Thursday, May 3, 2018

Interview with writer Renee Hodges

Writer Renee Hodges joins me today to talk about her memoir, Saving Bobby: Heroes and Heroin in One Small Community.

Although her Louisiana roots run deep, Renée Hodges and her husband have called North Carolina home for the past thirty years. Always up for a new challenge, Renée has run a campaign for a candidate for the Texas State House, worked at a ski resort, was the registration chair for a presidential campaign in NYC and she co-wrote and self-published in four states the Best Kept Secrets series of guide-books for home services, a prelude to Angie’s List, in the 1980’s. Settling into motherhood and raising a family, however, has been her most satisfying work, and today she is a wife, mother of three, writer, investor, community volunteer, and avid tennis player. She is also proud to be a Shatterproof ambassador.

Welcome, Renee. Please tell us a little bit about your book.
It’s difficult to pick up a magazine, newspaper or tune into television without hearing about the opioid epidemic. Saving Bobby is about the hurdles recovering addicts face when assimilating back into society – which is an extremely vulnerable period of recovery – and is aimed at caregivers or just about anyone who wants to help someone in recovery. But unlike most books on addiction, this one is extremely personal, as its told from my point of view, an aunt who was on a mission to save her nephew. It also emphasizes the long path that leads to recovery and the community resources that are essential if you want to move forward.

Bobby was twenty-eight years old and mired in an endless cycle of rehab, release, recover and repeat when he came to stay with me and my husband. One of the biggest hurdles for a newly released addict is the shame they carry and the stigma attached by society of being an opioid/ heroin user, the lowest of the low. Bobby’s story illustrates how a loving community can lessen the shame and stigma of addiction.

Addiction is a brain disease, not a parenting problem or character defect and when Bobby and I chose to open up, what we found was a community who also chose to help Bobby in his fight for sobriety and sustained recovery. The mutual love and deep respect between Bobby and his community helped Bobby consider what it would look like if he decided to save himself.

Excerpt from Saving Bobby:
Reaching out to my friends had been an easy decision. In fact, I never really questioned it. I simply decided to be open and honest about Bobby’s disease from the very beginning. There was no hiding under a bushel, no secrets, no denial—from any of us.

When Bobby arrived in Durham, I was ready to join his fight, but intuitively I knew I couldn’t go it alone. I couldn’t deny or avoid what was happening in our household and in our lives. I couldn’t pretend that he was healthy and just visiting his aunt and uncle to get a fresh start in a new town. I wasn’t going to have the burden of lying to myself, and I sure wasn’t going to lie to my friends and family. Anyway, what would have been the point of that? Bobby had a disease and he needed everyone’s support, love, and understanding—not the devastating impact of silence or the hurtful and sad avoidance of cover-up. Lying, manipulation, spinning, evasion, and deception are already a part of the addictive process. I didn’t want it to be a part of the recovery process too.

Although I can now see what a powerful choice openness was and what a difference it made not only in his recovery but in my ability to support him, back then, it really wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened. I enlisted the aid of my family and friends, opening up to them and seeking their advice. They, in turn, kept him accountable and watched his back. I trusted a professional to guide me when I wavered or questioned. From the very beginning, I leaned on others, trusting that sharing this monumental situation would be the right thing to do. I opened the door wide and invited every- one into our lives and it was wonderful. We were lessening the shame and we were giving him a support system. These friends and family members, as well as professionals, provided us with everything from an encouraging word to the promise of accountability.

And because we were open and vulnerable, the most amazing thing happened, an unexpected bonus. Others started to unburden and disclose, sharing their hidden stories. People I had known for years shared stories I had never suspected. In the store or on my cell phone I could hear the relief in their voices as many opened their memory hamper, and shared their addiction secrets with me, for maybe the very first time.

Why did I become a confidant? I believe it is because others saw us refuse to attach shame to our situation, and then witnessed the liberation and healthy outlook that came with being open and vulnerable. They saw someone to whom they could relate, someone in whom they could confide without fear of judgment. And it felt good to open up, to feel less alone and share their own stories with someone who had empathy and a willing ear.

