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In 2017, Kelley Kitley courageously published her autobiography ‘MY self.’ ‘MY self’ is described as a near-mythical Phoenix rising tale of triumph against easily considered insurmountable odds, such as an eating disorder, sexual assault, and alcohol abuse that plunged her deeper into the abyss. Far from another crash-and-burn autobiography of grief, ‘MY self’ lays bare the vulnerability and isolation unique to Kitley and women while revealing the transformation of loss into a surplus of riches beyond even the author’s wildest imagination.
Kelley’s book led to the production of their film ‘Gray Area,’ where Ryan Kitley played himself in this raw and powerful movie. Kelley and Ryan share how they navigated people’s reactions to being public about their journey. We discuss the journey of alcohol abuse and recovery, highlighting the different viewpoints experienced by each person within a couple going through this together. 
This episode reminds us of our humanity; we can watch the same movie, feel different feelings, and experience diverse focal points. The truth is that each perspective is accurate.

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See Full Transcript Below.


00:01

You’re listening to The Embrace Family Recovery Podcast a place for real conversations with people who love someone with the disease of addiction. Now here is your host, Margaret Swift Thompson.

Intro:   Welcome back in today’s episode of the Embrace Family Recovery Podcast we will continue our conversation with Kelley and Ryan Kitley. We will hear them share their experience of creating their film, ‘Gray Area’ about Kelley’s problematic drinking and recovery journey. We share about the different viewpoints experienced within a couple on this journey together.

Let’s get back to Kelley and Ryan.

01:43

The Embrace Family Recovery Podcast

Margaret  02:00

So, the two passions you both follow our Ryan you’re acting you’re directing the work you do you love and Kelly, your clinical work with others but your own sharing your message getting it out there that there’s hope for women in recovery. 

Kelley:  Absolutely.

Margaret:  Pretty amazing. What pushback Did you receive for putting your story out there that way?

Ryan:  Ooof

Kelley  02:21

Well, it started with the book. I mean, nobody’s family wants them to write an autobiography.

Margaret:  Which is called? 

Kelley:  MY self.

Margaret  02:29

And those will all be promoted. I’ll put everything by the way. For my listeners, all the links to all of this will be on the podcast. 

Kelley:  Thank you. 

Margaret:  You wrote the book first. So, the pushback started? How long before the movie did you write the book?

Kelley  02:40

Um, maybe five years. 

Margaret:  Okay. 

Kelley:  And it was supposed to be sooner than that. But it was only supposed to be three years after and then COVID hit. So, we had to pause. It was like the week COVID Hit we were supposed to shoot. 

Margaret:  Wow. 

Kelley:  And so, we waited, gosh, like two years until we were able to actually go into production. But I don’t think anybody gave us really pushed back about the film, because I think they were really interested in us producing something together. And once the book was out there, it was like a book feels more intimate to me in a lot of ways because it’s more in depth. And it’s one on one. And the film only covers a portion of the book, since it’s a short film. So, I mean, the pushback I got from colleagues was that a therapist releasing an autobiography would ruin my career, and my clients would be shocked about my story. And I’m supposed to be the expert, not the person in the trenches. And I think that’s shifted.

Margaret  03:45

Can we talk about that a minute, because I have such a strong reaction to that. But that’s my bias too, because I went from a working person in therapeutic world, where you were the blank slate to landing in Hazelden Betty Ford, where I got to be open about my recovery, along with my clinical chops, right. Like, I don’t think you have to do one or the other. Where has that gone for you? Has that proven to be true that people disrespected or shocked or didn’t want their clinician to be not an expert? Like, have you had a negative reaction from your clients?

Kelley  04:16

No, it’s done the total opposite. I mean, there were people who read my book that were long term clients of mine who really didn’t know a whole lot other than I was married and had kids. 

Margaret:  Right? 

Kelley:  That were like, okay, now I can talk about my drinking. 

Margaret:  Thank you. 

Kelley:  Yeah, it did. It did the absolute opposite. 

Margaret:  So, no regret on that level. 

