Brandon opens up to Elizabeth about “underestimating” his addiction, and the consequences he faced during his decades-long journey with substance use. He also talks about how his mother coped with his addiction and the only two regrets he has today.
Brandon Novak, welcome to Heart of the Matter. It is great to have you. I was reading on your own website, on your own webpage, you write, you call yourself, “The guy no one ever thought could get sober.” Why did you say that, and why is that true?
Well, I said it because I believed it. For so many years, 22 to be exact, and countless attempts at recovery, sobriety, I would enter into these programs, these facilities, these 12 step establishments, and I would see other people getting it. I wanted so badly what they had. I really wanted those results, but unfortunately I wasn’t willing to do the work that was required to get said results. I remember for 12 to 15 years a recurring dream that I would have at night was when I was in one of my first treatment centers. Somehow there was a celebration. A client was celebrating one year of continuous sobriety, and his mother was sitting in the front row. She got up, and she gave him a hug. She said some words. I remember thinking to myself how badly I wanted that. But unfortunately it’s just not obtainable for a fellow like me.
As time progressed and my disease followed, it wasn’t looking any better. It wasn’t like I continued to use and I’m like, “Ah, maybe I can achieve that one day.” No. Things got worse. They got darker. I became suicidal, homicidal. People attempted countless times to intervene, subject, interject and help, and I just got worse.
What do you think that was that… I mean, you use the phrase at one point “loiter with the intent the recover” when you describe how you went through rehab. You’re loitering around intending to recover, but as you just said, not doing any of the work. After 13 stints, as you said, you started off in the five class rehab centers. It slowly degenerated. Your mom was desperate. Your brother was desperate. Everybody in your family was desperate. People around you were desperate. When I read about your story and listen to you talk about your story, you’re one of those people where I’m sure you’ve had people say, “Thank God you’re alive. I can’t believe you survived.”
Yeah. In retrospect what I’m learned today with a gentleman who just celebrated six years of continuous sobriety, what I’ve learned is that my life is lived forward and learn backwards. That paired with the fact that I’m too smart for my own good, and I would continuously think myself out of any sensible decision that I was about to make that was going to have a positive impact on my life.
It got to the point where my mother in the beginning of my addiction used to pray to God in the middle of the night not to receive that phone call that her son had passed. To at the end, praying to God to receive that phone call that I had passed just so she could finally have a piece of mind. That’s kind of where it took me. I couldn’t understand how I had gotten there. That wasn’t my intentions. I came from better. I knew better.
As a matter of fact, I live with that cautionary tale, that afterschool special if you will. My father died as a direct result of the disease of addiction. So from a very young age, I could recognize the psychic change that takes place in an individual upon them ingesting a drink or a drug. Because my father was a great guy. Everybody loved Rome. But when Rome didn’t come home to make dinner at 5:30 and we heard his keys hit the lock around 3:00, 3:30, we shook like leaves because we knew what we were in for.
Why do you think witnessing that and experiencing that with your dad didn’t keep you from walking that same path?
Well, now it’s very, very clear for me to see is that the sad reality is I really underestimated the opponent that I was up against, meaning addiction. I underestimated the severity and the reality of my situation time after time. Because I had done some things in life at a very young age and still continued to do so throughout active addiction that people would equate to success, happiness, potentially even dream of doing, which furthermore allowed me to continue to possess this job that consisted of knowing everything.
So when I’d put my hand up and I’d say that my name is Brandon. I’m an alcoholic. All that means is that I’m defiant by nature. I hate authority, and I will never conform unless it becomes my idea because I possess that job that consists of knowing everything. Then walking into treatment center number 13, I had a lot of realizations. I was divinely inconvenient in just such a manner that created just a big enough gap between me and the last time that I got high to have that moment of clarity to see what my life had really become and who had made it that way, which was me. I went from possessing that job that consisted of knowing everything to coming to the realization that what I do know is that I don’t know. Ultimately I dumbed my way into this. I did process of elimination but backwards.
You refer to the success you had in life as a minor… That’s an understatement. You were a child prodigy at skateboarding. At the age of 14, you were the first skateboarder ever to be endorsed my Gatorade. You were a superstar in that world doing television commercials with Michael Jordan. How and when in that time period and in that process did you pick up drugs and alcohol?
I sit here and I stand by my belief that I believe that I was one of those few that was genetically predisposed. That’s where I believe my disease came from. My father was an addict. His father was an addict. My mother is not. My brothers and sisters who are from a different man are not. I’m the only one that fell victim of this.
