Feb 1, 2024 - Podcasts

Sean Daniels: Using humor on stage to combat addiction

This marks the end of so-called "Dry January," a phenomenon that's been growing in popularity. But for many, alcohol is still a daily struggle; it's the most common substance abuse addiction in the United States, affecting at least 1 out of every 10 people. Sean Daniels is a playwright and recovering addict whose critically-acclaimed autobiographical play "The White Chip" returns Off-Broadway today. Niala talks to Sean about using humor on stage to save lives.

  • Plus, listeners tell us what Dry January was like for them this year.

Guests: Sean Daniels, playwright of "The White Chip" and director of The Recovery Project at Florida Studio Theatre.

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, and Jay Cowit. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.

Transcript

NIALA BOODHOO: Excessive alcohol use kills more than 140,000 people a year in the U.S. One playwright and recovering addict says we can lower that number with art…and with comedy.

SEAN DANIELS: When it comes to addiction, there are really joyful people, telling amazing stories with great sense of humors and none of that is portrayed in pop culture today.

NIALA: Using humor on stage to combat addiction. I'm Niala Boodhoo. From Axios…this is 1 big thing.

It's February 1st, which means that for some of you this marks the end of so-called "Dry January." That phenomenon – choosing not to drink alcohol for the first month of the new year – has been growing in popularity… in 2024, a survey CivicScience showed 27% of U.S. respondents over 21 were very likely to abstain this January, up from 24% in 2023.

We asked you why you took it on, and what you found in the process.

LISTENER 1: "I've done it for a couple years now, and every time I find an improvement in my immunity for January, I find that my skin gets better, and I just feel more energized as a person."

LISTENER 2: "I really hated how I felt after I drank, not getting any quality sleep, feeling nauseous the next day, having my depression get worse and my anxiety spike, I just wanted to take back control over something that I could control, definitely feeling more well rested and clear headed and a little less financially stressed."

LISTENER 3: "I've been really excited to see non-alcoholic beers that taste good made available because it's helped me feel like I can have fun without compromising on health."

LISTENER 4: "I am sleeping so much better, and now I'm not sure when I'm going to have my next drink."

LISTENER 5: "I made it all the way to Saturday, January 26th. Did help me with a bit of weight loss, did help me with making some smart decisions, the occasional good choice with the meals. So, did a dry three quarters of January."

LISTENER 6: "We wanted to do the dry January, my wife and I, but, we had some weather down in the south that, had us a little snuggled in and, we just went back to our regular of routine with a little red wine I guess we'll have to try it again, in 2025."

LISTENER 7: "This past October, I actually celebrated my third year of sobriety. And I am so hopeful at how the movement is gaining popularity, especially with the younger generations. So hear hear to the people who tried Sober January and maybe found that they liked it. There are a lot of mocktails and you don't have to give up on your cannabis either."

And there's data to back up some of those benefits. A 2014 study from the UK, where the Dry January campaign started, found that participants reported not just saving money and feeling a sense of accomplishment, but better sleep, more energy, and losing weight. Other studies point to better blood pressure and blood sugar rates, just from one month of abstinence.

What you don't hear in those voicemails though are others who wrote to us and said: I tried to stop drinking this month. I couldn't do it. And I need help.

People struggling with alcohol use are far from alone. It's actually the most common substance abuse addiction in the United States, affecting at least 1 out of every 10 people.

SEAN: I think the stigma around it is so great that to admit that you have a problem, feels like you're a failure. It really feels like you have screwed this up, you're not a solid person.

NIALA: Playwright Sean Daniels is a recovering addict who has been sober for 12 years.

SEAN: The example I use all the time is that I really feel like in the last four to five years, we have solved the scourge of peanuts in our country. If you have a peanut allergy, like Delta Airlines will pull every peanut off that plane that you want. If you go to a conference and say that you have a peanut allergy, they will pull that out of every room. We don't do the same thing when it comes to addiction. And I think the reason why you are happy to say that you need peanuts pulled off the plane is because we all agree that having a peanut allergy is not a moral failing.

NIALA: But with addiction?...

SEAN: …we sort of agree it's not a moral failing? ​​You know, it's like, even though it's been a disease since the late 50s….We're still kind of like, Uncle Ted, please just don't show up drunk for Thanksgiving, could you for once? Right? We, we still think it's a personal choice to do it.

NIALA: Sean struggled with alcohol for years before getting sober, a journey that included losing his job and his wife, and several brushes with death. So to save lives, he told me…let's turn to entertainment to remove the stigma.

His comedic three-person play The White Chip chronicles his own journey from alcoholism to sobriety, and first premiered Off-Broadway in 2019. Now it's back in a new production opening Off-Broadway today.

NIALA:  Sean Daniels is the playwright of The White Chip and director of The Recovery Project at Florida Studio Theatre. Hi, Sean. Welcome to One Big Thing.

SEAN: Hi there. Thank you so much for having me on.

NIALA: Let's start with your play, The White Chip. First, I have to say, much of this was really funny, which I'm not sure I expected it to use humor so much and to such effect.

