Dean McDermott: Leaving the Armadillo Behind

By John Lavitt 02/15/17

Canadian-American actor Dean McDermott talks about his time in rehab, his alcoholism and life on TV.

Dean McDermott and Tori Spelling
Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott. Helga Esteb /

A Canadian-American actor, Dean McDermott is best known as a reality television personality with his wife, actress Tori Spelling, and their four children. He also was the host of the cooking competition Chopped: Canada and played the role of Constable Renfield Turnbull on the TV series Due South. McDermott’s personal life has been the subject of intense scrutiny, and he publicly entered rehab for "health and personal issues" in 2014 that was later revealed to be caused by alcoholism and suicidal thoughts after cheating on his wife. Since getting sober, McDermott has embraced both recovery and his family while continuing to work as an actor. The Fix is happy to have the opportunity to sit down and speak with him.

As an actor, your profession is to become another person. Does being an actor make it easier to hide when you are abusing drugs or alcohol?

I am good at hiding things. For me, it’s more than just being an actor. I’ll be fifty in November, I am at a crossroads in my life; I kind of don’t know who I am. Being an alcoholic, the low self-esteem drove me to want to create this fake persona, very outgoing and not self-conscious. I was the fun happy guy on the outside, but inside I’m dying and I loathe myself. The self-loathing made me sort of a blank slate. I would become whatever I thought people wanted me to be. Acting allowed me to hide, not letting you see what is really going on with me mentally, physically and using-wise.

Promoting your new show, Slasher, you said, “I’m in a really great place now with my sobriety… I just felt more open as an actor and as a person to sort of try new things and be fearless. I guess it’s because I’d been through so much. I’d been dragged through the mud, I’d hit bottom.” Does hitting bottom make you a better actor?

So much of acting is a confidence game. When you go into rooms to audition, they can smell desperation on you. Your banter reeks of it. They see how badly you want it, and it ends up affecting your performance. Hitting rock bottom while also being dragged through the press, being vilified, made me feel: “Okay, what else can you do to me?” Now I have a kind of armor. I’ve been through so much; you can’t really hurt me. It’s not so much that I don’t care, but I feel bulletproof. I have been to the bottom and back. When I am trying out for a job, I try to be of service. They need someone for a part, and there’s a good chance that I can help them by being that guy. Being of service puts me in this zone where I am calm and focused, and that confidence followed me on set. I wasn’t as nervous or worried about doing a good job. By replacing the self-loathing with concentration, I could dive into the work and do it that much better. I owe it to sobriety and to the steps, and I owe it to all the people in the program who have taken the time to reach out and help me. 

You and Tori Spelling have four beautiful and healthy kids. In a 2012 letter to your youngest son Finn before he was born, you wrote, “With all my love and devotion, I will fight tooth and nail to give you the wonderful life you deserve.” Does the role of being a responsible father keep a person sober? 

It helps and it hinders. It’s very, very stressful raising children, especially five of them. We actually have five because my eldest son Jack lives with us. We have a full household, and the stress levels go through the roof. Personalities clash as the needs and wants of each person are vocalized constantly. By the end of the day, you are ready to pull your hair out. I would be lying if I said I don’t ever want a good, stiff drink. It’s a grind, and it does take a village to raise a child. Since we have five of them, it’s good that we live in a city. 

Although I sometimes want to drink, the program has given me the tools to deal with those feelings. They pass if I pick up the phone and call my sponsor. I say something like, “Hey, my kids are driving me nuts, and I’m going to drink a bottle of vodka or pull my hair out.” By getting it out there, I don’t have to drink, but I do often pull my hair out. Life is hard period. With kids, without kids, everyone faces tough times. Everybody has pressure to perform at work and pay the bills and more; there is so much stress in the world. It’s easy to reach for a bottle or a pipe, and it’s not surprising that so many make that choice. When I think about the village and that it takes a village to hold up and support a parent, the 12-step programs are my village. 

After entering rehab, you released a statement that said you were, "Truly sorry for the mistakes I have made and for the pain I've caused my family." How does the amends process work in your life? 

Since I got back into recovery, I have been making a living amends to my wife and my family. When I was drinking, I wasn’t present and I was mean. I did some bad things that ended up being splashed all over the press and really hurting them. I need to right the ship. I need to be on the path that I started with this woman, and that path means that I love her and I give her and our children the best life that I possibly can. It’s something that I think about every day. Tori and the children have weathered so much. I owe it to them to make things right. 

