Experience, Strength & Hope Awards Honor Pat O'Brien

By John Lavitt 03/01/17

"The sober celebrities taking part truly show what can be achieved through the miracle of recovery.”

Experience, Strength & Hope Award Celebrates The Redemption Of Recovery
Pat O'Brien at the ESH Awards. via John Lavitt

The 2017 Experience, Strength & Hope Award honored author and TV personality Pat O’Brien for his personal account of recovery, I'll Be Back Right After This: My Memoir. The Experience, Strength & Hope Award is given in recognition of an individual’s honest account of their journey through addiction to recovery. Held at the Skirball Cultural Center on February 23, 2017, the 8th annual installment of the ESH awards was orchestrated by Leonard Buschel of Writers in Treatment to celebrate the redemptive power of recovery. In addition to founding Writers in Treatment, Buschel has created the nationwide Reel Recovery Film Festival while also publishing a popular weekly industry newsletter, the Addiction/Recovery eBulletin

When asked his motivation behind these endeavors, Buschel said, “My goal is that any newcomer that comes to these events commits to sobriety because they see a creative and energetic message. The sober celebrities taking part truly show what can be achieved through the miracle of recovery.” The sober celebrities at this year’s event included actor Bruce Davison, musician Joe Walsh, singer Sherri Lewis, comedian Sarge, and the acting couple Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley.

Bruce Davison hoped his participation would help demonstrate the freedom that recovery affords an artist: “The big dilemma is that so many artists think they need their suffering or their drug of choice to function. But I’ve found the opposite to be true, particularly in relation to my creative work. This is why this message needs to be expressed. The part of the program that’s important is the part that is shared. The experience, strength and hope of one of us is the experience, strength and hope of all of us.”

Throughout the early reception and into the later awards show, the message expressed was the importance of paving a path for newcomers. Each of the celebrities present emphasized the role of humility in 12-step programs. By leaving behind the instituted arrogance of the bright lights and truly becoming humble, a person has the opportunity to be of service to those in need. Honoree Pat O’Brien highlighted how the people that came before him saved his life when the “shit” hit the proverbial fan. As a result, it was now his job to reach out to others and help them.

When asked what winning the ESH award meant to him, Pat O’Brien told The Fix, “It means that I’ve done the work in recovery up to now. Such work begins anew every day when I commit myself to staying sober and to being of service to others. In the beginning, I was afraid of recovery. Right now, many people out there remain stuck in their misery because they are afraid of living a sober life. They don’t want to lose the alcohol or the drugs. The high has become their best friend, even when it stops working. I discovered that when you finally surrender and embrace recovery, it turns out that it brings forth a life much better than you ever imagined.”

Given his extensive experience as a broadcaster and television personality, it was intriguing that the celebrity chosen to present Pat O’Brien with the ESH award was legendary Eagles guitar player Joe Walsh. After all, what do broadcasters and rock stars have in common? It turns out, a fondness for alcohol and cocaine back in the day. In the lyrics to his 1978 solo hit, "Life’s Been Good," he sang of the decadence of those years. “I go to parties, sometimes until four/ It's hard to leave when you can't find the door.” Defying the odds, Joe Walsh embraced the path of sobriety, becoming close friends with Pat O’Brien in the 12-step rooms.

Leonard Buschel, Joe Walsh and Bruce Davison. Photo via John Lavitt.

In his funny and moving introduction to the honoree, Joe Walsh started by saying to the gathering of industry professionals and young people in early recovery, “I will be signing court cards after the awards show.” He went on to commend the example set by Pat O’Brien, saying, “A wonderful friend in sobriety and a great example of how someone can help others when they get sober. I don’t really care about all the rules in regards to anonymity. Everyone knows what I did. As celebrities, the best thing we can do when we get sober is talk about it.”

In response to this powerful declaration, Joe Walsh received a rousing cheer from the audience. Later, when speaking in private with The Fix about what was going to be written, Walsh highlighted his main point, “Creativity and recovery are great subjects to write about. Showing the connection between the two will help a lot of people out there. Getting sober and staying sober was really tough for me in the beginning. What I learned by walking through the hard times, however, is that what happens next is a bit surprising because it is so amazing.”

After giving Joe Walsh a big hug, Pat O’Brien happily accepted the 2017 Experience, Strength & Hope Award. On the podium, he spoke about overcoming the dark times, saying, “My friend Michael J. Fox and my lawyers both told me the same thing. They told me to just fuck it and breathe. I know that sounds a bit dirty out of context. However, right now and moving forward one day at a time, I simply want to do my best to help extinguish the stigma surrounding alcoholism and addiction. This is a brain disease, and it’s astounding how few people know and accept that fact in this country. It is our job to help change minds and open doors.”

After Pat O’Brien received his award, Leonard Buschel took the stage to speak about the mission of Writers in Treatment and the Reel Recovery Film Festival. With festivals now in seven cities across the country every year, Buschel wants the film festival to eventually have 20 annual events nationwide. Explaining this motivation to grow and expand, Buschel said, “I want people in early recovery across the country to see the true potential of what can be accomplished. What would happen if when people checked into rehab, they were told, ‘If you stay, we promise that you will become a miracle.’ Okay, it might be a bit too biblical for day one, but you all know what I mean. What if we could share our hopes and our dreams? That is what keeps me motivated and that’s what keeps me moving forward.”

Such a message resonated deeply with the audience and well beyond. For example, as the founder and CEO of the teen rehab Newport Academy, Jamison Monroe has been a supporter of Leonard Buschel’s efforts, including the Addiction/Recovery eBulletin, over the years. Describing the reasons behind his ongoing support, Monroe said, "In our teen rehab programs and in our sober high schools, the young people are facing a challenging time in their lives. Can they have fun and be successful moving forward while maintaining their sobriety? What's so great about the Experience, Strength & Hope Awards and the Reel Recovery Film Festival is that they provide concrete proof that recovery can lead to dreams coming true. Rather than life ending when you get sober, it can be a time of true creativity. This is a powerful lesson for young people everywhere to learn.” 

Indeed, the lesson taught by the Experience, Strength & Hope Award show year in and year out is the redemptive power of recovery. No matter how far addicts or alcoholics fall, through the miracle of recovery, they can realize their potential and experience a deep and lasting sense of meaning in their lives. Of course, amends need to be made and wreckage needs to be cleared, but sobriety is more than just about cleaning up the mess left behind. Getting sober offers the creative promise of a bright, productive and inspired future that opens doors and deserves recognition. For providing such acknowledgement, the ESH Award has become a valuable facet of the jewel that is recovery. Such an annual celebration of honest accounts of the path to sobriety reminds both the newcomer and the old-timer of how their inner strength can overcome past bad experiences and lead to true hope today and onward.

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