Best-selling author David Magee: On how recovery is a journey

    As a child, best-selling author David Magee felt that his life purpose was to write a book that could change lives. He recently told his remarkable journey of triumph in the face of trauma in his book “Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss.” A few years ago, David lost his son William to an accidental overdose just one year after his other son Hudson was in a three-day coma following his own overdose. At the same time, his daughter Mary was struggling with an eating disorder, and David himself was in recovery from an alcohol and substance use disorder. But before he passed away, William encouraged David to write about their family’s struggles to let others know they are not alone. With his wife’s blessing, David published this book, which gives readers an open and honest glimpse into the Magee family’s story.

    In the latest episode of Heart of the Matter, David sits down with Elizabeth Vargas to discuss how recovery isn’t linear and is in fact a journey; the insight he’d give to parents whose children are struggling with addiction and mental health challenges; and how David is helping other families locally in Mississippi. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

    Content warning: This episode contains mentions of death, as well as in-depth discussions of substance use. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health or substance use disorder, please contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at (800) 662-4357. These programs provide free, confidential support 24/7. You are not alone.

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    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    David Magee, welcome to Heart of the Matter. It’s great to have you here.

    David Magee:

    Thank you so much.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I have to say, you wrote this book, it’s an extraordinary book, saying quote, “A very honest story about an average American family.” And yet in so many ways, your family didn’t seem ordinary. I mean, to the outside world, you looked like the perfect family. And yet, the struggles that you talk about so openly in this book, you struggled with alcohol, and an addiction to Adderall, you lost a son to an overdose, another son OD’d and spent three days in a coma. Your daughter struggled with an eating disorder. How is that average? My gosh.

    David Magee:

    When you recite it all back, Elizabeth, I mean, it is sometimes hard for me even to get my arms around that was my family, because I met my wife on the first day of classes as we were college freshman, at the University of Mississippi in 1984. And, we didn’t start dating really for two more years, but then we got married our senior year in college. And I remember the day we got married. I remember thinking, “I will do this right. This is one I will not mess up. I’m going to be the best husband and the best father there ever was.” And, there was a moment, as you just recited, because the one I will add into that list is, my wife and I got divorced. And I also really saw my career fall apart. I lost everything. There was a moment 11 years ago where I had nothing left and I wasn’t sure I could hang on to myself.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Wow. And yet you did. And yet you did. You and your wife are back together.

    David Magee:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And, your two children, Hudson and Mary are doing well.

    David Magee:

    They are. My son, Hudson, who was found nearly dead at a fraternity house on the University of Mississippi campus the year before we lost our son William to an accidental overdose. Hudson is now 10 years sober. Got sober at the age of 21. He lives right behind me and is married and has a young child who’s three years old. And we get to see him five to seven days out of the week. And, at times I pinch myself, somebody told me just the other day, they said, “Man, you’re really living it all. You’ve got it so good.” And I made a joke, and one was nearby and I picked up a copy of my book Dear William. And I said, “Hey, you might want to read this. It’s not all it looks like.”

    But, Elizabeth, the point of all of that is I think that in a lot of the work that I do both professionally and as a volunteer is about spreading that message of hope. My wife and I, and my family and I, we suffered a great loss because of our family of five, we lost our William, our oldest son. We can never get him back. Now, he was a casualty in this great war we fought against addiction. And I’ll be honest, I think we’ll fight for the rest of our lives. But, what we found is real success, tools, support, and I think what our story is, which is why we share it so honestly, is yes, our situation seems a bit unique and extreme. Though I must say, I had a friend of mine call me the other day, Elizabeth, to let me know sadly that they had now lost their second child to an accidental overdose. So, in ways it’s extreme our story, but in ways it’s not.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I think that in recovery we talk about the phrase compare and despair, where you look at somebody’s outsides and think, “They have it so easy. They’re so blessed. They’re so lucky. Why aren’t I?” And, your story, and this book is a real lesson in things aren’t always as they seem. From the outside in, your family who did look like the all American family, and did look like the perfect family. And yet, four of the members of that five member family were struggling with the disease of addiction. And that isn’t that uncommon. You write in this book, Dear William, very honestly and openly, in a way that is almost, I don’t want to say uncomfortable, but I can feel like I’m overhearing a conversation I’m not meant to hear it’s that personal. You got the permission from all of your members in your family to write like this, to rip the curtains back, the sheet back, and reveal all the ugliness that had been hiding way down, deep inside.

