Abby Asks ... Interview #1 Carrie Neal

Interviews with real people about their real struggles and how they’re making a real difference.

Carrie Neal is now in recovery and helping those who might be struggling with alcohol and substance abuse in the food and beverage industry through a group called Ben’s Friends. Ben’s Friends describes itself as a food and beverage industry support group offering hope, fellowship, and a path forward to professionals who struggle with substance abuse and addiction. As a therapist who sees clients struggling with alcohol abuse, I wanted to talk with her about her personal experience and how she hopes to help others.

Carrie Neal and I have known each other since we were in elementary school. She was a very smart and spunky little kid with freckles and chopped dirty blonde hair. I have a VHS tape of us singing in a Turtles record booth “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for my 9 year-old birthday party. She was the first one to show me how you could melt the wax from candy coke bottles and mold them around your teeth. Memories of the kids you went to elementary school with can stick with you your whole life. That’s how it was with Carrie Neal. Frozen in time from 1985.

As it is with so many people in this day and age - we reconnected via Facebook as adults. Reading her posts gave me the sense that she had been through some heavy stuff – and was doing really well now. I wanted to know more – so after 30 years we met up on a Thursday morning at Starbucks.

Carrie Neal [CN] I started working in the restaurant world and as my drinking escalated - that was a very easy place to be. The restaurants I worked for… it ranged from you can’t drink at work but the manager will buy shots for everyone to you can drink openly at work to as long as you aren’t too high to do your job it’s ok. By the end of it I was some degree of drunk every hour that I was at work. When I quit, February 21st (2016), I knew I was an alcoholic – I had just wanted to keep drinking.  I suffered so many physical consequences, lost relationships – destruction.  I could tell you stories and you’d be like “how are you sitting here having coffee with me?”

Abby Marateck [AM] I remember you were on Facebook and then you kind of disappeared.

CN: I went to Chattanooga for a year which theoretically was to get sober but I didn’t want to get sober. So I went and got myself promptly asked to leave by the place that my parents had found for me … The great thing about me in my sober life is that I’m incredibly resourceful so I will figure out a way to live and thrive and that’s a super great tool in sobriety, but it made me sneaky and manipulative and able to get my way while drinking.  I wanted to keep drinking and have whatever kind of life I wanted to have without any consequences. Which is part of the insanity of alcoholism.

AM: It’s almost as if you’re describing 2 different people.

CN: Very much so. During the last 6 months of my drinking I knew that there was an end coming. I was so sick, I was pretty much not eating, I was living on vodka and working as a server…but I knew in my gut that something was going to change. I was going to die or I was going to quit. I fell one day at work and hit the edge of another table. I didn’t break my ribs, but I badly bruised them. I didn’t want to go the worker’s comp route because I had been drinking so I just went to my regular doctor. I had been told to alternate heat and cold for my ribs, and I fell asleep with the heating pad on extra hot – passed out – and woke up with blisters down my side. I went back to the doctor, and for whatever reason that day – she said, "You’re going to the liver doctor right now."

I saw (the liver doctor) and got the shit talking to of my life. He said, “Wow Carrie Neal…Westminister, UVA, great career…what the hell are you doing with your life?”  And I didn’t have an answer…as I sat there, half drunk, with a half full bottle of vodka in my purse that I was terrified was gonna bang into the examining table. He said “I’m 64 years old and I can see exactly what’s going on here – and if you don’t want to live I’m not gonna fool around with you. Or… I can help you – run the tests we need and figure out where you are. But you have to decide if you are going to quit drinking.” So I left – and I finished that bottle of vodka over the next 2 days and I quit.  He said I had a year to 18 months to live at the rate I was going. I love [that doctor] – I write him a thank you note and give him a picture every six months.

AM: What was it like after you quit?

CN: For the first 5 or 6 weeks I was just coming back to life. My to-do lists – they didn’t look like these days.  They were like #1 take a shower #2 eat twice #3 make the bed.  That’s how basic. You might be aware of something called PAWS (post acute withdrawal syndrome)…which is a cluster of symptoms. I went through dry heaving, shakes I couldn’t control, I had to eat really small bites, being able to take my medicines again because I would wretch so badly, and seizures.  I think of it as the alcohol leaving my body from head to toe rolled through everything.

