Interviews

Academy of Hope, Stedman Graham, and Joe Polish’s Genius Network

After surviving rock bottom, Andre Norman founded “The Academy of Hope” with the goal to diminish violence in prisons. Contributors include Stedman Graham, Joe Polish (founder of Genius Recovery Foundation) and The Genius Network®.

Andre Norman overcame poverty, gangs, and prison to become an International Speaker and Harvard Fellow. Having survived rock bottom, Andre knew he could help others do the same. Andre’s pledge has been, and continues to be, to help anyone in need. He saves people’s lives.

One of the ways he’s done this is by founding “The Academy of Hope.” The goal of the Academy of Hope is to diminish violence inside prisons. One of the contributors to The Academy of Hope is Stedman Graham. Stedman speaks to inmates about finding their purpose no matter where they are. Founder of Genius Recovery Foundation, Inc., Joe Polish, is also Founder of Genius Network®. Genius Network and its Members’ have donated books and other educational materials and through the Genius Recovery Foundation, made available to Andre’s program to help better the men and women in prison populations of America.

Joe Polish, Stedman Graham, and Andre Norman are healthy role models of transformation and service. They are helping develop a positive trajectory for people’s future.

Nelson Mandela was locked up for 27 years and became president of his country when he came out. We have to be able to give individuals who are incarcerated information that allows them to grow and develop, and build and create a positive future. That is what The Academy of Hope is all about.

Joe Polish teaches, “We cannot punish the pain out of people.” We cannot torture people into a better life. We have to speak them with respect and kindness and help them understand how to have a greater goal. In prison, they have the time to read, study, and learn. And after they pay their debt to society, they have the opportunity to become productive citizens utilizing their own talents, skills, abilities, passions, and purpose.

A form of addiction recovery and rehabilitation with efficacy is personal development, and self-education. If we can raise our consciousness and understand that there’s a bigger world out there… we can have a bigger vision, we can plan, set goals, organize a process to empower ourselves and focus on the positive. We can absolutely change our direction and develop a different trajectory for our future.

America’s prison population is a 2.2 million person problem and a multi billion dollar problem. Stedman, Andre, and Joe are getting stuff done and contributing to a better society. Your contribution can help propel the mission.

Dr. Gabor Maté, Addiction Expert, Interviewed by Joe Polish

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Maté: A Candid Conversation About Addiction with Dr. Gabor Maté and Joe Polish

Notable Quotes From This Interview:

“It’s not ‘why the addiction?’, it’s ‘why the pain?’” – Dr. Gabor Maté

“The greatest gift you can give your children is their happiness.” – Dr. Gabor Maté

“The medical profession is trauma-phobic.” – David Smith

“A lot of people have died because of the addiction to power.” – Dr. Gabor Maté

“You can not punish pain out of people.” -Joe Polish

Episode Summary

Is addiction the biggest crisis we’ve ever faced? Can we do anything about it? In a candid conversation about addiction, Dr. Gabor Maté and Joe Polish define what addiction is and why it’s actually a solution to pain.

Dr. Gabor Maté is a Hungarian-born Canadian physician with a background in family practice and a special interest in childhood development and trauma, and in their potential lifelong impacts on physical and mental health, including on ADHD, addictions and a wide range of other conditions.

Here’s a glance at what you’ll learn from Dr. Gabor Maté in this episode:

– Why addiction is the biggest crisis we’ve ever faced and what we’re doing about it…
– Dr. Gabor Maté defines what addiction is and why it’s actually a solution to pain
– How the criminal justice system treats addiction and why we must change how people view and treat addicts
– Dr. Gabor Maté and Joe discuss the opioid epidemic and why it’s been happening for decades
– The reason why every case of addiction originates from trauma and deep pain
– Joe shares his struggle with addiction and Dr. Gabor Maté shares his personal story of workaholism
– Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton: A fascinating insight into the difference between overt trauma and developmental trauma
– Joe asks Dr. Gabor Maté, “If someone was raped or molested as a child, how do you interact with your perpetrator if you still know them?”
– Addicts lie, cheat, steal and cause trouble through self-destruction. Gabor and Joe discuss how to interact (and be compassionate) with addicts…
– Dr. Gabor Maté talks about epigenetics and how our environment influences our genes
– The meaning of recovery and how we reconnect with ourselves in recovery
– Dr. Gabor Maté talks about “respectable addictions” and how disdain gets projected onto other people
– How parents unknowingly pass on trauma from one generation to the next…
– Dr. Gabor Maté discusses why A.D.D. is a response to trauma and how A.D.D. is an adaptation
– Traumaphobia: Why we’re surrounded by trauma and yet we don’t talk about it
– What Dr. Gabor Maté would ask Harvey Weinstein and how Gabor suggests we treat addiction
– Why we can’t punish pain out of people and how we can help people fighting silent battles
– What we can do to heal the family system, heal the individual and recover from addiction

