Healing from Trauma and Addiction: A Conversation with "Blackout Girl"

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
ID 402, Latin woman from Bogota Colombia between 30 and 34 years old, very bored and sad leaning on the window of her house looking away from so much time of isolation

At age 12, Jennifer Storm was raped after drinking beer and passing out. Alcohol and drugs then became Storm's escape route from feelings of fear, shame and anger over the assault. She got sober at age 22, but recovery from sexual violence would be a longer haul. Storm's best-selling memoir, Blackout Girl, serves as a survivor's guide to healing from addiction and trauma. Listen in as she talks with host William C. Moyers about her recovery and how trauma-informed care can help other survivors.

A friend introduced me to alcohol when I was 12 years old and I had my first beer, which literally led to ten beers.

Jennifer Storm

0:00:12 William Moyers
[to camera]
She calls herself "blackout girl." But author Jennifer Storm remembers enough about her times under the influence to fill the pages of her memoir with the details of what it means to become addicted to alcohol and other drugs before she turned 12 years old. And she's with us today to share her story in a context meant to help others in these troubling times. Welcome to Let's Talk, a series of podcasts brought to you by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. I'm your host, William C. Moyers, and in each podcast, I sit down with an expert to discuss the issues that are at the essence of Hazelden Betty Ford's mission. From prevention of substance use and cutting-edge research, to treatment, recovery support, and how technology is increasingly becoming a force of hope, health, and healing for people, families, and communities overcoming addiction.

0:01:01 William Moyers
We are recording this podcast in the midst of a pandemic of coronavirus. And this requires us to take precautions here in the studio. Which means that our guest, Jennifer Storm, and I are in separate rooms. But our focus is the same today. Addiction and recovery in the time of a pandemic. Jennifer Storm is the author of Blackout Girl. It is a memoir published by Hazelden in 2011. And it's about to have its second printing. Read the book and you won't doubt the power of addiction in the day-to-day life of a young woman. The subtle persuasion of alcohol, the pervasive violent consequences of one drink too many, and the sheer luck—some might call it grace—to survive it all. Jennifer Storm, welcome to Let's Talk.

0:01:47 Jennifer Storm
Thank you so much for having me.

0:01:48 William Moyers
You know, one of the dynamics of our mission at Hazelden Betty Ford is that we publish books and we published your book in 2011. It's done very, very well, in fact it's about to have its second printing. What does that mean to have a second printing of a book?

0:02:03 Jennifer Storm
It's such an honor, truly. To not have the story come out once and reach an audience but for it to have a whole new audience to touch. It's a wonderful experience. It feels more relevant today than actually when I did publish it unfortunately. Just because of what we're seeing with sexual violence and addiction. It's still dominating the headlines. It's dominating the headlines more than it ever has. So it feels really timely. And on the heels of the MeToo movement I know there are a lot of people that are suffering in silence. And so, my goal is to get to those people.

0:02:37 William Moyers
And we'll come back to that in a couple minutes. Let's go back into your own life for people who haven't read your book or know the story. Tell us a little bit about your introduction to alcohol and what happened as a result.

0:02:50 Jennifer Storm
So I came from a mother and a father who both came from very abusive alcoholic homes. And they kinda found themselves in high school and really vowed to get away from that. And so, they married young, my father went off to Vietnam, when he returned my mother started having us children. So I'm one of three, I'm the youngest. And they did their best to keep us away from all of those family members that were heavily addicted at the time. They had their own demons and of course their own traumas that they never, you know, dealt with. And for the most part though they did a really great job trying to raise us. I really was only exposed to alcohol when my parents would have it at family gatherings. And then a friend introduced me to alcohol when I was twelve years old and I had my first beer. Which literally led to ten beers. And I drank alcoholically the first time I picked up a drink. And I write in the book that I—I'd never felt that thirsty before in my life. And I blacked out that night and subsequently came to while being raped. And so I had this horrific introduction to alcohol this very addictive introduction to alcohol. And yet it was the first thing I turned to to deal with the trauma of that incident.

0:04:01 William Moyers
When you were sexually assaulted, was that your bottom, as it related to alcohol?

