In a single ceremony, the ESH Awards honored two prime examples of celebrities who wrote memoirs that capture their fraught journeys into recovery and long-term sobriety.
After a year trapped like the rest of us in the worried doldrums of quarantines and isolation, the Experience, Strength and Hope (ESH) Awards returned with a double slam dunk on December 15, 2021. Held at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, the recovery community’s number one annual rewards gathering and celebration played catch-up. In a single ceremony, Leonard Buschel and Ahbra Kaye honored two prime examples of celebrities who wrote memoirs that capture their fraught journeys into recovery and long-term sobriety.
The Gratitude Dinner paid tribute to two brave and inspirational sober human beings. First, legendary sports agent Leigh Steinberg was celebrated as the 2020 Honoree for his revealing memoir, The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game. A powerful tale of tremendous success followed by a precipitous downfall, Steinberg’s redemption through the lens of sobriety happens within and without.
Second, effervescent KTLA news anchor Courtney Friel was celebrated as the 2021 Honoree for her unflinching memoir, Tonight at 10: Kicking Booze and Breaking News. Friel’s story is told with humor and love that overcomes the downward spiral of desperation and fear. Together, both ESH Honorees are prime examples of surviving an addictive downfall and thriving well beyond. Wanting to use the darkest of their experiences to help others recover, they both walk a path of courage in telling their harrowing stories without blinking in the spirit of self-esteem.
Once again, Leonard Buschel and Ahbra Kaye of Writers in Treatment came together to create an entertaining Gratitude Dinner of laughter and love. As the founder of the Reel Recovery Film Festival and Chasing the News, Leonard Buschel made a smart choice when he appointed Ahbra Kaye as Director of Operations and Outreach for the ESH Awards. Even amid fears of the Omicron variant and the rise of public gatherings, the entire evening went swimmingly well. Overall, both the Networking Reception and the Gratitude Dinner flowed with a positive attitude as attendees from the recovery community came together to celebrate these two luminaries.
While speaking with Leigh Steinberg before the meeting, I was struck by his dedication to the path of recovery. When asked what the reward meant to him, Steinberg said, “For anyone out there still struggling with addiction, I hope that reading my book shows them that help is available. It is possible in one’s darkest hours to be resilient. We all truly have a chance to live a happier life.”
Reflecting on his life, Steinberg explained the similarities between excellence in sports and goodness in life: “The key to sports and life is performance in adversity and our response to adversity. Adversity is a part of being alive. Indeed, life will knock us back at times. Life will have reverses. I have learned that having optimism and having faith in the light at the end of a dark tunnel is essential. I had an epiphany about how lucky I was in life…Thus, I had to come through and realize the best in recovery. I had to live up to my core values of loving my family and friends while doing my best to help others in need.”
The 2021 Honoree was just as inspired. As she explained from the podium, “For fifteen years of my life, all I cared about was partying, drinking, cocaine, and pills. It’s a very boring life to keep doing that over and over again. The essence of recovery is a shift into the experience of freedom from that cycle.”
Commenting on why she wrote the book, Friel smiled and said, “I wasn’t writing the book to be famous, make money, or be a bestseller. I wrote it to help people. The reward is when I get people who unexpectedly get in touch with me. More people than I ever imagined have told me how my message was instrumental in saving their lives. Not that I saved their lives, but they told me I helped open their eyes to the choice of being sober. Such a loving response is a gift that goes well beyond what I ever expected. It is what giving back is all about.”
The ESH Awards also showcased a diverse and talented roster of performers, starting with singer and spoken word performer Blu Nyle, who performed two poems at the podium that reflected the creative legacy of her ancestors. After Leigh and Friel received their awards, eight-time Grammy Award winner Philip Lawrence sang a fun tribute song that paid amusing homage to the two honorees. Written just for this occasion, it showed how inspiration and recovery, music and sobriety mix so well.
Finally, the night came to a resounding end with an inspired comedy set by Alonzo Bodden. Taking down everyone from anti-vaxxers to political extremists, Bodden set fire to the stage with his combustible words. In truth, I have not heard a room laughing so hard and having so much fun together for a very long time. It was a perfect way to end a wonderful night.
Photographs by Kathy Hutchins