Show Notes

  • Addiction is complex but can manifested in any behaviour, not just drugs or gambling.
  • Nearly everybody has had an addiction at some point in their life. The addiction isn’t the problem, developing an addiction is your way of trying to solve the real problem.
  • Emotional pain is almost always the underlying cause of addiction.
  • The question is what happened for you to feel pain, and what can you do to address it.
  • Children take everything in a narcissistic sense. Everything is always about them.
  • We all need to be wanted and your desire will appear in ways that are often addictive.
  • Right now the criminal justice system is treating addicts like criminals, instead of with punishment.
  • The decision to criminalize certain forms of addiction is entirely arbitrary according to the statistics.
  • The theory that addiction is a genetically inheritable disease goes out the window when you look at the aboriginal experience.
  • Every case of addiction results from trauma.
  • The medical world does not understand emotional trauma.
  • ADD is a response to trauma, it’s not genetic and it’s not a brain disease. It’s actually an adaptation to too much stress.
  • Children can feel the stress and suffering of their immediate environment. The strategies the children employ to deal with stress actually become problems later on.
  • A third of teenagers and adults in North America suffer from anxiety.
  • We pass on our trauma to our kids, not genetically but through our actions.
  • The addictive brain can be very clever when it comes to justifying your addictive actions.
  • You have two rational choices when dealing with an addict: you can choose to leave them or you can tell them you will be there to support them in their effort to escape their pain.
  • The irrational choice is to try and change the person.
  • The addiction that manifested in you didn’t begin with you.
  • The problem with words is that they are accurate at first but then the become pejoratives. The word addict has its roots in slavery.
  • What is missing from your life and how did you lose it?
  • We should treat addicts with compassion and get to the core trauma instead of just treating the behavior.
  • Behavior problems become physiological problems in the brain based on the environment.
  • Trauma is a loss of self, recovery is getting it back.
  • When your recovery is complete, you will often have compassion towards the person that traumatized you in the knowledge that they were traumatized themselves in the same way.
  • Anger can be healthy, but it should be channeled in a useful way.
  • There a respectable addictions and there are others that we project of self disdain onto others.
  • The more you stress people, the more you entrench them in their addictions.
  • We live in such a traumatized society, that traumatized people can rise to the top.
  • There are two kinds of trauma, overt and developmental. Not all trauma is from bad things that happened to you, it can also come from good things that didn’t happen to you.

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Get more from Dr. Gabor Maté at https://drgabormate.com/

Scott Steindorff: Life Recovery Project

Producer Scott Steindorff’s filmography reads like its own compelling mystery: a wildly eclectic series of clues left for some seasoned detective to puzzle back together. Steindorff has produced Westerns (Jane Got a Gun), comedies (Chef), dramas (The Lincoln Lawyer), and epic romances (Love in the Time of Cholera). There’s even a successful TV show in the mix, too (Las Vegas). But no matter how varied his projects are, Steindorff clearly remains as dedicated to telling good stories as he is dedicated to making a difference. Case in point: his newest passion project isn’t even rooted in entertainment—it’s an initiative geared toward addicts struggling to find sobriety.

Life RecoverySteindorff is spearheading Life Recovery, an enormously ambitious project in the world of addiction recovery—one that covers more media channels than his IMDb page spans genres. It’s a dynamic, multi-faceted approach that wisely recognizes addiction knows no boundaries. Life Recovery involves a structured program, a book, a Netflix docuseries, discussion groups, and nearly everything in between. In fact, when Steindorff describes the motivation behind the project, it almost sounds as beautifully layered as the plots of the novels he’s optioned. Life Recovery is nothing short of a complete reinvention of what recovery is and what we’re capable of as human beings. And because Life Recovery doesn’t promise addicts a hollow Hollywood happy ending, it suggests that Scott Steindorff might be exactly the creative visionary that the future of addiction recovery needs.

