World and international boxing champion Mia St. John on the isolation of relapse, recovery as connection and her fight through grief and loss

    A fighter in every sense of the word, boxing champion Mia St. John encountered addiction from a young age, growing up with a father who struggled with drinking and attending her first Alcoholics Anonymous group when she was just twelve years old. Years later, she witnessed her son’s struggle with mental illness and a cycle of substance use as self-medication.

    Tune in as Mia opens up to Elizabeth about enduring the loneliness of relapse, finding a home in Alcoholics Anonymous and weathering the losses of her son, Julian, and her former husband, Kristoff St. John.

    Content warning: This episode discusses topics of suicide and suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Both programs provide free, confidential support 24/7. You are not alone.

    Listen now

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    Does Relapse Mean Failure?

    For this father, it took time to learn that relapse can be a natural part of addiction recovery.

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    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Mia St. John, welcome to Heart of the Matter. It is so wonderful to have you.

    Mia St. John:

    Thank you for having me. I’m excited.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I’m excited to have you here. You are a five-time world champ, as I just said in the intro, your nickname was The Knockout.

    Mia St. John:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Is that because you knocked so many of your opponents out, I’m guessing?

    Mia St. John:

    That was a nickname that my manager gave me way back when in the mid-90s. And when he first met me, he was like, “oh my God, you are a knockout.” And then, what happened was I knocked my opponent out in 50 seconds of the first fight. And so, I became, Mia “The Knockout” St. John.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    That’s so funny. How did you get into boxing?

    Mia St. John:

    Mm, so, my dad… I was born in the late 60s and Bruce Lee was super huge back then, and my dad was a huge martial arts fan. He was a nuclear engineer, or is a nuclear engineer, and became fascinated with the martial arts, and he didn’t have boys at the time, not yet, my brother wasn’t born yet. So, he put his two girls, me and my sister, in TaeKwonDo and made us compete and do the whole thing. And what happened was around the early 90s… Well, I wanted to become a boxer after I saw Rocky, in the late 70s –

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I read that. It’s so funny. You and I are about the same age and I remember watching that movie, I think I saw it 10 times. I loved it. But, I didn’t ever watch it and go, “Oh, I want to do that.” I love that you watched it and said, “I want to be that.”

    Mia St. John:

    Yes. And, my sister laughs because she remembers that all my friends thought I was in love with Sylvester Stallone and my sister would laugh and say, “No, she wants to be Rocky, she’s not in love with Rocky”. And I did. I was just so enamored with that. And so, when the 90s rolled around and Christy Martin was on TV, on the Tyson cards, I said, Now’s my chance. And that was that.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    That’s so great.

    Mia St. John:

    Sent a letter to Don King and he signed me and the rest is history.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    The rest is history. You went on fame and fortune as a result. You’re a boxer, a fighter, by trade to quote Simon and Garfield. But, your childhood was tough. You had to fight for normalcy throughout your childhood.

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah. I had an alcoholic father, so there was a lot of violence in the home. I had a mother who didn’t speak English quite yet. And so, it was difficult. And also, remember, the era that I was born in, which was the height of the civil Rights Movement and the Chicano movement, and a lot of the Mexicans from Mexico were coming over to the US, just like my own family, and it was rough to try and integrate with a culture that I didn’t quite fit into.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right, right. Your mother’s from Mexico, your dad is American.

    Mia St. John:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And like so many of those first generation Mexican-American kids, you say in your book that you grew up always feeling like you didn’t fit in. You weren’t a white American, you weren’t Mexican, you were something in between.

    Mia St. John:

    I always say I was the hyphen in between Mexican-American, because I really didn’t know. The first few years of my life were in Mexico, and I loved the culture, we lived on a farm, I loved the farm. And then, being brought to the US for school, for kindergarten, I had to then try and be American. And then, I did really love the American culture, but it was difficult. It was like I really didn’t fit in, I didn’t felt like a part of either group.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. That’s something you hear a lot in recovery meetings, that people grow up with that sense of never belonging and never fitting in, but added on top of that, we do know that early childhood abuse, physical abuse, like you say you suffered in your book, is a big risk factor for substance use disorder. And in your book, you talk about the fact that you first tried alcohol when you were just 10 years old.

