Actor and author Cameron Douglas: On recovery, triumph and fatherhood

    This week on Heart of the Matter, actor and author Cameron Douglas, son of Michael Douglas, opens up to Elizabeth Vargas about his incredible recovery journey, as told in his book, “Long Way Home.” Cameron began using substances at 13-years-old, which quickly progressed into a serious addiction. He recounts that even after many years of struggling, including nearly seven years in prison, his parents “never turned away from me.”

    Cameron and Elizabeth discuss his dad’s influence on why he wrote his tell-all book, his relationship with his famous father and grandfather and how his time in federal prison led to his recovery during this special episode, which aired as part of the Mobilize Recovery virtual experience.

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    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Thank you, Ryan. I am so excited to be part of this special edition of Heart of the Matter, coming to you from Mobilize Recovery 2022, and I’m so excited to see you, Cameron Douglas. How are you?

    Cameron Douglas:

    That makes two of us, Elizabeth. It’s been a while and it’s really good to see you. You look fantastic.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, a few decades.

    Cameron Douglas:

    A few decades, yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    As do you.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Who’s counting?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    As do you. Yeah, exactly.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Well, not me, not me. Just first off, how are you? You wrote your book several years ago, I read it right when it came out. It was amazing, I have to tell you.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I always ask people who write books about their own recovery, I wrote one myself, why they decided to write a book, because you are really honest about your battle with drug addiction, about your family, it’s a very famous family that has actually tried to be very private, and yet you really open up yourself and the rest of your family for everybody to read and hear the incredible story. Why decide to write it?

    Cameron Douglas:

    Initially, it was about turning a negative into a positive. Quite frankly, it was also to give me some direction, something to sink my teeth into upon coming home. Ironically, it was my father’s suggestion and I was-

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Really?

    Cameron Douglas:

    Yeah. I was having trouble understanding why exactly and I was hesitant, but I think giving it some thought, and of course we haven’t really spoke about exactly why, but I think it’s a couple different reasons. I think, one, it was his way of showing his love and letting go and allowing this story to be shared with everyone in hopes that maybe it would be useful in some way. That made sense to me, that was the idea, it was not a book with the intent of preaching or even suggesting what one should do if indeed they do struggle with substances, but it was really just an amalgamation of my experiences and what I went through, good, bad, or indifferent. That was the inspiration, I guess, was to just share, and in doing so, be completely open and honest, because I think that’s the only way you really have a chance at really connecting with people. If you can’t connect with people, then it’s just not really going to be useful. It’s what we came up with and I felt pretty good about it actually.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You start the book in 2003, and it’s right after your uncle, Eric, Michael’s brother, has died of a drug overdose. You write, “I’ve been using drugs since I was 13. My current addiction is particularly nasty. I inject coke as often as three times an hour. My once promising career as a DJ has been completely destroyed by my irresponsibility. I’ve had opportunities to make a life in acting and I’ve squandered them. When my dad looks at me recently, I don’t see love. I see concern and sadness and frustration. Maybe I really am like Eric, but I don’t want to die like he did. In the grip of a young man’s sense of immortality, I’m not afraid I will.”
    I’m so struck by that, because you speak to the fact I have two teenage sons and I see in them that, “It won’t happen to me.” Even in the midst of your addiction, as severe as it was, and even having your uncle die and seeing your father’s grief and your grandfather’s grief over that, you still don’t think it’ll happen to you.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Well, as far as I can tell from my experiences, one of the really tricky things about addiction, to substances in particular, I’m not too familiar with other types of addictions, but people have different thresholds, some people get it really early on if they have a little scare and they realize. I think it’s also first important to note whether or not it runs in your family, because if you do have a genetic predisposition towards it, I think it helps to be more aware. That way, if you do notice it’s starting to rear its ugly head in your life, you can jump on it. Some people are able to do that, some people never get it. Unfortunately, some of the best ones seem to never get it. Some people get it at different points. I was, and still am, pretty stubborn, I would say. It took me, well, you know where it took me, it took a long time and a lot of struggle, pain, but on the other side of that coin, also built a lot of character. I had lots of questions about myself that I needed answered. I can’t really judge that experience until I’m taking some of my final breaths, because I need to see where I land in life. At the moment, things are going pretty well, so I’m very grateful for that.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You talk about that genetic predisposition. You have addiction on both sides of your family, in obviously your dad’s family and in your mom’s. You write also about how difficult it was to grow up the son and grandson of two iconic actors, Michael Douglas and Kirk Douglas, tell me about that. A lot of people would look at you and say, “Oh my God, you had it all. Good grief. You grew up privileged, rubbing elbows with famous people. How on earth could that be bad?” Explain.