When did you first get the idea for Life Recovery?
It started about a year and a half ago. I was tired of hearing the same stuff in the rooms. I started doing some research about recovery—mainly because I felt there were so many young people coming in and out. I’ve seen it get progressively worse in the past few of the years with people in their late teens and early twenties. Mostly opioids. A lot of them had OD’d and were having very difficult times staying sober and having an equally difficult time understanding the program. They weren’t relating to the religion, for one thing. There was just something “off” about it, so I did a lot of research so I could work with my guys. I reached out to about 30 or 40 of the top addiction researchers in the world.

And this just all happened in the last year and a half?
Yeah! One day, I just woke up and thought: “How can we do better?” Rehab statistically has about a 90% failure rate; AA recovery groups are probably at a 95% failure rate. Why can’t we update, modernize, get together, and create something that will solve these problems? That’s when I started getting really excited. And let me be clear: what I’m doing now wasn’t exactly on my goal sheet. It was not on my Top 100 things to do in the remainder of my life. (Laughs)

You’re open about struggling with cocaine 34 years ago. How different was the recovery scene back then?
Well, when I got sober, I went to a treatment center and they didn’t know how to treat cocaine [addiction]. They actually told me that. And then I went to AA and they said, “We don’t know anything about cocaine.” It was just a bunch of old guys in Scottsdale, Arizona. But they loved me and they cared about me, and it got me sober. But I realize I didn’t have a spiritual experience in rehab—I had a consciousness shift. There were aspects of myself that I actually liked. I thought, “I can get through this. I can take on the world.” And I did. But I wanted to teach that to others. Unless a kid has meaning and purpose in their life, unless you can change the inner belief system of some 18-year-old kid in Ohio, nothing’s going to change. It’s so simple. Have you ever been to an AA meeting where they talk about that?

No. Never.
When I got sober at 24, there weren’t many people my age. Today, you have kids who are OD’ing on opioids by then. Opioids change the brain. They’re so potent. This crisis is bigger than the HIV crisis.

Well, with Life Recovery, you’re covering virtually every media channel imaginable. Is that strategy central to your mission?
Yes. It’s not just alcohol and drugs. It’s food, too. And it all comes down to one word: feelings. I want to change how I feel, so I’m going to eat my way, I’m going to fuck my way, I’m going to drink my way, I’m going to shoot my way to [accomplish that]. You can’t just tell me to quit eating or taking drugs or drinking. We have to change how you feel about yourself. That’s what Life Recovery is all about. I’m going to give you an example. In Oxnard, California, an 11-year-old girl committed suicide. Over 100 kids under the age of 10 have committed suicide in this last year.

What?
Yeah. It’s never been that way. So all of these kids at school were upset and the schools brought in a psychologist. Every kid showed up. And they showed up the next day. Instead of doing it once a week, they did it three times a week. Kids started talking about “Mom and Dad are getting divorced,” “I don’t know what to do,” and all of their feelings. What I realized is that if there was one thing you and I are going to do that’s constant is that we’re going to have feelings. But what’s the one thing you and don’t know much about? Feelings. So, I said let’s create a prevention program. Let’s teach kids about emotions and feelings. All the events that happened to me between the ages of 5 and 13 probably had a big contribution to me having a substance problem. I mean, what are the magic words you heard as a kid? “Shut up.” “Don’t get mad.” “Don’t feel that way.” “Don’t feel.” That’s what I learned about feelings: not to feel. I want to teach kids what they’re going to experience in life and how to appropriately express feelings.

Why do you think other treatment programs fail?
We’re just not treating [addiction] the right way. You can’t take emotional issues and solve them with a spiritual program. Now, let me be clear: I’m not knocking AA. That’s not my mission here. The Big Book was written in 1939 for what was happening in 1939. The language is dated, the meaning is dated, the core of it is based on Christianity, and it’s not going to change the consciousness of a young person today. I have three grown children and I’ve come to the conclusion that if one of them had a problem, I don’t know where to send them. There’s not one facility that I feel is really doing the job today.

