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In Conversation With RHOC's Braunwyn Windham-Burke on Navigating Sobriety During a Global Pandemic

Two alcoholics—RHOC's Braunwyn Windham-Burke and an E! News writer—shared notes on embracing recovery as coronavirus destabilized the world around them.

By Billy Nilles Oct 29, 2020 12:00 AMTags
Braunwyn Windham-BurkeTommy Garcia/Bravo

Hi, my name is Billy. And I'm an alcoholic.

As of press time, it's been 299 days since I first said those words out loud. Words that had cycled on repeat through my mind, haunting and taunting me for months, before I found the strength to accept just how true they were. With each successive blackout—nights drowned in wine or vodka and burrowed away in a pocket of my mind that remain inaccessible to this day, with only the memory of painful vomiting and indecipherable text messages to puzzle through the next morning—they grew louder and louder.

And eventually, by the end of 2019, I had no energy left to perform the mental gymnastics an addict's mind demands of them when those moments of sobering clarity threaten to bring the party to a grinding halt. I'd run out of justifications and excuses and the general bulls--t that I'd been selling myself for such a long time. It was clear that I needed to make a change. I needed to save myself. And so I did.

January 1, 2020, was the first day of the rest of my life, the start of a journey uniquely mine but not so dissimilar from the millions of folks around the world who've come before me. I haven't had a sip of alcohol since. And somehow, despite finding myself living through the topsy-turviest year in modern history, I've managed to sustain my recovery.

It's nothing short of miraculous.

As I've walked down this road, I've cultivated a support system of my own design, but have yet to join a more traditional program. (Everyone's recovery is different and there's no one correct way to do it. Though I reserve the right to change my mind in the future, this is what works for me right now.) I meditate, I exercise daily, I hold myself accountable through frequent updates on my Instagram and I gobble up the stories of fellow newcomers in recovery. Enter: Braunwyn Windham-Burke.

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Celebrities Who Got Real About Their Addictions

When The Real Housewives of Orange Country returned for season 15 earlier this month, and it was revealed that the relative newcomer's sophomore run would center around her own recovery, I was enthralled. With our journeys running on near-parallel tracks this year—albeit with hers amplified for a national audience—I knew I needed to reach out to her in the hopes that we might be able to connect and compare notes. Thankfully, she obliged.

What follows is an honest (if lightly edited, in the interest of clarity) conversation between two alcoholics about surviving 2020 and its many obstacles with both our sobriety and sanity intact. 

E! News: When I meet another sober person, I'm so excited to hear their story. The first thing I always want to know is what it was that made them take the step. So if you could sort of take me back to the day leading up to you hitting day one, what prompted it?

Braunwyn Windham-Burke: We were in Miami. About two days before I left for Miami, I had a very uncomfortable lunch with some mom friends. We met at 11:00—Nieman Marcus has a restaurant, you know, fancy ladies at lunch kind of place. My girlfriend called me to see if I needed a ride, and I said yes because I was already drunk. It was 9:00 in the morning and I was too drunk, couldn't drive. I remember thinking, "Oh, good. Now when Sean comes home, I have an excuse for smelling like tequila in the middle of the day." I kind of would look for that. "Oh, no, I had a couple of drinks with my girlfriends. That's normal." Not, "I've been drinking all night and I'm drunk at 9:00."

So I went to this lunch with amazing, beautiful women that I have a lot of respect for. And I don't remember a lot of it. I guessed, though, because I called one of my friends the next day and said, "Did I do anything that was embarrassing?" And she was like, "Yeah, you did." And this was the first time that she had said this. This was one of those friends that always protects you, like "Oh, it's fine. You're fine." And she was like, "Yeah, no. That wasn't good." These are mom friends, not close friends, and I wrote them a text message. I didn't think it through, I just said, "I'm so sorry. I have a problem. I'm gonna get help for it." And I knew that day, like, OK, this isn't good.

I had this trip planned to Miami, and I'm like, "OK, I'll go, but I won't drink." And that lasted maybe 10 minutes after we got off the plane. But, you know, I'm in Miami. And the first night, it was fine. I was out with some other Housewives from other cities. First night was fine. Second night was the big party. Got a little less fine. The third night, I don't fully recall. This is when I was drinking around the clock. I had called a few friends I don't recall calling that were very worried about me.

