The Recovery Oscars!

By Amy Dresner 03/01/15

Joey Pants and Daniel Baldwin were just two of the honorees at the 6th Annual Experience, Strength and Hope Awards in Los Angeles.

Joey Pantoliano, Sharon Lawrence, Tony Denison and Leonard Lee Buschel
Joey Pantoliano, Sharon Lawrence, Tony Denison and Leonard Lee Buschel

Last year, I was drinking diet Mountain Dew and chain-smoking Marlboro Reds like some Appalachian tweaker on my way to the 5th Annual Experience, Strength and Hope Awards at the Skirball Center. But this time, I was only vaping and drinking yerba mate so I was pretty chuffed with my progress. I’m a writer (read: loner) and sober (read: riddled with social anxiety) so I was equally terrified in spite of having another year of sublime sobriety under my belt. I was glamorously dressed to the nines in all red, but my blue eyes were wide and anxious as I floated around the packed catered reception with a pad in my hand and a pen in my mouth like a waitress at a truck-stop diner.

There was a step and repeat where people posed for pics and interviews. I spotted Andy Dick chatting away to an interviewer as paparazzi shot photos. I grabbed a BBQ chicken lollipop, surreptitiously took a hit off my vape and looked around for my first victim.

This year’s honoree was actor and writer Joe Pantoliano (a.k.a. Joey Pants), best known for his portrayal as Ralph Cifaretto on The Sopranos. Joey is good friends with Robert Picardo and since Robert was busy doing a musical at the Annenberg Center, he brought along Robert’s daughter, Nicky, as his so-called date. Nicky was a pretty young brunette with glasses and an eyebrow piercing who looked as uncomfortable as I felt. She was sitting alone, playing with her phone when I sat down next to her and started to interrogate her….in a friendly way of course.

“Are you sober?” I asked.

“Oh, no. “ she said, blushing.

“Looks like you could use a drink right now,” I joked.

“Right.” She laughed. She went on after much gentle prodding to say, “Joey is a mentor, a family friend, a great actor who supports and promotes awareness about mental illness. He’s just a great role model.”

I thanked her and told her to bring a flask next time.

I was then chatting with D.H. Peligro, the drummer from the Dead Kennedys who I knew from the rooms and rehab. He was currently in Soba in Malibu after yet another relapse. “The Skirball Center is a cultural oasis in the desert of life,” he said. I furrowed my brow and then said, “Come on. Give up the ghost.” He replied, “Hey, honestly I’ve been relapsing for years and I’m just trying to figure out what the missing piece of the puzzle is. I keep starting new projects to keep from looking at myself. I’m finally in therapy looking at all the childhood stuff I’ve been avoiding.” I nodded in identification and empathy.

Bob Forrest walked up to say hi to D.H. I’ve known Bob for years.

“Hey gimme a quote, Bob.”

“I’ve been to every fucking one of these things. Sometimes there’s only been 10 people. Look at this (indicating that the room was packed). Leonard has finally gotten it together,” he said.

Ed Begley Jr. was supposed to host, but actor Tony Denison filled in briefly, joking that “Ed called from Sepulveda on a bike lane. He had to rescue some nesting ducks. I have to admit Joe got some jobs I wanted, but he’s a good man. I remember he once said, ‘When you go to an actor’s house you see pics of them with other actors on the wall, but when you go to a producer’s place, you see Picassos on the walls. Something is wrong with this picture.’”

Up next was Darren Kavinoky, defense attorney and host of Deadly Sins on Investigation Discovery as well as a new show called Breaking Point. He opened with, “In the spirit of rigorous honesty, I’m not a gambler. Everything else I can get behind. I’m also not Ed. Begley Jr.”

Dan Fante, “literary outlaw” and sober writer of such novels as Chump Change, Spitting off Tall Buildings and Kissed by a Fat Waitress, read some poetry that chronicled his addictions.

Mackenzie Phillips, former actress-turned-counselor at Pasadena Recovery Center followed him with, “I don’t know how he got in my head, but that was a awesome.” She reeled off a list of event sponsors like the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, His House, New Creation, Soba—“Yeah, I thought it was a noodle house so I stopped there during my last relapse to drink some sake until I saw a guy come out carrying a tray of ashtrays and was like, ‘Oh, I know what that place is.’”—Hollywood Detox Center, Duffy’s Napa Valley Rehab—“I’m sure most of you have taken a memorable wine country trip you can’t remember.”—and Balboa Horizons.