That’s a pretty bold statement.
Well, what do I do? Where do I really turn? What I’ve discovered is that 85% of people who have problems with substance abuse had environmental issues happen to them. Nobody who comes into rehab says, “You know what? I’ve had a fucking amazing life and everything is going well and I just decided to start shooting heroin.” It doesn’t happen. Most of us walk around not knowing how we feel or what we feel. But if we don’t love ourselves, we’re not going to take care of ourselves and we’re sure as hell not going to help others. And if you’re in a program that’s about helping others, you can’t help others if you don’t understand or love yourself.

What’s the most fulfilling thing for you about working with young people in recovery?
Seeing them change. Seeing them have that “A-ha” moment that they’re okay and that they’re a good person. When they have that moment, there’s nothing better in the whole world, is there?

What’s your greatest hope for Life Recovery?
That we can have an 80% success rate instead of an 80% failure rate in recovery. I just want people to have happy, meaningful lives.

Crossing Finish Lines: Carrie Steinseifer Bates’s Road to Recovery

Road to RecoveryWhile alcoholic falls from grace are as common as they are tragic, there isn’t often an Olympic pedestal involved somewhere in the story. Unfortunately for three-time Olympic champion Carrie Steinseifer Bates, her story has one in it. Her decades-long plunge into alcoholism didn’t just devastate her family and destroy relationships—it almost erased her monumental athletic achievements from memory. “When you have somewhat of a public life, your problems aren’t any worse or more dramatic,” she says, “but everyone in my community knew. And let’s face it: when you’re being put in the back of a police car at three in the afternoon when the school bus is dropping off kids, the gig is kind of up.” Bates, who first competed in the 1983 Pan American Games, realized that none of her gold medals mattered much if she couldn’t escape the long shadow that alcoholism cast across her life and remarkable career.

At 15, Bates won gold medals in 4×100-meter freestyle and 4×100-meter relays, which she parlayed into Olympic wins the very next year. Beneath the brightness of her wins, though, something dark was percolating and about to rear its head. “I grew up in an alcoholic home, so swimming was my escape and my safe place—and I just happened to be good at it,” she noted. “That’s where I went to work out my fear and my anger. I took it all out in the pool and nobody can see you cry underwater, right?” Where that fear and anger informed her will, commitment, and singular drive to succeed in her competitive career, it later underscored a just-as-epic drinking career, too. “All the [sayings] that brought me my greatest accomplishments: ‘Don’t ask for help,’ ‘Barrel through it,’ ‘Bulldoze your way there,’ and ‘You’re strong’ became the same things that nearly killed me.”

Bates first tasted alcohol on a 14-hour flight from Tokyo, which sent her off to the races (pun intended): “I was on an airplane and I was one of the youngest traveling with the national team,” she remembers. “Nobody was monitoring what we were doing. Not only did the drinking feel good, but it was more of a feeling like, ‘Oh my God. I finally fit in.’ I’d always had a sense of not being comfortable in my own skin.” (She drank enough wine coolers to vomit on the plane and pass out.) Still, her competitive swimming career continued after her ’84 gold-medal wins and meeting then-President Reagan. She attended the University of Texas, where she was a member of three NCAA national championship relay teams, not to mention representing the US at the 1987 Pan American Games and the 1989 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. (She won gold medals for the latter two, as well.) And yet, alcoholism doggedly pursued her like a competitor in her own swim lane. “I don’t think I really crossed that proverbial line to alcoholic drinking until my late thirties,” she said. But when Bates finally crossed the line, everything came crashing down.

“You have to remember I lived in a world that was about excess. Everything that we did was entitled and of excess,” Bates observes. “As elite athletes, we have this mentality that we work really fucking hard, but we play really hard, too.” And just as she did in the pool, with alcohol, she pushed the boundaries of what she was capable of. And while she later managed to get through two pregnancies without drinking, she knew that she was an alcoholic. “As I got older and was raising kids, I could definitely start to see that my disease was starting to progress,” Bates says. “I started to hide [my drinking]. I started to drink more than my girlfriends and more often, too. Eventually, it wasn’t just the quantity but the frequency.” It’s a story that sounds familiar to most any alcoholic, but it’s a particularly unsettling one for a champion who’d trained her entire life to be the best, if not quasi-invincible. Alcohol just wasn’t something she’d factored in. “I’d become everything that I hated in life,” she remarks, “and I didn’t even see it coming.”