And then the last night, I knew I had to fly home. We were flying home, and I hadn't stopped drinking. It was bad. I would start to shake. And I just had this moment, you know? That divine God shot, or whatever you want to call it, of "Go talk to your husband." He'd been mad at me because the last 40 hours of drinking, I didn't leave the hotel room because you can't. At a certain point, you're so drunk, you can't be around people. You just want to be alone, drinking. And I told him what was happening, how bad it was, and that I had to stop drinking. He literally sat on me because I was shaking so bad. Detoxing is painful, if you haven't been through it. It's not that you want to drink, it's that you have to drink, at a certain point. And that was January 30th. I flew home. And he said, "If you have one more drink, you're not going on this trip with us, you're going to rehab." And I don't know why it worked this time. I don't know what it was, but that was the last day I drank.

E! News: Wow. I know you've spoken about this, but, very early in this process was when you were returning to film the show. As someone who has made these decisions and taken accountability in my own life, I can't imagine the extra wrinkle of doing it in front of cameras that are going to expose this to a national audience. Can you tell me a little bit about how that played a part in this?

BWB: January 30th, that was my sobriety date. January 31st is when I sat down with our three producers to go over what's going on in your life. You sort of say, "Hey, this is what we have going on. These are what our important dates are." You sit down and kind of plan out the next four months, just so they have an idea of what's going on in your life. And I had off-handedly said, "Oh, I'm getting healthier. I was drinking too much. I'm getting 'healthier.'" And they were supportive. Thomas, my showrunner, was like, "OK, great." He sent me a nice little article. And then I went to Beaver Creek, skiing with my family. It was a disaster. Detoxing on a mountain is not a great idea. Detoxing with seven children, not fun. I was psychotic. It wasn't pretty. 

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And I had this moment of: Call Captain Sandy [Yawn, of Below Deck: Mediterranean]. Because her girlfriend Leah's a friend of mine. And I called her because I knew she'd been sober for 30 years. She talked to me and she said, "Look, you have to own this on television because it's going to make you accountable." And I'll never forget these words: "You had no problem getting drunk on camera. Why are you having a hard time getting sober?" And there was a lot of shame around that. I didn't want to go to support meetings. I was embarrassed. I thought, in a weird way, I was better than alcoholism, almost. "Oh, no, I'm fine. I can do this on my own." But she really just put me in my place and said, "You don't want to talk about this because then you have an out. If you own this on television, you don't have an out." And I was like, "Oh, my god, she's so right. She's so right."

So I called—and I remember it so vividly, where I was standing on this bridge in Colorado—I called Thomas and said, "OK, here's the truth. I'm an alcoholic." And he went, "OK. Do you want to talk about this on the show?" And I actually said, "Yes, but I don't want it to be my storyline." I thought it would be not a big deal, you know what I mean? But then we started talking and, I think, a lot of things from last season...issues about my marriage, my separation, my mom...once he understood what it was all wrapped around—the fact that I'm an alcoholic—he was like, "OK, this all makes sense. You've been hiding a really big part of your life to protect it." So we decided to do it. I said, "Let's do it for real, though." I didn't want to sugarcoat it. I didn't want to be like, "Oh, this is fine. Yay!" I really wanted to tell the story as honestly as possible because that's sort of how I live my whole life. And I really had to trust that Evolution and Bravo would do it justice. That was a big leap of faith. And that was scary. Once we were filming and I got some time in, to realize I was handing over this very personal side of me to someone else to put together, I definitely had many freak-out moments. Many.

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E! News: You mentioned the conversation with Leah about maintaining your "out" and not wanting to say fully, openly, holding yourself accountable, "I am an alcoholic." I feel like before I was able to admit to myself and to others that I am an alcoholic, I am a person who should not drink, I do not have a good relationship with this in my life, I'd created this vision of who an alcoholic was. And it was always an ever-moving goalpost so that I wasn't getting close to it any longer. I would tell myself, "I'm going to work. I'm not missing the important things that a 'drunk' can't get themselves together and do." Never mind the fact that I was constantly hungover while there and performing at my lowest. I was there, and that was the proof I needed for myself. I'm curious what your goalposts for an alcoholic were before you admitted that you were one and how that has evolved since.

