I grew up with my mom and stepdad in Huntington Beach, CA—my dad was out of the picture. Things were pretty good until I was about seven, which was when my mom started to have a lot of trouble mentally. My stepdad was a heroin addict and would disappear for months at a time and wouldn’t support us financially. There was a pivotal moment where my mom just had a mental breakdown because he was going to leave again, and things got violent. I was in the living room and watched it happen but because of the drug issue nobody called the police. I should have been removed from my mother at that time but I wasn’t, so instead I spent the next several years living in fear and sleeping with knives under my pillow.
At 12 I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and that gave me an escape from what I was going through. It worked for a couple of years and I was still functioning and going to school. Then I started on heavier drugs like crystal meth and heroin, and I got into that mentality of “I’ll try anything.” Things started falling apart when I was 14; I was getting into trouble with the law, I was in and out of juvenile hall and treatment centers. I dropped out of high school. I always remember this one moment, which is strange because there were far more dramatic ones, but it was one time when I came home high and my little sister was standing in the hallway, and she looked at me like she didn’t recognize me. She was only four but the look she had really pierced me; it was like she knew something was wrong—that I wasn’t myself.
When I was 15 I heard about the Phoenix House Academy in San Diego, and I entered treatment there on December 17, 1993. My initial plan was to stay for a couple of months and then get out. I started getting in trouble, but when the director threatened to kick me out, I realized I didn’t want to leave! I’d already seen other clients with backgrounds like mine who were now doing really well; they were in school, sober, getting ready for college—they had their lives back. I wanted that.
So two months into the program, I dove in. I started being a positive person. I got involved in morning meetings; I was so into it they started calling me Mr. Morning Meeting. The environment was amazing, and the clients and staff were like a second family to me. My grandmother passed away when I was four months into treatment, which was hard because I couldn’t attend her memorial, but the staff at Phoenix House helped me write a letter to say goodbye, and we had a little ceremony. Things like that were pivotal moments for me at Phoenix House and in my recovery.
I remember working out with a friend at Phoenix House one day and feeling a sense of something larger than myself—a higher power or whatever you want to call it. There I was, up in the mountains with people who cared about me, and I knew I was on a new, better path. I loved my new life and I didn’t want to go back to where I’d come from. So I continued to follow the program. My family environment was a huge obstacle for me, because it was really unstable at my mom’s, but Phoenix House helped me find an alternate living situation with the parents of another client. So when I completed treatment I lived with them and completed all my requirements – volunteer work and outpatient meetings and stuff – and I went back to school.
I actually worked for a while as a counselor, and then I took a History of Theater course where I got to act and I loved it. That was it: I joined a theater company in San Diego, completed their two-year training program, and went on to receive my Master’s at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. After graduation I started working professionally in theater in the Bay Area at the California Shakespeare Festival.
Meanwhile, my younger sister had sadly gone down a similar path of drug abuse and had dropped out of school at 16. So I moved to Long Beach, got an apartment, and my sister came and stayed with me for a while. I helped her get back in school—those were a few rough years, but today she’s sober and doing well. She actually just had a new baby; I’m an uncle for the fourth time! Plus, I’ve found a way to have a friendship with my mom. I’ve accepted that we were never really “mother and son” in the normal sense; she’s sick in her own way and has issues that she took out on me but I’ve been able to forgive her and to be OK with seeing her. Growing up I would blame my mom for a lot of what happened to me and my sisters, but now that we’re all adults and doing well it’s easier to forgive her. She was hardly capable of taking care of herself, let alone us—but now we can take care of ourselves.
In 2006 I decided to move to Los Angeles and started auditioning and booking things; I booked my first role on a TV show called Numbers, and then on Criminal Minds and 24…I usually play cops and bad guys. I recently had a small part on a TNT mini-series called Mob City, and next year I will be guest starring on Rizzoli & Isles. I did a movie called Blackbird with Danny Glover that comes out next year, and I also wrote a movie that went through the festivals. Possibly my most famous endeavor was a video that went viral on YouTube, called “Homeless Man Under Pressure.” My next project is a script I wrote called The Elevator; it’s about what I went through at Phoenix House–how Phoenix House elevated me out of my old life. I’m working to produce that and get it made into a feature film.
I’ve stayed involved with the program at Phoenix House, and that involvement over time has made such an impact. I went up recently to speak to the kids, and it was amazing to be there, 20 years sober. So many things have changed, but at its core that program is still doing the same thing: it’s helping kids change their lives. I look at those kids and I see myself.
A lot of people have asked me over the years, “You were so young when you were addicted, can’t you just drink now?” It’s like they think I’m fine now, I’m recovered, I’m normal, it’s over. But that sense of something bigger that I felt back at Phoenix House, that new and better path–I’ve never let go of that. Every day is a new gift and I’m not going to mess that up with drugs or alcohol. Every day I feel a greater sense that this journey is the right one, and I’m just enjoying the ride.
If you or a loved one needs help for a substance abuse issue, Phoenix House is here for you. Email us or call today at 1 888 671 9392.