Today marks the seventh anniversary of my choice to stop drinking alcohol. That’s a nice way of saying “my choice to stop slowly killing myself and actually heal the childhood trauma I haven’t been able to handle,” which is a lot, but is also the whole truth.
I originally published this in January 2021, and I think it’s the first time I really talked in the open about my recovery from alcoholism. It’s an important part of my story that I and my editor managed to look right past when we were doing Still Just A Geek. By the time I realized I had left out some rather important context and information about how I got from the 28 year-old Used To Be to the 50 year-old I Am, we were too close to publication to make any changes. I’ve asked for extra pages in the paperback to include it, so we’ll see if that happens.
I have some new thoughts to add to this, but for those of you who haven’t seen this before, or who haven’t read it in a year, here it is with a few edits from its original publication:
Yesterday, I marked the fifth anniversary of my decision to quit drinking alcohol. It was the most consequential choice I have ever made in my life, and I am able to stand before you today only because I made it.
For probably three years, I knew that I was slowly and steadily killing myself with booze. I was getting drunk every night, because I couldn’t face the incredible pain and PTSD I had from my childhood, at the hands of my abusive father and manipulative mother.
It was unsustainable, and I knew it was unsustainable, but when you’re an addict, knowing something is unhealthy and choosing to do something about it are two very different things.
On January 8, 2016, I was out in the game room, watching TV and getting drunk as usual. I was trying to numb and soothe the pain I felt, while also deliberately hurting myself because at a fundamental level, I believed the lies the man who was my father told me about myself: I was worthless. I was unworthy of love. I was stupid. The things I loved and cared about were stupid. It did not matter if I lived or died. Nobody cared about me, anyway.
I knocked a bottle into the trash, realized I had to pee, and — so I wouldn’t disturb Anne — did not go into the bathroom, but instead walked out into the middle of my backyard and peed on the grass. I turned around, and there was Anne. I will never forget the look on her face, this mixture of sadness and real fear.
“I am so worried about you,” was all she had to say. I’d been feeling it for a long time, and I faced a stark choice that I had known I was going to face sooner or later.
“So am I.”
Roughly 12 hours later, I woke up with the headache (hangover) I always had. For the first time in years, I accepted that I brought it on myself, instead of blaming it on allergies or the wind.
I picked up my phone, and I called Chris Hardwick, my best friend, who had been sober for over a decade at that point.
“I need help,” I said. “I don’t think going to AA is for me, but I absolutely have a problem with alcohol and I need to stop drinking.”
He told me a lot of things, and we stayed on the call for hours. I realized that it was as simple and complicated as making a choice not to drink, one day or even one hour at a time. So I made the choice. HOLY SHIT was it hard. The first 45 days were a real struggle, but with the love and support of my wife and best friend, I got through it.
2016 … remember that year? Remember how bad things got? (2023 Wil hops in to add: Oh, you sweet Summer Child) I was constantly making the joke about how I picked the wrong year to quit drinking, while I continued to make the choice to not drink.
Getting clean allowed (and forced) me to confront why I drank to excess so much. It turns out that being emotionally abused and neglected by both parents, then gaslit by my mother for my entire life had consequences for my emotional development and mental health.
I take responsibility for my choices. I made the choice to become a drunk. I own that.
But I know that, had the man who was my father loved me the way he loves my siblings, had my mother just once put my needs ahead of her own (or been emotionally mature enough to even acknowledge that I had needs), the overwhelming pain and the black hole where paternal love should be would not have existed in my life.
I made a choice to fill that black hole with booze and self-destructive behavior. That sort of put a weak bandage over the psychic wound, but it never lasted more than a few hours or days before I was right back to believing all the lies that man planted in my head about myself, and feeling like I deserved all of it. If he wasn’t right, I thought, why didn’t my mother ever stand up for me? If he wasn’t right, how come nothing I ever did was good enough for him? I must be as worthless and contemptible as he made me believe I was. Anyone who says otherwise is just being fooled by me. I don’t really deserve any happiness, because I haven’t earned it. Anne’s just settling. She probably feels sorry for me.
All of that was just so much. It was so hard. It hurt, all the time. Because my mother made my success as an actor the most important thing in her life, I grew up believing that being the most successful actor in the world was the only way she’d be happy. And if that would make her happy, maybe it would prove to the man who was my father that I was worthy of his love. When I didn’t book jobs, I took it SO PERSONALLY. Didn’t those casting people know how important this was? This wasn’t just an acting role. This was the only chance I have to make my parents love me!