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What was that like the first time?

    Mia St. John:

    And the only reason I tried it was because I desperately wanted to know why my father was so attached to this bottle and his beer and why alcohol was such a big part of his life. I didn’t know. And so, one night I decided, well, I’m going to try it. And I snuck into the liquor cabinet and I always say this, my first drink was my last, because my first drink, I could not stop.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Really? Even –

    Mia St. John:

    I could not stop my first drink. I couldn’t stop until I passed out.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You passed out at 10 years old.

    Mia St. John:

    I passed out. I mean, I don’t know whether it was I was so drunk, I fell asleep, but all I know is I kept drinking until I was out. Couldn’t stop.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You actually write in the book that you went to first AA meeting when you were 12 years old. Did I read that right? Is that true?

    Mia St. John:

    Yes. My mom noticed that, at a young age, I was drinking. That I was getting caught and she got very scared, being from another country, she didn’t know what to do. And she was asking the church and friends, where do I send my child? And they told her about AA. And they sent me to a meeting for, I don’t know what it was called, it might have been Alateen, but yeah, it was my very first meeting.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You write that you then spent a few years trying to stop, stopping and then picking back up. And by the time you were in high school, you were drinking again. And I want to read something that you wrote in your book about your relationship with alcohol and how you drank when you were in high school. You said, “Somewhere in this vicious cycle, you stop getting wasted and you drink to get rid of the shakes, just to survive and forget about the high that was gone a long time ago. You look for it everywhere. You never realize it’s gone, it’s over, it will never come back.” What do you mean by that?

    Mia St. John:

    Right. Well, you reach a point in alcoholism that the high is gone and you’re tasting that high, wanting to get that high that you first got and it’s never going to come back because you’ve reached the point of using, as with any drug, that the high wears off and pretty soon, you’re just drinking to get through your day. And, I never got the shakes when I was in my early drinking. When I first got sober, back as a young adult, I never got the shakes then, but I experienced the tremors when I relapsed and tried to get sober this time around. I would wake up in the morning with my hands shaking and having to leave a bottle of tequila, that was my thing, tequila, I would leave it on the side of my bed or under my bed hidden where my daughter couldn’t find it so that when I woke up in the morning, I could easily get rid of the shakes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Let’s go back to your young adulthood. How did you finally get sober?

    Mia St. John:

    The first time I was in a violent relationship, which is not surprising because a lot of children of alcoholics end up being with a partner that is similar to their father.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right.

    Mia St. John:

    So, I ended up with a guy that was older than me, a lot older than me, that was a raging alcoholic, not in recovery, that would beat me. And same as my father. It’s crazy how identical it was. And, I just remember being at my wits end, just drinking every day and crashed my car, he took a telephone, a payphone off the, off the pole, and this was back in the day for your young listeners that don’t know what pay phones are. Anyway, we had pay phones and I just remember feeling like, I’m either going to get sober or I’m going to die. And, I went back to a place I knew, which was Alcoholics Anonymous

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And it worked?

    Mia St. John:

    And it worked. I did relapse once, but it did work. And, I met the love of my life in AA, I had kids in AA and I grew up in AA.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. So you met your husband, Kristoff St. John. Those fans of the Young and the Restless, he was a long time actor on that show. The two of you got married, started a family, had two children.

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And your son was diagnosed, as a child with, more as a teenager, with paranoid schizophrenia. How did that happen?

    Mia St. John:

    He wasn’t actually diagnosed until… He didn’t get a real diagnosis until he was about 18 years old and usually they wait. We knew something was wrong. We had him in and out of doctors as a young child, but they can’t give you a diagnosis until you’ve reached adulthood because they just don’t know what it is, it could be anything. So even though we knew, he didn’t actually get a clinical diagnosis until 18.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You and your husband did everything you could to help your son. He was really suffering and you paint a pretty dire picture. He is an adult and he’s calling his own shots at a certain point. I know that one of my children is now legally an adult, even though I’m, you’re not an adult, you can’t make a decision on like this.

    Mia St. John:

    Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    But, once they reach adulthood in the eyes of the law, they can do their own thing. And, you and your husband did everything you could to help him and ended up hospitalizing him. You would find him out on the street, he became addicted to meth. I can’t imagine, as somebody in long term recovery, you and your husband, what that was like navigating that, trying to get your son the help he desperately needed.

