In This Episode
Alcohol consumption increased 23% during the pandemic, particularly among women and those who live alone. People are cut off from their support systems, and many have lost their income. Without social and financial resources, staying in recovery is hard and entering it can be even harder. This week, we have two stories about recovery. First, we have Odette. Odette is part of an online recovery group called Cafe RE, and over the course of the pandemic, became the host of its podcast and the face (and voice) of the community. She talks about her religious upbringing and spiritual practice, where we find strength, and misconceptions about recovery. Then we have Quianna. Quianna’s road to recovery has been long, and credits her success to finding god on her journey.
If you’re curious about sobriety, here are some resources that might help:
Join Odette and Cafe RE
Looking to moderate? SMART Recovery might be for you
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24 hour hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Odette: Am I going to be judged now because I do drink or whatever? And that’s not the point. I think the point is just being so self-honest to where you know I don’t want this life. And that can look so different for anybody.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media. This is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. According to Blue Cross Blue Shield, alcohol consumption increased 23% during the pandemic, and honestly, I’m surprised it’s not even more than that. This wasn’t happening in bars with friends or at work happy hours. More often than not, this was happening at home, and often alone. People already in recovery were cut off from their support systems, and people trying to enter recovery might have lost the financial or social resources needed to do so. So today we’ll hear two very different stories of recovery. After the break, we’ll hear from my friend Quianna. Quianna and I went to high school together and she has had a long road to recovery. What makes it stick this time, though, is her finding God. But first we’ll hear from Odette. Odette was in recovery before the pandemic, but stepped into a leadership role after it began. Odette is part of an online recovery community called Café RE, and during the pandemic became the host of its podcast, interviewing members of her community about their journeys to provide guidance, support and camaraderie to those who may be struggling. We talk about her religious upbringing and spiritual practice, becoming the face of a growing and thriving community, and where people find the strength to heal. Welcome, Odette.
Phillip Picardi: Odette, it is so nice to finally meet you in person/over Zoom.
Odette: So nice to meet you too, Phillip. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited.
Phillip Picardi: It’s so important to talk about issues of sobriety and all topics relating to recovery. This is a concept that’s actually really dear to me. I have family members I’ve lost to addiction and I had a really fraught understanding of addiction that was informed by, to be honest, my faith. You know, I grew up in a sort of more dogmatic version of Catholicism, not from the churches or the schooling I was in as much as just like what my father raised us in. And so there was this kind of demonization of addiction, of drugs, of alcoholism and of course, on anything to do with someone taking their own life, whether it was intentionally or, I guess, unintentionally due to addiction, that made me kind of fear and then stigmatize addiction in a way that now looking back on it with so much more information under my belt and so much more of a hopefully radical compassion. Those are points of view I held that I’m really ashamed of and I’m glad that I’m in the process of unlearning them. But it just goes to show you there are, and as your story shows us, there are many ways in which spirituality can inform our attitudes towards recovery, and I would love to hear a little bit more about your own experience with spirituality and recovery.
Odette: Yeah, so both you and I were raised similarly from what you shared. I was born and raised in Mexico. I moved to the states when I was 22, and my entire family’s Catholic. My father is a recovering alcoholic, and part of that stigma when he decided to pursue recovery was nobody knowing. Right? He went on a trip overseas when he was actually in rehab. You know, it’s let’s not tell anybody, this is the big family secret, and ironically, the only place that my mom could go to when she was struggling because her husband was in rehab was the church. It was so interesting to me. She couldn’t talk to her friends. She couldn’t talk to her mom, who was our next door neighbor, is my grandma. The stigma was so big that she felt like she couldn’t talk to anybody. And one day we couldn’t find her, and she was at the church crying.
Phillip Picardi: So she wasn’t in confession, like talking to the priest. She was just kind of going and sitting in the pew and and just having a moment.
Odette: Having a moment because she felt like she couldn’t have that moment with people in her community, in her family who are, I mean, we are all Catholic. And the bubble in Mexico where I was raised as very, you have to present yourself, you have to be a certain way. The family needs to look a certain way, act a certain way. A very privileged Mexican upbringing is what I had, and it’s this facade of this beautiful family, even though there’s so much pain behind and so many secrets behind. So it was an interesting upbringing, you know, when I moved here to the States, for me, it was like a blank slate because I felt like I didn’t have to live in the shadows of that framework, that was what was expected of me. I was already struggling with an eating disorder and then it kind of transferred into drinking. When I moved here, I went to treatment. You know, I’m a rule follower, so when I went to treatment, I was like, this shit’s expensive. Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it because I don’t want to have to come back. I know this is expensive. I had to be working full time while I was in treatment. There was the whole thing.
Phillip Picardi: Right. Those two things are so antithetical, by the way, the fact that you have to work to afford treatment, but then you can’t, so many people can’t, like take time off of work. So how are you supposed to get in treatment and reap the benefits of treatment if you’re also working at the same time, when work is probably triggering you or retraumatizing you? I mean, that is something else about our health care system, isn’t it?
Odette: I mean, there are so many things that could be talked about. It’s insane. And having time to process what is happening at treatment, if you then have to just kind of like switch hats and be like, OK, now I’m on work mode, now I got to hustle and then I’ll go back. So that in itself was hard. But what I can see now, in hindsight too, is that I was doing all the things and doing all the behaviors and a lot of the things that I can really attribute to my recovery now and being able to have the life that I have now, a lot of good things came out of it, but I wasn’t adding anything spiritual to my recovery. I was just kind of following the doctor’s orders of, Do this, follow this meal plan, go to the psychiatrist, take your pills, do all of this. And there was the spiritual component that it was out there and I didn’t know how to fill it because I never felt like I related to that Catholic upbringing that I had. But then I didn’t know where else to start or what else to look at or where to go from here.
Phillip Picardi: Right. So in other words, yeah, so you’re feeling like you didn’t exactly have this relationship with God due to this kind of fraught Catholic upbringing. And so you are balking, maybe at the concept of spirituality being a place for self-improvement when that wasn’t your experience with spirituality growing up? Is that right?
Odette: Correct. And you know, I’ve always had this interest while I was even in my struggles, with Buddhism and spiritual leaders. I’ve always loved self-help well before recovery. I’ve always been kind of those people that go into the library and then you’re looking at all the self-help books. I’ve always been looking for answers, like somebody give me answers. I felt like I needed to identify and in that self-help area of the library, I just, there were so many options, you know, from like Tony Robbins to Lao Tzu to Pema Chodron, you know, and I was like, I’m just going to take it, read it all. But what really has always connected with me have been all of these Buddhist principles that I always tried to adopt into my life, but I never connected them to recovery, you know? Like, finding stillness or paying attention just to the task at hand. Taking deep breaths, you know, if you’re feeling struggling, painful feeling, breathing it out and sharing it with other people that are potentially also feeling what you’re feeling, because even though we feel like we’re alone, there’s thousands of people feeling the same thing. But I never connected the two. It was so weird. My husband’s also very interested in Buddhism and just religion as a whole and almost like learning about different cultures. So weirdly, when I was in the depth of my struggle, I couldn’t connect those dots still. It was hard for me to connect spirituality with recovery. It did take some time.
Phillip Picardi: But once you did, how did it transform the recovery journey?
Odette: It was what made it feel like something that I shouldn’t be ashamed of. You know? The stigma, all of these myths about people that are sick and how they’re broken, you know? I always knew because my father was an alcoholic like, this is a disease. He didn’t choose it. One thing is knowing the things and knowing the facts. And then the other thing is feeling. That, the facts matching the feelings is something that I struggle with. Like, there was this dissonance between, OK, I know I’m not broken. Everyone keeps telling me it’s fine, it’s just your brain. You have depression, you have tendencies to love food or drugs or booze. Whatever you get into, you’re going to go balls to the wall. That’s not your fault, yada yada. But when the feelings came in, when the struggle came, I still felt pretty embarrassed. Like, why? Why am I this way? Why can’t I be different? And this whole value system that I was raised upon, which was discipline and willpower, and you should be able to control yourself. You should be able to be different. That was hard, like reconciling those two. And I think incorporating spirituality helped me bridge that gap between what I know to be true and what I feel to be true now.
