Erica Brotzman: A Story of Sobriety and Self-Discovery

April of 2019, Erica Brotzman became 90 days sober. She is on a journey of self-discovery to find out who she is without her vice. The current chapter of her life story still holds a lot of unknowns, but she is ready to face them whenever she needs to. Photo by Erica Brotzman.

On April 7, 2019, Erica Brotzman was declared 90 days sober. It took hard work and a lot of courage to get herself there, but when the day arrived, she said, “This is what 90 days sober looks like. Some days it’s all I can do to white-knuckle it until bed, some days it’s zen as fuck, but here’s what I know so far: people are amazing in their capacity for darkness and for light. I laugh in AA meetings all the time. I could not have done it without my people, and having 90 days is cool, but having 91 will be cooler.”

Brotzman grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. “All of the kids in my neighborhood were boys, so one of the things I always say is that I felt pinned by the patriarchy at an early age, we’d be playing Ghostbusters and I would have to be Jenine, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and I would have to be April, and I was like ‘this is bullshit.’” Around sixth grade, Brotzman and her family moved to State College, Pennsylvania. Brotzman’s parents met and later married at Penn State. “I was there from twelve and through college. I’m from State College. It’s a very clever name, it’s where Penn State University is.” 

Her parents were very young when Brotzman was born. Her mom gave birth at the age of twenty, making her the oldest child out of three. “She didn’t finish her undergrad right then because of, well, me. What a monster, right?” Being the children of an accountant and an astronomer meant that Brotzman and her siblings were surrounded by numbers. “[Brotzman’s parents] always joked about how their children turned about to be a lot more artistic than they are.” For better or worse, Brotzman’s parents never pushed them in any specific direction. “Their whole thing was, ‘if you are happy we are happy.’” Brotzman believes that some of her aimlessness, or ‘now what?’ feelings when she was finally out on her own, may in part have been caused by her parents’ hands off approach to forming a work ethic or sense of ambition. When she told them that she was considering English as a major they said, “yeah, English major, sounds good. Penn State! Great! Do that, for sure.” 

As a child, Brotzman dreamed of becoming a writer. “It was maybe seventh or eighth grade when my cousin had given me Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman… I was immediately struck by the power of words to invoke a feeling when you are really intentional about them.” It was then in middle school that she discovered her first art: writing. She was one of those kids who knew what she wanted her major to be in college and stuck with it. She begrudgingly headed to Penn State after high school. “It took me six years to finish my degree, and I always joke that it was because I read slow.” 

From there on, Brotzman was unsure about how to turn her degree into a career. “I was like ‘how do I be a writer now?’ It was hard for me to imagine monetizing writing.” She couldn’t find a way to market her writing in a way that felt good. She didn’t want to be a novelist, but she also didn’t want to be any other kind of writer either. “I found myself in this weird spot where I thought to myself, ‘how do I do this thing I love now, and still love it?’” Brotzman moved to Portland less than a year after she graduated college. She felt at ease and comfortable in Portland. “I get this place, this makes sense, this feels like home.” She enjoyed being far from what was familiar to her. From State College, Brotzman was within a few hours drive to multiple major cities on the east coast. “I didn’t anticipate that I would like that Portland is surrounded by so much natural beauty. I didn’t know how important that could be. I love the idea that this is where artists live and that it has such a creative core.” She felt that she could figure things out here. 

Brotzman got an internship with Literary Arts and their WITS (Writers In The Schools) program once she was settled in Portland in 2008. She helped with event coordinating and planning for summits and assisted in copy editing for their student anthologies. She later joined the marketing department at the Portland Art Museum. “Marketing seemed like a direction that writing could go,” says Brotzman. She wasn’t a visual artist, and working with the museum allowed her to explore an interest in visual media and find a new appreciation for it. “I had no background in visual art, and often had no idea what I was looking at. I learned a lot there and developed an appreciation for visual art that was new.” Then she lost an earring on vacation and thought to herself, “I can make that.”

