackenzie Phillips, former star of the hugely popular ’70s sitcom One Day at a Time and daughter of John Phillips, who was a member of the 1960s rock and roll band, The Mamas & the Papas. I did my best to appear nonchalant and confident, but inside I was giddy as a school girl.As I eavesdropped, intent on learning what celebrities talk about, I was surprised to hear recovery talk. Mackenzie was talking about sponsorship and working with others. I realized she was a woman in recovery just as I am, and I felt myself relax.
As I listened to Mackenzie I was reminded of my early life, a time of innocence before I became a prisoner of my disease. I knew I wasn’t the only one who would find a connection to a lost youth through this beautiful lady.
Her conversation gave me the courage, the nudge, to ask her if she would consider sharing her story of recovery with our In Recovery Magazine readers. I was thrilled when she said, “Yes, I’d love to.”
A month later at my mother’s house in Malibu, I’m preparing to do a photo shoot and interview with Mackenzie. She’s about to arrive and I’m not even nervous . . . I don’t know why, but I’m relaxed and at ease. It’s a beautiful day, and I feel as though a friend is coming to spend the day with me.
As she watches me and my niece, Stefani, owner of Stefani Welsh Photography, bustling around getting ready for the shoot, my mother is as calm and cool as ever. Christina Rivera, a recent graduate of the California Beauty Academy, listens to my last minute instructions for hair and makeup.
Mackenzie, known to her friends as Mack, and her publicist Valerie Allen, arrive precisely on time. Introductions are made; and within moments I begin to become better acquainted with Mack. She’s open and warm, and I feel as though I’ve known her my whole life.
There is no shortage of articles written about Mack, so I decide to talk program with her – a language we are both comfortable speaking.
While you are known around the world for your acting career and for the incredibly talented family of which you’re a part, I’d like to know more about your personal recovery. What makes your recovery work?
I live and breathe recovery. I love alcoholics and addicts; they’re my people! We make the best friends; we’re the hardest workers; and we truly care about one another.
I’m passionate about recovery and my commitment to the Twelve Steps. I absolutely love being clean and sober. I don’t believe it’s necessarily about the amount of time a person has, but it is the quality of time [in recovery] that matters.
As I was driving here, I had to laugh. I looked in the back seat of my car, and all I could see back there was recovery literature and chips. It’s about service. I have a home group. I have the most amazing sponsor; I love that woman!
I experience insecurities and self doubt. Do you ever go through that?
Are you kidding? Of course, I do. Alcoholism is a disease that lives below the realm of consciousness. It is an inner dialog that tells me,
“You’re not good enough; people won’t like you.”
How do you cope with these insecurities?
I pray to God to remove these thoughts from me. After all, they’re not real; they are creations of my mind. I also try to stay in the moment. As long as I focus on the present, right here, right now, I’m good; I’m happy; I’m fine. The Twelve Steps are my cure for a healthy stream of consciousness. I no longer suffer from the drinking; it’s my thinking I’m always working on.
You have faced many issues common to alcoholics and addicts, and a few which most of us were fortunate to have missed. How did you protect your sensitive inner child as you walked through the difficult events of your early recovery? How did you maintain your sanity?
EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] therapy helped a lot. I now have less emotional attachment to the experiences of my past. I can talk about the past without melting into a heap of hysteria. I’m in touch with my inner child today. In the beginning, I wasn’t. I haven’t done much work around my inner child, but it’s because of my recovery that I can have fun today. I’m shocked by my chronological age. It’s hard for me to believe I’m in my 50s. I still feel like a kid. I wake up each day in awe and wonder about the world and what life has in store for me.
Even though celebrity opens doors, being one can be difficult. Bill Wilson spoke about this and about his depression and anxiety as a result of not being able to be just “an ordinary member of AA”. People would break his anonymity or stand up and clap when he visited meetings. Do you find this an aspect of your own recovery? How do you deal with it?
Sometimes that happens to me. On occasion someone will ask me for my autograph in a meeting. I tell them if we happen to run into each other at the store or out and about, sure. But that’s not why either of us are [at the meeting]. I’ve been going to my home group for many years now, and everyone knows me. There, I’m just one of many.
In a January 2014 article for People Magazine, you were quoted as saying, “The more people that laugh and giggle and make fun of a wasted celebrity who’s in handcuffs, the fewer people are going to go out and find recovery for themselves . . .”
Because it sells, addiction is vilified and sensationalized in the media. Recovery seems to happen behind the scenes. How do you see protecting the Twelve Step tradition of anonymity and yet letting those still suffering know there is help readily available – especially for high-profile people?
That’s the question for the ages. If we are going to de-stigmatize recovery, we need to, so to speak, come out of the closet. What worked in 1935 may not be what’s best for 2014 and beyond. With so many in need of recovery today, how do we expect people to find recovery if they can’t find us?
We are on the precipice. Anonymity is a personal choice. I want to be of service; not being anonymous lets me do this at a higher level. Don’t get me wrong; I respect the Twelve Traditions, but it doesn’t mean I always want to.
You work with Pasadena Recovery Center (PRC). There are so many other things you could be doing. Why do you take the time to support the work at PRC as a recovery and treatment advocate?
Because of my time on Celebrity Rehab, I came back to PRC to speak on a panel. Afterward, Michael Bloom [owner and president of PRC] called and asked me out to lunch. He said, “I have an idea . . .” I hoped he was getting ready to offer me a job. He did, and I haven’t looked back.
I work part-time so I still have time to pursue other things, such as watching Game of Thrones with my son. I’m passionate about the work we do at PRC. Michael really cares about the clients. It gives me joy to see their transformation from when they arrive with their heads down, looking defeated, then within a couple of weeks they start becoming curious and asking questions [about addiction and recovery]. Sharing my experience, strength and hope with them helps me stay sober.
Can you tell me about your monthly speaker series?
I have so much fun at these events. It’s free to the community; we have fellowship, lunch and some amazing speakers. We enjoy bestselling authors, such as [actress] Kristen Johnston, and experts in treatment modalities like Bob Forrest [program director at Acadia Malibu, drug counselor, vocalist and lyricist] who appeared on Celebrity Rehab and Sober House. It shows our clients more of what’s happening outside in the world.
What are you working on now? I hear there might be a new book on the horizon?
I have several acting projects in the works, including The Sparrows [TV Series, pre-production], The Secret Place [post-production movie], North Blvd [completed movie] and Blackout [completed short film]. I keep as busy with acting as I want to be.
In September 2009, my first book, High on Arrival: A Memoir, was released, which I co-wrote with author Hilary Liftin. I am working on a new book deal, but I can’t share the details yet.
I am also very excited to be a student at the Institute of Chemical Dependency Studies (ICDS) – Sober College, completing the educational requirements to become a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) in California.
Are there any final words about addiction and recovery you would like to leave with our readers?
Addiction is not just a Hollywood problem; though we still hear so much about addicted celebrities. What about the boy down the street? What about our sons and daughters? People everywhere are dying from this disease. My people are dying from this disease!
We have to smash the idea that recovering addicts and alcoholics should remain in the shadows. It’s exactly where the disease wants us to stay. And it’s exactly the mindset that will keep recovery from the people who need it most.