Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (20 page)

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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I didn't know then why the sex ended. I do now: the creeping, nagging, endless fear that if we got any closer, she would see the real me, and leave me. You see, I didn't very much like the real me at the time. Also, our age difference had become a problem. She always wanted to go out and do things, and I craved more of a settled life.

But there were other issues, too. Her single-mindedness about her career careened into my approach to life at the time, which was to do next to nothing. I was basically retired—I genuinely didn't think I'd ever work again. I was insanely rich, so I just played video games and hung out with myself.

But now, what was I going to do?

Embrace effort.

I created a TV show called
Mr. Sunshine.
I subscribe to the theory that life is about the journey, not the destination, and what I had not done yet was write, so this was my opening effort. Writing a network show about what you actually want to write about is almost impossible. There are so many cooks in the kitchen—executives and other writers who all insist on having a say—that the reality of your actual vision making it to the screen is something reserved only for people like Sorkin.

Mr. Sunshine
is centered around my character, a guy called Ben Donovan, who runs a sports arena in San Diego; Allison Janney plays my boss. One of Ben's key foibles is his inability to be available to women.… And I even managed to put in an inside joke after the credits: my production company was called “Anhedonia Productions,” and the ad card we crafted featured a cartoon of me sighing with boredom on a roller coaster. But despite putting my entire self into it, the show was a big success for about two weeks before everyone in the world decided they didn't want to watch it.

But it had been a very valuable experience, because I'd learned how to make a TV show from scratch. It's one of those things that maybe looks easy but is actually incredibly difficult—sort of like math, or having a real conversation with another human being. I had fun, but it was a marathon endeavor, and I'm a sprinter. And it quickly turned a sober, video game–playing rich man into an incredibly busy man, which was not a great idea. In fact, the show quickly became the priority over my sobriety, and as a result I relapsed, yet again.

I would
Go On
to make another show (no, no, that's what it was
called, Go On
) about a sports talk radio host trying to get over the death of his wife. NBC was pushing and pushing that one—they even aired it during the Olympics, and sixteen million people watched the premiere. But a comedy about grief therapy? The finale, in April 2013, pulled in a scant two and a half million. Yet again, a show I was leading opened huge and got canceled. With nothing to do, and no one to love, I relapsed one more time. I caught this one quickly, though, and checked into a rehab in Utah.

It was there that I met a counselor named Burton, a Yoda-like figure who told me that I liked the drama and the chaos of my addiction problem. “What are you talking about?” I said. “It's ruined my life. It's robbed me of every good thing I have ever had.”

I was really pissed off.

But what if he was right?

INTERLUDE

Pockets

I was sitting in my room at the New York treatment center, and I was jonesing for opiates. The detox hadn't worked, and my body was screaming for drugs. I told the doctor, and I told the counselor, but I really didn't need to tell them anything—I was stirring and shaking, clearly withdrawing.

They did nothing. I was lost. I was sick. It was time to take matters into my own hands.

I picked up the phone and made some arrangements.

The rule was, if you left the premises, you had to do a pee test immediately upon returning. So I walked outside, met the vehicle, handed over some money, retrieved some pills, and they were off. Back in the treatment center I headed directly to the bathroom, did the pee test, then swallowed three pills.

Genius, right?

Not so fast.

Just as the pills kicked in, and my body was beginning to feel like warm honey again, it was almost as if the moment I stopped shaking, there was a knock on my door.

Oh fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

The counselor and one of the nurses walked in.

“Somebody called to say there had been a drug deal outside the facility,” the counselor announced. “I need to check your coat.”

Fuck!

“Really?” I said, wide-eyed with fake wonder. “Well, you won't find any pills on me. I'm good,” I said, already knowing they'd find pills on me, and I wasn't good, not even close.

Sure enough, there were pills in my pocket (I put them there). They took the pills away and told me that they'd deal with it in the morning. This meant I was still high for about four more hours, but there would be hell to pay the next day.

At 10:00
A.M.
the following morning, all the powers that be in this awful place had gathered in a circle. Their message was simple: you're out.

“You're kicking me out?” I said. “I can't believe my fucking ears. This is a drug rehab, right? Why are you all so fucking surprised that someone did drugs here? I told two of you that I was sick and you did nothing—what the fuck was I supposed to do? And please, for the love of God, wipe those shocked looks off your faces. I'm a drug addict, I did some drugs, that's what we do!”

