My interview today is with my son Holden. Sober five years. Wise. Gracious, and he’s teaching me a lot about the power of building an everyday muscle. He talks about how he makes decisions waiting for nudges from “Higher Power” and his brave beginnings of sobriety.
In Holden’s own words
The following post originally appeared on Path2Empathy.com by Holden McHugh.
When I found out I was going to have the opportunity to write for Path2Empathy, I was honored. I asked some questions regarding content, they said “just write how you use your story to help people.” My first reaction was “ How do I help people?”
Nervous about my first writing assignment since dropping out of college, I asked some friends for advice. I got polite feedback but nothing concrete until I sat down with my mentor Neil. Neil has mentored me for the past three years ever since I left Colorado Springs, CO for sunny southern California. We have a lot of fun together. We’ve also yelled at each other a lot. I call him every day, I run my life by him. He is able to give me suggestions because it’s not his life.
Neil has a mentor, Neil’s mentor has a mentor, and so on. We’re all sober and recovering from mind-altering substances (alcohol and narcotics). March 9, 2015, was my last drug use. I’ve got a little over three years of sobriety. Neil has a lot longer than that. He’s further down the road than I am. He’s walked through a lot of the same hardships, and he’s stayed sober through them. Now I get to mentor other people who are trying to get sober.
Which brings me to my story: Three years ago, I was a wreck. What started to be a promising freshman year of college, ended with me going to (another) rehab. My parents set me up for success the best way they knew how. They loved me, they supported me, they gave my sisters and I the metaphorical White Picket Fence lifestyle. That should have been enough for anyone.
My inability to live life was a mystery to me. I had a wonderful childhood, that being said it wasn’t a cookie-cutter upbringing. I’m the firstborn, my sister Hadley was three years younger than me, and then Averi five years younger than me. Hadley was born with severe special needs. Her brain was essentially a two-week-old infant her whole life and she was missing her cerebellum. She died January 28th, 2011 when I was fifteen, she was twelve, and Averi was nine. Averi and I had the honor of laying in Hadley’s bed with her as she passed. Hadley’s story is much greater and far too beautiful for me to try and sum up in a few sentences. I will say that no one has ever been loved as much as Hadley. Her life and death impacted thousands of people. I’m incredibly thankful for the years we had with Hadley.
Grief is a part of my story, I thought that is why I ended up in rehab. Sex trauma is a part of my story, I thought that was why I ended up in rehab. At first, my parents did not accept me for being gay and kids bullied me in school, I thought that was why I ended up in rehab. Turns out none of those things were responsible for where I went and what I did. Long before Hadley ever died, before I knew I was gay, before kids were jerks, I had this awful burning sensation in my chest. My whole life it felt like someone had poured battery acid right on my sternum. Like barbed wire had been strung around my heart, cutting deeper with every beat. I didn’t even know it was there for the longest time, I didn’t even have the words to articulate it until it had left. If you walk around with a pebble in your shoe your whole life, you don’t notice until you dump out your shoe and say “Oh, that was in there.” This pain manifested itself differently over the years.
When I was young it turned up as night terrors and anger. My parents and I tried to remedy this through prayer and I saw my first therapist at five years old. By twelve I realized I was gay. I started cutting to punish myself into being straight. It didn’t work. My life split in two. In public, I became the smiling thriving son/student/friend everyone wanted. Alone, I was finally free to explore the comforting darkness that brought me sweet reprieve. By thirteen I had my first drink. Now that was fun, finally, something had made a dent on that corrosive anxiety. But at thirteen it’s hard to be a full-blown alcoholic, my parents quickly found out. By sixteen I got high for the first time, and by seventeen I was pretty good at hiding it.
Three weeks before I graduated high school my parents found out about the drugs I was doing. They panicked and so did I. They were scared, confused, they felt betrayed. The son they thought they knew didn’t exist. Well he did, but I had been living this other life since I was twelve. My secret world was the only place I could be free to discover myself. I used self-harm, drugs, lying, and the internet as the building blocks for my other life. I even had an alias, I really was two people.
I was seventeen when my parents confronted me about my drug use, I shut down emotionally. They pleaded, they got angry, they cried. I kept my stone face the entire time. After a few hours of talking with them, my mom walked me to my room. As she was shutting the door she said “it’s going to be alright.” That’s when I lost it. “It WAS okay! … I’ve been holding myself together with Scotch tape and glue and you just took it all away!” Drugs, lying, self harm, were the only thing that had ever made a dent on that pit in my chest. We had already tried the Jesus camps, the therapies, the antidepressants, new psychologists, new diagnoses. We tried putting me on house arrest, we tried switching high schools, getting rid of friends, making new friends. To no avail.
My parents shipped me off to my first rehab that summer. I did more and more therapy, I worked on my trauma, I learned about myself. They told me I was an addict, I told them I just had “obsessive tendencies.” Through my parents educating themselves, and discussions with my therapists, Mom and Dad began to accept me for being gay. Post-rehab, we went on vacation, then I went off to college. I had gotten into my dream university. My parents bought me the fancy laptop, the dorm-sized coffee maker, I got the cute lights to decorate my room. I was completely set up for success. I had gotten all the therapy to clear my trauma out of the way, I had learned about myself, and my parents and I were on good terms.
In the beginning, I was an A+++ student. I was that kid in the front of the class that raised their hand for every question. Midway through the semester, I started drinking and getting high again, just like every other college kid. By the end of that semester, I hadn’t gotten out of bed in days. At 6ft3 I weighed about 110lbs, my pink and purple hair was falling out of my head from stress and malnourishment. My pale skin was covered in self-inflicted wounds. I was dead inside. My first thought in the morning and my every thought until I could fall asleep was “kill myself.” It was my sick soundtrack. I never wanted this. I felt like such a failure. I felt hopeless, I was out of options.
My parents saw the shape I was in and took me out of school. They offered for me to go to another rehab, this one was geared toward trauma recovery, I agreed. I didn’t expect anything to change, my last attempt at rehab felt futile. Ever since I was little, each therapy, each doctor, each prayer was always the next “answer.” Yet any success or reprieve was short-lived. I went to rehab number two. In my last week there I admitted I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. Thankfully a man who had been sober for many years from drugs and alcohol counseled my parents on how to handle me. My parents provided me an ultimatum. They offered for me to go to a rehab in California, but made it clear I was not allowed to come home to live in their basement. Whatever else I did was up to me, but they provided me a way. We all cried. I decided to go to a third rehab.
