July 16, 2020

#TalkTherapy with Holly Whitaker, CEO and Founder of Tempest

Written by
Hadley Fuller
Reviewed by
Updated on

The pandemic has ushered in a new cadence and character of daily life, and has caused many of us to take stock of our routines and habits—including where and how we spend our evenings. Going out to bars, attending concerts, eating out, and even small gatherings at home are no longer possible.

These limitations to our social lives have led to higher rates of alcohol consumption, while some have taken this chance to rethink their relationship to drinking.

Tempest, founded by Holly Whitaker, is a modern digital recovery program that helps folks change their relationship with alcohol and evolves with them as they move through the recovery journey.

Long before shelter-in-place, though, Tempest opened up the conversation around sobriety. They believe alcohol consumption should not be the unchallenged norm, and that reconsidering your relationship to alcohol should be easy. They use evidence-based treatment and peer support to provide folks with the education, tools, and community they need, no matter where they are across the spectrum of problematic drinking and Alcohol Use Disorder.

When it comes down to it, the process of healing through psychotherapy, and recovery from addiction are mental health journeys that cannot be divorced from one another. Holly is a staunch advocate of both talk therapy, and recovering in community, as they relate to leading a fulfilling life—no matter what external circumstances a person may be facing. She shares more about her personal experience below.

A Conversation with Holly Whitaker, CEO and Founder of Tempest

What motivated you to start a company focused on helping people think critically about and improve their relationship to alcohol?

I started Tempest because of my own experience of getting sober back in 2012. There was so much wrong with the culture around drinking and the process to leaving it behind— from the narrative that we are “supposed” to be able to ingest a toxic substance (alcohol) and that there’s something wrong with us if we can’t make it work, to the extremely limited and archaic options available to us when we decide to make a change.

I wanted to create a beautiful experience that was far more affordable and accessible than traditional rehab, and I wanted people to be able to address an unhealthy relationship with alcohol earlier in the cycle— the average time from onset of dependence to treatment is ten years and I wanted to cut that down significantly, bring people into the conversation and process at the start of the problem, not the end of it.

My role as founder is to hold the vision for a human-centered, empowering and effective recovery solution, and to help a team of extremely talented and passionate folks execute against that vision.

How does the process of recovery relate to a person’s mental health and wellness?

I think the question is how does it not; recovery is about gaining agency over our mental health and wellbeing, about being participants in a path toward wholeness. Addressing behavioral issues like addiction naturally leads to addressing unresolved trauma, depression, anxiety, among other things like codependency.

Recovery is also powerful in that when it’s concepted holistically, we take into account not just psychological or physiological issues, but also socio-economic issues; everything in our lives that makes us sick has to be addressed if we hope to heal from addiction, and when we use that lens, we end up raising up all these other corners of our lives. It’s a web, it’s all connected.

Like mental health and therapy, the topics of alcohol use disorder and sobriety face social stigma—how do you envision the conversation shifting in the near or distant future?

A survey released a few years ago showed that 25% of people believed that a history of mental illness should bar someone from employment; 64% of the same population surveyed believed a history of addiction renders one unemployable. We’ve actually come a long way in terms of the conversation around mental health, but with addiction we are still in the dark ages. You still can’t casually say “I think my drinking is problematic” without it naturally leading to the question of whether or not you’re an alcoholic; we see addiction to alcohol in binary and absolute terms, alcoholic or normal drinker, and that leaves us scared to have conversations about our own drinking. This conversation is changing, but slowly.

What role does community play at Tempest and in recovery at large?

Community sustains recovery. Full stop. You cannot do it alone, you cannot do it without folks that share your experience and understand what you are going through. At Tempest, community is our center of gravity. Everything we do drives back to building a sense of belonging and shared meaning.

What is your relationship to mental health?

I have struggled with my mental health since grade school, my eating disorder started before I was in middle school, have always known depression, had severe panic attacks and agoraphobia in my twenties. Before I got sober, I believed it was because something was inherently wrong with me and the way my brain works. Today, I see my struggles as a gift, when I experience depression or anxiety, I move with it instead of against it, I am an active participant in my life and I continuously work to take care of myself, to give myself the best chance of showing up and being here for it all.

I think we often think of “mental wellness” as a balanced brain, a lack of depression, happiness, or other absolute terms. I don’t think of it that way; I don’t count on a happy life as a marker for having mental health. To me, it’s far more about accepting all the ways I am and all the experiences I have without putting a value judgment on them.

How does your mental health relate to your role as an entrepreneur?

If I am not taking care of myself, I cannot do my job. Conversely, the challenges of being a CEO are mighty, and I look to it all as grist for the mill; I can use situations that unfold, the stress of my job, as a gateway to more mental health and further balance. I’ve found that in this role, I can be dragged by it every which way, or I can use any situation to further practice detachment.

How has talk therapy factored into your life?

It saved my life. I resisted therapy for years because of a bad experience in my teens, and when I started trying to get sober, I worked with a few therapists until I found the right one. All of them held me through one of the most difficult and loneliest times of my life.

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