"THE WHITE CHIP" CLIP: "I know, you're probably wondering how can you daydream without people knowing. It does take some organization and creativity. Drink vodka. It's the one liquor that doesn't smell except you do end up smelling…a little like vodka!"

Why did you approach this topic in that way?

SEAN: Well, first of all, I really appreciate you finding it funny. You know, when I was trying to get sober, and I was really struggling, I was a big relapser for, years, I couldn't find anything that had a sense of humor, that talked about Everything had this kind of, like, 1920s talk to it, and everything felt very shameful.

I don't know how old you are, but I grew up in the, very special episode, era of TV, where any time there was anybody who had-

NIALA: After school specials?

SEAN: Oh my god, after school specials, which was the same time as, like, Just say no, right? Nancy Reagan, bless her heart. And so I grew up in an era where it was anything that had to do with mental health or had to do with addiction was always, it came with like, special gloves on, and so you knew you were in trouble when it happened, and you know, If you've ever seen people in recovery on TV, it's, it's like seven very sad people in a church basement and you walk in and they chant your name at you and of course you watch that and you think, who wants to do that? Right? Which is, it's so far from the truth, right? That there are really joyful people, uh, telling amazing stories with great sense of humors and none of that is portrayed. in pop culture today. So I just really wanted to try to write something that felt joyful and felt funny, because I felt like that's the only way people are going to pay attention.

NIALA: One of the things that really struck me was how you also talked about how stopping drinking might actually be a risk to your career. Can you talk a little bit about that thinking?

SEAN: Yeah, so especially in the arts, it's really kind of baked into the idea that it costs you something to be a bit of a theatrical genius, we all love Jack Kerouac, right? We all love Hunter S. Thompson…

You know, like we really, we really just kind of feel like that is part of the artist's curse, and that to die young is also part of what it is. And it's all baked into this story that we tell ourselves. The rock and roll world, I feel like, has owned sobriety in a much bigger way.

I mean, I remember seeing David Bowie being very public about his sobriety, because he knew at an early age that it was going to kill him. if he kept doing it. And somehow I think rock and roll has made it cool because it, maybe because we've all watched so many behind the musics that we know, that at some point it went really bad for everybody.

And that's what keeps them alive and keeps them making music, right? So we should do the same thing about performing arts. We should figure out how to keep our artists alive.

NIALA: There's another detail in your play that I was struck by. You find out that your mother has the same sober day as you. That same October day when you stopped drinking is the day she did too. Is that something that really happened?

SEAN: That is the truth. So, The, the story is that I, was walking home from the bar and I was about to be fired from the final thing in my life that I had going on and I was suicidal and I was trying to think about, like, how I could get up the courage to step out in front of cars.

And I don't know why, because I don't At the time I didn't really get along with my mother. We really had not talked that much, in some time. but I called her because it seemed like the thing that you do and for whatever you believe in, my mother had quit drinking one year earlier and was on her way home from the AA meeting where she got her one-year chip and that's when I called to say that I was thinking of ending it and so she got me through the night, she got me into a rehab center in Jacksonville, Florida,

"THE WHITE CHIP" CLIP: "If you make it this time, October 12th…will be our day"

So from then, both of us have October 12th as our day. So every year on October 12th, you know, chips are a big thing in the sobriety world. She gives me her chip from the year before because I'm always one year behind her. So, you know, this past year she gave me her 12 year chip because she had gotten it the year before. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

NIALA: Yeah. You mentioned a higher power, you mentioned…Whatever you believe, and I wanted to ask you about that, because one of the things that you grapple with in this play is that oftentimes in Alcoholics Anonymous, the people you meet in recovery are leaning heavily on God and on faith, on religion, on a higher power. And I, later in the play, this is kind of a little spoiler alert, but you say that science is your higher power. Why did you want people to know that?

SEAN: My family was Mormon growing up, and, eventually my parents left the church, but I was left with a really, poor feeling towards organized religion, and the story, this is all true, I, I was in rehab and my counselor, this was like day 24 of day 28, and you, I was like, I'm screwed. I'm gonna have to, to leave in four days, and I don't know anything more than I had before. And so he said like, fine, this is it. You're just gonna have get sober with the Jews. And I, I didn't know what that meant.

And he connected me with a group of sober Jewish men. They were all New Yorkers who had moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and they ran this men's group. They got together several times a week. And the first time I went in, they sat me down. and they wanted me to understand about science. And they wanted me to understand about neural pathways and dopamine. And that 40 to 60 percent of what determines whether you become an addict or not is genetics. And that's actually something that was, that the National Institute on Drug Abuse came out with. So it's, it's so not just like who's weaker, who's not.

I mean, I had been to an alcohol awareness class that was ordered by the state of Kentucky. I had been to literally hundreds of AA meetings and I was in rehab on day 24 of 28 for the first time that anybody mentioned science to me. And so I wonder how many people don't make it because they're like me, and we don't lead with science, and we lead with religion, and we lead with God, and if you can't hear that, do you just think this is not for me, and then you head back off into the wilderness.

