Captain Lee and Elizabeth discuss his experiences on “Below Deck,” the relationships he’s formed with other Bravo stars impacted by addiction and what he’s doing to help others struggling with substance use.
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.
Captain Lee, welcome to Heart of the Matter.
Thank you, Elizabeth.
It’s so great to have you. My sons were very excited that you were going to be on my podcast, because they’re huge fans of Below Deck. They’ve been watching for years, and immediately regaled me with all their favorite episodes.
That always seems so foreign to me to hear people say, “Yeah, I’ve been watching your show for years.” I think to myself, “Gosh, has it really been years? I guess it has.”
It has been years, and it was accidental. You weren’t even supposed to be on the show, right?
Oh no, not at all.
How did you end up with your starring role?
The captain that they had hired… See, I thought I was heading down to Saint Martin for just a gravy train, drop the boat off, go check on it every three or four days, get paid double pay, sit on the beach, drink foo-foo drinks for six weeks, bring Mary Anne down, and enjoy life. The captain that they hired, unfortunately, had the certificate, but he didn’t have the experience, so the insurance company pulled the plug on him.
My boss is, like most billionaires, he just really doesn’t… A million dollars doesn’t move the needle much for him, so he said, “Either use my captain or we’re out of here.”
And as you once put it, somebody said, “Okay, I guess we’ll use the old guy,” referring to you.
Yeah. That’s what they said, like, “Listen, we’re going to have to use the old guy.” They actually tried to shoot around me.
That’s why the release date took so long to get out, because I was edited out of most of the scenes, so when Bravo got ahold of that – I think we only shot 10 episodes to begin with – and Bravo got it, and they said, “Well, where’s the captain?” They said, “Well, we decided to shoot around him and cut him out.”
I didn’t know that.
They said, “Go back and do it again.”
No way. You guys went back and redid it?
We didn’t have to reshoot it, but they had to reedit it in the storyline, so post wasn’t real happy.
Wow. The show’s been described as a seagoing Downton Abbey. Were you surprised it became such a hit?
Oh, totally. I was totally unprepared for any of this. I really was. It just wasn’t… Well, nobody gives you a handbook on how to deal with this sort of thing, and I’m just a working class guy. I wasn’t ready for celebrity, or stardom, or any of this stuff, and I still consider myself just a captain that gets filmed doing his job.
Basically, the show focuses on the crew that work aboard these incredibly luxurious yachts, keeping everything running and tip-top for the guests, the well-heeled guests on the above decks. How true is the show to what we… In other words, I’ve seen shows, for example, about television news, and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s not like that.” Is this show pretty accurate, or?
It is in a lot of ways, because it’s sometimes we’ll get guests that’ll come on, and they’ll all want to turn into TV producers, and they are like, “What can I do to really make myself stand out, or how outrageous can I be?” Sometimes, we have to step in and say like, “Listen, just enjoy your vacation. Quit trying to be a TV producer.”
But most of the time, it’s really accurate. They’re having a good time with the toys. They’re having a good time with the locations, and some of the locations are just really, really spectacular. I mean, Tahiti, Thailand, they’re just over the top, and the crew, they’re like most young 20-year-olds that got the world by the butt. They’re just out there living their life the best way they can, and making the usual mistakes. Got a pocket full of money and a big thirst.
Mm-hmm. There’s a whole work hard, play hard attitude that you see when they get off the yachts, that they really party.
They do, and the ones that are in it for a career, you’ll find are a little more settled in, and they take their career life a little more seriously, but then the demand for crew is so great now, that it’s like they get a sense of having the upper hand. “If I don’t like it, there’s another boat that’ll hire me in a minute,” which happens to be pretty true right now.
Kind of like, it seems, every place right now in the world post-pandemic. A couple of seasons ago on the show, you shared some pretty devastating news that your family had gone through with your crew, and with the audience, the Bravo audience who watches the show, Below Deck, fervently and religiously. Your 42-year-old son, Josh, had died of a drug overdose, and the way you described it was just excruciating, that no parent should ever… that it was a violation of the natural order of things, and to lose your child like this was just devastating. You said you can remember every moment of the day that you found his body. You can’t remember a single moment of the day of his funeral. Tell me about what happened that day. He had been struggling for a while, but then had been clean for six months.