    David Magee:

    Right. So my wife is not nearly as… I do a lot of public speaking, particularly about addiction and family recovery. She does sometimes as well, but she’s not as public of a person as I am. She’s more private. So it’s interesting that she more than anyone is the one who pushed me to write with so much detail. Now, I did not let her read the book until it was finished. I said, “You can’t read it along the way.” But each morning when we would have our coffee together, while I was writing it, she would look across at me and go, “David…” And she would point down to her heart and down to her stomach, “You have to get down here to tell this story.” My wife as a spouse was supporting me to get where she knew I wanted to go, which was, I felt born on this earth with a reason, even as a young child, I thought, “I will write a book that matters, that can improve lives.” So I think she pushed me for that reason.

    And then, I think she pushed me for the reason that so many families can relate to this pain, even if not in our extreme way. People have suffered loss. Most families will at least have one member suffer some type of addiction, immediate family or extended family. But also, family loss, searching for purpose, all of these themes are what we as humans and as families are really fighting for to find our unity together and our joy as individuals and together.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Well, you really did go there. Your book opens with you discovering your son’s body. And, I have to tell you as the parent of two teenage boys, I almost couldn’t bear to read it.
    Here’s what you write about standing outside his door and the police officer telling you not to go in and look, “William was hauled away on a gurney with a sheet covering his head. I stayed outside watching with a hand over my mouth, muffling sobs. Two days later, we had him cremated and I didn’t ask to see his body before they reduced it to ashes. At the Memorial service, I declined to speak, crippled by pain and a sense of responsibility. Besides, I did not understand what happened to William, what happened to me, what happened to our family. So how could I use words to put his life in perspective. But I was wrong about all of it. I shouldn’t have listened to that police officer. I should have fought my way to William’s side, wept beside his body. I should have stroked his wavy brown hair back from his forehead and kissed his cheeks. I should have found words to tell him the love in my heart. I should have held his hand and I should have closed his eyelids on the world.” And, I get emotional just reading that. I mean, that’s-

    David Magee:

    Yeah. And I remember it like it was yesterday. And I so desperately do not want any parent to have to find their child like that. And yet, every day we’re actually seeing that number go higher and higher. And I personally, I’ve just had enough. I mean, I cannot get my son back, he is gone. But, whatever breaths I got on this earth, I mean, I just remember that so vividly Elizabeth, and no parent should ever have to go through that. It’s our worst nightmare in every possible way. Right?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You had been newly sober when that happened.

    David Magee:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    How did you stay sober through that?

    David Magee:

    I don’t think a lot of people gave me high odds, to be honest. I could feel the whispers behind my back. I was new in getting back up on my feet. And really the turning point for me was flushing the Adderall down the toilet.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Mm-hmm.

    David Magee:

    And, I really didn’t understand what I was doing when I did that. Did I even need to detox? I mean, it was a doctor’s prescription and I was taking it generally as prescribed. And I say generally, meaning I would’ve abused the heck out of it, but I was so addicted to it I was afraid that if I used it all before the month ran out, I’d be a problem.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Mm-hmm.

    David Magee:

    Occasionally, I would dip into my daughter’s stash or something. But other than that, I didn’t know where to get anymore. And so, what I did was I talked the doctor into just taking me to the highest dose he could comfortably give me. So, that was my means of getting it. And then, once I realized, “Oh my gosh, I’m addicted to this.” And it has ruined that combined with then it increased my alcohol consumption.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Mm-hmm.