I got out to California on March 9, 2015. I took a few too many prescription drugs on the plane ride over, so March 9 is also my sobriety date. I completed rehab out here, I stood out like a sore thumb. Between my purple hair and my Walgreens makeup, I did not go unnoticed amidst the burly, blue-collar alcoholics. All of the rehabs I went to promoted twelve-step recovery programs. I went to the meetings, I drank their coffee, and I told them how strong they were for getting sober.
At the time I thought I was different than them. I identified with how they felt, how they saw and perceived the world, but I did not identify with their patterns of use. I had never been to jail. I had never done meth. I had never lost children in a custody battle due to my using. I focused on all the things that made me unique. You see, I have ‘terminal uniqueness.’ I am so unique and so different, that whatever works for you could not possibly work for me. No one could possibly understand what I’ve been through because poor me I have trauma! I am a special snowflake and my problems are more complex than yours.
At least that’s what I thought.
I spent the first six months out here living exactly how I lived in college but without drugs or alcohol in my system. I starved for months because I was too self-indulgent to get a job. For a while, I worked at a record store for a maximum of 25 hours a week, and I thought that was modern slavery. I had all these theories about how the human condition was controlled by nasty corporations.
At about six months sober, I was worse than I had been when I left college. I was still lying to everyone around me about how I was really doing. I began cutting again. I starved myself and binged on Dr. Pepper. The story gets darker, but you get the idea. This didn’t make sense. I had not had drugs or alcohol in over six months! I had worked on all my trauma, I did all the right therapies. I got the gold-stars in rehab. My parents loved and supported me for who I am. Yet I was in the exact same place as I was before, if not worse. That corrosive battery acid continued gnawing away in my chest.
One night it hit me. There was something wrong with me. This was the first time I really got it. It wasn’t my parents’ fault, it wasn’t Hadley’s fault, it wasn’t alcohol’s fault, it wasn’t my abuser’s fault. It was on me. This is when I really took ownership. My whole life I made myself a victim. Whenever people became fed up with my behavior, I would play one of my sob stories like a Pokemon card. When you’re a teacher, or boss, or friend, it is hard to flunk, fire, or disown the kid with the dead sister.
I used to diagnose myself with a litany of disorders, I loved diagnoses. A diagnosis meant it wasn’t my fault, “Poor me! You would drink too if you had Borderline Personality Disorder!” The only self-diagnosis I had stayed away from was calling myself an alcoholic/addict. It was the last house on the block, because if I was an alcoholic… there wasn’t a medication for that. The responsibility for my well being would fall on my shoulder, so I thought. Admitting that I had a problem with substances was my first step in the right direction.
Thankfully I fell into the loving arms of 12 step programs. They met me where I was at. What ultimately saved me was a relationship with a power greater than myself of my own understanding, these programs help build a bridge between my higher power and I. Just to clarify, a higher power is not specific to any religion or belief system. This is an all-encompassing term for whatever brings people strength. This realization saved me. Even now, I heavily attend 12 step programs. Working the steps helped me to clean up my past, maintain my present, and be ready for the future. I now have tools to pickup when Life hits hard instead of picking up coping mechanisms.
Drugs and alcohol weren’t my problems, they were the solution to my problem. Booze and drugs are great medications. The only problem with substances, is they turn on you after a certain point. You reach your bottom when you stop digging. The battle I fought was agony. I’m lucky I made it out alive, but it can always get worse. Some people live their whole life digging. They either die before the miracle happens or cling to the bitter end. Regarding substances, I have friends who drank and used until no vise could mask their pain. The drink/drug/etc. stopped working. How terrifying to have your only solution betray you. It would be like being stranded in enemy territory the moment you realize you’re out of bullets.
When I got sober, drugs were still working for me. Enough amateur chemistry and I could temporarily be ‘okay’ with the life that I was living. I could cope with my parents’ tears, scaring my sister, with hating myself. I don’t have to live that way anymore. If I started using/drinking again, it would be a nightmare. I’ve watched as my friends get sober, get their lives together, they get the car, the apartment, the boyfriend/girlfriend and somewhere along the way they think to themselves “this entire process was a gross overreaction to a complete misunderstanding!” They decide they can drink or use like a normal person. They are quickly proven wrong. Sometimes they come back a few months later, usually, they don’t make it back. After relapsing, my close friend Sawyer committed suicide this July.
My story to healing has led me to empathy, using my experience to help people. This stretches beyond just drugs and alcohol. I think we all crave something more. We all want to love and be loved. These programs give me an opportunity to meet other people who are newly sober or are trying to get sober. When I work with addicts, LGBTQ+ members, or other angsty teenagers, it gives my story purpose. My pain wasn’t useless. Nothing is wasted.
I now work at the rehab that I attended in California, which provides a constant influx of newly sober people for me to network with. I get to take them to meetings, play the perfect song while driving down the Pacific Coast Hwy, buy them burritos, etc. I do these things because it is what others have done (still do) for me. When I got out here I didn’t have anything. People who had more sobriety than I drove me all around Orange County, took me to Griffith Observatory in LA, helped me with my rent when I came up short, listened to me cry after a hard day at work, bought me burritos when we were out to eat. I had no way of paying them back, the only resource I had was free time. They all told me the same thing, “One day there is going to be a lil’ Holden that will walk through that door, he’s going to be hungry and want a hot meal, and you’re gonna have an extra $8 to buy him a burrito.” They were right.
I’ve been working to better myself for a while now and I know this is just the beginning. I am not perfect. I make the wrong decisions all the time. I have gone through extended periods of making poor decisions in sobriety. But each day is about progress, not perfection. The only person I can compare myself to is who I was yesterday. When I compare myself to other people, I always come up short because I’m comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. I aim to grow a smidgen every day. As I stick around, I get more opportunities to be of service to people just as others have helped me. People notice. Employers notice. My family notices. Now I get to hold my head high, even when I’m afraid. I love myself now. And others love me. Just in the past three months, I’ve been given a free car, a free trip to Hong Kong, and a free trip to London/Dublin. I’ve been given better than I deserve.
