Ep 12: Treating Unhealed Trauma And Why It’s Vital For Recovery With Brandon Lee
Addiction is awidespread disease that affects millions.
Addiction is awidespread disease that affects millions. It preys on victims of trauma andcircumstance and does not care for class, race, age, or celebrity. BrandonLee is the main anchor for CBS in Phoenix and isalso the Ambassador for Sabino Recovery,a trauma and addiction treatment center. He sits down with host Scott Harkeyand goes into detail about his own unhealed traumas that led to his addictions.He emphasizes the value of being honest with yourself, removing the shame andstigma around drug addiction, and seeking treatment. He also talks about theimportance of speaking up, especially as a public figure, and shares his viewson different healing modalities that may help anyone listening. Get to know hisstory and be inspired by his purpose on this episode of The Playing With FirePodcast.
I’m freaking pumped. Thanks for coming. We got Brandon Lee. A bunch of people when I started this show were like, “Scott, you got to get Brandon on.” I emailed Kevin and he's like, “You’ve got to get Brandon on.” Kevin runs one of the local stations here that Brandon's on. You've had a crazy background, a dope book and doing some crazy shit. Give our readers a background. There are a million things you're doing and you have an inspiring story.
First off, I will start off by saying I feel like I have lived so many lives. I grew up in Orange County, California and Laguna Beach, California. I was a surfer and soccer player. From the outside looking in, if you grew up in Orange County, California, the people think you have the most perfect life, especially in Laguna Beach. At high school, people would look out the windows, watch the waves and not listen to the teachers. It was amazing. Growing up in Southern California is awesome. I knew I wanted to get in the news. Back in junior high school, I was watching the news with my family. I remember watching the news as a seventh-grader and being like, “I want to do that.” My parents are like, “What?” I was like, “Be that reporter.” Sure enough, that's eventually what happened. I was able to play soccer in Europe for a little while in Gothenburg, Sweden.
You look more like a soccer player than a news anchor. You’ve got the tats. It’s like, “The news anchor is awesome.”
It does throw people off all the time. When I'm on an airplane, people are like, “Are you Adam Levine?” Even to this day, there is still a stigma attached to tattoos. News anchors typically aren't fully sleeved or have body wraps. I'm covered from the waist up. The crazy thing is a lot of stuff with tattoos goes back to my drug addiction. I got involved in drugs at age fifteen, which is early.
What were you doing?
Cocaine was the first drug I did. I had access with money. Growing up in Orange County, our parents had money.
There's a lot of cocaine in Orange County.
It’s because the kids and parents have money. When your parents have money, it means the kids are getting a larger allowance. A lot of times, they are spending that on drugs or alcohol. My parents were working all the time. They thought what was most important was providing a good life and a nice home, so they were working all the time. The problem is they weren't around ever. That allowed us to go off the rails at such a young age. People at age fifteen with so many resources is such a privilege, “How did you end up a drug addict at age fifteen?”
Finally, what led me down that dark path was I was repeatedly molested as a child for years. It started when I was about six and probably ended when I was about ten years old. It was a longtime. It was my piano teacher and one of my soccer coaches. Looking back, it's easy for me to understand that unhealed trauma. We can't rationalize at age fifteen but understanding that the moment I did that cocaine took me out of the reality of the pain. It made me feel numb and good, so I kept chasing that feel-good.
Was it instant? When you did the cocaine, it was like, “Damn.”
It was instant. Here's the thing, we were taught as kids like, “Work hard, play hard.” I went to NYU. I was in film school and I was working on the Today Show. I always felt like, “As long as I'm getting good grades, have a great job, have a roof over my head and have a car then I'm not doing anything wrong.” The thing with drug addiction is that we surround ourselves with people who are doing the same drugs that we are. We're being mirrored those same behaviors so we don't think that we're doing anything wrong. When we are in that setting, we're like, “Joe is doing meth with me and so and so is doing GHB. This is normal.”
With many years in recovery under my belt, I take a bird's eye view and I look down, that circle is small and it's not normal. You are surrounding yourself with normal drug-addicted behavior thinking and convincing yourself that what you're doing is normal, which was not. I was a reporter at KTLA 5 in Los Angeles. It's a huge station. It’s the number two market. The news would get over at 10:30 PM and I would do drugs in the parking lot of KTLA. The drug of choice for me at that time was GHB.
It's the liquid date-rape drug. I was giving myself the date-rape drug because it takes you to the brink of a blackout. If you do too much, you do blackout. Sex addiction was also part of it.
Is it all or is there a ton of stuff?
For me, it was so multipronged. I had a sex and drug addiction. The sex and the drugs became intertwined. Anytime I want to have sex, drugs were involved because that's the only way I knew how todo both of them. I used to sneak away from my regular friends. We'd go to the bars in LA until 1:30 AM until the last call. I would tell my friends, “I'm going home.” They all thought I was going home. My closest friends had no idea about the double life that I lived.
