Leap Day is the last day of the Before Times I remember vividly. I drove to the mall to pick up something at Sephora. A huge crowd of families had gathered for an athletic demonstration by former American Ninja Warrior contestants. In Nordstrom, I inhaled a lemon and mint-scented candle that was supposed to remind me of the Amalfi coast. I browsed leather wallets, touching the oversized zippers and snapping the coin pockets closed.
On the way home, I thought, for the thousandth time, I should really cut back on drinking. I thought this even as I pulled into the liquor store parking lot and went inside to buy a bottle of white, a bottle of red, and a bottle of peppermint Schnapps (novelty!).
I drank two glasses of white wine on Saturday night and called my fiancé, who was working a convention in Chicago.
“Is attendance down?” I asked. I’d been following news of a virus in suburban Seattle.
“It’s actually the highest attendance we’ve ever had,” he said.
This seemed vaguely disturbing, so I made hot chocolate with a shot of Schnapps.
I should really cut back, I thought again. My drinking always seemed like a problem for Future Me to solve. Just thinking about dealing with it was stressful enough to justify a little treat for Present Me.
Be Here Now.
Be Here Now with Your Wine.
I have never been a binge drinker. I don’t get hangovers. I won’t regale you with wild drunken tales because I don’t have any. My habit is two glasses of wine a night. I have tried to be a one-glass-of-wine-with-dinner person, but I like to have a glass while I cook, and then one becomes a setup for the punchline of two. Occasionally, two is enough to shut up my inner disciplinarian and I can say what the hell, and have a third, which puts me right to sleep, and then I get to enjoy being awake from 2 to 4am, scrolling Twitter and hating myself, swearing this will never happen again, this time I will learn. You might call this “a pattern.” Or the definition of stupidity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.
During this period I read dozens of addiction memoirs. I underlined sentences that made me feel seen, but also superior: I wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t drinking my breakfast; I wasn’t drinking secretly; I wasn’t blacking out. I read stories of other writers’ rock bottoms to prove to myself I didn’t have a problem, or at least no problem I couldn’t solve by harnessing more discipline and willpower. I resisted sobriety in the same way I politely declined pamphlets from Jehovah’s Witnesses in the subway. The believers had their religion—I had mine.
I believed I had two choices: go to AA (which I’d read a lot about in my alcoholism memoirs) or keep drinking to cover up the stress of wishing I could drink less. I was afraid of getting sober. I know sober people—they are fun and fascinating and creative, my beloved friends. They are also sober for life. It was the level of commitment that freaked me out. I was also freaked out by the idea of admitting I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable. I don’t like to admit I’m powerless over anything. And my life was just fine, thank you (except for the, uh, secret shame that showed up at 4am).
Then I heard about Annie Grace, a writer offering a 30-day “alcohol-free challenge to interrupt your habits and help you take control.” When I read this, it was like an arrow aimed straight at my anxiety and my excuses: just 30 days, I could do that! A “challenge”? As an overachiever, I love challenges! My habits definitely needed an interruption. I would try any program that offered a path to regain control.
On Sunday, March 1st, I finished the bottle of white. On Monday, I began my 30 days.
Grace’s method is based around resolving the conflict between our unconscious beliefs (such as alcohol relieves stress) and our desires (I want to drink less). When I started following her exercises, I realized that drinking actually added more stress to my life, because I was constantly calculating how much I would have, setting rules around my drinking, and then beating myself up when my willpower failed.
“If alcohol truly relaxed us,” Grace writes, “wouldn’t we need less of it over time?”
As soon as I stopped drinking wine, I started sleeping better. When I got enough sleep, I noticed I didn’t crave so much carbs and cheese (my two favorite food groups). My mood improved; I wasn’t compulsively replaying things I’d said or written in an email, berating myself for stupid questions or awkward comments. I could stay up later to watch movies with my partner because I was no longer nodding off on the couch from the alcohol.
Day 11 is when the miracle happened: I wrote a poem for the first time in nearly a decade. Reading and writing poetry had been my creative outlet since I was a teenager, but somewhere in my twenties I lost it. I thought I had just grown out of that phase, or maybe my life had stabilized so much (no more dating drama) that I no longer had any material for poems. The gift of poetry on my 11th day of sobriety felt like a chandelier turned on in a haunted ballroom in my brain that no one had danced in in years.
