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A Conversation With Author Sarah Hepola

I spoke with the author Sarah Hepola over zoom about her book Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, society’s changing attitudes towards alcohol, and finding identity and connection in sobriety.

 

So first of all, I loved Blackout. Regarding the subtitle, “Remembering the things I drank to forget,” can you talk about some of the things you were trying to forget, and how you’ve confronted them in recovery?

I think the first thing I was trying to forget was the ordinary self-consciousness of what it was to be me. I was a really shy kid with an outsized fear of what people thought of me. Around the time of my adolescence, that made it nearly crippling to talk in public.

That was the albatross I carried around with me, and the first time I found drinking, it was freedom. It felt to me like someone opening the cage of your human body and you could fly out.

I fell in love with drinking young. I was dabbling in it from the time I was 7 or so; I would steal sips of my mom’s beer that she kept in the fridge. By the time I was 12 and 13, I was drinking as regularly as I could. When I got to college, that was really the explosion. And by the time I got to college, what it was dimming were more insecurities of that time, like that I wasn’t as smart as my friends, or that I wasn’t as bold as I wanted to be. I still had that shyness lingering around, so alcohol really muted those feelings.

Then the more you drink, the more problems you get. You start drinking to forget those. It becomes this recursive cycle, where it starts out as freedom and ends up as the cage itself. The things I drank to forget was like everything by the end of it. This is going to be a clichéd answer, but how did I confront it? Very, very slowly.

That’s been my experience too.

Yeah, I always think about how alcohol is instant transformation; it’s “change how you feel now, now, now.” Everything about recovery is slow; you slowly confront the things that have been plaguing you. For instance, my discomfort in my own body; how I dealt with that at first was not very mature—I just didn’t go anywhere. Then you develop the muscle strength that you had denied yourself in all those years of bypassing the problem. I was able to build up a lot of the strength in me that I was drinking to get.

One of the things I got from Blackout was that in the last several years or decades, alcohol has been sold as a tool of empowerment to women, but it ultimately ended up being disempowering for you. Can you talk more about that?

Yeah, absolutely. I think alcohol is one of the great leisure drugs; you see it across cultures and eras. Especially in America over the last couple hundred years, the people that were drinking in bars tended to be the people with power and time to burn. It was something you did because you weren’t working in the kitchen.

There was an era when women didn’t have access to that place. Alcohol starts becoming accessible to women through the feminist changes of the 70’s. Obviously women could have glasses of wine at home, but I mean public spaces like bars. So the liquor companies start marketing to women. It has this story of tracking along with women’s rising place in the world, much like cigarettes. This idea that: “You’ve made it; you’re a free woman; you can now drink.”

And there’s great joy in those female spaces. I have logged so many wonderful hours in girls’ happy hours. But what I was finding was that that power was really unstable. I was seeing the kind of binge drinking I was doing celebrated across culture. Everybody thought it was hilarious that I was this tripping down drunk; it was transgressive, because there were eras when women hadn’t been allowed to do that.

It took me a while to realize that the alcohol I found so powerful was really doing the opposite. When you get sober, you become very aware of how much alcohol is around you and the social messaging behind it. I got sober in 2010; there was a boom in drunk women behaving badly across the pop culture spectrum. The way you would signal on TV that a woman was complicated was that she would drink. The way you signaled to another woman that you weren’t a boring, conventional woman was, “I’m going to get drunk with you.” All these things had happened at that point over the past like 20 years, so it was a relatively fast climb.

Actually, my next question relates to that; I was going to ask if you think the culture around alcohol has changed at all since you quit drinking, because even since I quit drinking in 2015, I feel like there’s been a lot of changes in that fairly short time.

Absolutely, I think the major changes have been in that time. I think from 2010 to 2015 was really the height of these kind of drunken chattering classes. You would go to boutiques, and all the clothes and potholders and everything was branded about wine. When my book came out in 2015, that was still prominent in the culture. Then in the next few years, there’s this awakening of, “Oh, maybe that’s not such a good idea.”

