As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kortney Olson, founder of Kamp Konfidence and CEO of GRRRL Clothing. Kortney knows what itʼs like to drag yourself up from the bottom. After surviving a rape, an eating disorder, depression and drug and alcohol addiction all before she was 21, Kortney knows how important it is to turn trauma, pain and despair into power, strength and confidence.
Can you describe your childhood for us?
My childhood was absurd! I am the product of an alcoholic Mother who grew up in the 80’s. Everyone was on drugs. Even the family doctor was snorting coke. I thought my mom was a bad person that needed to get good, as opposed to a sick person that needed to get well.
I grew up in a remote part of Northern California which happened to be the perfect breeding ground to produce a tomboy.
A tomboy who although incredibly charismatic, secretly hated her legs. I was bigger than all of my friends. Everyone called me ‘husky’. I always felt different to everyone else.
The seeds of addiction were sown early.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
My addictive behaviors started to display themselves when I was in junior high. I started counting calories as a form of control. During the early to mid 1990’s Kate Moss and Calvin Klein’s size 0 models were all the rage. I was desperate to be thin.
I soaked up my Mom’s limiting beliefs about body image and dieting. Although I had a 4.0 grade average, the student body president, in the school band, played sports, and was incredibly charismatic, I was mentally miserable.
In fact, thanks to my Dad, there’s a video on youtube of Sara Barellies singing at a school assembly. You can see me sitting behind her with my saxophone, fidgeting and restless in my chair like a crack addict. I was riddled with anxiety from my parent’s recent divorce. Fortunately prescribing teens valium or xanax wasn’t really a thing yet.
By the time I’d gotten to the start of my Senior year of high school (a private Catholic high school nonetheless), I was still on the same path with the ambition of becoming the first female POTUS. Then D-day arrived, and I was introduced to methamphetamines by a group of friends after I had just finished DJ’ing our Sadies Hawkins school dance.
Although I had graduated the D.A.R.E. Program and heard Nancy Regan say “just say no”, I tried it and fell in love immediately. I thought I had found the holy grail. I lost weight and had 24 hours in a day now to accomplish goals. But accomplishing goals lasted about 2 weeks before those goals quickly turned into one goal.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
On a surface level, I was masking the hatred I felt towards my body. I was the thinnest I’d been in my entire life, but was living in a state of paranoia and fear. On a deeper level, I was running from trauma. Our childhood experiences between the ages of 0–8 have a massive impact on the paths we choose to walk down as we age. They truly shape our future.
Growing up I was constantly fearful of what was going to happen next. The verbal fighting between parents, or who I was going to need to put to bed, or who was going to drive intoxicated, programmed me to thrive off of drama. Genetically predisposed to addiction on top of learned behaviour, I was destined to walk straight into my Mother’s shoes. Despite the fact I swore up and down I was never going to do the same, it happened right in front of my eyes.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
Towards the end of my senior year, a teacher pulled me aside and called me out. “Kortney, you’re either drinking excessively or you have a drug problem. Do you want the school to call your parents or do you want to see a drug counselor?”. You can imagine my response.
I went to see the drug counselor and when he asked why I was using, I said because I lost weight. He had the perfect solution; a boxing class held by an ex heroin junkie and Golden Gloves champion who was married to a Nun. What could possibly go wrong?
After being clean for 3 days and 17 years old, I went to the class and met the man who was supposed to be my mentor and saviour. He told me he wanted to make me his last prize fighter before he retired, since he was 72 at the time.
He invited me over to his house to watch some tapes and order some equipment. Being a champion boxer was my new destiny. My new addiction. I would inspire all the other girls in the world to stay away from meth and follow their dreams. Unfortunately, that didn’t go quite as planned.
Upon arriving, Bob opened the door with a sifter cup full of ice and Remy Martin. As I walked in, he grabbed my ass and said “it’s so good to see you KO”. I nervously sat on the couch as he shoved a VHS tape in the machine so we could watch some fights. He practically sat in my lap and pressed play as pushed the glass in my face and said “have a sip”. That sip became several more.
At some point shortly after I blacked out, and woke up on the floor with this man inside of me.
Coming to, and working out what was happening, I instinctually shoved him off of me and got out the front door as quickly as possible. Bob never called. He never paged me. Nothing.