Soon enough, Bates found herself in AA rooms, even though she still struggled with hitting any honest stretches of sobriety. “Talk about driving the shame stake deeper into the ground,” she sighs, recalling the memory. “I was a complete fraud. I’d literally stand up and take coins when I knew I wasn’t sober. My life was so defined by my achievements that I was so afraid that people would find out my truth.” That truth was its own full-time job to conceal. Bates spent as much time drinking as she did maintaining the illusion that she had a perfectly manicured life as a wife, mother, and career woman. “If you could divide me into three [parts], there’s me as a sober, recovering, strong woman. There’s also the diseased alcoholic [who is] really sick and near dying. And then there is me as a successful athlete, great mom, and a good career. For a long time, I felt like they were three very different people and I couldn’t quite connect the dots, but in sobriety, I can.”

Sobriety remained more elusive to Bates than an Olympic gold medal was to an ordinary person, though. “Elite athletes aren’t easy people to get sober,” she admits. “We have pretty big egos, usually.” Still, Bates had hit a bottom where suicidal thoughts, destroyed friendships and divorce waited for her, so she turned to treatment. That trip, though, wasn’t successful. “I wasn’t fully honest in treatment. I told the staff and the counselors what they wanted to hear,” Bates says. “I only told them parts of my stories because if I told my truth, I’d have to stay. I have a life to get back to, don’t you know? But I didn’t see how much that hurt me and my ability to stay sober.” Needless to say, her time in treatment didn’t work. She returned to treatment in 2012 after sitting at a kitchen table with two girlfriends, drinking alcohol out of a coffee cup. It was that moment when she decided to quit cold turkey, arranging for 90 days of out-of-state treatment. “And then went into this really, epic, dangerous withdrawal,” she says with a disturbingly cold, matter-of-factness that belies just how horrifying the experience must have been. “It was full DT’s: voices; hearing TVs that weren’t on; no concept of night or day. I was lucky I didn’t die, but I’m not so sure I didn’t want to die.”

Years following treatment, however, Bates hasn’t just found sobriety—she’s found purpose. “I was sick of getting A’s in Treatment and F’s in Life,” she explains, looking back on decades of drinking with equal parts terror and awe. Now, she’s focused on being the best mother possible to her two daughters and making them “aware of what’s running through their veins.” She’s also taken a very vocal stance against the stigma of addiction, using her achievements as an Olympian for a greater purpose. While Bates respects the anonymity of others in 12-step programs, she’s dedicated to living out loud and helping others. “I talk about recovery openly,” she said. “It’s so much bigger than the medals. It’s about using this platform to help other struggling people who are ashamed to come out of their front door.” When Bates speaks about recovery, you can hear the passion in her voice: the electricity in between each syllable; the way she punctuates her sentences with confident periods. She doesn’t hit one inauthentic note. Bates is resolute when she describes being active with the California treatment center where she finally got sober—a place she visits frequently with her family. “I watch my girls tell other moms that their kids will forgive them, as they did me, if they stay sober. Those are my proudest moments,” she says.

It’s particularly interesting to listen to Bates describe her recovery because she begins to speak with pronouns like “we” and “our,” rather than describing it as some sort of sad solo act. “My daughters aren’t ashamed of me and they’re not ashamed of our journey. We all own our story out loud and my kids have no interest in hiding the truth.” As Bates reflects, it’s clear that she’s come a long way from not only her drinking days, but an early recovery that found her “paralyzed by fear” and afraid to leave her house out of shame. Now remarried, Bates credits her “fabulous” husband for helping her achieve sobriety, saying that “he would walk in front of me until I was brave enough to be seen, in back of me in case I slipped, and next to me with pride when I was strong enough.”