A few phone calls were made, and I was ushered off to some unknown rehab in Pennsylvania.

But there I was shuffled to another state like a ball in a pinball machine. The one upside? This place allowed smoking. Moments after arriving, I had my first cigarette in nine months, which felt awfully good.

Little problem though: I was addicted to six milligrams of Ativan at the time, and this new place didn't give out Ativan, something that maybe the New York place could have checked on but didn't. My own experiences and years of conversations with other addicts has led me to
believe that most of these places are pieces of shit anyway. They're hell-bent on taking advantage of sick needy people and cashing paychecks. The whole system is corrupt and completely fucked-up.

Take it from me. I'm an expert. I've poured millions of dollars into this “system.”

Did the money help me, or hurt me? There's no way I could run out of money doing drugs or alcohol. Does that make it harder?

I'm glad we'll never know.

8
Odyssey

After
Friends,
after the movies, after that six-year relationship, fall and rise and rise and fall—after everything—for the next six years I found myself bound upon an odyssey. Contrary to how it might appear, I was not a man with a lot of money with nothing much to do; in fact, I had more to do than ever. No, I was a man falling down a mountainside, lost in a raging river, hoping to find refuge on any safe and dry rock.

Between
Mr. Sunshine
and
Go On
I'd headed to Cirque Lodge, in Sun Valley, Utah—rehab number three, if you're scoring at home. The Lodge sits at the base of Mount Timpanogos, in the Utah Rockies. I am not a big nature guy—in terms of peaceful locations, I prefer the ocean, or at least a view of the ocean—but this place was stunning. The air was thin and true, razor-sharp, clarifying. There were turkeys all around, gobbling fit to bust (flying once in a while, too—who knew they flew?), and golden eagles, and some days, a moose would wander by, heavy and slow (no, really, there
were
moose there; I wasn't hallucinating).

Beyond its beauty, Cirque Lodge also boasted a crack staff—they knew what they were doing. My counselor Burton (who, if his face was green, I would have sworn was Yoda) wound up being deeply helpful to
me—with both the real problems I brought with me, and the invented ones I carried with me at all times. (He happens to be one of the men I've ever said “I love you” to.) I arrived very scared (a prerequisite for entering rehab, but deeply uncomfortable nonetheless), and Burton's soothing voice made me feel a tiny bit better almost instantly.

“Discover, uncover, and discard” was one of the major mantras at Cirque, and I was excited to think I could at least do that last one—it was time to get rid of all this shit, once and for all. At this point I was such an expert on the 12 steps (and everything else they tend to focus on in rehab) … so much so that while at Cirque I spent a lot of my time helping out the newbies and trying to have a little fun. I had a Ping-Pong table brought in and even invented a game revolving around a red ball that we threw back and forth, all of which kept my fellow inmates enthused for hours on end and gave me a boost of purpose. I wanted to help so much; I was good at it.

I was under the impression that during this stay I was going to have to do deep trauma work, reaching back into my childhood, and pulling up all that old pain and loneliness, thereby beginning the very painful process of letting these things go. The idea was that if I got over these traumatic events, I would no longer feel the need to cover them up with drugs and alcohol.

Burton, however, saw things differently. He accused me of liking the drama of my addiction and asked how I could have so much fun while at Cirque Lodge yet be so troubled by almost everything that took place out there in the real world.

This question was instantly offensive to me.
I like this?
How could Burton look at my decades of addiction and terror, my lack of control, my obvious inner torture, and say I
liked
it?

During Family and Friends Week it was normal for participants to invite people to come and visit, but I resisted it hard. My father had visited me at Hazelden, my mother at Promises Malibu, and my
then-girlfriend had spent countless hours witnessing me rant while detoxing with a myriad of home nurses and sober companions. I didn't want to put them through this yet again. It was too painful, too hard, too unfair. I wanted them to catch a break; it was the least I could do. I had gotten myself into this mess, I'd get myself out.

But one day around the time of Friends and Family Week, I found myself sitting outside, alone, hoping a moose would show or a turkey do its flappy thing up into the trees. The day was freezing cold, subzero, but I still needed to smoke, so there was nothing to do but bundle up and deal.… As I sat there puffing on a Marlboro, a light snow began to fall, bringing on an intense hush, as though the universe was patiently listening to my head and heart.