This emboldened me. Every time someone stopped to ask how they could help us, I felt stronger. When friends called to tell me about their child’s struggles with OxyContin, or other legal opioids—or heroin—I felt less alone. I also became more and more frustrated with the knowledge that prescription opioids and their addictive qualities are destroying so many real people, not just people in another state or city or another part of town. I’m talking about people here in my own neighborhood—a gated affluent neighborhood, where we all wave to each other on the street.

Why didn’t I know this? Why hadn’t I seen this? Where had I been? Having Bobby in my home made me an automatic member of a private club—and only now could I share stories of another’s addicted family member or friend.

When someone finally decides to seek treatment, only then does he understand that addiction, like a tattoo, always leaves a permanent scar. This is the mark of shame—the disfiguring of the whole family indelibly inked by a misunderstood disease.

I saw the shame in some of their eyes, the deep sadness and resignation as they confessed their terrible secrets. I heard the fear and the weariness in their voices. They all just needed someone who might understand and who would listen without judgment.

As more and more people told me their brave and sad stories, I realized we are all in this together. As I say too often, it takes a village. We had helped create this small and strong village by telling our story and allowing others to tell theirs. Addiction is a disease and it cannot be hidden away like a colony of lepers on an isolated island, shameful and out of sight. We all must take heroin and opioid addiction out of the closet, bring it out in the open, and fight it together— head-on. This is the only way we are going to help our most precious possessions—our loved ones.

Saving Bobby is a valuable tool for caregivers and family, as well as being a heck of a good romance. We treated Bobby holistically, mind, body and soul. We used structure and discipline, but always in positive way and loving way. And, we were honest. Secrets make you sick, my friends.

What exciting story are you working on next?
Bobby and I have plans to write a self-help book detailing useful tools for caregivers which will include ways to help lessen the addict and the family shame. Bobby will write from his perspective on ways an addict can lessen their own shame and begin re-claiming their life, after short, long, or multiple stints in a rehab center.

Bobby and I are writing from first-hand knowledge, adding bits of advice coupled with inspiring stories. One story I love is when Bobby found me in the kitchen and said: “Aunt Nee, Mrs. Wollman asked me to walk her dog.” I replied with my back to him, “That’s nice.” I didn’t think anything of it. His voice rose, “No, you don’t understand. She asked me to walk her dog.” I began to hear there was emotion under this statement. I slowly turned around to a face that was beaming with pride. He continued, “No one has trusted me to do anything for seven years, ever since I became an addict. She trusts me to walk her dog. Aunt Nee, she trusts me with her dog.”

I tear up every time I think of this story. What a revelation of how little it takes to show someone in recovery that we believe in them. Bobby was not going to let Mrs. Wollman down.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
The day the advanced reading copies of Saving Bobby arrived on my doorstep was the day I began believing that I was a writer. I knew I had a story to tell but writing for my nephew is very different from writing for public consumption. It took only a summer to write Bobby’s story. I did not write consecutive chapters, but rather jumped around writing vignettes and stories, sometimes writing a last chapter before writing one that happened a year earlier. I referenced emails, texts, journal entries and blended them with personal recollections. The result is wonderful, letting the reader feel as if they are side by side with me on Bobby’s journey to long-term recovery.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I am always thinking of what I would write if I had the time to write full-time but publicizing and marketing a book is like having a full-time job. As I find I am not a great organizer of my time, I have had to set my alarm clock very early to find the time to write. It annoys me when the birds start chirping as I know that they have gotten more sleep! After a few cups of strong Louisiana coffee, my mood always brightens and I always accomplish more in this early morning period than if I had planned to write all day long.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I like to write listening to music with my headphones on. I will change songs depending on what emotion or mood I am writing at the moment.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a CIA spy helping America in the Cold War. I studied for a winter break semester in Odessa, Leningrad, and Moscow and was captivated by Russian history, literature, and politics. The Berlin Wall fell, so I took up tennis.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Here are my last words on writing Saving Bobby. I truly believe it takes a village and we are all in this together. They are clichés because they are true. Saving Bobby will appeal to memoir readers, caregivers, and those in recovery and I am hoping that it will start a conversation, if not a movement, to take the shame and stigma out of the disease of addiction. Hope Lives! And, that is not cliché.

Spoiler alert: Bobby went on to get his Master’s of Social Work, graduating in the top of his class, and is counseling others with addiction at a rehabilitation center in Louisiana. He is working toward becoming a Licensed Therapist.


Thanks for being here today, Renee!

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