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A week later, the governor of my state, Connecticut, issued a stay at home order. By April, the entirety of my social life was unfolding on Twitter. My alcohol-free experiment coincided with drinking becoming one of the few fun things you could do inside your own home.
“Remember how everyone was gonna stop drinking?” one woman tweeted. Ha ha! “It seems wine o’clock might need to be moved to 9am,” another said. The “quarantini” was born and a grandma in New Jersey went viral on TikTok for giving it a shake shake shake! On my daily walk around the cul de sac, I listened to a podcast that recommended I relax by watching a video of Ina Garten make a pitcher of Cosmos and then pour it into a single-serve martini glass the size of her head. If I’ve been saving a bottle of wine or champagne for a special occasion, the hosts suggested I drink it now—why wait?
— marilyn starkloff (@MStarkloff) March 12, 2020
By this point, I had become very sensitive to the kind of messages our culture sends about alcohol, especially to women: you’ve had a long day, you deserve it! It’s not drinking alone if the kids are home! Wine is good for you!
I’d spent the past three years researching and writing my novel Self Care, which satirizes the wellness industry. I see “wellness” as diet culture re-branded. Among my millennial feminist peers, it’s taboo to talk about dieting: how much weight you want to lose, how much weight you have lost, how many calories are in a cup of grapes. Every body is a bikini body—just put a bikini on it! But there is no taboo against talking about drinking, or joking about overdoing it. If your tolerance is so high you can keep up with the boys, yasssss queen!
How could I judge people for drinking more during the pandemic? Let’s be real: if I hadn’t committed to my experiment before the stay at home order, I likely would have graduated from white wine to bourbon cocktails.
Oh, did I mention that the main character of Self Care has a drinking problem? (My book editor didn’t think her drinking problem was obvious enough—it was based on my own drinking—so I ramped it up in my next draft.)
I made it to Day 30 and decided to try for another 30 and then another. Ultimately, I went 104 days without drinking alcohol. I wrote 34 poems.
Ironically, I started drinking wine again for the same reason I had avoided abstaining in the first place: because I felt pressured to commit for life. I didn’t want “sober” to become my identity. After 104 days, I felt proud of myself for committing to the experiment and for closely examining, and shifting, my relationship with alcohol. If you had asked me on January 1st if I could go 100 days without drinking a glass of wine, I would have told you the odds were about as likely as me swimming across the English Channel.
After a few weeks of falling back on old habits during the busy time of my novel launch, I am now in a place where I have wine on weekends, and pineapple kombucha on school nights.
I know many women who are committed to a life without alcohol, and on Instagram I cheer on their sobriety milestones. On Instagram, you’ll also find a lot of brands (and influencers) selling programs and products to cleanse, detoxify, and purify your diet/skin/workout/scalp/gut/sleep/life. Underlying all this marketing is the uncomfortable truth that many of us feel bad on a daily basis. We feel toxic. Our bodies and brains are overwhelmed by the stress of the pandemic, financial precarity, racial injustice, political inaction, frustrations over schooling this fall, and uncertainty about the future.
I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t drink right now to manage your stress. I don’t have a program to sell you or a fancy elixir with adaptogens (though I do believe any beverage can be elevated by adding maraschino cherries). I’ve lived online long enough to become jaded and cynical about influencer culture and the rarefied echelons of the wellness industry that sell expensive lifestyle upgrades to the class of Americans that is privileged enough to afford the basics.
I decided to run an experiment to better understand my dependence on alcohol only after I reached the limit of cognitive dissonance I could tolerate. I was tired of thinking one thing and doing another. I was tired of feeling out of control and like I was failing my best intentions. Only you know what cobwebs decorate the dark, echoing ballroom of your mind. No influencer can tell you why you’ve been avoiding that lonely room. Only you can hear the song your body plays when it’s trying to tell you what it needs.