0:04:07 Jennifer Storm
It was the start, actually. So, it's what really propelled me into continuing to drink. Because I had all this shame and this guilt and this anger and rage that I didn't know what to do with it. And I was young. And my parents coming from their own alcoholic abusive homes didn't have the coping mechanisms to deal with their own stuff, let alone now watching their daughter go through this terrific trauma. So I just started drinking. You know? And this was in the 80s so alcohol was in everyone's homes we all had the, you know, the liquor cabinet. And so it was really easy for me to access. What happened to me led to the breakdown really of my parents' marriage. And so, the supervision in our home started to deteriorate. My parents divorced by the time I was fifteen. And so, I was kind of left to my own devices as were my older brothers. And I drank alcoholically. And that gave way to starting to use pills. I would do anything to numb the pain I was having. And so, if it meant alcohol, it meant pills, it meant marijuana, that led me to LSD which then quickly led me to cocaine. But everything—every single time I drank, the result was always the same. I drank, I drank to excess, I blacked out. And so, the introduction of cocaine when I was around 15 and 16 helped kind of "sober me up" if you will. [uses air quotes] I always say that in parentheses because it would keep me from blacking out. It would allow me to retain control. Because when I was putting myself in situations where I was blacking out, of course then I was vulnerable to more violence and more abuse. And I didn't want that. So, the cocaine and the alcohol then became this really damaging, codependent relationship. And addiction.

0:05:44 William Moyers
And how long did that codependent relationship "work" [uses air quotes] before you had your bottom?

0:05:52 Jennifer Storm
So I eventually I tried to—turned to crack cocaine at age 17. And I had my bottom at age 22. And I—it was brutal and I attempted to take my life. I didn't have any hope. I was completely destitute. I didn't see a way out of my addiction. I couldn't go a day without being high and being completely out of my mind. And that got to a point where it felt so unmanageable that I wanted out. And I didn't—like I said, I didn't have any hope. So I tried to kill myself. And by some measure of grace, I am here today. And I—I woke up in a hospital bed the next day and I—I had sliced my wrists pretty severely. To the extent that one was bandaged to hold it together I had done so much damage. And it was a miracle. And the doctor looked at me and said, 'It's a miracle that you're alive.' And I was in the Psych Ward, you know, because that's where they put you. It was 1997. And an intake officer came in and kinda started going through the questions and she looked at me and said you—you're an alcoholic and you're a drug addict. Do you want treatment for that? Because you—you shouldn't be here. Do you wanna go to rehab? And I said yes. It was the first time I had made the admission that my solution was actually my problem.

0:07:06 William Moyers
And then you got treatment?

0:07:07 Jennifer Storm
I did. I went to a traditional 28-day treatment facility in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. By all accounts a great facility. They didn't—they weren't trauma-informed, which—that's the term that I would come later to understand and really appreciate. But they didn't take into consideration the underlying trauma that I had dealt with. It was solely Twelve Steps, addiction recovery, we're not gonna deal with these outside issues right now. You're here to get clean and sober. And that worked for me. My first night in rehab a woman came in to share her experience, strength, and hope much like, you know, I do now. And she had said something that profoundly impacted me. And she said that her secrets kept her sick. And that has been my mantra since that day in that rehab. And it told me that all this stuff that I was running from, all these bad things that had happened to me and these pains and these traumas, these were the causation. These were the reasons. And I needed to deal with these if I really wanted to be clean and sober for the rest of my life. And so I did that work on my own.

0:08:09 William Moyers
The trauma work?

0:08:09 Jennifer Storm
I did, yes. Mmm-hmm.

0:08:12 William Moyers
At which point did you decide that your story was worth telling in a memoir?

0:08:20 Jennifer Storm
You know, I started writing that night in rehab. Writing has always been a source of empowerment and healing for me. Even after the rape I have a book of poems that I wrote. I would stay up all night, I now know that that's post-traumatic stress disorder. I couldn't sleep, I had insomnia, I had irrational fears. And so I would write and that would calm me. And so, because I couldn't talk about my trauma in the traditional treatment facility, I wrote about it. And I kept writing and then I did my fourth step and I kept writing and I kept writing. And you know I was an avid reader at the time and that's really when memoir was starting to come into play. And I wasn't finding my story anywhere. And so I thought, well, I have a good story, maybe I'll—maybe I'll submit it. And I was a big fan of Melody Beattie's. And so, I just happened—I had like twelve of her books. [chuckles] So I happened to look in the book and see well, they're published by this amazing place called Hazelden. And so I reached out to Hazelden and sure enough, they were interested. And it was—it was an incredible experience.

