8 Men Who Discovered New, Improved Versions of Themselves Through Recovery - Men's Health Magazine Australia

8 Men Who Discovered New, Improved Versions of Themselves Through Recovery

"Recovery made me..."

Addiction trends have accelerated during COVID-19 as stress levels increase and support networks crumble. Meet eight men who have faced their struggles – many of them decades before this pandemic mess – and discovered new, improved versions of themselves through recovery as well as life lessons we can all learn from.

People in recovery will tell you that addiction isn’t just about neurochemical dependency, or intoxicating substances, or thrill-seeking behaviours. Addiction is also connected to control, security and self-worth – all of which have taken a massive beating during the pandemic.

When US Men’s Health polled 1111 people through SurveyMonkey, 75 per cent of respondents said they are close to someone struggling with addiction and 40 per cent reported an increase in cravings for addictive substances or behaviours. In Australia, a survey  from the Drug and Alcohol Foundation found 12 per cent of people  began consuming alcohol on a daily basis when COVID-19  began last year. One reason: they didn’t have other people around to keep them feeling connected, grounded and upbeat, says Dr Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer for the US National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The fraying of connectivity can trigger addictive behaviours – alcohol, painkillers, drugs, porn, gambling –and relapse for those in recovery. There’s also still a stigma attached to addiction, which means people often suffer in isolation. Psychiatrist Dr Ximena Sanchez-Samper says that to fight the stigma, it helps to reframe addiction as an illness: “If you think about patients that have cancer and have been able to beat their cancer, what do they call themselves? Survivors.”

The men profiled here all pushed through the stigma to get help. And beyond managing their addictions –sometimes after a few attempts – they found something else. They discovered that sobriety wasn’t an end but rather a means to a stronger, happier, healthier life.

Wait, Do I Have a Problem?

Experts point toward these five common signs that indicate whether you should seek help

Craving 

Addiction hijacks your desires. Do you fixate on experiencing the effects of a substance or behaviour? Does your behaviour change if something keeps you from using?

Compulsion 

Addiction is overpowering. Are you obsessively thinking about a substance or behaviour, making it hard to think about anything else? 

Loss of control 

Addiction lowers the bar in terms of holding yourself accountable. Are you setting rules or limits for your behaviour, only to consistently fall short?

Continued use despite consequences 

Addiction often causes you to struggle at work and in your relationships. Are you making excuses or explaining away those struggles? 

Chronic negative behaviour

Addiction monopolises your time. Are you leaving work early to meet up with a dealer or skipping your kid’s soccer game because
you’re hungover? 

Many of these issues go hand in hand. If you’re experiencing one or two regularly, it’s likely the other C’s will follow. Externalise the issue in order to better confront it, says Dr Sanchez-Samper: “I have this. I can recruit other people to help me with this”. Shame and guilt won’t work – honesty and support will.

Recovery Made Me... A Better Listener

Chris Marshall, 38, had been sober from alcohol for 10 years when he decided to open a bar. His spot lacks one thing: booze

As the only Black kid in a primarily white neighbourhood, Marshall discovered in high school that drinking was an easy way for him to fit in. The same went for college fraternity life. But fitting in didn’t mean strong bonds, and he says alcohol became his self-medication for anxiety and depression. After dropping out of school, Marshall says his life began to spiral out of control until he checked into rehab at age 23 and found sobriety and connection.

Alcoholism festers in isolation. Following a decade in recovery, he opened Sans Bar, a place that could bring together people who choose not to drink. In fact, he says they seem to connect on a deeper level, both with one another and with him behind the counter. Here’s what he’s learned. 

1/ Listen with your whole self

True conversation takes place away from screens. Even if your smartphone is facing down on a table, pocket it. And sit in a section of the bar or restaurant where a TV isn’t in view.

2/ Tell people you are listening

“That can sound like just an ‘okay’ or ‘I hear you,’ ” Marshall says. Brief interjections let the person know you’re engaged and encourage them to continue. Silence often doesn’t.

3/ Don’t try to fix things

“Listening is not about curing or diagnosing,” he says. “It’s about being present. That can feel daunting, but there’s so much healing in the ability to have someone listen to you.”

 

Adam Moro

Recovery Made Me... a Better Dad

Danny Trejo, 76, is 53 years sober from drugs and alcohol, with 398 acting credits to his name, as well as a new memoir, Trejo. He went to his first 12-step meeting at the age of 15 and found sobriety in prison. Through recovery, he picked up something else: parenting tools

Do you believe recovery made you a better father?

I don’t think I would have been a father without recovery. Anyone can become a father, but being a dad. . . . My kids love me. One of my kids will call me every day. If it wasn’t for recovery, they’d be writing to me in prison. I’d be sending them nice Christmas cards and shit. 

Did you ever fear that you would pass on your addiction to your kids?