I’m not a millionaire (yet), I’m not a famous director (yet), I’m not Kristen Wiig’s best friend (yet). Instead, I remembered to call my mom on Mother’s Day this year. I got to send my sister handmade cards while she was at summer camp. I get to be a good employee for a job that has been very patient with me. We build self-esteem by doing esteemable things. I didn’t know these things were important to me three years ago, I had no idea this was the magic combination necessary to evaporate that burning battery acid feeling. I should mention that feeling disappeared sometime during my first year of sobriety. I’m not sure when. I just remember one day when it came back for a minute and it occurred to me that it must have left at some point.
That feeling comes back from time to time, now I’m very thankful for it. When I feel that burning, that’s my “Check Engine” light. It lets me know I’ve forgotten to do something or I’ve done something that I need to amend. When I started writing this assignment I was very nervous. Neil told me “the greatest asset we have is our story.” All I know to do is share mine.
The truth is, I help people, but I help people because it saves my life. When I’m tired after a long day at work and a newcomer needs a ride to a meeting but they are 20 min out of the way, I drink an extra cup of coffee and use the little gas money I do have and I throw them in the car. When I act better than I feel for those 20 min I am not thinking about myself. For 20 min I stop listening to the committee inside my head that tells me “I’m not good enough, everyone is staring at me, that acne on my nose is so big it deserves its own time zone.” I get the chance to step outside of myself and care for another human being. My friend told me “rats will go away if you don’t feed them.” The less I listen to that committee, the quieter they get. The quieter they get, the better I am able to hear and see what my higher power thinks of me.
By Holden McHugh
Aaron: friends. Welcome to another episode of work life play. We're running a hunt, a hunt for sustainable rhythms for a meaningful life to make an impact, to love people that we're entrusted with. Well, to learn, to lead ourselves in new and life-giving invigorating ways. And to get more of our life back, there is more going on here than ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
So today's episode, I interviewed my son in our VW bus. He just spent the last seven months living with us, moved back from California during the pandemic, and just recently launched to relocate nearby up in Denver. And we had this beautiful conversation. We actually had to do it twice. The first time we did it for some reason, the recording didn't work, which is the only time that's ever happened to me in almost 200 episodes. So we did a take two, which I think was equally impactful and meaningful, which you're gonna hear from him is he's knocking on the door of turning age 25 and not five plus years ago.
He was wandering the streets of Costa Mesa, looking for cigarette butts that weren't totally smoked and trying to figure out how to get sober. So you're going to hear how he's making decisions about his life. Now at age 25, how he's handling uncertainty, how in his words, how he looks for higher power nudges and how he pays attention to his spirit and navigates his life. I think there's a lot we can learn. I know there's a lot that we can learn from him. I learned from him all the time. So introduce to you my son, Holden McHugh, and his invitation for us for how to live life. Well, you can do this friends. Good for us. Let's keep going. Welcome to the work life play podcast in the bus.
Holden: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Aaron: So tell us a story about Apple pie, walking down the street, cartoon characters and the nudge from the divine.
Holden: I think there's a few different ways to listen to higher power for me, it, it really matters to me to live my life based on the direction I think is being intended for me. And there's negative ways to do that. There's when you feel anxiety or stress or anger that's usually a United that it's like a check engine light for me, I'm on the wrong path, but there's also a positive way to follow that nudge. And the best way I know how to describe it is that there's like this fat guy and it's an old Disney cartoon and he's walking through the forest on a trail and then it cuts to like this 1950s housewife. Who's in some cabin somewhere, who's making an Apple pie and she pulls it out of the oven and like puts it on the window sill. And then it cuts back to the fat guy. And he's just walking on the trail. And the little like WAFs of the Apple pie smell are like w you know, wafting down the trail and you see the little swirls go past his nose. And then like, as soon as he smells it, he like closes his eyes and like lifts, like levitates off the ground and his little feet go up behind them. And he just like floats over towards where the Apple pie is.
Aaron: And that was the analogy that you used yesterday talking about where you feel like you are right now. So tonight when I'm driving you to the airport, you're flying from DIA to orange County where you've lived for the last five years. The last six months you've been living here with us at home in Colorado Springs, original plan was to go back to LA to the LA area, actually find your own place. You've been looking at that for six months. You've been drooling over apartments and everything from probably almost spreadsheeting it to where you're going to be and what neighborhoods are safe and where you can park your car and et cetera, et cetera. And then just in the last week or so, you've pivoted two weeks probably. And it started around a tattoo that you were getting in this kind of experience that you had related to that. So I think what I hear you saying is back to the guy with the smelling of the WAFs of the pie in the air, as you experience God's invitation in this nudge, that's what you're following versus the path you were headed on. So take us back to maybe even rewind to five years ago and tell us what it was like, where you were, what was happening in your life, and then we'll come back to today to this pending. What happens next with the yeah.
Holden: Yeah. Yeah, so five years ago I was about, I don't know, I guess I was like nine months sober or something. And I'm a drug addict and an alcoholic and a sick one at that. And I had just, I'd been through three rehabs flunked out of my first college. I think I was on the process of flunking out of my second college. And I was getting sober in Costa Mesa, California as a result. I was batshit crazy, just insane. I've said this before, you've heard me say that it's, I'm so grateful for drugs and alcohol because they are the, they're the closest bandaid I had for the gouging wound. I had God sized hole in my soul and I was doing the best job. I knew how to stuff it that doesn't excuse any of the actually just, I, I just now know that, thank God they saved my life.
But what happened is that those, those tools really work. I wasn't using them because they didn't because I hated them. I was using them because I loved them and they worked really well until they didn't. They were fun and then they were fun with problems and then they were just problems eventually. And they stopped working.
Aaron: And how long was that? How long were they fun then? How long were they fun with problems? And then how long were they just problems, drugs, alcohol.
Holden: I'm really, really grateful that I nosedive really fast. So I had a very short window of the fun part. I had my first drink when I was 12, our first drunk when I was 12. And that was great. Probably a normal person would have considered a blackout and taking your pants off fun with problems. But for me, it was just fun at the time.
Aaron: Never heard this far keep going.