0:09:21 William Moyers
What would you say to people who read the book and say well come on, how could you know about all these things that happened to you, you're the blackout girl! You can't remember them!

0:09:29 Jennifer Storm
[laughs] Yeah. So certainly and I admit this in the book, not—you're not gonna read heavy dialogue in my earlier years, right? [laughs, holds up book] There are fragments. And what we know about trauma and what we know about blackout drinking is that they're like old movies that are missing slides, right? So you have bits and pieces that can help shape your overall narrative. I know exactly how I felt during all those times. In reconstruction with my family and talking about events, I was able to put pieces together. Pulling court dockets helped obviously to see. 'Cause when I was 12 years old and I was raped, my parents kept me away so if there—the offender was apprehended and I testified at the prelim, but then my parents kept me away from it. So I didn't even know like what he was charged with, how much time he served. I didn't know that until I published the book. Because I wanted to make sure it was factual. And I pulled that information. So, so yeah, you won't read a lot of dialogue and things of that nature, but you'll experience what I felt like. And what I went through. Yeah.

0:10:33 William Moyers
When the book came out in 2011, the first edition of Blackout Girl, what was the response?

0:10:39 Jennifer Storm
It was overwhelming. It really was—I had two separate audiences. I knew I was writing the book for other young girls. That was my kind of in my mind, this is my target. And I got that population significantly. It was right when social media was starting to kind of come out so Myspace was really big. And I started getting all these messages. And I started publicly speaking. And I have never publicly spoken where I haven't had somebody come up and disclose their own experience that they've never told anyone. And then I had this population of parents that I didn't expect. And they just thanked me for giving them a lens with which to see their own child. And a way to kind of understand and maybe respond better or differently to their own child. And that was really exciting and profound for me.

0:11:28 William Moyers
Do you ever feel the pressure though that you get from people who reach out to you and ask for help? I mean that never stops!

0:11:34 Jennifer Storm
It doesn't And you definitely have to learn how to set boundaries. I'm not a therapist although I'm a victim advocate so I do a lot of that work in my field. So it's really about setting boundaries. I mean I would have individuals reaching out to me sometimes at their bottoms. I mean, I had a fan reach out to me and she identified as a fan, 'cause she would—she came to several book signings she was this amazing young woman. And she reached out to me one night and she was in the middle of trying to take her own life. And I'll never forget the enormous anxiety and pressure that I felt. And I was able to find the police department in her town and get them to her home. And ultimately, helped her get into treatment. But I would get messages like that all the time. Where I couldn't then get a response or I didn't know them well enough to identify where they were from. And so, it was a lot of pressure and you know, I just had to always know that by the grace of God, there go I and I can give the seeds that I can give and then I've gotta just have faith that they're gonna take root in that person's life. That I can't—I can't be the fixer.

0:12:35 William Moyers
Not only did you find your vocation or your voice in the book, but you have found it through your public advocacy work. Tell us about that.

0:12:43 Jennifer Storm
Yes. So I didn't know what Victim Services was—I didn't know that victims had rights. My parents really shielded me from that experience. And so, when I started to learn about the criminal justice system and I went to college, I went to Penn State, and then I went on to get my Master's, I got very heavily involved in Victim Services. And so I ran a nonprofit organization that provided direct service to victims. Predominantly I was doing homicide response. And in my—in the first iteration of Blackout Girl, I opened it with a death notification. 'Cause I used to do those all the time. And it was never lost on me that that could have been my parents receiving that knock at the door. Because I was always going into the worst of the worst neighborhoods and buying crack at all hours of the night. And, you know, could have easily been shot and killed. And so, I was very passionate about the work. And I continued to do that. I now serve as the Victim Advocate for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And have walked a lot of survivors through the criminal justice and the juvenile justice system. So that they're not alone. That's my mission is to make sure that victims know that they're not alone, they don't have to go through this alone.

0:13:50 William Moyers
Not only has your book made a tremendous impact on thousands and thousands of people but it has stayed in print. And now there's going to be a second printing which is unusual for a memoir, particularly you know one where these things can be a dime a dozen in a lot of ways. It's a powerful book. What's gonna be different about the second edition?