Yeah, and we thought we’d turned a corner. I have since changed my outlook on it. Instead of calling it an accidental overdose, I changed that term to an accidental poisoning, because I hate to say it, but Josh was experienced. He knew how much he could tolerate, how much he could take and still function the next day. What he didn’t know, that what he was buying and what it contained, wasn’t exactly what he thought it was.
It contained fentanyl?
Contained fentanyl, so he didn’t die from an accidental overdose. He knew the amount that he was taking. He died from an accidental poisoning.
Back up a little bit, and tell me about Josh. You said he was a really sensitive kid who was prone to anxiety, something we know a lot of kids and adolescents – a lot of people are struggling with now. How did he fall into drugs?
God, I wish I knew the answer to that one, Elizabeth. I could solve a lot of people’s problems if I had the answer to that.
Did you know he was using?
Yeah, we did for years, and I can’t count the rehab programs. I can’t count the times I’d gotten up in the middle of the night to go get him, and to bring him home, or to take him to the hospital, or just get him out of a bad situation. He did six months in county lockup for a probation violation, which, and this is probably going to sound terrible to some people, but it was kind of a relief.
You knew where he was and didn’t have to worry?
For that six months, he was going to be okay.
That’s a sad commentary, but that’s where we are today.
You said at one point, about the fact that this happens to everybody, that it knows no boundaries, no borders, that you can be in a mansion or you can be in a trailer, and yet the experience is still the same for a family with somebody struggling with drug addiction, opioid addiction.
The stereotype that we’ve got today is so different than what it used to be. Most people think it’s somebody shooting up in a back alley or in a shooting gallery in the city or something like that. It’s your next-door neighbor. It can be the teacher that’s teaching your kids in school, that got in a car accident two years ago and they’re still doing opiates.
You mentioned that Josh had been in a car accident, and had actually broken a leg and two feet.
And at that point, he was prescribed opioids for the pain, right?
Do you think that was the first time he tried them, or do you think he was using them already?
I mean, Josh had been dabbling around the peripheral edges for a while, but that certainly didn’t help anything. You know, when it becomes easily accessible, and now you’ve got a script for it and a reason to take it, and you don’t feel so bad about what you’re doing.
How many years did your family go through this painful cycle with Josh, of knowing he was using, of getting him help, of taking him to the ER. I mean, are we talking about five years, 10 years, 15?
So his entire adult life?
Yeah, and it progressively got worse, you know? It didn’t start out that way. Of course, it never does, but every alcoholic starts out with a drink, and then it graduates. And there’s a host of mental issues that go along with it, you know? Low self-esteem, the stigma that gets applied to using drugs.
How did you see that manifest? Did you keep Josh’s issues a secret?
We didn’t keep it a secret, but he would avoid social situations with a large crowd of people. It would either be a very large crowd of people, or it would be just two or three. Wouldn’t be anything like 10 or 12, that sort of thing, where, “We’re having some people over. Josh, why don’t you come on over to the house?” He’d always avoid those situations, and feel self-conscious, so we never forced that.
Did your friends, did your castmates, did the people at Bravo on the show, did anybody know that your family was experiencing this with Josh?
We went through it alone.
Why did you go through it alone?
As a dad, you’re supposed to be able to fix things. That’s why you’re there, until you realize one day, that you run into something that you can’t. That’s the hardest pill to swallow.
How powerless you were?
You mentioned you had put him in several rehabs. Did you feel like you picked good ones? Did you feel like… I know a lot of families really struggle with – they scrape together the funds to send a loved one to rehab, and then which one do you send them to? We know statistically, that the vast majority of rehabs, especially with opioid addiction, are not using drugs or therapies that are proven to work.
And a lot of times, the rehab centers are actually supplying more drugs to the people in rehab, so they can continue the payment cycle. We’ve had experiences with that as well here in Florida.
