The Trials of Pat O'Brien
Pat O’Brien rose to the top as a sportscaster and entertainment reporter before weathering a very public scandal. Now he’s one of sobriety’s greatest advocates.
Pat O’Brien has a very famous voice. A CBS sportscaster for nearly two decades, O’Brien made the switch to celebrity coverage in the late '90s and quickly became the face and voice of it. That smile, that moustache, that voice was so much a part of public consciousness that it was parodied everywhere from The Simpsons to South Park.
Then, in 2005, there was a scandal involving some kinky, drunken messages he'd left a woman—messages which had ended up online. And, after his voice became famous in an altogether new way, O’Brien shuffled off to rehab. But that stint in rehab, as it turned out, didn’t do the trick. While continuing to thrive in his career, O’Brien went to treatment two more times—always as last gasp efforts to save his job. That always worked. But it wasn’t until his fourth rehab—Hazelden, which he entered in 2008—that sobriety actually stuck. Now he’s turned his daily four-hour sports radio show into something of a 12-step call, makes speeches on behalf of Hazelden’s Faces and Voices of Recovery and envisions the “fourth act” of his career as an addiction counselor. Here, he tells The Fix about ending up face down on a beach after a case of wine, what’s wrong with anonymity and how being the “asshole” on TV can help save someone’s life.
You initially went to rehab after a major scandal. Did you accept the fact that you had a problem or were you just going to try to fix the situation?
When you go through it publically, you don’t have a chance to think it over. If you’re filled with everything that a recovering alcoholic is filled with—like fear, shame, guilt, all that stuff—then you try to be something you’re not, publically.
I was aware that I drank a lot. But when the scandal broke, I was in the midst of a three-day blackout. I have no recollection of making those phone calls or getting on a plane or coming home. I woke up in my bed, thinking I was in New York, and there was my executive producer, the president of the company, the president of Paramount, my agent and my lawyer all standing around. All anybody could think about was, “We have to save the show; we have to save the show. Get to rehab, we’ll call you.” I got to rehab and there were helicopters flying overhead. I asked somebody, “What’s going on?” They said, “This is because of you.”
A guy said to me, “I was sitting on the couch drinking my 10th scotch, watching the news, and they were saying you were back in rehab. And my wife said, ‘If that asshole can do it, why can’t you?’”
But then it was three more rehabs after that so I didn’t really get sober until four years ago. Election day, 2008 is my sobriety date.
Were you always a heavy drinker?
Not really. My situation was progressive. I drank socially but it didn’t really kick in until I was like 56. And even then, I drank a certain kind of wine—Silver Oak, 1972—and if I couldn’t get it, I wouldn’t drink.
You never drank hard liquor? Just wine?
Yes, but my last day drinking—Nov 4th through 5th of 2008—I drank probably a little over a case of wine in a day. And they found me flat out on my beach in Nantucket.
And that’s when you went to rehab for the final time?
Yes. The first time I went to rehab, it was about saving my job and the show. The second rehab was about saving my job. The third rehab was about saving my job. Finally, my fourth rehab was about saving myself. It wasn’t until I got to Hazelden that I really did step work and someone looked in my face and said, “You’re going to die if you keep going.” Winston Churchill said, “When you’re walking through hell, keep walking.” It wasn’t until I got to Hazelden that I started walking the other way.
What had changed?
I think by the time I finally got to Hazelden, I was dead—I was done. The most important things to learn in recovery are to fall in love with recovery, to find complete desperation and to find another voice besides your own and I got all three of those at Hazelden.
Do you think it was just the timing—that when we’re ready, no matter where we are, that’s when we’ll take recovery seriously?
Yes. I think the fear and desperation and realization that it wasn’t about me—that it was about my son and family and not even about them anymore but about staying alive—had hit me. I mean, drinking 12 bottles of wine in a day? I think everybody finds that moment where the party’s over. I had been hanging onto the party too long.