She was living on Hawthrone and decided to go to a store named Beads Forever. “It was total hippie dip  and old Portland. I bought way more stuff than I needed to make one earring, and that is how Chapter Jewelry, Brotzman’s business, started.” Before now, Brotzman has never described the trajectory of how she began making things, and how she became a maker. “I wanted to be a writer, then I went into marketing, into visual art, and then I started making things. I had never made anything before,” said Brotzman. She had never had a visual craft. She had discovered a new part of herself. She was someone who made things. 

Some could say the realization was spontaneous, but Brotzman knew better. After her contract ended with the Portland Art Museum she was faced with a question. “Now what, you know? I had so many starts and had to ask myself ‘what do you wanna do with it now?’ I went really deep into that . That was my mindset when I lost the earring.” Now was the time for Brotzman to decide what she wanted to be. Her first decision was to make a bunch of necklaces. “I looked at the first one and thought ‘this is cute!’ This thing costs two dollars in supplies to make. This was a profit margin I could hang with.” Of course, Brotzman may have been the slightest bit unaware of the true cost to produce a necklace when it is all said and done. 

Brotzman worked on Chapter Jewelry for seven years. There were a lot of reasons why she started it, and a lot of reasons why she worked so hard on developing and growing her own business. There are also plenty of reasons for why it ended. “Having done that for so long and having built it from scratch, and being my own boss, it became very entwined with my identity. I am a maker. My title at Chapter was Owner/Maker.” Chapter has had a few names. The first taught Brotzman the importance of doing research. She had started an Etsy shop with a name she thought was cute only to then find out that the name was already taken by a local Portland Etsy shop. The second name was a mouthful and didn’t make the impact that her at the time graphic designer boyfriend thought it should have made. “You want any collection of art that you are trying to sell to be cohesive, have a tone and point of view and tell a story or theme that people can relate to.” 

When the name Chapter fell into her lap, she liked the writing throwback and she thought about a chapter being a small part of a larger story. “Your style is a small part of your larger story, but it is part of your story for sure. You are communicating to the world ‘this is what I think is beautiful, this is the kind of person I am, this is an aesthetic that I find beautiful and interesting.’” It was with this idea that Chapter began to grow. It grew over time. Through Etsy, shops would contact Brotzman and ask to carry her items in their shops. Chapter wound up being carried in over sixty stores across the U.S. and Europe. It eventually became her full time job. Brotzman traveled to about fifteen to twenty design and craft shows a year all over the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Seattle and more. She developed a catalog and had photoshoots with models. “I tell people all the time that to do Thing A, which is to make a bunch of necklaces and sell them, I had to teach myself Things B through Z which is how you land on, it doesn’t actually cost two dollars to make a necklace.” You have to pay the models, studio space, materials, shipping, packaging, and designers. She had to teach herself how to run a business. Part of running this business meant developing a staff team. Most notably a production assistant, who worked closely with Brotzman for around three years. Eventually it became her full time job. She waited until she felt she was ready to make that jump to taking on this business. She trusted herself and the thing that she had built. 

This idea of chapters can be applied to many different areas of people’s lives. There are moments when they end and new ones start. Some end with ease, and others with trials. “Chapter ended kind of just because of the alcohol problem. The graphic designer and I broke up, which was healthy and needed to happen, but he’d been such a big influence on me in terms of my work ethic and kind of wanting to impress him.” She was a little burnt out, excited about living alone, and getting a dog. “I took my hands off the wheel for just long enough for the car to go off the side of the road.” She waited until after the winter holidays of 2017 to decide whether or not Chapter Jewelry would go back online. “I got through the holidays and I was like, guess how I feel, ‘I don’t want to go back to work! And furthermore, I don’t want to get out of bed. So you know what I’m not going to do, for like three weeks? Get out of bed.’” She lost her studio space, and was left without somewhere to run her business. That was how she knew Chapter was over. “I said that aloud and I felt relieved. Like ‘yeah I am ready to put this down for a while. I think it is okay that Chapter is over. I think I’m fine.’” Brotzman took her hands off the wheel and walked away from that chapter of her life. “Sometimes I wish that I hadn’t, but I am at peace with that now… some of my focus had shifted away from fashion.” It has been almost two years since Chapter ended. It has been tough for Brotzman to figure out what she wants to do next. “As serious and successful that [Chapter Jewelry] was, it is hard to transition from if you don’t already have a place to go. Which I didn’t,” says Brotzman. 

