Jen V: Everything I Swore I’d Never Be
Jen Varner grew up swearing she’d never end up like her parents, whose struggles with addiction led to her neglect. But right before her eyes, Jen’s own relationship with alcohol began to escalate. She spent years drinking in secret, hiding her addiction from her friends and even the person she loved the most. Jen shares with Stephanie her journey of running from the shadow of her parents, until she could no longer deny who she had become.
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Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jen Varner
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:00
Just a heads up. This episode features some graphic details describing injuries.
Jen Varner 00:09
She walked in and just froze. She could see my face was completely split open, she can see my skull, and I was like you should see the bus.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:18
This is Jen Varner. It’s November 2016. And she’s lying in a hospital bed trying to make light of a very dark situation. Across from her sits the love of her life who is seeing her in the worst shape she’s ever been in. But once the well wishers leave and the injury on her face starts to slowly heal. Janice left with one striking realization.
Jen Varner 00:45
I had become everything I swore I would never be. It was an addict right and uncontrollable addict.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 01:04
This is Last Day, a show about the moments that change us. I’m your host Stephanie Wittels Wachs, today, the story of spending your entire life fighting against becoming the people who raised you, and how to turn things around once you realize you’ve lost the battle.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 01:30
Jen spent most of her childhood in Newman, California, a small town in the central part of the state. Her parents divorced when she was an infant, but to Jen, things felt pretty normal in her early years, primarily because both of her parents continued to show up for her very favorite thing as a kid.
Jen Varner 01:49
My big passion in my childhood was playing softball,
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 01:53
Oh my gosh, my daughter also, it really is all consuming, isn’t it?
Jen Varner 01:58
All consuming. And my parents always coached me I think I had one year prior to high school that I didn’t have my dad or mom as my coach. So to me, I just like was living life go into school trying to fit in in a town that has two stoplights in it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 02:12
Jen moves to Newman with her mom when she’s eight years old, and she settles nicely into her new life. But as she gets older, she starts to pick up on signs that something is off with her parents.
Jen Varner 02:26
When I had moved to New men, I was blissfully unaware of all of the problems that parents had or could have. Right, I was very sheltered, even by my older siblings, who later in life I found out had known my entire life that my parents were struggling with addiction and really just didn’t want me as the youngest to have to deal with it. But I’d say stepping into middle school, things started to change. And I started to question like, why my life was different. Like, my dad was drinking and driving with me in the car. And I just like knew that you weren’t supposed to talk about it. But it was happening like before, it would be like, Oh, he probably drink too much our antao. So we’re going to drive home and that’s fine. We’re just gonna pretend this isn’t happening. But every single time I was in the car with him, he was actively drinking, while driving me and my brother around. And we just didn’t speak about it. Not that we were ever asked to. But you just knew like this is a secret.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 03:29
Around the same time that she starts seeing her dad in a new light. Jen realizes something else. Even if her mom isn’t doing something as obvious as drinking and driving. She still has some secrets of her own.
Jen Varner 03:43
My mom was very consistent my entire life nine to five, went to work, picked us up, coached us for softball did the certain things. And then she picked me up from school one day and she was like, I don’t work there anymore. And I remember the day like walking and her meeting me and I was like, why are you here? I walk all the way home. And then you get home later. And she was like why don’t work at my job anymore. My mom didn’t have an actual job from that point on for the rest of my life.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 04:14
Was her behavior more erratic as well? Were there things that she was doing that were out of character?
Jen Varner 04:16
The erratic behavior I think just got more intense. My mom used to always kind of like distance herself for some time and we would know like, Oh, she’s sleeping don’t bug her. Right? Oh, she’s in her room, don’t bug her. I went into my mom’s room probably five times in my entire life. But she was spending a lot more time in her room out of the house less time with us. And that was kind of like the tip of everything changing.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 04:51
She doesn’t know it at the time, but Jen later learns that her mom had been using meth. Although she never saw her mom use she certainly saw the red flags, forgiveness, the absence. And by the time Jen gets to high school, one thing is certain. She never wants to end up like her parents.
Jen Varner 05:12
So I was so against drinking, actually, I knew my dad was an alcoholic, you don’t have to tell me like, that’s just is what it is. And I was like, if you drink, you will become your parents like that is what’s going to happen. And I just had that thought, in the back of my mind, I knew my mom had a drug problem. I didn’t know what the drug problem was, but I knew she had something. And I was like, it’s just not like things are off. So like, if you go down this path, it’s not going to be a good path for you. And then about 15 started hanging out with other friends that were newer, right? I knew that we grew up in a small town, you know, everybody, these are the friends that drink and smoke weed and use ecstasy. And so I actually started using ecstasy before drinking. I know backwards, it was easy to like, go out, have a good weekend, come home and just like not deal with my problems, because that’s what I was doing at that point going from, I’m not going to use any substances to well, these people seem to be having a really great time.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 06:23
Ecstasy quickly became Jen’s escape route. And by the time she got to high school, there was a lot she wanted to escape.