    Cameron Douglas:

    None of that was bad. I was very fortunate to be fairly well educated, up until the point that I had it within my power to not continue with that kind of education. I was very fortunate to travel all over the world at a young age and learn about different cultures, and, as you say, meet lots of interesting people. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the way I see it is that everybody’s dealt a hand. My hand was my hand and there was a lot of great things that came with it and there was some drawbacks, certainly way less than a lot of other people out there in the world. The way that we choose to play our hands is up to us. In fact, I’ll take that even a step further and I’ll say that I have this funny notion that everyone is already everything they’ve wanted to be, it’s just life is the process of realizing that person and the choices we make allow us to get there or not.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You did say though in the book that from an early age, “The seed was planted, and that seed was low self-esteem.” You write about feeling lonely as a kid.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Yeah. Well, my mother had me when she was 19 or 20 years old.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    That’s so young.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Yeah, no, I remember still sitting on her bed while she was doing homework for some of her classes in university. My father was really just starting to get his career going. As you know, my father is very dedicated and a hard worker, so he was not around much in my formative years. But it was never a lack of love in the house, it was just lonely, I guess, at times. As I said, my mother was young and struggling with my father’s rise to success and all the intricacies that come with that and she was trying to find herself as well, and so sometimes that left me in the middle somewhere.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    In the middle and, in reading the book, I get the impression, a bit on your own.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Yeah, yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You first tried drugs when you were 13 years old?

    Cameron Douglas:

    If we can classify marijuana as a drug, I guess it depends what state you’re in, but yes, that was the first time I smoked-

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    These days it sure does.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    How quickly did you graduate to tougher substances?

    Cameron Douglas:

    I think fairly quickly, in the grand scheme of things. Certainly, it was a bit of a different generation, where smoking and drinking and this kind of stuff was really considered cool and macho, for lack of a better term. Whereas, I feel like these days kids are not only more evolved, they just seem better educated and it’s not the same allure that it once was, I feel like, at least in what I see in my younger brothers and sisters and their friends. But yeah, I’d say fairly quickly. I think probably was introduced to cocaine maybe around 16 years old or something like that. That’s the one that I was really drawn to for most of my young adult life. I would say there is probably not much I haven’t tried.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. That’s a badge of honor, I guess, I don’t know. How old were you were you when you went to rehab-

    Cameron Douglas:

    At least I can speak on it if anybody asks.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, exactly.

    Cameron Douglas:

    With authority.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Hard won.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Right. I was, let’s say, maybe 17.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. How many rehabs have you been to?

    Cameron Douglas:

    I want to say a handful. I don’t remember exactly how many off the top of my head, but a handful. Between actual rehabs, like 30-day programs and other kind of stuff that was, I guess, trying to address not only addiction, but just behavior, maybe out of control behavior, certainly a healthy handful.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You write in the book very honestly about the frustration of your parents, the anguish of both your parents in trying and failing to get you to quit. I was particularly struck by one story you talk about in the late ’90s, when you had moved to New York City and your dad met you on the bench in Central Park and had vans ready to take you off to rehab, and you were angry. Tell me about that.

    Cameron Douglas:

    In retrospect as a parent, I totally understand where he was coming from. Also, as I just mentioned, I was sort of a wild young man and not afraid to throw my weight around, physically or otherwise. I think he was just desperate. From my perspective, at that moment, I was in a bad place. Not to say that a good visit and a hug and a good father-to-son talk would’ve done the trick, but I guess it’s what I was really hoping for. Then to be presented with that and then to find out that it was a ruse made me really upset at the time, but as I-

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You write that you felt like it was a betrayal.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Yeah, at the time I did. At the time I did. In retrospect, I understand where he was coming from and it would be impossible for him to have understood my mindset at the time. I’m not sure I fully understood it.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. You write in the book that it got worse and it eventually led to you being arrested at the Gansevoort Hotel and going to prison, spending nearly two years of that time in solitary confinement. How did that happen? Why were you in solitary confinement?

