By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
With drug and alcohol abuse prevalent among some teens, Christine Lee has no problem going against the grain and encouraging young people to live a sober lifestyle.
“[Sobriety] is not something that’s promoted as being cool,” she said. “A lot of these [music] artists today can really be influential to our youth [who] are listening to these things and saying it’s cool to pop pills, to drink and get drunk. It’s a challenge to show kids that it’s cool to be sober; at the same time, it’s rewarding when they get it.”
Lee, 36, is co-founder and president of Birmingham-based Sober Culture, a nonprofit organization that focuses on substance abuse prevention for young people from sixth grade to college. She and co-founder Natalian Johnson launched the organization a year ago this month, and on September 22 the organization will host a 5K Sobriety Walk at Veterans Park in Alabaster.
Lee speaks about her own experiences with alcohol abuse at numerous events and schools, and she has written a book, “Ten Years in a Bottle,” which speaks for itself and is currently available on Amazon.com.
Lee began making changes in May 2016.
“For me, it was really just having to fall back from the crowd I was with because I was the girl partying every weekend and binge drinking,” she said. “Some people wake up every day, and it’s like they need a beer, or they drink all day, every day. That wasn’t me: I could go to work Monday through Friday, but come the weekend, that’s when I would go out and go binge drinking.”
She needed to make better decisions: “You have to be able to know your limit,” Lee said.
“I really promote balance and moderation. As opposed to somebody who says, ‘I can’t touch it at all,’ … you have to be honest with yourself and ask yourself, ‘Can I handle this or not?’ And don’t play with that.”
Once Lee made her lifestyle change, she decided to put everything in her book, which she self-published in 2016.
“[By] putting the book out, I knew people could relate to it and get the help and healing that they needed,” she said. “I got so much great feedback after I put the book out because you never know how many people are dealing with that. No matter what your background is, alcohol abuse just seems to be something across the board.”
One person who provided feedback was Lee’s current business partner, Johnson. The two first connected on Facebook after Johnson reached out about her own battle with alcohol abuse. They met in person, filed the paperwork to become a nonprofit, and launched Sober Culture.
“We try to focus on prevention and mentorship and to create a fun environment for [young people],” Lee said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Don’t do it,’ but you also need to give them the tools they need or the environment they need so they don’t do it.”
Lee was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. But she spent time bouncing between New York, where her mother lived, and Pennsylvania, where her father lived, after her parents separated.
“There was just a lot of trying to adjust and adapt constantly up until middle school, finally, when there was some stability,” she said.
The moving around took its toll, as did an incident that happened when Lee was 5 years old: she was molested by a babysitter. By the time she was a senior at Poughkeepsie High School in New York, she began drinking. After high school, she joined the U.S. Army, hoping to turn her life around. She did basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., trained for a position as a water-purification specialist at Fort Lee, Va., and then was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“I was actually struggling with alcohol abuse when I was in the military,” she said. “I believe I would have retired from the military if I could have, but because of poor choices and not really being mature enough to know what I wanted to do, I served my three years and got out.”
While in the military, Lee met her husband and after she left the military, they moved to Birmingham because that’s where he was from. Even though the relationship ended, she decided to stay in Alabama with their daughter.
“I was still trying to find my way,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody here, so I started modeling for a few years. Even then, I still struggled with alcohol abuse. I went through that for like 10 years.”
A single mom coming out of a relationship, Lee worked a lot of different jobs to get on her feet.
“I was really in survivor mode, so I worked all kinds of … jobs, all the way from the Honda plant, to security, to modeling,” she said.
During this time, Lee was still doing a lot of drinking and partying.
“A lot of people look at it as, ‘Oh, you have a drinking problem,’ but it really stems from some kind of hurt and pain that took place, and that is the problem: you’re just trying to drown out the pain. That’s what I was doing.”
Lee, who has two children—a daughter, Serene, 15, and a son, Micah, 8—decided to stop abusing alcohol in May 2016. She is currently studying at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and will graduate next year with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She also works in the business office of the Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Since starting Sober Culture, Lee and Johnson have hosted support groups for and visited teens at schools in Birmingham and in Lowndes County. They’ve also held an event at Miles College, and Lee hopes to embark on a college tour to talk about sobriety and making healthy life choices. Plans are underway for a charity basketball game, as well as eventually a building for the organization’s headquarters.
The work is “literally life-saving,” Lee said.
“When we say prevention, we want to be able to help a child and assist a child. … Instead of waiting for a snowball effect and [for the child] to become a very hurt and broken adult, why not start before they face any of those things? Give them the proper tools, so when these obstacles come up, they’ll know how to deal with them instead of finding the wrong way to cope with things.”
Lee and Johnson are currently working on their company website; you can get more information about their organization on Facebook and Instagram @soberculture.