By THÉODEN JANES, The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) — Robbie Shaw is in the middle of trying to articulate a definition of the term “alcoholic” for a visitor to his Dilworth home. And by his own admission, the 45-year-old Charlotte native — who by any measure would have been considered a raging alcoholic when he was a younger man — is having a tough time.
“The reason for that is because it’s different for everybody,” Shaw says. “Somebody could say, ‘An alcoholic gets fired, loses money, screws up relationships, ends up in a gutter.’ Well, sure, that’s an alcoholic. But then there’s the guy that doesn’t have any of that stuff, that’s got tons of money, family is actually fairly intact. He could still be an alcoholic.
“It’s not about external consequences that make you, or make you not, an alcoholic,” he continues. The more important question, he says, is “What happens when you drink? … How is alcohol affecting you?”
Shaw could go on and on about this topic, and he often does — for 45 minutes to an hour at a time, every two weeks, on “Champagne Problems,” the alcohol-themed podcast that he helped create and co-hosts with Patrick Balsley and Samantha Hampson.
Since launching just shy of a year ago, the show has attracted a loyal following and solid reviews thanks to a variety of factors, from a wellness-focused approach that transcends the in-recovery community to a wide range of (often startlingly notable) to the hosts’ honesty, accessibility and levity.
In another year, Shaw thinks the show could have a shot at financial self-sustainability by way of sponsors and advertisers.
He knows it won’t be easy. But he also knows this: Nothing ever is.
‘IT WAS HELL ON EARTH’
Shaw is quick to suggest that his story isn’t that unique. “It’s not even close,” he says, “to the worst one I’ve ever heard.”
While perhaps true, it’s worth pointing out that, one, he’s heard a lot worse stories about addiction than the average person simply because he’s been around a lot more alcoholics than most of us; and two, the fact that his story isn’t unique — that it could be relatable to more people than one might expect — is perhaps why it’s so useful for him to share.
At the end of last year, he devoted an entire episode of “Champagne Problems” to his personal journey.
In it, Shaw recounts his first experiences with alcohol, as a sixth-grader at Alexander Graham Middle School near SouthPark who got sick, yet “couldn’t wait to do it again” because being under the influence felt so good to him.
He explains how he believes mental-health issues were passed down to him from his father, a depression sufferer, and asserts that “alcoholism wasn’t passed on to me … whatever was creating the need for alcohol was passed on to me. ” The onset of severe anxiety and depression in college, coupled with his alcohol addiction, caused him to ruin relationships; to develop habits involving other drugs; to fizzle in his role as a junior varsity basketball player at UNC-Chapel Hill; and to take 7-1/2 years to graduate.
His troubles continue to worsen after college, building to a crescendo with him in his late 20s — at the tail end of a 2006 bender that saw him kicked out of a friend’s house for being hammered, being arrested for (his fourth) DUI, and getting the shakes while waiting to get out of a drunk tank. He says he swallowed his last-ever sips of booze while being driven by a stranger to a detox center in Los Angeles.
What flipped the off-switch for him?
“I really wish I could explain it,” Shaw tells the Observer. “I think it just got to a place where it — you know, it’s the only way to stop something, is to find that space in your head where you truly do not want it anymore. … For me, it’s those memories of that story I told, of being out in California and really being in those last moments of my final night drinking. It was hell on earth. It was horrific.
“So that’s how I got to that place. I don’t ever want to feel that again.”
Just over three years after quitting drinking — armed with his freshly minted master’s from the University of Southern Maine — he was set to become a substance-abuse counselor and a licensed clinical professional counselor.
He was eager to give back to the world.
‘I FEEL LIKE I HAVE AN OBLIGATION’
Before he could get the certifications he needed to enter his new vocation, he and his wife Ashley McDonell welcomed their first and only child, daughter Finley; and Shaw chose to put his plans on the back burner, to be a stay-at-home dad.
But around the time his daughter was 2 years old, Shaw suddenly found himself struggling again. On two separate occasions, following both a major oral surgery and the rupturing of two discs in his back, doctors prescribed opioids. Both times, he wound up abusing them.
