Brandon Novak's Lucky 13

By Kelly Burch 03/19/18

It took the skateboarding super star 13 inpatient stays to find sobriety. Now, he’s working to help others find life after addiction.

Brandon Novak
Brandon Novak

Brandon Novak has had many life experiences that most people only read about. Some of them are enviable: Novak was a star skateboarder by the time he was 15, sponsored by Gatorade and working out alongside Michael Jordan. He traveled with Tony Hawk, starred in the movie Jackass, and wrote a memoir, Dreamseller, that became a best seller.

But many of his experiences were far less auspicious.

“In between all those things, on the flip side of the coin, I had found myself at 13 inpatient treatment centers,” Novak told The Fix. “I had lost count of outpatients and detoxes. I had been medevaced at four different hospitals at four different states for four different overdoses. My mother had bought me a plot. People were taking life insurance policies out on me.”

Despite his success, Novak was an addict. For 25 years he drank, smoked, sniffed and ate in excess. For 21 years he injected heroin. Then, at the age of 35 he found himself at rock bottom.

“I was a 35-year-old homeless heroin addict living on the streets of Baltimore city and my primary source of income was standing on the corner of Eastern Avenue of Patterson Park selling my body for $40. I’m thinking, ‘how did I get here?’”

Novak wasn’t the only one who was exhausted and fed up. His mother had recently confessed to her priest that she prayed for the suffering to end, one way or another.

“Her prayer consist[ed] of ‘God, please cure him, kill him or kill me because I can’t take it anymore,’” Novak said.

The priest, however, had hope.

“He said ‘How dare you go to God with a plan like that? Little do you know God has a plan for your son. You don’t know what it is, I don’t know what it is and Brandon definitely doesn’t know what it is,’” Novak recalled. “And thank God I didn’t know what it was because I surely would have fucked it up.”

That plan started to reveal itself when Novak walked into his 13th treatment center, just broken enough to be fixable.

“I was demoralized in just such a fashion from drugs and alcohol, I was beaten into a state of reasonableness that I was willing to listen,” he said. “What I realized walking into that 13th inpatient treatment center, with worldly possessions of eight scarves, two jackets, three socks, one stick of deodorant and four cigarettes taken from a receptacle, was that I know that I don’t fucking know.”

Accepting that he didn’t have the answer was a huge change for Novak. In the past he wasn’t one to take advice, in part because his success, he felt, proved that he didn’t need to listen to what other people thought.

“If you told me what I needed to do I’d tell you to fuck off because I know,” he recalled. “And after all, my résumé kind of stated that I did know some things because I was a pretty successful individual.”

However, underneath those successes, Novak knew that he was using external fixes to try and fill an internal void.

“If the woman was pretty enough, the house was big enough, the account was high enough, the car was new enough then I must be doing well,” he said. However, the external validation didn’t fill the void, and Novak still felt the need to use drugs. The high was an escape from the pain of mourning his father, who died from addiction, or of not measuring up to his mother, a successful doctor, or his brother, a White House attorney; and it dulled the pain of never feeling peace.

“Before, I would put a needle full of heroin in my arm, I’d inject it and it would produce this delusional effect which would allow me to escape the reality which I’d created for myself,” Novak said.

Then it stopped working. When he could no longer use drugs to escape, he was forced to face his situation: he was homeless, prostituting himself, and hurting his mother so badly that she wished for death. Suddenly, the cost of his addiction seemed too steep.

“I was no longer okay with doing things against my will to get a bag,” Novak said. “I was no longer okay with hurting my family.”

Realizing the impact of his addiction gave him the ability to stay sober the thirteenth time. This May, he will celebrate three years in recovery. For the first time, in that 13th treatment center, he realized that he had options for happiness that didn’t involve shooting up or snorting his way to oblivion.

“It’s very hard to shoot a bag of heroin when it’s done with NA; it’s very hard to drink a glass of alcohol when it’s done with AA,” Novak said. “It doesn’t quite sit so right any longer because I know there is a way up and out of my position-- provided I get the fuck out of my way, because I am the only thing that is blocking me from getting better.”

Novak credits his higher power for helping him come to this realization.

“There was no human power that had the ability to get me sober or keep me sober. You name it, I tried it,” he said. “I changed homes, I changed careers, I changed women, all in hopes that would fix me: external solutions for the internal void. A power greater than myself lifted my obsession and rid me of the desire to want to drink or drug. I’m not powerful enough to do that.”

Nearly three years later, Novak still seems in awe of that presence.

“My spirituality is kind of everything to me right now,” he said. “That’s like the foundation to my whole life.”

He believes that his higher power brought him to 12-step meetings, which have been instrumental in maintaining his sobriety.

“The God of my understanding brought me to a 12-step program, and the 12-step program brought me back to the God of my understanding,” he said.

Today, Novak delights in the mundane. Before speaking to The Fix, he woke up and went to the gym. He came home to laundry and a litter box in need of changing. Tonight he’ll speak at a community forum.

“Things I’d never done before, you know? Because I didn’t know how to do any of that stuff unless it required a drink or a drug,” he said.

Novak is determined to help others realize that it’s never too late to get sober: not when you’ve been on life support for seven days; not when you’ve relapsed after 12 inpatient programs; not even when your own mother has given up hope.

“The disease of addiction is not a death sentence,” he said. “Your history does not have to dictate your future and as long as you are breathing it’s not too late.”

Today Novak’s biggest success isn’t his skating career, best selling book or box office appearances: it’s his work to get others into treatment. In 2016 he joined Banyan Treatment Center as a national business developer. His main task is outreach.

“I help whoever, however, whenever,” he said.

It’s not just talk: Novak insisted that his personal phone number be listed in this article. He encourages anyone who is trying to get sober to reach out to him at 610-546-2608. He says that his own struggle with addiction — played out in tabloids and television specials for all to see — makes him relatable to people who are at their lowest point.

“People call me and they say, ‘Novak, if you can get clean there is no reason why I can’t. Can you help me?’”

And he helps them all, whether it’s his former colleague Bam Margera, who Novak helped get into treatment last month, or a fan he has never met.

“The disease of addiction does not discriminate,” he said. “The outhouse or the White House, the results are all the same and one out of seven people will be affected. So yes, it’s prevalent in the skateboarding world, it’s prevalent in the academic world, it’s prevalent in the world of people living under the bridge at Kensington and 10th, it’s prevalent everywhere.”

Novak still skates, although he gets more aches and pains than he used to. Although he’s slowed down, he connects with skating and other activities on a deeper level since he got sober.

“Now I love to do things: I feel them, I’m actually in the moment, there is no ulterior motive to it or behind it.”

Today Novak lives a low-key life in Philadelphia, where he no longer has to rely on a dime bag for his happiness. He wouldn’t change his experience with addiction (although he wishes he hadn’t caused his family so much pain), but he embraces the changes that sobriety has brought him.

“I treat people the way I want to be treated: I don’t steal, I don’t lie, I don’t manipulate, I am basically the exact opposite of everything that I used to be. It’s fucking ironic,” he said. “I have a lot of things externally but you couldn’t put a price tag on what I have internally. You couldn’t buy it for all the money in the world.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.