Phillip Picardi: What a gorgeous articulation. I really appreciate that. I’m taking a class right now on St. Teresa of Avila and she was a Spanish mystic and a nun, and she really valued discipline, but not in the ways in which you and I were taught about discipline, but disciplined in the sense of making time for regular reading and interior prayer and your solitary approach to connecting with the Divine as a way of making space and time for those things as a daily practice, can bring you closer to God. Because, of course, spirituality, just like anything else, requires work.
Odette: I mean, even when you listen to people talking about meditation, that is now such a mainstream concept, people are talking about how you need to make time. Making time for stillness in a world where time when you’re not doing anything is a waste of time. And it’s not discipline and you are wasting this time. So I love what you’re saying of like redefining this concept of what does discipline even mean? And it’s because it has to be linked with what’s important.
Phillip Picardi: Exactly. And look, anyone who has tried to do that Headspace 30-day meditation challenge knows that discipline is required. It is so hard. Somehow sitting still for 10 minutes a day for 30 days has been one of the most challenging and herculean feats of my entire life. I do, I love the spiritual elements of this conversation. But you know, recovery, especially as a concept for this podcast this season, is important to me because, you know, we’re hearing from all sorts of folks who have reinvented themselves or who are renewing a sort of purpose after the pandemic. Or who are looking to reset. And I was talking to my sister one day and she was in a kind of mommy happy hour that was taking place during the pandemic. And it was a moment for the moms in her group to get together and to basically have a drink and just vent to each other about all of the trials and tribulations they were experiencing in their lives. This is a group of women who were homeschooling multiple kids at once, who were maybe dealing with their husbands not understanding the kind of emotional labor they were performing for the entire family. Let’s just put it this way: women who really felt they needed a drink, you know? And one day one of the women didn’t show up for happy hour, and it was later revealed that she had entered recovery and it was an awakening, I think, for a lot of the people in the group to think, Wow, is this a healthy practice? And there were so many people when I initially, you know, talked about this on my Instagram, there are so many people who reached out to me to say I really had to reevaluate my relationship with drinking. Or opening that bottle of wine initially during COVID felt like, you know, the only sense of normalcy I could create for myself, or the only sense of like celebration I had. But then, after a few weeks of it and the bottles racking up and taking out the recycling, you start to think, Huh? Is this healthy or is this the best way that I should be consuming something or consuming things or spending my time? And it really made me think about how many people in this moment, such a moment of stress, of potential unemployment, financial instability and, of course, emotional, mental and physical instability—I imagine this was the time that recovery was heavily talked about and sought after. But I was wondering what your experience as a leader in this space was showing you during this time?
Odette: You know, it was very interesting because what happened in our podcast, for example, is that we were expecting a dip in listenership due to two things. One of them being people weren’t commuting as much, and that was across the board for podcasts. A lot of people listen to shows when they’re driving on their way to work, when they’re running errands, and that was not available, right? So that was one thing that we knew this could happen. And then the other thing was either people are going to join recovery because, like that woman in that mommy wine group, you start questioning and you’re there in your house just looking at yourself way more than usual and you’re ready for a change. You know, there gets to a point where that little voice inside your head is loud enough for you to make a change, whether that’s with drinking, with a healthy habit, exercise whatever. Or because it’s such a high-stress time and because drinking does help soothe, cope, numb out whatever we want to call it, some people doubled down on drinking. So we had like kind of those two opposite things, right? People that were like. I know this is bad for me, but I need it right now. I need it to cope. Like, look at the freakin world right now. And that is totally human and normal. But people were aware like, I’m using this because I need it, or I’m going to use this time to reinvent myself. Somehow, for us and for me, what matters to me because I know recovery is so hard, the rates are really low, people who go to rehab, whether that’s a fancy rehab or sober living, the stats are low. People don’t stay in recovery as much as we would love to. So what’s important to me and to us in the work that we do at Recovery Elevator is meeting people where they’re at. You know, even harm reduction. If you were drinking two bottles of wine and now you’re drinking one, it’s not like, oh you’re not doing it right, you’re not sober. You know, I do feel like meeting people where they’re at is the key because it’s not easy. Everyone is different. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I listen to myself and what I was saying maybe a year ago and I’m like, Oh my god, I’ve changed.
Phillip Picardi: Oh, please.
Odette: Exactly. We’re learning. We’re changing. Sometimes I’m like, What the hell did I say? Sometimes I’m like, Oh, I still, I still agree with that. And that’s the same with our behaviors and our habits. If you don’t give people room and time for that like experimentation—granted, some people need medical intervention immediately. You know, there’s this range of people from gray-area drinkers like those mommies n that wine group, to people who desperately need the help or else they could die. That’s a spectrum. But there are a lot of people here in that gray area of, you know, I’m not what people would think of as an alcoholic or a drunk, but I always tell people, ask yourself different questions. If when you ask, are you an alcoholic, the answer is no. Then ask yourself something else. Is booze making me feel like shit? Is booze affecting my relationships? Is booze affecting my goals? Ask different questions because a lot of people don’t fit in that general alcoholic question.
Phillip Picardi: Yes. And also, this comes back to stigma, right? Like the concept of identifying as alcoholic or our perception of what makes, quote unquote “an alcoholic” is also loaded with our stigma and our own kind of cultural ideas. Right? And so that creates a sort of warped perception about what it means to think that you may want to or need to reevaluate your relationship to alcohol or—by the way, to insert substance here. Right?
Phillip Picardi: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. I also wanted to just shout out the name of your community is called Recovery Elevator, which I love, but can you explain the name for us?
Odette: So backstory of this. It’s a podcast. It started as a podcast. Not with me, with one of my good friends/boss. We have this like weird hybrid thing that was not a company, and now it’s a company. He started the podcast to stay accountable. So he would do an interview once a week while he was trying to stack days, because he had tried everything, it wasn’t working and it was a way to give himself the accountability. This was six, almost seven years ago, and it grew so much, now we have Sober Travel. Now there’s cohosts in the podcast. I’m hosting right now. We have another co-host who started recently and he’s doing some interviews here or there. So the focus went from this guy’s recovery, to a community. It’s an amazing space. You know, we don’t have structure, so we’re not AA or Smart Recovery. There’s a lot of recovery different ways of being and recovering. And we’re almost like an open arena. We have a lot of members who go to AA, we have a lot of members who do just spirituality, or some people that run, and that’s their higher power. You know, I run, I connect with nature, that’s my God. And we leave that open. So that’s amazing, but also tricky at the same time, because you realize how people that don’t see that framework or that structure sometimes resist. And then it’s the opposite. People who don’t believe in God and go to AA, and in AA, they’re talked about God. They never come back to the meeting and I’m like, You’re missing the mark, it’s not even about that. You know, but leaving it open like that has really helped us, like I said, meet people where they’re at. And it’s grown a ton. We feel super grateful. We are having retreats back online and they’re getting full. We’re going to Costa Rica in January. We just came back from Bozeman. And selfishly, it’s helped me kind of stay accountable as well. Because to your point, you know, during this last year and a half, I have had many moments where I’m like, Man, I could just like, I need something. I need a release. I could just have a drink today or have a couple of drinks and then whatever. But I have such big accountability now, and some of my best friends are in this community that I would just be burning so many ships that it’s like a healthy way of like putting myself in a corner where I don’t really have a choice anymore because I love this part of my life now. Sometimes people will come up and say, like, Thank you so much, I didn’t stop at the liquor store tonight because of you. And I’m like, That’s so weird. I do still get imposter, because I’m like, I didn’t stop at the liquor store either. Like, I’m still on the struggle bus as well. Like, go us!