Yeah, there’s a lot of rehabs in Florida that have been under investigation, and many families who have said that it’s a revolving door.
It is, and it’s you do your research, your do your homework, and there’s no data available, that, you know-
There’s certain criteria that should be met, but nobody’s come up with that, because I don’t know, the problem isn’t sexy enough, doesn’t get enough headlines. I don’t know what the issue is.
It is getting headlines though, now. I mean, it is in the headlines. Why are we still not dealing with this?
Good question. I came through the Vietnam era. I grew up in that era, and I got drafted to go to Vietnam, and we lost, what, 58,000 service men in Vietnam over the course of 10 years or so, and that was over 10 years, and people were rioting in the streets over that. They were just raising all kinds of hell, and we lost 107,000 last year, and nobody does anything.
And it’s like, nobody seems to care.
You were testifying in front of Congress at the end of October, this past October, talking about Josh, and his death, and the whole issue of drug overdoses in this country, and the need for more money, more legislation, more help to deal with this issue. Did you feel like they were listening?
The people that I was talking to, and it was a very bipartisan group of people, and they were… I felt they were doing the best they could, but it’s really… I don’t know why it’s so easy to get $10 million for the breeding habits of some obscure hummingbird in Northern Alaska than it is to get a few dollars to try to help a problem like this, but it seems to be that’s the way it works. It gets attached as an earmark or something, and slides through on the coattails of another bill, but when it comes down to addressing a drug issue, it just seems to hit a wall. So that’s what I’m trying to do, is find a way to get around the wall, get over the wall, get through the wall, get under the wall. At this point, I don’t really care. You know, and I know members of Congress. Their children have died.
They get it, and we still can’t get anything done. The amount of paperwork and the regulation to get funding is like, “Oh, we’d love to help you, but we need to see some results first.” Well, if you’d give me some cash, I could give you some results.
So if you could be king for a day, and wave your magic king wand… I know I’m mixing my metaphors here. What would you have them do? What would you have us do?
I think the whole rehabilitation program has to be revamped. It doesn’t address the core issues. It doesn’t take care of people long term.
Josh did have you though, and you and your wife really, really did everything you possibly could to support him, and he did manage – you think he was clean for six months? What happened? Tell me about… Did he go to another rehab? Was he able to stay clean? Why do you think that six months was successful for him?
I’m not sure. It’s hard to say what. And I’m not even… We thought he was clean, but I’m not so sure that that was the actual truth. He might have just gotten better at concealing it, and not exposing us to it as much.
That day you called him and he didn’t pick up. Did you know instantly something was wrong, or tell me about what happened.
Oh, there’s a lot of times he wouldn’t answer his phone.
So at first, you were like, “Whatever. No biggie”?
Yeah, and then he said… He texted and said, “Well, I’ll be over tomorrow,” and we said, “Okay.” Then when his phone kept going straight to voicemail without even ringing, the phone’s either dead or shut off, and that was the first inkling that something was wrong. So I told Mary Anne, I said, “I’ll go over and check on him,” and it wasn’t the first time I’d gone over and found him passed out in the backyard, or passed out on a sofa, or passed out on the floor in the bathroom, and I don’t know what it… I think it was the fact that his dog was barking. But he wasn’t barking at the front door. You know, when you knock on a door, a dog runs to the front door and barks at you. He was barking at the door, but from somewhere else in the house. I thought, “That’s strange,” so I went around the back, and I knocked, and got no response, but the barking was still coming, but from a different spot.
So I went back around the front of the house, and the drapes were all drawn, and I knew I didn’t want to open the door. I was just… I knew I had to. I knew I was going to, but there was nothing I could do to prevent. I had to walk through that door, and for a split second, when I looked over and I saw him sitting on the sofa, I thought, “God, we dodged a bullet again. He’s just passed out,” until I went over, and put my arm around his shoulder, and he was gone, just cold.
I can’t imagine what that moment was like for you. I can’t. I simply can’t. You managed to call 9-1-1, and actually, you told them not to use their sirens to come to the house, because-
We lived so close to him that-
It would alarm your wife.