I would go down to Hollywood and god own to the slums of LA. This is a nice descriptive word for what they were. I would hang out at brothels, and that's putting it nicely. I used to get high. I'll never forget that there was a guy that offered me a meth pipe and I said yes. My inhibitions were already lowered because I was on GHB. I'd stay away from that drug knowing that with my personality, it probably wasn't the best thing. The moment I hit it, I was done. I was looking at myself in the mirror taking a hit off that meth pipe and I saw the devil enter my body. My eyes were evil. The scary part is that got me excited.
Why did you get excited?
It was all the untreated trauma from my life. It was the physical and mental abuse.
The drug brought it out and it felt good to come out?
I remember looking at myself in the mirror being like, “This is going to take you down.” I looked at myself and said, “Let's go.”
Let's dance with the devil.
For a period of six months, we'd go out to Palm Springs and even darker. I almost left this part out of my books. I thought it would be too much and people would stick on this. At the depths of that meth addiction, I would go out to Palm Springs and I was doing two things. I was trying to get HIV. I was what you call a bug chaser. I was hanging out with people who were Satan worshippers, full-on 666. It was only when I was on meth that I had those dark thoughts.
It comes out.
It was unlocking the devil inside of me and it was coming out. When I was in Downtown LA, I overdosed at brothels, and woke up days later in a coma at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital in Los Angeles. The team of doctors got me out of the coma and brought me back to life. When I overdosed, I cracked my head open so there was a lot of bleeding in my brain. The chief neurosurgeon comes down to me as I'm coming out of thecoma. He looks at me and he goes, “Brandon, we're going to have to do brain surgery on you tonight now that you're out of the coma. We had to wait until you were awake and then we’ve got to go put you back under to do brain surgery.”
I looked at the chief neurosurgeon and I said, “Doctor, can you hear me?” He has this puzzled look on his face and he's like, “Yes.” I was like, “If you can hear me, that means we are all good. Go get my clothes because I'm not having brain surgery. I'm leaving.” He goes, “Brandon, you can't.” I said, “I can. I'm going to walk out of this hospital. Go give me my clothes.” The nurse standing next to the doctor goes, “Brandon, you didn't come in with any clothes.”
I had so many monitors hooked up tome. I ripped them all off. I had the hospital robe on that shows your ass off the back. I tied it up. I had those socks with the rubber things on them and I walked straight out of the hospital against medical advice. I still have that little piece of paper that I signed that day. I walked down to Hollywood Boulevard and found my truck. The last thing I ever remember was getting in my truck, opening up the glove compartment and getting out the meth pipe and getting high. I woke up in that same ER a week later with the same team of doctors around me. They looked at me and said, “Brandon, you need help.” They put me in this isolation room. I was breaking down crying, thinking I was alone.
This little nurse who’s 5-foot nothing comes over to my hospital bed. She holds my hand and she goes, “Brandon, do you believe in God?” I said, “No, I don't.” She goes, “That’s okay because God still believes in you.” She goes, “Make me this promise, Brandon. I saved your life twice in the last two weeks. I have $10 in my purse and I'm going to give you this $10. When they eventually release you, I want you to go to my church. They have an AA meeting every Thursday night,” and it happened to be a Thursday. I made her that promise. I went to the AA meeting on that Thursday night. It was this church off Melrose and Mansfield. I've been sober ever since that day.
How long ago was that?
That was back on February 22nd, 2010.I don't even tell people my sobriety date. I don't even celebrate birthdays anymore. I don't even collect chips anymore. As a matter of fact, I took all my chips and I took them back to the AA meeting and cashed them all in. To me, the quality of time is more important than the quantity of time. The majority of people in recovery do relapse. I want to take away that shame of having them come back, feeling like they have to start over at day one.
If you have five years and you relapsed, you don't lose those five years of lived experience. You dust yourself off and you continue to race. The best analogy that I give for those people who have relapsed especially during a pandemic, there's been a ton of relapses. My message to them is this. I ran the New York City Marathon back in 2017. I was trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, so I was racing. My body cramped up at mile marker number seventeen. I collapsed on the side of the road.
This race official comes up to me and I was breaking down crying because I was not going to qualify. At that point, I was running my butt off. I was making qualifying time. She looked at me and was like, “Brandon, why are you so upset?” I'm like, “I'm trying to qualify.” She goes, “Are you trying to win the race? They’re already finished about an hour ago. You're cramping up. I'm going to get you electrolytes. I'm going to massage your leg. You're going to get back up and you're going to walk to the finish line. You're going to finish this race.”
That race official didn’t tell me, “Brandon, you’ve got to go back to Staten Island and start back at mile marker number one and rerun this race.” You don't lose all the mileage if you have runup to that point. You dust yourself off and you continue to race. Let's get off this whole thing of when we go to an AA meeting, what are the two things that happen? “What’s your name?” What's the second question? “How much time do you got?” without fail.