Holden: Yeah, there's layers to that story. But so, yeah, I guess normal people would probably consider that fun with problems, but for me it was just fun.
Aaron: Cue one of your phrases is normies normies. Yeah. So tell us what a normie is real quick, and then go back to your story.
Holden: If anyone that's familiar with Harry Potter, it's like the equivalent of muddles. But normies are non alcoholics non-drug addicts, nine, whatever addiction, addiction people.
Aaron: So those that would think taking your pants off and blacking out might be, yeah, problem. Yeah. Normie might consider that may not even find what problems they might.
Aaron: All right. So continue.
Holden: So I, yeah, so that was like first drunk, first drink. I had my first access to my own income and car and I discovered pot at like 17. And I went from anxious. I was in this like weird existential crisis and I was not okay with being gay and I wasn't going to a Christian school and in a really heavily conservative Christian town. So I was just add all the other woes of drama in middle school and high school. And not knowing you are an acne on your lip and just all the problems that people have. So I was there and then I found PI and I loved alcohol too. I just didn't have a lot of access to it. And I was really great at it. And it was the first thing ever that made a dent in what I call the corrosive battery acid feeling in my chest.
My whole life it's always felt like there was this burning battery acid poured right on my sternum and all the therapy, although worship camps, talking to horses, hypnotism, drinking, liquid gold with some lady in Tennessee, none of those things ever made a dent on that, that burning corrosive battery acid feeling. And for the first time ever, I don't know if it was gone or if it just dissipated or lessened, but mind altering substances related to number. It, I don't do so well here. You know, it, it hurts for me to show up and live normal life and, and breathe. And that these mind altering substances allowed me to not be here. I could go to some other world dimension, blah, blah, blah. In which mind you is all illusion and in your head, it craziness. But so that was all that it worked.
It was really fun. You guys, mom and dad found out that I was doing some pot and acid and stuff at the end of my senior year. And in my opinion, at the time it was a, a complete overreaction to a total misunderstanding, another one-liner and you guys decided to ship me off to, or I don't know if he invited me or decided to, but I wound up at rehab number one in Tennessee, which we didn't call rehab. It was therapy camp. Yeah. Camp there, camp camp. And I was suggested to do 90 days instead I did 45 cause we had a vacation to get to a Newport. And it just so happened that they called me an alcoholic and an addict and they put me in the alcoholic addict house, but I didn't identify as one. I just called myself, someone with obsessive tendencies. And I think all of us were willing to believe that narrative.
Aaron: Yea, We were all equal accomplices in this cooperation of a story at the time of, you know, we think mom and I, for sure believed that the extensive levels of trauma that you had experienced in life were enough reason to be using drugs by themselves and then being gay, growing up in a Christian community and mom and I finding our way in that you finding your way in that that was enough. That was enough reason. So it was like at first pass, it was just easy to see, this is a complete overreaction to a Matilda misunderstanding, right? Like, and we can get through this, so let's get you some help. Let's figure out what's going on. And then let's see if you can reintegrate into real life after intervention of, of therapy and, and some clarity. And then let's try Boulder, Colorado for college. Let's see how it goes. And we'll abort if it doesn't go well, part two. Boulder of fine.
Holden: And I, I did nothing. I was just the student who raised their hand in the front of the classroom. And it was on top of all my assignments and I'm smart. I do well in school. And improv theater, improv theater two jobs for, I don't know, four or five classes I was on top of it. And it's all going really well. And I decided to and I, I believe this next part is inevitable. It wasn't, LFI just not decided to, that's a longer conversation. I'll spare at the moment. But I started smoking pot again and drinking, I want to say two months into Boulder or whatever, mind you, I didn't identify as an alcoholic or an addict. I just had obsessive tendencies. So as long as I watch it, it's fine. But the way I describe it to normies and other alcoholics is that I was set up with the right laptop, the right coffee maker, the right bedsheets, the right dorm room. I, you know, I had been to the crazy therapy in Tennessee and I talked to the horses and it was all good. And so I was set up for success, sparkling, shiny new and I famous alcoholic line is you drink too. If you had blank, blank, blank that I do. So the same narrative that you guys bought into, Oh, well, no wonder he has so much trauma and blah, blah, blah.
Aaron: I Would drink too. If I grew up like that a hundred Percent.
Holden: It works for, for all people involved. And I genuinely believe that. And what I came to believe for myself is that I had, I grown up as a bubble boy on a desert Island with no access to any substance ever. And no one ever hurt me. It was just rainbows and butterflies. I would be exactly who I am.
Aaron: And that's, that's really mature and it's taken a lot of work to get there. So let's what I want to do is I want to pick up when we were talking yesterday, you were talking about moving from, and you mentioned it today, the battery acid feeling that constantly. And then if you fast forward to being in Costa Mesa, you are rehab number three. In, in your words, your getting evicted from sober living your, you, you still hadn't kind of hit the bottom yet is I think how you would say it. Yeah. But even, but it was sure hard to watch an ugly and just kept getting worse, but you weren't drinking and using, and you were at that time saying I am an alcoholic and a drug addict, but not actually actively working 12 steps yet. So pick us up that part of the story and take us through what began to change and shift. And what did you start doing? What'd you start believing and who just start listening to,
Holden: So I've got that God-sized hole. I was talking about that burning which I didn't, I didn't have those words for it at the time, but all I could describe it as the burning battery, cursive acid feeling and drugs and alcohol worked, and then they didn't and key, we have number three and we're going to ship hold off to California and I'm going to get sober and live this whole new life out there. And I'd done all the therapies at this point, all the, all the prayers and stuff. As far as I knew, I was sparkly, shiny and new. And I'm in Costa Mesa in California and they, they tell you to get involved with 12 step programs. And I pretended to, I, they said that if you get a mentor, then you get your phone back. And so I found myself a mentor and I just neglected to do anything that he recommended.
So then I am bopping around. And what I now know is that 12 step programs for me, where my bridge to my higher power and that's ultimately my medicine, you have a God-sized hole. And so I needed, I needed God's size solution. And I didn't have that connection yet, and it never left me. I just didn't know how to access it. And so I'm not taking my medicine. And so, and I don't have drugs or alcohol.
