Caroline Beidler - book

Former Madison resident Caroline Beidler talked about her new book, Wisconsin’s approach to recovery and advice for people struggling with substance abuse.

Caroline Beidler earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — it was also a time when she was working her way toward, and eventually through, recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. 

Almost 10 years ago, she worked with a group of women to open Connect House Sober Living Foundation in Madison. She went on to serve as director of Wisconsin Voices for Recovery and to help launch a peer-supported recovery program in Wisconsin called ED2 Recovery.

Now living in Tennessee, Beidler spoke with the Cap Times about her work in Wisconsin and her new book about trauma, addiction and recovery. She also gave advice for others looking to walk down that road.

When I first met you, almost 10 years ago, you were in Madison and you were president of the Connect House Sober Living Foundation — which had just opened. Now you’re the membership and outreach manager for the Association of Recovery in Higher Education. What does that job entail?

My own personal journey of recovery has really propelled me outward, and I'm not unique in that. I think for most of us in recovery, a part of that process is service and giving back. Early on, I had a couple of years in recovery and felt moved and called to open a women's recovery home because at that time in Madison, there was nothing of that kind for women who are college age. 

My personal and professional life is really intertwined around this issue of giving back in recovery, and building programs that are so needed. It's been really encouraging to see over the past 10 years how Wisconsin has really stepped into leadership around building recovery support services and investing in those at the state level.

What are you working on now?

I've moved into this new position with the Association of Recovery in Higher Education. I get to work with college students and staff at collegiate recovery programs across the country. For some students, that means finding alternatives to environments saturated with substance use. For other students, it’s connecting with other folks in recovery.

For Madison, being the party school or party town for years, that means having that alternative support available and letting students know that alcohol and drug use, this culture of addiction, isn't the only way of life and it's not the only way to do college. 

What are some of the most significant policy efforts or changes you've seen in Wisconsin?

I had the opportunity to work with (former state) Rep. John Nygren when he was doing the work and other folks who pushed along because of their personal connection to recovery. That's so important, that personal connection and story. When we hear other people's stories, sometimes that moves us to action. 

For the longest time people saw addiction as a moral failing. With the opioid epidemic, and now fentanyl, people have been able to recognize this is a crisis that affects everyone. When champions like Rep. Nygren and other folks came on board with policies like the Good Samaritan law and the HOPE legislation — it's been a huge success for the recovery community.

The other thing that's exciting — the ED2 Recovery program has been funded every year since we started it back in 2017. The state is putting so many needed resources into funding programs in local hospitals to be able to bring peer support or recovery coaches to walk alongside people who are struggling — recognizing that peer support is an evidence-based practice. I've heard the stories of people who have encountered recovery coaches in the emergency room who are now thriving and giving back to their communities. who are productive citizens, so it's exciting to see how Wisconsin has really embraced that recovery piece.

You recently published a book about your experiences with sexual assault, addiction and recovery. Can you tell me more about the book and what you’re hoping to accomplish with it?

It's something I've always wanted to do, and in 2020, I think a lot of us gained some perspective. Part of my gaining perspective (was writing “Downstairs Church: Finding Hope in the Grit of Addiction and Trauma Recovery.” 

We need to see women talking about recovery, but not just recovery — those issues that intersect with recovery for so many of us like trauma, like sexual violence — things that don't get talked about enough. Over 80% of women in addiction recovery, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, have experienced trauma — most often sexual trauma. So many of us have experienced that. and it’s part of the reason we fall into the addiction and substance use disorder cycle. Why aren't we talking about that? And why aren't we addressing that when we're thinking about policy and creating programs and recovery support services?

One of my ultimate aims with the book is to bring those conversations up into the light, up from the downstairs basement spaces of recovery.

We’re still just beginning to see the ways COVID has affected people’s mental health and substance use. What have you learned about that? 

I think we all have felt the change, and there is research starting to come out around post-traumatic stress (and the pandemic).

My personal addiction started after a trauma, so when we collectively experienced a trauma, it's not surprising that we're looking for coping strategies and ways we can either escape that pain or numb that pain and not address it. 

I think naming that and just acknowledging the type of traumatic situation we're living in on all sorts of levels — the more we can get out there and share about things that work (— the more that helps). Research shows that when we share our stories of recovery, stigma is reduced, and when stigma is reduced, more people reach out and access help.

You recently posed a question online asking people what they’d say to someone who isn’t sure if they’re ready for addiction treatment. What would you say?

One of my favorite responses, and I will echo this, was to meet the person where they are. When I hear that, what I also hear is, “Show up and listen”. If I look back on my own journey, that’s what's helped me the most — when people show up in a loving way and they listen. There's no judgment. Show up and listen, have compassion, have empathy. 

You moved to Tennessee a few years ago, but you lived here in Madison and understand what it’s like to be surrounded by Wisconsin’s drinking culture. What advice do you have for someone who wants to stop drinking, or even just cut back, when drinking is so ingrained in our identity?

Drinking and now even drug use, sometimes it feels so glamorized. But what I love is the cultural shift that is slowly happening, and I believe it's happening in Wisconsin — things like Dry January, sober-curious, alcohol free. Even if you aren't ready to say, “Hey, I'm all in for this recovery lifestyle,” I think coming to a place of exploring what it means to have a month where you take a break (can be helpful).

Sometimes when we strip away those things that we think we need every day — whether that’s a couple of glasses of wine, whether that's a joint, whether that's a pint of ice cream — whatever your thing is, sometimes when we take that away, that makes space and opens up room for something else to come in.

I remember when — I wasn't in recovery yet, but I was definitely sober-curious — and I started walking. I went walking in the Arboretum and I just remember looking around and noticing how green the leaves were, noticing the flowers and having this moment. I think just allowing and giving myself grace and understanding, stepping into slowly trying to experience life in a little bit of a different way, was really helpful for me. 

I would encourage that person out there who's maybe struggling with the cultural aspect or feeling like it's everywhere — it’s really not, and there are so many other ways to relax, to connect, to have fun. And there's a great, incredible sober community in Madison, and I grew up in that sober community. There's definitely those resources out there. So I would just encourage that person to trust, to look around and maybe recognize that there's a different way, there's a different path they can go on.

Jessie Opoien joined the Cap Times in 2013 and covers politics and state government as the Capitol bureau chief. She grew up in northeastern Wisconsin and prior to joining the Cap Times, covered education and local government at the Oshkosh Northwestern. You can follow her on Twitter @jessieopieSupport Jessie's work and local journalism by becoming a Cap Times memberTo comment on this story, submit a letter to the editor.