    Cameron Douglas:

    I guess, well, essentially I had a really difficult time adjusting. I was really angry. In fact, I remember when I had been in for maybe a little over a year and I was in solitary confinement and was maybe one of the first times that I’d been there, they call it the special housing unit. I remember one of the officers came to my cell and he said, “Douglas, there’s two ways you can do this.” He says, “You can do this the easy way,” which is at the time where I was, I was in a nice camp, he said, “Or you can do this the hard way.”
    My sojourn through prison was very atypical in that I started at a minimum security and I worked my way diligently up to a medium high security. That’s normally not the route that one takes. That’s what it was, you can do it two ways, but at the time I was really just angry at myself, and as a result of that, not getting along with people the way that I could have or should have to make it easier on myself, really. It just made things more difficult for me.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    One of the things being-

    Cameron Douglas:

    But ironically, sorry to interrupt you, but I feel like life is nothing if not ironic, and ironically, it was during that time that I really reached a point in my life or my journey where I came to a crossroads. The path that I ended up choosing ended up being the right one. I can say that from where I sit today, for sure.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It was while you were in solitary that you finally reached the point where you were willing to give sobriety your all?

    Cameron Douglas:

    No, I wouldn’t say that, that happened a little bit later, but it was the beginning. I remember the moment actually. I had been called back from the compound that I was at to New York and went through a lot of heartache and had to make some difficult decisions. I ended up being sentenced to another five years, so the five year sentence turned to 10. I remember going back, I was at the MDC in Brooklyn and I was in the box, in the SHU. I remember coming back to my cell and there had been a little bit of a riot, which is where they’ll flood the range by plugging the toilets. Normally what you do is roll up a towel and put it under their door, because all of your stuff is on the floor, there’s no shelves or anything like that. But my room was flooded, all my books, papers, all this stuff. I remember going into the cell and just sitting down on the bunk and feeling something shattering inside of me. I realized at that point I had two choices. I could take one path, that I have no idea where that would’ve taken me at this point, fortunately, or I could take another path. The crux of that path was taking back some of my freedom. I did that by making choices that I felt would put me in the best position to achieve some of my goals and aspirations when I was finally let out. Even though that was seemingly a long ways away, it gave me the inspiration that I needed to literally get myself out of the bunk every morning and, as I said, try to look at each obstacle as an exercise and then build with everything else that I was capable of getting my hands on.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    How much longer after you had that moment by yourself in that cell, when you realized I have a choice here, one fork takes me down a really bad path, I’m on a bad path. You’d been on a bad path for a long time at that point.

    Cameron Douglas:

    It’s hard to imagine going down, you can always go down. You can always go down, you can always go up, no matter where you are.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. How long after you made the choice, I want to go up, did you get out of prison?

    Cameron Douglas:

    Oh, I’d say a good six years.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Six years more?

    Cameron Douglas:

    Yeah, yeah. I would never ever sit here and tell you or anybody else that prison, incarceration, is the answer for substance abuse because I don’t believe that it is, but those were years that I feel like I made good use of, I can look back on those years and feel good about my mindset and the direction that I was headed during that time.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    For people who still think that it’s appropriate, because we’re still doing it so obviously people still think it’s appropriate to incarcerate people suffering from addiction, sometimes they commit crimes and that’s what happens, drugs are available in prison. You’re not going to send somebody to prison or jail and they’re going to get sober because they don’t have access to drugs or alcohol, drugs or alcohol are there, right?

    Cameron Douglas:

    Yes, they are, they are. I would say, I think in regards to you’re saying people committing crimes based on their addiction, I think the hard line is violent or non-violent. That’s really where I think judges and prosecutors need to make a distinction. If they’re non-violent crimes fueled by addiction, prison’s just not the place to be. In fact, I can tell you of my own experience, and as I said, I did most of my time in high security prisons where guys are never going home, there’s some dangerous people, but I would say, barring sex offenders, because I don’t know the number, I don’t really know how to address that, but barring sex offenders, I would say maybe 20%, probably closer to 15%, of the inmate population needs to be in prison based on being a risk to society in terms of safety to civilians. Other than that, you could have the majority of these men and women out on the streets under some serious monitoring, and they do do serious monitoring, and working a job and paying taxes and being at home with their families and everything like that. As advanced as this country is when it comes to our penal system, we’re back at square one. You see that by how some of these other countries in Europe, for example, approach the same situation and the results are unquestionable.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. The European system is much more focused on rehabilitation than the American system, which is punitive.