    David Magee:

    Because I would start drinking, I’d be like, “Well, I can’t even feel that five o’clock drink.” So then I had more, and it was just a lethal combination. And, when I quit it, I didn’t really know what I was doing, except I felt like it was the devil, and I never had known when people talk about the devil, it just seemed to be this thing that I didn’t understand. I thought, “I get it. This is the devil. And I’m going to try to separate myself.” And so, I flushed it. And I just didn’t know how that would go, because I was ill-prepared. Somehow I made it through. But you could say certainly by the time I found William dead… Well, first of all, I was really new when our son Hudson nearly died. And then it was the year later that we found William dead. And so, it was like, I’m trying to get up on my own feet, but I’m this punching bag.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Mm-hmm.

    David Magee:

    But I felt a sense of responsibility for what my sons were going through, honestly. I really did.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    To stay sober, you felt you had to.

    David Magee:

    I felt like I had to because I felt like I helped drag them down their road to get there, to their addiction.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You blame yourself?

    David Magee:

    I try to avoid… That’s a great question. I’m going to give you the best answer I can, because the answer is, yes, but I’m going to deflect from the word. I really try to avoid blame in all levels of my life, because I don’t think humans are healthy, and happy, and blame. I think, the culture of blame is very dangerous in everything we do in life. So, I try not to blame myself. I try to own a level of responsibility. Does that make sense? I try to own the responsibility rather than punch myself for blame.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. But the point is that, do you believe Hudson and William would’ve suffered with drug addiction and Mary would’ve suffered from an eating disorder if you hadn’t been drinking and abusing Adderall?

    David Magee:

    Well, and infidelity, the things that come along with addiction. When we get stuck in addiction, I mean, we are trouble. I mean, I get to work with a lot of students and their parents sometimes will come to me and they go, “I mean, I just don’t understand my son, my daughter, I mean, they’re just not truthful with me anymore.” And I go like, “Welcome to the world of addiction. It’s hard to be truthful with yourself.” And so, do I think I have a level of responsibility? Absolutely. Do I think that my children, because of heredity or DNA factors that we still don’t fully understand, but we know are there? Do I think that they might have suffered to the level they did if I wasn’t also putting them in a toxic environment at home? I think possibly. But do I think that my suffering and addiction, which led to some depression, which led to marital infidelity, do I think that environment was toxic enough to where it absolutely had to contribute to my children suffering? Yes. Period. Yes.

    And I’ll tell you a quick vignette why, my son Hudson, after he’d nearly died, Elizabeth, at the fraternity house, he goes to an intensive outpatient treatment center in the Chattanooga area. And, it’s family day. In fact, those family days are so powerful. It’s family day. He tells a story about each of us. But the story, my son Hudson tells about me, his father who coached probably 20 of his youth sports teams, his father who tucked him in every night and said, “I love you.” Who made him laugh. Who thought he was giving him everything. My son Hudson told at family day only one story about me. And it wasn’t about coaching. And it wasn’t about tucking him in.

    It was about how when he was young and we were on a beach family trip, he and his cousins had approached me for ice cream money. And we had been having an adult dinner, laughing at the beach with multiple bottles of wine. And Hudson came up and asked for the ice cream money. And he tells at family day, how I pulled a $20 bill out of my wallet and handed it to him. And I smugly feel good about myself, the father doing the right thing. But he and his cousins watched me put my wallet back toward my back pocket. And after multiple glasses of wine at dinner that night, I missed my pocket with my wallet, and I missed again, and then put it in. And I actually remember that. But, until I heard him say that, I remembered it not in the same light as he saw it. That is the one story that my son told about me at family day. So yes, I do feel a level of responsibility.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You write that you started drinking when you were just 14 years old. You also write very honestly about the challenges of growing up in a family where you were adopted and you didn’t have a lot of answers about who your real birth parents were, why you were put up for adoption. You started drinking quite at 14. I think 14 is young.

    David Magee:

    It seems young to me now.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It seems… Exactly. But then, you go on to write how this love affair with alcohol grew. And there was a part in chapter five that I really related to from my alcoholism. You write, “I’ve developed a crush on red wine. Fermented grape is less filling than fermented hops and its sugar hits my bloodstream like a Snickers. I stop by the liquor store daily after work for a bottle. Kent will drink one glass at dinner and I’ll drink the rest. If on a rare occasion, she tops off her glass, I watch her pour, anxious there won’t be enough for my third glass. Not that I’m addicted or anything, no way. I’ve seen the frail toothless man begging for money outside the liquor store. I’m nothing like him. It’s just that I have a stressful job. That’s all. And when I come home, I take the edge off.” I felt the exact same thing.