Images: Estrada Anton / Shutterstock.com; leighstein / Instagram; @MStarkloff / Twitter
Almost 10 years ago, I was watching some of the trashiest television imaginable when my mom walked by and said to me, “Did this teenager just compare herself going to jail with Buddha sitting under the tree? Why do you watch this trash?” Cut to ten years later, and I’m listening to a podcast in the car with my mom that I was featured on, and she says to me, “Are you sure that this woman is 27? She’s awfully mature and self-aware to be that age.” That woman my mom and I are referring to is Alexis Neiers (now Haines) from Pretty Wild. Pretty Wild was only ten episodes long and aired about a decade ago, but to this day, it’s a national phenomenon. From the dinners with Mickey Avalon to, of course, the famously infamous Nancy Jo voicemail (which was largely staged), this show was the ultimate reality show in that it was entirely unrelatable, over-the-top ridiculous, and a total sh*tshow.
The real story, however, happened when the cameras stopped rolling. We all know that Alexis was implicated in the infamous Bling Ring (in that she called the police and literally sat in a car while her friends robbed a house, but more on that later), but even after serving her time in prison, Alexis’ story continued to unfold. After Alexis left rehab, she experienced a metamorphosis from being a Hollywood It Girl who was afflicted with her demons to a self-possessed, yet self-deprecating worldly young woman who is a loving wife, a mother of two of the cutest daughters I’ve ever seen, a drug counselor, and a doula. Although, she now hosts a podcast—so obviously she’s not entirely different from every other twentysomething.
Between the candor and wit that is laced with the valley girl inflection to having the biggest healing crystal at her front door that would put Spencer Pratt to shame, there are still gleams of Alexis circa 2010. After spending time with her on her podcast, Recovering from Reality, and interviewing her, I learned that Alexis hadn’t really changed in the sense that she’s an entirely new person, but rather, she seems like she is now her most authentic self. Alexis and her podcast, Recovering from Reality, endeavor to spark conversations about things that we don’t talk about enough, and to discuss these topics with compassion, open hearts, and without judgment. It’s not just Alexis that has so much to teach us from her experiences, it’s also about how we also have so much to teach each other. She and her husband also founded a treatment center, Alo House Recovery, to treat people with addiction. With that being said, I’m going to follow Alexis’ movement to enlighten and inspire others as we get to know the real Alexis Neiers.
On How ‘Pretty Wild’ Started
So Tess and I were working in the entertainment industry as models and music video girls and doing a bunch of indie films anh*t like that. We had this whole persona in L.A, and we made up the story that we were twins. We aren’t biological sisters. But, you know, she is a sister… we’ve grown up together and she lived with us on and off throughout my whole life. She’s a sister to me, I view her as blood. I love her to death. The whole story came about that we were twins because it was just more interesting. We basically built up this whole persona that people became really interested in. We were working on this movie, and one of the producers who was also acting in it, Dan, discovered us and asked us, ‘Do you want to do a sizzle reel for a reality show?’ And we were like, ‘Sure!’ We brought it to our mom, and she thought it was a great idea—so we did it.
Actually, having a reality show is a one in a million shot, and you’re not just going to get a reality show. It was a whole thing. We didn’t think it would go anywhere, but it actually ended up going really fast and it ended up in Chelsea Handler’s hands and E!. E! ended up in a bidding war for it back and forth.
We didn’t anticipate that the Bling Ring would be a storyline… The whole idea around the show was that my mom was homeschooling these girls who were trying to make it in the entertainment industry. I think just saw us as funny, and they build storylines around your life—hanging out with rockstars, doing crazy sh*t. I think they just found us entertaining.