Actress Sharon Lawrence, who we all know as the wife of alcoholic detective Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue then took the stage. “I’m not an alcoholic but I play one in the movie Grace and it opened my eyes and understanding.” In preparation for her role, she went to AA meetings and was “dazzled and guided by the honesty.” She has known Joey Pantoliano for 20 years, describing him as “clear, present and mercurial” before the onset of his illness, adding that he “is courageous and compassionate about himself, which allows him to be that way to others.” She then presented this year’s award “in recognition of an individual’s honest memoir into recovery and their dedication for carrying the message” to Joey Pants.

Joey came up to the podium and his honesty was staggering. He explains how the trauma of 9/11 “kicked up unresolved emotional dust” that he had buried. He had thought that success would make his pain go away, but once he had surrounded himself with all the “stuff” (wife, money, success, Emmys, whatever) and was still depressed, he turned to alcohol. He’s written two books, Who’s Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy, and Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression: Brain Dis-Ease, Recovery, and Being My Mother's Son. He is also the founder and president of "No Kidding? Me Too!" - a foundation created to “stomp the stigma of mental illness” with documentaries, personal appearances and events.

Joey is a big fan of Dr. Gabor Maté, renowned speaker, physician specializing in the study and treatment of addiction and author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. In a nutshell, Dr. Maté’s controversial theory is that childhood trauma (domestic violence, parental mental illness, sexual/physical or emotional abuse, divorce, etc.) basically disrupts the brain’s development and subsequently the neurotransmitter system so that eventually when the person does drugs they feel, “Ooh yes. My mother’s love.” This, of course, goes against the old idea that it is some moral failing but also the entire genetic “disease model.” He then references Dr. Nadine Burke’s TED talk about how childhood trauma affects not just brain development but health. Dr. Gabor Maté’s personal message to Joey is Skyped in, saying, “You have recognized your own insanity and in that case you are incredibly accomplished.”

We are then treated to a musical performance by Julian Velard who sings a few songs about his hometown of New York, “which, like Joey, is charismatic, intense and slightly terrifying.”

Leonard Buschel, creator of the nonprofit Writers in Treatment, and the awards ceremony, makes his appearance. He jokes that his mother used to tell him that whenever he got the urge to do drugs that he should go to a movie and then that became an addiction—giving birth to the Reel Recovery Film Festival now in its seventh year and featured in nine cities. The highlight reel of this year’s festival is played featuring a graphic montage of meth-smoking mothers ignoring crying babies, people drinking, Hendrix footage and saddening clips of deceased actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams.

Actor/director Daniel Baldwin takes the stage to receive the “Audience Favorite Award” for his film, The Wisdom to Know the Difference, described as the “craziest intervention story." “I’m more proud of this movie than the 125 films I’ve done.” he said.

Next up: comedian Mark Lundholm. I’m initially skeptical as I once did “recovery comedy” and although I rolled my eyes a bit at the beginning with jokes about being “bi-steptual” (because he was in AA and NA) he eventually won me over. “I mean most people wouldn’t snort meth on a Friday if it was free.” Audible laughter. “I know what you’re thinking, ‘Well they’re dumbasses.’” Lundholm has been sober for 26 years, doing comedy for 25. “Humor invites trust and removes shame,” he said in all seriousness. “I’m not a comic. I’m a guy with a mental illness that learned to market that shit.” He admitted sometimes confusing serenity with fatigue. Somebody would say, “You’re so calm,” and he’d reply, “No, I’m just too tired to make a fist.” Regarding aging he said, “When I needed glasses to watch porn that was Jesus saying, ‘I think we’re beyond this, brother.’” He referred to drug addicts as “amateur pharmacists…Hey it’s a three-ring circus in one ring. Let’s even out our meds!” He admitted being attracted to women with borderline personality disorder, “Come on, ain’t nothing hotter than meds on the front seat, knife to the neck sex and a gun in the glove-box. I’m on the road for 300 days a year and she hates to be alone.” I laughed way too loudly at this one, thus tipping my hand. But amidst all the jokes were some serious recovery messages like, “Grateful never relapses” and “First thought wrong.”

All-in-all, an inspiring and amusing night, I thought as I grabbed my gift bag and hobbled around the parking lot for 25 minutes looking for my car. Some things never change even when you’re sober. It was wonderful to be around “my people” and I look forward to next year.

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix.

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