Mackenzie Phillips on Finding Her New Passion: Helping Fellow Addicts

By John Lavitt 04/15/16

If I were able to go back and erase negative experiences, I might wake up tomorrow morning with a great big chunk of who I am no longer there, and I don’t want that to ever happen.

Mackenzie Phillips on Finding Her New Passion: Helping Fellow Addicts
via Author

Best known as rebellious teenager Julie Mora Cooper Horvath on the hit 1970s sitcom One Day at a Time, Mackenzie Phillips was one of the first publicized examples of a young actress out of control due to drug and alcohol abuse. The daughter of John Phillips, founder and lead singer of The Mamas & the Papas, and his first wife, Susan Adams, she later sang and toured in a reformed version of the band with her father.

After appearing on Celebrity Rehab in 2010, she embraced a path of long-term recovery. In September 2009, Phillips' memoir High on Arrival was released, in which she revealed a long-term incestuous relationship with her late father. After going back to school for drug and alcohol counseling, Phillips works today as an addictions counselor at Breathe Life Healing Centers. The Fix had the privilege of speaking with her about her remarkable journey.

Growing up, you experienced firsthand the craziness of the rock-and-roll lifestyle of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a world of absolute liberation where drugs and alcohol flowed freely. Describing what happened, you said, "I saw a lot of people behaving in ways they shouldn't behave in front of children and that fascinated me." Do you regret having been born into such an extreme environment? 

First of all, I want to address the idea of absolute liberation where drugs and alcohol flowed freely. At the time and even historically, that might be how we look at it, but I think the phrase “absolute liberation where drugs and alcohol flowed freely” is sort of like an oxymoron. It may be imagined or perceived as absolute liberation when, in fact, there’s an element of enslavement to it. I really wanted to begin by addressing that part of the question.

Going on, I have been fascinated by behavior for as long as I can remember and that fascination continues to this day, and that’s why I do what I do. When I was a little girl, I was so interested with asking the question of why people behave the way they behave. What makes the person consider that this activity might be okay or appropriate? When I was a little girl, I wanted to be what was called back then an "abnormal psychologist." Other things happened along the way, and I ended up riding the acting train for many, many years. Being fascinated by behavior, however, has been a recurring them in my life. What makes people do the things they do, even with all the information and knowledge, we still go against our most basic instinct, which is to survive. This is a very long way to getting to the actual question, but here we are.

I absolutely do not regret being raised in that environment. First of all, I want to talk briefly about regret. Regret means that I wished it never happened. Regret means I wish I could erase it. If I were able to go back and erase negative experiences, I might wake up tomorrow morning with a great big chunk of who I am no longer there, and I don’t want that to ever happen. I feel like regret is not at all the way I look at my experiences. It made me a very strong individual. It also made me a very adaptable and flexible person. I got to be, almost in a weird way, a pioneer of survival and a historian of a child’s viewpoint of what it looked like and what it felt like to be parented by children (laughing). 

As both Carol Morrison in American Graffiti and Julie Cooper in One Day at a Time, you played smart and rebellious kids, young people lured by the first desires of adulthood. How much did these parts reflect your own experience as a teen? 

I always wanted to be older, and I think that’s a really familiar and recurring theme for most young people. It’s like, when I’m seventeen I can do this, when I’m sixteen I’ll get my license, when I’m eighteen I can do this, and when I’m twenty-one I can do that. I definitely shared with Julie and Carol that rebellious spirit. They certainly mirrored my own life in a very specific way, but these were sort of sanitized versions of what was going on in my life—the all-American depiction of the rebellious teenager as opposed to what I was really doing and living off-screen and off-set. 

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, you were the star of the hit sitcom, One Day at a Time, a teenager earning $50,000 a week, and your life begins to implode as addiction takes over. Still, from your first disorderly conduct arrest in 1977, you managed to continue partying until 1980 when you finally entered treatment. What did that time look like for you? How did you manage to continue going hard for so long in such a high profile position at such a young age?