Aaron: You don't mean a literal, you weren't on,
Holden: well, actually I was on a shit ton of meds and that, yeah, that, that soon came off also. And for myself, I'm really glad I was off of meds. But I wasn't taking my spiritual medicine and then I also didn't have drugs and alcohol anymore. My self-diagnosed self prescribed medicine. And so I just am just a burning, flailing God-sized hole.
And what that looked like was I, well, I was way worse internally than I ever was when I was drinking and using, and that's not everyone's experience, but that was my experience. My I jumped back into like self-harm and it was losing all the hair on my head and it couldn't get a bed. And it just, I just hurt an act. And I think I mentioned this yesterday. But my favorite stories are the alcoholic who gets into crazy car accident or loses the wife and the children and the blah, blah, blah. It has a big, crazy rock bottom moment. And, but doesn't make the chain, you hear that th th that thing happened, let's say, in January their horrible event, and they get sober in August. Like they just scrape along the bottom, drag the anchor through all the barnacles. Yeah, so I did that. So it, it hurt like, hell I was told, Hey, if you do this, you might feel better. And then this being engaged in 12 step program at the time, and I did not do that inside and I didn't drink either. And I just dragged along the bottom a little longer.
Aaron: So this involves He being temporarily,But homeless.
Holden: Yeah. And, and not, I mean, I, I was homeless. I technically homeless.
Aaron: Although you had some friends that allowed you to couch surf, couch commitments.
Holden: Yeah. Couch commitments for short periods of time.
Aaron: And you are walking the streets of Costa Mesa jobless at the time during El Nino, which means it's like 107 every day. Yeah. And then it's concrete city too. So it's crazy hot covered
Holden: in homeless shit.
Aaron: You're outside all day because the couch commitments that you had only started at 1:00 AM after they got off work your mentor let you crash there for a little while. And part of what we kept hearing was until you take some ownership over your life, which was a scary gamble for everybody, because where are you going to do it or not? Nobody knew you didn't know. And I didn't know at the time, but how many people also don't, you know, and how many people don't, which your experience now is probably what eight out of 10, nine out of 10, nine out of 10 don't yeah.
Holden: Nine out of 10. Don't actually at least this round, maybe they make it back later on and they do, but I would say nine out of 10 don't
Aaron: and nine out of 10, don't not only stop using, but even actually then if they do stop using in your case, you weren't using, but the pain was even worse because you didn't have the medicine of the alcohol and drugs. So talk to us about what changed, what w where did the lights start coming on? Tell us about the assignment that your mentor gave you in 12 steps that you actually started doing.
Holden: So I'm, I'm dragging along the bottom. This was not after some crazy event. I had had a rock bottom moment. I'd say a few months prior and done little to, nothing about it. And I'm like, I want to say six months sober at this point.
And I'm on Tinder. The I was still unemployed and mind you eating nothing but dry Oriental ramen into dr. Pepper, double gulps a day, and smoking a pack of Newport one hundreds daily
Aaron: on your 80 bucks a week
Holden: 80 bucks a week, get couldn't afford or chose not to afford rent or, and chose not to get a job. But I made sure I had makeup hair, dye cigarettes and dr. Pepper all the essential and essential oils. Yeah, exactly. So I decided to jump on dating and as I'm swiping through the apps, I find out, I started talking to this guy and I started being concerned that he might be an alcoholic. And with my new found sobriety, I need, I can't jeopardize that. And so I decided to call up that mentor and get his opinion, his diagnosis, if he thinks this guy's now a Holick and if I should drop them.
And so I'm, I was talking to my mentor and the Ralph's grocery store over the foam, which just for, to help paint the picture, he is a six foot three, a 56 year old Jewish man from Brooklyn who spends a decent amount of his time touring the country and drag as characters as [inaudible] spelled exactly like lemon cammo meal. So that's that's my mentor Tuesday and my dear, dear, dear friend that man has helped save my life.
Aaron: Yeah. I'm plus one on that.
Holden: And so I'm calling him up to get the diagnosis on this Tinder date and whether or not he's an alcoholic and believe it or not, my mentor had zero interest in whether or not this Tinder guy was a alcoholic. And he started saying like, what the hell, if you have time to be swiping through apps and going on dates and dah, dah, dah, then you have time to be talking about other alcoholics and like, why, no, God, no, I'm not doing that.
Why would I, yeah, that's horrible. So it was, life's going so well. These are exactly, exactly. These are one of the suggestions. So Holden's running Holden's life and I'm surviving on dr. Pepper cigarettes and walking around in the hot sun all day, unemployed and forgetting everyone's birthdays. And somebody else is trying to give me a suggestion of another way to do my life. And I just, I can't hear it. And so he tells me she's called to alcoholics today and he clarifies these can't be people from my rehab or from my IOP or blah, blah, blah. And the reason being that when, and these are people that are also like inpatient with me, or, you know, they're checked into a facility like me. And the reason being that when your boat is sinking, the Titanic is going down.
You don't call the other people on the Titanic and say, Holy shit, we're going down, but I know, I know we're going down. What are we going to do? The people that are also drowning in the boat, can't help you get off the boat. You call the coast guard. So I had to call people that were working the 12 step program. I had more time than I did, and weren't from my rehab or IOP. And I was like, what? Hell no, I'm not doing that. And he's like, all right, fine. You have to call for four alcoholics daily. No, I'm not doing it six, six alcoholics. I'm not doing that by holding for you. You're so sick. 10, 10 alcoholics
Aaron: Fast forward we're Disneyland. We're visiting you in your outpatient treatment program. You get this assignment to call 10 alcoholics a day. And while we're kind of at lunch or different things, you're off on the side, dialing alcoholics that you don't know that you got phone numbers from, cause you did attend meetings and you saved them in your phone. And that's kind of part of the practice of the 12 step. Right? So tell us how you started calling those. What did you say? And then tell us about how they started picking up the phone. And one of the stories I remember is about getting picked up a burrito for you and a Coke and pick us up there.