Subconsciously, what we're doing is we're sizing somebody up to take an authoritative stance. If I have twelve years and, Scott, you say you've got five, all of a sudden, I've got authority over you by the quantity of time. When I speak around the country because I speak at Mental Health Summits, every single time without fail I would have a guy with 30-plus years of recovery come up to me and go, “I want you to be my sponsor.”
At that time, I probably had 7 or 8 or9 years of recovery. I’m like, “That doesn't make sense. I’ve got seven years of recovery and you’ve got 30 plus years.” He goes, “I know but I want what you have.” I said, “You want what I have, so what's your life like at 30-plusyears?” “It's awful and chaotic.” I'm like, “That's what I have to look forward to by collecting chips?” What I learned was somebody with two years can have their life together. What I challenge people to say is this, “What's your name?” “Scott.” “Tell me what your life is like and let me know if that's the kind of life I want.” Whenever I have a chance to speak, I always tell people during a pandemic, during isolation and there's been a ton of relapse, “Who cares?”
I want to go back to that. First off, I admire your authenticity and your openness because it is so hard but you take it to another level, which I love. The one thing that resonated with me was you talk about this double life. I experienced that in a fall that I had. There are some people out there that might not be doing heroin but there's a double life going on. For me, what was hard was the lie. Even a little lie freaks me out. That feeling of a double life, can you explain that feeling or maybe you've seen that insight with other people? I couldn't relate to that. There are a lot of people that even little ways have this sneaky, dark energy of a double life.
People lie because of shame. They're shameful about something so they're lying about it. It's the reason. Shame and unhealed trauma are what brings addiction on. That's the reason why I came so publicly open about me being sexually abused as a child. It was during the Christine Blasey Ford hearing when Justice Kavanaugh was going through Senate confirmation hearings and she had come forward as a professor saying, “He raped me as a teenager. ”People are like, “That happened 30 years ago. Why did she wait 30 years? She must be lying.”
This brings it back to the shame part. I was anchoring the news. I sat there and I had a couple of co-workers on-air talents say the same thing on Facebook, “Why should we believe her if she waited 30 years?” I individually went to those people in my newsroom and I said, “I'm going to go public.” That was at age 37 for me. I had never told anybody that I had been repeatedly molested as a child. Why? Because I carry that burden of shame. I thought people would always look at me as somebody disgusting, used up, washed up and used goods. That's how I felt. Out of shame, I never told anybody.
Had I told somebody early on in life, perhaps I could have gone to therapy. Perhaps I could have treated that childhood trauma that would not have led me down such a dark path. What people need to understand, and is my belief, that addiction is born out of untreated trauma. What we can't do is compare traumas to one another. What may be traumatic to you, Scott, might not be traumatic to me, and what may have been traumatic tome may not be traumatic to you. I never want anybody to say, “I was never molested repeatedly or physically abused, so I shouldn't have these problems and I'm not going to speak up about them.”
The feelings though are similar. What I've learned is you can relate to feelings and be with someone in a twelve-step group or group therapy and hone into the feeling, not the actual experience.
I see people living double lives all the time because they're trying to put out a projected image in what they want people to see. I know that well. I wanted people to see me as this awesome anchor and reporter. I don't want them to see me as a junkie out on the streets of LA. That's a projected image. People do that. Living a double life is nothing more than living a life of shame. If you're not shameful about it then why won't you just be open about it? Adding to that, I have not spoken publicly about what I'm about to share with you but I will now because I've healed from it. Mind you, I do five hours of therapy a week, two hours on Tuesday and three hours on Thursday.
What kind of therapist do you see?
Both of them are specialized trauma therapists. There's a difference. Two hours of talk therapy on Tuesdays and three hours with a shaman who is also a certified trauma therapist. Through breathing techniques, I'm able to drop into the trauma after twenty minutes of deep breath work with him. I'm going to tell you why I started that modality in January. Starting in April 2020, I was violently shaking at night. I'm not shivering like I'm cold. If there was a camera on me, it would look like somebody was performing an exorcism on me at night. I was not sleeping. That happened every single night up until January so it got so dark for me in January.
This is after you've gone through all this.
This is somebody who has a ton of experience in recovery. This is somebody who at the drop of a hat, five CEOs of major treatment centers here in Arizona would drop everything in their lives to come to find me and take me in. I have every resource available to me. In January, I came home from work every night. I sat on the edge of my bed and thought about taking my life because I could not see a way out. Every night, I sat there and said, “This is going to be the night.” Each time I did that, I'd start to get visions of my nephew, Brooklyn, in my head. When I did, that kept me alive that night.
I have a scheduled therapy appointment every Tuesday. It does not move from my calendar. It’s there every Tuesday. I hop on my Zoom call with my therapist on Tuesday and she looks at me and goes, “Brandon, something that came over me over the last three days and I have to come outright and ask you. Are you thinking about taking your life?” I said, “Yes I am.” She goes, “We're going to get you in with Toby, the shaman, beginning on Thursday.”