    Mia St. John:

    It was a very painful, painful experience. But, I always say that, and I always said this when I would go looking for my son, I would say to my higher power, I don’t care. I don’t care that if I have to go through this for the rest of my life, God, just don’t take my son, don’t take my son. I will happily go through this and suffering until the day I die. I just don’t want to lose my son. And, it is painful for any parent who has a child with a disability. It’s a very painful experience.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    We know from statistics that many, many teens and young adults who suffer from substance use disorder also suffer from some sort of mental health issue. Your son fits exactly into that very common scenario.

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah, he does. The only thing is my son had schizophrenia prior to the drug use. And he used the drugs as a form of self medication because they calmed down the voices in his head, the delusions, the hallucinations. But we just could not… It was like a cycle. I would find him, bring him home, clean him up, get him sober again, get him back on his meds. And, by this time he was already addicted and the cravings would start. And within two weeks, my son would be back out on the streets again. And the same cycle, then I would go on the hunt, put up missing persons ads, call the sheriffs, go to all the parks that he would sleep at or the streets he would sleep on. I would go everywhere searching for my son. It was a repetitive cycle.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And then, of course, you get the call that no mother ever wants to get. When your son was 24 years old in 2014, after you had put him in a hospital that was recommended to you by LA County, he committed suicide.

    Mia St. John:

    LA County Department of Mental Health put my son, because I had conservatorship over him. They placed him in a facility that was recommended. It was a place that neglected him, falsified the records, hid evidence. And, I got the call that that no mother, no parent should ever receive. And, it was the worst day of my life. The worst day of my life. And I was driving when I was told the news.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Oh, I’m so sorry. How did you stay sober through that?

    Mia St. John:

    I was delirious. I did not know how to survive. Forget about staying sober, I didn’t know how to live. How do I live without my baby boy, that was my first born, my only son? How do I go on living? I relied on AA, on support groups, on therapists, on doctors. I went to AA every day, all day, begging for help. And, I knew that if I drank, I would die, I would never stop, I would drink to my death. And, I had to stay sober, for the sake of my daughter.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Mia St. John:

    And, it didn’t all come crashing down, my relapse, until the death of Kristoff.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Kristoff did begin to drink after the death of your son, is that correct?

    Mia St. John:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    He had been sober as long as you?

    Mia St. John:

    No. No. He had been in and out throughout our marriage, he had been in and out.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And what you have said, that he felt guilty, that he drank to not feel so guilty about the death of your son.

    Mia St. John:

    Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    That must have been very, very painful to watch him suffer. Why did he feel such guilt?

    Mia St. John:

    The guilt happened because I was always a helicopter parent. Whenever my son was in rehab, in a facility, and he would call me, Mom, I swear. I’ll never do it again. I’m going to get sober. I’m never going to touch that stuff again. Come and get me. Mom, please. And I would always go running, get my son, always. And, he’d always end up back on the streets, back to using. And so, same thing happened. My son called me, Mom, I promise. I’ll never do it again. And his dad said, No. This is the last time you’re enabling him and we are not going to get him. And, so I didn’t. And so then he died, and his father, even though we all told him, it’s not your fault, but he, for some reason, couldn’t get over that and he could not digest the fact that he was the one who stopped me from getting him. And it just was like a spiral. He started drinking, it got worse and worse, he started missing work, forgetting his lines, he would leave work in the middle of shooting.

    There were times I had to drive him to work, babysit him and he would just cry and cry and cry. And, just got to a point where he just said, “I don’t want to live anymore.”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And yet you still stayed sober, even through the death of your husband or was it that second tragedy –

    Mia St. John:

    When I got the call, it was the week leading up to Kristoff’s death. And this was at this point I was driving him to the set and babysitting him on set. And, he had collapsed on set and I knew at this point we had to intervene and a call was made to our attorney, Mark Geragos. And Mark had helped us get him into a facility. But we got him in there, but because he was an adult, he was able to leave after 72 hours.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Mia St. John:

    And, he went back to his house and the drinking continued. And then he finally called me, Super Bowl, Sunday. This three days later he called me, Super Bowl Sunday, in the morning and he was crying and saying he didn’t want to live anymore and he just wanted to be with his son. And, of course, I did everything to talk him into, you have two daughters, you have a whole life and you have this great career of things going great for you, just trying to build him up, give him confidence, we can get through this. And, he just started the whole conversation of, I love you, Mia. I’ll always love you. Tell my kids, tell Paris I love her, our daughter together. And then, he had a daughter from second ex-wife. He said, Call Lola, tell her I love her.

