Local Current Blog

Hello, I’m David C. and I’m an alcoholic and an addict (or: How I learned to stop worrying and love myself)

Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

This weekend, the clean-and-sober music festival HazelFest returns to the Hazelden treatment center in Center City, Minn., for its third year. And fans of the Current will notice a familiar face on the lineup: the host of the Current’s Local Show and Radio Free Current, David Campbell, will emcee the day’s festivities.

Our DJs host a lot of events around town for a lot of different reasons, but for Campbell, this year’s HazelFest gig is especially poignant and personal. Although he hasn’t acknowledged it publicly before, Campbell has been in recovery since January 1, 2012, and he’s recently made the brave decision to share his own story of addiction and alcoholism with the world.

“I don’t know why I’ve been so quiet about it,” he says. “As part of the 12-step meetings, there is a tradition of anonymity. And being a person in media, I was a little confused about it. I would tell people individually, but it never felt appropriate for me to talk about it publicly. And then when the opportunity came along to emcee HazelFest, I jumped at it right away. I knew I wanted to do it, wanted to be there.”

HazelFest will feature performances by Astronautalis, Haley Bonar, Caroline Smith, Davina and the Vagabonds, GB Leighton, DJ LAST WORD, as well as special family and kid-friendly activities, with proceeds benefiting the Hazelden foundation.

Previous Hazelfest celebrations have included fellow artists-in-recovery Gary Louris and the Jayhawks, Communist Daughter (whose lead singer, Johnny Solomon, shared his story in this space back in 2012), and Trapper Schoepp and the Shades.

I sat down recently with Campbell for a lengthy conversation about his journey through addiction, alcoholism, and recovery. This is his story.

How long were you in treatment for addiction?

35 days. January 2012 until first week of February 2012. The place I went is just awesome. It’s a place called the Meadows. And it’s in Wickenburg, Arizona. I was really scared to go there, but by the time I was going there, I knew I needed to change, I knew I wasn’t happy with how my life was going. I had faith. The therapist that was helping me and a couple other people that had advised me to do this, and go to this specific place, were people that I trusted enough. It was really hard to do that. To stop going, “I know how to fix this.” To let go of that. That was actually the biggest obstacle. Me, thinking that I could somehow, if I just tried doing the stuff I was doing harder, could work better. And I just didn’t have any of the tools. So the willingness to go there was what was really the most important thing for me to get to. And I had to go through a lot of pain to get that.

These things had been happening to me for—maybe the consequences weren’t as great when I was younger, but these things had been happening to me since I was a small kid. I believe that I was an addict, or an alcoholic, before I even drank or did drugs.

Why do you say that?

Well, the thing that makes me an addict, beyond not being able to not do these things, was the way that I thought and the way that I behaved. There’s a few common characteristics or behavioral traits of addicts. We can be very selfish people, probably bordering on narcissistic. Another trait is self-seeking—we want attention. There’s a lot of fear, about pretty much everything, and sort of future-tripping: fear about events that haven’t even happened yet. Some fear is healthy fear, but it was debilitating fear, where I would make decisions and take actions based on things that might not ever even occur. And there’s dishonesty, outright lies, or omission… and there’s also just inauthenticity, where I don’t show you who I really am, and what my needs are. And that started really early for me. The fear started really early for me, the selfishness started really early for me.

And the last and most important one—if there was a team of character defects that all addicts had, this is the MVP—it’s delusion. I don’t see things as they are. Everyone’s reality is different, right? But I would see things that definitely were not as they were. I would see things in a different way or I would manipulate them to support the case for doing the behaviors that I wanted to do. To sleep in late, stay up late, sleep with some girl that I didn’t care about, lie about something to my boss, drink too much liquor, or continue to drink when I had enough consequences to know that I shouldn’t. Those things outside of the booze and drugs started really early, those behaviors.

And you come by it honestly. I think that’s a misconception about addiction: most of the people that it happens to, they’re sort of biologically and environmentally set up for it. Learned behaviors are passed from generation to generation.

When did you start drinking?

15, probably? Summer after my freshman year. A lot of people in recovery, who have had problems with alcohol, have a very similar story of their first drinking experience. It’s sort of euphoric, and they can remember it. I had walked my dog a lot in the neighborhood, and some senior at the local high school, two years earlier, had thrown three-quarters of a 12-pack in the woods, and I happened upon it with my dog, and I hid it somewhere else. Two years later, drank the beers! Milwaukee’s Best with my buddies at this marching band party at the end of the year. I had the first one and I was like, “This is awesome.” All of the social anxiety, all the feelings of “I’m not enough,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not funny”—all those things just disappeared.

Were you thinking about those things at the time? Or are you thinking about that now, through the lens of recovery?