    Cameron Douglas:

    And humanizing individuals, because another problem with the system here is you send a lot of these individuals that are not necessarily criminals when they go to prison, but after so many years and essentially you treat somebody like an animal for long enough and they’re going to start acting like an animal. That’s what they address, I think, very well in some of these European countries, they treat the individuals like humans. They realize they have families. They allow them to keep these ties, which are so important. Once you lose that once lose touch with people that you love and things that are important in your life, you start acting in ways that you didn’t realize you were capable of.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What was it like when you finally got out? Were you at all worried that you would relapse at all, that the freedom from the prison walls would take you back into the prison of your addiction?

    Cameron Douglas:

    That’s a great question. Outwardly, I felt like it was going to be a breeze for me. This is, I’m going to answer this question a couple different steps. Outwardly, and how I let on, was that some friends of mine would say to me, “Cameron, you’ve been down for a while. It’s going to be an adjustment,” and this and that. I might say, “You guys are crazy.” I’d say, “That’s where I belong, this is not where I belong. It’s going to be easy, I’m dying to get out there.” But realistically, I think internally I had some reservations. I certainly had some real reservations about, as you say, just diving right back into addiction, because at that point, when I was let out, I had been sober for I’d say about two years. Most of my life I behaved and interacted and partook in one way and I was nervous about what it was going to look like coming home. Although, as I said, I spent probably six or so years since I had that moment where I chose to take the higher path and really did every day. My inspiration, my motto, was each day needs to work towards putting me in the best position when I’m finally released. That’s how I lived and that’s how I operated even before I got completely sober. The big test was going to be coming home. I used to think maybe these traits discipline and work ethic were just traits that I somehow inherently didn’t come with, like maybe I just wasn’t put together properly. Although, in prison, I realized in fact that I did have a tremendous amount of discipline and focus. I’m happy to say that it has not been an issue then and it’s still not an issue now. I did something right there along the way that stuck.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Do you struggle at all with … I know that I’m in recovery and part of the thing I struggle with still to this day, even many years sober, is I can look back sometimes and just go, “Uh,” beat myself up about mistakes I made or opportunities I might have squandered or decisions I made that turned out to be selfish or destructive. I have difficult time forgiving myself. Do you struggle with that at all?

    Cameron Douglas:

    I do, especially when things are not going my way or things are proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated. I’m just hard on myself, I think by nature, but what I hang my hat on when that becomes too much for me, and it does sometimes, I literally have to have a conversation with myself and be like, “Cameron, give yourself a break.” The reality is, again, is that I don’t know exactly where this journey is going to take me, but I know that I’m putting my best foot forward. I also feel that the experience and wisdom that I’ve gained through the choices that I’ve made in my life are going to play a big role in where I’m headed. I do believe that, but it is easy for me to beat myself up too. I think that’s just the way it is.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, yeah. You are a dad yourself, which is a little hard to believe. I still think of you as a teenage kid.

    Cameron Douglas:

    I still feel like a teenager a lot of the time.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. How has being a father changed your perspective on all of this? Because you now have children, so I’m sure you can better understand the anguish your dad and mom felt watching you self-destruct. You must look at these kids and think you want to protect them from anything and everything bad. Just how has it changed your perspective on everything, on your recovery and on your addiction?

    Cameron Douglas:

    Well, first of all, it’s just been so much fun. I really love being around my kids, there’s nobody in the world that I’d rather be around than them. That’s been really a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. They’re at the age, my daughter is four-and-a-half and my son is one-and-a-half. He was born the day after, three years later. Her birthday’s the 18th, his is the 19th of December, so it’s kind of funny, but they’re at that really great age. But it’s interesting, already, my daughter, I start to see things. I guess I realize that even though they’re small and cute and pure and innocent right now, they’re going to have a journey themselves and are already on the path. I just try to do my best to be a good influence, just trying to figure it out as I go. But yeah, of course, you don’t want to see anything bad happen to anyone that you love, especially your children. As you say, definitely becoming a parent gives you some insight as to what my parents were going through and contending with. Hopefully my children are a little easier on me.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What do you think you understand now about what your parents went through that you didn’t understand before?

    Cameron Douglas:

    I don’t know, maybe the balance that one understands a little bit more when they are an adult, when they are trying to juggle providing for the family as well as feeling purposeful and inspired yourself, because I certainly have a life to live, things that I want to accomplish that really have nothing to do with my kids, that are just for me, and by proxy hopefully they’ll affect my kids positively. But there’s a balance there that I think as a kid you don’t really understand, nor should you. That would be my answer to that great question.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What will you tell them about your journey about your real struggle and real triumph?