    David Magee:

    I laugh at that now. Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Especially the watching. “Well, wait a minute, hold on. Don’t have too much because I won’t get enough.”

    David Magee:

    So, for listeners, Kent is my wife. And, isn’t that so pathetic that I would stare if she would start coming back for a little refill and the bottle was getting low, I would get anxious. So, that should have been my first sign of trouble, right? I mean-

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And we ignore those warning signs.

    David Magee:

    We totally ignored it, because I was seeing so much around me, I could tell about friends who drank more than me. And, it was just so smug, that it’s embarrassing. And on one of those nights, and you probably remember, I wrote about this in Dear William, which was one of the hardest memories. And talking about responsibility… Again, my children may have all ended up there if I had never had a drop of alcohol. I mean, clearly there was some DNA factors. But, I was so anxious, Elizabeth, that what you were just relating to in what I felt, I was so anxious deep down that my children would end up there that I remember when William had drank too much at a party in high school, or we caught him smoking marijuana. And I was beside myself. And I guess I was really beside myself because of my fear that he would end up on my road.

    And, I go to that bottle of wine that you just read from the book about. And, I had to sit down and talk to my son, William, about his substance use in high school. And to comfort myself for the conversation, I poured myself a big tall glass of wine and sat there. And I remember it like it was yesterday. And he was sitting across from me on the chair and I was on the couch and I was waving this glass of red wine around that I was drinking. And I was like, “William, don’t you understand what you’re doing to yourself? You are so smart. You have so much going for you. Why would you put it all at risk smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol?” As I waved my glass of red wine around in my hand. And he just glared back at me and I didn’t understand that glare, but he was smart. And now I do.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. You call your morning hopping of Adderall pills, you say, it’s like “communion with the devil.” I love that phrase.

    David Magee:

    Communion with the devil. It was so evil, but I needed it, I thought, so badly. Because, the first time I took one… The doctor gave me a prescription, I opened the bottle, and I swallowed it. And I had always been afraid of illegal drugs. So I’d had no experience with cocaine or other stimulants like that. I opened the bottle, I’m middle-aged, I pop one in. And I mean, within 30 minutes, I’m incandescent. My brain is on fire. And, for that moment, I just thought I can solve anything in the world. And I went home and I told my wife, “This is the best drug ever.” And within 30 days I had finished a book that I had been behind deadline on. For a moment, it gave me a boost, I guess. Then that moment wore off and I could never duplicate that feeling again.

    And I talked the doctor into upping the prescription. I then drank more alcohol. I then figured out if you got nicotine in your brain, it would give an illusion of trying to keep the Adderall from wearing off. So, I remember William saying to me, “Dad, who starts smoking in their mid-40s?” But I did. And it’s not because I like cigarettes, I actually loathed them. It’s because I needed in my mind to keep the Adderall in place as long as I could. It was communion with the devil. It burned a hole through me. It stole my soul. And it took my family and stomped them out like a cigarette butt.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    While you were growing up, when you were an adolescent, in high school, in college, did Kent during your marriage… Your doctor, did anybody ever say to you, “Oh, David, you’re drinking too much”? Or, “That Adderall, you’re taking too much”?

    David Magee:

    Yeah. Well, I think-

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Did no one say anything?

    David Magee:

    Yeah. Well, so the drinking, I wasn’t the heaviest drinker around. And so, for a long time, nobody did. I remember my mother-in-law used to be trying to encourage me to drink more. Yeah, that’s funny. She culturally just came up for an era in the 60s in college, where if you were having fun, you were packing around a six pack of beer and that’s what you did. I don’t know if it was the quantity always with me. It’s that, it at times could get me in trouble.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    But you describe in the book stories of having to be your friend practically carrying you to your car saying, “You got to go home. No more drinking.”