I started doing that deep breath work on Thursday and I dropped back. I woke up out of that somewhat hypnosis state with him. My entire shirt was ripped open. My downstairs neighbor, I opened up to a barrage of texts after three hours and she goes, “Are you okay?” She heard me screaming. Things came up from early childhood that I did not consciously remember as an adult. That is how deeply stored that trauma was in the lower amygdala of my brain. That is where the trauma is stored. Things like my parents having sex in front of me. I would have to watch. There’s a lot of other abuse but I didn't remember that consciously as an adult.
All that PTSD will always come to the surface at some point. It started in April 2020 for me. Now, I'm the happiest I have ever been in my life full-stop. I’m happier than I was years ago in recovery and it's all through healing that inner child, that childhood trauma. I share that with people and I'm sharing that with you because I'm going to start speaking more openly about it. People always say, “Pick up the phone and ask for help.” That strategy doesn't work. We as collective minds have to figure out a way to change our strategy to reach people who are suffering in silence with mental health. Mind you, I was shaking violently for a year. I have suicidal ideation to the point of wanting to take my life because I did not see a way out of the darkness.
I didn't pick up the phone and I didn't ask for help so how can I expect somebody else to? That whole thing, “Pick up the phone, call this number and ask for help.” The only way I believe that we can do that is for people like me to speak out and say, “Brandon thought about taking his life and had suicidal ideation.” If we make it so open and so talked about then it becomes easier for somebody to go, “Brandon, a high profile position in Arizona, is comfortable enough speaking about this then I shouldn't carry any burden of shame. Why do I have shame but Brandon is so open and talking about it?” It all comes down to shame which is the reason why shame and stigma kill.
Do you think that's part of your purpose?
I know it is. I can't say which network but I was going to go to a network station. I did an interview with azcentral when they found out I was leaving. He asked me, “What are you going to do?” I couldn't announce what I was going to do and what station. I couldn't say anything yet. I also knew that I said, “I’m going to write a book about mental health. I'm going to go publicly speak about mental illness, depression, anxiety and drug addiction.”
In that quote, I said to the reporter at azcentral, “You need to understand this. My passion is telling people stories. I love telling people's stories.” I love getting to sit down with somebody, get to know them, share their story and broadcast. That's my passion. It is not my purpose in life. News is not my purpose in life. I didn't survive umpteen overdoses so I can make money reading a teleprompter. That isn't why my higher power, my guardian angel, my spirit guide saved my life so that I can live a selfish happy life. My purpose in life is to speak out every time I'm asked, speak around the country and share my story so openly.
If by doing that closes the doors to some opportunities then I shouldn't be there. If I had taken that job, this book would have never come out. I wouldn't be speaking in Atlanta, Georgia at the largest Mental Health Summit in the South. I won't have a podcast. I probably get 50 Facebook messages a day from viewers. Did you know not one of them is about what I said on the news? They're not messaging me, talking to me and commenting about, “That house fire. That police chase.” It is always about, “Brandon, my son is on the streets of LA. He's a heroin addict. I just got off the phone with him and he's asking me to wire him more money. What do I do?”
That's an Arizona viewer not talking to me about the news. He’s talking to me about something that is more purposeful and important. We have to realize that addiction is touching every family in America. It's either your friend, cousin, aunt, uncle, mom, dad, brother, sister, son or daughter. Not enough people are talking about it. Families are like, “Keep it inside. Don't air out dirty laundry because we want our neighbors and our people at our church to think that we're the most upright, tight family.”
The fact of the matter is could you imagine if everybody dropped that and said, “My daughter's battling heroin.” “My son's addicted to pain pills.” “My dad's an alcoholic.” Suddenly, we connect. You and I didn't connect because we're at a bar. We connect with others through our battle wounds, battle scars and traumas. That's how we connect with other people. If everybody did that then we start to create a community of a woven web of support. I tell the reporters, looking at their social media, “Does anything bad happen in your life for real? Because you give off this idea of perfection. Viewers don't relate to that. Viewers' lives are not perfect.” It is probably why I'm able to have a good connection with viewers. Keep it fucking real.
That's what people want.
My goal, hope and purpose is to help that person suffering in silence to make it a safer space and an easier space for them to come forward. That's it. I know that's my purpose in life. Otherwise, I'd be dead.
With everything going on with COVID, we've done a lot of work with the Department of Services. We've seen a lot of research from kids. We've gone to communities, seen heroin addicts and talk to them about why they are heroin addicts. Mental health will be the biggest challenge in our world. What are we supposed to do? Are we on a spiritual awakening do you think? I see so many good things but I still see heads in the sand a little bit. I see this wave certainly coming. What are your thoughts?
I tell people all the time, the opposite of addiction is connection. You look at the pandemic and the forced isolation that it created. The connection was ripped away from all of us, which is why we had a record amount of overdoses and a record amount of overdose deaths. This pandemic is still not over in many parts of the world and in parts of our country. Arizona is a Wild West so whatever you do here, it's been that way from the beginning of this pandemic. My concern when I read that on the news when we first had those stay-at-home orders, Scott, we did stories and people were like, “I need to go get my haircut. I need to go to the gym. I need to go to that.” I'm like, “Shut up.” From a mental health aspect, I'm like, “I don't care about your haircut. I don't care that your gym is closed for a month.” What I knew immediately was, “Many people are going to relapse and die.”