    Cameron Douglas:

    Anything that they ask me, I will tell them. I’ll try to frame it in the best way possible, but completely, I’m going to be open with them. My daughter’s already, she realizes … I feel like she loves the tattoos, I obviously have a lot, but she knows I’m different, a little different than maybe some of the other daddies. That’s good, I’m happy to be different. We’ll also tell her and my son whatever they’re curious about knowing about me. Of course, I would imagine that at one point they’ll probably read the book. The idea is that when that day comes, I’ll be in a position that will give me a little bit of cushion to soften the blow once they read it.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You will have earned some good stock, in other words, already.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Exactly.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Since getting out from prison and on the road to recovery, you have gone back to pursuing acting. How is that going? It’s got to be daunting to come from the dynasty you do. You don’t just have a super famous, super successful father, you’ve got an iconic grandfather, who you were able to spend some time with in the last years of his life, sober, in the backyard, teaching your daughter how to swim in his swimming pool. That must have been amazing.

    Cameron Douglas:

    It was, it was very special. My grandfather and I have always been really close, so to get to spend I’d say the final four or five years of his life with him, almost on a daily basis, was really beautiful. It’s funny, the acting thing, is far as those two are concerned, in my early twenties when I first started getting into acting, I never even gave it a thought. It was just like ignorance is bliss kind of thing. Now it’s something that I’m a little more aware of. In fact, it’s funny that you bring it up because I think I was thinking about it a little bit the other day or something. It is, it’s a little it’s inspiring and also it’s a little bit of a fire under you, and always not the nicest way. I want to make my mark as well, but it’s good. Of course, when I came home, I thought that I was going to take Hollywood by storm right out of the gate and that was not the reality. It’s just been some years of really working on the craft, but also I came to a certain point where I was forced to ask myself whether or not I really believed in what I had to offer, because the truth is, until you’re making people a lot of money, the majority of people are not really going to buy into what you have, what you’re offering. If that’s your main concern, I think it’s going to be too difficult. As you know, it’s a business of rejection and there’s a lot of it, even for people that are in great places in their career. If you’re not and you’re working to be, there’s going to be that much more of it. For me, I remember actually, it was like two years ago, just rejection after rejection with the auditions and this and that. Then I had had this talk with the man in the mirror and just said, “Look, do you believe in what you have to offer?” In fact, I do in my heart and in my bones. After that moment, it freed me up, which was nice. It was good for acting, it was good for writing. It was just good for everything in general. Things are starting to come together, as they do. I’m working as an actor, I’ve got a couple things lined up, and doing a lot of writing and developing and really enjoying that, inspired by that. Also, I think right where I want to be at this point.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    In your book, you write about sitting with your dad and him turning to you. You write, “One day, we’re hanging out and he says, ‘I don’t know how you did it, how you went through the things you did.'” Do you wonder that too? Do you look back at all those years and all those rehabs and all that prison and all that time in solitary confinement and think, “Holy cow, how did I do that? How did I survive that?”

    Cameron Douglas:

    Well, firstly, there were also a lot of really great times weaved through those years. I know when we’re talking about this we focus on the not so great times, which makes sense, but thank goodness there’s some good times to counterbalance everything. But two things that I learned about humans while I was in prison is the amazing will that human beings have to survive and the amazing ability that human beings have to adapt to their surroundings. For instance, I think if you look at most animals in nature, if you take them out of their environment, normally they don’t do too well. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and I think that’s one of our secrets, coupled with the will that we have to survive, it’s just embedded in us. When people say to me, “I don’t know how you did it, I could have never done it,” I say to them, “I think you could have. Hopefully you won’t have to be in that situation, but I think you absolutely could have.” But yeah, I like to think that you get what you paid for. I paid a very high price and I planned on getting what I paid for.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Cameron Douglas, congratulations on the book, it is inspiring. I think people can read this and think if you … It’s a real inspiration in terms of what you can endure, what you can, as you just said, adapt to, what can you take from it and learn to thrive and recover. I’m so happy that you’re doing so well. Congratulations on the family and the burgeoning career.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I hope there are many more years of wonderful recovery ahead of you. Thanks so much.

    Cameron Douglas:

    Thank you, Elizabeth.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Great to talk to you.

    Cameron Douglas:

    It’s really, really nice see you again.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You give your family the best.

    Cameron Douglas:

    I will, I will indeed. I just wanted to say it’s really, really nice to see you again and speak with you. You look fantastic. I will pass along your kind sentiments.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Thanks, Cameron.

    Published

    October 2022