That was the real start to my downward spiral for the decade to follow, as clearly this was my fault and I must have led him on.
After the summer concluded, I went off to my “low-class” state college with a sense of guilt, shame, and self-hatred and walked straight into my new hobby of becoming a professional alcoholic.
Can you tell us the story about how were you able to overcome your addiction?
I first started using at 16. After a year of battling with methamphetamines, I managed to quit, but replaced one addiction with another: Drinking and the gym. My freshman and sophomore year at Sonoma State University was basically one big long blackout. My freshman year, my Best Friend wrecked my car after I handed her the keys as I was about to passout. We were driving the 3 hour trek from Santa Rosa to Eureka so we could make it to “the club”. Stacked with 3 handles of Carlo Rossi, we embarked but didn’t quite make it. She fell asleep and drove off the highway just short of a landscape of cliffs. But of course her getting a DUI didn’t shake me up. I went another year until I then got my DUI at age 20. With the car full with my dorm mates who all happened to be sober, I failed to negotiate a turn with a .23 blood alcohol level, and for once was unable to talk my way out getting in trouble. Also the parking lot I landed in after jumping the barrier, turned out to be my future drug dealers tire shop.
I decided that I needed to “take a break” from school, and moved back in with my parents to straighten up. However, once back on my old stomping grounds, I inevitably found the new upgraded form of speed, aka “crystal meth”. The difference from when I started when I was 16, to 20, was I had found my love for alcohol. Turns out crystal meth and alcohol are truly a dangerous combination. I started dating ‘bad boys’, stealing, and other addict behaviours. I’d steal your wallet and help you look for it.
Literally the day after I turned 21, I had a moment of clarity and realised that sitting in my low-rider Toyota truck with a sawed off shotgun between my legs and a pint of vodka in my hand, was a far cry from becoming the first female POTUS. I made an appointment to see my family doctor, and told him what was happening. Between both of our sobs, he told me how brave I was, and recommended I get checked in at a rehab in Napa Valley. It was here during those 30 days that I learned about the dis-ease of addiction and was introduced to 12 step programs.
However, like a true addict, I managed to make it 90 days before my Cousin planted the seed that I “deserved a glass of wine” for my good efforts in staying clean. That one glass of wine kicked me back into a 2 year spree of blackout drinking topped off with a geographical back to Santa Rosa where I started yet another tangle with crystal meth. The challenge this time around, was that I was fully functional.
Until such point I found myself with 4 felony charges hanging over my head. Of course I was innocent, and fortunately kept all of my receipts to counter the so-called charges filed against me and my then boyfriend. That was enough for me to get clean off of meth and stop drinking. As with all great addict stories, that lasted about a year until I hurt my back wrestling. Then I was onto the next chapter of addiction where I battled with narcotics. My name was on the bottle, and I was in legitimate pain, so what was the issue? After all, pain pills “weren’t my problem”. After 6 months of managing hydrocodone at 2–4 a day, I started chewing up 10 at a time, a couple of times a day. That of course stopped working, and I somehow managed to find OxyContin. By the time I was needing 80mg pills, I kind of started to notice that maybe this was in fact a problem for me, especially spending $1 a milligram.
Although I had just bought my first house, had 2 adorable matching white dogs, 2 vehicles, and a job paying $400 an hour, I was at a spiritual rock bottom.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
I’ve hurt a lot of people in my past due to my actions and behaviours. I have done my absolute best to make amends wherever possible. But to be frank, there is so much of my past I simply cannot recall due to being in a state of a blackout. The best way for me to rectify my past where I do not have direct recall or contact with those hurt, is by continuing to live clean and sober, and always do the next right thing wherever and whenever possible.
As far as myself, I’ve worked a solid 12 step program as a means to work through my shame, guilt and remorse. Once I was able to recognise that I’m living with a “mental illness” and an incurable “dis-ease”, I was able to heal. I put both of those words in quotations because too often as a society we read those words and instantly attach negative feelings, imagery and beliefs to them. When in actuality, the word disease broken down in its basic form is simply dis and ease. Otherwise known as dis (the opposite of) ease! Also mental illness simply means the opposite of mental health, and mental health is something that we all have. Simply put, mental illness means we’re not in a state of good mental health.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
When I finally got 100% on board with recovery, I found myself being drawn to service work. I immediately wanted to share all of my experience, strength and hope with whomever would listen. I believe that far too many people are living with addiction and lack the awareness that they aren’t bad people with something wrong with them.