In times of transition, things can get really hard. “I definitely spun into a space where I was dependent on drinking as a way to not confront those questions. Like, what is my identity now? What am I going to do? Who am I without this thing? The best way to not think about that was to drink all the time.” Brotzman began the next chapter of her life with a bit of a rocky start. “It started with a bit of ennui, and a bit of feeling lost. And then I drank about it for a year.” January of 2019, Brotzman told herself, “if you keep drinking, it will get worse. It had been continuously getting worse for a year. If you keep going, you will hurt someone, or yourself, or you’ll get a DUI, or you will wreck your car, or your boyfriend will leave you.” Brotzman knew something would happen. She could see the course she was following and knew that these situations could be inevitable. That was ten months ago. 

“The last ten months have been amazing. They have been incredible.” Brotzman likes herself without the influence of alcohol and has been empowered through her clarity. “You can really see things as they are when you aren’t using a crutch. People do anything to distract themselves from dealing with shit that they don’t want to deal with. Once you take that away you have to actually cope.” She has been working on herself and has found a new appreciation for the work she did with Chapter. She was always thinking of the future and her goals were always moving forward. She has finally landed on a version of herself that she is into. Participating in acts of service has been very meaningful for Brotzman. “I think that has been really important to me, like how I can be helpful to other people, in what ways can I alleviate someone else’s suffering. Even if it is just by doing them a small favor. It is nice to get out of your own head and help other people.” It has been a wild ride for Brotzman.

Sometimes it hits her all at once. “The first vacation I went on since quitting drinking was six months ago. Me and my boyfriend went to Mexico.” It was only three months into her sobriety and she was feeling really secure about it. “I told my boyfriend ‘you can drink a beer if you want to, I’m good.’ He took a sip… and it just hit me all at once, and I was like, ‘I have to go call Kait [Brotzmans’ best friend].’ I called her and said ‘I can’t believe I am an alcoholic. This is unfair. I can’t drink a beer on the beach with my boyfriend? How did this happen? How did I get here? I can’t believe that this is where I ended up.’” She is beginning to move on from that moment. “I’m over it. You know what’s better than being an alcoholic? Being sober. Being sober is way better in every measure. Everything is better.” 

In order to be the best prepared for the best possible future, Brotzman is paying a lot of attention to the work she is doing on herself in the present. “The future is coming either way, and the healthier I am, the more likely I am to fully commit to whatever is coming next.” Worrying about the future or fixating on it is a stress that Brotzman doesn’t need. “Doing that in the past always created a bunch of internal pressure that made me feel inadequate.”  Brotzman has always been very goal oriented, sometimes to the point that she couldn’t appreciate her accomplishments as she made them. “I think that nurturing myself now and being present in my own life will be exactly the thing that leads me to my next path that is a process I am willing to be patient with because it is so important, and I am not on a timeline. It will come when I am ready. When she does look back to the past, she focuses on her sobriety. “I am most proud of my sobriety. I am super proud of that. My bottom could have been way lower. I am proud of myself for having the self-awareness to see the problem clearly when I did. 2018 was kind of a blur. I wasn’t present for it. I wasn’t present at all. But I am proud of myself for calling it.” 

She is happy with all of her self work, and of how much of a good boy her pet dog is. “I’m super proud of Chapter. I’m more proud of my sobriety. It seems to be more impactful on me and others. I and the people who love me are happy about Chapter, but I and the people who love me are really stoked about sobriety, like super super stoked.” Brotzman doesn’t know if she will ever drink again. She imagines a world where she has a relationship with alcohol that she can control and manage, but she isn’t worried about whether she has that or not. “It could be never again, I don’t know, but I am really proud of that decision. Second would be Chapter. And third would be my dog. Second might be my dog, I am not sure.” Brotzman believes in loving people because of their flaws and mistakes. Or bad qualities or tough times. “People are messy, people are wrong, and people are in constant growth. I’m down for it.”

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