Mary Anne would know. She knew I was going over to check on him, and if she heard sirens, she’d put two and two together, and I couldn’t let her see her baby like that.
Oh, I’m like… Did you find out where he got whatever he took that was laced with fentanyl? Did you find anything out? What did you learn?
We knew who did it, and he’s still walking the streets, still selling pills. It’s one thing to know it. It’s a different thing to prove it.
And these guys are pretty slick. They spend a lifetime honing their craft, you know? They have burner phones that they use for a day or two, and they’re hard to catch, and when they get caught, they get caught with maybe such a small, insignificant amount, that the courts don’t really get tough on them, but they should.
To your knowledge, had Josh ever experimented with any drugs that contained fentanyl before? Do you know whether or not this was his first encounter with fentanyl? I mean-
… we’re seeing so many of these deaths because people are taking drugs that they think are Percocet, or Valium, or cocaine.
There’s a lot of people that have died because they just went to a party, and it’s the first time they’ve ever tried cocaine, and it was laced with fentanyl, and they’re dead. We had an incident here in Fort Lauderdale over spring break.
Four or five kids from West Point.
West Point cadets, some of them football players, overdosed.
And two of the kids overdosed… Just to give you an idea how strong fentanyl is, two of the kids overdosed from giving the other two mouth-to-mouth, to resuscitate them. They didn’t even do any fentanyl. They didn’t even do any drugs.
They got it from just trying to revive their friends who had overdosed. They all lived, by the grace of god.
I mean, we know that medics on the scene administered Narcan to help save lives that day.
We used to have Narcan in the house all the time. That’s a hell of a way to live your life, isn’t it?
Putting Narcan in your medicine closet.
I was struck by something you said recently. You said, “Nobody ever got angry with anyone who got cancer, but we do with people who suffer from addiction. We back away from them. We don’t help.” Not meaning you, because you were trying – you, Josh’s mom, Josh’s brothers and sisters were trying to help, but society writ large. What do you mean by that, and how did you see that in Josh’s case?
If somebody comes up and tells you, “I was diagnosed with stage IV terminal colon cancer,” everybody is so apologetic.
They rally around. “What can I do to help?”
“What can I do?” Tell somebody, “I need some help,” you get crickets. You get nothing.
Did that happen with you? Did you reach out to people and say, “This is what we’re going through. This is what he’s suffering from”?
You would try to get programs extended, treatment extended. Just couldn’t do it, and that’s one of the issues that we have. Do you stop halfway through a cancer treatment program, and say, “Okay, time’s up. Hit the bricks. You’re out of here”? No, we keep going until the lung cancer, or the cervical cancer, or whatever it is is cured.
And by the way, if the cancer comes back, we don’t say, “Oh, well I’m sorry. You have cancer again? You’re out of here.”
No. We take them back in and we take care of them, but we don’t do that with addicts. We put this stigma, and we attach it to them for the rest of their life, and we make them feel ashamed for getting sick, and then wonder why they don’t ask for help. Why the hell would they? Because they’re embarrassed to begin with. They’re ashamed, and why should anyone feel ashamed of being ill?
And yet they do, millions of them.
And they pay the ultimate price for it.
You have co-founded a nonprofit that seeks to protect and preserve natural resources, and in part of that nonprofit, you are hoping to set up basically a large boat, or barge, or I don’t want to call it a yacht, because I don’t think it’s a yacht, but-
Definitely not a yacht.
It’s definitely not a yacht.
But dedicated to recovery. It’s basically rehab on the water, right?
A floating rehab. I don’t know. I’ve always believed that there’s really something magical about the water.
And if you can get better anywhere, you can get better on the water. I mean, I just really believe that in my heart of hearts, so we came up with this idea of a floating rehab program. But it has to be more than that, because by the time somebody gets to the point where they’re going to go into rehab-
… they’ve burned all their employment bridges. They’re generally not employable. They don’t have a marketable skill. They’ve expended all of their talents just trying to get enough money to get high. So we think that along with taking care of their drug issue, we need to take care of their vocational issue. We need to have a skill that we can teach them, that they can become certified in, sort of a floating trade school if you will, where you can learn to be an electrician, a marine electrician, a housing electrician, learn air conditioning, go to beauty school, become a personal trainer, develop… We’re going to have a culinary arts program, because everybody’s going to get fed on board, and it will be probably a 200-bed facility, so there’s going to be 300 meals that’ll be cooked every day.