Jen Varner 06:32
At the end of my sophomore year, my dad had moved to Montana, he worked at a resort. And he was like, you can come here and work at the time, right? We had very little food in the house also, that’s when things got a lot harder for us, like I was mostly eating at school. And then he would come home. So I’m like, Yeah, I’m gonna go work. I’m gonna go make money. I’m gonna have like, a summer away. And my dad who drank every day, had bought me alcohol. And it was just like, the first time was like, cool, okay, it’s like a bottle of schnapps, whatever, and I drink one or two times before then, you know, like at parties, but it wasn’t regular. I was still very, like, alcohol isn’t gonna be great for you. I just knew it. And then I went from drinking like once or twice with my dad to by the end of that summer. My dad was buying me a bottle of alcohol every time he bought himself a bottle of alcohol, different size bottles, but he’d buy a fifth and he’d buy me a pint. And I went from drinking schnapps, once or twice a week with him to drinking Captain Morgan rum every day while he was drinking.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:39
How old are you?
Jen Varner 07:40
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:42
Okay, cool, cool.
Jen Varner 07:46
I know now it’s not normal. But when your dad right? It’s like, yeah, you can drink. It’s with me.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:51
Jen Varner 07:53
You’re like, sure.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:55
So you guys became drinking buddies, essentially.
Jen Varner 07:57
We became drinking buddies.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 08:00
When Jen returns to high school that fall, she pivots from getting alcohol from her dad, to getting alcohol from older kids. And that becomes the norm. After graduation, she’s drinking more days than she isn’t. Then she moved to the big city of San Francisco for art school.
Jen Varner 08:19
When I got there, I had friends who had already lived there for a little while. So they had people who could buy them alcohol and very quickly fell back into my same patterns of their older roommates were buying us alcohol, but it still wasn’t at the same rate, like they were like, let’s drink on the weekend. And I was still after. Let’s drink on a Tuesday. I don’t have work tonight. Let’s drink on every day. But I knew it was wrong. At that time in my life.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 08:47
And were you at that point comparing yourself like, okay, she doesn’t drink like I do. He drinks like I do. Were you were you sort of, in your own mind really? Like, this is a thing? Or did you not even categorize it?
Jen Varner 08:54
In my mind? I did, I was measuring. And so I was actually starting that’s when I really started to only allow people to drink or see me drink a certain amount of time. So I was starting to drink by myself and in secret one because I love to drink by myself, that sounds wild to say but I loved drinking alone.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:23
What did you love about it?
Jen Varner 09:24
Just the feeling of calm it gave me which is something I was striving for so desperately, and my life. It just allowed me to be at peace. And when I was drinking with other people, I was really watching how much I was doing that. So I wasn’t at peace. I wasn’t calm in those moments.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:46
Jen is paying for college on her own. And despite splitting a one room apartment with two other people. Money is still tight. I mean, at San Francisco, so she gets a job at Bath and Bodyworks where she meets a girl girl named Ali. Jen wants to be more than friends but Taylor’s oldest time. Ali has a boyfriend.
Jen Varner 10:09
He was in Peru actually he was traveling the world while she worked on their summer, which was allowed us to become friends. I had a crush on her from the moment I met her.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 10:18
Was there like, on your end flirtation?
Jen Varner 10:22
No, absolutely not. I actually was too afraid to speak to her. She thought I hated her for a good six months. She tells people all the time that her goal, every shift I worked was to make me talk to her because she was a supervisor, and I was just an associate. She was convinced I hated her. And she couldn’t understand why.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 10:45
Jen, her roommates and Ali who all worked at Bath and Bodyworks, they start to hang out together as one big work crew. And all the while Jen’s drinking, keeps escalating.
Jen Varner 10:56
I would drink in the morning when I woke up if I like didn’t have to go to work, because that helps fix your hangover. Right? If I had any alcohol left from people being over that weekend, when I got home from work, I would finish that. So at this point, I wasn’t going fully out of my way to get alcohol for myself every day. But if I had it, it would be drink within that day.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 11:21
Jen brushes off her drinking as normal college student behavior. I mean, that’s what college is for, right? staying up too late on a school night, getting drunk with your friends and then trying to pretend you’re not hungover during your 8am class. But at one point, the school, the work and the drinking become way too much for Jen to juggle.