I often say the reality of the disease of addiction is that it doesn’t discriminate. From Yale or jail, the White House or the outhouse, the results are all the same. One out of three people are affected, directly or indirectly. So my story is my story. I can’t tell you your story, their story. What my story looks like is I don’t remember. I do not remember the first time that I drank that beer, I sniffed that line, I hit that pipe, I ate that pill. I remember the first time I shot heroin, but the rest of it I don’t remember because it wasn’t like I had that aha moment as soon as I did it I got this yearning of like, “I have now found the reason for which I will jump out of bed every morning with the lust of life.” I don’t even remember it.
But you did go to rehab for the first time when you were 17 years old.
So clearly it went downhill fast.
Well, if you would’ve asked me then, absolutely not. This was merely an overreaction at best. You just caught me at a bad time on a bad way in a bad day. Tomorrow will be different. So treatment center number one was simply to please the masses, to allow my mother and my girlfriend to see that I can drink and drug successfully without repercussions. I went in there with a closed mind and a closed heart comparing out, proving a point why I didn’t belong, focusing solely on the differences, never the similarities.
You were kicked off the skateboarding team, the Tony Hawk skateboarding team, because they caught you with drugs. How old were you when that happened?
I was given the option.
You were given the option you can stay on the team if you go get help or stop, right?
Yeah, yeah. This is at 16. So at 16 the disconnection from reality and/or abnormality had already taken place, and I was so far gone and just so ill equipped to see how bad of a position I was in. You know what I mean? Looking back now it’s insanity, but at 16, the abnormal has already become the normal. I’m given this ultimatum you can go to treatment. You can save your life, continue to ride for Powell-Peralta or quit the team. From seven to 14, the moment I received that first skateboard to be given this ultimatum, I ate it, I breathed it, I slept it, I dreamt it. I had became everything that I wanted at a young age
Like that, I’m given this ultimatum. You go to treatment, save your life, continue to skate for Powell or quit the team. I had a breath of fresh air in my lungs when I quit, and already at that point it’s like it had its grips in me. It had its grips in me. I had lost the privilege to have a say so in the matter. But I had no idea at that point.
You went on after that to continue despite it all.
To continue to have incredible success and fame. You went on to star in an MTV show. You were in several blockbuster movies. You were on Viva La Bam and the show Jackass, which I’ve got to tell you my two sons spent years watching.
Yeah, okay. I accept your apology, trust me. I was mortified. You were a millionaire three times over by the time you were 23 years old. So while your mother and Tony Hawk might’ve been saying, “Dude, you got to clean up. You got to stop doing this,” the rest of life seemed to be telling you, “Hey, you’re good. You’re good. Just keep going.”
Yeah. From a very young age, my mother used to tell me, “Show me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are.” That transcended into what I believed, key words: what I believed, I heard one of my many therapists tell me at one of my many attempts at treatment, which was: social acceptability equals personal recovery. Now that could never be any further from the truth. That is not the case at all. But I believed that. So as long as the home was big enough, the car was new enough, the account was high enough, the woman was pretty enough, you told me or complimented on those things, then I had to be doing well. But the reality was I couldn’t keep a needle out of my arm to save my life.
How often were you doing drugs during that whole time period when you were an enormous, huge star?
As much as I possibly could.
It still dictated and kind of controlled my life in certain aspects and more so than not. It was very rare that work came before that. Even if work did come before it, there still had to be a way where I could be under the influence just enough to make it through work to indulge like I really like to.
I read some place that in your green room rider, which is a contract that you have with venues when you appear there. Here’s what I’d like in my green room. We’ve heard all sorts of funny stories about celebrities wanting a certain color M&M or a certain kind of bottle of water. That kind of thing. I heard that in your green room rider, you explicitly stated you need booze and drugs in there. Is that true?
Wait. What establishment provided… It’s illegal for an establishment.
Well, these are like I’m doing appearances in night clubs. So it’s kind of already that world of bars, night clubs deal. Again, that kind of continued to allow me to believe that I knew what was going on because I would attempt to get sober. I would go to these meetings. I would go to these treatment centers, and they would tell me that my life was unmanageable. I agreed that my life was unmanageable. But then I would receive a check for $10,000 for doing this appearance, and my bank account seems pretty manageable.
Paired with the fact that I had this delusional alcoholic brain that lies to me in my own voice that makes me believe the unbelievable. Pair it with the fact that I’ve been diagnosed with a disease that I have gladly accepted the diagnosis of, but that disease tells me that I don’t have this disease. The layers of this, the complexity of addiction and alcoholism is just… It’s beyond me. It’s truly solely for me, and I’m married to my narrative because it’s the only one that worked for me. I understand it’s not a black and white, one-size-fits-all. So I have to. This is my story.