Phillip Picardi: I mean, actually, I think that must be refreshing. You know, the concept of a all-knowing leader who is sort of impermeable or who has finished there journey, I think, is something that is being deconstructed in an interesting way, and people’s search for, you know, authenticity—and I think that can annoyingly feel like such a buzz word, especially among like Millennial-Gen Z marketing speak—but no, the search for authenticity is about understanding that none of us are infallible. And it kind of sets us up not to have a room to make mistakes, which is fine, but more importantly, what I think it does is it sets a realistic expectation that you are not a failure if you have not met all of your ideas for yourself at any given moment. That it is constantly going to be a work in progress and that you can constantly start over. I mean, that’s the genius thing about a lot of spirituality is like if you think about how many stories we have that revolve around the Sun coming out and shining and in myth across all of our faiths, right? Even the creation myth, the sun shining. Let there be light. You know, even our flood stories, right? There’s so many cues we have from ancient wisdom that point us to it is OK to start over and you can start over even after massive wreckage. And that is where, you know, we often find some of the most incredible human stories.
Odette: Yea. And I feel like another one of the things is, you said the word, you know, giving yourself permission to reinvent yourself. We don’t give ourselves enough permission to change. And I feel like it should be something that we allow in our friends and our family members. I feel like we tend to box ourselves. It’s just how our brain works. And we box other people. And it’s just we love cataloging and like categorizing things. So I do feel like working in this field, I need to give people a chance to be different. You know, if I want that for myself, if I want people to give me that chance every day to be like, Oh, today I’m going to do this, today I’m going to do this. You kind of have to do the same thing. And like you said, authenticity needs to be redefined and is, I think, already being redefined into, the search of authenticity just basically goes hand in hand with the acceptance of imperfection, which I think is happening. It’s emerging, but you can’t be authentic without being imperfect. So I think those go hand in hand.
Phillip Picardi: One thing I also wanted to touch on in our conversation is the evolving language conversation that’s happening around people in recovery, right? So we hear a lot about not using terms like addict or not using dehumanizing language when it comes to folks who are in recovery. I was wondering if you could help me better understand some of those things for our conversation.
Odette: Yeah. You know, I think that terms in recovery and in addiction are, you could you could literally just translate it into what do people feel when they hear the word God. It’s exactly the same and very similar to religious terms, where it’s the label, I think that bothers people. I think it’s such a personal relationship with the terms. Some people don’t want to identify as anything. Some people, because of that label, are almost in relief because they know where they fit and where they belong and what they need to do about it. So I think that it’s like you either see it as a cage or not, and that’s a personal choice. So I think that if you are someone who is connecting with people in recovery, it’s not bad to ask. You know, like how does the word alcoholic make you feel? Or do you consider yourself an addict or not? Or does it bother you when people call you an addict? Because I do think that for some people, it’s empowering, and for some people it’s disempowering, but that’s such a personal answer. I think across the board, I don’t know if the terms are going anywhere. I mean, if we want people to see an alcoholic the way they see a diabetic, then we need to keep calling them alcoholics, right? If we want to keep fighting and saying it’s a disease, treat people as if they had a disease, then we have to call it a disease. If we just say, like, Oh, it’s a lifestyle or it’s, you know, moderation or it’s a habit change or whatever. I think a lot of us have been fighting to be taken seriously and if you don’t have a word, how are you going to be taken seriously for it? So I think the terms are important, but I also totally respect if people don’t want to identify with the terms, because they feel like it takes their power away. I totally can see that and respect that.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. It’s these topics are always so, so personal. And also, yeah, even people who are disabled, right, or people who are experiencing chronic illness also have differing opinions of how they would like to be spoken about or how they would like to be identified. I think that the most important thing you’re pointing to is self-identification is what matters, not trying to toe this line of political correctness. But just like understanding the humanity that’s at the core of all of these conversations, and that that can vary and that can, and that can be different, that pretty essential. When you think about this current moment, right, so what I feel like I’ve observed in just the marketplace is this growing category of nonalcoholic beverages that are providing folks with opportunities and alternatives to reaching for a cocktail or a can of beer or what have you. I was just wondering, as we’re kind of like wrapping up our conversation, do you feel like that is sort of an insidious kind of marketing ploy? Or are you welcoming of the kind of innovations that are, that are coming out?
Odette: You know, I’m totally welcoming them. I’m running a marathon in about a month and a half, and it’s the first time ever. I’ve been a runner for a while.
Phillip Picardi: Congrats!
Odette: Thank you. I’ve never done a full marathon, so it’ll be my first. I’ve only done halfs. But it’s the first time ever that the main sponsor is Heineken but Heineken 0.0, which has been the most solid, most sold Heineken product. I know it was in 2020. Compared to their normal alcoholic beers, that one, just like went crazy and everyone was buying it whether it was people in recovery. Some people in recovery don’t drink nonalcoholic beer, by the way, because it’s triggering to them. That’s also a very personal decision or people. The sober curious movement is growing, you know?
Phillip Picardi: Sober curious? That that’s the word or the phrase?
Odette: Sober curious is one of them where maybe you don’t identify as an alcoholic, but you know, you know, if I keep going on these weekend benders, then on Monday, I don’t function at work, or I’m an awful parent. Whatever you want to call it. Sober curious is definitely a trending movement that’s growing, and I totally love these new alternatives. Like I said, for me, it’s not triggering to drink nonalcoholic beer. I love kombucha. Some people don’t drink kombucha because it has traces of alcohol. I also love educating on this. Like the amount of alcohol that is in a kombucha is the same amount of alcohol that you find in a banana. Like on anything that could ferment, like kimchi or something like that. So it’s more, I think of whether that’s a trigger and, you know that would take you to the next level. That’s very personal and self-honest question. But I love what companies are doing. I think they’re starting to understand that there’s many of us out here, and I also think that there’s also a ton of new alcoholic drinks like, you know, first it was just White Claw. Now I feel like every company has their version of [unclear]. So I think there’s been growth on both sides. And I welcome it because I feel like one of the biggest myths in sobriety is that we don’t like having fun or we don’t like going out, and we love socializing. You know, we love going out. We have a ton of fun and it’s really fun to have other options that aren’t just water. Like it feels great to have nonalcoholic beer. I used to love beers, and there’s some great cool craft nonalcoholic beers coming online. So I think it’s awesome. I think there’s a change happening. The rates are increasing. Like if you look at the stats, the amount of people who are drinking, there’s more, especially in women—since you did talk on mommy culture, you know this. Women are working, I heard it through another podcast with Kristen Bell, the double-double shift now. Through COVID, a lot of women working from home and then having to do all the things at home, and it has been hard on women. You can see the rates, more women are drinking more than men. Men kind of plateaued on numbers and women are kind of beating them. So I’m happy that these new alternatives are happening because I think there will get to a point where we will need more of them, whether people decide to go fully sober or not. But I think reassessing that relationship with alcohol for many people will be coming. I think it will happen, especially after the pandemic. You know, reassessing how have I been coping? Do I want to cope like this for the rest of my life? Or do I want to find other coping alternatives like maybe I’ll have wine on Monday, but on Tuesday I can go to a yoga class and on Wednesday I’ll do something else. I tell people who are normies, you know, I’m not saying, don’t drink. I’m saying, have other coping mechanisms. It’s a drink on a day, and what is it going to be on another day? It can’t be your same coping mechanism from Monday through Sunday, because then you have a repetition of drinking every day to where your brain catches on and you don’t know when that habit goes into dependence. That’s the thing.