The thing is, I didn’t like it. I didn’t love acting and auditioning and attention like my mother did. It was never my dream. It was hers, and she sacrificed my childhood, and ultimately my relationship with her and her husband, in pursuit of it.
I didn’t jump straight to “get drunk all the time” as a coping mechanism. For years I tried to have conversations with my parents about how I felt, and every single time, I was dismissed for being ungrateful, overly dramatic, or just making things up. Every single time I tried to have a meaningful conversation about my feelings, I was met with an endless list of excuses, justifications, denials. They just refused to accept that my experiences were true or that my feelings were valid. When the man who was my father didn’t blow me off, he got mad at me, mocked me, humiliated me, made me afraid of him. I began to hope that he’d just blow me off, because it wasn’t as bad as the alternative.
It was so painful, and so frustrating, I just gave up and dove into as many bottles as I could find. And I was varying degrees of a mess, for years. A functional alcoholic, is what I believe people like me were called.
But then in 2016 I quit, and as my body began to heal from how much I’d abused it, my spirit began to heal, too. I found a room in my heart, and in that room was a small child, terrified and abused and unloved, and I opened my arms to him. I held him the way he should have been held by our parents, and I loved him the way he deserved to be loved: unconditionally. I promised him that I would protect him from them. They could never hurt him again.
I realized I had walked up to that door countless times over the years, and I had always chosen to walk right past it and into a bar, instead.
But because I had made the choice to stop drinking, to stop hiding from my pain, to stop self-medicating, I could see that door clearly now. I could hear that little boy weeping in there, as quietly as possible, because he was so afraid that someone was going to come in and hurt him. Without alcohol numbing me, I clearly saw that my mother had been lying to me, and maybe to herself, about who that man was to me. I realized that the man who was my father had been a bully to me my whole life. I accepted and owned that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t do anything to cause it. It was not may fault. It was a choice he made, and while I will never know why, I knew what had happened to me. I knew my memories were real, and I hoped that, armed with this new certainty and confidence, I could have a heart-to-heart with my parents, and begin to heal these wounds. I sincerely believed this time would be different, because I was different. My parents are people you can’t talk to. You have to write everything down so you can refer to it when they twist around what you said and meant. So I spent a lot of time carefully putting my words together, shared a lot of my feelings and fears, and finally told them, “I feel like my dad doesn’t love me, and I don’t know what to do about that.”
I know some of you are parents. What do you do when your child says that to you? What is your first instinct? Pick up the phone right away? Send a text right away? Somehow communicate to your child immediately that, no, that is not the case at all, and they are not unloved, right?
Of course you do, because you’re not a selfish piece of shit. But if you’re my mom, you ignore me for two months. Total radio silence. When you finally do acknowledge the communication, you spend paragraphs telling me how much your horse costs, complaining about some woman I’ve never heard of down at your barn, and several other things that you don’t even realize or care are a list of things that are more important to you than your son’s realization that his father — your husband — does not love him. Eventually, you get around to telling me how you are incensed and offended. How could I be so hateful and cruel and ungrateful? Why would I make up so many lies about the family? Nothing is more important than family! How could I say such hurtful things?! Why would I make all that up just to hurt them? If you’re my mother, you don’t even acknowledge, or allow for the possibility, that I am in tremendous pain, and have been for my entire life. If you’re my dad, you wait four months before you write an email titled “your mother wants me to email you” that I don’t even open, because everything is in that subject, isn’t it?
Well. There it was. I had changed. They had not. They will not. Ever. They are emotionally immature narcissists.
So, I want to be clear: I take responsibility for the choice I made to become a full-time drunk. But I also hold my parents accountable for their choices, including the choice to ignore me for weeks when, after a lifetime of failed attempts to be seen and heard, I finally confessed my deepest fear: that my dad didn’t like me, much less love me. I can not imagine ignoring my child, who is clearly hurting, the way they ignored me. When I used to do the bargaining part of grief, I always came back to the weeks of silence after I confessed that I, their eldest son, felt unloved by his father. I mean, who does that to their kid? After a lifetime drilling into his head that “nothing is more important than family”?