“’Whoa, this makes me feel a little different,’” Shaw remembers thinking to himself. “I can get used to this.” All of a sudden, every time I don’t feel very good, ‘Oooo, I know something that makes me feel better. … I want to feel different right —” he snaps his fingers” — now. ‘Cause I hate how I feel right now.’
Fortunately, he says, he recognized and addressed his problem before it became a destructive one. He says he hasn’t taken pills in years.
And after he re-entered recovery, Shaw was ready to try to help others again. But instead of counseling, he decided to wade into coaching — sobriety coaching, recovery coaching, family recovery coaching, wellness coaching, etc. — which he says was “a much more suitable fit for me and what I was looking to do — which was, essentially, save lives.”
He even started to believe he might have a book in him.
“From the day I was born, to today, alcohol has played a part in my life,” Shaw says. “With that … I thought, Man, I am in a unique position. I’m not sure I could know any more about alcohol. That’s not true, but it just feels that way. … And I feel like I have an obligation, a responsibility, to share these things.”
He started trying to write it about three years ago. Early in the process, though, he sought advice from an author friend, and that friend had a suggestion: If he hoped to maximize an audience for a book, he needed to be viewed as some sort of an authority who had some sort of a following.
So, this person asked him, how about a podcast?
FINDING SUCCESS — AND A SENSE OF PEACE
Shaw warmed to the idea quickly, and started moving toward getting it off the ground in earnest in late 2020.
He was introduced to his first co-host — Balsley, a Charlotte-based alcohol and drug counselor and a recovering alcoholic, himself — through some mutual friends. Then, after deciding the show shouldn’t just revolve around two white men who don’t drink, he tapped Hampson, a licensed clinical addictions specialist in the area who does drink.
After a whole lot of brainstorming, he says they decided to avoid making it a how-to-quit-drinking podcast, instead of coming at it “from a wellness perspective. Let’s look at it from a place that everybody can get on board with. Let’s not just say, ‘This is about alcohol and how bad it is for you.’ Let’s provide information. I want everybody to just know everything you can know about alcohol, so you can make a rational decision around your relationship with it.”
Now, with the book squarely on the back burner and the podcast about to turn 1 year old, on April 4, “Champagne Problems” seems to be hitting its stride.
Shaw says it is averaging roughly 1,600 listens per episode, with top episodes reaching close to 3,000 listens. According to data from industry website The Podcast Host, that puts “Champagne Problems” in the top 10% of podcasts in terms of listeners.
On Apple’s podcast website, it has a rating of 5 out of 5 stars based on nearly 200 reviews.
And guests have included singer-songwriter Edwin McCain, who appeared on the show in January, and activist-writer-filmmaker Jean Kilbourne; Shaw says they also recently recorded a forthcoming episode with three-time Olympic gold medalist-volleyballer Kerri Walsh Jennings. (In case you’re wondering how they’ve managed to land this caliber of guest, he says it’s a combination of having a vast network of helpful friends and the fact that the podcast’s unique approach has been a key pitching point.)
Oh, and believe it or not, Shaw hates public speaking. It’s always been a source of anxiety for him. So after he pushes through the recording of a podcast, he comes away feeling a big, all-natural rush.
Another way he gets a high these days? Doing brief, teeth-rattling cold-water plunges into 45-degree water.
“So here’s what I’ve figured out about how to get a rush that’s not artificial,” Shaw says. “It takes some suffering. Think about it in the sense of running a marathon. You suffer through that. It’s not easy. It hurts. The pain, the grit, the mental anguish that you’ve gotta do to push, push, push, push, just to get that reward on the back end.”
But while he says he is finally, at 45 years old, done with mind-altering substances — having just recently overcome other addiction issues not related to alcohol— and while he says he’s absolutely grown with every setback he’s overcome, he admits that he is nowhere near having all the answers.
Which, he says, is just fine.
“Anybody that lives in this world and lives an honest life knows that it’s not realistic, and that we all struggle,” Shaw says. “Nobody has it figured out. That’s what I want people to know from this — is that you’re not alone. You’re not weird. There’s nothing wrong with you. I’ve been through all this stuff we just talked about, and I still struggle. Why? Because it’s life. There’s nothing wrong with me.
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