In many ways, Bates is as much a force of nature now as she was as an Olympic champion, if not more so. She recounts signing up for half-marathons, full marathons and Iron man competitions with enthusiasm and grace, not an unbridled ego ready to destroy other people. Bates isn’t broken by her past so much as she’s humbled by it. She’s keenly aware of the gulf between standing on the Olympic pedestal and lying on her kitchen floor. “I have the seen the world from a view that very few people will get to see in their lifetime: as an Olympian, a gold medalist, as someone who traveled the world,” she notes. “I have seen and done things a lot of people will never get to do in their lifetime. But I’ve also absolutely lived in hell on earth.” True champions never let the fire inside them die out, and Bates is no exception. For someone whose career was built on speed and endurance, it’s remarkable to see that Bates continues to outpace her demons, leaving them all far behind.

John Mabry: Outpacing Addiction

Outpacing AddictionJohn Mabry’s story of addiction begins where most people’s end. At 22, he was involved in a horrific SUV accident that claimed his right leg as well as the life of his friend. (The vehicle flipped 10 times in less than 10 seconds.) It’s the sort of shocking, violent twist that takes place in Act 2 in most screenplays about substance abuse. Not for Mabry. This happened during the opening credits of his life story. It wasn’t until after John survived the accident that he found himself in a private hell of painkillers and alcohol that very nearly took everything he held dear. Years later, his bout with addiction has become the backbone of a remarkable recovery, which now sees him as a counselor, motivational speaker, triathlete (yes, you read that right), and a proud, married father of three who uses his past weaknesses as present strengths. It’s clear that John Mabry hasn’t simply learned to use a prosthetic leg so much as learn how to walk, fearlessly and courageously, through life.

Do you remember your first drink or drug?
Sure, I would’ve been 18. Alcohol. Senior in high school, outside of San Antonio. Down at the river with friends.

Growing up, did you have any exposure to addiction in your family?
I had some family members, here and there. But I wasn’t affected or exposed to it on a daily basis. I’d see it over the holidays. That was a whole new world to me.

It’s super-clear that family is incredibly important to you. Was that always the case?
It was heightened and became more important after my accident. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher [who was] personal friends with Billy Graham. I grew up in the church. I went with my family every Sunday. But I took it for granted. I was spoiled and everything was provided for me. I felt a sense of entitlement most of my life. To be honest with you, I had some trauma as a kid I never really considered trauma until I went a trauma-specific therapist. She said, “Look, I don’t care about your car accident. You saw your friend die and had your leg cut off. You found your brother dead. I don’t care. What happened to you as a kid?”

I said, “Nothing.” (Laughs) Both sets of parents are married, both sets of grandparents are married. I couldn’t have been more stable growing up. But she said that something happened early on to set the tone to how I handled the other trauma. So I said I had some ear surgeries as a kid. She goes: “Boom. I want to go back and start there.” Come to find out, unpacking all of this with my therapist, from when I was 6 to 15, I had six surgeries. [I had] constant infections, tubes twice, and a transplanted ear drum. Three bones in my left ear are prosthetic.

In high school, my goal was to be Class Clown. I didn’t even care if I graduated. (Laughs) At prom, I got Class Clown, Most Outgoing, Most School-Spirited and Best Personality. My therapist asked me if what I went through as a child made me feel insecure, fearful, different or defective. She was totally right. I completely overcompensated. I didn’t really think anything of the surgery, but it had a major impact on my psyche. I did feel different. Then, drinking in high school and college didn’t do me any favors. But when I had the car accident, with painkillers, I was off to the races.

So, let’s talk about that. I know everything you lost in your accident. But did anything positive eventually come out of it?
Absolutely. It helped me realize I’m not invincible. I’m not in control. [The accident] reminded me that maybe I don’t have it all together. I thought I had it all, man: full-ride scholarship. I was social chair of our fraternity. I couldn’t have painted a better picture going into senior year, but it was all flipped upside-down, literally. Coming out of it all, I had a more acute sense of the fragility of life. I really went and checked off the boxes on my bucket list: “I almost died. What didn’t I do that I always wanted to do?” Well, that summer after my accident, I did a bunch of stuff. I went to Venice and rode in a gondola. I went skydiving in Paris Valley in Southern California. I went white-water rafting in the Alps.