Holden: So I don't know why I, this is not the first suggestion he gave me. Or anyone had given me. I don't know why, but it's, it's the first one that for some reason sank in and I'm realizing now, I don't know why this would have been the case, but I think this is one of my first whiffs of the Apple pie thinking just maybe kinda, sorta, maybe something's over there. And so I started calling these 10 alcoholics and the, the best case scenario is you can figure out everyone's work schedules and make sure to call them while they're at work. That way they don't answer because if 10 people answer the phone, you're, you're on there for awhile, which is great when you're unemployed. I don't know what else I had to do, but certainly not that buy cigarettes.
And so I started getting everyone's like work schedules and stuff and I'd call them up. And hi, it's your old friend Holden calling. And a lot of these people I had just met. Hi, it's your old friend Holden calling? My sponsor says I'm a very sick alcoholic, so sick in fact that I needed called 10 alcoholics every day. Thank you, flooding. Oh, so I was taking the fact that my alcoholism is spread to my ears. Thank you for letting me call you. I feel one 10th, less sick and click hang up. And then we, yeah, worst case scenario is a few of those that actually answered the phone and then you're stuck. And so I started talking to these people and one of them specifically who I'm actually, I'm supposed to see on a digital zoom meeting later on today.
Some 12 step person ended up my phone and I'm not quite sure how the number ended up there, but I didn't have enough numbers in my phone to be picky and choosy. And so I just started calling this one and this guy this man would answer my phone calls all the time. I had no idea who he was, but he knew who my mentor was. And we would talk and for months, this stranger I'd never met would answer my phone calls every single day at work. And tell me a little stories about them. Listen to my woes and my boy troubles and my employment sorrows. That man helped save my life as well. So that was the first time I started doing something that somebody else adjusted. I took a 1% of S of a suggestion given to me, and I started to feel about 2% better.
And I don't know if I can ask like correlated those two at the time, but my life started getting a little bit bigger. So what happened is I'm for the first time ever, I'm trying this whole 12 step thing and I'm bopping around the streets of Costa Mesa and the heat. And like you mentioned a person that was staying with, they would leave. I had to leave for work at 9:00 AM and they wouldn't get home from their job until 1:00 AM. And they very justifiably, so would not give me the key to their apartment. And so I would just wander, I had like a four hour shift and I would just wander the streets in July in Costa Mesa.
Aaron: So you just mentioned, you started doing 1% of what people were suggesting and your life started, the experience of your life started getting 2% better. And then how did that build momentum over time? So fast forward, you're now a mentor and you're giving back what was the kind of key moment? So you mentioned like the burrito story, go back to that story.
Holden: So I'm my mentor, not coming home until late in the day. I'm gonna walk around the hot streets and one day I'm walking around and it's I run out of cigarettes, which is the worst possible thing. I can, I can handle all this insanity, the heat and the craziness with nicotine in my system without it gets a little dicey. And so I just smoked my last cigarette and I panicked and I started freaking out and I, I didn't realize the gravity of this at the time, but as this is happening, I see this other guy recognized in the 12 step program. He was about my age and I knew him, but he walked right by me on the street and wouldn't say hi. And he looked weird and I was like, what the hell? But so I was, Oh, what would I do?
What do I start panicking? Like, what do I do? What do I do when you're, when you're feeling sorry for yourself? Like, Oh, you're supposed to call another alcoholic. And so I just dialed one, that was my phone. I call them and it goes to voicemail and I hang up the phone and then I'm out of options. I didn't try calling anyone else. But for some reason that guy called me back about five minutes later, he's like, hi, what's going on? I barely knew this one. And I'm on the coronary. He's like, where are you? Here's what those friends at target. He dropped. The friends at target came, picked up me on a street corner, drove me to the nearest Sonic, got me a large slushie, and then gave me the like seven other cigarettes that were left in his pack of cigarettes. And he just let me smoke a cigarette and drink his slushies and cry in the passenger seat of his car.
And he saved my life. I think he a hundred percent did so, yes to your point I just took and took and took and took them. And that was the best I could do. And the wonderful people of the 12 step program supported and loved me. And until I could love myself and I fast forward down the road started getting employment, started getting in car. And there, there was a long time where I didn't have a car. I didn't have a car until I was like three something years sober and and have a lot of, and it was broke. I was just always broke. And so didn't have a lot of resources to offer people. I couldn't give them rides to places and couldn't help buy them a whole lot of things. So the best thing I had was my time I could Kevin that involved a lot of phone calls.
And then as time went on, I, as I got those things and I started being able to give people rides to meetings, and I started being able to buy the burritos and the slushies and the cigarettes, the other people that came after me. And I work at Starbucks for awhile and that was really important time of my life. And I had a really wonderful boss, was very patient with me, a literal angel in my life story. And as I graduated from Starbucks, I've gotten to get a lot of people jobs there because I got to leave in good standing. And it's, it's really everything that's come to me has in some way, shape or form been able to like Delta out to all the people and get to know. So that's been a blessing. So yeah. Now fast forward five years I'm the pandemic hit, I was in California and I got that Apple pie with, of go back home and didn't know why.
And I kind of panicked. I came home to Colorado for a three week visit, went back out to California and decided pack up all my stuff and, and move here. And I didn't really know why. And but I just knew it was time. And I've gotten to spend the past six months hanging out with UIs w for the first time ever. And we're all healthy and well and groaned up. And that's been really amazing, wonderful, but I booked my flight awhile ago to move to LA today. And I've had that date in mind for six months. In addition that to I was planning on getting this tattoo for forever and and by forever, I mean, I've been dreaming up his tattoos since I was about 15. I made the appointment at the beginning of the pandemic about six, seven months ago to get the tattoo.
And then I custom designed, it spent hours on Photoshop, figuring out tweaking, sending 14 different versions to my friends about which one do you think, and blah, blah, blah, and printing it, printing it out a life-size against my arm. I put a lot of thought and intent into this tattoo,
Aaron: which is your artist's heart at work.
Holden: And then I, first time ever, I ever booked a tattoo and advanced and waited months and I set aside money for it. And then I am driving in the car to go get this tattoo. I'd booked it about three months out. And I had finally found out that morning that our family had been exposed to someone that had coronavirus and plot twists. We had all ended up having coronavirus. And the day of I find out I got to cancel that tattoo, not get it.
