How MTV's Hottest Mess Cleaned Up His Act
The Hills launched Jason Wahler into fame. But after a string of DUIs and a stint on Celebrity Rehab, the former partier has managed to stay sober for over a year.
Most people know 24-year-old Jason Wahler as Lauren Conrad’s hunky but troubled ex-boyfriend on 'tv's hit shows Laguna Beach and The Hills: a gregarious guy who always seemed to be surrounded by perma-tanned blonds and was getting paid to party. It was a perfect Hollywood story—right down to the inevitable disgrace. When he popped up on Celebrity Rehab, in other words, it wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone who’d followed the news of his DUI’s and other flirtations with the law. While the show didn’t exactly give us a lot of Wahler (he’s the first to admit that “You just kind of saw me floating around—I wasn’t really doing anything”), behind the scenes he’s gone on to find true sobriety and in fact celebrated his one-year anniversary on July 23rd. “No more benders for me,” he says. “I just physically can’t take it anymore.”
What was the final straw?
It was realizing that I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and one of the big motivations for me was my parents. You know, they’ve been married 39 years, and we went to a therapy session to figure out what I was going to do—go into rehab or try something different—and they were like “Listen, you’re going to destroy our marriage.” Not in the sense that they were going to get divorced, but they never knew whether they were going to get that phone call: “Your son’s dead.” I was just damaging them emotionally and they couldn’t take it anymore. When I heard that, that was one of my key factors. I know they say you’ve got to do it for yourself—but that takes time. I had to do it for them, at first.
From having a couple of beers to drinking a bottle of vodka! It’s ridiculous; I had the alcoholism of a 50-year-old!
Did you go to rehab?
I did go to rehab. I checked myself in, came back, got my shit together—and then went on Celebrity Rehab sober. I was doing my AA step work, had gotten the sponsor, was working the steps, being of service. I was at that point where I was really willing to go to any lengths to stay sober.
And after rehab did you move into a sober living?
I don’t live in a sober house but I help with a very large rehab, National Therapeutic Services. They’re based in Newport, Costa Mesa. I’m more like a client advocate that kind of oversees when new clients come in and go to detox. I go visit them and make sure everything is all right. When they’re out of detox I go see them, make sure they know where everything is, and as time goes on, I’ll go surfing with them, go skating, take them golfing: basically show them how to live sober.
Do you think reality TV brought you to your bottom quicker?
I think Dr. Drew kind of nailed it on the head. It’s something I really respect him for. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but I’ve been to a lot of rehabs and seen a lot of doctors, and he’s definitely up there with the best. He said that being young, and being on the TV and the limelight and stuff kind of ignited it. I mean, alcoholism’s there—there’s no controlling it. It’s going to come up at some point if you have it, but this lifestyle kind of set fire to it and made it come up a hundred times faster. I’m so thankful. I don’t want to be 30 or 40 and be in rehab. It was inevitable that it was going to happen. It happened and rose so much quicker because of how much I was drinking, and the wear and tear I was doing to my body. Before I was on TV I was able to casually have some beers and stuff. And after, it was like, “Oh, there’s my first blackout” and it went on a super big downward spiral from there. From having a couple of beers to drinking a bottle of vodka! It’s ridiculous; I had the alcoholism of a 50-year-old! That’s pretty gnarly.
Hollywood has a habit of celebrating and then chewing up its young stars, doesn’t it?
A lot of people have their doubts about people trying to get sober in the entertainment business, so a lot of people are watching, waiting for me to fall. Everyone loves a failure, and a success story. A lot of it has to be with being young. I’m 24. Look at Lindsay Lohan, and when they were younger, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton—people in the spotlight. There’s really no one in Hollywood talking about being sober, or trying to stay sober, and I think its something they need to address. I mean, look at all the deaths in the past few years: Brittany Murphy, Heath Ledger—all these talented people who OD’d and abused prescription drugs. They obviously had some serious issues. It’s weird being sober. Do you know how many people die from this disease? I’ve known 12 people personally who have now died from overdoses—and that’s just from work. People don’t realize that it’s deadly. Even at the beginning—from DUI’s and crashing your car all the way to overdoses. Maybe because alcohol is our number one sponsor and branding’s everywhere, it’s easier to overlook alcohol. I don’t look down on people who drink. I wish I could have a normal drink or two, but I can’t, and hats off to those that can. It’s not for me.
Was it hard being the only one with addiction issues on Laguna Beach and The Hills?
There were a couple of other people that were messed up—not everybody, some people were very healthy and normal. But I think it just overtook me. I mean, this was five years ago. I was 18, and at that age most kids are looking for a fake ID, whereas I’m traveling the world with friends and drinking whatever I want. Obviously all that had an impact on me, since it happens to only like one in every couple million people. And it was something i wouldn’t take back. I lived it. I hold everything I do with a badge of honor—sure, I regret stuff, but I lived it.