How long will people spend on this recovery barge?
As long as they need to be.
It won’t be a, “45 days and you’re out of here,” and there’ll be telemedicine. If somebody calls at 3:00 in the morning, and says, “I’m getting ready to use. I need some help,” somebody’ll be on the other end of that phone, pick it up, and to go get them if need be, and bring them back and save that person’s life.
You are determined to save others, even though you couldn’t save Josh.
That’s such a devastating feeling, to know that you couldn’t save your son, and one that will haunt me until the day I die. That’s my cross to bear.
If it’s any consolation, it sounds like you did your best, which is all any human being can do, any father can do, is his best. You tried, for a very long time.
Elizabeth, it’s a hard thing to come to the realization that your best wasn’t good enough, and because your best wasn’t good enough, somebody died. Somebody that you loved died.
When do you expect to have this floating rehab on the water open and operating?
Realistically, Elizabeth, I think it’s going to be the end of 2023, by the time we get the funding secured, and construction plans. We’ve done most of the paperwork that needs to be done, permitting, and that sort of thing, so the rest of it is just financing and getting our feet off the ground.
And especially because you’re sensitive to the rehabs out there that are basically revolving doors, you’re dedicated to making it a quality treatment center that’s using all science-based therapy?
Absolutely, and we’ll also be using – there’ll be a lot of scholarships available, so while it’ll generate, from the insurance companies, a lot of money, and the money that’s generated will be going back into providing scholarships for people that can’t afford it.
On the show, you have actually bonded with other people, guests, who were on one of your yachts. I’m thinking about David and Jackie Siegel, who also lost a daughter to addiction. You’ve even bonded with another star from one of the other shows, who himself was struggling with addiction. Tell me about that part.
Yeah, David and Jackie. Their daughter, Victoria, passed away at 18 of a meth overdose, crystal meth.
They had been told not to say anything to you about your loss – Josh’s death – and yet they did. Are you glad they did?
Yeah. I am. I was a little surprised, because I didn’t see it coming. I was a little blindsided, but no, I didn’t really mind. They’ve been in my shoes, so they get it.
And what about Carl?
He’s quite a kid. He’s a good kid, and he was having some issues. His brother passed away from a drug overdose, and he wasn’t dealing with it very well, and he needed some help. So I reached out to him, and we chat probably once a month or so, and he’s over a year sober now. Doing well, and I just keep pulling for him every day.
You can recover. I mean, it is possible. People do.
Yeah. They really do. Every day he gets up, he wants to have a drink. He wants to use. But you get through that day first, worry about tomorrow when it gets here. And yesterday’s something you can’t do anything about.
Do you ever, given what you’ve gone through with Josh, and watching him, do you ever worry about some of the- We talked at the beginning of the show about on Below Deck, this work-hard, play-hard sort of culture. Do you ever worry that some of the cast members might be dancing close to the line of unhealthily using substances?
I’ve talked with them about it. I bring it up every year.
Yeah. I tell them, “You know, you’re going to go out. Drugs are available, and you have no idea what’s in that.”
So don’t make that mistake of thinking that you can try it just once and get away with it, because that could be the last mistake you’ll ever make.
It’s a whole new world right now, with fentanyl out there. It really is.
Well, it’s so cheap.
And it’s synthetic. They manufacture it. It doesn’t grow in the ground, so they just make as much of it as they’d like.
Your work right now, to speak out about addiction, testifying before Congress about the need for us to do more as a country, even establishing your own rehab on the water, which will be up and running, you hope, at the end of next year. You’ve definitely taken a tragedy and tried to help people in the aftermath. Captain Lee, I just thank you so much for being here with us, and sharing your story, and telling us about Josh. I hope you help a lot of people today.
I hope so too.
Thank you, Elizabeth. It’s been an honor.