After playing Julie on the groundbreaking show, “One Day at a Time,” actress Mackenzie Phillips’ life took a dark turn. She spent decades struggling with addiction and relapsing multiple times. But today, Phillips is living a happy, sober life, working as a drug and alcohol counselor — and she’s committed to helping people find hope again.
Phillips recently launched a new podcast, “America Recovers,” with interventionist Brad Lamm, her co-worker at the Breathe Life Healing Center in Los Angeles.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
HealthyWomen: Can you give me a brief sketch of your history with addiction?
Mackenzie Phillips: Well, I was very much into substances, like heroin, cocaine, pills. And, of course, alcohol was always there. And during times where I wasn’t using other drugs — because alcohol is a drug — my alcohol use would ramp up. And then when I would start using the other drugs again, I wouldn’t drink. And then when I would put down the other drugs, I would start drinking again. They really go hand in hand.
I come from a long line of addicts and alcoholics. My father [John Phillips from The Mamas and The Papas, the popular pop band from the ’70s] was a very severe addict and certainly an alcoholic.
I started using drugs when I was a child and continued to struggle as my addiction progressed for many, many years. The first time I went to treatment, I was 18, and I was fired from [the TV show] “One Day at a Time” twice for having what I would characterize as a raging substance use disorder. And back in those days, they would fire you. I was an older teen and then a young adult, and they didn’t really know what to do with me. They were just like, “Stop it.”
And I was like, “I don’t know how!” And they said, “Well, we’re going to suspend you. And off you go. Pull yourself together, and then come back to work in two weeks.” And I would go back to “One Day at a Time,” having had my hair done and my teeth cleaned, and not even understanding that there was work to be done internally, not externally, to help me not use drugs. And it took me many, many years to do the internal work.
At one time in my life, from the age of 32 to 42, I was clean and sober, and then I had a rather public and disastrous relapse that ended in felony narcotics possession charges in 2008. And I went to treatment yet again, and things have been very glorious and good since 2008.
I made a shift in my career, and I went back to school and became a counselor and started working in the field of drug and alcohol and trauma treatment. I have been working in that field for eight years, and I wrote a second book that came out in 2017, called “Hopeful Healing,” and have done the new One Day at a Time on Netflix and Pop TV, and a full season of Orange Is the New Black, all while continuing to work at Breathe Life Healing Center in West Hollywood.
So that’s a long-winded, encapsulated version of my struggles with addiction.
HealthyWomen: Is there anything else that you want to mention, in particular to women?
Mackenzie Phillips: Well, I know that women traditionally don’t seek treatment. It’s like a dirty little secret. It goes all the way back to The Rolling Stones song “Mother’s Little Helper.” “She goes running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper. And it helps her on her way through her very busy day,” which is about benzodiazepines. Society has made women think that they cannot take care of themselves; they have to focus on taking care of others, and I think that is one of the barriers to women seeking treatment. And certainly during the pandemic, we have seen alcohol skyrocket in the home, and people who never drank, mommies with their wine and that type of thing, quite a few of them have crawled into a bottle during the lockdowns. And now that things are opening up again, they’re trying to figure out how to crawl back out.
HealthyWomen: There was a rise in alcoholic liver disease among young women last year. As you are working as a counselor, would you attribute the rise to the pandemic or not being able to leave the house?
Mackenzie Phillips: Well, I think it’s a perfect storm of conditions. Of course, the pandemic, not being able to leave the house, not knowing how to cope with this horrible new normal, and turning to what had previously been a benign way to cope, but with the stay-at-home orders and all that kind of stuff, it seems like a good idea to have a glass of wine at 11:00 a.m. maybe. Initially, it helped people cope with this unprecedented way of being, but it is something that can become problematic rather quickly, and the horror and the thought of this huge spike in young women with cirrhosis is, I think, directly related to the pandemic and lack of healthy coping skills.
HealthyWomen: Can you speak about your own experience going through Covid-19 as it relates to your addictions?
Mackenzie Phillips: Well, I’ve been sober a long time, but that doesn’t mean anything. Time doesn’t necessarily heal or treat alcoholism and addiction — because if it did, no one would ever relapse. So during the pandemic I had to work from home for months. Because I have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] from many years of smoking, I had to be extra careful. And that was interesting to me because I’m a doer. I have trouble sitting still. I need to be doing something all the time, and so I found myself in my home, which is a lovely home, it’s a nice place to be trapped, but working from my living room was challenging for me.
But at the same time, it certainly didn’t make me want to drink or get loaded. I’m blessed that that has not been my path in recovery. I do not wake up thinking, “Oh, my God, how am I going to get through the day without a drug or a drink?” It’s just not the way my recovery has been, but I know that a lot of people struggled, and a lot of people picked up a drink or a drug, and I’m grateful to say that that’s not my struggle.
There were so many, for me personally, positive things that came out of having to work from home for those months. I actually slowed down enough to look around my house and go, “Oh, my gosh,” I have been so focused on my career that there are so many things I didn’t even notice that were going on in my house. I started to actually become a more present person in my own home, and that was something that I’m grateful for. I was able to slow down and spend time with my animals, and play a lot of board games with my adult son that I live with. And I know that it could have gone very differently for me with my history, but it didn’t.