I also started working for a non-profit called the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which I still do some work with. They’re in San Diego. We raise money for people with physical disabilities access to sports. They’ve funded tens of thousands of dollars to me over the years for sports equipment and a running leg. In turn, I’ve been able to help raise money for things like wheelchairs for kids’ wheelchair basketball teams. It’s great to work alongside a charity with a meaningful purpose. I even got a master’s in counseling to get myself in a position to help other people.

Triathlons, too! I’m stuck on the word “triathlon,” which is amazing unto itself.
(Laughs) Oh, man. I would’ve never done that before. I took physical ability for granted. I was a varsity basketball player in high school for two years. But when you’re laying in hospital bed and your mom is emptying out your urinal twice a day, you go: “When I get back up again, I gotta see what I’m capable of.” So, yeah. Skydiving, triathlons, snow skiing. I continue to push myself physically. Crossfit took a toll on my good leg, which I have arthritis in. Now it’s boxing at Title Boxing, which has been challenging. Really good therapeutic outlet to let go of steam.

You’ve been in TV shows and movies. How long have you wanted to be an actor? Was that a bucket-list thing, too?
(Laughs) My cousin, Josh Henderson, is an actor. He’s on a show called The Arrangement and he’s been on Desperate Housewives. He was cast as a soldier on a show called Over There in 2005. I was about to graduate in grad school, having never worked on my own stuff. I was addicted to Adderall and painkillers and alcohol at the time. How was I supposed to step out into the world and apply what I’ve learned when I haven’t even helped myself? I got a call from my cousin Josh and he asked me to take him through my accident. His character was going to lose his leg with a roadside bomb. One thing led to another and I was hired on as a technical consultant and a body double.

Was it surreal?
Yeah! People spend their whole lives trying to be on a major TV set. And just on a whim, I got my SAG card in the first three episodes. Stephen Bochco produced it and his wife asked to meet me. I talked to her for maybe five minutes and that turned into a big fundraiser for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. My cousin and I were in People, USA Today, and Access Hollywood. My ego was flying high. It was like: Look at me. Now I got it all together. Underneath, I was scared out of my mind dealing with reality.

Were you enamored with the Hollywood scene?
Oh yeah! Absolutely. Yes. I made a point of taking pictures with people like Adam Sandler. Look at me, look at me, look at me. It was completely self-serving. It got really lonely and didn’t end up well. Crash and burn.

Addiction killed your brother, too?
Yeah. He moved from New York to Los Angeles. He’d been struggling with cocaine. I’d said that L.A. wasn’t any better on the drug scene, but maybe a change in scene would help. He had an MBA from Georgetown and had studied at Oxford. Super-bright person. He’d been sober for about a year and a half when he drank at a wedding in Canada. Two weeks later, I found him dead. He’d broken the seal. Hadn’t partied in a while.

What was the moment you knew you personally needed help?
Do you know who Dave Ramsey is?

The financial consultant?
Yes. Well, I got fired by Dave. (Laughs) And it’s really hard to get a job at his organization. Took me seven interviews over four-and-a-half months.

Seven?
Yes. Spousal interview. We had to go to dinner with my supervisor and his wife. Dave says that he “wants to keep the crazies out.” Basically, if they get one in, they find out what door they got in and close that door forever. Now there are nine interviews.

So you added two layers.
(Laughs) Yeah. I was proud to have that job, too. But I needed help. I was not healthy. It showed in my performance and behavior. I was drinking a lot and taking a lot of pills and he saw that. Dave called me in and said you obviously need help—help that I can’t give you. But I can help you by letting you go. That’s when I thought: “Wow, this thing is way bigger than me.” Dave Ramsey is telling me I need help. That was 2011.

You had several stabs at treatment. What was the hardest thing for you? What wasn’t clicking?
I think it had to do with my sense of control. I wasn’t surrendering completely. I would surrender a little bit at a time, like the layers of an onion. I’m willing to do this, but I’m not willing to do that. And then I’d end up back in treatment. I’m willing to do step work, but not amends. Then I’d relapse. It was eventually a complete surrender to the process of recovery. I couldn’t pick and choose what I wanted to do in recovery instead of doing everything that was suggested.