I remember thinking, “This is awesome. I’m fearless right now. I’m killing it tonight.” People liking me was really important. And that’s what I had. All of a sudden, I just remember people staring at me as I told some story or something, and thinking, “Holy s***. I’m going to do this a lot.” And also too, my dad—I don’t ever feel like he drank excessively, but he did drink. I knew that when I was an adult, I would do that too. And my mom would have a little too, but my mom was pretty moderate about it. And my dad would tell me stories about college, the fun he and his buddies had. So I wanted to have that sort of thing, too. You see it in the world, you watch college buddy comedies—they’re all about getting messed up and trying to pull chicks. You know? So you just think that’s ok. But for me it wasn’t ok. Because I was set up to have these other needs.

What happened after that?

Oh, I started drinking. [laughs] I mean, it was hard to [beer] get my sophomore year, but I made efforts and got it… I remember, too, that I just really had problems with friends. In junior high, all my friend groups sort of dismissed me, I felt really, really lonely for a lot of that time period. In high school, I was sort of a social climber; I wanted to be liked by everyone—I wanted to be cool with everyone, but I also wanted to be in the homecoming court. That was important to me for some reason. I needed to be liked because I didn’t like myself. I had no self-esteem, and I used other people to esteem me. I just remember sitting in our history class and saying to the guy next to me, “Let’s get some beer and go out with those guys.” And we did, and they became my friends. And I just continued to do that. I was in sports in high school, all year—soccer, and hockey, and then tennis for two years and golf the last two years, so those things, you had consequences if you used. And I was serious about that, at that point in time.

So you were able to keep it under control?

Yeah, I just wouldn’t do it. But by 17, I remember being at a party during the soccer season, and I wanted to do it so bad. I wanted to experience the party with drinking. I remember saying to somebody, “I could watch the grass grow if I had beer.” Everything to me seemed hugely better. It enhanced everything for me. I was a really sensitive person, and it sort of shut that stuff down so I could be a little less cautious, and a little more wild and uninhibited. It became a social activity in and of itself, and I found people that could do that with me.

In high school there weren’t any real significant public consequences. Because I was on the student council and on the hockey team and everything, teachers liked me. So there were no fights, no DUIs, no minor consumptions, anything like that. But there were people that were concerned about me that knew better. And there was close calls. There was one time with a cop in Mendota Heights that I should have been arrested, and I just somehow managed to get away with it.

You were driving?

Yes. One thing that’s a hallmark with addiction and addicts, is that the line in the sand that you draw for yourself continually moves. And then when that starts to happen, when you’re not operating in your value system anymore, you have to drink or use that much more to forget that you’re not acting in your value system. So by the time my senior year came around, it was getting bad. I was a kid who should have had a direction or an idea of where I wanted to go for college, and my parents were just kind of like, “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

The drinking continued into college?

Oh, yeah. I ended up at the U, because that was a place I applied to and they accepted me. In college, you know people are more independent, they’re less tied to each other; you haven’t been hanging out since kindergarten. I was in a fraternity. It was funny: I was the rush chair of the fraternity, but I was suspended from the U. I was failing out of college. I think my first semester I got a 0, an incomplete, and an F. Could that be possible? I don’t know. It was bad. I was pretty much on academic probation on and off and suspended the whole time I was there. I never graduated.

I was on my own and I had no money, so I started working in a bar. And the fraternity—it was not what a lot of people imagine what fraternities might be like. We had fun. We were reckless. But there was also a component to it that was like, “Who are you?” The whole initiation process wasn’t “jump through that flaming thing and then chug this vomit.” It was, here’s five pages of quotes from people who have done amazing things in history. Think about who you want to be and write about it. But then it was this dichotomy of, as soon as that got done, we all got loaded together. So I found the guys that liked to drink like I did. And there were other drugs starting to happen. You know, weed. That was another line in the sand that started to move over time.

I tried to quit the first time right around my 21st birthday—living at a fraternity house, working at a bar.

What made you want to quit?

I was going to a therapist. I’ve been going to a therapist since I was 15. My parents were trying to figure out what was going on, you know. I had been seeing a therapist who had said, you know, “I can’t treat you. You’re depressed, but you’re consuming a depressant.” So I tried for a little while, and would make it a couple months, and then say, “Well, I’ll just have one beer.” Or, “I’ll just have a Beck’s bomber, because that’s still in one container!”

I moved out to Vail, Colorado, with a friend when he graduated in ‘98, ‘99. There were some consequences out there. We got ourselves into some trouble. When we came back from there, there was the first sort of heavy duty legal consequence. I had to ask for help from my parents. In the end nothing happened, but for a while it looked like I was going to be in trouble. And I got so scared from that I went back to school, quit everything, made the Dean’s List, and then dropped out the next semester. That’s how I was: It was As or 0s.