There were a lot of things going on. First of all, it was a different time. It was not the tabloid stories that are being written about today like this actor is being written off of this show so she can go to treatment. They kind of said, “Go get well. We’re going to suspend you for a week.” In response, I would go get my teeth cleaned and go to a dermatologist and get a haircut and buy a couple new outfits and come back and say, “Ta-da!” They would say, “Awesome! You look great!” I thought back then that if I just get my outsides looking okay, that would make me okay on the inside. That certainly doesn’t do the trick. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t about having all my ducks in a row externally, but rather it was about the problem that there was chaos internally for me. 

So how did I continue going hard for so long? I don’t really know. That’s really just a crapshoot combined with the genetic pool of what you happen to draw. It often includes some of both the negative aspects of the genetic pool and the positive aspects of the genetic pool. I was able to stay long enough to get the message as I experienced people dropping like flies all around me. 

At the age of 19, on the night before your wedding, you told Oprah Winfrey, "I woke up that night from a blackout to find myself having sex with my own father." You went on to describe how, "I boxed it away. I started very early on in my life compartmentalizing... This was the mother of all difficult experiences." How did you overcome the psychic scarring caused by this experience? 

I compartmentalized it. I boxed it away. Compartmentalizing or boxing away like that is a survival-based activity. I need to box it away and say, “Wow! I just can’t deal with that right now. I can’t even think about that. I’m going to put it over here and just pretend it didn’t happen.” 

Psychic scarring is a great phrase, but not one that I’ve ever used or heard. By setting something aside and boxing it away, you are protecting yourself from the reality of it, the truth of it. Nobody wants to go through that and nobody wants to get to the point that in order to survive, they have to share it with other people. I survived because I needed to, because I wanted to. There were days when I didn’t think I could, but hope springs eternal. 

In terms of the evolution of the ongoing relationship between you and your father, you explained what happened by saying, "It’s sort of the Stockholm syndrome, where you begin to love your captor." The Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy, and have positive feelings toward their captors. 

How big of a role did addiction play in bringing about this sense of captivity? Do you think there is a kind of self-inflicted Stockholm syndrome in terms of addiction where the drug is the captor and the addict is the captive?

I definitely see the correlation between the two things. Do I think that my father held me in his arms when I was an infant and said, “Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh goody! A girl child. I shall groom her and I shall violate her.” No, I don’t think anything like that happened. I believed it happened over time with the warping of his mind with drugs and alcohol to the point where he believed it was appropriate to drug and rape his child. To be very brutal and blunt about it. 

I believe that what happened also is a testament to the power of drugs and alcohol in the mind of somebody who already was a bit of a narcissist and had a lot of power. But I also believe that coming out on the other side of it is a testament to the human spirit, and an incredible ability to overcome any tragedy or trauma with the kind, thoughtful guidance of a professional. 

Going back to the phenomenon of compartmentalizing. Can you describe to us what you mean by that? You recently started working at Breathe Life Healing Centers as an addictions counselor. Do you see the same kind of psychic survival skills in your clients? Does your past experience help you to help them?

My past experience is what gives me the opportunity and the passion for this work. Yes, I do see it in my clients, but I also saw it historically even before I went back to school to become a counselor. It is a survival-based skill. When it’s too much, you put it aside. Think of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind when she's faced with something unpleasant and says, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Her behavior is a classic version of compartmentalizing or boxing away. If I just put it over there, maybe one day I’ll be able to take it out and look at it. 

There are times in the dark night of the soul when you wake up in the middle of the night and you still have these compartments going on, so you decide to take a look. You open it up and you pull it out, then immediately go, “Nope, not ready. Put that sucker back on the shelf.” There’s a continual process of checking in at times, looking at what happened and wanting to deal with it, but then always, “Nope, still not ready. Not going there.” You keep doing this until the pain of the compartmentalization and the desperation becomes so deep that you need to speak your truth. I needed to speak my truth because I had to save myself. 