Jen Varner 11:44
I was supposed to be in class, I went to work that morning, and I left to go to class. And they had been like, oh, like we need extra help all these things and ally who also at that point, I was like starting to become a supervisor and being put on the track to do that. She was the supervisor. She’s like texting me that they need help. Instead of walking into my next class, I was at school, I left and I went to work and I told my boss, I was now fully available to work whenever she needed. And it was just like a split decision where I was like this, I can’t do this anymore. Like I can’t continue down this path. And instead of giving up drinking, and, you know, continue school, I gave up school and continue drinking. I was doing decently at balancing work and drinking. At that time, Ali and her boyfriend separated, we did know that we had feelings for each other and had discussed it. And I’m moving up at work. And that was the thing I held on to so desperately was if you continue to be someone that’s seen as reliable, who they want to promote who I become a supervisor for the company, all these things, I then become an assistant manager for the company. And we are talking about when I’m Assistant Manager, me being a store manager. If I can do all of that and still drink my drinking is not a problem. Because I can pay all my bills, I can live this life I can afford it. When I kept looking at my parents who is so didn’t want to be and you look back at where I left my house, we didn’t have power in my home. We didn’t have water in my home. I lived in a house without power on water for years. And we had like a generator we return on for a few hours a day. I was like that’s addiction. People who can’t work who can’t support their family who can barely feed their children. That’s addiction. And if you’re not that you’re just someone who drinks and that’s fine.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 13:45
Listen, I follow this logic 100%. I mean, who among us hasn’t tried their damnedest to not become their parents, or, at the very least, to learn from their mistakes and not repeat them. But after dropping out of college, Jen is preoccupied with something bigger. And that is her blossoming relationship with Ali. So let me just clarify this relationship with you and Ali at this point. Have you crossed the lines of friendship?
Jen Varner 14:20
Yes, we were dating for quite some time, but in secret at the company, you were not allowed to work in the same district and date, which we did. And so that was kind of the logic behind it. Also, her going through her own journey of being in like a gay relationship was very difficult for her, which is fully understandable. There’s no pressure on that. But that is something that I took very hard as well as like, I couldn’t tell anyone we’re in a relationship. So people thought we were just best friends. But her and I were like, full on dating. She also lived with me and it came to a point where I wasn’t able to sustain the relationship because couldn’t keep doing everything I was doing. So once again, my life is just like boiling over and I was like cool Ali, if you’re not fully in this with me, we’re out. I’m just going to work and drink because those are my two fallbacks. And that’s when my drinking started to show to everyone around me who didn’t know it was such a problem.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 15:19
Ali and Jen separate, for now, at least. Meanwhile, Jen is still managing to move up the retail ladder and will soon be presented with a huge professional opportunity. But not before she hears some difficult feedback.
Jen Varner 15:36
I have my store manager, who tells me like, you’re out of control, you’re not showing up properly. If you’re going to be promoted, like we want you to do, or even continue to have a job with me. I need you to reel it in. I need you to show up. She actually told me the inability to rely on you is disappointing. And those words are something I will remember forever.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 16:02
Because of the drinking, is this, like, is there a direct line to that?
Jen Varner 16:06
It’s because I wasn’t showing up at work, because I was drinking. And to be honest, I was showing up to work drunk.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 16:13
So does that snap you out of it? She tells you you’re disappointing me you need to show up better do you start showing up better?
Jen Varner 16:20
I do I do for the last few months of 2015. I was like you can’t allow this. Emotions you’re having because you and Ali or whatever things that you don’t want to deal with from your life to continue to ruin your life. Because if you lose your job, you are going to be what you don’t want.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 16:38
Jen manages to curb her drinking. She’s not showing up to work drunk, just hung over, which for her is good enough. And she’s promoted, she gets to manage her own Bath and Bodyworks store 30 minutes away. After successfully running that store, she gets an even bigger opportunity.
Jen Varner 16:58
The holiday of 2015 I was given an opportunity to run the biggest store in our district. But that was in San Jose. I lived in San Francisco. The offer was for them to rent me a car and commute every single day to San Jose, which is not a fun drive. But that’s also something I couldn’t do while drinking. So it curved it but once again only for a little bit because I have my whole life seen someone drink and drive. So I started off very strong. commuting to San Jose, which is two hours on a good day working 10 to 12 hour shifts because it’s holiday commuting two hours home. At this point, I have different roommates. Ali lives down the street, Ali and I are now dating again. We’d gotten back together the summer of 2015. I basically don’t even live at my house, I just go to work, go and sleep next to Ali and get up and do it all over again the next day. But at the end of my time, I was running that store in San Jose, I was drinking on my way to work and on my home and my car.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 18:08
Did you think about like, oh yeah, this is what my dad used to do. Like was that? Was there any like whisper of that, or any awareness or shadow of that coming up for you?
Jen Varner 18:18
There was and it kept being but you have a job can pay all your bills, right? It’s fine. Yet, it’s not fine. Like I knew like I couldn’t tell anybody. Yeah, like no one can know I was doing this. This is if someone told me they were doing this, I would be so upset with them so disappointed. But I kept justifying everything in my head. And everything I did revolved about when I could drink how I could drink.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 18:45
At the rate she’s drinking, Jen can no longer adequately run the San Jose Bath and Bodyworks store. She realizes she’s being a bad manager, even though she prides herself on taking care of her employees. So she quits retail altogether. Her next job waiting tables at a bar and restaurant.