    And I got very scared when he said… Well, I was scared then, but I panicked when he said, It’s okay, Mia. Julian’s here and he’s going to take me for a walk and we’re going to be okay. And don’t worry. And I panicked, because I know he saw my son and I know my son was there and I put him on speaker so that my boyfriend could hear what he was saying. And I said, We’ve got to get help. And I hung up the phone, and I was too far away, so I knew by driving there, it was going to take too long. And, I knew that he had his second ex-wife live next door to him and he had his best friend lived next to him. So, I called both of them just frantically, you’ve got to get over there. You’ve got to get there now. And they did and they were the ones that found him.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Wow.

    Mia St. John:

    When I got the call, that was when I relapsed.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What did you do? Tell me what that looked like. Did you just drive to a liquor store, a grocery store and buy alcohol right away? What were you thinking?

    Mia St. John:

    I collapsed and I just started screaming and we went to the house to see him, to see the body. And, all I remember is leaving there and I don’t remember the rest. I don’t remember what happened after that. I just remember waking up on a 5150 in the hospital and people telling me my boyfriend and every went around me, my family had come in, and they just told me that I was doing the same thing saying, I’m going to drink myself death. I want to die. I don’t have any recollection of this. This is just what I was told by the hospital and by my loved ones. I got out of the hospital three days later. And did the same thing again.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    As soon as you could, you drank again?

    Mia St. John:

    Yes. And ended up right back in the hospital on another 5150.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    We know that the rates of relapse are 40% to 60% for people in recovery. I think people are surprised to know that. I think the outside world, the world of people who don’t have an issue with addiction, think, well, you get better and you’re just all better and you’re cured and you go on.

    Mia St. John:

    Right. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    They don’t know that 40% to 60% of people in recovery at some point relapse. And, by the way, that’s not dissimilar from other chronic diseases like hypertension or asthma.

    Mia St. John:

    Right.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Type One diabetes. It happens. You said in an interview in March of 2019 that, after your relapsed, you said, “I felt as small as you can get, my ego was crushed. There was such a sense of isolation.” And, I was so struck by the fact that you about that isolation, because we know that the key to sobriety is connection and that when you’re isolated and alone, or feel that way, that’s when your weakest.

    Mia St. John:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And, I felt very alone because who could understand my pain except another mother who experienced the same thing, other mothers who have lost their children. And that’s a very small population because the majority of us go before our parents. So, I felt very alone. And here I was, I had 30 years of sobriety and I was a five time world champion, 30 years of sobriety, I had a degree in psychology. I had all this knowledge and how did I end up like this, hospitalized? And, it just felt very alone. Who could I relate to? Who could understand the pain?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    In the rooms of recovery, I’ve heard people with long term sobriety and people who have relapsed talk about the fact that they might have thought, “Oh, this time it’ll be different,” but that they picked up. And then, sometimes immediately, and sometimes it took weeks or months, but they were right back to where those worst days were.

    Mia St. John:

    And worse. Not to laugh about it, but it still dumbfounds me to this day that I really thought, after 30 years of sobriety, there was a little bit of that thinking that said, maybe you’re not really an alcoholic. I think you’re cured now. No. My first drink, I was gone, I was gone and, and it came back tenfold.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    The disease.

    Mia St. John:

    The disease. whereas before I was a binge drinker, now, in my relapse, I became a daily drinker. I became a morning drinker, afternoon drinker, an evening drinker. It was worse than it had ever been.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    How long did it take before you got sober again?

    Mia St. John:

    I have Kristoff died in 2019, January, and I have 76 days today. So, about three years, three and a half years, I was out.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Congratulations on 76 days. That’s awesome.

