Never Too Famous: Andrew Zimmern's Story and His Principles for Humble Recovery

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Andrew Zimmern

Before he won his Emmy and James Beard awards, and before he became a famous TV personality, Andrew Zimmern was essentially homeless, living in an abandoned New York City apartment and nearly drinking himself to death. How did he transform from hopeless soul into hopeful citizen? Tune in for this honest conversation between William C. Moyers and Andrew Zimmern, where they revisit his past and discuss his personal strategies for lasting recovery—top among them, the daily salvation of gratitude.

Doing things for other people is the greatest medicine for getting out of my own head.

Andrew Zimmern

0:00:13 William Moyers
Here we are again! I'm William C. Moyers, your host for a fresh season of Let's Talk. A new run of podcasts featuring experts on the topics from A to Z that matter to Hazelden Betty Ford and matter to you, our listeners and viewers. We have on this show experts to talk about addiction and treatment for it. We have insiders to share what it means to recover from a substance use disorder. We feature experts on prevention to explain how we as parents talk to our kids about alcohol and other drugs. Sometimes we feature scientists to delve into the latest research into what makes some people vulnerable to addictive substances. And we love to feature advocates sharing their war stories of getting down in the trenches to smash the stigma of addiction in their communities. And for today's podcast, we have an expert whose journey from addiction to recovery can actually be summed up by his initials, AZ. My friend and fellow traveler, Andrew Zimmern. Who long before Andrew, you were a quirky chef traveling the world, to find and eat bizarre foods in front of the camera of your own television show, long before you built a culinary media empire, you were simply another hopeless soul living and nearly dying in an abandoned building in New York City.

0:01:35 William Moyers
[turns to camera]
Welcome, Andrew Zimmern. Thanks for being here.

0:01:38 Andrew Zimmern
Oh my pleasure, William, thanks for having me.

0:01:40 William Moyers
So Andrew, how did you get out of that abandoned building in New York City?

0:01:46 Andrew Zimmern
Well, the further that I get from it, the more that I see it as being an inexplicable moment that really only involves the grace of a power greater than my ability to describe it or calculate it. We talk about it in recovery as being our Higher Power. We know that the earth is not hurdling meaninglessly through space—to admit to that would be to not understand all the rest that both science and spirituality tells us is the case. But when you look back on, you know, those crucial moments when you—when you go from hopeless soul to hopeful citizen, what bridges that gap? For 20 years, parents, teachers, you know, friends, colleagues, doctors, judges, policemen, attorneys, you name it, they came in every archetype, told me that I needed to make a change. And yet somehow, you know, dying in a hotel room in New York City in January of 1992, something inside of me changed. That today I can only describe as being God's grace. Yeah, you know, the entire year of 1991 essentially I was homeless in New York City, that's where my disease had taken me. I was 29 years old. I was a user of people and a taker of things. I was a petty thief, stealing pocketbooks off the backs of restaurant chairs to support my lifestyle. Which at that point was living in an abandoned building.  And drinking around the clock. The neighborhood—I've gone back since—and the neighborhood where this abandoned building was is now some of the most expensive real estate in Manhattan. [Moyers chuckles] I guess that's what happens when you stay sober long enough. But back then it was an abandoned building with cement casements in the windows and the night that I was evicted from my apartment building in New York City, and was able to walk out of there with an army duffel bag filled with clothing, I went to the shot and beer bar that I would do my late night drinking in. And the guys there who were part of a bottle gang told me that, you know, I should go talk to A.J. and they pointed this guy in the corner who I recognized from being around there. And I did and he said that there was the space in this—on the floor of this building that he and a couple other people were squatting.