I wonder what the universe heard.

I began to think about why I hadn't wanted any visitors during this stay, and something profound hit me.… Why am I excusing my family and loved ones from having to go through this hell, and not
myself?

With that thought, I realized that Burton's advice was right—I
did
like the chaos. It was time to give myself a break. Drugs hadn't given me what I needed in a long time, yet I kept going back to them and risking my life in order to … what?
Escape?
Escape from
what
? The worst thing I had to run away from was my alcoholism and addiction, so using drink and drugs to do so … well, you can see the logical impossibility. None of it made sense, not even in the slightest. I was smart enough to see that; doing something about it, though … that was another level of math that I hadn't yet discovered. Change is still scary, even when your life is on the line.

But at least I was finally asking good questions, even if the answers weren't entirely clear. I knew deep down that life is about the simple joys of throwing a red ball back and forth, of watching a moose lope across a clearing. I needed to let myself off the hook for all the things doing the damage, like still being angry with my parents, being unaccompanied
all those years ago, of not being enough, of being terrified of commitment because I was terrified of the end of commitment.

I needed to remember that my dad left because he was afraid, and my mom was a kid who was just doing her best. It wasn't her fault that she'd had to commit so much time to the fucking Canadian prime minister—it was never going to be a nine-to-five job, even with a kid at home. But I couldn't see that back then, and here we are.…

I needed to move on, and up, and realize that there was a whole big world out there and it was not out to get me. In fact, it had no opinion about me. It just
was,
like the animals and the shiv-sharp air; the universe was neutral, and beautiful, and continued with or without me.

In fact, I was alive in a world where, despite its neutrality, I had managed to create for myself an important, meaningful place. I needed to realize that when I died, I wanted my
Friends
credit to be way down on the list of things I had accomplished. I needed to remind myself to be nice to people—to have them bumping into me be a happy experience, not one that necessarily had to fill me with dread, as though that was all that mattered. I needed to be kind, to love well, to listen better, to give unconditionally. It was time to stop being such a scared asshole and realize that as situations came up, I would be able to handle them. Because I was strong.

Eventually the snow slowed, and out of the coming gloom a moose silently bulked into the gardens. It was a female, that long face serene, as though it had seen everything at least once and wasn't fazed by anything.
There was a lesson in that,
I thought. Behind her, a couple of calves kept pace, filled with that energy only kids possess. They all looked at me, sitting there in the twilight, and then they turned and wandered away.

Perhaps this was the lesson the universe was sending. I didn't matter, not in any great cosmic sense. I was just one more human being spinning in infinite circles.

To learn that was enough. I stubbed out the Marlboro and headed back in to lead yet another game of Red Ball.

I came out of Cirque Lodge thin and happy and ready to take on the world, and ready to be with my girlfriend forever. But my then-girlfriend didn't like this new Matty very much—I got the sense that she didn't appreciate it that I needed her less than before. Perhaps my problems had created a sense of security for her.
This guy will never leave me, not while he is so wrapped up in his own problems.
She didn't like that I was better. And that unfortunate truth was our final downfall. After trying hard to make the various pieces fit, we admitted defeat and broke up. It was very sad all around. She was my favorite person on the face of the planet, but it was not meant to be. It was the right thing, but that didn't mean it wasn't sad.

Now what, yet again?

I filled the hole initially with activism, but in doing so I flew too close to the sun and managed to lose my last semblance of innocence.

Back in 2001 I'd spent time at a rehab called Promises, in Malibu (right after I'd first picked up AA's Big Book in Marina del Rey). There, I'd met a guy called Earl H. He had been hosting a class at Promises, and I had liked him immediately. He was funny and incredibly knowledgeable about AA. He had several other celebrity clients, too, who were doing well, so I thought he'd be my guy and I asked him to sponsor me. (He said he hadn't had a drink since 1980.) Over coffee I admitted that one of the concerns I had was that one day he'd pass me a script to read. He said, “Well, there
is
a script, but I wouldn't do that to you.…”

So began our relationship. I worked the steps with him—in fact, I would chase him down to do them. I was so desperate to get with the program and stay sober that I would call him daily and ask to work.
He claimed nobody had ever chased him harder, and over the course of the following ten years, he came to wear two hats—he was my sponsor, but he was also my best friend. I looked up to him and listened to him. We had the same sense of humor and sort of even
sounded
the same. I ignored the fact that he was sort of famous in the rehab world, a world in which everything should be anonymous.