    David Magee:

    That’s right.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I mean, there are clearly people in your life who are seeing-

    David Magee:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    … It’s not normal for a grown man to get that drunk that he is stumbling around and-

    David Magee:

    Well, in some of those stories, I think once the Adderall was kicking in, my drinking really expanded.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    … Right. Because it’s a stimulant.

    David Magee:

    Oh, yeah. So then, at first, I mean, you’re drinking in the normal amount, and you don’t even feel it. So, a few turned to six, and six turned to eight drinks, and then the Adderall wore off, and then I was falling down drunk. And at that point, I think that I was alienating myself from so many people. What happens is, by that point, you surround yourself with people who are just giving you what you want to hear.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right.

    David Magee:

    Sadly. And so, that’s where I was. It’s who I was hanging around probably. And so, I was alienating myself from my wife. She couldn’t get close enough to tell me that. Some of my closer friends, I was no longer spending time with them. And I think that back earlier in my life, where I write about there would be these flashes of, “Oh my gosh, I just went to this thing and I didn’t mean to get drunk.” Well, at that time, I was a young father. I was working. I even write about teaching a Sunday school class. And, I had enough things that while alcohol would flash up and bite me and I would go, “Huh?” I would still then back away from it at times and keep a lid on it.

    It wasn’t until I really began to be more introspective once it really became a full-fledged, obvious problem that I could reflect back and go, “You know what? I always wanted to write a great book. And what I did was write a lot of very mediocre books at best, because of alcohol.” I wanted to be a better student, but I was less so, because of alcohol. I wanted to be a much better husband, but I was considerably less so because of alcohol. Because I would put myself in situations. Or, instead of looking at my wife and telling her how beautiful she was, I was ogling the last swig of the wine bottle.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. You write in the book that you finally tossed all the pills down the toilet during a cross country trip that you took with William. And, there’s a story about that drive that is very striking, not just because it’s what led you to finally throw those pills down the toilet, but also because of the fact that you didn’t confront your son when you knew he was using. You describe a scene where the two of you stop at a gas station, and William goes to the bathroom, and you fill up the tank, and wipe the windows, and go into the store, and pay for the gas. And, 20 minutes goes by before your son emerges from the bathroom. And you can tell that he’s on something.

    David Magee:

    Absolutely.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    As you are driving away. And you don’t say anything to him. Why not?

    David Magee:

    We’re in this intimate setting of a very small car and a big, catastrophic winter storm was approaching. I’m his father, he’s my son. And, you’re right, at that moment, I’m like, “He’s totally stoned.” I mean, he’s been in there snorting an upper, cocaine perhaps, and he’s just loot. And I had still not become comfortable talking to him at that level. I had tried at times when he was a teen, I was better at arguing about. I had not reached a point of really being able to have an empathetic conversation.

    And so, I’m figuring if I really let it out, I will just erupt, my fear, because our fear as parents parlays into anger sometimes, as that emotion translates. And, I’m in this car and we’re driving across the country, the snowflakes are starting to fall, and there’s ominous signs in the forecast. And in my mind, I’m just going to keep talking to him, not directly of, “You are high as a kite and you are an addict.” Rather, I’m going to talk to him about virtues of good living, about treating people, treating ourselves right. And so, I began that. And I’m telling William lessons I had learned from writing business books about rid all that adds no value. So, it’s an indirect lesson without calling him on the proverbial carpet.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Do you think though, today’s David Magee, sober David Magee, in recovery David Magee, would’ve handled that differently?

    David Magee:

    Sure. Before I even got in that car. Long before we were on that road, I would’ve handled it so differently, which is, had such an open and honest conversation with him like I get to do with teens and 20-year-old people today. I get to just begin having a conversation about them and who they are. And I get to relate about some of my feelings and my shortcomings.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    But the point is that a lot of parents, I think, feel, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to handle this.” And like you, they might have already had a blowout screaming argument.

    David Magee:

    That’s right.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And they don’t want to have it. I mean, I know as a parent, sometimes I’m like, “I’m supposed to pick my battles.” I don’t know. Nobody gives you a script as a parent.