_DSC1320I would go through streaks like that. I would use and then not use. Use and not use. And sometimes I would make it. Between 2000 and 2012, there was at least three full years, maybe more, where I was abstaining from alcohol use. Those were also years, later on, when I first experienced abusing pharmaceutical drugs. Because I was depressed and anxious, so I needed to have Paxil, and beyond that, when I was on an airplane or performing in front of people I needed Xanax. And I had attention deficit disorder, and PTSD from sexual and physical abuse as a kid, so I would go in to talk to the doctor and she gave me all this stuff. I just felt plastic, at one point. I would just go back and forth. There was never an overhaul of the way I thought or behaved, or what was important to me.

When it really started to come together a little more is when the Fetus took me on, in 2001, so I was working there in the basement, I had health insurance. I was playing washboard in Accident Clearinghouse, and then through them I was like, I know how to do this! And I started booking the in-stores at the Fetus, writing little press releases—just everything I knew how to do in music, which I always loved, because it was always a great source of comfort for me. I had seen the movie High Fidelity, and I wanted to be like Rob, and a little bit like Barry and Dick. So I think that felt like the community of people that I wanted to be in.

You know, our community is wonderful, and there’s some really cool, creative people. But there’s also definitely a strong connection, in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, to drugs and alcohol. And sex. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but the way I’ve experienced it is that we really celebrate people who went to the grave for it. Who didn’t stop and think, “Maybe I shouldn’t bang so much dope.” They went their way hard; so hard it killed them. And you don’t think of that as suicide. But there was a point where that person knew that if they shot heroin again they were going to die. And we sort of twist it. There’s almost a group distortion about those things.

I just sort of repeated stuff in this period of time. I would quit for a while, and I would have a relationship that would tank and I would be so depressed, and go out drinking again. It just kind of kept going. The last time, which led to the end, I was sober at the beginning of a relationship that I’d had, I think I was maybe a year and a half into it, and I had one slip along the way for Valentine’s Day. And at the end of this relationship, I had made some choices that really did irreparable damage to this relationship. And they were all a month after I decided I could drink again. I mean, the wheels just came off the cart. And I’m guessing that was maybe mid-2010. And then that summer I just went off. I just went nuts. I’d already become accustomed to going to a show with Xanax in my pocket, or some Ambien or something, so now they were together. And then it was worse. Somehow I got hurt and I got some Percocet or Vicodin—I think I actually came by it honestly the first time, and I was like, holy crap. That works great. Now it’s pharmaceuticals and alcohol. And I very quickly went to the point where I was using opiates. It wasn’t heroin, but it was in pill form, and I was eating it while drinking. A part of me, I think, knew this was the end.

I always felt like, “I’m not an alcoholic because I’ve never had an alcohol-related driving offense.” And then all of a sudden I didn’t have that anymore. And then I had two within the span of five months.

And there was actually one more incident—this was post both of those things. It was the night before Rock the Garden 2011, the year Booker T. Jones was there. The rain was coming, I knew the rain was coming. And I’m not joking you, this was what was going through my mind at this time: I have two unresolved DUI cases. I’ve destroyed this relationship. I’ve spent the summer doing drugs and drinking, and I’m barely getting work done at my jobs. I’m underemployed, no health insurance, taxes that haven’t been paid in a couple of years. There was not a lot of positive things for me to look at in my life at that point in time. I was obsessed with what I was going to wear, and what I was going to say to introduce Booker T. Jones. I put this immense amount of pressure on myself. In my head, everything was a make-or-break moment. They were going to decide, at that point in time, that they liked me as a DJ and as a radio personality. I had to look right, I had to sound right, it was a big deal.

Was any of this pressure coming from work or was it internal?

No, it was all in my head. It’s always been in my head. Because everyone needs to like me. What happens if they don’t like me? I’m stuck with my own s****y mess that I’ve been creating over the last 20 years. And I was up that night, and I didn’t know what to do, and I just ate a bunch of drugs and drank to the point where I was hysterical. I was hysterically crying and sobbing; I couldn’t comfort myself. And I was just like, I know how I can avoid this. I know one way I can avoid all this s***. And I was just like, I’m going to f***ing go grab a knife and I’m going to kill myself.


Well, you know. Do I want to die? No I don’t want to die. It was the ultimate avoidance. And so I go, and I get it, and I’m trying to do it, and I can’t do it, and I’m like, “You piece of s***, you can’t even do that right.” I don’t even know how it ended; I was just hysterical. My poor neighbors. I was just shrieking in my room at 2:00 in the morning. And I feel asleep, I finally just passed out. And then I woke up the next day and there’s this butcher knife next to me in the bed, and it was like, “I’ve got to tell somebody. This isn’t ok.” And then I just went to the event and introduced Booker T. Jones in front of 10,000 people and pretended like nothing had happened.