Phillip Picardi: Right. Yes, I mean, that is for me, once it reached that point in COVID where I realized that I was going through a bottle of wine a night or ordering cocktails to go because New York had changed its alcohol delivery laws from restaurants, that’s when I kind of started to realize, huh, maybe waking up every day with like a mild hangover is not the kind of life I need to be living while in isolation. And sober curious was a really, is a really good catchall term for how I feel I am. I have never drank this little before, which is not to say I don’t occasionally have my find and whatever. But I’m so conscious of what I’m consuming and how it’s making me feel in that moment and also the day after. And that has helped me make better and more informed decisions about what my relationship long term with alcohol is, and I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to, I guess, experiment with that and come to some of those realizations.
Odette: Yeah, I appreciate you sharing, you know? Something that I don’t talk about on our show a lot because it’s specifically people who are struggling that tend to listen, is that it’s not judgmental or like us against people that drink or like us and like alcohol. It’s more like the goal is exactly what you’re saying, it’s an experiment of the self. It’s getting to know yourself, and it’s wanting everyone to make the best of their life. And whatever that looks like, just helping people get there. Because sometimes we do, people that particularly don’t know me or don’t know people who don’t drink, I see a crowd. You know, when sometimes I say I don’t drink, it causes a lot of reactions in people like, Oh, am I going to be judged now because I do drink or whatever? And that’s not the point. I think the point is just being so self-honest to where you know I don’t want this life. And that can look so different for anybody. And a lot of people don’t struggle with alcohol, but a lot of people do.
Phillip Picardi: Right? Yes. And it doesn’t cost us anything to be sensitive and accepting to people and to letting people have their fun how they want to have their fun, and how they’ve determined having their fun is best for them from a good, happy and healthy place.
Phillip Picardi: Odette, thank you so much for joining us. For everyone listening, you can hear Odette more on Recovery Elevator, which is available wherever you get your podcasts. And she is hosting weekly. Thank you, Odette. Thanks for being here.
Odette: Thank you. This was such a lovely chat. Thanks for having me, Phillip.
Phillip Picardi: After the break, my interview with Quianna.
Phillip Picardi: Wow, what an honor and such a bizarre confluence of events that have brought us to our time today together. Hello, Quianna. It is so good to see you again. What has it been? 12 years or something?
Quianna: More than 10, definitely since the last reunion, which, you know, I don’t think I went too.
Phillip Picardi: I think I went for like all of 10 minutes. Those things are always so awkward and uncomfortable. But you look the exact same as you did in high school. So whenever you are doing. Good for you!
Quianna: Thank you. Thank you. And you look awesome. Just incredible.
Phillip Picardi: I have never forgotten you because there was a, I was the class vice president in our senior year of high school together. We both went to Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. And we had to pull together a talent show before we graduated in our senior year. I think it was, it could have been junior year, but I’m fairly certain it was senior year. And I remember you performed, you sang the song Gravity by Sara Bareilles, and it was just like, I don’t know how many people in the school had actually heard the song. I had never heard it before, but it didn’t matter because you killed that performance. Your voice was so clear. It was so beautiful. It was also so emotional. Like you were, you weren’t just singing a song, like you were, you were singing about something else that maybe none of us understood but we all felt and related to. And I became a lifelong Sarah Bareilles stan after that moment. Like I got her CDs, I followed her entire career. I’m obsessed with her now. Yes. And it’s all thanks to that incredible talent show performance and our senior year of high school.
Quianna: Oh, wow. Thank you. It’s interesting the things that people remember you for, right?
Phillip Picardi: Yeah, totally. It is. I hope that whatever you remember about me is good.
Quianna: Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, I got, I’ll shoot you totally straight. All right?
Phillip Picardi: OK.
Quianna: One of the big things that I remember was I could not wait to go and see you at senior prom because I had my custom dyed my own extensions and I couldn’t wait to show them to you. I like, I put extensions in and like they match my hair. It was a complete chance. It was absolutely lucky. I swear it was the grace of God that they were even anywhere close, but they were perfect and I looked great. And I remember just like being so excited to tell you that. And you actually you were like, You look so beautiful tonight. Like, do you feel gorgeous? And I said, Yes, I do feel gorgeous and you said, Good because you deserve to feel that.
Phillip Picardi: Wow!
Quianna: I just thought that that was really nice.
Phillip Picardi: I hold on, I hold on to that. I think everyone deserves beauty. I think beauty as a human right. It’s something I’m literally studying beauty at Harvard. I’m studying the role beautification plays in religious practice and spiritual practice. And I’ve been so, I thought I was going to come in and get a bunch of people rolling their eyes at me. But people are like, Yes, totally, absolutely. I’ve had no resistance to the the concept of so far, which is, which is very nice. But I was stunned when I saw your DM. So I guess for those of you who are listening Quianna DM’d me shortly after I made the announcement that I was moving back to the Boston area and told me that she had gone on quite a powerful spiritual journey that was very transformative for her and in fact, life saving for her. And I was so encouraged to read her message, but I knew that the first time I wanted to connect with you, I wanted it to be here because there’s something so special about sharing these moments for the first time together. So can you tell us a little bit about what happened after we both graduated high school and we went our separate ways?
Quianna: Oh wow. You know, looking back at that time period of those four years, you know the way that you lived it and the way you remember it or always, you know, they seem to be very different. And the way that other people kind of perceive what your journey may have been like is always different from what you experienced it as, as well. And looking back at that time, I realized there were so many people around me that were, you know, intertwined into my daily walk of life who looking back, like I don’t know anything about and they probably don’t know anything about me either, or what was going on in my personal life. And I can honestly say that, like I might have shared a couple of times, that like both my parents were addicts at some point. A lot of people who are close to me knew that I had been raised by who they thought was my grandparents because they were a lot older. And with that, that’s pretty much the only scope that you really get into somebody’s personal life. And all of that being said, I grew up with two parents who took me in once they had been retired. My mother and father both heavily involved in addiction, and my sister and I spent a lot of time in abusive foster homes. We were switched between different family houses and then when I was four, my great aunt and uncle took me, and my grandmother took my sister. So we were separated pretty much from the beginning, and my mother went through this journey of hospitals, institutions, jails, as we say in the rooms. And my father was deported when I was six back to Canada, which was like a country we didn’t even know that we deported people to until my father was kicked out of the country. And all of that being said, you know, the rift was there from the time I was a small child. I always knew like, don’t use drugs. I knew my parents were addicts. I knew that specifically, my mother was a heroin addict, and I knew that the reason why I didn’t have a family home or the reason why I had been through so many of these traumatic events just really was rooted in my parents being in a position that I was about to experience. So here I was in high school. I never smoked, I never drank, like I didn’t go to parties. While all of my friends in a lot of the crowds that we both ran in that we both knew, like, while all of you guys and I say, you guys—
Phillip Picardi: Those parties were nuts, by the way. Like they always say, the parties are nothing like the movies. And I don’t know. Our high school parties were like the movies. [laughs] It was, Catholic school kids had a lot of steam to let off. I mean, wow.
Quianna: They did. They had so much steam to let off. And you know, well, all my friends were going out and doing these things, I have these parents at home that were like be in at 9:30. Like, here’s your curfew. You know, like, so I had a very strict thumb on me at home. You know, rightfully so. I mean, so in high school, I struggled with an eating disorder. I was extremely bulimic. I was heavy, I was overweight my freshman sophomore year and then I moved into junior year. I, you know, my boyfriend broke up with me. I immediately fell into bingeing and purging like it was my job. I remember Thanksgivings where I would eat maybe 10 or 12 times and purging 10 or 12 or 15 times. And when I came back to school my junior year, suddenly everybody wanted something to do with me. OK. The positive affirmation and the emotional affirmation that came from the change of how I looked, the weight that I had lost—suddenly, people who had never talked to me before, who kind of used to laugh when I walked down the hallway, suddenly were like having small talk and then eventually asking if I wanted to hang out. And suddenly we’re going to the tanning salon after school and grabbing a coffee at Starbucks because now we’re besties and like, really, we had nothing in common. And it was all perceived on what I looked like. It was like suddenly I fit a different mold and people wanted just a little bit more to do with me.