    David Magee:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Nobody gives you an owner’s manual and says, “This is what you’re supposed to do in this instance. Break the glass and pull the alarm in that instance.” We don’t know. We’re constantly guessing. We’re constantly self checking. And, constantly second guessing our choices. I’m sure many parents have found themselves in that front seat, with their child, certain their child is stoned or high.

    David Magee:

    Yep.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Certain their child is on the wrong path, and uncertain about how to handle it. So, as a parent, in recovery himself, looking back, what do you wish you had said that night specifically?

    David Magee:

    I wish I had said, “William, I love you so much. And I know it appears you are high on a substance. So, there’s probably not too much conversation we can have about this at this moment. But, when you come down and when you’re ready, I think we would need to talk about this. I’m concerned about you. I’m concerned about your wellbeing. And I want to talk if there’s some solutions that we can do to help you re-find your footing in life, to help you re-find your joy and get the William back that we know.” That’s the conversation that I advise parents today to have.

    And you know what, Elizabeth? We did learn from that. And, that’s a lot of the conversation we had in our daughter, Mary Halley, when she was battling eating disorder. We were able to have those frank conversations. And she got to where she could trust us and speak back. And, we could talk openly about, “Oh, I think there’s some residue around that toilet. I’m concerned.” And so, we actually improved. We really learned the hard way. I don’t advise to others to learn by bearing the child. But we learned the hard way.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You have that rare perspective as a person in recovery and a person with children who are now, blessedly, two of them in recovery. But having gone through the unimaginable tragedy, but all, you have that perspective of seeing it from both sides.

    David Magee:

    That’s right.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I always love to tell people that the people who helped me most when I was struggling were the people who didn’t point a finger, and yell, and scream. That it was the loving, but… I don’t know. I needed people to back off.

    David Magee:

    But still firm. Loving but firm. Loving but firm that, “I see you are hurting. I feel you are hurting.” You make such a great point in this advice to parents and advice to spouses is so important. And, one thing that I… This is just such a good time to drop this in. And, one of the most beautiful things in my life, and I mean, it makes me emotional even talking about it, because it’s so beautiful, and we lost a child and I tell people, “Don’t feel sorry for us. I mean, we’re okay. We are okay. We miss him every day and always will.” But, my son, Hudson, who is now 10 years sober, and as I mentioned, it’s kind of coincidence, but we actually live by each other now.

    And so, when you were an adult like me and you were sober, you lose some friendships… You have valuable friendships and there’s still your friends, but the party invitations start dwindling. And, my son, Hudson, we feed each other in that sobriety, because we like a lot of the same things. We play golf together. We go duck hunting together. We talk daily. And so, really, it’s interesting. My son, Hudson, who I always felt some responsibility for helping take him down that road, even more than I’m taking him on this new road, he’s taking me. He is my role model. And it has shifted to where he’s probably the person I look up to the most. And, that joy as a parent, I think is what’s so important to share.
    And I’ll end that long part by saying, we don’t even realize it. But when Hudson and I are together, his wife and my wife, and then my daughter, we actually talk about recovery so much at the dinner table that a lot of our old friends would probably leave. And, it’s just become our life. And, we find a lot of joy in doing that together.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    There’s something else in the story of William that I think is important for our listeners to know if they have somebody in their life who is in recovery and is in treatment, because William overdosed and died shortly after getting out of rehab.

    David Magee:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And you write in the book, “Progress however, can become the addict’s worst enemy, since renewed strength signals opportunity. Addicts go to rehab, because substances knock them down. Yet, once they’re out of treatment and they’re feeling more confident, they forget just how quickly they can be knocked down again.”

    David Magee:

    They’re so vulnerable in their recovery.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And I think so many families are like, “Oh, you’re cured.” And employers, you get out of rehab, “Okay, you come right back. You’re cured. You’re fine. Boom. Done. Over.”

    David Magee:

    Yes. They want it to be this TV image of a long time ago when somebody would go off for alcohol for 30 days and they just disappeared, and then they’re back. And, everything’s good again. Well, everything is actually not just good again when somebody is emerging from treatment, it’s amazing again. But that doesn’t mean that it is void of pitfalls, because addiction and recovery is a journey. And, people, particularly parents with their children, or you mentioned employers, they want so badly to see it as this black and white thing, as either/or. When the truth of it, the matter is, it’s neither/nor. What I tell people is, when you can find somebody that you sense is doing well in recovery, go hire them. They will be the best employee you will ever get.