You have been in the pop culture spotlight for well over a decade now, particularly given the Oxygen reality series, Tori & Dean: Inn Love and Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood. Did fame and everything that comes with being famous like the paparazzi contribute to your alcoholism? 

I was thrust into the spotlight fast and furiously. For an alcoholic, being dropped into Hollywood and getting instant celebrity is really dangerous. Everything is at your fingertips. People want to give it to you and supply it and do it with you. Whatever access they can have, they just want to be a part of your life and get a piece of you. Access to drinks and drugs is really easy. Plus the rules don’t seem to apply to you: “Hey, you’re not allowed to drink there! Oh, Dean, it’s you. Hey, don’t worry about it.” The rules don’t seem to apply. It was so different from what I had experienced before in Canada that I was like a kid in a candy shop. This is great! People will bend over backwards for me. It was fun until it wasn’t. When things go south, you quickly find out people’s true intentions. The people who were there just for the celebrity and the party; they are the first to drop out and run for the hills. As for the paparazzi, there’s nothing you can do to escape them. I guess loving-kindness might work with them, but I haven’t given it a go just yet.

True Tori on Lifetime seemed to be the hardest of your reality TV experiences. The show directly discussed your experiences at 12-step meetings and Tori’s experiences at Al-Anon meetings. People said it was like watching two train wrecks. After such a response, would you do that show again? 

No. Definitely not. You can’t solve your personal problems in the town square. I believed at the time that we were making groundbreaking reality TV. We were turning episodes around in two weeks, and that made it feel really current. Reality TV audiences are quite savvy, and they sniff out a product that’s produced. Tori and I wanted to tell a real story. The tabloids had their side of the story, but nobody had heard from us. It was a chance to tell our side of the story. The process accelerated our communication, improving the therapy between Tori and I because it had to be done on a schedule. Normally, therapy takes a long time. By expediting it, we were able to talk about difficult things that would’ve taken a lot longer.

At the same time, I don’t think the audience was ready for it. It was too real and too raw. Yes, it was two train wrecks side-by-side dealing with really heavy emotional stuff. People had seen all the good between Tori and I, and now we thought by showing the bad, we could help people. And we did. Although that was rewarding, I would never want to put it all out there like that again. It’s just too much. It’s too much.

You have written about your favorite date night vampire films. Is there a connection between vampires and addiction?

I never likened the two, but I would have to say yes. Maybe that’s why I like vampire movies so much. I still love the dark. Whether it’s the vampire or the addict in me, the nighttime wakes me up. I loved going out on runs at night. It made me feel so alive. I felt like no one could see me under the cover of darkness. Nobody knew who I was or where I was or what I was doing, and I was free to do my business. Yet, today, it feels disgusting to be so compelled to do that every night. It makes my skin crawl. 

Can you give us an idea of what your higher power looks like and the role that spirituality plays in your life today?

My higher power changes and that’s the beauty of not being in the grip of any one denomination. By having a God of my own choosing, it can change. Right now, it’s my mom and my dad. I have lost both of them, but I feel their presence in my life. I know my mom is my guardian angel. My mom died when I was fifteen, and she has been with me ever since. I know she helped me out of some ugly scrapes. Since my dad died twelve years ago, I have felt his presence in my life as well. Sometimes it’s them together, but it depends on the situation. Sometimes I need a guy to talk to and sometimes I need a woman to talk to. I feel like I have the best of both worlds. 

It’s crucial to have a spiritual life when you are fighting addiction and alcoholism. I didn’t have anything like it before. I was bereft of spirit and soul and caring because I was so narcissistic. Everything was turned inside and focused on self; what can I do for me and how can I screw this person over to get what I want? I find spiritually is turning yourself outward and opening yourself up. For so many years, I was like a rolled up armadillo, impenetrable to the rest of the world. When that little guy opens up and shows his belly, when I was able to show my vulnerable spot and feel my feelings again, everything got so much better. By working a program, I have let light into my life where there used to only be darkness. But it has to be a daily practice. You have to replace your old way of thinking with another, and the only way to do that is by putting it into practice. Then you realize, “Hey, I’m a spiritual person now.” That’s such a better feeling than being that angry little armadillo rolled up into a ball all alone, completely shut down. Today I know I don’t have to be that armadillo ever again if I work my program on a daily basis.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

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.