Jen Varner 19:07
The great part about working there is that you were allowed to drink during the second end of your shift. So a job that paid me and also allowed me to drink was like a shoo in in my mind. Plus, it was like you got two drinks per shift for only $1. And I was like you’re just making it cheaper for me also.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 19:23
Oh, yeah, that’s that. That was a that was a plus. That was a plus for you at the time.
Jen Varner 19:28
That was a plus. And I was like to see like if people are doing these things in the world. Like if you’re allowed to drink at work, some places like what I do couldn’t be that awful.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 19:37
It sounds like it’s just this constant stream of justifications, right? It’s like moving the what is the sports word, moving the field goal, moving the goalposts moving the goalpost, moving the goalposts and then being like, yeah, yeah, that makes sense that it’s there, right? It’s just like a constant math problem in your head of, well, I’m not as bad as this or if this is happening then that is.
Jen Varner 19:59
Exactly, it’s a cons, it was just a constant justification and where I had ended at that point or where I was in 2016. If I had tried to justify that four years prior, I’d be like, No, but I had just kept pushing it further and further.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 20:14
And at this point by the end of 2016, how often are you drinking like?
Jen Varner 20:19
Every single day.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 20:20
Every day, like, wake up, drink.
Jen Varner 20:23
Wake up drink. Vodka was my favorite thing. Because it was easy and quick, and I could just drink it straight. So I was drinking straight vodka on my walk to work. And then I would like get through the beginning of my day, like not actively always drinking, but halfway through your shift, you can have a drink. So you get three, four hours in, cool time for a drink. And then I would drink all day long until I was passed out from drinking, and went to sleep.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 21:01
We’re back. At this point, Jen’s entire life revolves around drinking, everything is spiraling, including her relationship with Ali, which at this point, is back off.
Jen Varner 21:15
On the time of me leaving Bath and Bodyworks Ali and I had broken up for the second time. But I was still very persistent in the fact that I wanted to be with her, she broke up with me because I was an alcoholic that was living an unsustainable life. And that is blatantly what she told me that she couldn’t do it anymore. I went to work, and then I was like, cool, I’m going to take Ali food at her job, right. So very actively like pursuing her, go to her work, she isn’t there, mind you, her work is a 30 minute commute outside of the city, take my stuff commute back home. At that time, I definitely was trying to curb my drinking, because I only had one drink at work. And I wasn’t drinking besides that. Because I also knew like, you’re not going to get back into this relationship without getting back to a normal state. And get off our immune system like our underground train in San Francisco. I’m trying to get home to drink. I also was like starting to go through withdrawal symptoms at that point in time when I wasn’t drinking enough. It was like a very fine balance of how do you cut back while also not starting to shake. So I remember what I was thinking that day. And it’s truly like you have alcohol at home. You have alcohol actually in your bag, but you’re trying to not drink it till you get home. And I was like but just get home and you can drink. And that was my only focus. One block into my walk home. There’s like a one way street where all the cars on this Walker going left down the one way it is a one way except for buses. There’s one lane for buses only that go right. So I look at all the cars going left no cars, and then I got across the street before I was supposed to it was not my turn. And I got hit by a bus that was driving through the intersection.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 23:12
I mean, just the sentence I got hit by a bus sounds like fiction.
Jen Varner 23:20
It sounds like a fake story. The next thing I remember is I come to strapped to like a gurney in the back of an ambulance. And one of my very good friends at the time who lived on the same block as me as well is in the ambulance with me. And she’s just telling me calm down. It’s okay, and I’m like, when did you get here? She wasn’t with me. So I just don’t understand time. I don’t understand anything. I don’t understand why I can’t move, bless her soul looks at me. She’s like, I need you to calm down. And I can hear other people talking. But she’s like, I need you to calm down. There is an accident. You’re on the way to the hospital. I’m with you. And then back out don’t remember anything. Wake up in the hospital. And I’m very in and out of consciousness at this point. Not fully even sure like what has happened, but I can’t feel anything. There’s no pain, there’s no nothing. I was on some very good medication at that point. Keep coming in and out of consciousness. And different people from my life are coming in and out of my hospital room. One of my best friends at the time. He walks in, and him and I were going through some rocky stuff because my drinking to be honest, I was distancing myself from a lot of people. And he walks in I’m like, Hey, he’s like, hey, and I’m cracking jokes. I think everything is funny. And then what really like grounds me and brings me to the fact that I have just been in an accident which I’m still not really sure what had happened to me in this time is Ali walks in the hospital room and her face just goes blank. And it like I can feel like when I say that I can feel the what I felt in that moment. Because no one else was showing a lot of emotion. She walked in and just froze. And I thought I was hilarious cuz she’s like, looks at me and she’s like, Babe, and I was like, you should see the bus.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 25:30
And it’s funny.
