Substance and Alcohol Abuse

Published On November 19, 2015 | November/December 2015

A Look inside Substance and Alcohol Abuse

Two recovered Austin experts weigh in on these deadly addictions

By Sam Jackson

Drug and alcohol addiction have wreaked havoc across the world for many years. It’s hitting our wallets as hard as our families, costing more than $700 billion in healthcare bills, lost work hours, and criminal expenses. We know these things to a degree, but statistics can’t truly convey what addiction does to a person’s mind, or describe how it impacts your relationships, body, and soul. Fortunately, two people agreed to share their experiences with substance abuse to shine a light on this issue.

Wes Hurt is one of Austin’s foremost entrepreneurs, known chiefly for the popular food trailer, Hey Cupcake!, that became a premier destination even in the food trailer choked downtown area. Christopher Titus is a premier standup comedian and owner of the production company Combustion Films. He’s also voyaged into TV, formerly starring in the Emmy-nominated sitcom Titus and now hosts the game show Pawnography on the History Channel.

There’s 14 years of age between these two men, and they are worlds apart as people. What links them is that for a time, their lives were defined by substance abuse and both defeated it in separate paths. Addiction can be summed up quote from Titus’ pal, and E Street Band guitarist, Nils Lofgren, “One is too many, and a thousand’s not enough.”

As he wrote on his Clean Cause Water website, Hurt “did every substance put in front of him” from his teens on. When pressed for specifics, he mentions pot, booze, crack, and Vicodin, the last two being done simultaneously at the climax of his problems. Surprisingly though, it didn’t seem to affect his business savvy, not at first, since he started Hey Cupcake! and built it up while in the throes of his habits. Then the addition became the “most fortunate blessing” in Hurt’s life.

“The board [of Hey Cupcake!] was my sister and brother-in-law,” he recounts. “They fired me because they wanted to cut [my] access to money which was feeding my addiction. Seven years before, we had put them in that position for that very reason, if I kind of went nuts, they would be able to pull that.” Hurt never expected that plan to get invoked until he found himself out of his gig. The bad news didn’t stop there, shortly after his wife tossed him out of his home. “Then my family said, ‘Do not contact us until you’re ready to get better, because we’re not going to participate in you dying anymore. And anything we do that’s not helping you recover is hurting you.’” Hurt says this saved his life and credits families in having the most important role to stop addictions by not enabling them. After briefly living in an office, he finally agreed with them and went into a recovery program last year.

Titus’ drug of choice was booze, he began abusing it in his high school years. His buddies would often get him wasted “just to see what he was going to change into.” He tells stories of accepting drunken dares to dive off hotel roofs into pools and jumping off cliffs in Santa Cruz, California. The reasons why were psychological, Titus shares, “I hung out with top notch dudes, and I always felt I never fit in with these guys. So I’d just get hammered.”

He also remembers both of his parents drinking to the point of outrageousness. “My dad had all these old home movies from the 1960s and we’d sit around the projector and watch them. There was this one movie where my mom is drinking at a party and her arm was in a cast with wires coming out of the end that connected around her hand. And I ask, ‘What happened to Mom there, Dad?,’ he answers, ‘about three weeks earlier she was at another party, got blackout drunk and fell down the stairs.’ He laughs incredulously, and the video was of her at another party!” Almost fittingly, Christopher Titus’ rock bottom moment was less emotional and more slapstick. When he was 17-years-old, he drunkenly stumbled into a bonfire at a high school beach bash and was severely burned, which he recounted years later in his first stand up special, Norman Rockwell is Bleeding. It’s a great story that got huge laughs, but even then Titus was made aware of how serious his drinking was getting. “I just realized, wow, I’m gonna die if I keep doing this,” he said. Describing the experience as a “one-step program,” Titus kicked alcohol cold turkey soon after. Because of this rather unconventional method, Titus has a very black and white view of getting clean.

“What I don’t like about addicts is that we’re all in control of our own lives,” he says. “And I have a problem with calling it a disease – that has always stuck in my craw my whole life. Because I believe it’s not a disease, I believe it’s a choice. I can choose to drink or I can choose not to drink. To me [calling it a disease] gives people an excuse for bad behavior. If it was a disease, you couldn’t have stopped. You have to take responsibility, and I think when we start taking personal responsibility across the board a lot of the problems in our society will be cured.”