BWB: It's so funny. I can't help it sometimes, when I talk to other alcoholics, how similar we all are. The mind games we play with ourselves to keep drinking. It's exhausting. My idea of an alcoholic was my father. That was always what I had in my head. He didn't raise his kids, he didn't have friends. Towards the end, he just sat at home, alone, drinking. "I can't be an alcoholic. I'm on the PTA. I have a job. I have nice clothes." I also, in a way, because I had resources, could continue a little bit longer. I had nannies to drive the kids, I didn't have to drink and drive. I had a housekeeper. If you walked into my house, it looked like I had it all together. 

This is my third time trying to get sober, and I will say, every time I've spiraled faster. I didn't have as much time to lie to myself this time. It was a pretty quick spiraling of the drain. I think the first time I got sober, I had years to convince myself I was OK. "Oh, I'm only drinking on the weekends." Well, the weekend starts on Thursday and goes until Tuesday, but I'm only drinking on the weekend. I also—I don't know if you've ever done this—I can count on one hand the number of times I've had one drink. I would go to a bar. "See, I only had one drink. I walked away. I'm fine." But I actually remember those moments so vividly. I remember that lunch where I had one drink. It was a lot harder this time to lie about it for very long. It spiraled fast. And when you have a camera watching you, you have to get much more creative with your lies. There was a party that we had for Tamra [Judge] that never aired, and when it didn't air, I was so grateful because I was blackout drunk. Blackout. I had an entire scene, an entire huge, all-cast event, blackout drunk.

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The Real Housewives of Orange County Season 15 Cast Photos

E! News: Before deciding that I needed to stop, in November, almost a year ago now, I went to one of my best friend's weddings. And I don't remember the entire reception. I remember the end of it, where I was vomiting in a bathroom, but I don't remember that wedding. And that makes me feel so sad that I don't remember my best friend's wedding. I remember the ceremony, but I don't remember the dinner. None of that. It's just a black spot in my mind. The idea of seeing that on camera would terrify me.

Now that you've gone through this season and you were preparing for it in your early days of sobriety, as you're going to events with the ladies where drinking is involved and where people still live in a mindset of "drinking is fun and that's what makes you fun," how did you handle that? What were your fears about how people would receive you? Because I remember when I used to do my "Dry January," where I would do a dry month to prove to myself that I could stop drinking for 30 days, so I could prove to myself, "If I can do a full month, I'm not an alcoholic." I remember one time, I was at a party, I wasn't drinking, and a friend looked at me and he said, "Well, how are you going to have fun?" And that became the voice in my head for so long. I was like, well, people are not going to think I'm fun if I don't drink. So, I'm curious how you navigated that, especially in these instances where you're at group events, on camera, where drinks are flowing and people are handling it in a way that you can't?

BWB: I was scared. I was definitely scared. I did reach out to Lala [Kent] from Vanderpump Rules because I said, "If you can film that show sober, I can probably do mine, right?" But that "I'm not fun anymore, life's not fun"? Oh, for sure. That weighed heavily on me. I've always identified as the fun, crazy party girl. That's my identity. And that's been my comfort zone. It's also been where I've hidden. That has been my safe place, where you can't hurt me if you can't get to know me. So I'm the crazy one, the fun one. I definitely thought I was going to lose that. I have very vivid memories in early recovery thinking "My life is over. What's the point of living? I'm never going to have fun again." We actually filmed some of those things. I was not sunshine and roses. I literally was like, "This is stupid. Life without drinking is awful. What's the point?"

I also remember talking to the producers when we were filming, like "Hey, can you tell me if I'm being too boring? Let me know if I'm too boring." I didn't trust that I was fun anymore. They would kind of laugh at me and I'd be like, "No, for real, though." I wasn't comfortable enough with my truth and who I was to just be me. And keep in mind, we're talking about two weeks sober. I still look back on these scenes and it's hard for me to watch. Let's be honest, I shouldn't have been filming. I should've been in rehab. And I'm trying to learn all this stuff, and function with all the feelings, and there's a camera right there. And I'm trying to do it as honestly as possible. There was so much. That whole period of my life is a blur almost because I was in survival mode. I was lashing out. I was fighting with my husband. I had these women that didn't particularly like me, and I had to show up. You know, you have a job to do. You have to show up. Would I have preferred to stay in my bed and cry? Yeah. I mean, I was emotionally bankrupt at that point. It's all hard. Those first three months are brutal. I went to my first support meeting and I asked, "When does the crying stop?" And they said, "In about three months. You basically cry all the time for three months." I'm like, "Oh…great. This is gonna be an awesome season for me."