Phillip Picardi: Right? Yeah.
Quianna: And you know, I was in this weird like in between. I packed off, I went to college. I was kind, I wasn’t an underachiever. I, you know, I’m very intelligent. I’m like academically scholarly-minded. I love, I love the academic institution. OK? And as these things are starting to change, I’m getting like lonelier and sadder and sadder. I chose to go to a university I had no business going to. Why? Not because I wanted to go to this university, but because I wanted to follow my ex-boyfriend, who I can now admit 15, 20 years later, all right, that that is probably the most likely reason why I went. I studied psychology, you know, I did very well and had a 4.0, like had great grades, and I go off to a second university. I didn’t really want to study psychology any more. I wanted to be a doctor. Why? Because if I couldn’t be a singer, at least I could be a doctor. I mean, they’re pretty successful, right? Like, people always want to strive to be in the medical institution. And so, you know, I went off to a much more prestigious university where I pursued a degree in behavioral neurology, and I learned so quickly that I did not have the discipline nor the mental capacity, and probably not the respect for myself, in order to be able to do well in that academic circles. It just wasn’t good for me. And here I was, you know, I went to a brand new school. I transferred and I’m like all love sick off with this relationship and I’m in a brand new dorm at a new university. I’m meeting new people. Somebody invites me, some of the girls on the floor, invited me to a party, and the party that I went to was with a girl who worked at a very well-known blog in the Northeast. And she had brought me to this party to like, kind of introduce me to some of her social circle, some of the social influence. But it happened to be on the campus of this university. And so I go to this party and again, I was never a drinker. I was never a smoker. I never got involved in those circles. I went to this party and I had one cup of, I want to say, maybe it was like an Arnold Palmer. It was like an iced tea lemonade. And next thing I know I was like blacked out in a room and I had actually been sexually assaulted. I couldn’t really process what had happened because it was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed or known before. And so I finally get the courage to go and speak to the university police and when I told them about the incident, they had asked me, you know, if I had had a blood panel done for rufalin and they’d asked if I had had a rape kit done. And these are just things that I wouldn’t think of. Like, I’ve never been in this situation before. I was embarrassed. I was like, you know, really upset. And it’s not like something that you just call somebody and say, Hey, have you ever been assaulted at a party? Like, What’s my next step? Like, it’s not something that people talk about.
Phillip Picardi: Absolutely. Yeah, there’s a whole like medical institution that surrounds rape that’s really disconcerting and is deeply patriarchal and places a huge onus on the person who has been, and experienced sexual assault to have the wherewithal after such an emotionally traumatic experience to then go to continue to get examined and penetrated. Right?
Quianna: Yeah. Absolutely.
Phillip Picardi: Medically, of course. That is so unfortunate and disturbing.
Quianna: Absolutely. So, you know, they’re asking me these questions like these embarrassing questions that I really don’t want to talk about. And, you know, unfortunately, at the end of that conversation, they told me, Hey, just so you know, there’s really no proof or evidence—in so many terms, you know, it didn’t sound as harsh as it’s coming out. But there isn’t so much evidence for the assault that may have taken place, but there is evidence that you were at the party, underage. And the way that that’s constituted is that the office that handles disciplinary measures would more than likely find me liable, and I would be the one with the consequence. And what happened after that, now, mind you, this is right after high school, I woke up three years later in my apartment in Boston. I just shot up for the 40th time that morning. Like, I hadn’t showered in weeks, months and like I literally it wasn’t until I have a beautiful baby girl who just turned a year, it wasn’t until I had my baby and I struggled with postpartum depression that I began having flashbacks that I was able to pinpoint that trauma of where that addiction began based on that first weekend that I was at that brand-new school and that assault happened. And I literally don’t remember the next two and a half years of my life from beginning to end. Because people say all the time, how did you just wake up one day and all of a sudden you have a needle in your arm? That’s not what happens. But what happened was these three years had gone by and I hadn’t lived a single second of them. I just like, walked around like I was dead this whole time, and all of a sudden, here I am, calling my dad begging him like, Hey, can you bring me to rehab? And that was one rehab. I got kicked out. I wasn’t ready to get sober. I wanted to use drugs. You know my parents wanted me to go. Then I come home. I relapse. I get arrested. They sent me off to a second rehab, and after that second rehab, I choose to move to San Francisco. I knew it was the hub of the recovery community in the United States. You know the Bay Area is like recovery central. When I got out there, my codependency? I began dating a guy who really had no business dating, and guess what? Not only did I relapse on heroin now, I picked up meth. And where I thought that I had lost my entire life on heroin, meth showed me how much more I actually had to lose. You know, you remember, like, this young girl with like, you know, a pretty voice and like, went to high school. Like I was living in a tent with a belt strapped around my arm, up for weeks at a time, my hair rotting, my teeth falling out. 105 pounds. I’m five eight. Almost OK. I weigh like a good 150 pounds almost my entire life, but here I am, coming home wearing a children’s size 12 pants. And I remember just like looking up in the sky and just begging, like if there was a God up there. Like If God is real, if God is anything that I kept hearing my whole life, like God is good. All the time, all the time, God is good. And I remember thinking, how could a good and gracious God like, allow me down here to like, see me in this misery and just see where I am in this filthy, disgusting tent in these clothes I’ve been wearing for months at a time, like drinking water out of a spigot from the side of an industrial building three blocks away. How could I have gone from singing the national anthem at a Red Sox-Yankees s playoff game like my senior year in high school on ESPN for the world to see to have accomplished these things? And yet here I am like, living in a tent, getting an abscess cut on my arm because I’m shooting up with like toilet water. I’m sorry I experienced that, but it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, genuinely. You know, I sat in that tent. Like I had a physical one-to-one encounter with God. I tell you, I used to lay there and I would say, I just don’t understand why my family and my friends are like fighting me—and this is something I say when I share my testimony—why my family and friends were fighting so hard to save my life when I was literally praying every single night to a God that I didn’t even know if it was listening or not, to just let me die. Let me die in my squalor, please, for the love of everything, like let this be it. Because life is not worth living. It’s not. If this is what life is, I don’t want it. And I just pray that every night. And what I love to say is, you know, I am a woman of the faith and I consider myself pretty liberal in a very liberal denomination, OK. But my experience one-to-one in that tent had nothing to do with the Bible, had nothing to do with my faith system, it had nothing to do with preconceived notions because let me tell you, I taught special needs CCD for like nine years, but I didn’t even believe in God. OK. There were no preconceived notions. But I only heard audible words in two sentences: I’m real and I’m good. Everything else was like a download of understanding. It was that there was a plan and purpose for my life. It was that my plan and purpose wasn’t to die under this bridge as an addict, like for that to be my legacy. And furthermore, and this is the thing that got me. You know, I had grown up in academia, I went to some of the best schools and like, I’m a scientifically-minded person, I need evidence. I want you to give me the evidence. I want something tangible. And the evidence for me in that split moment was the understanding that I was right. There was no reason to have accomplished and to have done all of the things that I had done this entire life, just starting with the fact that I’m even alive, that I was a child that survived out of that household, out of a family like that to be taken in by somebody else, you know, to be a productive member of society, to live in a good household, you know, to be even blessed upon that life with every incredible blessing I’d ever been given, right? It made sense that even just that was enough to believe that this couldn’t be my legacy. Not to mention all of the incredible accomplishments, all of the things that I’m able to say that like I’ve accomplished, that other people haven’t accomplished, that other people can’t say. That’s even further evidence that my life couldn’t have had no meaning, that this could be like the compilation, this could be the climax of everything that had come before that. It didn’t, it didn’t make any sense that this would be the end. And that was like my, like spiritual wake-up moment. That there was something greater.