Aside from being of service (which typically consisted of spending a lot of time working with teenage girls), I filled up my time with strength sports and bodybuilding. The gym basically became my drug of choice.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
I regularly work with addicts and alcoholics to stay aware. The thing about addiction is that it’s so easy to forget how bad it got, and start listening to the inner chatter, thinking I could go out and drink or use like a lady. When in reality, I know damn well as soon as I drink I get naked and punch people! That is by far the most important habit I’ve incorporated into my life. Beyond that, I workout regularly, am kind to myself, and remind myself on a daily basis that there is a God, and I am NOT it. That helps me refocus my train of thought to stop thinking I’m supposed to have all the answers, which in turns takes a huge amount of stress off my shoulders.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
My entrepreneurial journey started by seeing a massive need in the world to empower our female youth.
I’ve seen first hand the issues created by poor body image, and learned all the lessons that aren’t taught in schools.
The epidemic around mental health and body image is destroying our next generation of female leaders, with 1 in 5 teenage girls suffering from diagnosed depression, 1 in 3 having some form of disordered eating and self harm amongst girls doubling every year for the last ten years. The cost of this isn’t just the $1tn a year worldwide, it’s the cost to the female leaders who will recreate this planet in a better image.
That’s where GRRRL was born, i created GRRRL from my own personal experiences and from the study that followed my experiences, to make something happen to prevent what happened to me from impacting the futures of grrrls around the world that might get derailed in the same way that i did.
I created GRRRL from my past, to empower women to share their experiences and to come together as one to make the world a better place. We will do that by fighting to remove the barriers that get in the way of women realising their potential.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
The biggest character trait I’ve transferred over is being obsessive. Just as with addiction, my work is constantly on my mind. I wake up at 6am thinking about it, and at 11pm at night I go to sleep thinking about it. I have this unscratchable itch to fix everyone on the planet and feel like I can’t stop until I’ve done all I can do. As I said earlier, having a job making $400 an hour didn’t fill the void in my soul. Having a 6 pack and 16” biceps didn’t fill the void. What fills that void is being of service. However, it can also be seen as being co-dependent and me falling back on my number one defect which is playing God. I think I know what’s best for everyone and that I’m here to fix everyone and everything, when in truth my only job is to fix myself. But really that’s boring and my ego doesn’t like that thought very much!
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
I think the topic of addiction isn’t discussed enough because it’s still seen as a sign of weakness and lack of willpower. But what I often tell people (while flexing of course) is “have you seen my body… I’m one of the strongest willed and disciplined people I know!”. I am who I am, and I love that. I’m fortunately in a position to not have to worry about what an employer might say or do should my cover be blown. Then again, talking about addiction openly may have cost me potential investors from linking arms, but that is their loss, not mine. Everything is in divine order so as long as I trust in a power greater than myself looking after my best interest.
So many people shy away from recovery (I’m speaking from direct personal experience here as well!) because of the word “God”. A lot of us automatically assume that it has to do with some kind of religious affiliation or back door Jesus bit. But when you break it down, it’s another word for ‘spirit of the universe’ ‘Mother nature’ or what worked for me ‘The Ether’. After reading “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, I was able to use that idea of The Ether as this universal energy that is unexplainable. I think most people can relate to having had moments of synchronicity in their life. How often have we thought of someone after several years of zero communication and all of the sudden they reappear in our lives? I can think of hundreds of examples of this. We are truly all connected more than we could ever know.
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?
Shame is such a wasted emotion. It’s like a rocking chair; It gives you something to do, but doesn’t take you anywhere.
Know that you are not weak or have a lack of willpower. What you’re dealing with is a life and death situation.
My personal believe is that our souls signed up for this experience before they came down. That is all life is; One giant learning experience.
Never, ever EVER give up. When you get knocked down or have a setback, get back up and go again.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My personal website is kortneyolson.com where you can find my speaker deck and my MASS training programs. Aside from running my global women empowerment brand, I create programs to help people add size ON.