But it’s only through the grace of my God that I have been delivered from that life because no human power, and believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve moved to Finland. I’ve moved to Paris. I moved to London. All over the United States. I’ve changed women, homes, careers in hopes to lift me of the obsession and rid me of the desire to want to drink or drug, and it just didn’t work. It was only through, for me, experiencing the 12 steps that allowed me to have that spiritual experience that led to a psychic change, which ultimately believes I today, Brandon Novak, no longer think like I thought when I walked into treatment center number 13, May 25, 2015. So that’s what I accredit my success to, if you will, and I don’t like that word.
During that time when you weren’t suffering the consequences yet of being broke, or being homeless yet because you got there.
Oh yeah, yeah.
But during all those years when you still got work, you’re being flown around the world to do stuff. You’re appearing in night clubs. You’re appearing in blockbuster movies. You’re appearing on a TV show. What’s your mom telling you? What are your colleagues telling you? Because certainly they’re noticing that you’re under the influence almost all the time.
Well, see, in this Viva La Bam, Jackass world, the role that I played was really an alcoholic’s dream to a tee because the more outrageous my behaviors are, the more outlandish my antics become, the higher the rating, the more in demand, the more money I make which ultimately goes right back to the drink or the drugs.
It literally is. It’s not even my role that I have to play. It’s not even a character because it’s me. It’s me. It’s me. So there really was a Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde on top of the already Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde which is the alcoholism or addiction.
Did it ever get so bad though that the guys at Jackass or at MTV said, “You can’t do this.”
With the Jackass stuff, the paychecks starting being diverted to my second ex-fiancee because it got to a point in my life, in my career, I was the kind of alcoholic that I really lost the privilege to have the say so of what I would or would not do or when I would or would not something in order to acquire another drink or a drug. Unfortunately, sadly, anything that stood between me and it would go. It wasn’t personal. It was just business. So when I say second ex-fiancee because clearly there was one before that that also attempted to… So a lot of things had to go. So paychecks would be diverted. Flights were no longer being booked. Video parts weren’t being produced because simple things like that required me to have conversations that consists of words like honest, reliable, and dependable. Those three words will never help me get one more drink or drug. So I avoid that like the plague.
I was struck… I mean, obviously I’ve been very public about my battles with alcoholism. I wrote a book myself talking about how I manage to keep that a secret. I was very highly functioning though. I had to show up to work every day. I was on live television. I had to keep my drinking separate from that. Something I did once I got home, and at the end, I finally had to get help because I was starting to be a fail in keeping that separate. I knew it was going to…
In other words, you were in an industry that I think if there’s a television or entertainment or sports industry that puts up with drunken behavior or even behavior where you’re under the influence of drugs, you were in it. You were very successful at it. You were very good at it. But even after a certain point, that ran out.
As it always kind of does. Looking back thinking about it now, the first Jackass was sponsored by Miller High Life. So I remember we were filming that, they’d have to rent literally an extra hotel room to store all the cases of beer. You know what I mean? Obviously times change. It became unionized and that’s no longer acceptable. But in the beginning, that’s how it was.
But as all good things come to an end, that happened because the reality was I go to these meetings and I hear people say this thing like, “My worst day sober is better than my best day loaded.” I’m like, “I feel really bad for you because I personally have had some of the best times of my life getting loaded.” I did. That’s the truth. But the reality of my story is that the party ended. It turned into a full time job that paid nothing but pain and misery, and the saddest thing about it is that it would not allow me to leave. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be done. I really did, but it just wouldn’t let me leave. Again, I lost the say so in the matter.
You said at one point that your mom toward the end, who I’m the mother of two sons, both teenagers, and I can’t even fathom what that must’ve been like for your mom, because I am a mom and I’ve been a person in the grips of this disease and am now a person in recovery. I can see this from both sides, but your mother actually said she went to a priest and said, “I pray to God to cure him, kill him, or kill me because I can’t take it anymore.”
The anguish in that. Why was it that… Because it’s clear from everything you’ve said and written how much you love your mom. You’ve said she’s your hero, the most important person in your life. Why would this important person in your life, why was she unable to reach you? I ask because so many in our audience are families with kids who are struggling with this.