Is it better for your sobriety to avoid LA?
I think getting out of LA was a huge factor in me gaining my sobriety. It was too hard up here. I needed a new beginning: new people, new places, new things. It’s not that I had bad friends, but I was surrounded by people doing bad things—enablers. I needed to be close to the people that love me, and my friends who cared came down and saw me. I just needed to build a whole new foundation for myself. I tried in LA numerous times and I just couldn’t do it. But now I know my limitations and my boundaries, and I have a lot of balance in my life.
What do Lauren Conrad and Kristin Cavallari think of your sobriety?
I just started talking to Lauren again recently. I talk to Kristin Cavallari a little bit too. Lauren always new I had a problem—she’s a good girl, got her head on straight. Kristin —well, she partied with me! I told Lauren what I was doing and she about had a heart attack. I lost a lot of friends. I was friends with Perez Hilton—he actually really cared. He was there for me, and then I was a dick when I was drunk, and he obviously changed his demeanor towards me, and he knew that I had an issue. I rekindled that friendship—I went to his birthday about four months ago. I’m glad he bashed me, because I was an idiot. Everyone who said “We’re done with you” were the people that cared.
What about your family?
My dad said that when and if I get my one-year, this will be as important as my sister’s wedding. So when he said that, I thought “How is that even possible?” and he was like, “Because we thought you were going to die.” It’s a life or death situation for me. I was on my way to die. My options were to be in the gutter and die, or live and have all kinds of opportunities come to me.
How did you get a job working in a treatment center?
After I was done with Celebrity Rehab, people could see that I was taking it seriously. I went in sober, so when I got off the show people were asking me “Would you like to come work in our rehab blah blah blah?” I said, “No, I’ve never worked in a rehab.” And as I was getting clearer thoughts and started going to more meetings and being more of service, I thought, “You know what? I’m going to do this.” Then I ran into a family friend who my dad knows, and his friend’s son owned this rehab and it seemed like a perfect time to come in. They were very skeptical of someone from TV. It was funny because all the places wanted me to go there, and I said, “No way, no way,” and this guy kind of thought I’d be a douchey asshole or something but instead they were really pleased with my work. It’s weird to be on the other side of the fence. I just got an email from an admissions place, and the headline of the email was “Thanks to Jason Wahler, this kid changed his mind” and underneath it said, “Jason’s the reason I came in to treatment.” It’s so crazy to be where I was a year ago and see clients like that. I mean, no one could get him in. He flew out for an intervention and all that stuff, and that’s the kind of thing I do: go talk to guys and share my truth and experience with them. I take them to a meeting, introduce them to some people, and try to show them the day in the life of a sober person. The beach, volleyball, playing Frisbee, going surfing. There’s a lot to do in life if you’re not lazy and you get off your ass. I mean, my biggest triggers were boredom and relationships. For me, the natural highs of life are more powerful than any drug there is. It’s weird how you have an impact upon a lot of these younger people. I didn’t even realize but the clarity I’m getting from all this is better than any amount of money.
How hard was getting sober?
The first six months were basically hell. I hadn’t felt emotions in such a long time. In my bathroom, I have a picture of my mug shot—it’s by my toothbrush—and I look at that in the morning when I brush my teeth, and at night when I brush my teeth, and I see it and it reminds me. I don’t want to ever go there, ever again. I love being able to get in my car and go drive. I love not wondering if there’s someone behind me, always looking over my shoulder. Drinking is stupid. There’s nothing that comes from it. You feel loose but you look like an idiot, you act like an idiot, and you feel like shit the next day. I watch normal drinkers and that doesn’t seem fun to me. I mean, I can be around it and it’s fun for like an hour, an hour and a half, but when their social skills start to go down, I don’t like being there.
I have a picture of my mug shot—it’s by my toothbrush—and I look at that in the morning when I brush my teeth, and at night when I brush my teeth, and I see it and it reminds me.
How’s dating sober?
I love it. I realized I don’t like as many girls as I thought! I’m serious. The girls I would date—that I’d usually go up to in a club or something—are the girls I don’t want to hang out with at all. I want to go find me a girl in Texas or something.
What do you want out of life?
I don’t want to sound like an AA guru or anything, but right now I’m just experiencing life in a totally different way. I couldn’t tell you what I want right now. I obviously want to be happy and healthy, and get married and have a family somewhere down the line, but right now I’m enjoying life again. I want it to keep going as it’s going, and take it day by day.
Ruth Fowler has written for The Village Voice, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote about why doctors can't deal with addicted patients and nursing your way back to health, among many other topics.