0:04:40 Andrew Zimmern
And you know at that point I just saw it as a place to rest my head for the night. And I went down there, I lived there for ten months. I slept on a dirty pile of clothing. And every couple of days I went to the bodega around the corner and stole a bottle of Comet cleanser to sprinkle in a circle around that pile of dirty clothing so that when I passed out every night, the rats and roaches wouldn't crawl all over me. That's where my disease took me. And I thought that was okay. For nine months. You know we pirated some electricity. There was no running water in the building. I didn't shower, bathe, for the whole time that I lived there. It was—it was a very, very, very low bottom that came at the end of a series of horrific moments in my life. That you know had left me despairing and with nowhere else to go. And I decided at one moment I had a quasi-moment of mistaken clarity I guess it is. [Moyers laughs, nods] Where I felt well there are losers and winners in life, I'm a loser. And best to just end this all. I had no desire to live the way I was living. But I certainly wasn't willing to do anything to change it. And I stole some jewelry from my godmother and hawked it and got a couple hundred bucks and went to a flophouse hotel and handed it to the guy behind the counter. And got my room, walked back across the street, got a couple of cases of Popov vodka. They had just switched over to plastic bottles I'll never forget it. [Moyers nods, grins] 'Cause when I went to reach over to grab the cases, the salesperson was like 'Do you need help with that?' And I was about to say yes but I lifted it up and it was—it was pretty light! [Moyers laughs] And I kinda looked at him and he went, 'Plastic bottles!' You know I mean that was new that year. I was shocked. [Moyers nods] Hauled that back to my room and just started, you know, chugging vodka around the clock.

0:06:42 Andrew Zimmern
Other people told me I was there somewhere around four days. I—I don't remember a lot of what happened other than coming to one morning and just not being dead. But also, fantastically for the first time since I was 7 or 8 years old, I didn't have that Ace bandage of pressure around my chest. I didn't have the anxiety that I experienced during every waking moment of my life when I wasn't medicating myself. And for whatever reason I did something that I had never done before in my whole life which was ask another human being for help. I went to the hallway phone and threw some quarters in and called my friend. Who came and collected me and tried to dry me out for a couple days in his apartment. I didn't know that he was in contact with you know at the time what was called Hazelden. And he was and he with the help of people there was arranging an intervention for me that I walked into two days later. And got a one-way plane ticket and was picked up at Carousel 14 by a friendly volunteer. [Moyers nods] And that was the evening of January 28th of 1992.

0:08:07 William Moyers
You ended up in Minnesota, you received treatment here, you stayed in Minnesota. How were those first years of recovery for you?

0:08:16 Andrew Zimmern
Oh fantastic! Some of the best years of my life. The amount of progress that you make as a human being when you're really head, ass, and overcoat into recovery is—it is that rocket ship. Into the fourth dimension. So many things change so quickly. I'd been drinking and drugging "alcoholically" [uses air quotes] since I was 13! So the minute I put metaphorically the cork in the bottle, you know, 80 percent of my consequences just evaporated. My thinking began to clear up. I was willing to take direction from other people. But partially because I didn't have any choice. But partially because as I experimented with these, you know, spiritual practices, some of them really started to work for me and pay off dividends. And so it was—it was electric. You know working the Steps with a sponsor in a Twelve Step program. Doing service, probably the most impactful thing on my life and the thing that has probably stayed with me the longest. Sort of the key to how I run my whole life, quite frankly. Those were all things that I developed during those first couple years and it was the greatest gift of all because there was so—so little pressure on me. I wasn't married, I didn't have kids, I didn't own businesses, I didn't, you know they told me keep it simple in everything. You know? Get a 9 to 5 job that you really don't have to take home to the house with you. You know, the little things that get you from point A to B to C to D to E and eventually got me to a place where, you know, after being sober for a couple of years, I was able to re-engage with other parts of my life that are still in existence today. That I'm able to navigate thanks to what I learned during those early years in recovery.

0:10:17 William Moyers
So I wanna fast forward to today, essentially, in the few minutes that we have left because you are an extraordinary fellow traveler in that you still have your feet on the ground. I mean you have parlayed your passion for food, you have parlayed your recovery from a substance use disorder, into the person, the successful person, the personality, the "famous person" [uses air quotes] that you are today. I mean, Andrew Zimmern.

0:10:48 Andrew Zimmern
I clean up well. [grins, laughs]

0:10:50 William Moyers
You clean up well! And you do add a beard in a nice way too, I must add by the way.