I think it would be hard to pinpoint what happened, but I do know that the conversation around sexual consent was really ramping up. I was getting a lot of pushback to not talk about it. I was like, “You guys, we can’t talk about sexual consent without talking about alcohol.” I felt like if we were going to have a reckoning about this culture that we were living in and created, we needed to look at the social costs of some of the well-ingrained habits.

Then I think because of the mindfulness movement, because of new age spirituality, you’re starting to see things like the sober curious movement. Marketing, which had once discovered the power of drinking women, is now discovering the power of non-drinkers. You get this proliferation of seltzers.

I also think that younger generations are just turning away from alcohol. Maybe because the iPhone is really the hub of social activity, so you don’t have as much bar interaction—but also things go in and out of fashion. Then you’re starting to see hard-hitting journalism about the cost of alcohol, things like the link between alcohol and cancer.

Yes, the pandemic hit and you’re still seeing all these stories of, “Ha ha ha, isn’t it funny that I’m drinking?” But I think what’s changed is that there’s a little bit less participatory laughter.

So you talked about how being the girl who could hold her liquor was a big part of your identity. How did it feel to disentangle from that, and do you have advice for someone else who sees it as part of their personality?

I’m 5’2 and shy, so this idea that I could do something other girls couldn’t was incredibly powerful to me. It gave me the brazen quality I wanted so much. When I quit, it was painful for me to lose that identity.

But I found that over the years as I got stronger, what emerged was that I could always hang with the boys—meaning that I can match them toe-to-toe in their argument. It’s not like I’m trying to shout them down; many of my male friends are wonderful people. It’s just that it seemed like men moved through the world with a certain swagger I had to totally fake. I was learning to move not necessarily with swagger, but with my own self-possession.

The advice I would give someone who is struggling with that; one is that I always thought my ability to drink like men was a good thing, and looking back, I really think it was bad. The body has ways of keeping you out of trouble; if you overdrink, you throw up or pass out. That’s what was happening to my female friends, but I was going into round 12 and 13. I was in trouble because I was so drunk, but I looked like I was doing fine. I kept saying I could hang with the boys, but it’s not entirely true, because parts of my system were shutting down.

Then the other thing is, I would question why the ability to hang with the boys so important to them. Is there something about their own strength, their own value, that they question? It’s hard for me to give advice because I never took advice—but I do know that what I was looking for in those interactions was something I’ve been able to find other places.

That’s really great advice—the idea of looking at what’s going on internally instead of externally.

You had mentioned being a shy kid, and in the book you talked about using alcohol as the way to find connection. Are there ways you find that in recovery?

Yeah, I think I’ll always miss that easy connection of sitting down at the bar next to someone and feeling like you can just talk to them. But I do know that I’ve found that other places. Being real about my own struggles has usually given other people permission to do that with me, and vice versa.

Being real with one another—that’s really the juice. That’s the thing I think you’re really drinking for. Obviously, there’s the elixir and some good feelings, but I always felt like what people are looking for is connection and intimacy. And not always but often, what happens in drinking is a kind of counterfeit intimacy, or at least a short-lived intimacy, or maybe an intimacy you don’t even remember.

You have to learn in sobriety not to vomit truth all over somebody. You have to find the balance of social norms and an appropriate vulnerability that might invite deeper discussion.

Yeah at least for me, when I was drinking, I didn’t have that balance. It was just like, “Tell everyone everything that’s ever happened to me.” I find there’s something really wonderful in sobriety about being able to share that authentically without spilling it to everyone you meet, all the time.

Oh yeah, I used to tell all my secrets to everybody at the bar, and obviously they weren’t secrets. You have the opportunity in sobriety to disperse that a little more strategically. The intimacy and connection of sobriety is a little more hard-won; it’s not quite as easy as popping down on that bar stool and turning to the left. But it is real and sustaining, and you can find it anywhere.