You relapsed after your father’s death. Commenting on what happened, you said, "I learned that something about my father's existence had helped me to stay clean, helped me to stay well. It was almost like I was flipping him off by staying clean." Can you give me examples of reasons for staying clean that can backfire and ultimately lead to relapse? What today are good reasons to stay clean and maintain your sobriety?

Pick one, pick ten, pick fifteen. There are a million of them all around you like being able to have a deep interpersonal relationship with another human being. There is the ability to take care of what’s right in front of you. Since I got home from work today, I’ve folded some laundry, I’ve done some dishes, I’ve fed some dogs, I’ve cleaned the litter box, and I started another load of laundry. Now those seem like just normal things, but to an addict in early recovery or active addiction, that would take days to complete unless you’re taking speed and then you just do everything. What I mean is that it’s the little things, those beautiful little joys in life that I can enjoy, and I don’t have to hide anything. I can go visit my mom at the assisted living and not have to go into the bathroom for an hour. 

There are so many reasons. The gift of being able to be of service to the next person and being able to say, “I see where you’re at and I know you’re tired. Here, take my hand because I know the way. Come on, little brother, let’s go.” There are so many reasons to stay clean. The health of the body. The ability to be present for joy and pain and sadness and disappointment. It’s being alive; the beautiful fucking bounty of being alive. We missed it when we were using. We missed all of that. We don’t see it.

In High on Arrival, you write about your early days of sobriety: “My life skills were starting to reemerge. Now I was ready, but for what? My life on drugs had a built-in purpose: to do more drugs. Now the holes in my life made themselves apparent.” How did you manage to fill in those holes, or is it an ongoing process? What new purpose did you find in recovery?

Recovery is definitely an ongoing process. It’s like playing whack-a-mole because the disease keeps coming back. You think everything is great—Man, I’ve really hit a nice plateau here—then this character defect comes up or that reactive mind behavior comes up. Of course, it’s an ongoing process, but what I personally experienced is that I rediscovered my passion for behavior and for understanding why people do the things they do. What drives addiction? Where does it live? How does it manifest? How can I help? Where do I fit in and how can I do the most good? 

I went back to school. I wanted to be on the forefront of this fight. I want to break the stigma. I want to be a part of hopeful healing. I don’t want to just sit over here, waiting for the phone to ring so I can go on another audition. I felt it was like lighting my pilot light within. It set me aflame. I am enthusiastic and I am passionate about doing what I do today. A big part of being in recovery is finding a passion; something that gives you purpose and somewhere where you are expected every day and you have a specific skill set that allows you to do the work. It’s really powerful for me, man, because my story doesn’t generally end up like this. 

As someone who worked in recovery myself as a counselor after I got sober, I was amazed to see how many people in recovery make the switch from rehab client to rehab employee. This shift has been a big part of your story as well. What does it feel like to switch chairs? Do you ever feel like recovery work gets in the way of your own personal recovery?

I absolutely do not feel that recovery work gets in the way of my own personal recovery, but I do find that working in treatment has indicated to me that I have to always remember to be really mindful of my own self-care. My routine in my home needs to be consistent. I like the rhythm of routine, I like the syncopation that it provides. It’s really important for me in my self-care to keep the home fires burning. I can’t just be out there trying to save the world. I have to take care of myself in order to continue to do this work on a daily basis. 

Your journey to recovery was featured on the reality television show, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. The show came under a lot of negative scrutiny after a multitude of deaths and relapses by the participants. In 2013, country singer Mindy McCready shot herself, becoming the fifth person to die in a two-year period after appearing on Celebrity Rehab. Prior to McCready, Rodney King, reality star Joey Kovar, actor Jeff Conaway and musician Mike Starr all died with drugs in their systems. Were there problematic aspects of being on television while getting sober that perhaps contributed to these deaths? Although it worked for you, was Celebrity Rehab more casual entertainment than actual treatment?

John, would we be talking about this if we were talking about the Chief Medical Officer of Hazelden Betty Ford? I mean, addicts die. Rehab is not a magic wand. It’s what you do with what you learn while in treatment that will be an indicator of sustaining pleasurable, comfortable recovery. From my perspective, I feel like Celebrity Rehab was almost a public service: This is what it might look like if you want to come to treatment.

