My journey from addiction to fatherhood
This post, like all of our blog posts, isn’t just a rehashing of chronologies, what has already been said and the walking back of regrets. It is the story of what led me to my darkest place and eventually my brightest — and everything in between. A deeply personal story of my addiction to recovery. In an episode of the McClure Algorithm last year, I gave you a glimpse into moments from the person I used to be through the lens of addiction and recovery. Thankfully, I’ve been able to transition from a man who was egotistical and full of bravado and be refined into a person of empathy and compassion. Like she recently wrote in her blog post, motherhood saved Ami, and for me, it was sobriety. If you want to know more about my sobriety journey, you should definitely listen to that podcast and a very recent episode of the Discovery Twins on Facebook Watch in which I show my six recovery coins to my daughters — but just because you heard that, doesn’t mean you heard this. In fact, I can guarantee it.
And so this is my Thanksgiving story: I could have missed it all.
Happy Thanksgiving — it’s not lost on me that my sobriety birthday and Thanksgiving are in the same month, and the order in which they follow each other. A few weeks ago, I celebrated six years of sobriety, which without would mean that I would’ve missed out on everything that I appreciate about my life today.
Missed what, you ask?
A loving wife, three happy and healthy children and a fulfilling career. I would not have any of these things nor the deep pride I feel for changing my life and earning one I am proud of. Just this week my family and I will celebrate everything we are thankful for in an American holiday which is less about being an American and everything to do with being a grateful citizen of the world.
And to think, I could have missed it. I’m so grateful that I didn’t.
For whatever childhood I had, I chose the path I did. Certainly, things were not easy as I lost my father abruptly at four years old — but then they were not easy for my mom either. A widow with two children by the age of twenty, our family struggles were numerous but in many ways unavoidable. That said, when given the opportunity to truly “grow up” from an emotional stance, I did not take the road more traveled. Some of it was circumstantial, but it never is solely that. I wanted to prove I wasn’t that “good ol’ Southern boy” but a worldly man ready to see the world but in ways that weren’t healthy.
While I hadn’t lived a sheltered life, I had developed a sheltered mindset and explanation of it. A particular faith couldn’t explain it away, even if it could explain moments of it. When I realized that my “perfect and idyllic first marriage” wasn’t perfect or ideal for me and that not everything could be explained in black and white, I decided that if it couldn’t, I would surely implode every remnant of it. And to think, without my quest to put things back together, I surely would have missed it. Missed a marriage that while isn’t perfect, is ideal for me, and a life of the same description. Whether or not there are soul mates or destinies, there was a wonderful life waiting for me which couldn’t be found at the bottom of a bottle or by doing things the way I had been doing.
As I explained during last week’s podcast, I had become reckless and homeless, surfing couches of friends and at work. After a few trips to rehab, a 5150, some DUI’s and jail, I had lost jobs, relationships and time. I never once gained anything positive after chasing what I deemed a “fun night”. Clearly, at least for awhile, the couches weren’t uncomfortable enough, the circumstances tragic enough or I couldn’t stop cycling between the chase, shame and regret. You would have thought one of these events would have been my “rock bottom” but mine was actually a more quiet call to change. If I didn’t listen, I know I would have missed it.
Six years later, I would have never expected that what I now consider a fun night is chasing around my kids, dating my wife and one that marries work and family. Deep into my addiction, I equated sobriety with boredom/apathy and a quieter life something to run from. What I came to learn was that what I was living was just as mundane — everyday a repetition — same behavior, same result. Without learning that the same actions cause the same consequences, I know I would have missed it. My awakening may have happened later or maybe not at all, but on this particular Friday night, I was drunk on both wine and possibility. Whether or not it was a perfect elixir of people, places and things, in “Unguarded: The Chris Herren Story,” I saw myself in the sick and suffering version of Chris Herren. Disgusted at him, and therefore myself, this time I decided to chase after something else, no matter how difficult.
During those first days of sobriety, I wasn’t exactly sure of what I missing — but I knew I didn’t want to and would do the work to ensure I wouldn’t. When I met the world with a fresh perspective, 90 meetings in 90 days, I found my true self and who I was always supposed to be. I met Manhattan again too, learning it like the back of my hand as I walked the streets for hours, the snow numbing my feet and preventing me from numbing out in other ways. I didn’t belong in a bar, I belonged in the world with eyes wide open and a heart for service. There was a whole world waiting for me outside of myself, a world that needed me to grow up and change, if I was going to make it any better. And something better was something I didn’t want to miss and was committed to never missing again.
In search of that, I wondered if this new life meant losing out on fun, shackling myself to a dull and dreary life. After all, what I enjoyed about my comedy career was knowing that people found me funny and someone they wanted to be around. What I learned was that life was actually quite the opposite and I would come to embrace discipline and selflessness — and with that true freedom came. Before, I wasn’t really free, choices were ultimately made for me by looking at the bottom of a bottle instead of the bottom of my soul. Old choices, old life, new choices, a world of possibility and change. And this, I couldn’t miss. While I couldn’t have been more embarrassed about the things I had done: the trips to rehab, to jail, to homelessness and to despair, this time it was guilt and regret rather than shame.