0:14:11 Jennifer Storm
I think what helped me over the eleven years since the publication in the public speaking I started doing and then the victim advocacy work that I was doing, I started to learn that really the foundation of my recovery was dealing with my trauma. Was dealing with that wound. I call it putting a band-aid over a bullet wound, right? And so I wanted to bring the book back in story form obviously because that's what speaks to people. And when you can walk through someone else's shoes and spend a day in their lives, it really helps impact. But I wanted to then layer on the importance of dealing with that trauma. And how recovery is possible. And—and not just recovery but like amazing life! There's so much life to be lived. And there's so many opportunities for people who would otherwise be at their worst of their worst thinking like I did at 22 that I should rather die than live. And so, I want that message to get out. And I wanna give survivors the tools that I was so freely given. Because they don't happen in treatment facilities even today. Our treatment facilities aren't digging down into those wounds. They're not really applying a lot of trauma-informed care to addiction treatment. And so, a lot of folks are going into a quick 28-day stay or they're going into a quick detox stay. And then they're getting shot back out into the world. And they're not getting that trauma help. And so, my concern is we're not dealing with the causation. We're just dealing with—with the aftermath.

0:15:41 William Moyers
How is your story, how is your book, relevant to these unprecedented times?

0:15:49 Jennifer Storm
These are hard times, right? We're seeing things that we've never seen before. We're dealing with things we've never dealt with before. People are being sheltered in place. And so recovery—access to our normal coping mechanisms has been limited. And creatively changed and adapted, right? So we learn to adapt and change. I think it's relevant because I think people are seeking resources now more than ever. We're all experiencing some sort of mental health issue as a result of the Shelter in Place. From whether it's mild depression to significant addictive behaviors, you know, to all-out you know significant mental health issues. And so I think resources like this that are easily accessible, that you can download onto an iPad, that you can quickly order from a bookseller, that can give you hope. That can help you feel like there is an opportunity to survive. I think now more than ever, we need hope.

0:16:44 William Moyers
Hope. Hope in the midst of a pandemic, hope in the midst of all the civic strife we're feeling, hope in the midst of economic challenges. And what about hope for survivors of the MeToo movement?

0:16:59 Jennifer Storm
MeToo has been such a—so it came you know in 2016, it kind of came up and it was this most liberating, amazing place for survivors. Both men and women. Because we know that sexual violence impacts all genders. And so it started as this incredible roar. And then what we didn't talk about were all these wounds that we just opened. Right? We were hearing from survivor after survivor after survivor who were coming forward. After decades of having been abused and having never spoken about it. And they would get a five-minute blip on the news and then we stopped talking about it. And we didn't talk about the healing part. And now we're starting to see MeToo almost as being polarized, you know. It's being weaponized sometimes. And so, there's the little bit of a backlash for these survivors. And 99 percent of whom are coming forward in truth and seeking resolution and justice, but again, we're not talking about the healing aspect of it. And so I think this is the time that we start talking about how do we heal from this individually and then collectively as a society.

0:18:06 William Moyers
Jennifer, what do you think about Twelve Step programs and their ability to help people overcome not just substance use issues but in your case, trauma, PTSD, and those mental health problems that tend to go along with alcohol and other drug use?

0:18:25 Jennifer Storm
Well I'm—my first thought is I think Twelve Steps saved my life. 'Cause they did. You know, I found great comfort and community in the rooms of Twelve Step meetings. I found great comfort in the text. And I was able to sort through a lot of stuff. And really get to know myself. I've always been a big believer though that Twelve Steps probably aren't enough for some challenges. And I couldn't talk about being a rape survivor in a Twelve Step meeting. Because it was an outside issue. It wasn't—it wasn't what the program is built to deal with. And so, I had to find other places. And so I—I used to always say this in rooms actually. If you have to stand in a corner, you know, for 20 minutes in a headstand and that keeps you sober for that day, then do that. Find the things that help keep you clean and sober. And for me, Twelve Steps were a foundational part of that. And then therapy was introduced, journaling, mediation, cycling, you know. I have all these mind/body/spirit things that I do that treat me as a whole person. And so, I utilize all of those now today in my overall recovery.

0:19:31 William Moyers
What do you hope is the impact, the result, of this newest edition of your book? With people who read it or with the community at large?

0:19:43 Jennifer Storm
Well I hope it reaches a whole new community of survivors who may otherwise feel that their story isn't out there. That first and foremost I think is so important. And then I hope it starts a dialogue. About the need to couple Twelve Step addiction treatment with healing and trauma. That they go hand in hand. You know research used to say you can only deal with this—you can only deal with the addiction because the trauma could be a relapse indicator, right? And that was the science we had back then. Now we know differently. We know better. We know that actually, healing the trauma helps aid in the recovery of the person. And that's the message that I wanna continue and I wanna create more dialogue. And I wanna create safe spaces for survivors to be able to talk about that and find healing. Because it's possible. It's so possible.