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As we continue to grow Amatus Health, the need to stay competitive and differentiate ourselves in unique ways is crucial. Building creative approaches to reach more people will take our company to new heights. This is why I am pleased to announce that we are officially rebranding. Our new national name, TruHealing Addiction & Mental Health Treatment, will eventually replace Amatus Recovery Centers.

You may be asking, “Why are we doing this?” This new name will give us national uniformity and help brand ourselves as a whole, which will be done in phases. You will still see our existing facility names co-branded with TruHealing for the time being.

Healing is what we do. Everyone who comes through our doors is in a moment of profound struggle in their lives. We support them through a life-changing process of healing and recovery, and they leave our facilities changed. This new name is a representation of that process. As mentioned above, it also allows us to have a national brand, which will make us a recognizable name in the addiction and mental health field.

In summation, these changes present an excellent opportunity for our organization to develop our mission, vision, and purpose. I look forward to prosperous growth as we head in a new and positive direction.

Sincerely,

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Mark Gold
CEO
Amatus Health

Dr. Adam Cusner, PhD is an organizational psychologist by training and has brought his decade-plus experience to the healthcare field serving as the Executive Vice President of Operations for a 22-facility portfolio of skilled nursing facilities, assisted living and independent living centers across Ohio and Arizona, with an annual revenue over $250MM. While serving in this position, Dr. Cusner brought accelerated growth to these facilities, while increasing employee retention and workflow optimization. Dr. Cusner has a proven track record in the healthcare industry of providing successful leadership through his financial acumen, strategic planning, interpersonal skills, along with his ability to build strong, effective teams.

 

Dr. Cusner’s credentials include a Philosophy Doctorate in Organizational Psychology (PhD) from Cleveland State University, a Master of Arts in Psychology (MA) from Boston College with an emphasis on Psychology of Work, a Bachelor of Science in Psychology (BS) from Boston University with an emphasis in Organizational Behavior in Business and is a board-certified Nursing Home Administrator (LNHA). He has published and presented research articles in the field of organizational psychology at national healthcare conferences. Dr. Cusner is completing a book on organizational psychology in the healthcare field, which is expected to be published late early summer 2022. He is also a member of the American Psychological Association (APA), has served as the APA’s Division 17 communications chair, is a member of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychologists (SIOP), and was selected as a professional reviewer for national conference research presentations.

 

Dr. Cusner is an advocate for his employees and is drawn to the tie between culture and quality. His extensive strategic and operational skills have delivered a high degree of success across all department levels. Dr. Cusner facilitated the establishment of an in-house financial team to provide billing and collections, accounts payable, vendor management, along with financial reporting. This provided $1.5MM annualized savings. Further, he developed department efficiencies for: Medical Staff recruitment, service-line growth, quality and safety, corporate accountability of budgetary expectations balanced with direct reporting to investor groups.

 

Dr. Cusner coordinated the financial turnaround of a 300 bed CCRC (skilled nursing, assisted living and an independent living center) in Arizona, which has been epitomized as the most financially challenging state to manage CCRC facilities. Dr. Cusner also strengthened the business growth of the Ohio facilities by 12%. He was recognized by the Governor for demonstrating a “care-conscious approach” during COVID, when Dr. Cusner carefully consolidated facility residents to accommodate staff and improve clinical care. Dr. Cusner demonstrates a results-driven culture by delivering a high-quality level of care and employee engagement.

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Yaffa Atias is the Director of Special Projects at Amatus Health. Atias is a leadership professional with a decade of experience in healthcare. She holds a BA in interdisciplinary studies from Thomas Edison State College, and a Master’s in Healthcare Management with a concentration in project management from Stevenson University. She completed her graduate capstone at Mosaic Community Services, now an affiliate of Sheppard Pratt.

 

In her role at Amatus, Atias leads and manages interdisciplinary team projects, creates solutions for any operational gaps, and continually strives for quality improvement in all processes. Atias led the organization’s COVID-19 preparedness strategy, resulting in all facilities remaining operational, and in 600 employees being retained as staff without resigning out of fear. In her role so far, she implemented licensure for three new states.