On Whether It Was Scripted
It was definitely staged. The only thing that I would call somewhat scripted was when we were doing interviews. They would say things to us and we would repeat it back to them. Our dinner with Mickey Avalon was all set up, but we continued to party with him after that. Obviously, we knew who Mickey Avalon was before that. Ryan Cabrera was staged, and he was on whatever reality show you wanted him to be on. Tess ended up dating him after their staged interactions. Max was not staged. She was actually dating his friend Beau, and I was dating his friend Tyler, and Beau introduced her to Max. Javier was a door guy at a bar in Mexico. He definitely was not as rich . Honestly, I was so drunk that night that I don’t even recall , but all I knew was that I saw this hot guy, and set up our next date. And then the reason that I was crying was that I was having so much fun without all the L.A. drama, and I was f*cking pissed that Tess confirmed to TMZ that I was in Mexico when I wasn’t supposed to be in Mexico. That pissed me the f*ck off. It wasn’t like I was crying over Javier, I wasn’t in love with Javier. They flew him out to L.A. and set that whole thing up too. They told him about the Bling Ring , Paul Oakenfold was totally staged, and that really hurt. Not that anyone should have any sympathy for me back then other than the fact that I was a traumatized child, but the fact that the producers did that was so f*cking sh*tty and low—I mean, on my sister’s 16th birthday? Really? F*ck off. That was horrible. I haven’t actually seen every episode of Pretty Wild, I’ve seen several episodes. But, the cops knocking at the door, too—that wasn’t real. The house that we lived in, we didn’t really live there. There was lights everywhere—it was a staged house. It was a lot of embellishment.
On Her Attorney And Legal Drama
My attorney was not a very good attorney—I actually found out later that he had a lot of issues with substance abuse and stuff like that. He really dropped the ball in my case. Like, they fabricated a bunch of documents, and he somehow missed that… I don’t know what would’ve happened. And at the end of the day, jail was the best thing that could’ve happened to me and I don’t regret any of it. I don’t regret taking the plea deal, I don’t regret the way it played out. I feel horrendous for all of the victims. Not to say I was a Mother Theresa, because I definitely wasn’t. When I was in the throes of my drug addiction, I was panhandling, checking cars to find loose change, whatever I could do. I was not a good person. But I wasn’t some kind of Bling Ring mastermind that robbed Paris Hilton. That wasn’t me. I can’t take credit for that and I won’t. Now as a wife and a mother and an adult, I feel even worse . It’s sad, it’s a horrible situation.
On Nancy Jo Sales
The attorney picked Nancy Jo and she promised that she was going to write a fair and honest article, and that she wasn’t going to interview anyone else from the Bling Ring, she was only going to talk with me. She obviously lied. Not only that, but then—and this is what really pissed me off—later on, I really was wearing the little brown Bebe kitten heels and E! News did a whole thing about the shoes at court thing. She went on Twitter to defend herself and to publicly sh*t talk me when I was a year sober and trying to better my life. It was like, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your life?” …You see me, I’m a new mom or newly sober, I’m doing better with my life, and here you are, just continuing with this whole nonsense. She made fun of my tattoos on Twitter, and she said, “She’s so conceited, she would get a picture of herself on her arm.” I responded, “That’s not a picture of myself, that’s a picture I brought to that tattoo artist of my mom and we collaborated on an idea together.” She blocked me for my response.
Sidenote: why are you f*cking with someone who is newly sober and trying to make a better life for herself? Are you really that miserable? It was disgusting. She deleted all of what she said to me on Twitter, otherwise I would’ve screenshotted all of that. If someone happened to get screenshots, please pull it up! She blocks everyone who disagrees with her because she’s a coward, and it’s like, if that’s your position, own it!
me: nancy jo sales was very mean to teenage opiate addicts and masqueraded her cruelty as incisive reporting on entitled millennial girls
— ?????? ?????? (@333333333433333) March 18, 2019
On Her Role In The Bling Ring
My role was “the idiot girl who followed Nick.” It wasn’t a whole group thing, for me. I knew Nick, for like, four months, that’s it. We don’t keep in touch. I feel really bad for him. He seems to have a lot of continuous legal struggles, and that’s horrible. I was introduced to Nick and you know, we used drugs together and partied a lot.
I really wish I had a juicy story and that I was the mastermind behind the whole thing and blah, blah, blah. But really, we were out partying one night, and I was driven to a house in a blackout, and that’s really what I remember. And then I called the cops multiple times . I have phone records of it. It wasn’t brought to light because everybody loves a villain. There was never any video footage . There was four people who walked backwards into the area. That wasn’t me, but Nick said that was me. The members of the Bling Ring were very strategic, but got sloppy at the end and the cameras could see their faces. They just walked up to Audrina Patridge’s and Lindsay Lohan’s houses, and that’s when I started calling the police. I was like, “That’s their faces!” So I knew what happened those nights, but no I wasn’t there. Nick claimed I was, but there was no evidence.