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E! News: And then, on top of it, the whole world starts to fall apart, right? Three months in is when the pandemic is declared, and we go into lockdown. For me, there were almost two sides of the same coin with this. Obviously, it was like, holy s--t, now there's this other, crazy external pressure on the world, on me, on everybody right now that I also have to navigate through. But on the flip side, I found a lot of positives to being someone who had started to approach life very differently right before it happened. I almost feel like it helped me be prepared to take life one day at a time, the way that we sort of have to now. I'm curious how going into quarantine and the world changing the way that it did affected your journey this year?

BWB: First, I want to say it's awful. I know a lot of people lost their lives. This has been horrible on the world, on the economy—this has been bad on so many levels. And I definitely want to acknowledge that and honor that. From a personal standpoint, being able to step away from life, having no fear of missing out, not having to film was a blessing. I got to do exactly what I needed to do, which was go in my home, reconnect with my family and close the doors. I'm very grateful for that time. It was, for me, very cathartic, very healing. I didn't have any distractions, so I was forced to look inward. And that's probably what I needed to do. I have a tendency—even in sobriety, I still do this. I'm quicker now to check myself, I have a mentor. I actually just called her before this because I see myself doing it. I have a tendency to sometimes believe my own BS and get stuck in my ego. And so for me to not be able to go out, to not go shopping, to not travel—because that's been a big escape for me—I was forced to sit in it. And that was probably the healthiest thing for me, at the time.

Like I said, it's horrible. I hate that this happened to the world, but, for me, it was good. Once I found the online support meetings. That did take me a little while, I didn't have the community yet. I've been going to meetings, but I didn't know anyone yet. I didn't have a mentor yet. So once I got the Zoom meetings and really got involved—I was going to two or three a day—it was nice. It was in my bedroom. I had that outlet. I was focused on me. I was taking the steps I was supposed to be doing. I had the time that I hadn't had in a long time. It was good for me, and I feel such a sense of guilt saying that, you know?

E! News: I understand that. For me, it was sort of like I'd just sort of started embracing this idea of one day at a time, taking everything in these measures. I get through this one day that I don't drink, and then I start over again. That's what I need to do, and not really think about the future and how long I can sustain this. As long as I can do it one day, and then do it the next day, and then the next day… And so, I sort of felt like, when everything imploded and all of our futures were put on hold in that respect, it was weird. I was like, "This is terrible," but I felt like I had somehow done something for myself that had set me up to sort of handle it better.

I still spiraled. I was still having the terrible anxiety that everyone was feeling because we didn't know what was happening. But I was almost grateful for the fact that I had begun to be in touch with myself in a way that I hadn't been in a long time. It was forcing me to really examine the feelings I was feeling, rather than hide from them. Rather than drink even harder to just avoid how terrible everything was. I watched a lot of people on social media, the joke was just that everyone is drinking to forget that this is so bad right now. And I would've been right there. I would've been lost in a bottle of wine every night so that I wasn't paying attention to the news. I understand when you say you feel guilty because I'm doing all of this really great positive work on myself at a time when so many people are struggling. So it's such an interesting dichotomy.

BWB: I don't know about you, but I'm so grateful I got sober when I did. Because if I was drinking during the pandemic, I wouldn't have been there for my children. I don't even know if I would've lived, let's be honest. I am so grateful. I'm so grateful we get to have a place to talk every day, you know? That, to me, was the amazing thing. I have a safe place to talk to people every day. I'm ahead of the game here. I have a support system.

E! News: And not only that, but as I've been reading, just learning the effects that alcohol was taking on my immune system. I was like, "OK, I am so glad I do not have this dragging my down right now."

BWB: Right? And to feel good. I've worked out during quarantine, you know? I didn't gain the weight that everyone else was. I was working out, I was reading books. Like I said, it's gratitude. It's finding the good moments in something that was bad. And I miss the slower pace. Our world is starting to open up, and I'm back on the treadmill of life. In some ways, I really loved having that break for me and my kids.