0:20:31 William Moyers
Last question before we close. These podcasts that we've been doing now for about two years, they reach a remarkable audience. And they reach a professional audience, they reach an audience of people in recovery, but what we've discovered is they also reach people who are deeply in trouble, are deeply struggling, and are too ashamed to ask for help or to go get it through a traditional means. These podcasts are available, you know, online. Through Hazelden Betty Ford. And other outlets. So there are gonna be people who are watching you wishing they were you today, but they're not you today they're what you used to be. They're desperate. They need help. They have no hope. What's your message for them, Jennifer?

0:21:16 Jennifer Storm
I was them. You know? Shame was the shackle that kept me in the hole of addiction. That kept me in my darkest of places. But a young person came into a recovery setting that I was in and she told my story. And I got hope from her. And I had to do the footwork, right? You can't just listen to a Ted Talk or listen to a podcast and then, poof, you're cured! [grins] But if you can find someone that can give you the inspiration and show you what can be, I hope that I can show them what can be. That I'm—I'm not unique. This is possible for every single human being out there. It takes work. And it takes support. And I can be a part of that support network to the extent that I can through my writing. And I just wanna let them know that there is hope.

0:22:01 William Moyers
There is hope—

0:22:02 Jennifer Storm
There is hope.

0:22:02 William Moyers
—And it's not too late.

0:22:03 Jennifer Storm
No. It's never too late. It doesn't matter.

0:22:04 William Moyers
Reach out. Reach out. Thank you for all you've done for the community of recovery, for women and men, anybody who's survived a sexual trauma assault and those who struggle with substance use disorders and mental health issues. When will your book be available? Here it is. [holds book up]

0:22:24 Jennifer Storm
This will be out in August.

0:22:26 William Moyers

0:22:26 Jennifer Storm
Yes. And I—I just wanna thank you too. It's an honor to meet you in person, sort of.

0:22:30 William Moyers
Oh! [smiles]

0:22:30 Jennifer Storm
You know, I've read your book and you've changed lives. And the work that you do on a daily basis for this community is incredible. So thank you for continuing to show up and be a pillar of support and hope, too.

0:22:42 William Moyers
Well, you're welcome, maybe one day you can interview me! [smiles, chuckles]

0:22:44 Jennifer Storm
[laughs] There you go!

0:22:46 William Moyers
Jennifer, your book will be out and I've gotta just ask you this question. How are you gonna do—you know, unusually when we write books and since you brought mine up I can mention this to you, or bring it in the interest of full disclosure yes I do write books. But you know, book readings and going to bookstores and doing all those things are so such a great part of it, how are you gonna—how are you gonna get this word out other than like this?

0:23:08 Jennifer Storm
I think you know a lot of Zooms. [chuckles]

0:23:10 William Moyers
Yeah, yeah.

0:23:11 Jennifer Storm
I'm starting to see publishers like small independent bookstores are doing them. Barnes & Noble's are doing them. So, it's gonna be getting creative and offering Zoom readings. And Zoom talks. That's my favorite part though is connecting with readers. That's at the heart of our work.

0:23:26 William Moyers

0:23:26 Jennifer Storm
So, I'll—I'll figure out a way to get into people's living rooms. [chuckles]

0:23:30 William Moyers
Well, and Hazelden betty Ford will figure it out too 'cause we're very good at marketing what's worth marketing and this book is worth marketing. [holds up book again]

0:23:36 Jennifer Storm
Thank you.

0:23:36 William Moyers
Thank you, Jennifer Storm, for being with us today.

0:23:38 Jennifer Storm
Thank you.

0:23:39 William Moyers
And thanks to all of you for tuning in. Be sure to keep coming back for more in our series of Let's Talk podcasts. On behalf of our Executive Producer, Lisa Stangl, and the great production crew at Blue Moon, we urge you to please stay safe and stay healthy in these times. As always.

If you are a sexual assault survivor who is also on a recovery journey, and you are interested in helping others by sharing a part of your story, learn more about Hazelden Publishing's new book How We Heal. Your experience, strength and hope could become part of this new daily meditation book that will help countless others find help and healing.

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