My doctors had found a really nice bed at an expensive place and my parents said “no – we’re done.  AA or nothing.” So there I was.  They say when you’re first in recovery you should do 90 meetings in 90 days. So I think I went to 82 meetings in 90 days. And I started to see alcohol had totally affected everything. My brain began to clear as I sat in those rooms and began to stop fighting, to listen, and started working the steps with a sponsor.

Moderation in my opinion doesn’t work if you’re an alcoholic…not permanently.  It can work for a certain amount of time. You know I wouldn’t spontaneously combust if I went and had some wine down at the Houston’s where I used to go all the time. But very quickly I would be back to my handle of vodka a day habit and I’d be done.

AM: Does it scare you?

CN: No – because I’ve fully committed to the AA program and my problem has been removed. I work really hard at it. It’s my life.

AM: For a lot of my clients – they don’t want to do AA.  I mean some people don’t believe in God.

CN: The God thing so to speak is something that a lot of people throw out as a deterrent. See, I had an easy time with this because I believed in God – I had just gone so far away from Him that I was like “see ya.”  AA was my last resort. I had railed against it for 3 years – for no real good reason other than I didn’t want to quit drinking. My dad came to me and said “Carrie Neal – it may not be the be all end all but I know a whole lot of people it’s worked for.” As far as the God thing – I’ve heard a lot of atheists in the rooms say, “I’ve never quite set myself straight with that.”  And it does say terms like God because it was a book written in the 1940s… and the text hasn’t changed much.  So you have white men that are the subject matter like a lot of other books and materials from that time.  For me – it’s an easy enough meaning to translate that into the modern world. If it were written now it would have had men and women and gays for example and it would have been written differently…but what it does say is that you do believe in something bigger than yourself. Some people call God a “Group Of Drunks and that’s their higher power. The key part is that an alcoholic cannot recover alone, so finding external support, both human and spiritual is critical.

AM: It seems like when I’m working with people who struggle with alcohol much of their success comes from their decision…it has to come from them.

CN: Absolutely. I couldn’t do it for my parents or anyone else deathly worried about me. My mom and dad cried, threatened, cajoled – everything. People back in the later part of my sales career days, concerned friends, my precious Godparents...nobody. I had to do it for me.

AM: I think that’s one of the hardest parts for me being a mental health professional is that so much of this is on the impetus of the person. But sometimes a person isn’t ready and so it’s my job to be the companion on the journey. What would you say to someone who is struggling right now? Maybe they’ve dipped a toe in and it’s really scary.

CN: This is where I can talk about Ben’s Friends – everybody is welcome!  Wherever you are in your process: if you’ve quit, if you’re in AA, if you think AA is the worst thing or useless, if you’re just starting – people are making comments that you drink too much, if you’re still drinking – we welcome you.

AM: Do you have to be involved in the restaurant industry?

CN: That’s the focus is that it’s an industry thing – but it’s very open. I would say – come, listen, and see what you connect with.  One of the things I was told early on is look for similarities – not differences. Your mind is still “drinking” at the beginning. Alcoholics are rebellious people. We balk at the very things that can lead us to recovery. Early on, I was told to pick what you want and leave the rest. Look for the people who make sense to you. You said it – you have to choose what to do.

I chose a very uncertain future over a certain death by drinking and I didn’t want to be dead at 40 and a half.

Ben’s Friends is very open - unlike AA, which has a sole purpose to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.  Both alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases it seeks to address. And we have many resources to connect people to – we are a conduit. I have a flyer and anyone can contact me and ask for more information. Our Facebook page and Instagram are managed by me, and multiple avenues of “seeing” what Ben’s Friends is about are out there for anyone to see. This is my calling.

AM: I’m so proud of you!  I have the utmost respect for you making it through this and working so hard every day. You have so much clarity. That’s what I’m really struck with is how clear things seem for you.

CN: I once told Cliff (fiancé) on our first lunch date – “Everything is better sober.”  He said, “I didn’t quite believe you, but I wanted to know more.”

So if you – reader – would like to know more please see the following links for more information.  Today might be the day that you decide to make a change.


Abigail Marateck