NIALA: We'll be back in a moment with more from Sean Daniels, including what we can learn from actor Matthew Perry's death. This is One Big Thing from Axios.

Welcome back to Axios One Big Thing. I'm Niala Boodhoo. I'm talking to Sean Daniels about his work using theater to take the stigma out of addiction and recovery. Sean, when actor Matthew Perry died last fall, it captured so much attention, and you wrote about how what we saw was that we're still having the wrong conversation around addiction. How should that change?

SEAN: So I wrote This op ed in the L. A. Times, because even in the circles I was in, people were like, well, let's not, let's not talk too much about it.

Because if it turns out that he relapsed, we don't want our, you know, our name associated with that or those type of things. And I really just feel like we are, we are missing the entire point of, of anybody getting sober. If you are driving a car across the country and your car breaks down, you don't get your car fixed and then drive back to the starting point of your trip and start over again. No, you pick up from where you are and you figure out what you've learned and you realize, like, I got to pay more attention to how much coolant is in there and you go forward and in recovery we add this extra shame onto it that if for some reason you relapse at the end, it was all worth nothing and you didn't really learn anything. If that's the story with every relapse, I feel like I'm only confirming that I'm a failure, and at some point, I stop trying.

So, I, I think the, the thing I wanted people to think about Matthew Perry is, look at all the good that he did. Look at all the people who are suddenly talking about addiction. People knew he was working on it. They knew he was sober. They knew he was very proud of it.

You know, there's a foundation started in his name. And so a lot of good has come out of his struggle and, you know, and his being public about his struggle and him owning it and him being a part of it. Right. That goes against the stigma of it that you can be very successful and struggle with addiction and then overcome it. Those are the stories we need more of.

NIALA: You direct the Recovery Project at Florida Studio Theater. What is this project? What's its mission?

SEAN: One of the major factors in how we change national narratives is the arts. It is the TV that you watch. It is the books that you read. It is the movies. It is Ellen comes out and everybody thinks it's gonna be the end of her career and it's not and then Modern Family comes on TV and Will and Grace comes on TV and next thing you know national narratives change.

The Normal Heart played at The Public, which is a play very near and dear to my heart. Reagan wouldn't talk about AIDS. This play happened at The Public. The playwright, Larry Kramer, stood out front and handed out pamphlets to every single person that attended. And next thing you know, Reagan had to talk about it. I mean, the arts have the power to change conversations. People are alive because of those plays and those TV shows and those celebrities coming out.

It has 100 percent saved lives. And so I want to do the same thing. So I want to use the arts to really try to break down the stigma for people to understand that there are many multiple ways, to recover, and that people thrive afterwards, that they are not forever, you know, strange, sad, broken people, but that there are people out there having fantastic careers and families and joy. And I feel like the arts can be the one that shows us that that's possible.

NIALA: To that point about changing the narrative, I wanted to just end by asking you about a theme that comes out of your time in rehab and your life afterwards according to your play, more will be revealed. I took that to mean, Take it a day at a time. Is that what that means to you?

SEAN: Yeah, when I was in, Rehab we were talking about like how you can't drink again. And there was this woman who was like, are you telling me that I can't have champagne at my daughter's wedding?

And her friend next to her was like, you don't even have a boyfriend. And I thought it was the funniest thing ever because it was, we all catastrophize and live in the future about what this will mean to us. And in reality, mean, I feel like being in recovery was great training for the pandemic.

We were all like, what's going to happen? It's like, I don't know. I'm going to focus on what's in my control and I'm going to, I'm going to figure out how we get through today. And so when you're struggling with addiction, you just kind of want to get on the other side and you want to get to years underneath your belt and you want to get to a place where you're not craving and sweating through the sheets at night. That will all happen, but all we can do is focus on today. All we can focus on is getting through the next 24 hours. And if we do that, you know, time adds up.

NIALA: Sean Daniels is director of The Recovery Project at Florida Studio Theater and playwright of The White Chip. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I really appreciate it.

SEAN: Oh my god, thank you so much.

Please remember that if you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol use or other substance abuse, you can reach the confidential and free National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 at all hours of the day…or you can go to findtreatment.gov.

And finally before we go: drinking looks like it's declining in the U.S., for younger people. Here's what that looks like, by the numbers:

Gallup data shows that 18 to 34 year olds today are much less likely to drink than they were 20 years ago.

And Gallup's director of U.S. social research Lydia Saad told me that could be for a variety of reasons: not just that cultural habits may be shifting…but also that younger Americans are more demographically diverse. White Americans tend to drink more…and they make up a smaller portion of our population today. The percentage of 18 to 34-year-olds who are Black, Hispanic, Asian or other groups…has nearly doubled in the last two decades.

And that's it for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing. Our team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Jay Cowit. Alex Suigura composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

Please text me feedback or story ideas anytime at 202 918 4893 - or email podcasts @ axios.com.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll see you back here next Thursday.

Go deeper