For many people, getting sober is unfortunately a lot like a reality show: the experience is short-lived and the storyline is only half-real. From the outside, people only see the highs and the lows, but have absolutely no clue of what goes on in between takes. However, it turns out that the unfilmed moments are the ones that truly matter—and what actually make up the majority of life. Former MTV reality star Jason Wahler (Laguna Beach and The Hills) knows a thing or two about this strange dichotomy. As a senior in high school, he rose to fame as the notorious bad boy and love interest of “LC” (a young and naïve Lauren Conrad) on the popular teen series. The sudden spotlight and the perks that came with it quickly fanned the flames of his addiction. After six drinking-related arrests, several stints in rehab, one attempted suicide and an appearance on Season 4 of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Wahler saw firsthand just how far addiction can drive a person to destruction.
Today, Wahler is five years sober and back on the shores of Laguna Beach—but this time, there aren’t any cameras following him. Instead of being in the limelight, he’s there to put in some behind-the-scenes work—the kind that sets the groundwork for people seeking a strong and stable life in long-term recovery. In June, Wahler and business partner Keenan Diamond opened Widespread Recovery, an all-male sober living facility, right on the sands of where it all began. But with no interest in reviving an old story arch, Wahler is pouring his new life into facilitating aftercare and helping others manage a successful life in long-term recovery. As he puts it, “It’s not hard to get sober; it’s hard to stay sober.”
We spoke with Wahler and Diamond on the realities of recovery and the challenges that people face post-treatment. Here are their 6 tips on how to make sobriety a continuous storyline in life’s raw and unedited script.
1. Understand the reality of your disease.
Addiction is one of the most deadly things in our country today and the first step in fighting it is to understand this. As Wahler puts it, “In general, a lot of people don’t actually know what we’re facing.” Reminding ourselves of the severity of the disease is pivotal in keeping the right perspective of where we’re going (and where we don’t want to end up). This is important whether you yourself are the addict or you are the loved one of an addict. Of course, Wahler adds that this is “not to justify from actions or behaviors—but to just gain knowledge on it.” Having a better understanding of the journey will help you know what kind of support you either need or can provide.
2. Don’t forget your story.
No matter how far along you are in sobriety, you’re never too far away from the initial truths that got you there. “I think there’s a paradoxical relationship between the time from your last high or your last drink to the types of memories that you keep focused on,” Keenan explains. “And I think as you get further away from the drink it can be easier to remember the good times and you’re quicker to forget the misery, so I think it’s important to always remember.”
Staying rooted to one’s story also looks differently for everyone. For Wahler, he literally has a visual reminder for himself to look at every day and remember. “I took one of my favorite mug shots and put it in a 8x10 frame and it’s by my toothbrush where it will never move no matter what house I go to or where I’m at. Then it’s always a constant reminder of where I never want to be again.”
3. Do the work.
Recovery doesn’t just miraculously happen once you make the decision to get sober. It requires initiative and commitment on the addict’s part every single day. “For me, personally, I do the steps every year,” Wahler says. The 12-Steps may not necessarily be the chosen way for everyone but, whatever the method, staying motivated and engaged in recovery work is what keeps an individual on the right path. Wahler’s statement rings true: “If I don’t have that stuff in order, everything else in my life is going to be discombobulated and not be functioning.”
4. Be okay with being “okay.”
People often have high expectations when it comes to recovery but Keenan reminds us that “this is a fluid process that isn’t linear.” This may be an uncomfortable idea to addicts and alcoholics (which isn’t helped by the fact that we tend to be dramatic and all-or-nothing types of people). But perhaps the key to staying within the lines is to actually know how to tolerate it. “Things are going to go up and they’re going to go down,” he says. “But if you can keep your life overall in a manageable position, you can acknowledge where there’s room to grow and work on things, and then also celebrate the success you have and not overreact to one of the more minor issues.” We’re all going to have dips in our recovery, but we don’t have to be taken out by them. So the next time you’re met with a setback that gets you feeling discouraged, just remember: if you’re not drinking or getting high, you’re doing just fine.
5. Spark the passion.
Sure, abstinence is a big part of recovery, but that’s not the only thing that’s important. Recovery is also about purpose and passion. As Keenan puts it, “If life doesn’t feel better than it did when you were high as a kite, why are you going to keep doing it?” He, along with Wahler, is all about instilling natural highs and finding what each and every person loves. “If you love what you do, you’re naturally going to succeed at it,” Wahler says. All it takes is just a bit of searching. From sports and reading to music and nature, there’s so much to do in life besides drinking and drugging—it’s just a matter of finding it for yourself.
6. Stay small.
After the initial victory of getting sober, it can be easy to get ahead of ourselves and think we have the whole recovery thing in the bag. Maybe we start to think we’re immune to relapses or write off some of the previous tools or practices we used when it seemed like our lives more desperately depended on it. To that, Keenan reminds us of this pivotal truth: “There’s no one better at this or worse in this than anyone else. Compared to your disease, compared to your Higher Power, you’re small.” This doesn’t mean that people in recovery are weak or incapable—it just means we’re human. “Stay open to learning, keep doing what you do and stay small,” he says. “Stay grateful.”
Gratitude: something that Wahler takes to heart every day as he moves forward in his own recovery. Despite all the drama—caught both on and off camera—that has occurred in his life, he ultimately owes much to the journey. “I wouldn’t have changed anything because it wouldn’t have brought me to where I’m at—because all of this could have been different.” It’s true, aside from his work at Widespread Recovery, Wahler is also on the board of several organizations that bring awareness to addiction such as the L.A. Mission, Young People in Recovery and The Brent Shapiro Foundation. He also writes a weekly Huffington Post column that chronicles his personal insights in sobriety. Not bad for someone who was better known for his womanizing and partying ways just five years ago.
Still, on a regular day in Orange County, you can find Jason Wahler surfing the same waves he did when he was 18. The scenery hasn’t changed much since his Laguna days, but the person he was living in addiction is clean and washed away.