If you take away that connection, addicts will spin in their heads and they'll use to numb, to not feel that isolation and not feel that pain. I do worry about the youth generation not being able to be in high school, not having those athletics and not having those high school sports. It's going to have a huge impact on their mental health. What I would love to see is part of the COVID relief deal, that money be used to put a trained psychologist and certified trauma therapist at every public school in America. There's no reason why we can't.
We are talking about $2 trillion or $3 trillion in COVID relief. Where was the mental health aspect? Where were the counselors on campus? There's no answer to that. I would never but if I wanted to run for politics, it would strictly be on a mental health campaign because it's nonpartisan. It doesn't care. Addiction doesn't care if you're a Republican or Democrat. You have to understand that therapy's expensive and not everyone has health insurance. I'm privileged so I have it but a majority of people are not. What are we doing for those people who need a counselor but their parents can't afford it? Their child's in 6th or 7th grade who've suffered trauma, who likely will become violent or become a drug addict, all because of unhealed childhood trauma that they never even had the opportunity to heal from.
I have been in counseling, similar to you but not anywhere near your story, for over six years. A ton of people know a little bit about my story, too and they are like, “Do you have a counselor you'd recommend?” They are so scared of picking the wrong counselor or the wrong therapist. They can’t even wrap their minds around where to start with that and that makes sense. “I went to rehab and I just dove in and I'm trying shit.” Some are good and some are bad. Try this and try that. A lot of other people, at least where I felt my bottom was, don't have that option or something. I'm wondering, maybe if they don't know where to start in that world.
I'll even be honest with you. I thought about it. “If I can't see Pat or Toby, do I have to start all over with another therapist?” It's exhausting because you mean to tell me that what you honestly would want to do is just, “Go read my book then after you read my book then let's start from there.” It can be exhausting to think, “I have to go back from day one so this person can understand my perspective on it.” It can be exhausting.
We're going to have a shortage of therapists and counselors. There's no way.
Not all therapists are created equal.
Did you do EMDR at all? What do you think about that?
Here's the thing. EMDR is a modality to get back to you into the lower amygdala where the trauma is stored. The reason is this. Talk therapy is all frontal lobe. This is where we rationalize as adults. For example, when I was fourteen years old living in Laguna Beach, there was no West Hollywood up in Los Angeles. That didn't exist when I was growing up in Orange County. The Gay Mecca of California was Laguna Beach. That's where I grew up. I used to walk down to the Boom Boom Room, an old gay bar and club, at age fourteen. I used to have sex with men in their 40s and 50s.
I was in therapy, I told my therapist that and she goes, “You were raped.” I said, “I was not.” I wanted that. I walked down to the bar. I enjoyed it. She said, “Brandon, how old were you?” “Fourteen.” “How old were they?” “In their 40s and 50s.” “Brandon you were raped.” The frontal lobe is always going to try to rationalize all of our behavior in talk therapy. In EMDR, all that's doing is distracting the frontal lobe in order for the therapist to get back. That's what they are. I could do bilateral stimulation. Give me ten minutes of doing this and it'll distract my frontal lobe and it will get me back there.
It's not in the limbic system?
We store it in the lower amygdala. It's part of it. It's all this storage area.
Your emotional deal is limbic and then it goes to the frontal cortex.
This is where it's stored because we go into survival mode. That's the way our animalistic bodies are made. It's animalistic to be in survival mode so when I'm repeatedly abused or sexually abused or something traumatic happens, I can't do anything about it as a child. I can't stand up for myself and I can't fight back. What's the best way to survive? Store it and forget about it, thinking it's deleted but it still lives.
I heard about a book, The Body Keeps the Score. If you hypnotize and go back to your body, it will remember the shit.
When you talk about bilateral stimulation, people do it on horses down at Sabino Recovery. It’s a great treatment center down at Sabino. They'll do horse therapy but then also do bilateral stimulation on the horse.
I went to see it here in Tucson and they took me out of this horsery. They had one horse that was putting air in his or her throat and they were giving themselves a high. I was like, “This is insane.” They would stand there all day and you see the horse getting high by pushing a bunch of oxygen in their brain.
People have heard of ayahuasca and using LSD because they did that back in the ‘70s. Trained therapists used MDMA, LSD and psychedelics. Why are they using psychedelics? To get past the frontal lobe in order to get back here. People pay to go on those ayahuasca journeys with a guide. All that's doing is getting these folks past here and back here. That's all that is.
This is why it can help addiction.
My shaman does it on the side, outside of practice can’t legally practice because of the Federal government. With me, with a drug past, is this something that I want to risk? Is it something that I want to dabble in but he told me, “I can get you there through oxygen.”
I've heard that too, breathing. How long were you breathing for?