What I know now is not what I knew then. Prior to where I’m at now, I would enter into these programs, and I would attempt to get sober. I would save my face. Everything was external. I was always trying to fill this internal void with the external solution. Then finally what happens, the pain became great enough that I entered into my 13th program, and I solely focused on saving my ass. In saving my ass, somewhere along the line my ass and my face correlated.
How I got to where I’m at now is I finally have done the internal work that was required in order to achieve the external results that I’ve always desired. It’s very, very simple. It’s clearly apparent for me to see that having remained sober long enough now and doing this internal work that I just alluded to, that it’s simple for me to look back and recognize the synchronicity in life’s events that have led me to the here and now that prove to me that God has done and has been doing for me so much longer and more than I could ever do for myself.
Prior to sobriety, again, underestimating and undermining the opponent that I was up against foolishly. When I was caught up in the throws of it, if you told me you loved me, I equate it to $10. If you told me you loved me, I got you. I don’t want it to be that way, but the disease from which I possess, it makes it that way. It tells me when to go, who to talk to, where… It dictates. My life is kind of consumed by the getting and using and finding ways and means to get more. If you’re part of that equation, great. We’ll work well together. If you stand in between me and it, you have to go. It’s not personal. It’s just business. I don’t want to do it, but I don’t have the privilege to not do it. Truly a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Yeah. I’ve heard from so many families of people who have struggled with addiction, how much they personalize. It’s a family disease first of all because it really is.
It impacts the entire family. Parents or siblings or spouses or kids, they’re like, “Well, why couldn’t you stop? Don’t you love me enough to stop?” They’re not getting it. It doesn’t have anything to do with how much I love you. It’s a disease that has taken over.
Nor will they ever get it. Nor will they, and I don’t wish this on my worst enemy. I really wouldn’t. But again, it’s a disease. If left untreated, a fatal disease. It’s factual evidence. If left untreated, we die. Untreated. Untreated alcoholism, untreated addiction equals death. But to make it even more complex, it’s the only fatal disease from which I possess that lies to me on a daily basis in my own voice telling me I don’t possess this disease. That I’ve gladly accepted the fact that I’m Brandon. I’m an alcoholic. I say it like, “Hi, how are you?”
Diagnose me with HIV, I’m rushing to the hospital to get medication. I don’t want to die. Fatal disease. Diagnose me with cancer, I’m rushing to the hospital to get chemo. I don’t want to die. Fatal disease. Diagnose me as an addict or an alcoholic. I need a glass of wine or a bag of heroin to figure out what the hell’s wrong with you for diagnosing me with said disease. It’s just as fatal as the first two diseases, literally. Not even exaggerating here.
There’s a great example of the insanity of this disease in another part of your story. You actually at one point wrote a book about your recovery, and-
Not about my recovery.
What was it about?
My life. It’s just an autobiography of my life. Yeah, no, that was definitely not about recovery.
Okay, good. Because I thought…
I wrote the book while high.
What was the name of the book?
Dream Seller. Then you are at a book signing in Times Square. You steal your own books and sell them for money for drugs.
Yeah. The thing is I couldn’t understand how I had gotten there.
Do I ask what the book publisher did?
Oh well, I had a three book deal at that point and time. Immediately upon me stealing my own addiction memoirs for my own book release in Times Square, in New York City. I run back to Penn Station. I jump on the first train from Penn Station back to Baltimore with four boxes of books. I stole two. My buddy grabbed two. We sell the four boxes to two different stores to secure enough money to go get high. We do. You’ll be shocked. I hope you’re sitting down for this. But needless to say the publisher ripped up the contract for the three book deal, completely washed his hands of me.
Right. But what you just said, you’re stealing your own addiction memoir and selling it for drugs to feed your addiction.
Yeah. My mother showed up. My brother. I have a brother who’s an attorney in the White House. He showed up. My literary agent, my manager, the publishers. People from the publishing company. It was a big deal.
Did you ever struggle with the regret, the reckoning of what you lost because of your disease?
In the beginning of, absolutely. But again, I’m married to my narrative. It worked for me, and this is my story. I acquired a sponsor and a 12 step program, a fellowship, and they walked me through and allowed me to experience the 12 steps. The 12 steps go in order from one to 12. So there were times where I wanted to… I’m on my fourth step and I’m making this list. I wanted to jump to my ninth to call these people, which is making my wrongs right and apologizing and say I’m sorry. My sponsor would say, “They’re written in order for a reason.” So I followed his timeline the same way he did it, and it worked for him.
