Melissa Rivera

By Lara Santoro

When Melissa Rivera quit drinking, she figured a line or two of cocaine every now and then wouldn’t hurt. Born in Topsham, Maine, to two alcoholic parents, the entrepreneur had perfected the art of self-sabotage early on, walking away from Bowdoin and Bates, from the US women’s soccer team when it came knocking at the University of Southern Maine, from a bachelor’s degree with only two exams to go and, finally, from a career with Apple in California. She’d pulled herself up by her bootstraps, opened a boutique in downtown Portland, drank it into the ground and finally put the plug in the jug after a breast specialist wondered if by “too much” Rivera meant two to four drinks a day. “I said more like nine or ten,” to which the specialist replied: “You’re getting drunk every day.” Somehow that hit Rivera right between the eyebrows.

At 37, Rivera was alcohol-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, caffeine-free and abuzz with cocaine. “I kept dialing up eight balls,” Rivera recalls with a shake of the head. “Two to three times a week, sometimes more.” An eighth of an ounce consumed in secrecy every other day eventually got her down to one hundred pounds and no more than three hours of sleep a night, typically from six to nine in the morning, when she slipped into her corporate skin and strode convincingly into the neon glare of “a highly reputable business.”

One morning, out of the blue, came a prolonged bout of hyperventilation. Says Rivera, “I called my boss and said I won’t be in today.” She entered an outpatient program run by Mercy Hospital and endured the challenges of early sobriety without peer support because, Rivera says, she could not endure public exposure. She had started coaching people in nutrition and the mere idea of walking into an AA meeting and confessing an unhealthy habit sent her into a tailspin. She’d had a revelation by then: she couldn’t be the only professional in Portland juggling high visibility and addiction. Behind the mask of success there had to be people paralyzed by fear and shame, just like her. “Business people,” she says, leaning forward, counting on her fingers, revealing the greens and red of a magnificent full arm tattoo. “People in the spotlight, people in the public eye, people…to whom I can say: I know what it’s like to have a super unhealthy, super unbalanced life, and I know what it takes to get out of that hole and create the kind of life you never thought possible without drugs and alcohol. Because I’ve done it.”

That was a year and a half ago. Since then, Rivera, now 41, has turned a longtime passion into a full time job as a health coach. She earned a degree from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City and experienced what she called “a pinch-memoment” when one of the directors asked her if she could mentor students. Rivera joined World Gym as a resident health coach, the first the facility has ever had. This past winter, she walked into a women’s meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, sat down, and looked around her. There, she says, “were women of all ages, all walks of life, all shades of skin, and they were beautiful and for the first time I felt like I fit in.”