HealthyWomen: Do you think telehealth and/or virtual meetings can play a larger role in helping people with addictions going forward after Covid-19?
Mackenzie Phillips: That’s an interesting question. I know that a lot of people struggled with the virtual aspect of recovery-based meetings because we want to connect with people because if active addiction is isolation, then recovery must be connection. And so it’s been hard for a lot of people, but I think that this is going to be really nice and wonderful when people can attend recovery-based meetings in person again, which is about to happen any minute, but I also do believe that the virtual aspect of that will continue because it seems a lot of people that I know have been attending their therapy via Zoom.
For some people, it works great because they don’t have to get in the car, sit in the waiting room, spend an hour, then drive home in traffic. They love it, it works for them. It’s great. A lot of other people do not thrive in that type of [situation]. They need to be face-to-face. They need to be in the room with the person. I think we are irrevocably changed in that working from home and attending telehealth, attending recovery-based meetings virtually, is going to continue to be a thing. But there will be the option of in-person. So I think it’s really based on an individual’s preferences and how they respond.
HealthyWomen: And you yourself, have you been attending meetings virtually?
Mackenzie Phillips: I have attended virtual meetings, absolutely. One way or the other, it’s fine by me. I kind of like virtual because I can attend in my pajamas and not turn my camera on if I don’t want to. I can just listen. This is weird to even talk about, but being a recognizable person, being in the meetings in person, people pay more attention to you or ask you to share or need a meeting just because you’re there, and you can kind of be more anonymous if you want. I can be more anonymous if I want, attending virtually.
HealthyWomen: You’ve been very open about your struggle with addiction and your sobriety journey, including your relapses. Given your own experiences, what advice would you give to other women who are struggling with addiction and trying to stay sober, including women who have relapsed?
Mackenzie Phillips: Well, I think for women, we are the caregivers, we are the nurturers. We would rather care for someone else than take time for our own self-care. And I realized at some point during my recovery that the quality of my recovery would be predicated upon my ability to practice radical self-care, to take time for myself, to have a balance between caregiving and caretaking of self — because I think that’s really important. And you know, when you think of self-care, yeah, you think of a massage, a bubble bath, and a pedicure, but also a time for yourself. Take time to learn to meditate, to practice meditation, to go on mindful walks, to do things for yourself so that you can be more able to be present with and for others.
I think that, especially for women who have relapsed, there’s an element of shame, so we hide what’s really going on in order to continue to be that sort of sacred vessel of motherhood or womanhood. And everybody hurts, everybody struggles, and we don’t need to struggle or suffer in silence. There are so many ways to get help. There are so many resources out there. We talk a lot about this struggle on America Recovers, and we talk a lot about the struggles of women. We actually talk to a lot of women on the podcast now that I think about it, more women than men.
HealthyWomen: What was the impetus for the podcast, and what are your goals with it?
Mackenzie Phillips: The impetus for it was that Brad and I worked together at Breathe Life Healing Center. Our offices are two doors away from each other, and we’re with each other every day, and we have these lively conversations about patient care and recovery. We go out and speak at different conferences in different places.
Brad came up with this podcast because we have such a lively friendship and working relationship, and he thought we could turn that into a resource for people, a landing spot for people who are addicted, afflicted or affected in some way by substance use disorder or mental health struggles — and all different forms of recovery are available for all different forms of struggle. So, Brad spearheaded the whole idea. I’m just along for the ride. But it’s been an incredible thing to do together.
HealthyWomen: What’s the hardest part of maintaining your sobriety? What do you do every day for yourself and your health?
Mackenzie Phillips: What do I do every day for myself and my health? I help others. I help others, because I can’t keep it unless I give it away. The best way to get out of self-obsession is to help another person. And that’s what’s so beautiful about working in treatment, is that all day long I am problem-solving about how to help somebody else, because the most powerful thing about this is that I know the address is hell. I have been there. But I also know the way out. So, if I can be any type of inspiration or hope to lead someone out of a dark place, that is the most powerful thing I do for my recovery every day — to be available to help somebody else.
HealthyWomen: How can we better support people we love with addiction?
Mackenzie Phillips: That’s a really good question. Addiction is a family problem because, if you think about it, in the middle is the person with the substance use disorder, and all the attention — whether it be finger-pointing or “What are we going to do?” or enabling — is put on that person, which is a stress on the family system. Everybody gets sick to a degree, whether it be with codependency or enabling or rescuing the person who is burning down their life. So, there are resources for family members such as Al-Anon and Alateen, which is for the kids to deal with their own issues relating to the person who’s struggling with alcoholism or addiction. People need to understand that alcoholism and addiction are not moral issues. We get confused. It is a relapsing brain disorder of the reward system. And people get confused because the behavior exhibited by people who struggle with substance use disorder is so rigid and can be so distressing, and so we identify it as a moral fail, when in fact, it is a cry for help. Most people who struggle with addictive disorders have a history of complex trauma and adverse childhood experiences, and if those aren’t addressed, the problem will persist in some shape or form.