Part of his issues with this stem from personal experience. “I had a friend who worked for a magazine I used to write for and he said he was an alcoholic, he had a disease. So we went to AA, and he started telling people ‘Hey, I just got out of LA, I stopped drinking, I’m sober,’ and everyone was like ‘Great, dude, high five!’ and he got all this amazing attention for it. Which is good, it’s good to be positive with people.” “After three months the attention went away and we were like ‘Yeah, yeah, we know dude. Great, good for you.’ Well, three months after that he fell off the wagon and started drinking again. Then he got all this attention for falling off the wagon. So he went back to AA again and got the whole ‘Aw, dude you did it again, great!’ He [repeated] this for four or five years. And I, being the cynical comic that I am, I thought, ‘Wow dude, you’re doing this because it’s a story you get to tell every few months.” Titus has no hate for recovery programs or their mission. “I’m totally on their side. AA’s phenomenal; they walk you through these steps of taking personal responsibility for everything you do. If they keep you from making the decision to drink and get out of control, good for you.” Addicts have already been forced to change their entire personalities and habits to suit their drug of choice, but the tough part of any recovery is doing it again, this time to escape it. A common bit of advice for addicts is that they should try to separate themselves from the most remote connections related to their addiction, which tends to mean friends they spent time with or places they visited frequently in the past. As one could imagine, that can be tough for some people and a possible reason why relapse rates run from 40-60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Like they say, routine is pretty comfortable.

“I don’t hang out in places where I used to,” Hurt admits. “[Recovery programs] have a saying, ‘People, places, and things.’ Generically speaking, you need to change all of those, and it’s some pretty good practical advice.” Titus, however, has no issues returning to the occasional glass of wine or two without losing control.

Another suggestion for recovery is to channel the energy spent on the addiction into something new, productive, and healthy. Less ambitious avenues might be mastering new skills, or exercising, for instance. For his part, Hurt sold a majority of his stake in Hey Cupcake! and jumped straight into his new business, Clean Cause Water. As an example of the lessons he learned, and to help people he met in recovery, he staffs the company with recovering addicts and donates half of the profits to rehabilitation facilities and charities for addiction. Hurt also knew that criminal records and trust issues make it hard for addicts to find work, and though he agrees with that as a businessman, he still feels willing to give them a chance.

“I think [employing former addicts] is huge. That transitional time is one of the most vulnerable times for an addict, and so I think it’s one of the biggest things we can do to help assist some addicts. It helps them build self esteem quickly, it makes them more self sustainable, and it lets guys immediately begin to give back to other people in a very explicit way where they know ‘Hey, I’m going to be helping fellow people struggling with the same stuff,’ and make them feel good about that. It just feels good to put in a good day’s work.” “Identifying your purpose,” Hurt emphasizes, “is really, really helpful in maintaining your sobriety. I just found that when people are more dialed in and able to articulate that a little bit, it gives you a North Star.”

He’s also expanding Clean Water into the energy drink market. “[The drink’s] organic, it’s got only 20 calories, it’s got organic green coffee extract as the caffeine source. There are no B vitamins or taurine, and it’s in three different flavors. And it actually tastes good, that’s the shocker. We’re gonna go after Red Bull and Monster and we’re gonna give people some caffeine because it’s a practically necessity in this day and age, but we don’t want to get people cracked out, pun intended. The tagline I’ve come up for this is ‘energizing recovery in America.”

Titus, meanwhile, got his nascent stand up career rolling. “I was in a night club every night. I got out of high school and I was hanging out [in clubs] even when I wasn’t old enough. I saw some comics getting really sloppy [because of alcohol], and that’s my place of work, so I chose not to do that.” Years of touring and honing his show, built around his life experiences, eventually attracted the attention of Fox, who signed him on to do Titus, and the rest is history. He also found a bit of spirituality as well, “I read the Bible every night, read it all the way through, twice. I realized the Bible breaks down to ‘Don’t be a dick’ and once I got that I was okay.” Biblical study, Hurt says, helped him as well, along with “nurturing my own belief system.”

After getting clean, the question remains, does the urge remain, or can an addict feel free from the impulses that haunted them? Titus thinks so. Since quitting 32 years ago, he’s had only one serious incident “where I drank really hard, then woke up the next day and went, ‘You know what? I’m not doing that again.’ Not that I’m never going to drink again, but I’m never drinking that much again. You just have to know your limitations.”

Hurt agrees, though he knows he can’t drink or do drugs recreationally, and adds a version of the classic recovery program saying, “a day at a time”. “It’s more of a fantasy in the future, but it’s less pressure and more manageable when all I have to do is get through today. The whole idea’s that I’m not sitting here scared of my life. I couldn’t live like that, having to avoid drinking all the time and not being able to go places just because they serve beer.”

“So many people walk through life walking backwards and looking at the past,” Titus remarks. “You got to turn around and just head towards the future, that’s all.”

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