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Alcoholism

Why Jared Watson Is a ‘Feel Good’ Addict

Dirty Heads vocalist overcomes addiction with diet and exercise

“I've walked through the darkest days and
Somehow I've found my shade. Oh.
'Cause that's the only way I know.”

— From “Dark Days” by Dirty Heads

Dirty Heads
Source: Dirty Heads

Jared Watson, lead vocalist for the band Dirty Heads, told me, “I was the guy. If you wanted to party, it wasn’t just going to be one night. It was going to be three or four nights. You’re going to call your girlfriend or your wife, and be, like, ‘I’m not coming home for a couple of days.’ We’re getting into some shit. You come out with me, you’re coming home with some stories. And there was no moderation."

“I’m addicted to feeling good.”

The majority of the time, being addicted to feeling good has worked for Watson. Dirty Heads have been playing together for almost 20 years. They have almost a half-million Facebook followers, and they’ve just finished their fifth studio album. Their self-titled fifth album is getting great initial press, with Billboard saying that “Dirty Heads have finally found their true voice … reaching a type of musical renaissance with their self-titled new album.”

Watson is also happily married and owner of a new home. Life is good.

But Watson’s love of the good life has had a dark side. His no-holds-barred approach to partying resulted in his becoming addicted to alcohol, as well as to Vicodin.

And now, Watson is telling the story of his unique approach to recovery. Rather than changing who he fundamentally is as a person, he threw himself into a different type of enjoyment. In addition to his love of music and his family, Watson found that changing his diet and intense exercise in the form of mixed martial arts were the keys to his recovery. And so he found that he could still be himself without resorting to using alcohol or drugs. 

He could still be a “feel-good addict.”

In retrospect, Watson recognizes that there were several risk factors for his addiction to alcohol and Vicodin. First and perhaps foremost, he had a long family history of addiction, which substantially increases risk. “I never thought about looking into my family history. My grandpa is an alcoholic. My great-grandpa is an alcoholic. My great-great-grandpa is an alcoholic.”

“This is in my family.”

More, being embedded in a culture in which one’s friends abuse drugs and alcohol may increase risk. Watson thinks that the three cultures in which he participated — music, surfing and skateboarding — encouraged his drug and alcohol use.

“We wanted to be in a band. And even before that, I was in the skateboard culture and surfing,” Watson explained. “And I was the kid who had the older brother who sold weed. And my friends were the ones who got the beers from the guys at the liquor store. So going into being in a band, we were the kids in high school who partied. And it’s so funny, the people who don’t fit into that mold are looked down upon.”

“It was, like, ‘This is what we were supposed to do.’”

And being in a successful band only heightened his sense that he was expected to party.  “You get in a band, and it’s not only what you’re supposed to do – it’s your job. And we want to give everyone else the best night off they can have,” Watson explained. “People want to take shots and stuff like that. Because our music is like reading a fantasy novel. It’s an escape for somebody who can’t party all the time.”

“We have a saying: ‘Our night of work is everyone else’s night off.’”

And what starts off as friendly offers to drink can often turn into rather overt peer pressure. “I don’t know if it’s a bad thing, but I like making the people in my life happy. The disappointment from when you turn down shots or a joint is just crushing.”

Not only was it difficult for Watson to resist using alcohol as a form of celebration, but also — despite feeling relatively good most of the time — alcohol became a convenient coping strategy for Watson during stressful times. “And then there’s the anxiety of being in a band in a van when you’re not successful and playing to nobody in an empty bar,” he recalled. “Of course, you’re going to have a couple of drinks or use to take the edge off. Because this fucking sucks.”

“So when things are bad in a band, you’ll use, and when things are good in a band, you’ll use.”

Eventually, as time went on, and Dirty Heads became a bigger band with greater responsibility, Watson’s alcohol use increased, and so did the negative effects of drinking. “I was throwing up when I woke up. And I was waking up in my bunk shaking — hadn’t been drinking water in days, hadn’t eaten, have no appetite, no appetite to drink any water,” he said.

But despite trying to quit, he thought each day that he needed to drink to prepare himself for performing. “Everyday, I would try and quit. And I would get up for one hour and I’d go sit in the shower and cry or throw up. And I go, ‘Fuck. There are 5,000 people that are going to show up in eight hours. There are 200 people that are going to show up in four hours for the meet-and-greet.’ And it would get closer and closer to the meet-and-greet and I’d be, like, ‘I’m not on. I’m going to be tired. I’m going to be disgusting. I’m going to be shaking,’” Watson explained. “I’m going to be sitting there trying to meet and greet these people. Or I’m going to cancel it. And that’s not happening, because these people work their ass off at some job that they might not like to pay money for me to come on out here and do this job. So I’m going to have to do it. And I’d be, like, ‘Fuck. I just got to get through it.’”

