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Tom Arnold Cleans Up

When he became addicted to painkillers after nearly two decades of sobriety, Tom Arnold kept it a secret. Then he almost died. Now he’s back to tell the tale.

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By Kristen McGuiness

09/11/12

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With a new movie and TV show (not to mention a surprise appearance at Roseanne Barr’s recent roast), you could say that Tom Arnold is making a comeback. But considering the fact that two years ago, he found himself in a septic coma partially due to a relapse, Arnold’s recent success might be more like a resurrection. After 17 years of sobriety, Arnold had started taken prescription painkillers following a 2007 motorcycle accident. Though he continued to attend meetings, sponsor others, and take a yearly sobriety chip, he was secretly living the life of an addict. Eventually the truth—in the form of his health—caught up with him. Now over a year sober, with the movie Hit & Run in theaters and his new reality show Redneck Rehab launching on CMT, Arnold is back and better than ever. He recently sat down with The Fix to discuss this new phase in his recovery and career.

You’ve been really busy lately. Do you feel that’s in part to your recovered sobriety?

I feel good because I wouldn’t have done the things I am doing now if I wasn’t in recovery. In my career, it’s always feast or famine so I’ve really had to learn to accept the belief that I will work again. That’s the hard part of being both an addict and an actor: the minute you’re not working, you think, “That’s it, it’s over.” But then things change and you’re back in the middle of it again. 

How did you get involved with Hit & Run [Arnold’s new movie starring Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, and Bradley Cooper]? 

Well, part of the reason for that is that I am great friends with Dax [who wrote and directed the movie]; he really stood by me and helped me during my relapse. We started shooting the day after I got completely off painkillers. When you’re shooting a movie in 18 or 19 days and it’s hot and uncomfortable, you’ve really got to stay on an even keel and he helped with that. You don’t want to add to the problems so it helps to be working hard on your program.

In terms of the release, you do your best to promote it but you still make sure to hit a meeting and spend some time with other alcoholics. That doesn’t mean that things don’t hurt you. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about me but now I am able to laugh at that stuff. I know there was a time when that bullshit bothered me a lot more. 

For years, I had been going to meetings and helping people and I was being entirely dishonest about my sobriety.

In addition to Hit & Run, you also have a TV show Redneck Rehab airing on CMT. Now it’s not actually about rehab, is it?

No, though it’s lightly based on Intervention. The premise of the show is that these rednecks have left their families and moved to the big city to become successful. They’ve left the redneck culture: they’re eating healthy and showering and they’ve forgotten where they came from—that is, until their redneck families show up to do an intervention on their new ways. Though it is really funny, it’s kind of amazing to see these people confronting each other in a visceral way. Because I grew up in a small town and don’t get back there enough, I connected to how these families miss each other. And really it’s not so different than what happens with drugs and alcohol.

What has been your journey with drugs and alcohol? 

I started as a stand up comedian and moved to LA in 1988. I landed a job on a real TV show and, not long after, started dating its star [Roseanne Barr], and that’s how I became famous. And apart from killing someone, that is probably the second worst way to get famous. I had already been drinking and using for years. I remember when I was still living in Minnesota, Roseanne would come to town and we would party together but then when I moved to LA, she asked if I did that all time. I was sort of confused by the question. Of course I partied all the time! After that, I started to keep my alcohol and drug use a secret because it was clear that this was not how you became successful in LA. And then I moved in with Roseanne and there were kids around and people watching me and I tried to pretend that I wasn’t using. I would come home and get caught and finally one night I told Roseanne I couldn’t quit and that’s when I went to rehab.

What was your sobriety like those first years?

When I came out of rehab, I was really focused on recovery. My sponsor said I could eat whatever I wanted and smoke as many cigarettes I wanted but I just couldn’t drink and use. A lot of craziness was going on in my life but I was working a really great program. And then, in 2007, I got into a motorcycle wreck and broke my back. By then, my program had begun to get a little shaky. I was still sponsoring guys and going to meetings but I had gotten arrogant about my recovery. When they prescribed me painkillers, I didn’t think I could ever get addicted to them because I was a stimulant guy, not an opiate guy. I didn’t think that was my thing but it turns out anything can be my thing. I got physically addicted to them very fast. I had a million people I could have talked to about it but addiction is a nasty business. 

And is that when you got sick?

In the summer of 2010, it was clear that I had a problem and I started seeing an addiction specialist. I was in the middle of tapering off the pain meds when, on August 10, 2010, I had a stomachache and the next thing I knew, I was passed out. My colon had ruptured and I was septic, sending me into a coma for three weeks. It’s not to say that everything that happened to me was because of the pain pills but it was about 90% of the cause. I had an emergency surgery and I ended up needing seven more surgeries because there was so much damage. After the hospital, I went straight to rehab where I was all by myself in a medical unit. I had all these tubes hooked up to me and I could literally see my insides. One night, I was lying awake and I thought, “I need to figure out who I am.” For years, I had been going to meetings and helping people and I was being entirely dishonest about my sobriety. I had to decide whether I was going to be an honorable man or someone who was just full of shit. 

How did you get back into recovery?

Well, first my sponsor reminded me that I wasn’t completely worthless. He said, “Sure you relapsed but that doesn’t take away the good things you did over the last 20 years, that doesn’t erase all the people you helped along the way.” I had an incision from my breast bone to my belly button and I have this temporary colostomy bag, which I ended up having for 90 days, and I was thinking, “I have fucked myself up forever” but then halfway through my stay at rehab, I was in a meeting with some young guys who were all there for heroin and prescription pills and in the meeting, I shared that worse things can happen than dying. I lifted up my shirt so everyone could see what had happened to me—so those boys could see what drugs can do to you. Who knows if it worked for them, but for me, it was the moment where I surrendered that bullshit I had been holding onto. I was being of service. And then you had to get sober from the pills even though you needed the pills, correct?

Yeah, it took me some time to get through the other surgeries. I had to use some hardcore medications so I had a sober companion who would help me manage and hide the prescriptions. I had to believe again in something greater than myself and I had to stay busy. I continued to work—I did three comedy specials for DirecTV—and I would have to bring a nurse with me. I learned that even if no one is calling you and offering you a job, you need to always be working. Whenever I create a schedule and do something about my career—writing, creating, focusing on my own projects—an opportunity always comes up.

And what is life like now?

The good thing is my ego will never get too big—that’s part of being in sobriety and that’s part of being me in this business. If you believe in something and you trust it and you get up off your ass in the morning, you can make something happen. I am still very dedicated to service today—whether through the program or through charities I support. I work with children who have heart disease and have undergone heart transplants and when you meet one of them, they’re not looking at the past or the future, they are digging the present, they are grabbing life by the balls. Any kind of service is always of more benefit to me than the person I am serving, because it reminds me not to be such a grumpy asshole. It reminds me of everything I have to be grateful for.

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about old timers in AA and sober travel, among other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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