On Why She Was Perceived As The Leader
I think it was because of the show. I feel like if they wrote about Nick Prugo, the kid from Calabasas who robbed all these celebrities, a one-and-done story. But the girl who had a reality show was way more interesting and way more exciting. So they wanted to make an example out of me.
On Not Returning To The Spotlight
I had a number of opportunities, but I realized the severity. If I f*cked up again, I was going to go to prison for six years. So when I got sober, I realized not only the severity of getting into trouble again—which I knew that I would if I went back into reality TV right away—was that I really wanted to help people. That’s why I’m doing this podcast now, and I knew that if I did this at two years sober, then no one would take me seriously. But I’m sitting here 8 years sober today—today is actually my 8 year anniversary of sobriety—so now I’m in a place where I can speak as an authority figure and I really want to start a movement that sobriety is f*cking awesome, and that it can change your world and you can have a big and beautiful and joyous life without the use of drugs and alcohol.
Now I feel like I’m moving to a place where it’s that time. There’s a double-edged sword to that, though, like I’m not as relevant now as I was back then. So I walked away from it all and got really quiet, and that’s when I did a lot of my growth work and trauma healing, which is so important. Now I have this voice and I’m ready, but I didn’t maintain all so, it’s freakin’ challenging. So now it feels like I’m starting over again, but I’m not given that fresh start. Every single article that mentions me, even the article about the Pretty Wild reunion coming out, always talks about the Bling Ring in the sense that I’m the leader or mastermind from it. I’ll never get that separation.
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On Why She Didn’t Get A Fresh Start
I think people idolize celebrities, and I wasn’t really a celebrity, or even a D-list celebrity. But they idolize the Paris Hilton’s and Louis C.K.’s as Gods, so they’ll bounce right back. The rest of the world doesn’t. Khloé Kardashian got a DUI and could’ve f*cking killed somebody, but you never hear about that anymore. Nobody talks about that anymore. Lindsay Lohan steals necklaces (Writer’s note: and $11,000 fur coat, amongst other crimes)—untouchable. She has her own reality show on MTV now and nobody cares.
On Why ‘Pretty Wild’ Is Still Popular
I don’t know. My husband will tell you that the Bling Ring remains so popular and so big because everybody thinks celebrities are untouchable, so it became a whole thing because the criminals got into the real-life houses of these people. I also think Pretty Wild at the time when reality TV was just on the rise.
my life would genuinely be 10x better if they made more than 1 season of Pretty Wild
— Charlotte D'Alessio (@char_dalessio) March 5, 2019
On What’s Next
So my goal with Recovering from Reality isn’t just to create a brand or podcast, but it is to create a community for people to share their life experiences and trauma and stories. It’s not just about sobriety, it’s about recovering from divorce, sexual abuse, trauma—recovery of any kind. Recovering from Reality is a place that’s inclusive and broad and allows people to be authentic and real. I call it “Reality” because reality back then for me was such a lie, and it’s like, I want to live the most authentic and genuine life that I can, now. And so I’m doing this podcast, and I’m writing a book, and I’m really hoping to become a voice for people that don’t have one. Addicts are all seen as the villains of society. 74,000 people a year are dying from addiction, it’s a public health crisis, and we need to do something about it.
I wish I got asked more about my sobriety. What the process was like and how I did it at such a young age (19). It is not an easy journey. Choosing to remove all comforts in your life to dive into the unknown and surrender in the hope of somehow gaining freedom from your past is a brutal journey. I’ve been beaten down in this process more times than I can count and somehow stayed sober through it all. I hope that by opening the dialogue around our society’s need to escape, will help other people to take a look at their relationship with things that may not be serving their highest good.
Besides the book and podcast, I like to remain open and fluid, so we’ll see what comes my way. I don’t know if I’m going to be the girl who has paparazzi waiting for her again. But I really enjoy my privacy and kids and living in suburbia.
Images: Nicole Nordstrom; char_dalessio, 333333333433333 / Twitter; itsalexishaines / Instagram (2)