“I have to be on at all times.”

Soon, Watson discovered that Vicodin could take the edge off of the symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol. “Someone said, ‘Hey, you want a Vicodin?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. I’m not a pill head... So I’ll take it. And I was, like, ‘These are perfect for hangovers,’” he explained.

But this solution did not last — and Watson began a vicious cycle, in which he would use Vicodin to manage withdrawal from alcohol and then alcohol to manage withdrawal from Vicodin.

“I would run out of Vicodin, and then I would start having withdrawals from Vicodin. And then I’m, like, ‘Well, shit. Now I need to take the edge off of this Vicodin withdrawal,’” Watson explained. “OK, I’ll only have a glass of wine. Or I’ll only have two drinks or three drinks this day. At one point, I was drinking and taking pills just to be normal.  It wasn’t about getting fucked up anymore. It was about functioning.”

“So then it was this fucked-up circle.”

Eventually, Watson spiraled into anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. “I broke down and finally said, ‘I need help.’ I got home from vacation in Hawaii and was just miserable all day. And the crazy thing is that I’ve never been depressed. I’ve never had anxiety. I’ve always been happy-go-lucky,” he said. “And I was depressed now. I’m angry. I’m depressed. I’m thinking about suicide. I can’t take this anymore.”

“I’ve got a big problem.”

After his initial detoxing, Watson sought therapy but struggled to find it helpful. “So I go see a couple of therapists. But it was just a bunch of analogies. I’m in the music industry. I hear people using a bunch of analogies all day,” he said. “‘It’s like a baseball game.’ You have all of these old industry and label guys telling you all these fucking analogies. So when I get in, it’s, like, ‘So when you have a craving, spray your bug spray on, because it’s like mosquito bites.’ ‘You like Star Wars? The Dark Side is coming, and you have to use the light side of the force.’”

“And I’m, like, ‘This isn’t working.’”

He similarly did not find success with 12-step programs. “I went to AA meetings, and it did not work. I just wanted to get fucking wasted after that. Hearing so many stories about it I was just, like, ‘All I want to do is go drink! I can’t do this,’” he said.

“It’s not for me.”

Part of Watson’s struggle was that he felt that therapy and 12-step programs required him to delve into what was wrong with him that presumably resulted in his addiction. But Watson simply did not feel like anything was wrong emotionally outside of the negative effects of the cycle of addiction.

“I was raised by phenomenal parents. I was never molested. People are always, like, ‘You’re an alcoholic. You’re a drug addict. What happened?’” he explained. “There was never anything wrong. I was never running from anything. I was never hiding from anything. I wasn’t chased by demons. I didn’t have this tortured soul. I was this happy-go-lucky person. My fucking band is doing great. My wife is amazing. I just bought a house. There’s not one bad thing going on in my life.”

“I’m, like, ‘I just really liked having fun.’”

The disconnect between his perception of not having emotional issues and the presumption that his addiction was driven by mental illness or trauma troubled Watson, until he became more familiar with the neuroscience of addiction. “That’s why I was so fucking confused. I don’t have a reason. And I go, ‘Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?’ And I couldn’t think of a reason,” he explained. “Well, your brain is fucked up. You’re not making the dopamine that the normal human brain would make.”

In an attempt to seek out alternative ways of making him feel good, Watson considered medication, but ruled it out immediately. “That’s scaring me, because that’s pharmaceutical, and I already had something pharmaceutical that I was addicted to,” he said. “But I needed something immediate that made me feel better, because I’m addicted to feeling better. I don’t want to have to wait a month or three months or be depressed for no reason,” he said.

No one was more surprised than Watson when he discovered that something as simple as diet and exercise could provide the effect he desired. Physical activity is generally considered one of the most consistent methods of improving physical and mental health. And it has been hypothesized that exercise may help manage addiction in part by altering an individual’s dopamine levels. And increasing evidence suggests a link between healthy eating and improved mental health.