So I was pissed. So I rescheduled it again a week before this tattoos is two weeks ago from right now, I have been positive about LA I'm moving to LA today, and I've been positive about this tattoo for months and been the intention I I've put in probably a dozen hours of looking into places. I looked at hundreds of apartments in LA a lot of work and effort into all of that. And same with this tattoo, a lot of versions and hours and work and intent into it. And out of nowhere, about two weeks ago, I was up late. I started panicking about LA and the tattoo, wondering if they were the right move for me, which was, I thought I was just maybe getting cold feet. Wasn't quite sure. But what I didn't know is it was the beginning of that nudge of something else is in store.
And so I, I didn't panic and cancel any plans, but I just took that into account. Oh, that's interesting that for the first time I'm nervous about this. And then a week later it's time for me to get my tattoo and mind you, the artists had already approved this. I had sent it to him. He quoted me how long the secretary helped me pick this artist based on the style and stuff. So I roll up last week day, I had the time off of work to go get the six hour tattoo and I roll up and the guy says, Oh, I'm not doing that. And he gave me a list of reasons and I'm grateful that he was upfront about me with me about it. But long story short, I wound up with a completely different tattoo and a completely different location.
And the moral of that story for me was Holden's plan which I should, I should have put the intent and effort in the footwork into getting that tattoo. You know, that was the right move with the information I had at the time. But Holden's plan was to walk down that path. And little did I know that there was a Apple pie with waiting for me. And, and also this tattoo artist did say he would do the original one I requested, but he just gave me the 10 reasons why we shouldn't do that. And so, and I followed the way up and I got a different tattoo. I'm so happy with it. And it was totally the right move. And so that got me thinking like, Oh, wow. If I, if I was nervous about this tattoo and that didn't end up working out, I wonder what's going to happen with LA and a few days ago, or we'll go with anxiety about it. And came upstairs. Mom mentioned something about Denver fast forward to me, popping open Craigslist ads and looking at what's available up there and then calling my tribe back in orange County and running a session by them doing some journaling, blah, blah, blah. And now today I'm actually driving. I'm flying to California to go pick up all my shit in the storage unit, throw it in the back of a Honda pilot and drive back here to Denver caught a Springs, so it can move to Denver as opposed to LA.
Aaron: I love you, buddy. I love these, what I love about these stories just for us to double click on them and zoom in on them is I hope you, our friends listening, hear them as deeply human stories that you can relate to whether specifically, or just mythically and mythically, meaning I'm headed down a path. I'm bent on something happening that I've been planning for a really long time, and I'm keep doing all the planning and the action to make it happen, make it come to life. And there's just something about it that doesn't feel right, whether at the last minute, whether the day before or whether all along and what I love about your story holding is that you've developed the awareness to know the difference of it used to be battery acid on your chest all the time, and you've gotten healthy and whole enough that that isn't how you live.
And so you can now distinguish. So now when you have anxiety and you wake up about where you're going to live or nervousness about discomfort, dis-ease around what tattoo you're going to get you stop and pay attention. And that's amazing clarity. So many people don't have that. So many people just barrel through and just live with a battery acid for one or some degree of just constant anxiety and unsettleness, but you've learned, and you've done the hard work to be healthy and whole enough that now there's a difference. And then when that difference happens, you pay attention and you pay attention and ask different questions. So one of the things you mentioned yesterday that I think would be helpful for people to hear is to understand why you're willing to ask a different question and are curious about the whiffs of Apple, Apple pie from from the work of God in your life 25 cents versus a dollar from the higher power. Tell us that.
Holden: So a lesson that was taught to me early on is that very frequently I'm holding onto a quarter and God's got a dollar. And what that looks like is that so in, in the just story, I just told the original tattoo in LA where the quarter to the best of my knowledge with the information I had at the time, those looked like the right move. And so I should hold on tight to those decisions. But I got that little nudge and little did. I know that God has a dollar waiting. That has been everything from the roommates I've had in the past to different job opportunities down to which friend I saw on a Sunday afternoon that I had off, you know, there's just the plan that Holden had for Holden. And it looked like the right move and that's the quarter. And when I get that little nudge of X, Y, and Z didn't work out, it looks like a bad thing, but it's because the God's holding onto it all.
Aaron: So it sounds like holding, if you called 10, alcoholics is like a dollar
Holden: Quarter is an extra cigarette and get two more hours on Netflix.
Aaron: Yeah. Right then yeah. Had I not run out of cigarettes, would it be the quarter in your pocket versus pick up the phone call, call other alcoholics, and a guy ends up coming to rescue you and give you a Slurpee. Right. So that's the dollar. So you, what I appreciate is that you have these stories of a personal experience where you were fiercely holding on to the quarter that you were demanding and you found a way through a lot of pain to, to release and be curious and try something different, follow the nudge, follow the Apple pie whiffed, be curious about. And then as a result, when it concludes later, you see, Oh, wow, this dollar was way better. So just to be specific as like that God's with you, for you has plans to prosper, you not to harm you plans to bring you hope in a future. And when you step into that, it doesn't mean it's always zippity, Duda,
Holden: no, right.
Aaron: At all. But it does mean that you've learned to live in a way that you can just maintain curiosity along with taking the next right step that's in front of you.
Holden: And now, like now I can take that step in almost a cavalier way I can up and change my plan from one side of the continent to the middle of it. Within a day or two, because I have a body of evidence of every other time that my higher power has come through to me. And the example you brought up yesterday and this is just a very concrete example of it, but I literally, for the first three years, I was sober, never knew where my rent was going to come from that month. I just could not afford it. I was always broke and the numbers just did not add up. And every single day for three and a half years, I never had to be late. I never had to get evicted. I always had a roof over my head. And I always tell people that I never had to go with a roof without a roof over my head or without food in my belly, if I didn't want to there's times where I chose to go without food in my belly, because I didn't want to swallow my pride and ask for help or tell somebody, Hey, this is what's really going on.
But I had never had to have that if I didn't want to.
Aaron: So tonight when you fly out, go to orange County, you go get your belongings, sell off a bunch of them or leave behind them. Come back here, here still isn't defined. It's still, it's just an idea of I'm. I'll move to Denver, starting to talk to some friends who live there as well as some, you know, apartment complexes and stuff. So even that is still pretty uncertain, right? Like how do you know for sure. How do you know what's the right thing? How do you, and again, it's, I'm asking these questions because not only do I think it's interesting for the specifics of your story, but I just think it's very relatable because so many people struggle with making big decisions, because unless I want to know, I want to know how it's going to go. I just want to figure out how do I get my 25 cents?
