Three years ago, I was pretty sure my days were numbered. I drank too much. I worried too much. My thyroid was broken (although I didn’t know it at the time). I was living (though hardly alive) in Abu Dhabi with my family. I had no idea how to fix myself.
Until I did.
I quit drinking. Right then (March 28, 2015) and right there (the Middle East). I was inspired by two things: a country full of people who eschew alcohol and the arid landscape itself. I couldn’t have imagined on that fateful day that the story of a “swimmer who went dry in the desert” would eventually become a memoir called “DRYLAND: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety,” published April 2017.
All I knew back then was that I had to set my sights on a life without alcohol, as if it were a swimming race. A race that I had to win because my life depended on it. But a race with no finish line. Formerly a sprinter, I have since learned to go the distance with sobriety.
Three years later finds me feeling FANTASTIC. Happier and healthier than I ever been. I’m alive to tell many stories of triumph and territories, identity and landscape — not just the aforementioned one.
I’m living in the Middle East, again, with my family and we’re having one adventure after another. I love my job as Chief of Staff at Ajman University although I work every waking minute and barely pay attention to my family! (Sorry family, I’m all yours in Istanbul next week.)
Earlier this week, I found myself back in Kenya — a place where I was known as the PARTY GIRL OF THE CENTURY back in the late 1980s. Strolling around Nairobi, I passed a location of many of those parties — the Jacaranda Hotel. Looking at the entrance, I said these words out loud: THANK GOD THOSE WALLS AND TREES CAN’T TALK.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer during the out-of-control late eighties, a time known for a particular bad hairstyle called the Mullet and for cheap beer like Schlitz. This picture of me — with a mullet on my head and a Kenyan beer somewhere handy — was taken at the aforementioned Jacaranda Hotel on December 31, 1986. I’ll just leave it at that because some stories are better left untold. Although, come to think of it, a few are outlined in great detail in DRYLAND. (Did you just order it?)
Anyway, I returned to Kenya on March 22, 2018 so I could help Ajman University students build a playground at a church in Nairobi. (Yup, that’s right, a whole bunch of Muslim young people working on behalf of a whole bunch of Christian young people.) But my other agenda for going with them to Kenya was to hand-deliver brand new scholarship funds for Munzatsi Secondary School in Maragoli, where I taught back in the day.
The days of big hair and big wine glasses of Chardonnay may be over, but my connection to Munzatsi School still endures. I’m happy to report that this special scholarship fund will assist the most vulnerable kids in the village with their school fees. The Bercaw-Hansen Hope Fund is partially named for my husband’s friend Tommy Hansen who passed away a year ago at this time. Tom had a heart as big as Africa, so it seemed right to remember him in this way.
To officially receive the Bercaw-Hansen Hope Fund, my friend Ann Chirande (who is on the School Board of Munzasti) flew from Western Kenya to Nairobi to meet my flight from Dubai. In a little airport coffee shop at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, I handed her the symbolic big check to hold, and she handed me her newborn child to hold.
The second-best thing about this story is that I lived to tell it. So much could have happened to me in so many places, especially when I was drinking so much alcohol.
Even better than that? A three-month old baby named Nancy Stearns Hannela is alive in the world to tell her stories of love and courage too.