Shame would have cycled back into self-loathing, self-loathing into the need to escape, escape to chasing the next high, the chase to destructive patterns and in return, back to shame. Desperate not to be alone in my thoughts, I had womanized. Desperate to be liked, I had made horrible jokes that would earn me a horrible reputation. Jokes that I didn’t even believe in — said to shock, bring me attention and validate my own insecurities. They were what I did, not who I was, but it sadly didn’t matter because the writing was on the wall so to speak. While many people learn these things much younger, for whatever journey I was on, I had to go through this in order to get to something better. As I recovered, I promised that I would do whatever I could to make amends and make something of myself.
This, I don’t want you to miss:
For any of you who struggle with harmful vices or love someone who is, let me zero into the heart of the matter:
“Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And here’s what you even need to know even more, guilt is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be…” -Brené Brown
Shame is toxic — guilt is redemptive. If you’re struggling with any of these issues, like I used to, the rest of this conversation is available here. Thankfully, shame sent me to a therapist’s office where I began to unpack how I got to where I was and how to forgive myself for it. Slowly, shame began to transition into regret, which was a much safer place to live.
“Every addiction, no matter what it is, is the result of trying to escape from something by going in the direction of a need that is currently not being met. In order to move past our addiction, we have to figure out what we are trying to use our addiction to get away from and what need we are trying to use our addiction to meet.” — Teal Swan
Wherever my new life was headed, I was learning that anything worth having takes the discipline of trading the short game for the long.
Maybe I would have gotten my act together later, because while there is air in my lungs a redemption story is always possible, but if it hadn’t happened then, I wouldn’t have been one year sober and a person worthy enough to pursue Ami. Whether or not that chance encounter were to happen, I would have missed it. As I was becoming a person I was proud of, through acts of service and helping others, I was unknowingly turning into a person that could be a great husband and father. And yes, turning into the suburban guy that I had made fun of, but now loved — a good husband, the kind of dad who cuts up orange slices for the kids after soccer practice. I couldn’t have known that marriage and a family was something I didn’t want to miss out on, until I opened my heart to something completely outside my comfort zone.
This time, and for the right reasons, I didn’t let myself miss it.
Here’s a pop culture reference: in the pilot of the hit show This is Us, the main character, Kate, is a food addict. Coming to terms with her addiction, she realizes that she can not only throw food away but has to cover it up with things so disgusting to prevent her from rooting through the trash, finding it and eating it. No judgment to those with different addictions, but this is exactly what I was talking about in my recent podcast: people, places and things. Going to bars, but not drinking, is very much like throwing junk food out without making sure that it is no longer edible or available.
Like I said earlier, it took discipline and commitment to lasso all of that shame and decay and put it where it belonged: the trash. Making concrete, disciplined choices so that I didn’t root through the garbage of my old life. Like throwing out my cell phone, I had to change all of the “people, places and things” to commit to this new way of being. If I attend a meeting now, I go so others won’t “miss it”. Maybe they won’t discover their dream career with the money to prove it and and their lives may not be perfectly magical, but there, in their human experience, they’ll be present.
In all its glory and all its suffering, it will still be a whole lot better than missing it.
And so, on this Thanksgiving, I celebrate six years of knowing just how much I would have missed and being grateful for having not missed it. I haven’t missed a faithful marriage, raising my two daughters and being present for my infant son. A changed life, free from shame, has moved me to a softer, holier place of less defensiveness, more gratitude and a deeper pride in who I continue to become. I can admit my blindspots while simultaneously know I’m marked for more — if I do the work. I’ve transitioned my obsession with the “here and now” to future-oriented thinking that accomplishes my goals. I used to live recklessly, never thinking of consequences. Eventually learning that there was nothing good that came from that life, I began to focus my energies on the “and then what” way of thinking whenever a choice presents itself that would be counterproductive to my new way of being.
“I ask myself one thing, and this started when I started getting sober when I wanted to drink after about 4-5 months. I’m like ‘I really want to drink’ going through a scenario in my mind where I would allow myself to drink… And then, when I was done getting mentally drunk, I would ask myself just one question, I would say: ‘ok, now what? And then what?’ When I started asking myself ‘and then what’, I could put myself in that situation and know (that) I’m going to be miserable.”
Over the past six years, I’ve been able to morph my “and then what” scenarios toward an even more progressive thought process that looks forward to things and says “what’s next?” I don’t simply respond, I anticipate new challenges and proactively search for them. Whether it be our youtube channel, my kids’ education or my photography, I’m in the driver’s seat now — not just reacting to life’s temptations but looking ahead to new possibilities and opportunities.
Happy Thanksgiving, to you and yours,
Justin, Ami, Ava, Alexis & Jersey