Holden: And I, I think I told this to you yesterday, but I was up late and I was on step six of the seven step application for an apartment complex. And I was dead set. And I, and I realized I stopped myself and the last bit of it, because I realized that I was making that decision out of fear or out of discomfort. I didn't want to be in discomfort anymore. I just, I was deciding at two o'clock In the morning and
Aaron: You wanted to end the discomfort.
Holden: Yep. I, at two o'clock in the morning, I was deciding, which are all great decisions are made at two o'clock in the morning. I'm on step Six, the application. Okay.
I decided that I had had enough, this discomfort it's been months and I just, God damn it. I want to have a place to live. And I thankfully froze and said, okay, wait, or I, can you do something else? Which is,
Aaron: That's amazing like that, you're that conscious of wow, I know what I'm doing. I still fill out the application, you know? All right. But, but you, but you made it Step six, filling it out, recognizing I know what I'm doing. I am attempting to, and you mentioned this yesterday of demanding an outcome versus knowing and believing that, that the nudge, as you say, is worth waiting for.
Holden: And my, my good friend always says, where's mine, where's mine. And so my, and at two o'clock in the morning, I was afraid that Holden's not going to get mine and somebody else can get that apartment. They're going to get the better price I'm going to get screwed. I'm not taking care of blah, blah, blah, blah, all that crammed into, Oh, this looks fun, like a nice little spot, you know, but, and thankfully now the my fear in my, in my alcoholism only have so many tricks in their book. And so it all kind of looks the same after a while. And so, ah, this older teen, I remember this two o'clock in the morning, little nervy, it's starting to make sense again.
Aaron: So, so good. Well, what I love Is I just think you've the level of maturity that I've seen in you in learning to leave yourself and learning to lead with honesty and integrity, even in those moments, because those are hard. It's hard to admit to another human. This is actually what I was doing, because objectively, it would make sense like, well, of course you need a place to live and you need to make a decision. And well, yeah, if you know, you're not going to LA you might as well do it. Now that what the difference is, and the maturity that I see you lead your life with now is you really do do it in a way that is believing. What I had, the words I would use is instead of in the spirit of scarcity of there's only so many apartments that I better get it now, and I better figure this out.
And I want this discomfort of uncertainty to go away. And I'm, I've got a quarter in my pocket and dammit, this is good enough versus the spirit of abundance of like God's with me, for me. And I don't know where this is going to go, but I know that if I am fierce about committing to demanding it, to turn out a certain way on a certain timeline, then that probably isn't going to go as well as if I'm just, open-handed curious, know that there's whiffs of Apple pie in the air in nudges, that I can follow and allow it to unfold over time, which is a lot more uncomfortable because you don't get the resolve the resolution to the uncertainty that you're dealing with and living with. So even today we were talking about, well, maybe we'll hit a apartment before we go to the airport and you very maturely said, know what? That's just trying to shove one too many things in and cramming it versus waiting a week, come back, and then kind of start that process. So I'd love it. If you could just give us some advice, listening from your experience in your life thus far at 24, what is it that you've learned that enables you to just be willing to live with all that tension all at the same time?
Holden: I think it interestingly my first example where I was able to notice and articulate the, the Apple pie with thing happening in my life was when I was looking for my very first apartment in California. I was going from the homeless situation from the slushy and the running out of cigarettes. There was that same two-week period. I was going from living on somebody's couch to my very first apartment ever, which would also is code for me living in somebody's dining room with a pit bull and a cat that pissed and shit on my bed daily. But true story, which was all a wonderful and necessary time also. But so we had, I was with this new friend and we were going to go find an apartment together. And we had looked at like nine different places. And at each of the ones, there's a problem of blah, blah, blah.
Didn't have the right bank statement, things happening. And, and Oh, that they actually last minute changed the price of the rent. And just everywhere we went, it was brick walls. It was speed bombs. And if I need X, Y, and Z to align in order for Holden's plan to work, and it was not working at all these nine different places and suddenly walked into this one apartment and this place ended up being a godsend. And I hadn't have crazy stories from this place as well, but it was a total godsend, but I walk in and everything was smooth as butter. Like the, the real estate agent had just gotten finished with a showing and happened to be free to show us this one, right now we walk in and actually we already had the correct money order. Oh, just walk 20 feet across the street to the seven 11 to get this in.
And we were in with keys in like three hours and it was, it was perfect. And like, and I was talking about it with the roommate, the new roommate at the time. And I was like, wow, like, that's crazy. Like, we, we work so hard to get into all these other places and it was not working. And, but where I, what I would know now is that when God's fingerprints are on it, it just all goes smooth as butter. And so exactly got today looking for a place. It would have made sense to go try and view. We're already in Denver, might as well looking at apartment, but that it wasn't smooth as butter, you know, you and I wanted to get this done, and I'm so glad that we did. And there's some other things that need to happen. And this feels much more smooth as butter that would have felt more janky.
Aaron: So God-sized hole. How to listen to the inner voice, walking life with a mentor, paying attention to the difference battery acid on my chest and anxiety. And the anxiety is actually telling us something, it's a check engine light to pay attention to about, to do a, B and C until I could learn to love myself about quarters in our pocket and holding out for the belief that there is a dollar and there's a higher power on our behalf and with us and for us and taking other people's advice until my life starts getting 2% better by doing the next right step in front of me and acknowledging that a God-sized hole isn't going to get fixed with pic drugs, alcohol, other addictions of all kinds. And here you are at 24 launching into a new chapter of going big. Any closing words?
Holden: Thanks for doing this to me about though. I love ya.
Aaron: Love you.
Holden: Thanks for giving an alcoholic, a microphone and asking them to talk about themselves for an hour.
*We’ve done our best for this transcription to accurately reflect the conversation. Errors are possible. Thank you for your patience and grace if you find errors that our team missed."
(See this episode post as an example for this: https://www.aaronmchugh.com/how-to-deal-with-the-root-cause-of-your-distraction-with-nir-eyal-182/)
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.