• Motto

Abby Wambach On Her Addiction Struggle: ‘I Felt Like a Fraud’

9 minute read

Abby Wambach has had a rollercoaster of a year. The retired celebrated soccer star made news in April for a DUI arrest. Her new memoir Forward details her battle with substance abuse—specifically alcohol and pills—as well as the news that her marriage to Sarah Huffman was ending after 3 years.

But the TIME 100 honoree is determined to put her struggles to good use. On her book tour she has touched on her pending divorce, her addiction and even her challenges coming out to her conservative family. And this month she takes the stage in Portland and Denver on the Together tour, a nationwide event bringing women like Wambach, Ciara and Gina Rodriguez together to discuss community building and inspiration.

“There’s something to be said—and there needs to be something to be said—about women standing on their own two feet, owning who they are, good and bad, and being unapologetic about it,” Wambach tells Motto. “So often are women put in boxes and labels and I think that for the first time in the history of our [species] women are allowed now to step into their own power and they’re doing so.”

Motto spoke with Wambach in advance of the tour about her legacy, her recovery and what she wishes she knew in her 20s:

Motto: You kicked off the Together tour in Portland and are closing it in Denver. For those of us not lucky enough to attend, can you give us a preview of what you’ll be talking about?
Abby Wambach: It’s kind of what my book is a little bit about. I’m kind of this symbol for people. Of course, I need to be the most fit and the most healthy and the most regimented as an athlete, but then if you look inside, if you take all of that off, if you take that cape off of me and you look inside, you know I was struggling with serious issues. I think that that’s something that the rest of the world needs to know, that no matter what kind of pedestals we put other people on, everybody has their stuff. My stuff was substance abuse and depression and confusion. Every stage of life offers a new opportunity to make a choice whether we’re going to succumb and suffer to the pain or we’re going to sit, be still with it and turn the pain into something that we’re proud of.

I’m not going to sit here and say, “Look, when you listen to my story, it’s gonna take your pain away.” That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, you can hear my story and feel like you’re not as alone. And when you talk about your story and you talk about your story to your loved ones and to yourself, then you experience a little less fear. Because the more you talk about your truth, the less scary it becomes, and the more you can handle the pain and the more you can move forward. It’s a process, and one that I’m still learning about. That’s why I want to go on the road and talk about it, because I’m still a work in progress. Every single day offers a new opportunity to learn something about ourselves and the world.

You have really been open about your struggle with addiction. Who or what have helped you most in the recovery process?
The thing that’s helped me most in my recovery, and the thing that I believe to be the truth about it, is just to be honest with yourself and other people. I think that hiding and not talking about this is the kiss of death for all addicts that are dealing with their issues, that haven’t gotten help, that haven’t gone into recovery. My recovery started the second I was able to not just admit that I had a problem, but actually talk about it with the people around me, and to be brutally honest and not lie about how many drinks I had and not lessen the magnitude of the pain I was in. Once I started to get really truthful and really honest, that’s when I really started to get and seek out the help I really needed. So the truth is the thing that kinda set me free, and then of course my family and my loved ones. Those are the people that have helped me through this process the most.

What is something that you wish you knew in your 20s?
I think that the thing that I struggled the most with in my 20s are the things that I still struggle with on a daily basis. Like what am I doing here? What’s my purpose on planet Earth? And in my 20s, I was too young. I really avoided searching out answers to that question, because you think you have the rest of your life to figure it out. I’ve always been very introspective and I’ve always read self-help books and what not. But I think in my 20s I wish I knew to be more diligent about working on myself. But I also learned a lot through my challenges. Maybe my path needed to be exactly what it is.

Have you ever resented the public spotlight on your personal life?
No I haven’t resented it. I do think it played into a little bit more of perpetuating this problem that I was having for so long. I felt like a fraud and feeling like a fraud with these secrets that I was having and being this public person that people were inspired by, I felt like, if only people knew what was going on behind closed doors. I was struggling with my marriage, I was struggling with substance abuse. Whenever you’re speaking for a community, whether it be the LGBTQ community, or women, you have to present yourself in a certain way so that people can believe the things that you’re saying. And here I was, feeling like I was a fraud. So when you’re struggling, of course it feels hard to handle some of that. But in the end, I think that it was my fame, ironically, it was my fame that allowed me to wake up because of the shame and the embarrassment of getting the DUI.

When you’re getting so publicly bashed, and your mugshot is all over the television and internet, there has to be a level of humble pie eaten. Yeah, of course I’m human, I make mistakes. But for anybody, for any reason, to question my stance on any issue or my role in any community that I’m in, that was the most gut-wrenching and brutal thing that I’ve had to accept.

I consider myself to be very honest, a person of integrity, a good person who says what they mean, and when I realized that that was going to be put into question, I was like, “Alright, well I have to really figure out what’s going on here.” The only way I could do that was to get really honest with myself. Through that honesty, I’m almost six months out. And it’s something that makes me really proud. I didn’t know how this would feel, but it’s literally like I’m an actual different person.

I wanted to ask you about the word “retirement”—since you’re so young, and likely will continue to have various roles, athletic or otherwise, is there a word you can reinvent for it?
I’m retired from my first career. I’m young enough where I get to have a whole other career, and I’m trying things out! I’m doing this whole speaking thing, I wrote a book. I think that life gives you certain opportunities and you either take them or you don’t. And right now I’m kind of in a place where I’m just trying to find the right fit for what I want to do for my next career. I want to be a parent, and I want to find love…and truthfully I just don’t want to travel as much! I have been on the road for 17 years and for the first part of my next career [I’m] going to try to be as still as I possibly can, and really figure out what I want to do with my life.

Read more: Abby Wambach: Equal Rights Shouldn’t Be a Privilege

Soccer defined your life for such a long time. Now that you have retired from the sport, how do you hope to be defined, and why?
I think that the thing that I would label myself as for the rest of my life is human. Honestly. I believe that moving away from labels is where we’re headed. It shouldn’t matter whether we’re male or female. Yes we are, and I’m proud to be a woman, but it shouldn’t matter what gender you are, based on the way you’re paid, based on all these things! Same thing with your sexuality, same thing with your religious beliefs. None of this stuff should actually matter, and when we start diverging from these labels that separate us, we’ll be able to actually get more into the only label which we should adhere to which is human. And hopefully if we truly look at that label as what it has meant and needed to mean, we can find ourselves seeing more of the things that we’re alike rather than the things that make us different.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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