Jen Varner 25:32
Because at that point, I’m like, yeah, I also didn’t know the extensive my injury is at that point in time, she could see my face was completely split open, she can see my skull, through my eyes up towards like the side of my face, I have a pretty decent scar they did fabulous with. So my left foot, which can really only turn right was turned completely left and almost detached from my, my ankle.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 25:58
Oh my God. The days immediately after the accident are a total blur. The doctors do a skin graft to cover the wound on Jen’s foot. She’s bedridden, and under the influence of some very heavy painkillers. Ali, angel that she is visits her every single day. But Jen is still coming in and out of consciousness. And it’s not until a week or so later that she’s finally able to start unpacking what happened to her. And why.
Jen Varner 26:30
I was starting to be also asked all these questions about how were you run over? How are you hit, like what happened and I’m like sitting there in my brain thinking, all I was thinking about was drinking. But that’s not what I can tell anybody in my life. But I woke up one day after my skin graft, and was starting to really like, understand how I had gotten to this point. And I knew it was because of the drinking, like drinking has led me to this point. And I also knew there was still alcohol in my bag that never, like I never made it home and I forgot to drink it. And I knew I had to make a change. So I got up and like threw away the alcohol I had. And I remember like feeling so proud in that moment. That is not when I stopped drinking.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 27:18
I know there is something very cinematic about Jen being so focused on getting home and drinking that she literally doesn’t see the oncoming bus. Like anyone watching this movie could tell that the bus is supposed to be a wake up call for her character. And in the next scene, you’ll see her checking herself into rehab and starting her journey towards sobriety. That would be kind of a crappy movie, right? Because, as we know, that is not how recovery works. But Jen throwing away that bottle is her first ever baby step towards getting sober.
Jen Varner 27:57
Like if this is going to be the time that you make a change like this is the time you make a change, like trying to find a silver lining in the fact that I now do not know what my future looks like I was told that I could maybe never run again. I would never have 100% feeling back in my foot, which I don’t. But I had a lot of like big things ahead of me. I had to go to physical therapy just to be able to move my toes like the basic movement of being able to move your big toe made me cry the day I could do it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 28:30
Jen undergoes three surgeries while she’s in the hospital. Between resting and thinking about her life. After she gets discharged. She sees her 23rd birthday on the horizon. So she begs the doctors to let her out in time to celebrate. And luckily they do. So after 18 excruciating days in the hospital, Jen returns to the outside world with the intention that she is not going to drink. She doesn’t drink when her friends come over to celebrate her birthday. She doesn’t drink the next week or the week after that. But after three weeks, she takes herself to the liquor store, buys a drink, goes back to her apartment and opens it up alone. What was that? Like? I mean, that first time you went to the store and got it.
Jen Varner 29:23
I wasn’t even having physical symptoms, but mentally and emotionally was so broken. And I knew in my brain that alcohol would fix that. I had convinced myself that the only way I was going to feel better about the fact that the next six months I was told I wasn’t able to put pressure on my foot for six months or walk. The next six months of me sitting in this house by myself I had one roommate still at that time, but she worked. Ali would come over every day but we weren’t together still. All of these people that were around when I was in the hospital have lives to live. And I remember sitting on my bed, thinking I wasn’t gonna make it through this, if I had to not drink.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 30:12
For the next few months, Jen maintains what she calls a very good balance of vodka and Oxycontin. She is physically unable to work. So she gets on disability. Alone with nowhere to go, Jen resumes drinking regularly, nobody else knows, including Ali. And then at the beginning of 2017, Ali tells Jen, she’s decided to move to San Diego by herself.
Jen Varner 30:40
When the accident happened, she told me like she loved me very much. And she still very much was in love with me. But we were not in a place where we would succeed at us as a relationship. And on the day she moved, which no one really thought I was drinking, one of my friends brought alcohol over. And he was like, I know you’re trying to like, cut back and you haven’t been drinking a lot. But the love of your life just moved across the state. So we should probably drink. And we did. We drank that day. And he was like, you could start not drinking tomorrow. And I was like, Yeah, that sounds like a great play on to me. That is not what happened.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 31:18
Is Ali talking to you about sobriety? Like are you.
Jen Varner 31:23
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 31:24
What is that like, between you two?
Jen Varner 31:27
Occasionally, I would tell her like, oh, I had a beer. She’s like, why, like, why are you drinking? Granted, I was drinking all day, I was drinking beer and wine all day long. But I would kind of try and ease back that conversation. And she’s like, You cannot drink like you are not in a place like you are going to have to be completely sober. And the thought of that was so daunting that we used to fight about it. Because what do you mean? And how are you going to tell me I can’t drink if you can drink. But that’s because Ali’s not an alcoholic. But we talked about it, I want to say every week. And she told me right like she multiple conversations of how much she loved me and how much that this is a non negotiable and that also she at one point was like, we will never be together again. You cannot get sober for me, your sobriety will not change our relationship. You need to get sober for you. Or this will never work. Like you being alive will never work.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 32:25
Did you hear that? Or no?