    But look, as parents as even an employer, anybody, there’s no such thing of a promise. It’s like, if you have cancer, which I’ve had cancer, I had it cut out. It’s gone. It’s always kind of there. It may show back up, and then I’ll have to go right back in using all this medical and everything I have to do to fight it away again. And, I’ve heard my daughter talk about that in eating disorder a lot. And in her own journey. And she says, “I’m doing this for a lifetime.” And I’m doing the same. I mean, next week, I’ll travel and I’ll go check into a hotel and I can travel by myself now. And I do. But I’ll walk by the bar. And sometimes still, my mouth might even water for half a minute. And I just go like, “Yeah.” And I usually will make myself go get something to eat pretty quickly.

    And so, William, I understand what happened to him, to go back to the point you brought up, which is, he was doing amazing in recovery. I remember it breaking my heart after he died when a friend of mine said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought he was doing so well.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, would you hear me? He was doing so well.” He had just gotten a promotion at his job. He was planning to go to law school. They were bragging on him at work. I’d gotten a call from somebody going, “Your son, he’s amazing.” He was doing so well. And, I needed my friend to hear it, just like I need the world to hear it now.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    That is something I think that people who haven’t battled the disease of addiction and people who haven’t been to rehab, don’t understand. And I think this is important for any of our listeners who have somebody like that in our life. Personally, I think, and I think others would agree with me that the most dangerous time are those days, hours, minutes, right after you get out of rehab.

    David Magee:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    When you’re in rehab, there aren’t wine stores, and restaurants, and liquor stores, and drug dealers. You can’t get that, whatever your substance of choice was.

    David Magee:

    Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You get released from rehab sometimes with just 30 days. And all of a sudden, your temptation is right there at your fingertips. And you’re new. You’re a newborn in the world of recovery. And it’s very often when people relapse. That’s why statistics show that people often relapse 3, 4, 5 times before they get sober.

    David Magee:

    I tell so many parents that I help a lot of students get to treatment, not just here at the University of Mississippi. I mean, everywhere, because they’ve seen some of the work we do. And, even writing the book, I will have people reach out to me, a lot of parents, they read the book sometimes two or three a day and I will give them a referral, “Go check out this resource.” But I often tell them, statistically, it’s not 30 days. And sometimes it’s not even four or five in a lot of the treatment centers, particularly if opioids are involved. I was fortunate, never encountered them. William, my son, however did.

    And let’s look at all the under underprivileged and underserved constituencies across the country. They can’t even get their first 30 days, if they don’t have insurance. So, for me, that’s really why we told this stoy. And William was doing great. But he was at risk. But I’ll say this about recovery. You make a great point about when you’re in treatment there aren’t drug dealers and bars usually. I think I’ve heard some tales, but usually they’re not drug dealers there.

    But, for me, in recovery, Elizabeth, it’s interesting. I had a friend say to me once, “It seems like it’s pretty easy for you.” And I said, well, “It is. And it isn’t.” I just told about walking by the hotel bar and my mouth might draw up or something, and that’s not uncommon. But, a lot of days it is easy, but I’ll tell you one reason it’s easy for me. It’s because, more than alcohol even, Adderall was my devil. And, it came from a doctor and I never knew how to get it outside of a doctor. And, there aren’t Adderall bars all around me. If there were, it’d be a lot harder. It would be a lot harder.

    And William was in a situation where opiates had become his thing. And, it was in his fingertips at his phone. And, my son, Hudson, he was very bold. So where he had his accident in a fraternity house, obviously was in a college town here in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi. And, he moved away, went back to Chattanooga, got up on his feet, and then he married, and he moved to Bozeman, Montana. He had this amazing career as a software sales leader in his 20s. And he really just put his energy into the outdoors, rock climbing, and fly fishing.