Do I think it’s the best idea to get sober on television? Probably not. Do I think that they died because they were on Celebrity Rehab? Hell no! Addicts are dying every day. 129 people a day die from prescription drug overdoses. Back when this was going on, there was this laser focus on Celebrity Rehab: Look How Many People Died! Oh My God! Multitudes of People Died! Was it because they were getting sober on television? No, it is because they were addicts in denial who didn’t follow through sustaining their recovery post-treatment. Some of those people who passed away—and I loved them all and I think about them often because it’s a powerful thing to lose someone to addiction—some of those people went to treatment again before they passed away. It’s not because they did it on television. We were all given referrals to follow-up with so-and-so and such-and-such after treatment. I don’t know who did, but I know I certainly did. It’s not like a one and done. 

In High on Arrival, you write near the end, “I’m nearly fifty. I’m watching my son become a man. And for the first time I’m starting to see that the old ideas I have about myself don’t have to be true forever.”  I believe you still live with your 29-year old son, Shane. Can you tell us about him? Is he supportive of your sobriety? How has being a mother helped you heal the wounds from those old ideas and leave the trauma of the past behind? 

Shane is incredibly supportive of my recovery. Look, I used to be just around the house, doing my thing. For me to get up every morning at six and fight the traffic and work a normal work day, it’s a sacrifice for Shane. He basically runs the house while I’m not here. I can’t tell you how lovely this human being is and how supportive he is of my recovery and of my work. When I took the job at Breathe Life Healing Centers, he looked at me and put his hand on my arm and said, “I am so proud of you, Mom. I am just so proud of you.” 

As you know, John, that’s the type of thing that keeps a person engaged in recovery-based activities as well. It means so much to develop that deep connection with someone you love who was so disappointed in the past, but now is so on your side and so completely engaged. I was clean and sober for ten years, probably the ten years of Shane’s life that were the most formative. I got sober when he was four. When I was raising him during that time, I would look at him and go, “Wow! He’s seven now.” When I was seven, you could fill in the blank in terms of what I saw and experienced. As a result, I was very mindful of age-appropriate parenting. I was very mindful of honoring the child in him. I wanted to make sure he had a different experience.

When I was 12, I just started working. I started being an actor. Shane had a lovely childhood. Of course, the relapse was heartbreaking for him and the climb back up has been really, really powerful for both of us, for the whole family, for all of us. Nobody can take that away from me, that gift of recovery. Only I can take that away from me. 

In 2016, you were honored with the 7th annual Experience, Strength & Hope Award that is given in recognition of an individual's honest life's memoir, including their dedication to carrying the message of hope to a society awash in addiction. What did winning this award mean for you? What message would you like to share with people about your recovery?

The award meant a lot to me. It was such a lovely honor. What really blew me away was the support from my colleagues in the recovery and treatment industry that travelled from near and far to be there that night. I have such a great deal of respect for those people. They so generously welcomed me into this community of professionals and clinicians. That was really, really a powerful moment for me. It meant a lot to be only the second woman to ever receive this award. The previous female recipient, Carrie White, I have known since I was a child. I have known Carrie for many, many, many, many, many years, and I was so happy that she came as well. It was just a really great night for me.

In terms of a message I would like to share with people about my recovery: it’s beautiful and powerful. Every day is just fricking awesome. I don’t wake up everyday going, “Aw crap, another day. Oh, how am I going to get through this day?” I wake up and I’m like, “Oh, wow! Hey, this is pretty fucking cool.” My recovery—and by that I mean our recovery—our recovery means that we are connected. We are a community of connectivity. Anyone out there who’s wondering what it might be like to be beautifully connected to millions of people all over the world through being sober, you should give it a go. It doesn’t matter whether it’s short-term or long-term recovery. It’s a day-at-a-time, and we all support each other. If you want to have an experience beyond what you could have possibly imagined while using drugs and alcohol, join us. It’s our recovery. We do this together.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.