Fifteen minutes and I dropped in. I don't meditate. I've never been a meditator.
You did the deep heavy breathing?
There are two training techniques. I do nose and mouth open. It's more of an advanced technique and it gets you down there real quick. It's two breaths in and one long breath out. I do it for fifteen minutes. He's guiding.
Does your body tingle? I tried this in Sedona one time. It was crazy.
Your body starts to tingle. If you're doing the breathing technique, a lot of times, that tingling is coming from the oxygen, not getting enough oxygen and blowing too much out. You can do it. I did it one time and my body did not tingle but I dropped in. I had the most intense session.
That's the first time that makes so much about the frontal lobe because I've done EMDR. I've tried ayahuasca which was a great experience for me but scary.
That's why Dr. Sue Sisley, a former University of Arizona professor and one of the nation's leading researchers on marijuana and PTSD, they are studying and doing micro-dosing with shrooms to treat people with PTSD. Get past here, go back here, and heal. There's a ton of modalities out there. If one modality does not work, move onto another one. All those modalities are doing is distracting to heal.
Does everybody have childhood trauma?
No. I would think that not everyone has it but a lot of people do. This is the issue when we start talking about trauma that people get lost in. A divorce can be traumatic for a child. Fifty percent of all marriages would end in divorce. The dad cheats on mom or mom cheats on dad. That can be traumatic for a child. These little things. I got called makeup boy and mascara boy as a child. I got called girly voice because it looks like I wear eyeliner but I don't. I have heavy eyelashes. It's a condition and I have three rows of eyelashes, which cast a shadow.
In school, people called you that?
Makeup boy, Mascara Boy, which is the title of my book, all growing up.
To get that shame out of there, that's why you titled the book the way you did?
One hundred percent because I was like, “What you used to bully me by has no impact on me anymore.” That’s a fuck you to them. I was bullied and that bullying impacted me. It was traumatic. Think how much childhood bullying is happening. Your kids are online. They could be bullied and you don't even know about it and they're being traumatized. There's a lot of traumatic events that happen out there. It's why I go back to my original point to never compare traumas. What could be traumatic to that person may not be traumatic to the other kid. Whatever that was, if it goes unhealed or not talked about, it'll always surface.
You hear about people, “I didn't have a drink until I was 40.” You can have adult trauma. For example, I lived in New York on 9/11. I was on the subway on my way to NBC News that morning and the subway stopped because I lived in lower Manhattan. I lived in one of the NYU apartments on Water Street and I did take the CTrain up to work to 30 Rock. I was on the train that morning. I got up and we had to escape out of the sewer gates. I saw and smelled things that no human should ever experience in their life.
Did I ever go to therapy? No. Brandon, as a traumatic event that I didn't heal from until 2016, all I did was get more heavily into booze and drugs. I never would have thought, “I lived through 9/11. Is that what set me sideways?” All that stuff comes. I used to be violently woken up sometimes by my mom at night. It's one of the reasons why I still have issues sleeping at night. I'm trying to heal from that so I can sleep through the night.
I don't even know if I'm doing the show at this point. I'm just listening. There are so many questions about it. It's interesting. I'm not even on the same level, “I went to rehab. Cool.” People are curious. You get people away from the pack and then there's this secret society of people who have had this experience, who are sharing, connecting and had this awakening that I feel from you and people are connecting with you but it's not mainstream yet.
I'll tell you how not mainstream it is. It's the reason why I walked away from AA.
I agree with you about AA too. Right away, we talked about that.
Here's the thing, AA is great. Don't come at me. I never went to treatment. I never went to rehab and I should have gone to treatment. I tell people all the time that there's a stigma around treatment. I knew I would have lost my job. If I had to say I'm going to rehab or I'm going to treatment, there's a stigma attached to that. “You’re that fucked up.” I didn’t. What did I do? I white-knuckled. I went to meetings every day. Did it keep me sober? Yes, it did. I white-knuckled for far too many years.
What’s white-knuckle, for people who don't know?
White knuckling is like you're scraping by. You’re like, “I’m not getting a drink or a drug now.” I look at my life and I’m like, “As long as my life is flatline, I don't need some up and down roller coaster.” Here's the thing. I tell people this all the time. There are 24 million addicts in America and two million go to AA. I'm going to an AA meeting and everybody's going up there and this whole anonymous thing. You are all preaching to each other and helping each other.
There are 22 million other addicts out there that need help who will never discover these rooms. What are we doing to help them? When I wrote my book, I was on MSNBC, CNN and all over. Every time, these people would ask me, “How'd you get sober?” “I went to AA.” I had so many old-timers come at me saying, “You're violating the eleventh tradition. You're not supposed to be in the media talking about AA and how it helped you.”
I didn't even know that. I forgot that was the thing.