My children have never seen  me loaded. I was clean and sober 18 years before I had my first son, Danny Boy. Great kid. Never had any problems. My son Gilbert, he shot dope; he’s six years clean now. My daughter, Danielle, she shot dope; she’s seven years clean now. So this program surrounded me with a support system that was able to help keep my kids from using. The support group saved their lives. 

What lessons have you learned about being a father from the 12 steps?

First of all, you can work the 12 steps on your kids. “God, in all his wisdom, didn’t make me do wise. If I do something stupid, it won’t take Him by surprise.” And, believe me, I’m always doing something stupid. What the program taught me was tolerance – hey, I made mistakes, too – to love my kids no matter what, and don’t snivel. Every day we pray, “God, give me patience, and give it to me right now”. You have no idea what’s coming when you’re clean and sober, but I can guarantee you that it’s going
to be better than what you had. 

 

supplied

Recovery Helped Me . . .Find Real Connection

Pro skateboarder Brandon Turner, 39, thrashed San Diego’s Pacific Drive in the 1990s but suffered from alcohol dependency. It wasn’t until he got sober that he broke through

“In skateboarding culture, after you land tricks, you celebrate with beers,” says Turner. “Landing a trick was like getting a job promotion. So at the skate park, it was a constant celebration.”

The party ended, though, when Turner served a 17-month sentence for two DUIs between 2013 and 2014. He was 31 at the time, but he had built a strong reputation and lucrative early career as a skateboarding child prodigy. Prison introduced him to AA meetings and the realisation that maybe it wasn’t the culture of skateboarding that was to blame for his addiction. Maybe it was him.

After Turner left prison, he entered a 12-step program and told his skateboarding friends he was sober. “They were proud of me,” he says. “That made me want to keep going.” In June 2020, he founded a skating program with Healthy Life Recovery in San Diego in which he teaches the basics of the sport to aspiring skateboarders who are in recovery.

“When you’re suffering, you tend to live in your head and have that feeling that you’re the only one going through it,” he says. “But being part of a community of people going through the same thing, you now have this new support.”

For Turner, that word – support –means more than just being around skateboarders. “I’m constantly checking emails and responding to messages from people who are just trying to get help,” he says. “But it’s not just about getting sober. It’s about connection.”

 

Dan Connelly

Recovery Made Me... Understand What “Value” Means

Musician Ruston Kelly, 32, has often written himself into his songs as characters who are racing toward rock bottom. And he lived it: between rehab stints, “I was buying shit at CVS  [Pharmacy] to mix with other shit to get high” and coming down and feeling like “walking death”. Now he’s going through a personal and musical remix

How did being a touring musician factor into your substance abuse?

I felt encouraged by whatever it was that I was doing, which is really dangerous. To be half drunk on a barstool playing for like two hours and people getting down to that and complimenting you so much on what you’re doing – I felt like, Maybe
I just understand myself as an artist better when I don’t understand who I am as a person
.

You recently celebrated two years of sobriety. What have you learned?

You look at value a lot differently. You know what it’s like not to have the simple things that seem to be building the very essence of being a happy and fulfilled person. You know what it’s like for your cup to be empty and you keep scraping the bottom.

Your first two records explore your history of drug and alcohol addiction. As you’re working on the next project, how has sobriety affected your artistic process?

I think [my first album] Dying Star was like I was floating in water. You can’t really tell if this dude is sinking or rising to the top. [My second album] Shape & Destroy is my head out of water. You see the shore, you’re going straight for it. And I think this next record is gonna be asking, “What does the shore look like?” 

 

Getty Images

Recovery Gave Me... Patience

Dr Peter Grinspoon, 55, was the classic busy primary-care practitioner, but he was also writing himself prescriptions for Vicodin. In 2005, he spent 90 days in rehab, and he’s been sober for 14 years. Now he’s a primary-care physician in Boston and teaches medicine at Harvard Medical School 

Fifteen or 20 years ago, I wasn’t really listening to people. I was this insecure, arrogant, stressed-out person who wanted to take a drug because I was so frazzled that I thought I deserved it. People who are susceptible to addiction have very low distress tolerance. The minute they’re uncomfortable, they take a drug to replace the bad feeling with a good feeling.  

It can be very aggravating to be a primary-care doctor – the computer doesn’t work, the insurance doesn’t pay, the patient doesn’t pick up the phone on the third attempt. I try to reframe things and remember that I’m lucky I get to help people.

In rehab we had to write a daily gratitude list. While I’m too lazy to actually write this out anymore, I do make a mental list every morning, and it grounds me in the fact that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

When I’m feeling down, I say, “Progress, not perfection”, meaning you’re doing your best to head in the right direction.

We have an obligation to be informed citizens in these challenging times, but sometimes you need a news break. The other day, driving home from a day at the clinic, I turned off news about the pandemic – and started listening to the Beatles. It turned around my entire day. 

