How did drugs and alcohol impact your childhood?
I don't really remember what my first introduction to alcohol was. But I have a lot of memories drinking on family vacations. Paris, Hawaii, cruises. I was the kid that drank anything. I was the kid that you would be like, "Give it to Max. He'll drink anything." And while all of that was super happy, I also have a lot of memories at that age of not fitting in and being made fun of as a kid and not really knowing where my place was.
My oldest brother was killed in a car crash by two guys in a blackout. This was a real significant moment for me because I realized now I had this excuse I could direct my drinking and drug use at. And I just basically checked out at sixteen-years-old. Obviously the impact for his death [affected all of] my family.
How did anxiety play a role in your substance abuse as a child?
I was always trying to impress everybody. I was the kid that was willing to steal beer or cigarettes from my parents and impress somebody with that. I just wanted to be included. I wanted to feel part of a group … I would just have these emotional explosions of anger and sadness and anxiety and fear.
I could never be content with where I was at in that moment. Some other place was always better. And I never felt like, even when I was at home with my family, that ... I was in a safe place that I could just unwind and be me. I was always feeling like I had to be somebody else. Like I said, a good time spent in my youth, my mom and I didn't get along because I would tell her I hated her and I didn't love her, I didn't want to be around her. That seems crazy [now].
When did your parents become aware of your substance abuse?
I got caught at 19, stealing from my parents. They finally put it together that it was me. They looked at every single person [before they looked at me]. The housekeeper, the gardeners, the guys painting the walls. My mom and my dad had multiple fights yelling at each other, accusing each other of stealing behind each others’ backs. They went through this entire list that took two years for them to finally settle on one question, "Is it Max?" I got caught.
My mom and I looked at several [drug rehab] facilities in LA. … And it scared me. I begged my mom to not send me there. Somehow I convinced her that I could do it on my own.
What was it like trying to get sober on your own?
I kept drinking. I don't think that alcohol always carries the same stigma as drug abuse, and so I think it gets less concern. Alcohol was never considered “the issue” with me. So I just kept drinking. I drank at family parties, I drank at home, I drank during the good times, I drank during the bad times.
I was constantly fighting with my dad. Every scenario that I was involved in, I was starting to become unhappy. But at no point did I ever think, "Look at yourself. Look at what you're doing to contribute to all of this." To me it was like, "I need to get away from my dad. I need to get away from my friends. I need to get away from this place." I had this great idea that I was going to move to New York. I thought that moving away from LA was going to be the answer.
My stint of sobriety when I landed in New York lasted like 15 hours.
What happened in New York?
I was just kind of starting to piss off everybody that was giving me a shot. My brother lived there … and took me in, tried to help me out and I just continued to disappoint. I didn't have my parents around to steal money from. I needed another income source, so I started stealing money out of the cash registers [from my job]. They caught me, and then fired me.
I had never been fired in my life. They actually suggested that I go to rehab. They said, "We could talk about a future with you if you went and got some help." I was so incredibly insulted. But for whatever reason, again, here's this moment, I can come clean and I can get help, and I'm not ready to take it, so I fight it.
Why were you so insulted they suggested rehab?
Because I felt like they were attacking my character. Do they really know me? Do they know what I'm going through? I'm not a ‘junkie’. I'm not a ‘drug addict’. I'm experimenting, I'm having fun, I'm managing. All of these lies that I was telling myself.
Did you finally have a moment when you knew it was time to reach out for help?
I was living in New York, when I’d say I'd finally bottomed out completely. I was Googling treatment centers, these seven day stay places. My plan was that I could go away for a week and get well and do it with nobody finding out. “I want to do this, but I want to do it my way, I want to do it alone, I don't want to do it with a supportive family, I don't want to do it with anybody that has any knowledge of who I am.”
The truth was that I couldn't face myself in the mirror. I couldn't honestly take a look at what I had become and what I was doing. I thought that somebody else could take it away. Somebody else could make it better. And obviously that's not the way it works.
When did someone approach you about going to Caron?
My brother was in LA meeting with my parents... It was at that point where they had all released the lies they were holding on to. My mom was sending me money every week, my dad knew that I had been stealing money from him, my brother knew I was doing all sorts of drugs in New York. And they all came clean with each other and they quickly realized that this is a serious situation, this is not a matter of months or years, this is days. If I don't get help I'm going to die.
My brother rushed [back to New York] and checked in with me to see how I was doing and I told him I'd gotten fired... And he took me to dinner. I honestly don't remember very much of it but I do remember him turning to me and just getting really blunt, said something along the lines of, "We're concerned about you. There's an opportunity for you to go to rehab. Do you want to take it? Yes or no."
Finally the moment had come for me again where I had an opportunity to say yes. I finally had a moment of clarity where I could think about what my life truly looked like at that moment and how I'd just been lying to myself and I couldn't look at myself in the mirror. I had nothing, absolutely nothing. But whatever I had left, I knew if I didn't say yes in that moment, it was done.
I just thought about that for one second and out of my mouth came, "Yes, I'll go."
What did it feel like when you said you would go to Caron?
I felt relief. I felt like, "This doesn't have to be my life." And for the first time in years, I felt like I could take a breath ... and just relax. Drop my shoulders. I didn't have to hide anymore. It truly felt good to just exhale because everything to that point was just so stressful and it was manic and it was just anxiety driven and negative and hopeless.
In that moment, I had hope. I had hope for the first time in I don't know how long.
When I think about it now, everybody around me had hope for me. Maybe just a little bit. And I had none for myself. But my family, they had some kind of hope in my life that I could make this work, that I could change my life. I think that's remarkable. Truly. Because everything, my life on paper, there's no reason that anybody should've had any hope. But they did.
What was treatment like at Caron?
The staff was very warm. They heard my enthusiasm to get well. They piece together very quickly that I'm a good talker, I'm not a good doer. They helped put the pieces together about how I felt when I grew up, the sense of not belonging, the sense of longing for this feeling of being connected to something. And helping me understand how I supplemented that connection with drugs and alcohol... how it's a disease.
I had never heard about alcoholism as a disease. My mind was blown at the depth; it's not just about drugs and alcohol, it's so much more. The team at Caron really helped by listening to what my story was and understanding through their experience, how to help me approach recovery and sobriety in a really healthy, manageable way.
How has your relationship with your family evolved after going to Caron?
[Before Caron] my mom and I, we were on two separate paths and when we got to Caron we collided. What Caron did for us is, we had an opportunity to get honest, and just become fully open. I truly believe that without Caron's support, we would've thought we knew what was best, how to rebuild the relationship. And it would've fallen apart. Instead we were open to the direction Caron gave us. Whether it was through communication, or through some kind of written assignment to understand how she (my mom) feels, to listen to how she feels, to understand her concerns and all of her worries and her hopes, and for her to listen to me. It was a major breakthrough.
We have the most incredible relationship today because of that. The staff and the team at Caron saw a lot more of the big picture than we did in that moment. We talk literally everyday. There isn't anything my mom doesn't know about me.
What does a sober life look like for you today?
Sobriety has its challenges as life does. But I have a shot everyday that I'm sober, to make it through. There's resilience in my life today because of my recovery ... that I can lean on. I've never laughed harder in my life than in sobriety. I had never laughed harder in my life until I got to Caron and started having all of those feelings come back, started feeling like a person again.
I wake up in the morning and I deserve today. I deserve a smile on my face and I deserve to be happy, and I get to be, is the crazy part. By staying sober and being in recovery, I get an opportunity everyday to make my life better, to have an opportunity to help somebody else out along the way and that's awesome.
To read Max’s mom’s story, click here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
By Kristin Sowada