Kelley:  No regret. And you know, for me, too, for everybody listening, being able to share this on a larger platform with the media attention, just in shining a light on this parent drinking culture, for me has been so tremendous, because I felt like I was so alone for so long in this. And I got sober we were right on the cusp of like, the Sober Curious Movement labeling things as gray area. And so, for me, it was like, let me go down to the checklist, do I qualify as I wasn’t alcohol dependent, I wasn’t physically addicted. And so, I’d be like, Oh, I’m fine. I just drink too much. And so to be able to call it something that felt better to me, that was kind of you are or you aren’t an alcoholic or not, it was like, there are a whole host of problems that are coming up in my life associated with my drinking, that really gave me the opportunity to change the conversation and all these other people saying like, oh, my gosh, that’s my story, or I drink similarly to you. 

And I think we’re looking at alcohol more as a whole health perspective now, which I’m grateful for. And I do think drinking may become similar to the way cigarettes have kind of phased out in a lot of communities. I don’t know.

Margaret  05:57

Wow, I would love that. You have more optimism on that than I do. I would guess is my answer to that (laughter)

The fact that we spend so much time talking about opiates, and fentanyl, which are absolutely a crisis. But we don’t talk about the crisis of alcoholism and how many people we lose to that. 

Kelley:  Yeah, 

Margaret:  Says we’ve got a long way to go, before we get to a point of tobacco. Hey, I’ll take it if it happens, that’ll be great. So gray area was probably one of the most, I don’t even know the words. I remember sitting there after you’d shown it. And I was trying to find my own words. And I had a hard time because we relate in our stories to a few things in your story. You know, there’s a history that we overlap, which came clear in your movie. I was struck by your willingness to put out there the ugly truth. Right, the willingness to put in your authenticity of what you experienced as a result of unmanageable drinking, whether alcoholic drinking or not, whatever the label. To put it out there in such a way that was honest, vulnerable, raw. takes courage that I don’t know that I have, Like, I have mad respect for you, that you were willing to put it out there. And I wonder if you ever questioned doing it ,once you made the decision? Once you put your pen to paper, once it then led to the movie? Did you ever go whoa, what have I done? 

Kelley:  Never. 

Ryan:  I did? 

Kelley:  Well, let’s talk about it. I can’t imagine. Okay, so Kelly never. So, Ryan, what’s your take?

Ryan  07:39

We’re very different in the fact that Kelly is an open book, and I am pretty private person. 

Margaret:  Okay. 

Ryan:  And I remember the night It premiered, when we showed it here in Oak Park, the room was filled with friends and family. And it was hard for me to sit in that room with people I loved, and strangers for them to see what they saw. Because oh, this is a reflection of me or this is you know, this is my experience too. Although, again, this is not my story. But I’m a big part of it. And it’s hard to see. I can almost read some people’s reaction, you know, their discomfort immediately after like. Oh, wow, that was a lot, you know, that kind of stuff. So yeah, I’m very proud of it. But it’s, it’s not easy to be that. For me. It’s not easy to be like, here, this is what’s going on behind closed doors. 

Margaret  08:40

Right. Right. Or you bring up something I want to go back to two thoughts. You know, I think that it’s the classic thing I hear from families who are like, so frustrated when they receive the Christmas cards that are so perfect of everybody else’s life. And they’re like, can we put out the truth. You certainly put out the truth. And I hear from family members with this disease. God, I wish more people did it because it’s refreshing, and I don’t have to feel so alone. And I don’t have to feel so ashamed. I can actually internalize this is a disease, and this did change me. And shoot I left my 18 month old home in a crib in the middle of winter in Wisconsin to go get enough for my next binge. I would never have done that normally, ever. Anything could have happened. I wouldn’t have made it home to her and some rationalization. She was in the crib. She was safe. That’s crazy behavior. We do stuff when we’re at the mercy of something that tells us we have to have it or else we won’t be okay. We do things we can’t believe we do. 

The other thing you just said that is really poignant. Ryan is families tell me this all the time. It’s their story, but I was a part of it. So, I don’t know how much to say, and I don’t know, what’s mine to share? So, have you felt that along the way, Ryan? Like where is my line in the sand? I mean, you said I’m private. I don’t tend to put my stuff out there but when it comes to in the hard times when they were happening, did you share with people were you able to find your people to share with about what it was like for you?