Jen Varner 32:27
No. I thought you don’t even know that I’m drinking now How could you possibly know what I’m going through.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 32:34
Although this big part of Jen was snubbing Ali’s assessment, the other part of her really did want to cut back on her drinking, or try. Kind of.
Jen Varner 32:47
I was trying in my brain. Like I had convinced myself I was trying and that was good enough. I was not trying, I was like, cool, you’re only going to drink this much in a day, instead of this much. You’re only gonna drink like to this point in a day instead of this much. And I was visiting her staying at her apartment with her. And I was drinking throughout that day, but I was like significantly cutting back. And I was shaking. And so I was like, you’re like something’s wrong, right? Because we had gotten back to all of the symptoms, shaking sweats all of these things. And we are actually watching a Disney movie and working on a puzzle. And then I just remember seeing like a really bright light, and then nothing, and then once again, woke up strapped to a backboard, and Ali’s never been so upset in her life, maybe I don’t want to speak for her, but her emotions are heightened that day. Rightfully so.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 33:47
Because you had been telling her that you were sober, right? I mean.
Jen Varner 33:52
It. Exactly. So all of my lies came out, instantly knew I’d clearly been drinking. And not the last like year of me visiting her and telling her that I was doing better was all fake.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 34:11
Jen has a seizure right in front of Ali, which leads to a sprawling confession of everything, the secret drinking, how she went cold turkey every time she visited San Diego, all of it. Although it is a fairly difficult conversation for both of them. Jen’s confession is able to start clearing the air. Together, they talk through it and in 2018 they decide to try the relationship again. Jen is drinking every single day until the day she moved to San Diego to be with Ali. She actually makes the nine hour drive there while experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.
Jen Varner 34:56
But when I moved to San Diego I stopped drinking. And that was my cutoff for myself, cool, you’re gonna, you’re gonna actually stop drinking, you’re not gonna lie to her anymore. I lived in San Diego and I got my furthest ever of not drinking. I got a few months in two or three months. We were working on our relationship, right? We weren’t dating, I it was all weird. We’re not together, but we’re trying kinds of things, right. And one day, I had a rough day and Ali was busy. And I hadn’t ever gone through a meeting or done anything like that so I was like, cool, why don’t you just go buy a beer. And I remember, at that point, I hadn’t had my car yet, because I live in San Francisco with that one. And it was on the bus coming home from work. And I was like, you can just get off and go into this grocery store, buy a beer and walk down the beach with this beer. Who is this going to hurt? And the moment I made the, like, ask that question and said no one like there was nothing in the world that was gonna stop me. Yeah, because I had I’d flipped the switch. And I was gonna drink.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 36:05
That’s such a good way to describe that. What was it like when you had that first sip?
Jen Varner 36:10
It was magical. Which sounds awful. I know how bad it was.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 36:16
To talk about a Disney movie. I mean, yeah, I’m sure it.
Jen Varner 36:19
It felt magical. I was at the ocean. My favorite place to be the most calming thing to me is the ocean at the ocean by myself, which is how I prefer to drink because it suits calmest I can be when I drink drinking a beer, perfect ideal situation for me. So I did. I drank that whole tall can walk the beach, went home. Ali wasn’t home, totally fine by me went to bed thought I had gotten away with that thought I’d won. But that quickly turned into me drinking again, I immediately went back to this is an unsustainable lifestyle, where you are out of control and unable to show up for work, unable to do all of these things unable to make rent, unable to pay for this car I had gotten shortly after that, right. So I quickly went to being back right where I was when I had my seizure. Right where I was when I got hit by the bus.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 37:35
We’re back. Jen knows the bus accident, and the seizure are signs that she needs to stop drinking if she’s going to stay alive. But each time she’s tried to slam the brakes on her drinking, something happens that gets her back on the freeway, in the HOV lane on the fast track, you get it. And as things keep getting worse, Ali is pushing hard for Jen to get help. Which by this point is all the more intense because Jen has moved down the coastline to be with Ali so they can try to make this relationship work again.
Jen Varner 38:16
Ali and I were fighting a lot because she then found out I was drinking. Mind you, all of these fights are not like how dare you do this to me. She’s like, why are you doing this to yourself? Right? Like you realize you’re killing yourself. Because that’s why I was like had a seizure in front of her going through withdrawals every day, all of these things and the whole time. It was never about our relationship with her. She was like I like you don’t love yourself. How could I be with you? Because you can’t like she’s like you. I don’t know how, like, I can’t help you and watching you do you this is so difficult.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 38:56
Were you able to hear that though? I mean, when she was saying that to you like, you know, I mean, that’s an amazingly astute observation that she’s making. Are you able to hear it and receive it?
