Getting Sober At Age 19

By McCarton Ackerman 01/15/16

Sam Lansky details his wild teenage ride and recovery in “The Gilded Razor.”

The Gilded Razor
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Sam Lansky got all the drinking out of his system before he was even legally able to drink. His drug use first began as a teenager and quickly spiraled out of control with cocaine and prescription drugs. With a largely absentee father leaving Lansky with lots of money and little supervision, he was soon literally taking amphetamines for breakfast. A stint in New York City’s prestigious Dwight School, known as a heavy party school for affluent kids, didn’t help correct the problem. 

Several stints in rehab as a teenager didn’t take and his wild behavior continued to escalate. A stint at Vassar College included behavior at a Halloween party that was so reckless it forced security to evacuate the building by pulling the fire alarm. A continual stream of crystal meth and further degradation led to Lansky committing to sobriety once and for all at age 19.

After spending a couple of years writing for several outlets (including The Fix), Lansky is now the Deputy Culture Editor for Time magazine. And at the ripe old age of 27, he has released his new memoir The Gilded Razor. Lansky spoke exclusively with The Fix about having to grow up fast at a young age, why his initial stints in rehab didn’t take and how he maintains his sobriety while covering the glitzy Hollywood scene.

Anyone writing a memoir at age 27 is going to raise eyebrows with some people. Was that ever a concern or a reservation you had in writing the book?

I had plenty of reservations! There was lots of different strife, but having reservations about my age wasn’t really a consideration, though. Because I had such a crazy adolescence and got sober when I was so young, there was a decade of real distance from what I was talking about in the book. To me, that was more important than my age and enabled me to tackle the material more readily. 

That said, I knew there would be some people who would wonder why this 27-year-old is writing a memoir. If there’s one thing the world needs more of, millennials writing memoirs is not one of them [laughs]. I just hoped that because of the subject matter in the book, people wouldn’t overlook it or judge me too harshly for thinking that my life story had to be told.

When did your drug use first begin?

It started when I was 14 with fairly standard stuff like alcohol and pot, but I reacted to them differently than other people. I blacked out the first time I drank and made out with a girl, even though I was openly gay at that point, and that’s what it was like from the very beginning. Pot wasn’t something I ever really had a strong feeling about. But my drug use really escalated when I started taking cocaine at age 15. I was a daily drug user by the time I was 17 and getting shipped off to rehab.

I finally got sober when I was 19. I say finally [laughs], but even at that age it felt like an eternity. I just knew it needed to happen.

You went to the Dwight School in New York City, which has a party reputation. Do you think that being in an upper-class environment and without a lot of parental supervision made drug experimentation inevitable? 

It was an anomaly if you didn’t drink or do drugs there, but I don’t blame Dwight or the lack of supervision. Personally, I was going to do whatever I wanted no matter what, whether or not my dad was around. I did things my way and was independent to a fault. I was driven, but it’s pretty clear that drive was misplaced. It was less about the environment and had more to do with my personality in general.

You speak openly in the book about having sex with lots of different partners and a brief period of escort work. Would you say that you had a sex addiction as well? 

I don’t feel totally equipped to self-diagnose in that way. I was a teenager and teenagers are hormonal to begin with. On top of that, I wasn’t well-supervised and was taking a lot of stimulants. Being gay also probably enabled me to find sex with an ease that I wouldn’t have been accessible to as a heterosexual teenage boy. There was definitely something compulsive about the way I approached sex. But I was recently described in a review of the book as a sex addict and it made me cringe. That was their takeaway from it and that’s totally fine, but it just didn’t feel like that was me.

You had several stints in rehab that didn’t take. Was it that you weren’t ready for treatment at that point or hadn’t fully addressed old triggers?  

Even though they say you hit bottom when you start digging, I don’t believe you have to get to that point in order for treatment to work. That said, desperation helps more than anything and when things get bleak, people get desperate. My last bender during my final months in Boston was so much darker than I had ever experienced. I knew at that point that I was either going to go all in and get sober or I was going to keep using until I died. There were two very clear paths. It was very binary.

Was there a rock bottom moment in particular during that period?

It was the whole color and shape of those final months. Honestly, I was so fucked up that very little of it is clear, but I do remember being so far gone at the time that I felt like a ghost of myself. This wasn’t a case of falling out of sobriety and occasionally getting out of control with drinking and partying. My behavior was so extreme and so much worse than it had ever been that I knew my commitment to getting clean and sober was going to have to be equally as extreme. I was never going to be able to have a temperate relationship with drugs and alcohol. I went back into treatment and have been sober for seven and-a-half years now.

Now that you work in the entertainment world and often attend major Hollywood events, do you ever find yourself tempted to fall back into old patterns of drinking or drug use? 

It’s pretty far removed at this point so I don’t see myself backtracking. It’s not necessarily because 12-step programs have taught me all of these life lessons, although that’s true as well, but it’s more knowing that the life I lead now is a product of being sober. I’m this productive because I’m sober and not dealing with hangovers. And I work a lot more than most people. I spent my weekends writing this book instead of partying. And I have to be on at industry events, so sobriety has made me more effective and more focused.

There was a worry of coming out publicly in this book as an addict. I didn’t want people to see me as a liability because of my colorful past. But if anything, my sobriety has been a huge asset creatively and professionally and personally. It’s too precious to let it go. I don’t want to say this book is an insurance policy, but I hope revealing my history so publicly provides even more of an incentive to stay sober because it’s all out there now. 

What are some of the things that have worked for you personally in your sobriety? 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to treatment. And obviously based on the many times that I was in treatment, there were more things that didn’t work than did work. But those experiences weren’t a waste of time because the cumulative effect of that treatment was helpful. There were things I took from each time in treatment. 

I was sent to a wilderness program in Utah when I was in high school and it wasn’t a good use of my time overall, but some of the things I learned about myself there were so valuable. It laid the groundwork for my sobriety even though I started going out and getting loaded as soon as I left. Just because your time in treatment doesn’t take now doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it or won’t take eventually.

What would your 27-year-old sober self tell your high school self?

I’d tell them to be careful because I wasn’t careful at all. Check your dosages. Be conscientious and reduce your risk. I had a couple of overdoses that were so nasty and I really did just scrape through by the skin of my teeth. Honestly, there’s very little that my adult self would be able to say to my high school self and have them listen, but I think they would listen to that. Even my high school self never wanted to die.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.