Phillip Picardi: So you feel like if I’m hearing you correctly, you feel like you were having a moment where you were effectively abusing meth. I’m not sure if there’s an appropriate way to use meth, but let’s, let’s say abusing Meth. And then you were essentially ready to die. You had accepted this truth that you had been telling yourself that you were not worthy and therefore this life was not worth living. And you are staring up at the sky. You are somewhere under a bridge and you’re looking up in you’re, and you’re basically begging God to let you die. And instead, you experience some sort of visitation or apparition, or whatever you would call it, a phenomenon, where you feel like you heard God directly and clearly.
Quianna: I had an absolute personal encounter in an absolute moment of complete sobriety, after three days of a drug induced like coma.
Phillip Picardi: I have to ask the obvious question which has been asked of people who say they’ve experienced these things throughout history, saints, sinners alike. Right. How do you, how do you know? How did you know?
Quianna: I didn’t know at the time, and I’ll expand on that. I knew that it was a personal, intimate encounter with something that was so much greater than myself, but it hadn’t sunk in yet. It, like it took a few more weeks. Now, looking back, like my answer back then would be a lot different than it is today. My answer back then would be, Well, I know what I heard. I was there. I heard it. It was real. But now, in hindsight, the evidence is that I never went back. Something happened in that moment. There was a fraction of a second that was so influential, so impacting and so real and so personal that every rehab I had tried, every stint of sobriety I’d ever sought, every outlet that I ever tried to go after, right? None of it worked. But all of a sudden, a personal one-second encounter, I’ve never turned around and never gone back. My life has never been the same.
Phillip Picardi: From here you enter, you call your parent, you call your dad. Tou reenter treatment. And this time you have been sober since.
Quianna: Yes. So at that point, I called my family, you know, they sent my friend out for a search and rescue mission. I came home. And I chose at that point, I chose to go to a long-term, faith-based rehab because of the encounter I had had. I had already done AA, NA, CBT, MRT, Indigenous, holistic. I had done Narconon. I had been to Scientology camps. I had done it all. But because of that personal encounter, I chose something that was long term and faith-based because I wanted to ask the questions, it was the only thing I hadn’t tried. And I made a vow with myself that at the end, if I finish this program, I tried the whole God thing and it didn’t work for me and I went back out and relapsed, I would just know that nothing could help me. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.
Phillip Picardi: Right. OK. And so tell me about why you chose or gravitated towards Christianity after this encounter.
Quianna: The term Christianity, man, like, there’s something we think of when we hear Christianity. In a number of different ways, whether it comes from church history, the build-up of the church, denominational differences, what’s going on right now as far as divisions out in society—the term Christianity has a certain connotation for it. It’s been earned by a lot of really hateful people. And unfortunately, I think the squeaky wheel will always get the grease. And I think the reason why I gravitated towards Christianity, in particular, people who are outside of Christianity and outside of the faith need to understand that it is a matter of faith. A lot of the things that are said are a matter of faith. You know, the word says that faith is the sustenance and the evidence of the things that we don’t see. You know, it’s real, it exists, but you can’t necessarily feel it but you know that it’s something that you hope for, you rest on. It’s like when you go to sit down in a chair. I’m sure you’ve heard this analogy. You have faith that chair is going to hold you when you sit. You don’t like hover above it and like hope that hopefully it’s going to hold. No, you sit down in it and you put purpose in it and you believe in it in that chair holds you. Yes So people outside of a faith community need to understand that there is a certain level of faith here. It’s why a lot of people say, like, how could you believe that, that’s so crazy? What’s the evidence? Where’s the academic evidence? Where’s the scriptural evidence? Some of it’s a matter of faith. So everything that I say is precedented with that matter of faith. You know, I can say that I believe the Bible but you don’t. I can say that I heard God talk to me and you would say, that’s crazy. But what we both can’t deny is that there was some type of change that happened there that radically transformed my life. Now what I attribute it to and what you attribute it to is a matter of faith. So this is my own personal interpretation, my own personal belief. I think the reason why I gravitated towards Christianity, you know, my whole life I used to see Jesus on the cross at church on Sunday and—
Phillip Picardi: Or in our classrooms.
Quianna: Or in our classrooms, right? Yeah. And you know, I taught about Moses, I taught about Noah, I taught about, you know, Genesis and, you know, the flood of the world. And then we talked about Paul and we talk about revelation all the time. And, you know, we talked about Jesus and we share the parables but like, nobody really gets into the humanity of the human message of Jesus, if we do believe that Jesus is fully man while also fully God—and this is, you know, the wonderful mystery, I’m using quotations around it—then if we do believe that he would have to be fully man, fully God, then fully man would mean he would have these emotions, he would walk in these emotions. And for me to have a realization, not even through the word, but it was through somebody who brought me, you know, the word of the gospel. They didn’t even preach the word to me. They didn’t preach the Bible to me. What she said to me was, Honey, there is no thing that you have done that is too far, too great for you to think that it’s unforgivable. And to begin to understand that like people are fallible, that people have personalities and tendencies, and, you know, we hold things against each other and, you know, our personal beliefs will dictate our worldview—as you begin to understand that those are all worldly things. You know, it’s based on our surrounding and the people around us, you know, similar circles hang with similar beliefs. Show me your five closest friends, I’ll tell you who you are. For me to understand that the people I had been surrounded with had similar stories of mine and I saw where they were now, and I saw the grace and the love that had been applied to their life and I saw how they were able to rise up from those ashes and do something incredible with their lives and that people still respected them and love them, and that their message was that message of love. And again, I say that void of public image. I’m talking about my personal experience with people in my life. When I stood back and I was able to realize that I didn’t have to hold an account of anything, that there was like a creator of the universe who loved me more than anything I could ever imagine. When I sat down and I read what it was that I read in the scriptures, when I tell you I had this encounter with God that was personal, I only heard those two sentences, but the rest was like a personal revelation that there was a creator who loved me so much, who saw these intricate details of my life, who didn’t hold it against me, who got me to understand that like I was never really a good person. I thought I was a good person, but really, I was a piece of trash to everybody I knew in my life and first and foremost to myself, when I was able to deconstruct that and I was able to look out what it was that he had really said to me, like what I understood that night, I was reading everything he had said in these scriptures that I was reading. It was literally like what had been spoken to my heart that, like I was chosen, I was called. That this wasn’t the plan and purpose for my life. That literally as disgusting as I was in that mess, like where I wasn’t that low low low mess that was down here, that there was a God that loved me so much that like, that’s when he chose. That’s when he saw the worth, right?
Phillip Picardi: I asked the question because I do think there’s something really compelling about Jesus’s treatment of outsiders and also the struggles Jesus faced in you know what we would call the stations of the cross that does feel particularly relevant to recovery and to anyone who feels outcast. Right? And I can imagine a lot of what you were feeling when you were unhoused and certainly when resources were not readily available to you, you mentioned having to find drinking water and struggling to find clean water, for example. That’s not something anyone in our world should be contending with but of course, many people in our world, in our country are experiencing that instability, which is tragic. You know, those things I think are pretty dominant themes in Christianity that I can see why it made for a really nice series of revelations where you eventually were to find a home. What I think is interesting is that instead of just being Christian or coming to Christianity, you also chose being a pastor. That was your, that was your calling. Right? So after all of this time, worrying about your vocation, and I think it’s so interesting voice and vocation are so tied together and you’re such a gifted singer, you end up using your voice for a very different purpose than what you maybe were initially intending by pursuing a music career. So tell me about, tell me about what brought you to this next step of now being a pastor and what responsibility you feel like Christianity has to better serve the outsiders, especially now as a dominant religion that is so synonymous with patriarchy and white supremacy and the very institutions that you know someone of your experience certainly knows intimately we all need to be railing against to make sure we are not leaving people behind.