0:10:54 Andrew Zimmern
Thank you—thank you very much. I'm not sure if it's Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. [Moyers laughs] If it's Mandy Patinkin's character Saul Berenson from Homeland. If it's like a young Gandalf the Grey from Lord of the Rings. [Moyers nods, grins] We're really not sure where it's going. When it was shorter, it kind of was a homeless grifter look. [Moyers laughs] But it's coming in nicely.

0:11:15 William Moyers
Well and eventually after people watch this Let's Talk podcast, everyone will be saying it's a beard that an Andrew Zimmern would wear.

0:11:22 Andrew Zimmern
Oh thank you! [grins]

0:11:23 William Moyers
[laughs] So on that note, Andrew, and I've known you for 30 years, and I'm grateful for it, you are an extraordinary fellow traveler because despite or in spite of all of your success, and you had a massive success, renowned in your media—your culinary media empire—you have kept your feet on the ground. How do you do it all these years later, man?

0:11:49 Andrew Zimmern
I just keep listening to the first five or six things anybody ever told me once my head cleared enough where I could actually remember them. You know, I'd love to tell ya it was instantaneous but when you actually do the math, you know, I spent five or six days on the hospital unit Ignatia up in Center City. And but mostly because they were very worried about my detox. It was a little lengthier than average. I spent 28 days on the Shoemaker unit. And I learned a lot there. But I really think it was the transition period from primary care into living in the halfway house, Fellowship Club, that Hazelden Betty Ford operates in St. Paul, where I really remember I mean I can remember the clothes people were wearing when I heard people say things to me that you know just the smallest little cliches that we have in our recovering life, you know? 'Keep it simple.' 'Don't drink and go to meetings.' 'Get a sponsor who has a sponsor who has a sponsor.' 'Work the Steps and keep working the Steps.' 'Immerse yourself in service work.' And as long as you do those things, your chances for a happy and content life increase astronomically. Astronomically!

0:13:32 Andrew Zimmern
Have I taken back you know my own will in certain aspects of my life? Sure! [Moyers nods] Every day I do that with myself and I catch myself and I work my Tenth Step and there's things that I do that help me to manage that today. A scary word for anyone in the first 20 years of sobriety. But you know when you get past that point, you really learn that there's actually some—some art to the navigation of what your head is telling you and how to eliminate those thoughts. And not be reactive to them, to not act on them. For a long time I would have, you know, thought/action, thought/action, thought/action. And recovery taught me the first 20 years to put a healthy space between what I think and then what I do. But I try to keep it really simple. You know, I have friends who I sobered up with who don't go to meetings anymore. They seem content and happy. I judge no human being. That's not what my recovery looks like. I can't do it that way. I think the other cliché that I listen to a lot is some are sicker than others. And I've—I've never put myself into the "others" category. I just—I just carry with me a very firm belief that if I don't take my medicine on a daily basis, if I don't start my day with some form of prayer and meditation, if I don't carry thoughts of doing service work for others throughout my day, if I don't work the spiritual program of the Steps of my Twelve Step program, I'm—I am a mess. Right? And when I do those things, my days are pretty good. [Moyers nods] So I've just learned to do those things. Every day.

0:15:23 Andrew Zimmern
I think of myself more as like a kind of a lab rat actually. [Moyers chuckles] That just, you know, I've learned that if I hit the right bottle, everything sort of works out. You know there's one of my favorite small little stories is the tale of Cherokee wisdom. Which I talk about a lot. Both as a parent with people here in the workspace, in recovery, and I don't phrase it up necessarily in the traditional way but the traditional story is short and really wonderful and probably sums up how I'm able to do what I do. And it's the story of a Cherokee elder who is talking to his son and explains to him that, you know, every morning when we wake up, two wolves start fighting within us. There's the good wolf that's you know helpful and kind and generous and other-centered and thoughtful and brave and you know all of those wonderful attributes that we wanna be. And then there's the other wolf who's, you know, greedy and violent and avaricious and selfish and all of the things that we don't wanna be. And the Cherokee elder asks his son when those wolves fight each day, do you know which wolf wins? And the son looks at him and says, 'No I don't Father.' And his dad replies, 'The wolf that you feed.' [Moyers nods] And so I've just kept feeding the wolf of my better nature. And things have—things have worked out.