It was tough at times, but I stayed par the course. Now what I can honestly say is there is not one… There’s one thing that I regret that I’ve done in my life, two things. I regret the pain that I’ve caused my loved ones and the sleepless nights that my addiction brought them. Those were the only two things. Besides that, I would not change anything. I would not take anything back. Nope.
You wouldn’t change those dark days at the end when you were wondering the streets without any clothes or a place to stay? You wouldn’t change any of that.
Because it got you to where you are.
One million percent. Again, my disease is centered in my perception, and they taught me in treatment if I changed my perspective, I can change my world. That’s happened as a direct result of the 12 steps, which lead me to the spiritual experience, the psychic change. For me to see all of those situations as being divinely inconvenienced. Because I’m the kind of guy that I’m big on having repercussions from actions. I’m the kind of alcoholic, I don’t change when things are unmanageable. I change when things are unbearable. That’s my deal.
But again, that’s the complexity of alcoholism. My story’s not yours, and your end or your bottom wasn’t mine. You can’t predict it. It’s not a black and white. It’s just… Yeah.
And finally, what would you say to the parents in our audience, especially keeping in mind your only regret in all of this is the pain you’ve caused your mom, the fact that you say that your mother stood by you and really never gave up on you.
When I say she never gave up on me, she did not love me to death. That she did not do. I mean that. She did not love me to death. What she did was she created boundaries. She created healthy boundaries, and set guidelines to our relationships. When I came home at 19 and tried to put my key in the lock, she had changed the locks. She stood on the other side of the door crying uncontrollably saying, “Brandon, I will no longer allow you to live here and kill yourself on a daily basis.” At the time, I thought, “How dare this woman do this to me. Worse mother of the world.” No. In hindsight, retrospect, looking back, that was probably the best thing she had ever done for me. She’s done tons of millions things for me. But that was the beginning of the best that she did for me.
Then she continued to do that. It was like, “Don’t call me unless you want to go to treatment. Don’t call me to say how are you. We have nothing to talk about.” So she loved me from that perspective, but it was never like, “Hey, let me stay at your house and sleep in your bed and get a shower in your shower and eat your food.” That’s why I’m a firm believer of having repercussions from actions.
So ultimately it’s really tough for me to kind of give a generalized statement to the masses because god knows I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. It’s just terrible. But what I would suggest is first and foremost to go to Al Anon. Al Anon is another 12 step program for the very unfortunate loved ones of an addict or an alcoholic because they really get the brunt of our addiction, except they don’t even have the privilege of feeling the effects of it. They just get the worst-
Or forgetting it later.
It’s all very graphically present for them.
I hear people in meetings say, “I worked real hard for my seat. I worked real hard for my seat in this 12 step meeting.” And my thought is, and I don’t say this out loud, but I’m saying it now is, “No. I did not work hard for my seat. You know who worked really hard for my seat? My mother. My employers.” Anyone that crossed my path worked hard for my seat. If justice was due, I’d be dead years ago hence me being on borrowed time. But I would really start by going to Al Anon, creating boundaries. Just not being ignorant to the facts, the change in behaviors. Because unfortunately most casualties, being overdoses take place in a family’s home.
Yeah. You are sober five years now.
Yeah, man. I’m grateful, man.
One day at a time.
That’s it. People ask often, “How are you?” My stock answer is, “Way better than I deserve.”
Brandon Novak, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for paying it forward, not just through your sober living facility but by speaking out as honestly and openly as you do and setting an example that there is life after sobriety. You can still be cool and funny and life can be great and gritty. You don’t have to have a needle in your arm or a drink in your hand to make it so.
Yeah. I always say sobriety has given me everything that drugs and alcohol ever promised me. Everything in my life is a billion times better, even my skateboarding today at 42 years old. I have a video part that I’m about to release where I flew to Barcelona, and I made an amazing video part that still stands the test of time with like these young guys. I’m traveling the world doing these amazing things, and people might even look at that and be like, “There’s no way this guy’s sober doing all this extreme…” My life is just… If I could give the people a piece of what I’d have, they’d be like, “Why did I stay stuck on stupid so long for?” I get it though. I’ve done it. That’s what makes me good at what I do because I’m really good at playing devil’s advocate. It makes sense for me to understand why a person would continue to drink or drug opposed to accept a helping hand.
Sure. You’ve walked the walk. You learned the lesson the hard way.
Thank you so much.
I love it though, man. Thank you for talking. These talks get me high. I love it, man.
Yeah, no. This was great. We really, really appreciate it.
Thank you so much for listening today to “Heart of the Matter.” You can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and on our website at 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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