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah. Three years. Thank you. Thank you. I wonder how the hell did I get 30 years? Because, 76 days feels like I’ve already gone 50 years. It’s crazy, it is crazy. Because, I look back on 30 years ago, how the hell did I do that?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You created quite a stir during the pandemic when you tweeted at the mayor of Los Angeles about the shutting down of AA meetings, saying this is a life saving thing those of us who are struggling to stay sober need. In fact, you pointed out in one of your tweets to him, Mayor Garcetti, “Hey, you are allowing wine stores to deliver booze to people’s doorsteps as an essential service.”

    Mia St. John:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Why isn’t an AA meeting an essential service?

    Mia St. John:

    Yes. And that happened because I decided I’m going to hold my own meetings because I tried Zoom and, like a lot of us that went out during the pandemic, there’s no accountability on Zoom. On Zoom, we would just shut off the cameras and start drinking because no one could see us. At an AA meeting, there’s accountability. You walk out of a meeting, people are going to run after you. Your friends are, where are you going? What are you doing? So, there’s accountability. And so, that’s why Zoom really didn’t work for us. And so, I decided to have my own meetings in Marina Del Ray outside, six feet apart, wearing mask and I would keep getting shut down, shut down, shut down.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Why were you shut down? I don’t understand.

    Mia St. John:

    We were not supposed to have gatherings. And so, I called, not only our lawyer, but our friend, Mark Geragos, and I told him the situation. And he said, I’m filing in the lawsuit against Mayor Garcetti.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What happened?

    Mia St. John:

    You should have your AA meetings. Well, before we were supposed to go to court, Mark gets a call and they conceded and said, “Okay, we don’t want to go to court. She can have her meetings.”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Your hard fought AA meetings. You know, I’m sure as well as I do, and the statistics bear this out so it’s not just something we’re hearing anecdotally, a lot of people went out during the pandemic, a lot of people struggled at these Zoom meetings on AA. As so many people in recovery, say the key to recovery is connection and that loss of connection in every aspect of our lives that we’re still experiencing. I don’t know about you, but I’m still going to AA meetings on Zoom, small meetings, because I hear you. Those big meetings where you have to swipe the screen five times to see all 50 people on each screen. You’re right, it’s very difficult to connect.

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah. And, remember, a big part of AA, as you know, is fellowship.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Mia St. John:

    I hang out with my AA friends after the meetings and we talk and we have coffee, we go to lunch and that’s a huge part of AA is fellowship. And you don’t get that with Zoom. You can’t say, oh, “Hey, let’s go for coffee now.”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. My God, you have been through the wringer, Mia. You’ve been through so much in the last few years with the loss of your son, the loss of your ex-husband, the loss of your hard fought sobriety that you, 30 years clean and sober and now fighting for it one day at a time. What do you tell yourself now? What would you like to say to others who might be listening to this podcast who might be struggling in their own small or big way with some personal tragedy about how to walk through it without falling apart?

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah. That is rough. I tell people now that sobriety is everything, it is everything. And, I lost my will to live by drinking. Drinking did not help anything. It doesn’t cure the problem, it’s not going to cure your grief or your loss. The only way, and I use this analogy all the time, the only way out of the storm is through it. Yes, you get sober and you’re going to feel all those feelings that you felt before, why you drank to begin with. But, the only way out of it is to deal with it, to feel it, to feel the grief, to… See, I’m feeling now because I’m sober. Is to feel the pain and yeah, it sucks. It sucks, it’s hard. I don’t want to feel this every day of my life, but, I have to. I have to go through all the emotions that I was supposed to go through back when it first happened, but I chose to try and comfort myself with the bottle and it doesn’t work.

    It didn’t work. Eventually, you have to deal with it eventually, unless you’re going to drink yourself to death, which is not a good option, or you’re just going to keep drinking for the rest of your life and choose to never deal with.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, yeah.

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Well, Mia St. John, you are a fighter in every single way and –

    Mia St. John:

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Good luck with your book, Fighting for My Life, which will be out soon. And –

    Mia St. John:

    Yeah. Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And good luck, one day at a time.

    Thank you so much for listening today to Heart of the Matter. You can find this podcast on Apple podcast, Spotify, and on our website drugfree.org/podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who is struggling with substance use, you can text 55753, or visit drugfree.org. We’ll talk to you soon.

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    Published

    November 2021