Did you and your wife deliberate on how open you’d be about being in recovery?
Yeah, well, if I had cancer, we’re going to let everyone know. Right? This is serious. Neighbors will come over and help watch kids. I can go to my employer and work with them about my hours. But with the stigma of addiction, it’s basically like: “Shut up. Don’t talk about it.” You’re going to make your family look bad. So, we just didn’t talk about it. And it killed my brother and it was going to kill me. Screw what everyone else thinks. We have that All-American look—blond hair, blue eyes—but nobody knew what was going on underneath the surface. She was meeting with attorneys to talk about divorce. I was in treatment four times. I was living in a trailer. I was able to come home and have dinner with the kids, then head back to a halfway house. But everyone thought it was fine. But we thought: “What if we just put it out there?” Let it all go. Someone is going to be helped by it. It went against everything I was ever taught. Your family’s gotta look good. The mindset is that you put up a good front, but I had to do this to survive. Once you let in the light, the darkness won’t continue to take you down.

Your wife is incredibly supportive of you. Was that immediate or gradual?
Gradual. If you look back where we were in California, I’m just a completely different person. It hasn’t happened overnight. I’d go to treatment, make some progress, then not talk to my sponsor. I’d start not sharing my real feelings, grab some pills, NyQuil. It’d just be a downward spiral. Even with my success, she really struggles because for so long, she’d say: “You’ve got it this time, you’ve got it this time” and I’d go and sabotage it. This time, in my heart, I’ve let go completely. She shows her pride and support but I’m sure she’s afraid of me going backward again. Then, all of this has been for nothing.

What coping skills have you developed over the years?
Wow, man. Meditation has been so awesome. The great thing: it’s free. I don’t have to drive 45 minutes to a therapist’s office and sit in a waiting room. Meditation has been huge—202 days in a row now—and that’s something I never really did before. It’s been really big for me. I told my sponsor that I was meditating 10 minutes a day and he said, “That’s great. I want you to do 20.” I meditated for almost an hour yesterday and I think “How did I not have time to do this before?”

What’s something in recovery that’s surprised you?
When I was in L.A., everyone wants an entourage. They love that idea: the manager, the publicist, the agent, groupies, and all these people that build you up to the next level in your career. I’ve been able to find that in recovery. I have a therapist and a pastor and a wife and parents and sponsor and being around other alcoholics and addicts. I have a team around me who’s real. It’s so pure.

You and your family canvas almost every imaginable social media channel with blogs and video skits. What’s the most rewarding part of that?
Definitely when people reach out to us. My wife has a Facebook group for the women who have reached out to us, for example. There are wives at home alone going through the same thing my wife did, saying “I never thought it could be a pill addiction.” The main purpose is to be honest and be truthful with family and addiction. Two, it’s to make people laugh. That’s why we do stupid skits. If we’re going to open the floodgates, then let’s really do it. I want people asking: “What the hell did they do this for?” So it’s rewarding when people say, “I’m so glad you posted that—I thought I was alone.”

What’s the main message you hope people get from your speaking engagements?
I frequently quote Scent of a Woman, when Al Pacino’s Lt. Col. Frank Slade says, “There is nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that.” I think so many people today struggle with disabling events in their lives that they don’t feel they can share with others or find the strength to face them. Maybe something in their past has caused shame, disappointment, or unmet expectations. Loneliness is a big one. Especially with millennials. Everything’s gotta look good on social media. All the filters. Or, “Oh, that angle didn’t work. Let’s try it again so I look thinner.” It’s really just about “If you’re struggling—it’s okay. It’s not ok to cover up your struggles by endlessly checking your phone, turning to food, toxic relationships, or any other addictive behavior. If you need help, ask for it.” You don’t have to work through your struggles alone.

In recovery, do you value anything now that you didn’t before?
Really small things with my children and my wife. Last night, I was home by myself while they were all out. Before, I probably would’ve been drinking, taking pills, and being a bum. But last night, on their way home, I was sitting there on a couch saying, “Thank you God for the craziness that I get to experience in the next ten minutes when they get home.” I put my daughter to bed and she asked, “Daddy, can you kiss me goodnight?” Oh my gosh. My one son asked me to read to him, and the other one asked if I could rub his back while we were watching TV. So, all three wanted to be around me—and that hasn’t always been the case.

Learn more about John Mabry here: https://mabryliving.com/.