But my biggest mistake was that I had sort of made him my higher power. If I had a relationship issue, if I had an issue with anything, I would call him, and he would be very smart about it. It got to the point where if he'd said “I'm sorry, Matthew, but you have to move to Alaska and stand on your head,” I would have immediately booked a ticket to Anchorage. If he said, “You can eat nothing but green M&M's for the next three months,” you can rest assured I would have been shitting khaki.

Deep down, though, I knew full well that making your sponsor your best friend was a bad idea, but Earl was everything to me. He'd become my father, my mentor. I would go watch him speak (he was a hilarious and very effective speaker); we would go to movies together. I would have my relapses and he would help, finding me treatment centers. It's no exaggeration to say that he probably saved my life several times.

And then, our friendship turned into a business. Yes, I went into business with my sponsor. Fatal fucking mistake.

Earl had started a company that was going to establish sober living houses around Los Angeles that he would then run. I invested $500,000 in the company and turned my house in Malibu into a sober living place called Perry House. Along the way, at the behest of a great guy called West Huddleston, head of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, Earl and I headed several times to Washington, DC, to meet with lawmakers to push the efficacy of drug courts. Drug courts aim to decriminalize nonviolent addicts, offering them care and
treatment instead of jail time. In May 2013, Gil Kerlikowske, then Obama's “drug czar,” even managed to give me a prize, a “Champion of Recovery award” from the Obama administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy. I joked to
The Hollywood Reporter
at the time that “had I been arrested, I would be sitting in prison somewhere with a tattoo on my face.”

I also guest hosted
Piers Morgan Live
that same month, talking to Lisa Kudrow and Lauren Graham, but also focusing on issues of addiction and recovery. I was trying to find out what I wanted to do moving forward, and I felt comfortable doing the show. I began by saying I was not Piers Morgan, and the way you could tell that for sure was that “I don't have a British accent, and I don't have a first name that sounds very pointy,” which caused Lisa to giggle out loud. I thought,
Maybe this is my future?
I even got to joke that my forthcoming autobiography would be called
Still a Boy.

Oops.

Either way, I was now a talk show host, and an award-winning addict. How the fuck did
that
happen?

Earl had originally been slated to appear on
Piers Morgan
with me but had bailed at the last minute. Still, we later headed to Europe to push the power of drug courts there, and I got to debate the issue on a late-night BBC news show called
Newsnight.
There was the moderator, a cranky guy called Jeremy Paxman who was famous for being rude to guests; Baroness Meacher, who was the then-chair of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform and deeply on my side; and then a complete tool called Peter Hitchens.

I can't imagine what it's like to have a sibling whom everyone adores when you're the idiot brother everyone loathes, but I think Peter could well be able to weigh in on what that feels like. The loss of Peter's wonderful brother, the great Christopher Hitchens, still reverberates—an unmatched raconteur, writer, arguer, and bon vivant, and the world
mourns Christopher still, more than a decade after his brutal death from cancer. Sadly, his younger brother, Peter, is still pontificating on things he has no idea about, mixing right-wing ideology with a kind of paternalism and moral tutting.

Hitchens showed up on
Newsnight
to expound his bizarre views that drug taking is just a case of weak morals (“There's an immense fashion at the moment,” he sneered, “for dismissing the ability of people to take
control
over their own lives, and to make
excuses
for them,” sounding like some insane great-aunt who'd had one too many glasses of sherry). Even more bizarrely, he later “argued” that addiction isn't even a real thing. I like to think that both the baroness and I ran rings around him—but frankly, that wasn't hard. Apart from pointing out that I thought he was going to show up wearing big-boy pants to the interview, but he clearly hadn't, I also managed to point out repeatedly that the American Medical Association had diagnosed addiction as a disease in 1976 and that he was about the only person on the planet who didn't agree with that assessment. He didn't like that much, and eventually the interview ended with Paxman and Baroness Meacher simply laughing out loud at how stupid and cruel Hitchens sounded:

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