 

Supplied

Recovery Made Me... Find Drive

Sam Louie, 49, wanted to be a TV journalist. But to cope with the pressure, he harboured a secret life of porn and sex addiction. Then therapy switched him to a different career path: therapist

It was the mistakes that would crush him. “After I messed something up on air, I would literally want to curl up in bed in the foetal position and not go anywhere,” says Louie, who started out as a television reporter in Missoula, Montana, in 1996.

His parents didn’t love that Louie entered journalism, but he hoped once they saw him on TV, they’d change their minds. “In Asian families, there can be pressure in perpetuating the family. I had to honour the Louie name,” he says. Except that Louie never really changed his own mind. “I had a boss once tell me, ‘You know, Sam, I don’t know if you have a fire in the belly for this work’. ” And he was right, says Louie – though it took him years to figure it out, years that involved better-paying gigs with more clout but also more and more pressure. At first, porn was a way to release that pressure.

“Every single night, after working a swing shift, I’d get home at midnight and be online looking at pornography while my wife was
in bed,” Louie says. She eventually caught him; the two of them went to couples counselling, but they ultimately divorced in 2001. After that, Louie’s addiction progressed to massage parlours and prostitution until finally he sought help in the form of specialised therapists and group therapy. During and between those meetings, Louie says an idea kept popping up: “You’re drawn to this mental-health stuff. Why don’t you do it?” So he entered grad school in 2007 and two years later became a licensed therapist. “Something just welled up in me that said, ‘You’ve got to do it even if you fail’.” The fire in the belly.

Today, Louie has 15 years of recovery, works as a licensed mental-health counsellor, and is the author of Asian Shame and Addiction. “I’ve found what I’m supposed to do with my life. I no longer need external validation,” Louie says. “There’s freedom in that.”

Recovery Gave Me... Focus

After moving to Las Vegas to work as a dietitian, Andy Bellatti, 38, received a $50 voucher in the mail to play slots. Five and a half years later, he had maxed out 12 credit cards and cashed out his 401(k) [superannuation], and he was more than $35,000 in debt. His boss convinced him to consider a 12-step program, and now he’s three years into recovery

I liken an addiction to a computer program that eats up a bunch of memory so everything else runs slowly. My brain was consistently having to deal with addiction, whether it was because I was thinking about when I would gamble next or I was worrying about the fact that I got an alert from my bank that I had an overdraft.

Once I got into recovery, I could be more present in my career. I could think more clearly. Being more present can only make you a better dietitian, [because] somebody is telling you something and you have to be listening for certain cues. It’s very hard to do that when you’ve gotten two hours of sleep and you’re thinking, When am I going to get paid? 

Once my behaviour got healthier, I was able to think, Wow, now I can actually use my money toward things that I want to do. It could be for buying a home; it could be for starting my own business. If it weren’t for recovery, that would never have happened. I would have gotten stuck on that treadmill of despair. 

 

Supplied

Recovery Made Me... Stronger

Nathan Gagnon, 37, says his substance abuse was holding him back from becoming a more powerful version of himself; 12-step work freed him 

I started drinking when I was around 13 and through high school. When I got out of college, I started drinking on my own every day in secret. My last days of drinking weren’t any sort of dramatic, inciting incident. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I went to a meeting with a 12-step fellowship, and I’ve been sober for 10 years since. 

I was about two years sober when I found CrossFit. I was hooked from the beginning. It gave me something to work on every day. And it’s taught me important lessons about growing stronger in the gym and in recovery, physically and mentally.

1/ It’s one day, one workout, one rep at a time

If you’re like me and you drank and got high every day from when you were a teenager until you were 26, the idea of not doing it for 10 years is crazy. Don’t think about not doing it for 10 years – do it just for today. It’s like you want to deadlift 500 pounds (225kg) or run a sub-five mile; that’s a really daunting goal. Just go do your work today.

2/ There is no perfect

Instead, it’s about progress. If you’ve got a lot of wreckage of the past, you’re not going to mend every bridge today – you might not mend them all ever. Just try to be a little bit better than you were previously. That same thing applies to strength and fitness: take one step forward in the right direction from the previous day. 

3/ Find your path

As much as I’ve seen overlap, I don’t think that my sobriety or recovery would have been contingent on me finding CrossFit. I think everybody needs to find their own thing. I’ve seen countless examples to know it’s true: you can get sober. You can recover under any and all conditions.

 

Kaylyn Wiese

According To A Sex Researcher, These Are The Top Reasons People Cheat

According To A Sex Researcher, These Are The Top Reasons People Cheat

Across literature, reality television and cinema, infidelity has captured audiences for decades. Perhaps there is nothing as gripping as watching a couple fall in love, but when it comes to staying in love, that’s when the conflict and challenges arise. Whether you’re...

Christmas Gift Guide 2021: The Men’s Health Editors’ Picks

Christmas Gift Guide 2021: The Men’s Health Editors’ Picks

Christmas is supposed to be the season dedicated to everything merry and bright. But, let's face it. Sometimes, it can also be one of the most stressful times of the year. Between shopping for themed parties, cooking for family get-togethers, and planning all the...

Recommended to you

More From