 

Atias believes Amatus Health and TruHealing stand out because every employee, from corporate to center staff, has a real passion for helping people. Atias shares this passion, “My natural compass always tugged me to behavioral health. I’ve always been fascinated by the human psyche. I have also been intimately privy to those suffering from mental illness and substance use. I later understood that my experiences weren’t unique, and quickly realized how pressing the need really is to effectively prevent and address. Moreover, how life-changing proper intervention truly is.”

 

Atias was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in Israel and Maryland.

Melissa McCarthy is the Vice President of Business Development at Amatus Health. With a decade of experience in the behavioral healthcare and addiction treatment industry, McCarthy is passionate about recovery. She has her finger on the pulse of marketing trends, with the end goal of helping businesses grow so they can serve more people in need.

 

McCarthy has worked at large enterprise recovery centers across the country spearheading business development teams. She has a wide range of experience, including transforming a third-party digital marketing and client acquisition services company into a full-continuum behavioral healthcare provider, managing several successful rebrands, and growing annual revenue fivefold.

 

As VP of Business Development, McCarthy leads a team of over 20 business development professionals nationwide. She manages client acquisition, coordinates in-service trainings with various referents and hospitals, and presents at conferences on addiction and mental health disorder treatment.

 

“Sadly, many individuals die waiting for access to life-saving behavioral healthcare services,” says McCarthy. “I am in relentless pursuit of better—better access, better care delivery and better outcomes. I consider it a privilege to work in an environment where miracles unfold daily.”

 

McCarthy lives in Maryland with her daughter.

Hometown: Saugus, MA

 

Passions & interests: The greatest passion of mine is being able to dig into the work with men in early recovery. There is nothing better than witnessing and being a part of the change. My journey in long-term recovery has taught me to value the little things in life that I am now able to do. I love to do anything that allows me to be present with my wife, family, and friends. My wife and I enjoy traveling, trying new foods, and taking long motorcycle rides with our friends. If I am not on the road working or with my wife, I am studying or playing softball.

 

The best part of my job is being able to show up for my team and clients; they all mean the world to me. I get to brainstorm and strategize with tons of different personalities. A lot of the team does not know, but I love learning from them. If I am not learning something about our industry or workplace, I am certainly learning how to effectively collaborate with different types of individuals.

 

Together, we can change the narrative and be a part of the solution to better treat those trapped in the problem.

Allison was born in Columbus, Ohio and was raised in South Florida. She graduated from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. After college, Allison started working at the largest talent agency in the world, William Morris Endeavor. There, she learned marketing from top leaders specializing in global PR and endorsement campaigns, in both the Latin and English markets.

 

Through strategic public relations and creative campaign concepts, Allison has secured more than 200 national broadcast and print media placements for behavioral healthcare organizations. She brings over 15 years of marketing and PR experience, with a strong background in leading communications strategy for addiction treatment and behavioral healthcare facilities. In her role as VP of Communications, she oversees branding, public relations, social media, marketing, events, and content creation.

 

In her spare time, she loves cooking, boating, yoga, and traveling. She and her husband Bryan reside in Boca Raton, Florida.

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Avi Burstein is VP of Clinical Services at Amatus Health. He manages all therapeutic programming at all facilities nationwide.

 

Avi is originally from New York, and graduated from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He brings over 13 years of experience in the Behavioral Healthcare Industry, in both the public and private sectors. He is passionate about therapeutic communities and the fellowship they foster between patients. Through his work in LGBTQIA, urban, rural, and religiously observant populations, Avi recognizes that each patient is unique. Therefore, he strives to ensure clinical approaches, staffing, administration, and education meet the expectation of each community Amatus Health serves.