0:17:04 William Moyers
Last question: things have worked out. And you're not content just to have them work out, you also are remarkable in how you give away what you have. Talk to me about the role that gratitude has played in your life and how important it is that you pass it on.

0:17:23 Andrew Zimmern
I should have been dead 20 times decades ago. I'm playing in extra time right now. The life that I have been given by putting one foot in front of the other and just walking the path is—it's ridiculous. I have no right to complain about anything. Despite the fact that just like every other human being on Planet Earth, the same stuff happens to me. Right? You know a good mutual friend of ours is always fond of saying, you know, life is fired at you at point blank range, you know? Kids get sick, parents die, you lose jobs, dogs run away, you know, girlfriends dump you, you get fired, business deals don't work out, I mean, you know, I—all those things happened to me. I mean none of us are immune to life. Life happens to all of us. But if you accept that life happens to all of us, and that the only thing as some of our literature teaches us that we can change is me and my attitudes, then you gotta go to work on that. And the easiest way to work on my attitude is something that I learned really early on actually in primary treatment on the Shoemaker unit which was to write down stuff you're grateful for.

0:18:48 Andrew Zimmern
I still have my diary from primary treatment and at one point it looks like something that Jack Nicholson wrote in The Shining. Over and over it says 'I'm hopeless. I'm hopeless. I'm hopeless.' And you know my—my counselors and peers you know convinced me that maybe I should instead of writing that down, whether I believed it or not, maybe write down just one thing that I was actually grateful for. And that tiny little foundational element of a new way of thinking and doing actually changed the way that I think. You know my sponsor is very fond of reminding people all the time. It's one of my favorite things he's ever told me. You can't think your way into right acting, but you can act your way into right thinking. So there's no way to like manufacture gratitude. But if you actually take an action and write down every day three things you're grateful for, the next thing you know it's five years later and you're carrying an attitude of gratitude around you with you. Combining that with the acknowledgment through a lot of inventory, you know, sometimes twice a year, always once a year, I've been able to look and see that service work, doing things for other people, is the greatest medicine for you know getting out of my own head. And keeping myself right-sized and centered than any other tool that I know of. And so I'm always reminded of the Tenth Step in our literature. I always mess this up 'cause I'm a third edition Big Book guy. So it's the bottom of page 84 but it's talking about the Tenth Step where it actually says you know if you're thinking these four things, you gonna take these four actions. And the last action is to do something for another human being because love and tolerance of others is our code. And if you do things for other people, understanding that love and tolerance of others is our code. That's practicing empathy. Anyone will tell you. Brene Brown famously. 'Empathy is the key to happiness.' It doesn't mean you're gonna get what you want. It doesn't mean that, you know, things are showered upon you. But I at one point in my life suffered from a lot of different problems that now are meaningless to me simply because I don't think about them anymore. [Moyers nods, smiles] I don't have to have X or Y or Z to be happy. I know that I can be happy just based on what I do for myself and what my attitude is internally. And that's the greatest gift of all. That truly is that freedom from bondage that that story in the Big Book famously tells.

0:21:41 William Moyers
What a great gift you are, Andrew Zimmern, not only to Hazelden Betty Ford but to the recovery community and for people who need to go from hopelessness to hope. Andrew Zimmern, thank you for being with us today.

0:21:54 Andrew Zimmern
Thank you, my friend! See you later.

0:21:55 William Moyers
[to camera]Please join us for another edition of Let's Talk and make sure to tell your family and friends, your colleagues and fellow travelers, to check out our podcast too. On behalf of our Executive Producer, Lisa Stangl, and the crew of Blue Moon Productions, we want to remind you that together we are building a healthier, wholesome, and happier tomorrow, one day and one life at a time. Take good care.

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