As part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Tyra Manning. Dr. Tyra Manning earned her doctoral degree in education from the University of Kansas and went on to become one of the nation’s top school superintendents. Since her retirement, her mission has been to share her compelling life’s story of hope and redemption by encouraging readers to tell their own life stories through writing. Her new book, Your Turn: Ways to Celebrate Life Through Storytelling, will be released on October 1, 2019. Her first book, Where the Water Meets the Sand, is an Independent Book Publishers Association Benjamin Franklin Awards Gold winner in the Autobiography & Memoir category.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
I grew up in West Texas just 30 miles from the New Mexico border. I enjoyed a wonderful childhood until my 9th year, when my father died suddenly of a heart attack. His loss during my adolescence, unleashed in me a negative arc of behavior that began with drinking, and then escalated to risky behaviors including cutting, and ultimately addiction to alcohol. There were few constraints place on me in those days, and after I obtained a driver’s license at age 14, I would borrow Mother’s car, claiming I needed to go the school library at night to study or do research for school assignments, but in reality I was experimenting in various risky ways.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
With my new-found freedoms, I was able to drive to the state line to buy a six pack or two of Coors beer. Some days, I feigned a stomach ache, asthma attack or menstrual cramps in order to skip school. On those days, I’d take my mother to school where she was a teacher assuring her that I’d go to afternoon classes if I felt better.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
The truth is, the loss of my father was devastating to me. I would frequently drive to visit Daddy’s grave, where I would drink, using his grave marker as a bench for visitors to sit on. I’ll always remember the engraving on his headstone, which read, “To Live in Hearts We Leave Behind is not to Die.”
I’d sit and pour out my soul to him about how awful my life had become since he left us. I was his “little girl,” he’d always say, while Mother would always say, my brother was her “favorite boy.” I took that literally and felt desperate. School no longer mattered. I lost my interest in everyone and everything. In retrospect after the passage of many decades, I realize I was running from loss. The loss of my father whom I dearly loved.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
A few years later, I had placed my addictions in abeyance through the love and support of my first husband, Larry Hull a blond-haired blue-eyed handsome man and my true soulmate. I was just 19 years old. Larry’s dream was to become a pilot in Air Force.
Larry quickly earned his wings and was then deployed to Vietnam. However, the day Larry left for Vietnam, I quickly began a rapid slide toward the lowest point of my life. My nose throbbed. I grew more and more frantic, I ticked off the tried and true options that previously brought relief. My addictions were back with a vengeance, including drinking, binging and purging. I reached for the “tools” I kept hidden under the sink. Like a surgeon setting out her instruments, I neatly arranged a double-edged razor blade, washcloth, cotton balls, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a container of Band-Aids on the bathroom counter. I kneeled down before the toilet, my left arm supported on the seat. I hung my left wrist directly over the toilet bowl. Scared out of my mind, I went to work.
Shortly thereafter, because of my overwhelming fear and anxiety that Larry wouldn’t come home from the war, I sought psychiatric help from a doctor originally from New York City who had moved to West Texas after training at the world-renown Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He recommended that I go for in-patient treatment where I was treated for Clinical Depression. It was while I was there that I learned the news of Larry’s death in Vietnam.
Can you tell us the story about how were you able to overcome your addiction?
For many years, I remained a “functioning alcoholic” until I finally took my last drink in 1981. By that time, I had completed my education and had earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a Doctorate degree. I had served as teacher, principal and was Director of Personnel for the Topeka Public Schools. I was ready for a change, although I was fearful about maintaining my anonymity. I finally agreed to attend an open meeting for alcoholics who wanted to stop drinking and their families.
At my first meeting, I was consumed by overwhelming fear and shame, stunned by the number of people I knew, and stricken with fear of what they thought about me being there. The powerful stories shared by recovering alcoholics inspired me to stay on. When we held hands at the end of the meeting and recited the Serenity Prayer, I felt a sudden rush of peace. Nennie, my grandmother had taught me this prayer when I was fifteen. Thank God for my grandmother. She had been my best supporter throughout my childhood and during my time with Larry.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
It took time, years actually. But with a year of sobriety under my belt, I began to feel more comfortable. I no longer wanted to drink. On a few occasions, I was tempted when I was with others who drank but the cost of drinking again was too great, and I knew it. Instead, I drank tonic on ice with a twist of lime. For me, I relied on the Serenity Prayer. I even diagrammed it at times when I felt my sobriety was tenuous, but I didn’t drink. The Serenity Prayer is something I repeat out loud every morning when I rise and every night before I go to sleep.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
My daughter Laura and I began to spend more time together. I continued to attend alcoholic support groups and was often the main speaker. When I told my story at support groups, members of the audience would frequently come up to me after the meeting and tell me I should write my story. I found that I enjoy speaking, and I’ve always enjoyed writing. So, I became motivated to give back to people who could benefit from the knowledge that their stories matter.
I encouraged others to stop drinking and to take each day as it comes. I told them if they were tempted to drink again, to write out the serenity prayer and even diagram the prayer. It worked for me and I encouraged them it could work for them. Taking it one day at a time, works, and I haven’t had a drink now for thirty-eight years.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
I still read The Big Book for alcoholics who want to stop drinking. After all these years, I am still drawn to the stories of recovering alcoholics. I recite the Serenity Prayer five times out loud when I get up in the morning and before I go to bed. I don’t attend meetings regularly anymore. However, if I am having a rough time or just miss the camaraderie of a meeting, I will sometimes find a meeting to attend. For the most part, I spend my life trying to give back to others who still suffer. Storytelling has been a healing process for me, and I do a lot of encouragement for others seeking similar relief.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
After I retired following a four-decade career in education, I decided that I wanted to pursue several other creative endeavors, including writing my autobiography Where the Water Meets the Sand. I felt like I had an important perspective to share with others about ways to overcome grief and addiction and move forward when life becomes overwhelming. In addition, I’ve become a frequent speaker and panelist on topics of mental health, addiction and storytelling, and I’ve been able to pursue some of my other hobbies including photography and sculpting (mostly hands, which I find fascinating).
My second book, Your Turn, will be published this fall. I am even more convinced than ever that writing our life’s stories is a cathartic way of facing our demons and healing. I often receive notes and messages from people who, because of attending a meeting with me or reading my book, have been inspired to write their own stories. They learn, as did I, that when we share our stories, we learn that we are more alike than different.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
Speaking sincerely and honestly are character traits that I apply in my everyday life. I’m certainly more compassionate these days about the challenges faced by others in terms of their mental health or addiction. People who have read my book tell me they were encouraged by my candor and honesty in sharing my stories and being vulnerable in doing so.
I still wrestle with my intensity as a person, and the impossible demands I place on myself as a 72-year-old woman.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
The stigma of addictions, alcoholism, bulimia and cutting are hard to own and are addictions many of us want to keep secret. The problem with this is that living a life filled with secrets takes a huge toll on our mental health. When we can finally feel empowered to write about our addictions, we not only free ourselves from debilitating secrets, we encourage others to reach out for help and know they are not alone.
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
- Keeping secrets makes us sick. Sharing with others who have overcome addictions is a relief and helps you live your authentic life, even though it can seem frightening at first.
- Sharing our stories gives us the opportunity to encourage others to reach out for help. Others realize they are not alone. For me, sharing my journey of addictions reminds me my journey can make a difference in the lives of others, just like recovering people who helped to save me.
- You don’t have to fight your internal battles alone. Most of us have family or friends willing to listen. Or, barring that, there are many solid mental health organizations and professionals who are ready, willing and able to help with addiction issues.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My website is tyramanning.com
Facebook including messenger @drtyramanning