Jen Varner 39:06
It depended on the day. Some days, I was like, You are right. Like I am doing this to myself. I write and other days, I’m like, you don’t get it. I can’t function without it. But it started to be more so at that point in my life where I was hearing her than I was thinking you’re wrong, and that was a change.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 39:28
Jen is also losing her ability to separate her behavior from that of her parents. The line in the sand that differentiated her drinking from her parents addiction is getting fainter and fainter.
Jen Varner 39:43
At this point, I no longer have a relationship with my father in my life because his drinking had gotten so out of control that he was homeless. But then that also moved the bar further for me. Well, at least you’re not homeless. Oh gosh, and so for me to look at why I couldn’t have my parents in my life because of their addiction and then be exactly the same. That is when it really got to me. And we had that conversation like I had become everything I swore I would never be. It was an addict, right and uncontrollable addict.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 40:23
Under the surface, Jen’s thinking is starting to change little by little, but she is still drinking a lot. And everything comes to a head the night of a Halloween party.
Jen Varner 40:36
And I drove drunk there, blacked out while we were there, tried to drive me and Ali drunk home to this point, Ali doesn’t have her license didn’t have her license, then she did have her permit at that time, because she was trying to get her license had to drive us home while I was passed out in the passenger seat, because I couldn’t do so because I had gotten so intoxicated. And that is really where, yeah, the like, we’re we are done unless you make some changes unless you actually make some changes, not fake ones, because I had spent years telling her I was.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:18
What I don’t understand is that I’d love for you to try to illuminate for me getting hit by the bus didn’t work. Having the seizure didn’t work. How come this time worked.
Jen Varner 41:33
I think I truly did hear for the first time like I was going to die. And I felt that way. Like I felt like I was going to die. And it wasn’t like driving drunk that made me think I was gonna die. I just like knew, like, there was no further for me to go down. Like you said, if you look back at all these things that have happened to me, I should have either made a change or not. Or the bus should have been worse, you know what I mean? Or then the seizure should have made a change. Or it should have been worse, like so like, all of these things are happening to me. And I’m getting so close to not being able to make a change in my life. And I keep just pushing the limit further and further. And at the point of getting sober, like it wasn’t even the thought of losing Ali, I’d already lost Ali, I’d already Yeah, I lost her. We were done. I lived in San Diego didn’t have anyone here, just her. And I knew I just I didn’t want to be this anymore. There was no good, there was no calm. It stopped working. It stopped working the calm that I had that moment, that magical moment with the beer. The thing I strived for most in my life, like just like a pure moment of bliss. I couldn’t find with alcohol anymore.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 42:50
So after years of trying to get sober, Jen is finally able to seize this moment. And on November 10 2018, she walks into her first AAA meeting.
Jen Varner 43:04
I met a woman a wonderful woman and I wish I remembered her name, eyes can see her face in my head. But I was still so and I was in my first day of not drinking. I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts from that time. But she met me at the first meeting. And she was like, does anyone want help? Like not her but someone had said, Does anyone want help, like reach out there’s gonna be people standing at the back of the room, you could talk to you. I walked over and she like came up to me and she’s like, I could show you around. So I did go to like two or three meetings with her. And she was just telling me her story, right? She at that point was 30 years sober, older woman like in her late 60s, early 70s. And telling me about how her life had gotten like out of control drinking was unbearable, all of these things. And she was like so like don’t think about everything too hard. Like if you think about hitting 30 days, you’re never gonna get there if you think about hitting a you’re never gonna get there. She was like tomorrow I’ll meet you we’ll go to a meeting right? Make it till tomorrow.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 44:10
Before this, Jen had basically spent her entire life skeptical of AAA and the 12 step program. But instead of placing her trust in a higher power, this nice woman helped Jen place some trust in tomorrow.
Jen Varner 44:26
She does very much work the program live the program to a day’s meetings done all the steps are things that I knew I couldn’t do. And not because I couldn’t go to two meetings a day I think if there was a place for me and go and talk about my addiction twice a day that I felt comfortable I would love to do that. But the the steps the giving over to a higher power like it’s just not something that I could do authentically. But I just kept being like just one more day, just one more day. And eventually one more day then became thirty days, I had to reprogram my whole brain, I had always wanted to run a marathon, do a triathlon, actually talked about it with the doctors in the hospital, when they told me I may not be able to run. And I just kept trying to find anything that I could wholeheartedly do to take up the time and the space in my brain that alcohol did. Because alcohol took up 90% of my thought process, if not 100.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 45:26
Jen doesn’t stick with AAA for long, but it does give her a framework to keep going, she starts making big changes in her life. Even if it feels like a deeply destabilizing time to be making such big changes.