E! News: When you resumed filming on the latter half of the season, can you tell me about how it felt differently now that you were further along in your sobriety?

BWB: It was still very hard. After we resumed filming, it was a cast trip. And the idea of going on a trip with people who drink heavily when you're stuck in a house with them? I mean, the anxiety was through the charts. I was freaking out. I did not want to go. I remember we got COVID tested and I was like, "Please, come back positive so I don't have to go on this trip." I'd rather have a deadly virus than go on this trip. That's how in my head I was. I was nervous. When you watch the scene, I literally walk in, I'm shaking. Can I do this? Can I survive this? I'm very blessed that production gave me the option to not stay at the house, gave me a hotel room if I needed it. That made me feel a little bit better. And I drove my own car. I said, "I want to have my car, so if I need to leave—because I love the show, I love this, but I have to put my sobriety first." And they have been very, very supportive of that. They gave me time every morning to myself to go to a meeting. I went to one every morning. And that was just part of the deal.

We only had about two weeks. It's very hard to film during a pandemic, let me just say that. It's a shorter season. But you see me find my legs and my strength at the end. And it's like, "You know what? You can't talk to me like that anymore. You can't be coming at me with disparaging comments. I have boundaries now. Not just on the show, but in real life, and you have to respect those. And if you don't, then I'm out. I'm not gonna stay here and get in the dirt and do this with you guys anymore." Restraint of pen and tongue. I'm trying to live as honestly as I can, and work a program that's important to me, while filming the show. And you'll see, at times, it's like, how is that possible? But I do feel like I'm doing it the best that I can.

E! News: That's great. Outside of the show, how has your being sober changed your relationships with Sean, with the kids, with your mom? How has it affected those relationships so far?

BWB: With Sean, it's been hard. We have a very co-dependent relationship. Very. So he's working his own program. I think we had to realize that it wasn't just me, that there's a lot of things in play here after 26 years that we've kind of fallen into. So he's working his program, I'm working mine. We're both in therapy on our own—and together. We need to be better on our own right now. That's what we're working on. To be a better couple, we have to get healthy first. So he's not living here right now. We are getting healthy on our own. I think that's important. And I just want to put it out there—everyone's like, "Oh, they're getting divorced." No. We just know that to stay together, and stay together healthily, we have to heal separately. 

With the kids, it's been good. I think the little kids probably didn't notice too much of a difference except for I stay awake now. I don't pass out at 7:00. The older kids, like I said, this is their third time seeing me get sober. I think they're hopeful, but I would be lying if I thought they thought it was forever, you know? They've seen me try and fail before. So I think they're happy that I'm doing it and that I'm doing the work, but I've put them through this a few times. I think there's also part of them that's still guarded. "What if Mom falls off the wagon again?" And that's OK. They're allowed to feel that. I have put them through the wringer over the past 10 years, and we talk about that. I'm a big believer in therapy and talking about all of the things, so we've put that out there. We also know it's a family disease and it runs in families, so I'm very honest about my struggles with them. I don't sugarcoat it. Because the odds, with seven kids, of some of them being alcoholics and addicts is very high. I'm not going to kid myself to think that they're all going to get out of this unscathed. This runs on both sides of my family. So I try to be as honest as I can for the age they are.

And my mom, I think my mom is grateful. She's grateful because she's seen me struggle so long. She's seen some things that were not pretty that she had to keep to herself, some moments in my life that she was privy to. I think that she's happy that it's out there, it's easier for her to talk about things that she couldn't before. A lot of my stories and a lot of our fights are based around my drinking. So I think for her, there's a weight lifted off. She can now tell some of our stories that she couldn't before.

E! News: As you've been going down this road, I know you've found a mentor through the program, but were there any co-stars on the show who you were able to lean on? How did that work out?

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BWB: I mean, no. I actually had that conversation with with Lala about her cast. And she said that her cast was so supportive and rallied behind her. And I'm like, "Wow, that would've been nice." I don't know what you'll see, but I know what happened. There were times where certain cast members would say, "I liked you better drunk," or put tequila under my nose and say, "You're not a quitter. Take a sip." It was like, "Wow. Wow." One of my friends on the show was calling our mutual friends, trying to get dirt on me. "Oh, is Braunwyn drinking? Is she doing this for the show?" They actually thought I was making it up just for a storyline, going behind my back asking people for photos of me out and drinking. It was not pretty. It was the opposite of supportive. Shannon [Beador] had her moment. Gina [Kirschenheiter] had a moment. But they were very short-lived.