Ryan  10:07

Not so much? I don’t know. I guess I was raised to, you know, grin and bear it. 

Margaret:  Yeah. 

Ryan:  Get through it. It’s that’s kind of my upbringing and generation have to deal with it. You deal with it? If anybody I mean, I talked to Kelly about it, which is, you know, not necessarily the outlet I might have needed.

Margaret:  Right. 

Ryan:  And I also didn’t feel like I was a victim or struggling or, you know, because I’m like Kelly’s gone through this.

Margaret  10:36

Can you see it different? Now, when you watch the movie and watch the reaction of people around you? Can you see that they obviously see Kelly’s part. But they feel for you, because I absolutely walked out of that movie feeling for both of you.

Ryan  10:46

Yes, I can see that. I can see that. Yeah. And I mean, it was pretty accurate. There was some Hollywood to it. A little exaggeration, because it is a movie. But yeah, I can understand that.

Margaret  11:01

I think it’s also very telling, because as a family member, I’ve been on both sides of the coin. As you have Kelly, you tend to bypass your own emotional experience to be focused on the person who’s in the need. And so, it would make sense that at the time, you were grinning and baring it, pulling your bootstraps up, making sure everything was okay around it. Supporting your wife and her venture of trying to be well, that we don’t tend to see ourselves. That’s why I think I was so blown away by you acting it because I wondered if when you acted it, after you lived it, whether you had a different emotional reaction. Because you weren’t living in that crisis. And that scary point you were, you’re through it, but going back and reliving it would have brought up a different set of emotions. I imagined,

Ryan  11:46

Again, the idea of time. 

Margaret:  Yeah, 


Ryan:  A lot of time passed. And if this was done, you know, a few years after a lot of these incidents, then no, I think I would have been a mess. But I feel like we’ve come through a lot of the chaos and have smoothed out a lot of the rough edges over the years. But yeah, selfishly, I enjoyed it. Because I’m like, I’m on set, and I love acting.

Margaret:  you’re in your passion. 

Ryan:  Yeah. And then I like again, at the end of the night, I’m like, oh, wait a minute, we were talking about this and that and brought all this crap up. But it was fun. I was on set I was doing what I love.

Margaret:  Right.

12:26

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13:50

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Kelley  14:00

You know, I think in response to what Ryan was saying about, you know, not seeking his own support. Through this, he would come to open AA meetings with me. You know, and so like he was supporting me, and I did worry about that. But not worry about it, but like wanting to check in on him or he would say things like, Ah, it’s always about you. And it’s like, yeah, well, I mean, my drinking was about me, and so was my recovery. And so there was this piece of like, trying to balance it, where I wanted him to get the support that he needed, but he didn’t feel like he needed it. 

Margaret:  Right. 

Kelley:  So, I think that just speaks to what he was saying too about like it was my issue and I was working on, and he was trying to support me through it but so much of it is about like the whole family unit. Like I would go to a 630 Morning meeting on Sundays and that was like Sunday family movie morning. And that was like, you know, I would go to the meeting I do my fellowship to go out for breakfast, and like I knew on Sundays Ryan had the kids and they all knew mom was going to a meeting and like, that happened for a few years. So, I don’t know, maybe you got a lot from that in terms of like your connection with the kids or?

Ryan  15:15

Yeah, that was fine. I mean, I laid on the couch and watched movie.

Margaret  15:19

Had your time with them and connecting with them? Yeah, it’s really interesting, you know, because one of the things that I think stops family, and I love your input, of facing, the impact it had on them was because they’re so focused on wanting you, the identified person to be well, and that would be you, Kelly in this situation. And when the person starts getting well, it’s kind of like, well, they’re doing good. So, I’m okay now. And what I challenge families to look at is. True time, healing does help the whole family system. But it is a family illness, it imprints on everybody, the way we navigate the world, the way we look at the world, the way we treat ourselves, treat each other. So, I wonder, Ryan, if you could go back and do it different? Would you have sought support during? if you could have found something that fit you?