You seem pretty devoted to spreading the messages of recovery now.
Now it’s about moving it forward. What happened to me gave me the opportunity to live and to pay it forward. On my radio show, we get half a dozen calls from people every day in recovery. They’ll say things like, “I’m a friend of Bill’s, and I’ve followed your path to recovery.” People will say, “Hey I want to talk about the Giants but I also just want to say that I’m on the same path as you, and I love you and you’re the man for it.” When I went to Betty Ford, a guy in there said to me, “I’m only here because of you.” I asked why and he said, “I was sitting on the couch drinking my 10th scotch, watching the news, and they were saying you were back in rehab. And my wife turned to me and said, ‘If that asshole can do it, why can’t you?’” [Laughs]
What are your greatest challenges in recovery?
Well, I’m still one of the most grandiose people I know, but at least it’s controlled grandiosity now. I’m still a loudmouth and say what I’m thinking but just enough to not be a fool. Recovery has finally given me a delete button. We all learn to get along with teachers, others kids, brothers, sisters and parents but no one ever teaches you how to get along with yourself. So I think everybody spends their entire lives trying to get along with themselves. There are so many things to learn. In recovery, you have to shut off the ego and for someone like me, that’s really tough. The ego doesn’t tell you one thing that’s true: it just lies to you and sets you up. To me, that’s a much bigger struggle than not drinking. So it isn’t so much about not drinking or using but about keeping my head straight.Are you in AA?
I am. I go to around five or six meetings a week. My sponsor has 28 years of recovery. I really do take care of myself—I take care of my mind, I don’t block anything out. I used to think there’s no way I could sit in a meeting and say I’m an alcoholic. Now I can’t wait to get there.
What is it you get out of meetings?
I think it’s what people want out of life—that there’s somebody like you. That’s why people fall in love, get married, why people will buy things that they see Heidi Klum wearing: it’s that you want to believe there’s someone like you. Recovery is this community where everyone is like you. It’s like walking into the family you never had and they’re all there—the drunk uncle, the little brother you never hugged, everyone. I defy anyone who’s having a bad day to come out of a meeting and think they’re worse off than someone else. That was the brilliance of the founders—to design a place where it’s like, “Let’s let these assholes see what it’s like.”
Do you think it’s important to be public about recovery?
I do. I’m not afraid of losing a viewer or a job because I’m a recovering alcoholic. That’s one of the problems I have with the anonymous part of the program—the anonymous part can be just another lie. If you go to an AA meeting and add another fear to your life—that a co-worker’s going to see you there—you’ve been fucked again. I run into people that I know from meetings somewhere and sometimes they’ll cringe if they’re with somebody. As I’m walking away, I’ll hear the person they’re with go, “How do you know Pat O’Brien?” And I feel sorry for those people because it’s just another lie. Then they have to say, “Oh, we met at the grocery store.” The only way to be actually free is to not have to lie and have a life where you don’t have secrets. Lies just create more fear. My big fear my whole life was that something would happen to me that would make me look bad.
My big fear my whole life was that something would happen to me that would make me look bad.
What’s the most important thing we can do to help people find recovery?
People need to find the right recovery. People who go into recovery are wounded—not just by drugs and alcohol but by a life of not looking at themselves. They’re wounded by a life of hating authority and either bad parents or too much parenting. If a wounded animal comes up to your doorstep, you don’t say, “Shut up and go make your bed.” You try to fix it first. So I think the first impression is so important.
How has your life changed since you’ve gotten sober?
Well, before, someone once wrote about me, “He’s the kind of guy that men want to drink with and their wives want to sleep with.” Not anymore. [Laughs] Now men just want to go to AA meetings with me.
Anna David is the Executive Editor of The Fix and the author of the books Party Girl, Bought, Reality Matters and Falling For Me and the Kindle Single Animal Attraction. She's written about Tom Sizemore and sober fear facing, among many other topics, for The Fix.