E! News: Wow. From my own experience, I feel like after you take this step and start to go down this road, I think that it does scare a lot of people because it forces them to maybe think about themselves and their own behavior. And it's very tough to deal with that. So I try to give compassion to the people who can't handle it because I'm like, "OK, they're on their own journey and I don't know what it is." I'm curious, though, if you, like me, watch people's drinking habits and pick up on them. This is the first time I've done this. Honestly, I'm 34 and this is probably the longest sustained sobriety I've maintained since I was 17. Literally. So I'm sort of seeing the world through brand-new eyes, as an adult, for the first time. And through it, I watch just how prevalent alcohol is in the lives of so many people who I love. And I have to find myself not coaching them because it's not my place. I'm curious how you see the world and how you see the people in your life in that respect now.

BWB: I definitely know when people have issues, but I also know to keep my mouth shut until they bring it up. I have had people who've come to me and said, "I have a problem. Can you help me?" And then, the next day, shut me out. Some of this I think you might see this season. We're only on episode two of 14, but there's a lot more that comes out. Not just with me. This is a societal issue, I think. Even now, I don't know if you do the same thing, but I'll text someone, "Hey, are you free later? Want to meet for a drink?" And then I have to back it up, like, "An appetizer?" You know what I mean? Because that's what we do. I don't want to actually have dinner with you, but what else am I going to do? Well, I'm going to sit there and drink water. But that's what were' programmed to do, let's go have a drink. I do try to keep my mouth shut. And I actually do keep my mouth shut, unless I'm asked, because when I was drinking, I didn't want anyone giving my advice.

But I know that just having people that lead by example, like Lala, like Captain Sandy, like my mentor now. Them just being them and living in their life, openly and honestly as sober women, that's all I needed. I didn't need them to give me advice. I needed them to just keep doing them. And then, when I was ready, I reached out. And so that's what I'm trying to do, just live my life. I'm here if you need me. The best thing about this has been how many people on my Instagram had DM'd me, saying, "I never said I had a problem. Now, I know I do. You're the first person I told." I have old friends from college that were like, "Thank you for giving me the courage to get sober." I had a long-lost family member who's like, "You're the first person I've said this to." I get chills just thinking about how many people just needed someone else to say, "I have this issue."

One of the things I mention, because everyone is different—and this goes along with what's your vision of an alcoholic—I didn't have to lose everything to get sober. My rock bottom was I had to gain everything. I had my dream job, amazing family, beautiful life—and I still wasn't happy. I still had this God-sized hole inside of me. And so, once I had everything I thought I wanted, I realized I wanted all the wrong things. I needed to look inward, and I needed to do the work. For me, that has been the "a-ha" moment, that happiness does not come from drinking, from partying, from clothes. It's here.

E! News: I don't get it on the scale that I'm sure you are, but I'm very open about it on my Instagram with the people in my life who follow me. And I've had people tell me that. It takes me by surprise. Just the other day, someone told me that they were eight months in and I was helping them. And I didn't think that I could have that impact, just by doing something for myself. So I know what you mean. It gives me the chills. My last question for you, when you get these DMs or just, in general, to people who are watching you on this journey and are seeing something in themselves and want to take the step, but are afraid to, what would be your piece of wisdom you've picked up on so far that you'd share?

BWB: I mean, I'm learning to respect certain traditions, but—and you can tell, as my journey goes on, I get more respectful of that. I found a program that works for me. I tried the same program 10 years ago and I didn't want what they had. I am so grateful to be a part of AA. And I know we're not supposed to talk about it and whatever, but, for m—and only me—t has been beautiful. Beautiful. These are my people. I earned the seat here. I am so grateful. And I'm sure that you understand this, it's hard for people who drink, but I am such a grateful alcoholic. I am so grateful that I get to be an alcoholic.

E! News: Me too. Me too.

The Real Housewives of Orange County airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Bravo.

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