Not long ago, a young mother emboldened by the anonymity of the internet copped to her drinking problem in the comment section of a popular blog. “Yesterday I poured a dash of wine in a regular glass and topped it up with lemon soda just before picking my daughter up from school!” she wrote. “How unusual that I would find myself reading your ‘About Me’ section when I was purely looking up tips to clean my washing machine.”
The blog she was reading, , isn't a blog for recovering alcoholics per se, but its creator, Jill Nystul, started it as her passion project after completing rehab 10 years ago. Since then, she's made it her mission to let people know they're not alone.
"When I was at my lowest, I felt like the only person in world who’d done such horrible things," she says. "I was the worst mother, the worst wife. Until I got into rehab and I realized it can happen to anyone."
Reader comments like the one above aren't an anomaly. By now, Nystul is comfortable with the fact that her most engaging blog post isn't her tutorial on , or even her (a game changer, truly), . Thousands of women have responded there, saying they too have struggled with addiction of some kind, or simply expressing gratitude for Nystul's openness.
Nystul's moment of reckoning came after a Thanksgiving Eve spent binge-drinking box wine in a Holiday Inn Express parking lot. She came to the following morning in the hotel lobby, wrapped in a stranger’s coat. Even then, she couldn't bring herself to drive straight home, but instead wandered backroads rather than face the family who hadn't heard from her in 24 hours. When she finally walked through the door that night, her husband and four children were relieved, but, as she writes in her memoir , "justifiably angry."
She awoke the next morning to an empty house, with no note of explanation left behind, just a piece of paper bearing a man's name and number. She called; the person on the other end was the admissions officer for the Ark of Little Cottonwood, a substance abuse treatment center in Sandy, Utah, about an hour's drive west of her home in Heber City.
Four years earlier, Nystul, then 41, started her downward spiral innocently enough, though looking back, she says mounting problems in her personal and professional life culminated in the "perfect storm." Her marriage was struggling, there were financial issues, and she'd lost passion for her job as a talk show producer.
“I was unsatisfied with myself and looking for a better way to live,” she says. “I see it happen to other people around the same age—you’re questioning whether the choices you made when you were young were the right ones. You realize you either need to make changes or keep going down the path you’ve been on.”
Motherhood became more challenging, too, when her youngest son, then two-and-a-half years old, developed diabetes. “I had no idea what that situation would call for,” she says. “When kids are that young, you are their life support, and you’re up in the middle of the night testing blood sugar levels.”
At work, she was surrounded by young, single people who went out a lot, and the thought that she needed more of a social life became a reoccurring one. Nystul grew up in the Latter-day Saints church, which discourages members from drinking, so she never had, but when coworkers invited her out for happy hour one night, she acquiesced. This is fun, she thought. I can see how this makes life more interesting.
“I love being a wife and mother, part of my love language is taking care of my husband and kids," she says, "but everyone needs something that’s just for them."
For a while, alcohol became that thing. When she started drinking, Nystul's three sons and daughter ranged in age from 3 to 13; by time she was sober, the youngest was 7, the oldest 17. Towards the end of those years, Nystul and her husband, Dave—the man she was "head over heels in love with" when they married—separated for a few months and he moved into an apartment as she sorted through mixed emotions.
During the separation, something happened (Nystul's never said what, just that she prefers to keep it private) that triggered an intense craving for alcohol. "I distinctly remember driving home from work, feeling this pain and thinking, you know what, if I had a drink right now I wouldn’t feel the pain," she says. "When I got home I did and it was very effective, until it wasn’t."
She tried to save herself, driving to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings several times only to chicken out once she got there. On her bravest attempt, she made it to the hallway just outside the meeting room. As she sat on the floor trying to work up the courage to go in, an older gentleman stepped out of the doorway, reached down and took her hand, and led her into the meeting. "He didn't know me," Nystul recalls," but he knew there was someone out there who needed help.”
Her brother suggested she see a counselor he'd found, but on the day of the appointment, she was so buzzed she couldn't drive to the office. When her father, who'd always been her hero, found out what had happened, he called her a drunk. That's what sent Nystul on the pre-Thanksgiving bender, which turned into her greatest wakeup call.
It was Dave who found the Ark. By then, he and Nystul had begun dating each other again, and she cautiously allowed him to move back home. "I wanted a divorce but he was not having it," she says. "Now I realize that was a gift—he was able to get me the help I couldn’t get myself."
She spent 72 days in the center's residential treatment program, addressing the issues alcohol had allowed her to postpone. Her marriage, she learned, suffered from a difference in expectations. Growing up, she'd watched her father put her mother on a pedestal; as a wife, she expected the same, but Dave's parents hadn't modeled the same behavior. She also grappled with the life purpose that had evaded her so far.
She graduated from rehab on her 46th birthday, February 20, 2008. Leaving was almost as scary as going in, she says. On the way out, her counselors there were adamant about two things: first, that she attend 100 AA meetings in 100 days, and secondly, that she find her passion and pursue it. "Otherwise you'll be back where you started," they warned.
Nystul took the message to heart, and started her blog not because she wanted to make a career out of it but because she was passionate about writing. The process of sharing one good thing a day, living one day at a time, turned out to be the spark she needed. "I would stay up until 2 a.m. working on it," she says. "If you’re not passionate about something, all these other shiny surface distractions can derail you."
She's written more than 2,300 blog posts since, and she's regularly quoted by such outlets as People, the Washington Post, and Today.com for her organizational and home maintenance expertise. Her books, and the children's title Jillee Bean and The One Good Thing, have sold tens of thousands of copies. She hopes her work will comfort people their darkest times, and remind them it's never too late to find their passion.
"Trust yourself that you’ll find figure out," she says. "Women can forgive others all day long but then have a hard time forgiving themselves. Give yourself a break, be gentle, and be willing to move on."