I got hit. I got hated on by so many people that I said, “I respect and love AA enough for what it did for me that I will respect all the traditions. I am violating because I will absolutely not stop speaking out.” I'm not going to lie to somebody nor am I going to play cagey games saying I went to a twelve-step recovery program. I went to AA. That's the truth. It is my truth. People have different beliefs about why anonymity exists within AA. There are multiple beliefs and here's mine. Anonymity in and of itself is rooted in shame. Why else would I have to be anonymous?
The reason why there's anonymity is that the stigma around addiction is that strong. If I work as an accountant for a huge firm and I go to my boss and say, “I'm an alcoholic,” there's a fear that I'm going to lose my job. I've got to go to a meeting and I've got to lie about my life to my boss. It's rooted in shame. Here's what I tell everybody. The reason why there's a stigma that drug addicts are homeless and washed up people are not successful is because not enough successful people with drug addiction in their past who have recovery are speaking out.
I've also noticed that everyone wants to label people and they want to put you in boxes. I'm in marketing. We're trained to do that. I love what you talked about the childhood traumas because I agree that that's how to overcome addiction. For me, what my addiction looks like when I know I'm not aligned and I'm not on my straight narrow, is different than what that might look like for someone else. If I have a beer and someone's like, “I thought you went to rehab.” That's not my thing. I have my own guide for knowing where I'm at. Everyone wants to put you like, “You're an alcoholic.” You're the labels to all these things.”
There are absolutely those categories. I speak at treatment centers weekly and I tell them all the time, “Do not compare his program to your program.” Enough because there's not a one size fits all but we want that.
I was even scared when I talk to you on the phone. I knew your background and AA background. I didn't drink for 1.5 years but I'll have drinks now. I was scared about that. I don't know if it’s shame but something came up and I was like, “I don't want to say this.”
The majority of them will judge you for it. Here's the other thing, shocking, I’m a gay man. I used to go to gay AA meetings. In AA, if you're going to be a sponsor to somebody, they have to be of the same sex. If you're a straight man, you go to a straight man. As a straight man, you're not allowed to have a woman as your sponsor because there could be sexual tension there and a lot of not-so-good stuff. I was a gay man going to a gay meeting and all my sponsors were gay men. What I was observing so often was a lot of thirteen-stepping. A lot of older gay men coming to the newbie, “I’ll be your sponsor.”
What’s the thirteen-step?
Thirteen-stepping is when an old-timer goes after somebody who's brand new to the program and has sex with them. I chose a lesbian. She was a former Marine. She keeps me on my shit. There's no sexual tension coming between us. I told her, “I can't come back to these rooms.” She goes, “Why?” I told her, “Every time, guys are grabbing my ass. They're coming and giving me a kiss on the lips. They're touching me and appropriately.” I was being groped at meetings. That's when I was trying to go into straight meetings. It was such an uncomfortableness.
For me, I believe that you can graduate. I’m sure there are people who are like, “You're an addict for life.” It’s shameful. You're going to have to come to these meetings for the rest of your life and I believe in that. I am going to get so much hate on and I'm used to it. I tell people, “You can recover from this.” It's why I don't tell people I'm an addict. If I ever have to qualify, I am a recovered addict. I'm not an addict.
My therapist challenged me on that, “Stop telling people you're a drug addict because you are what you say you are.” If you repeat that over and over, you will become that. She goes, “Stop.” I challenged her because I saw the AA mentality. I'm like, “No I can't do that.” I want to write a book called The Graduate. I do believe with the right modalities and science has made leaps and bounds from the 1950s. You can heal from this, graduate from AA and live a normal life like you are.
I'm not going to judge you because you drink a beer. I don't care. Honestly, I could probably go on drinking. I just don't like the taste of beer. It doesn't matter. First off, let's create a safe space and stop judging people. You have the ability to heal. Here's the problem. I see a lot of sickness in AA and a lot of unhealed trauma. They are going to meetings and they're doing step work. The experience that I had working with the shaman, going back to the inner child and working with my certified trauma therapist, that's where the healing begins. You're doing steps. It's all here.
You're not emotionally.
Why is there so much relapse in AA then? That's alcohol. Let's go to NA, Narcotics Anonymous or CMA, Crystal Meth Anonymous. There are no more than two years of sobriety up in there before people relapse. I challenged them. It's not working. Why isn't it working? Because people aren't truly healing from the trauma. You may get 5 or 10 years of recovery but it'll resurface. That's why you hear about this 5, 10, 15 years, they relapse.
You're going to get triggered by shit.
It all comes back to unhealed child parts. Until those are healed, you're still going to be triggered. Go back and heal.
I want to talk about the light and the dark a little bit. That took me back a little bit. Do you think we all have light and dark within us? Is it just accepting that? Do you heal dark? That threw me off a little bit. Like the satanic stuff or have the dark come out. I’m a curious person. What is that? We all have darkness in us at all times even when we’re at a straight narrow.
We have a little bit of a dark side and there's nothing wrong. Many people have different dark sides. Your HR person could be like 50 Shades of Grey on the other side when she goes home at night. You don't know.
In a healthy committed relationship, accepting that not being shameful about that, maybe that's okay. That's what I'm curious about.