Their silence during those long weeks told me everything I needed to know, and my sobriety was severely tested for the first time. Everything I had always feared, everything I had been drinking to avoid, was right there, in my face. When they finally acknowledged me, and made it all about their feelings, I knew: this was never going to change. I mean, I’d known that for years, maybe for my whole life, but I still held out hope that, somehow, something would be different. I had known it, but I hadn’t accepted it, until that day.
During those weeks, I spent a lot of time on the phone with Chris, spent a lot of time with Anne, and filled a bunch of journals. But I didn’t make the choice to pick up a drink. I’d committed to taking better care of myself, so I could be the husband and father my family deserved. So I could find the happiness that I deserve.
Once I was clean, I had clarity, and so much time to do activities! I was able to clearly and honestly assess who I was, and why. I was able to love myself and care for myself in ways that I hadn’t before, because I sincerely believed I didn’t deserve it.
I will never forget this epiphany I had one day, while walking through our kitchen: If I was the person the man who was my father made me believe I was, there is no way a woman as amazing and special as Anne would choose to spend her life with me. Why this never occurred to me up to that point can be found under a pile of bottles.
Not having parents sucks. It hurts all the time. But it hurts less than what I had with those people, so I continue to make the choice to keep them out of my life.
After five years, I don’t miss being drunk at all. It is not a coincidence that the last five six years have been the best five years of my life, personally and professionally. In spite of everything 2021 took from us (and I know it’s taken far more from others than it took from me), I had the best year I’ve ever had in my career — and this is my career, being a host and a writer and audiobook narrator. This is what I want to do, and I still feel giddy when I take time to really own that I am finally following MY dream. It’s a shame I don’t have parents to share it with, but I have a pretty epic TNG family who celebrate everything I do with me.
I wondered how I would feel, crossing five years without a drink off the calendar. I thought I’d feel celebratory, but honestly the thing I feel the most is gratitude and resolve.
I am grateful that I have the love and support of my wife and children. I am grateful that because I have so much privilege, this wasn’t as hard for me as it could have been. I am grateful that, every day, I can make a choice to not drink, and it’s entirely MY CHOICE.
Because I quit drinking, I had the clarity I needed to see WHY I was drinking, and I had the strength to confront it. It didn’t go the way I wanted or hoped, but instead of numbing that pain with booze, I have come to accept it, as painful as it is.
And even with that pain, my life is immeasurably better than it was, and for that I am immeasurably grateful.
Okay, we’re back in 2023 now, and I’m so glad I read that all the way through. I’d forgotten some things and lost sight of others. I have some perspective again that I really needed today. As surprisingly good 2021 was, 2022 came in HOT. My memoir was released and I made the New York Times bestseller list for the second time (when they debuted the audiobook list, I was on it at number freakin’ one for Ready Player One. NUMBER ONE Y’ALL!). I mean, come on. That’s pretty incredible. Then I got to play on Celebrity Jeopardy THREE TIMES (my final airs next month). Oh, and I turned 50, which was not guaranteed as recently as eight years ago, when I was slowly drinking myself to death.
The most significant thing in the last year, though, has been a deliberate and consistent effort to heal as much of my cPTSD as possible. All the press for Still Just A Geek took a lot out of me. It was tearing a scab off a wound every day, exposing that wound to potential new infections, and then trying to clean and dress it before the whole thing started again. I don’t regret it. I did really good interviews and participated in public discussions centered on mental health care and abuse recovery that I know were meaningful to a lot of people. I’m sure the hard work I did promoting the book helped it get to the NYT list. But that work came with a hidden emotional cost I didn’t know to even look for. Since I finished, I’ve been doing EMDR therapy every week. I’ve been doing daily mindfulness exercises. I’m prioritizing my mental health in a way I haven’t, before, and it’s making all the difference. In fact, mental health care has been my theme since July, and is currently my theme for 2023.
None of this exists if I don’t make the choice I made 2556 days ago, that I have made every day since then, that I make today and plan to make tomorrow. But tomorrow is tomorrow, and I’m going to let today be today.
Hi. I’m Wil, and it’s been five six seven years since my last drink. Happy birthday to me.
Real quick: there’s a lot in this post and I want to take a moment here to tell you that if you’re hurting, there are wonderful people who are waiting RIGHT NOW to help you. I didn’t know that when I was suffering the most. I also didn’t have instant (and private) access to resources and professionals online to counsel me via my phone or laptop or whatever. I can’t tell you how to approach your journey, but I can show you two places you can start: https://www.mentalhealth.gov/ or https://nami.org/Home