Quianna: You know, absolutely. And a lot of people, I think from the outside, and I use this word religious, a lot of religious people out there, and you know, that’s the term we don’t, we don’t really like to use in the faith community because it’s kind of like that Pharisee type of look like, look at me like, well, look at what I’m doing. But the fact of the matter is there’s a lot of religious people out there who wouldn’t even like the fact that I’m sitting down and having this conversation with you. And that is the exact reason why I 100% sought you out. Not to evangelize, not to bring any type of personal belief system. No. To sit down and have a conversation that nobody today is willing to have a conversation about. And it’s not about the details of what the differences are between us. It’s why are we as a generation and as a community of love/ OK it says love the Lord, your god with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor like you love yourself, right? Love is a demonstration. So we all one, believe in Jesus Christ as Christianity right? And two, we believe in this law of love, then how can we possibly be known to be such hateful, divisive people? And I think a lot of it has to do with just like the influx of the way that society is really today. Like, we’ve done a really good job of blowing ourselves up from the inside out. And when I say we, I mean, people. You know, we have this focus right now, this negative look on everything in society. You know, we look down on differences, like we’re not willing to have educational conversations void of personal emotions, like we need to have non-emotional conversations about things that we need to talk about. And I just feel personally, myself that the church has done a really, really good job across the board—I’m talking Catholicism all the way to the newest denominational sect that has just splintered. We’ve done a really, really, really good job of marginalizing different choices. And I’ve been on this quest of just, like God, I want to know your truth. Like your truth. I want to know, like who you are. I want to know what you say about these things. All of that being said, if you’ve been called to a place of authority and you’ve been called to a place of leadership then you are also called to a responsibility to be not only aware of the situations that surround you, but to be aware of how those you associate with can potentially put a view or a meaning on what it is that you say is your message. And I have been on this quest of, well, this is what I’m hearing from the outside, but what’s the truth? Because even the truth that I’m hearing about Christianity out there, you hear one thing, you see another. That’s not truth. Truth is not divisive. What is the truth? And that was actually the whole reason why I reached out to you. I feel as a person, you know, I started working with a podcast that I really love with a creator I love, Nate, at the Sobriety Diaries. You know I was working alongside of Nate at the Sobriety Diaries for a bit there. And again, religious people would have been like, Why are you partnering with somebody who you know is in the LGBTQ community? Like, that means anything. Like, what is that supposed to mean? I don’t understand. Like, why would you, it’s like, do you understand the look? No, that’s religion. That’s religion. That’s the law. OK, that’s not relationship. That’s disgusting, actually. That’s divisive. It’s gross. Like, why would somebody even have to say something like that? But yet, him and I had like the most incredible relationship. I love Nate. Nate’s an awesome creator. I was able to sit down and talk to him. I was able to, you know, really grow a friendship. But as I was working alongside of Nate, I realized that I had a lot of questions about why people out there say such hurtful hateful things. Why is this the image that’s perpetuating? And I realized I didn’t have somebody from the community who could sit down and talk to me about this. All you hear is what people are screaming from their rafters about whatever political belief or whatever ideology they think that they can surmise in order to put out there. Like, no. I want to hear for like, just like a person in addiction doesn’t want to be taught how to get sober, get over withdrawals from somebody who has never a day in their life been addicted to a drug. Why am I going to ask faith questions from someone who’s not in the faith and not in the community? How does that benefit me? So what I felt personally was like, I want to hear what somebody on the other side is saying about this situation, you know, not just from Christianity, but from a faith belief, like somebody who’s like, Watch this. And I just so happened to stumble across the podcast, as I’m working alongside my friend Nate. And like, you know, as we’re having all of these conversations about terminology and, you know, gender identity, these things that I was able to ask him. But now I wanted to see, how is this applied into the faith community? Like somebody help me understand why we’re pointing all these things out. And unfortunately, he just couldn’t answer some of those questions for me because he wasn’t in the faith community. But here I was, seeing somebody who had been on a quest for truth, not about Christianity, like not about just, you know, God, but faith in general. Reading your personal testimony about some of the things that were said to you and the hate that had been instilled in you growing up like, that’s wrong. It’s disgusting. I don’t understand how we can perpetuate that and still say that we’re people of love. Can you please help me understand what you’ve learned on this journey because this is gross!
Phillip Picardi: Listen, I think it’s complicated. It’s a massive conversation.
Phillip Picardi: The truth that I was aiming to seek was twofold. It was, I had been working as a journalist for years, and so therefore it was my duty to read the world news and the headlines every single day. And I, as a person who was raised Catholic and with a particular appreciation for Christianity and who had not identified as Christian since confirmation happened when you have to say or swear your belief in the Pope and the Pope being ordained by God. At the time we were being confirmed. Our pope was John Paul the Second. John Paul the Second famously wrote a homophobic treatise called All God’s Children about how basically it was separate but equal for gay people. Right? So we can love gay people, but still think they’re wrong, was and this was, by the way, widely considered progressive at the time. And my dad even pointed to it as an example of the church’s evolving stances on gay people because I would be allowed in the church or allowed to receive communion as a gay person so it wasn’t that such great progress. Right? So I decided to not get confirmed in, and that was my freshman year of high school. And then I end up ironically at Central Catholic. I was never supposed to attend Central Catholic. I was supposed to go to a private high school boarding school. Phillips Academy was my goal. I got rejected from Phillips Academy two years in a row, and then I ended up at Central really as a Hail Mary at the urging of a professor, a teacher there, Carmen Lenero, who had taught me at Pike, my middle school. The truths that I was witnessing about Christianity was that it was a religion that was doing immense harm in the world, and it was it was being used to legitimize hatred, particularly among white evangelical Christians. And then I became a person who started to say Christianity is bad, because I saw the bad it was doing in the world. There’s an immense problem with this assertion, and it’s one that I’m still unpacking here at Harvard. We are not able to say declaratively Christianity is bad or good. We can say maybe Christianity has done bad things throughout history or done good things throughout history. Both of those statements are true. But to make a sweeping moral judgment about any religion, and again, to use the word religion is an inherently, it’s an inaccurate statement. It’s hard to apply a value to a religious institution. And so I no longer try to do that. But what I do know is that if I look at Christianity not as directly an extension of Jesus Christ the man, and I look at Christianity instead as an institution created by men who are not Jesus Christ, I understand that faith in religion—this is where faith and religion splinter. After Jesus went back to heaven we, men, created religion. We created a religion in his name. And therefore, anything created by man is corruptible and I would argue innately flawed because we are, as you’ve pointed out in this conversation, innately flawed. That’s just human nature. So understanding that, what can I better understand about religion and how it has been used and wielded throughout history? Part of that is why I’m here at Harvard, I’m trying to understand the same things you are. Why was I so hurt by something that was supposed to make me feel like I was a child of God? Religion and Christianity in particular, talk about Christianity a lot just because this is what I feel comfortable laying claim to because of my upbringing. You can say this about many religions throughout the world. Christianity has a really fraught history, particularly when it comes to things like colonization and imperialism. And we know that when Christopher Columbus quote unquote “discovered” America, Christopher Columbus was here under a divine decree of Manifest Destiny. The church believed that this land was an uninhabitable, that the people who lived here were savages. They were blank slates. They had no religion, right? All things we now know to be wildly untrue. But really, the Pope had blessed that voyage and blessed the colonization of America and also by extension, blessed the transatlantic slave trade and therefore the mass enslavement of countless African people. And that is the foundation of America as a country. That was done religiously, those, many of those people were forcibly converted if they were deemed worthy of conversion. So a religion as