If you see pictures of me as a little boy, it's like the happiest glow and the sweetest little boy. It's what's thrown so many people off who knew me as a kid. My therapist was looking at my childhood pictures on Tuesday and it was robbed from me. My darkness was born out of a lot of physical abuse.
Is it anger?
One hundred percent. When I told you that I woke up out of that first session with my shaman, my shirt was ripped like Hulk Hogan, and I was like, “What happened?” He looked at me and he goes, “Brandon, you have a lot of anger still locked up in there.”
At the perpetrators?
At my parents. How I started hanging out with Satan worshippers, I don't know other than I can look at it now and say, “That's how dark it got for me and look at the light that I'm standing in now.” There’s a beautiful song, Gravity, by John Mayer, that's going to keep me in the light. Let me find the light and keep me there in the light. I want people to know that I understand dark, and it's okay that you've been in that dark. Don't let that darkness shroud you in such shame that you can't share it with somebody. I didn't share even the satanic stuff in the AA room until nine months sober.
There are still layers. I can relate to that. I share enough but I always want to hold a little something back.
I used to never tell people I was bug chasing, trying to get HIV. When I speak around the country and I talk about that, guys would come up to me all the time and they're like, “I've never heard somebody share that, but thank you because I did the same thing.” The reason why I'm so open about it is that one of the most beautiful lessons that I ever learned is that your opinion of me is none of my business.
How were you able to finally embrace that?
I get picked up by some viewers for sure especially with a pandemic and the election.
People hit you with criticism all the time.
I got one time, “I don't like your colored tie. It doesn’t match your skin color.” I just laughed.
I get Glassdoor things from former employees, and it used to crush me. Now, it still stings me but not as bad. I just have to get used to it.
I'm not perfect. I did not hear from my parents on my birthday. I didn't get a text message. I got nothing. The rational brain was like, “Of course they didn't. You've been estranged with them for years.” That little inner child got hurt. That little boy is still connected to mom and dad. I was sad a little bit being like, “My own fucking blood.” When I told my parents that I was a drug addict, they never want to call me to ask me, “Are you still sober?”
After nine months clean, they didn’t even know I was a drug addict. I told them that I was on life support and everything. My mom called me a week later and says, “You need to stop telling people you are on life support. I talked to my psychic, and she says that wasn't true. You were never even close to death.” I will always love my mom for all the good that she gave me, but she does suffer from mental health. Going back to your original point about where we find that darkness and the light, a lot of that happened to me as a child. I was so perverted by too many people in my life from many different aspects.
You're angry about that.
I was gay. I was a gay athlete. Imagine going to Catholic high school as a kid in the ‘80s and ‘90s, being an athlete and a good one and knowing I was gay. I’m hearing everybody go, “Faggot.” It’s all around you. Nuns and your priests are telling you you're going to burn in hell.
That’s a lot.
That was so dark for me. After I'd been in Laguna Beach and hooking up with those older men, I used to go home, stand in my bathroom and start beating myself until my chest turned black and blue. That's how much shame and anger I had. That's why I try to tell people to get into therapy as soon as you can even after you move out of your parents’ house and try to deal with that stuff early on. What I am happy about is a lot of toxic masculinity, about vulnerability with men, seeking therapy and doing those things, which used to be taboo. I can't even blame my parents. They've probably treated me the way because they have unhealed trauma from their childhood. I look at my parents more empathetically now than I do toward resentment.
You’ve gotten to that place.
It took me a while, but understanding that that’s their generation. They couldn't go to therapy. They could talk about those sorts of things.
Author Brandon Lee is a two-time Emmy winning journalist for his reporting on the opioid crisis. The irony is that Brandon was also a drug addict. Brandon’s trauma, however, started as a child when he was sexually abused by his piano teacher and youth soccer coach. The tragedy is that Brandon held it inside because of shame and fear. It wasn’t until the age of 37 when Brandon was reporting on a story about sex assault in the #MeToo era when he finally got the courage to break his silence about being a sex victim and how that trauma led him down a dark path of sex and drug addiction.
At age 16, Brandon was snorting cocaine, getting high off whippets, and drinking to blackouts all while attending Catholic school. The drug abuse got worse as Brandon got older. He would attend raves and circuit parties to get high. His drug addiction fueled his sex addiction. Brandon eventually created a double life. One as a professional news anchor. The other as a strung out druggie in the slums of Los Angeles. He describes the moment he took his first hit off the crack pipe. He felt invincible. Unstoppable. He describes it as breathing in the Devil. After nearly dying in a coma after an overdose, Brandon sought out a 12-Step program and has been sober ever since 2-22-2010. His story breaks every stereotype people have of a drug addict.
Brandon’s mission is to give other addicts hope that they can build a new life they never thought possible.
Scott leads a stable of marketing agencies and services offering the world's biggest brands speed, value and results. OH is an independent agency built to serve today's brands through consumer-centric marketing and strategy.
A powerful episode with Emmy winning journalist and author, Brandon Lee.