John Mabry

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.

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.

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