Ralph Sara is hitting the big time.
“This is my studio,” Sara said, pointing to a rectangular frame made of PVC pipe draped with blue moving blankets. “It’s the bedroom.”
He laughed as he showed off the set up in his Anchorage apartment, but it is actually bigger than his last studio.
“You know, when I first started doing the podcast, I was next door in the closet,” he said.
Sara, who is Yup’ik and from Bethel, calls his show The Anonymous Eskimo Recovery Podcast. It features interviews with people about their recovery journeys. When Sara started it, back in 2020, he had just left residential treatment, was attending a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and was trying to repair his relationships with his family.
“When I started the podcast, I did it selfishly for myself,” he said. “I thought, ‘This podcast is going to hold me accountable ‘cause if I’m doing this podcast, I can’t do it when I’m drinking or else it’s just a farce.’ You know, I’m lying to everybody, so I can’t do that.”
Listen to this story:
Sara described himself as a chronic relapser. He said he wanted to be sober but always found reasons to drink. Then, he got a felony DUI when driving his motorcycle and ended up at another residential treatment center. Finally something clicked.
“I didn’t want to lose anything anymore,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose my family again. You know, my children, my loved ones.” He paused then joked, “And the material things of course.”
He decided to finally open up to one of the clinicians. He talked and wrote about his past.
“I had a lot of time in treatment,” he said. “So I wrote and wrote. I wrote it kind of like a book.”
Sara thought that a book felt like a big project to attempt, but a podcast could be doable. When he left treatment, he looked up Indigenous recovery podcasts and couldn’t find any. So he started his own. He knew that listening to people’s recovery stories was helpful for him and would keep him on track.
In the beginning, to get guests for his show, he would scroll through social media posts and ask people who wrote about their recovery journey to come on his podcast. Some people said no just because of the show’s title — Sara’s humorous dig at both AA and changing language. Now, he says people approach him to be on the program.
“People are starting to be proud of being in recovery and showing other people they’re not alone, that it’s possible to recover and it’s possible to help other people by sharing their stories,” he said.
Since mid-2020 he’s produced more than 60 episodes and spoken with people from across the continent and from close to home. One of his most recent episodes features Jeff Egoak from Napakiak. The two men met first in Bethel years ago then again when Egoak worked at the front desk at the treatment center where Sara got help.
During the episode, Sara told Egoak, “Seeing another Native guy there working, helping — it just meant the world to me.”
Egoak replied that he wants to boost people’s morale when they walk into the center. He greets Native people in Yup’ik so they feel more welcome.
“I’m glad I was there to inspire and to help,” he told Sara. “And you know I’m a really big advocate for sobriety.”
For the podcast, Sara said he primarily speaks with Indigenous people because their voices are underrepresented in the recovery world.
“Being Native, I think, and having this podcast gives other Indigenous people a voice that they’d never had before because it was so frowned upon to talk about what you are going through,” he said.
He feels like when he was growing up, people couldn’t talk about their trauma or mental health issues.
“You can’t cry if you’re a Native man, you know?” he said. “You can’t talk about things that are bothering you or hurting you. You have to be the strong, stoic person, right?”
Sara, a long-time musician, pitched a book about his life to the Rasmuson Foundation using what he wrote during treatment alongside plans to write an album to accompany it. He won one of their 2021 Individual Artist Awards. That’s when he had to upgrade from the closet to the bedroom, so he’d have space to record music, too.
He’s still drafting songs and working on the book. It’s a long but healing process.
“It’s kind of therapy for me to let it back up and then let it out again,” he said.
Sara said he hopes his story will help people just like the podcast helped him and his listeners — by reminding them they’re not alone and that recovery is possible.
This story is part of an ongoing solutions journalism project at Alaska Public Media about destigmatizing mental health. The project is funded by a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust but is editorially independent.