Jen Varner 45:43
I needed to be in a different place. I needed to break every routine I’d ever had and do something different. So Ali and I moved in together and got a new house, I started working out to work towards running, right because that’s a goal that I had had. And every day I still thought about drinking at this point in my life, like the first year of sobriety was, I honestly don’t know how it happened. Because during all of that time to all of the secrets I’d ever had about drinking like Ali and I had to talk about them. Ali can tell a story about something that had happened in our life. And I could tell her that story from my perspective of when and how I drink that day. And so we had to do that. And we had to learn like we moved in together, knowing that like this was a trial to see if we could even ever get back to a place where once you could trust me, two I could trust myself. I’d lied to everyone in my life, myself included. Trust with myself is actually still my biggest battle every day.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:49
Jen is working to regain that trust with herself and the people around her. That means following through on her promises, like being a caring, responsible manager at work or training for a marathon, which she completed this summer. Listen, do I understand runners? No, no, I don’t. But do I wholeheartedly respect them? And look at them with great all? Yes, yes, I do. So anyway, after a year of getting sober, Jen decides she wants to make Ali the biggest promise of her life. But first, she needs to talk to Ali’s mom and get her blessing.
Jen Varner 47:31
Are you relieved the scariest conversation I’ve ever had in my life?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 47:35
What did you say to her?
Jen Varner 47:38
I said I’ve been sober for a year, over a year at that point. And I was like, and I knew that if I could never make it to your point, I would have never asked this question. Like I trusted myself enough to knew that I was gonna continue down the journey, whatever it looked like, which I couldn’t have said before then.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 47:55
I mean, she clearly said, okay, yes. Because you did propose to.
Jen Varner 47:59
Ali didn’t say Yes, she did say she gave her blessing. I then proposed December 2019. And then it’s been a wild ride ever since.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 48:12
A wild ride. Indeed, when we talked, Jen was just two weeks away from her wedding date. And listen, we’ve been doing this show long enough to know you are not supposed to get sober for someone else. But Jen is adamant that she didn’t get sober for Ali, she got sober for herself. Because after the bus accident and the seizure, she wanted to stay alive. Jen has now been sober for five whole years. And getting to that point has less to do with the power of love, and everything to do with putting in the work.
Jen Varner 48:52
I think the biggest thing for me and Ali is that we both fully accepted that we would love each other forever and not be together. Because love does not make a relationship work. Everything after I mean getting sober was I want to say a bonus extra like not thought was ever going to happen. And then also brutal honesty. Ali knows all of the thoughts I have. And so there are days where I’m like, hey, like, I had a dream that I drink, right? That happens sometimes and I tell her and in the beginning she had to find a place of comfortability on like, does this mean you’re going to relapse? Is this you just filling me in on how you’re doing? And so now we’re more towards the latter where it’s like, okay, what does that mean for you? Okay, like what is your next few days look like? Like, are you gonna run planned? Are you doing these things? And vice versa, like Ali likes to go and have drinks with her friends and I fully support that. We have alcohol at her house. I don’t drink, I made her drink last night with dinner. Could I’ve done that in the first year? No, but there are certain boundaries I have, we can keep out on the house, it cannot be vodka. She can go out with her friends, I will go out with her sometimes on the days I can’t I communicate that. But yeah, it really is like being able to fall back on these things we’ve spent years discussing and putting into place. And now the fact that we’re getting married in 15 days is just the best thing.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 50:24
By the time you hear this episode, Jen and Ali have been married, they are together for ever off on a wonderful honeymoon and into the rest of their lives. But this wedding, it’s not just a day of love and joy for Jen, although I’m sure that it was. But it’s something that shows she’s made it. She’s gotten to this point.
Jen Varner 50:52
I honestly never thought I’d get to a place where I could get married. It’s something I’ve always wanted, like a stable relationship like growing up like Ali dropped out of a wedding, I dropped off like a stable marriage, which we joke about a lot, because it’s just something I’ve always wanted. And us getting married has really been like, full circle on us both being in a place where we could do that right and support each other in that. At the wedding, there’ll be alcohol. And there’s not one thought in my brain that that is a concern for me. She asked if we needed to do a no alcohol wedding. And I was like no, being able to actually be in a place where we’re both so ready to commit to this relationship which we’re all committed but like to actually be married to take that step to know that like we have put in all this work and all this love into this relationship. And it is for the rest of our lives. Blows my mind.
There’s even more LAST DAY with Apple premium subscribers get exclusive access to content like behind the scenes chats with the producers of the show, diving deeper into episodes. Sign up now on Apple podcasts. LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Tiffany Bui. Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Music is by Hannis Brown. Steve Nelson is our Vice President of weekly content and production and Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content and production. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. If you’d like what you heard today, we have three other seasons that you can check out. Have a story you’d like to share, head to bit.ly/lastdaystories, or click the link in the show notes to fill out our confidential Google Form. follow and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. You can find us online at @LemonadaMedia and you can find me at @WittelStephanie. Thank you for listening, we will see you next week