part of our cultural currency, our cultural displays, right? If I look at those things as all entwined together, what I understand is that religion became a political tool. What I understand about myself as a homosexual is I fall well outside of what is deemed acceptable, even in modern society. The way I like to have sex, the way I walk down the street, the way I dress myself, the way I adorn myself—these are all things that fall well outside of how a man should exist. The definition of man and what men should and should not do is also informed by imperialism and colonialism. When the colonizers came, they had to instruct order on the peoples that they were dominating, and so therefore people whose sexuality and gender identities deviated, right—and that word is so insidious but I use it anyway just for effect—people whose sexual and gender identities deviated from the norm needed to be stamped out and erased. So what I understand is that Christianity has weaponized its mythology to continue to ‘other’ people and to continue to erase people from existence who fall outside of what a bunch of men once upon a time decided was fact. And Catholicism and Christianity have a long history of stamping out even the most rebellious and revolutionary aspects of their own sacred texts. They have a long history of silencing, especially the women who for throughout history have heard God just like you say, you have heard God. They have, they have called those women witches. They have called them heretical. They have said they were being influenced by the devil and by demons. But what those women are often and an up until recent history, we’re talking the ’70s, right? We’re talking the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s—those women’s legacies aren’t are just in the past 100 years being unearthed, and the church is offering apologies and canonization and issuing all sorts of honors to these women posthumously when many of those women died in shame. Or died being reviled by their peers, by men! By male priests because the male priests were their confessors and the male priests were the ones in charge of investigating them, of brow-beating them, to insist that some demon must have been at play in this so-called vision they were experiencing. So both you and I, Quianna, share a certain similarity in our religious approach. Both you and I have been marginalized. Both you and I have been believed to not be holy, have been declared unholy in fact, by religious institutions that are run by white men who are afraid of confronting their own truth, and the most marvelous and flawed versions of themselves by you delving into depths of self-hatred and self-pity and the worst of what the human experience can offer, the worst of what society can offer, all of the ways that a male patriarchal society failed to you when you came forward to announce that you were a survivor of assault, that you were a person who was experiencing addiction and needed help—all of those things are part of a similar part of my experience. They are things I can relate to. But what I understand about faith—not Christianity, I no longer identify as Christian, I don’t know how I feel about Christ anymore. I think, you know, he was a great guy and everything. I just, I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m working it out, you know. I’m working it out. I’m on the path. But what I understand about faith is that these are the things that make us holy. You don’t need to suffer to be holy. I don’t, I reject that very Christian and deeply Christian notion. But I do believe that being human and having the experience, the hard experiences, really helps us to embrace everyone else’s humanity. That by sinking into despair, maybe like you were once upon a time, that’s what, you know, I think, I think is what kind of like this earthly or material world wants from us, right? But what the spiritual causes us to do is to find the meaning even when you can’t see it. And honey, your’s was right there, it was waiting for you. And I think that that has to inform your liberation and how and how you talk to people and how you help people come to God, because that is the essence of what makes you so special. Right? The religion has been a part of the elite and ruling class for so long, and that’s why it has reviled people like us, right? When really the Bible says that, right, the meek shall inherit the Earth. It is right there. It’s always been there. That’s what’s so funny about it, that truth is so self-evident today. The people who have always had the answers, still have those answers and they were right all along, right? Indigenous peoples warned us when we started developing and excavating and raping and pillaging this Earth, they warned us. They told us it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t right. Don’t do it. They said, they told us, and they were right. And then when the wildfires started burning in California and the Forest Service didn’t know what to do, they called Indigenous people to come and bless the land. Because what else could they do? What else was left at this point? What else have we done? Right? So there is so much here, you know, that I think speaks to the power of spirituality. And I affirm, if you believe that God spoke to you that day, I believe that with you. Not that it matters what I believe because you believe it and it changed your life. And that’s really, making space for that is what I love the most about being on this journey and being at divinity school. It just, there’s something so incredible about this human experience, about the lives we live. You know, people always ask me, Why are you trying to find God? You know, and I always say the question isn’t why, baby? The question is why the fuck not? [laughs].
Quianna: Why not?
Phillip Picardi: That’s all. That’s the only answer I can give. Why not?
Quianna: I love it.
Phillip Picardi: When you tell me you saw God, I don’t say why or how, I say why not? You know, the point is that we have an obligation to each other. The pandemic for me has shown this in such a stark way. It’s like if there is a lesson to be learned—not that I think there needs to be—but if there is a lesson to be learned from watching a virus travel through the air and how all of our behavior impacts each other, right? There is a metaphor there for our interconnectedness. Someone on Twitter the other day said, and I laughed so hard, this pandemic is like the worst group project I’ve ever been in. And it’s funny because we’re all relying on each other. This is actually the nature of life. We are all reliant on each other. Not one of us, not a group of us, not a bubble of us, not a Democratic Party of us, is enough. You know, we all need to be on the right path to get this Earth back in a safe and healthy place, and also be taking care of the people who are displaced and who need our help. Displaced, I think, can mean a whole lot of things. But displacement is not a moral judgment. That is the most important thing of all right. We need to meet each other where we are. And I love that you’re working so much with women in recovery, Quianna. I feel like that to me is such a, that’s a beautiful expression of faith. You can, you’re not some pastor coming in who doesn’t know what these women have been through. You know what I mean? Like, who’s talking to them from some cerebral approach to recovery. Like you are, this is a part of your recovery. You’re recovering God at the same time, you are helping people through their recovery and then finishing and completing or evolving your own recovery. I mean, that is profound, you know? And again, I told you, I don’t know where I stand with our friend Jesus, but I will tell you, one thing I immensely respect about Jesus Christ is that when you know, and he demonstrated this consistently throughout his life and the stories of his life, at the very least, is that when you know, he was asked about wisdom, he went to the poor, right? He went to lepers, right? He, so he went to the sick, he went to the poor. Right? When he wanted to share wisdom, he spoke to his mother, he spoke to Mary Magdalene, he spoke to women, outcasts of society. Women were considered inferior, right? So what a powerful model. Whether or not I believe in him is irrelevant. You know, I think I believe there is so much power in his wisdom and the wisdom that was left behind, if it is intently listened to and valued. And yeah, and those are the things that I think I appreciate. And faith leaders and people who work in the faith like you, having such an intimate understanding and a close relationship to that truth is so powerful, and it’s the way that we help to take the power away from the powerful people who are controlling Christianity. It is, if I had a pastor like you in my life at any point when I was a teenager, I don’t think I would have ever lost God, you know, but I didn’t have you. I didn’t have a person who reached out to check in on me and what my relationship was like with God, or try to have that conversation ever. And I was one of the what, only out gay students at that entire high school, you know?
Quianna: That is true.
Phillip Picardi: But no one was checking in on where my spirituality was and and so, and I continued to lose it. And even in reclaiming it, you know, I have to revisit those old wounds. But what you are doing is life-saving, its life-giving. You know, there’s so much, there’s so much there that you can do to help people find their own wisdom in their own power. So kudos to you for this journey and congratulations on being in recovery and being sober. And being a new mom! Congratulations.
Quianna: Thank you. Thank you.
Phillip Picardi: OK. That’s all we have for you today. Thanks for listening. And we’ll put resources for those curious about sobriety in the show notes. See you next week! Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is me, Philip Picardi. Our producer is Lesley Martin and Brian Semel is our associate producer. Our editors are Karim [unclear], David Greenbaum and Sara Gibble-Laska. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa.