Shawn Rech: From Raging Alcoholic to Showtime Director

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Shawn Rech: From Raging Alcoholic to Showtime Director

By Seth Ferranti 10/11/16

The award-winning director talks to us about cocaine, autism, and how he didn't start his film career until he sobered up.

Image: 
Shawn Rech in front of emmy awards
The director's current film projects focus on overturning wrongful convictions. via Author

In 1988, filmmaker Shawn Rech, who produced and directed A Murder in the Park, a 2014 exposé that TIME magazine put on its top 15 most fascinating true crime stories list, spent an entire summer doing cocaine. After one rough night of snorting speed-laced coke, he put his hands together and begged God to let him go to sleep. He promised, like so many addicts do, that he’d never touch cocaine again. And unlike many addicts who make that promise, Shawn kept it and never touched the white powder again. But he replaced it with alcohol. He found it had the same effect of making him less socially awkward and it wasn’t nearly as uncontrollable. He was sure he could handle it and he did, sort of, but five years later he was hooked. To convince himself that he wasn’t an alcoholic, he started making rules. No drinking during the day. No business while drunk. No phone calls when inebriated. Sticking to his rules demonstrated that he had it all under control. 

But of course, he didn’t have it under control. He was a full blown, raging alcoholic who drank every day. Alcohol took everything and left him a shattered man. He lost everything he’d built, including his self-respect and the trust of those around him. One day in the summer of 2006, he woke up sick and thought he was going to die. Shawn started his recovery that day and hasn’t touched alcohol since. To replace the career he'd destroyed, he found a new love—filmmaking. You see, director Shawn Rech, who has one of the most critically acclaimed recent documentaries on Showtime right now, didn’t start his film career until he sobered up. 

He developed his skills producing over 200 Crime Stoppers television episodes that won nine Emmys. He just wrapped up filming 650 LIFER: The Legend of White Boy Rick, due out next spring. It explores the continued incarceration of White Boy Rick, a story The Fix has been covering for years.

We sat down with Shawn for a chat to find out how he overcame his alcoholism, what recovery is like, and why he decided to reinvent himself as a man who prides himself on gaining freedom for wrongfully convicted and over-sentenced prisoners.

How long have you been sober and what led to you making that life change?

This past July 26th was 10 years since I had my last drink. I never slipped once or had any near-misses. It's really a miracle, because near the end of my drinking period I was positive that I didn't have the power to quit.

Why do you think you abused alcohol and or drugs?

I discovered two major reasons. The first—and this is so cliché—is that I'm adopted. And despite having a great family that loved me, I still had abandonment issues. Us adoptees struggle with feeling unwanted, unneeded and unloved. That's how I felt deep down.

The second reason was that I was self-medicating my high-functioning autism. It used to be called Asperger syndrome. It's easy to miss, chalking up tics to nervousness, the unfiltered statements and insults to just being a jerk, and the inability to interact normally in social situations to shyness. Despite my recent diagnosis I've always had this, I just didn't know what it was. I had accepted my weirdness. The diagnosis was a big relief. Many with this condition medicate with drinking and drugs.

Couple these with an addict's selfishness, and there I was.

Could you describe your alcohol use? Were any other drugs involved? Did you hit rock bottom?

The cocaine phase was brief, but being an addict, I couldn't do it in moderation like other people. After snorting the first line, it was always a mission. The last time I did it, the stuff was laced with so much speed that I was sitting wide awake in my bed, freaking out, thinking of all the obligations I blew off during the bender, and I had a massive panic attack. I put my hands together and prayed for freedom from cocaine. My prayer was answered and I've never touched it since.

I was a vodka drunk, and up until around 1999 I'd drink 15 to 20 ounces a night mixed with juice.

A turning point was in 2000. Having never started a family, but loving kids, I had this habit of borrowing my friends' children and treating them to an arcade or movie once in a while. I'd try to make sure they had a blast with Uncle Shawn. I was closest to my godson Thomas. His dad ran the shop at my small business. In 2000, he was diagnosed with leukemia and I lost my mind. I was so gripped with fear that I drank like a maniac. My nights became 40 to 50 ounces. I'm 6'2”, 370 pounds and my body took the abuse for a long time. People were always stunned when I'd down six to eight rocks glasses of vodka, then hop in my car and drive reasonably well to the next bar to repeat the process.

This continued through Thomas' chemotherapy—like five years. He beat the leukemia (another answered prayer). By then I was out of control. I'd start drinking earlier and earlier, and by the end I was leaving work for the bar at 2:30. It also affected business, so I was going broke.

On July 26th, 2006, I woke up very sick. It reminded me of a time in my twenties when I ate at a nasty restaurant and contracted hepatitis A. I could barely move, like pure poison was circulating through my veins. This morning in 2006 I felt the same. I went to my doctor, who quickly diagnosed me with alcohol-related liver failure. He was direct. The only chance for survival was abstinence, but it might have already been too late. “In a week or so,” he explained, “you're either going to start feeling a little better, or a little worse.” If I felt worse, I'd probably need a new liver—and they don't give those to drunks. If I felt better, I'd have a chance.

I got back on my knees and begged God for the strength to re-tool my life. Two days later I was back to normal. I knew what God had done for me and was determined to not waste yet another chance.

Did you get any treatment?

My doctor gave me some mild anti-anxiety pills to get me through the nights for a couple weeks. I'm not a big AA guy. I know it works for a lot of people, but I couldn't stand the smoke at those meetings back then, and I really didn't want to be reminded (in leads) of that warm wonderful feeling of everyone's first drink. It's fair to say I used the program's principals. I had to find the holes in my life, make amends, take responsibility, and realize how powerless I was. I needed to lean on God.

Your career as a filmmaker started late and occurred right after you got sober right? How did that come about?

When I sobered up, the daily victory over addiction was the only positive in my life. I was a bit of a zombie. An old friend, Ralph McGreevy saw this, and hired me to write articles for his organization's trade magazine. I worked, and slowly came out of the fog. A few years in, I snapped out of the funk and was back to my old (but sober) self. I decided that since I blew the first part of my life, I was going to finish it by aiming high. I always wanted to make television and film. Ralph lived next door to Sergeant Dave Rutt, the head of Cleveland's Crime Stoppers. We came up with the idea for a show highlighting unsolved murders. We ended up getting versions on-air in Cleveland, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago. We won a bunch of Emmy awards and helped solve ten murders. Then we moved on to documentary film.

You've received critical acclaim over the past year for your film, A Murder in the Park. Did you ever envision this type of success?

Yes, I envisioned this success, but only because I'm crazy. I have bigger dreams for the future, and I hope those dreams are part of God's plan. I'm okay being addicted to helping right wrongs. Brandon Kimber co-directed, and a great Chicago attorney named Andrew Hale told us about the case and produced the film with us.

How did it feel to get Alstory Simon out of prison?

A lot of people fought for Al, but being at the prison for his release was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

One of your newest projects is on a case we have covered on this site regularly. What interested you in the White Boy Rick case?

Rick and I are about the same age. I can look back and see I was a couple bad decisions from suffering the same consequences. Also, locking up a juvenile non-violent drug offender is insane.

We're working on other wrongful convictions. Cleve Heidelberg is most likely the longest serving wrongfully-convicted inmate in U.S. history. There's also a case in West Virginia we're building.

For those suffering with addiction, what advice would you give?

Every sober day will be easier. Stay busy, even if it's by volunteering. Feeling as if you're helping others can cure a lot of ills and get you through the tough times. Most importantly, give it to God.

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