Ryan  16:19

Honestly, No, probably not knowing my personality? I? I mean, I just have I don’t know, I’m not proud of this. But I have a problem asked me for help there. I just do.

Margaret  16:33

And that would be what it would mean if you had sought it.

Ryan  16:36

Yeah, 

Margaret:  Fair enough. 

Ryan:  I think so. Like, hey, I can’t deal with this. I need some help. I didn’t feel like that was my role. I felt my role was, again, not that it’s this is all like, oh, my God, I supported you so much. I’m just saying, as far as your recovery, it was about okay. And maybe it was me taking the focus off of my drinking or issues that I have in my own life, saying, no, we need to help mom. 

Margaret  17:06

I think it’s very normal. In that situation. I felt the same way. I never identified that it was impacting me, because I was so fixated. There’s my language, fixated on trying to get him well, because it was going off the rails, even when he ended the relationship because we weren’t going to have a future and he wasn’t able to stop. I still, this is me, I still didn’t do my own looking at me, because I was “the healthy one.” Like in quotes, please. I was the healthy one, which I clearly was not. And I was still navigating ways to assist him even though the relationship was over. I mean, it took me hitting a wall of sorts to say, okay, I’m not functioning like I want to be functioning. And I want help. It doesn’t sound like you had that experience. That you were able to maneuver through this with your own skill set that worked for you, and still be supportive of your wife in a very respectful, communicative way, which is what you both have shared you did to navigate early recovery.

Ryan  18:09

Yeah. And it brings up the idea that, it was I mean, if I’m honest. It was tougher when Kelly was in her bad drinking days, than when she was in recovery, in terms of, oh, God, I felt like a babysitter. 

Margaret:  Correct. 

Ryan:  One night, I had a taxi driver thinking that I was taking some woman home from a bar to my place, where it was our place living together. And you know.

Margaret  18:40

They were worried about her vulnerability.

Ryan  18:43

They were worried about her. I said, no, I’m like, where I think we’re engaged at the time, helping her into our apartment to put you know, anyway.

Margaret  18:52

No, I hear you. And the way that somebody would interpret that was actually wonderful that they cared enough to be concerned. Yes. But in that situation, you were actually looking out for her not taking advantage of her.

Ryan  19:03

Yeah, yeah. So yeah, so the recovery stuff as much as it was a difference in our lives and our relationship. I quickly realized, oh, my gosh, this is kind of nice. 

Margaret:  There you go. 

Ryan:  Kelley is clear. And there was less messiness. There was less anger. And between both of us 

Kelley:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Margaret  19:22

And when you say that you almost say that apologetically. But any of us out there who’ve been through this know exactly what you’re talking about. We get so angry internally at ourselves when we’re living in it and not able to stop and change the behavior. Kelly, would you agree? I mean, the anger of not being able to make it better when you want it to make it better.

Kelley  19:41

Every day I said, I wanted to make it better. I tried to manage and control my drinking or tonight wasn’t going to be an episode or and then I couldn’t, which then made me feel worse. Yeah.

Margaret  19:54

And then the family side, it’s the same. It’s like, why is it not enough to do this or why can’t we just have one night be peaceful and not end up in a fight or an argument or people leaving the room because they’re going to fight or. I also think it’s that whole analogy when we’re living in it, you know, you’ve come to a boil and you’ve gotten so tolerant of intolerable behavior. You don’t realize how bad it is till you have some distance, and you look back and go, holy crap, this is so much better. 

Outro:  Come back next week for our final episode with Kelly and Ryan Kitley. We will talk more about their film ‘Gray Area’ and how they navigate this recovery journey with their beautiful children.

If hearing Kelly and Ryan’s story has inspired you to want to watch their movie you can access ‘Gray Area’ on YouTube, and I will have the link attached to the show notes.

I want to thank my guests for their courage and vulnerability and sharing parts of their story. 

Please find resources on my website, 

embracefamilyrecovery.com 

This is Margaret Swift Thompson. 

Until next time, please take care of you!