    But then, when they had a child, they thought, “We want to be close to grandparents.” They thought that was an important part of raising a family. So they moved back here. I was with Hudson, so maybe a year in the first year after he moved back. And we’re at a evening music festival on the town square. And, some gentleman I don’t recognize walks by Hudson and shouts at him and gives him a nod. And I could tell. And I was like, “Hudson, who was that?” And Hudson just shook his head. He said, “Well, I’ve got to be honest. He was a drug dealer to me, when I was here as a student.” And, I think about the courage that my son Hudson had to move back to this town where this accident had happened, where he had this behavior. But, that’s why I say he’s my role model, because he didn’t just go back into the same haunts. He didn’t go back to the same friends. He lives a different life. And that’s, I think, what a lot of us on this journey try to do.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You have set up at the university a center that you’ve named after your son, the William Magee Wellness Center. You say quote, “To help tomorrow’s Williams.” It must be incredible for you to take an unimaginable tragedy and turn it into an opportunity to save other people, other families from that same fate.

    David Magee:

    Yeah. Oh, thank you, Elizabeth. I mean, first of all, it’s a calling. More than doing it to honor our late son… I mean, William is dead. And, I don’t mean this cold, but dead is dead. I cannot bring him back. But I’m so also mostly concerned about the pain that’s on this earth. And the pain that individuals and families have for mental health and addiction, it is severe. It is an absolute epidemic and crisis. And, I struggled so much in my life. I would have jobs because people would say, “Well, you have talent in that area.” Or I thought I had talent in that area. And after a while, I would lose interest, because I didn’t have a purpose. And then, I felt shame because I thought, “Well, yeah. I should just go do it.” But I just didn’t care about a job. I wanted a purpose.

    And what I learned from crawling across the floor was I learned what my purpose is. And, my purpose is, I’m not a great storyteller, but I can tell stories. I’m not a great writer, but I can write. And, what I learned is, through adding some real grit and determination to those skills, I can maybe improve them a little bit more and put them to use to helping others. So my wife was a big part of this journey. We just said, “Yes, our family story of having that picturesque family, the American dream.” And it completely shattering. And us being so broken, but finding a way to fight out of it, not to boast on our own success, but to help other students and families, we decided, that is our purpose. And so, I had the opportunity to move back to where I was adopted, and where I grew up, and where I went to college, and met my wife, and where my sons and daughter went, the University of Mississippi. And I said to my wife, “I think this is where our work needs to be done.” And she agreed.

    And so, we found great grassroot support. I wrote a viral column about William’s death, and as his struggles as a college student. And what we found is student groups, fraternities, sororities, faculty, staff, alumni, they spoke up and said, “We share your pain and we have it too. Let’s do something about it.” And for years now, we’ve been working to find these solutions and provide this support, preventative, supportive, rehabilitative to students. And also, to families, to help them not have to go down this road.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    In your author’s note, at the end of the book, you write, “Few American problems are more prominent than substance misuse, which touches every family and every demographic, inflicting emotional distress, education and job disruptions, and suffering, including economic hardship and legal problems. No place or segment owns this problem, everyone does.” And I thought about that, as I recently watched many families from across the country testify on Zoom to the Sackler family, telling the Sacklers about their loved ones who had died of an opioid overdose. And they were everyone. One was a marine. One was a doctor. One was a law student. One was a man. One was a woman. One was a baby, a newborn born addicted because the mother was addicted. It really does touch everybody. And so many families suffer silently. I mean, it’s starting to get better. People are starting to talk out, but there’s such stigma still around the disease of addiction. This book that you’ve written, Dear William… First of all, you can write a fantastic book. When you say you’re not-

    David Magee:

    Oh, thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    … It is extraordinarily moving.

    David Magee:

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    There were times in this book when I had to put it down because it literally was too gut wrenching.

    David Magee:

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    But it’s powerful. It’s powerful. And, your work with this center is helping so many families. So, David, thank you so much for sharing your story. You’re right, this problem affects everybody, across every demographic, and every region in this country, and across the world.

    David Magee:

    Thank you so much. I think, just all we can do to dig in and find solutions that, let’s throw down the gauntlet and keep doing the hard work.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Thank you so much for being with us on Heart of the Matter.

    David Magee:

    Thank you.

    Published

    October 2022