 

“Our work must also include ending the societal stigma surrounding such conditions by building safe and supportive networks that include clients’ families whenever possible,” Avi said. “By valuing change and owning imperfections, we can strive to be better providers and walk through the door of recovery with our clients.”

Avi Burstein is VP of Clinical Services at Amatus Health. He manages all therapeutic programming at all facilities nationwide.

 

Avi is originally from New York, and graduated from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He brings over 13 years of experience in the Behavioral Healthcare Industry, in both the public and private sectors. He is passionate about therapeutic communities and the fellowship they foster between patients. Through his work in LGBTQIA, urban, rural, and religiously observant populations, Avi recognizes that each patient is unique. Therefore, he strives to ensure clinical approaches, staffing, administration, and education meet the expectation of each community Amatus Health serves.

 

“Our work must also include ending the societal stigma surrounding such conditions by building safe and supportive networks that include clients’ families whenever possible,” Avi said. “By valuing change and owning imperfections, we can strive to be better providers and walk through the door of recovery with our clients.”

Marty Markovits is the Chief Information Officer at TruHealing. He oversees the people, processes, and technologies of the whole organization to ensure the business is running smoothly.

 

Markovits grew up in Brooklyn, NY (which he calls “the greatest city on Earth”) and graduated with a degree in Clinical Psychology from Queens College.

 

Markovits is a veteran in Information Technology within the healthcare field. He ensures that IT processes are simple, cost-effective, and secure. His expertise spans the entire healthcare domain, from billing and claims, to clinical, to Human Resources. He says, “My passion is to provide fully automated and operationally meaningful Business Intelligence analytics, with absolute data integrity.”

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Hometown: Savannah, GA

 

Passions & Interests: I spend my time outside of work with my wife and children and am actively involved in various community needs and causes.

 

The best part of my job is knowing that we are creating a safe, healthy, nonjudgmental environment where people can come and better their lives. There is nothing more satisfying than helping others learn to live again and piece their lives back together as they become strong, productive members of society.

Together, we can bring families back together and promote healing and well-being.

MARK GOLD, CEO OF AMATUS HEALTH BIOGRAPHY

With over 16 years of proven executive leadership and driving company growth, Mark Gold’s momentum for success isn’t slowing down anytime soon. He serves as the CEO of Amatus Health, one of the fastest-growing, behavioral healthcare organizations in the country.

Possessing an excellent handling of clinical compliance and high performance standards, Mark established 14 CARF/JCT accredited addiction and mental health treatment centers and three ancillary healthcare businesses. Mark’s natural leadership skills as well as his creative thought process to generate new revenue strategies make him one of the most sought-after professionals in healthcare. Mark has a track record of leading organizations to outstanding ROI on overall portfolio performance. In addition, his expertise includes workforce planning, growth revenue, high client and investor satisfaction.

Aside from daily business oversight, Mark invests in his staff and helps build their professional development. His commitment to his colleagues and employees toward advancement and inclusiveness helps them achieve goals, builds connections, and provides a competitive advantage in the healthcare field.

Corporate and Charitable Leadership

Mark has been instrumental in building healthy communities and providing access and quality healthcare to underserved populations. His service in the community is a testament to his passion and selfless dedication to the cause of eradicating addictive disorders and stigma.

He launched several prevention and education programs and created the first-ever “Social Justice” scholarship fund of over $750,000.00 to help communities of color into inpatient drug treatment. Mark says, “The best part of my role is the knowledge that what we do impacts countless lives, with far-reaching effects,” he said. “It is incredibly rewarding to be part of a team that guides individuals onto a safe and accessible path to healing and recovery.”

He is a board member of Ahavas Chaim, a non-profit that offers at-risk teenagers crisis intervention and mental health support. He is also a committee member of the organizations Bonei Olam and Chai Lifeline Mid-Atlantic.

Personal and Educational Background

Mark studied Talmudic Law at Yeshiva’s Mir Yerushalayim in Israel. In Mark’s free time, he loves snowboarding, boating, and spending time with his wife and children.