Then I started telling people. My brother, and my family, and the men’s group I started going to. “This has developed beyond what I know what to do with. Somebody tell me what to do.” And around that same time I started seeing a different therapist that specialized in childhood trauma, and I had been talking about that stuff, and I had done a couple weekend therapy retreats with other men, and he had been trained at the Meadows. And the Meadows was a dual-diagnosis treatment center. I went down there thinking, “I’m getting help for depression and anxiety! It’s not the drugs! It’s not the drinking! It’s that I have huge problems with depression and anxiety and I’m really sensitive and someone needs to show me how to fix that.”

I was terrified to tell work. I got someone from HR and [my boss], and I was like, “I need time to do this.” And he was like, “Really? Ok.” He was supportive. But I had fooled a lot of people. I didn’t let you see where I was falling apart. But there were cracks where I would freak out, I would abnormally respond to a situation too angry, too loud, too sad, too slow. But MPR, they didn’t ask any questions. They just said, “Ok. What do you want us to tell people?”

I didn’t know what to tell people here, because I was really embarrassed about it. There’s a stigma about it. Since January 1, 2012, I’ve been sober and in recovery, and I’ve never really said anything about it publicly.

What happened at treatment?

So I went down there and I took notes and I went to every lecture. These people, they knew me. That’s the other thing—I think a lot of people feel alone and unique when they are in that situation. They’re isolated, they’re doing a lot of judging of themselves and other people. And you get down there, and they’re just like, “Yep. We’re all the same.” Human beings, we’re wonderfully unique in our own ways, but a lot of the behavioral stuff and the brain, the way it functions emotionally—there’s nothing that these people hadn’t seen. And it became clear, in sort of a disappointing way, that I was not unique.

My counselor was incredible, and he was both compassionate and really supportive. I still talk to him. Usually in crisis. But like I said, I just did whatever they told me.

It was not perfect when I got back, but I knew what to do. For the first time, the instruction manual was there. That’s what the Meadows did for me, and the people that were supporting me, the therapists, the 12 steps. It was all kind of in line. It was the same way as when I started working at the Fetus and booking shows and playing in bands—there was a synergy of the body of knowledge and the people I was meeting and the things I was doing. Recovery happened the same way for me. My therapy started working because I wasn’t lying about things all the time.

I put a lot of time into my recovery now. Every day, something. And when I’m getting as much time as I’d like to do it, maybe 25 hours a week. Minnesota is really blessed in that way. There’s a lot of great recovery opportunities. I go to 12-step meetings, a couple of different types, and if I need to go to more, I’ll go to more. It’s been really helpful to me, the fellowship and community around that stuff. The actual 12 steps themselves—if you would have told me I was going to do that, I would have punched you in the face. There’s nothing I would recoil from more during my using days than that. But I was desperate to try something. So that has been a really positive thing for me.

How are you feeling now?

Largely, the desire for me to consume drugs or alcohol, 95% of the time it’s gone. There’s still the old euphoric recall of the smell of someone’s whiskey, or a situation where I remember the freedom and relaxation—you don’t remember the crying, you just remember the awesome. So there’s some of that occasionally, but I know how that goes. I tried that from age 15 to 36. That’s 21 years of research. I think the results are in. You know what I mean? And that was hard for me to get to, but I’m grateful for all of it.

I’m so grateful that all of that awful stuff happened, and I’m even more grateful that, other than emotionally, I never hurt anybody. That’s a big thing to hurt people emotionally, and part of my recovery is addressing that stuff. But I’m really thankful that, physically, the only one that I can really be sure that I hurt was me.

I’m hopeful, too—and I think that’s what HazelFest is about, it’s about hope. And that place is about hope, and recovery is about hope. You’re not f***ed. Maybe I should say that in a better way so you can actually write it it on the website. But you’re not. With help, if you’re willing to surrender and take advice and be helped, you can be. Let go and let people who know how to help you, help you. All the bad things you do—there’s other people who have done that and are now married and have some kids, if that’s what they want. And have financial security, if that’s what they want. Those opportunities are not gone, no matter how old you are. My experience, in watching my fellow addicts and alcoholics recover, is that it’s astounding how fast it happens when you apply yourself.

David Campbell hosts HazelFest, Saturday, August 1, at Hazelden in Center City, MN. The recovery-focused event, features Astronautalis, Haley Bonar, Caroline Smith, Davina and the Vagabonds, GB Leighton, DJ LAST WORD and more activities.

David Campbell would like to invite anyone who needs help, is in search of resources, or has questions to reach out to him at dcampbell@mpr.org. This article has been updated to include event information about the 2015 Hazelfest event.