“So I read all of these things and came across a couple that were, like, ‘Exercise and diet.’ And I was, like, ‘No way.’ There’s no fucking way I’m going to change my brain after abusing it for 15 years with booze and the last four or five years with pills from just working out,” he said. “And an hour after I worked out, I felt good for the first time in so long.”

“What the fuck? This works!”

Watson thinks that part of the positive effects of the exercise was that he was ale to be in a more peaceful, mindful state. “What I realized was that when I’m working out, I’m not thinking about things,” he explained. “I was always so depressed and anxious, because I was always thinking about why I was so depressed and anxious. But I don’t have time to think about that when I’m working out.”

“And then when I’m done, I feel great the whole rest of the day.”

With the help of his wife, Watson soon changed his diet to become more plant-based. “I started eating a lot more fish and a lot more vegetables,” he explained. “And my wife’s always been a super health-food nut. So I started getting more on her diet, and she’s more vegetarian.”

Watson felt that things really fell into place for him when he started training in mixed martial arts with Ian McCall. “And then I come across Ian. Now that I’m sober, I need cool sober stuff to do,” he said. “So Ian is, like, ‘Come into the gym.’ I’m a big MMA fan, a big UFC fan, a big boxing fan, a big jiu jitsu fan. So that’s another thing where I’m, like, ‘I’m having fun.’ He’s my friend. We’re laughing and having a good time.”

Soon, Watson realized that he became just as addicted to his new healthy lifestyle as he was to alcohol and drugs — but without the downside. “All of these things are making me feel good, and so I want more. And it’s hard for me to pump the brake on things, whether it’s good or bad. But now I can’t pump the brakes on something that’s good for me. So I’d rather put my energy into that.”

More, mixed martial arts training is providing additional motivation for Watson to stay sober. “And now, instead of needing something at night, I say I can’t have a glass of wine or do anything that’s going to make me feel bad in the morning,” he explained. “Because I’m going to get up in the morning and do something that I really fucking enjoy. So now I have something to look forward to in the morning. So when I go to bed, I have a reason not to relapse.”

“I have a reason to stay sober.”

Watson soon started seeing physical changes. “I’m changing my face. I’m looking in the mirror and I’m, like, ‘Shit! That’s what I’m supposed to look like,’” he said. “Not this chubby, bloated person that I didn’t like. So now every aspect of my life is becoming better.”

Overall, Watson has found his diet and exercise to be the main ingredients in his recovery. “It’s only been a year and a half. And I’m still trying to figure it out. And I still get anxiety. But if going and seeing somebody helped 10 percent, this helped 80 percent. And now that I’m a little bit more mentally healthy, I’m going back to a new therapist to just talk every once in a while.”

Still, it is not always easy. Watson misses being able to drink. “It still bums me out — the fact that I’m never going to be able to have a glass of wine again with my wife. Sometimes, I want to lie and say, ‘I don’t miss it, I’m better now,’” he said. “And then I’m, like, ‘Fuck, yeah, I miss it! Do you know how much fun getting drunk with your friends is? Do you know how much fun getting drunk and stoned with your wife and having good sex is? Am I bummed that I can’t have that shit now?”

“Fuck, yeah, I am!”

Interestingly, Watson is seeing changes not only in himself, but in some of the cultures that influenced him to drink in the first place. “Now, the surfing world is very tapped into health and yoga. Because of guys like Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton, they’re tapped into meditation, yoga, Pilates, stretching.”

“And all of the younger guys go, ‘Wow, you’re surfing really well. That’s what I have to do.’”

And as he has gotten sober, he has found a new tribe. “There are other people out there dealing with it. You don’t know how many people are out there. You just think that it’s you. You’re the one with the fucking problem. You’re the fuck-up. You’re the shithead,” he said. “And you start saying you’re sober and everyone always says the same thing. ‘Fucking congratulations!’ Or they’re, like, ‘I’m sober, too.’ And you’re, like, ‘I never even knew.’”

“And you’re, like, ‘Oh, man, I’m not the only one.’”

And Watson is optimistic and looking forward to taking on the challenge of continuing to be in a popular band while sober. “I have a two-month tour that I’m going on, and I’m not scared of it. Before, I would have been scared about going on it,” he said. “Because I would have been, like, ‘Fuck, how am I going to get through it? Am I going to take pills half of the time? And then run out and then drink? And then am I going to be hung over? Am I going to ruin the something like The Today Show, which we are on August 3rd?’”

“But now I’m, like, ‘I’m going to wake up every day and go run and work out and go meet people,’” he said.

“And be happy and feel good.”

Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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