Recover Out Loud with Actress Dedee Pfeiffer

Let's Talk: Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Young woman with a raised fist protesting in the street

On set, Dedee Pfeiffer hears from other actors, crewmates and directors who are inspired by her forwardness—fearless in her pursuit of love and light and publicly accepting her disease of addiction. Tune in as she shares everything she's learned about loving recovery, why she's so vocal about her story, what keeps her heart open and full, and how she plans to help more people fall in love with their recovery.

I was scared. 'Cause you guys had the courage to do it and I didn't, so my addict just went, 'Oh they're crazy, they're drinking the lemonade,' you know? Just all that toxic talk to keep my addict in the driver's seat, you know?

Dedee Pfeiffer

0:00:13 William Moyers
Hello everyone! Welcome to Let's Talk, our podcast series produced and delivered to you by Hazelden Betty Ford. I'm your host, William C. Moyers. Thanks for joining us today for a conversation with Dedee Pfeiffer. Many of you know Dedee Pfeiffer as Denise Brisbane in the ABC drama Big Sky. But, in all candor, I never really was much of a television watcher when I got to know Dedee, I got to know Dedee—welcome, Dedee—I got to know you at the 40th anniversary celebration at the Betty Ford Center in November of 2022. Where you were our Keynote and candidly, you blew us away. So we had to have ya back. Thank you for being with us today.

0:00:58 Dedee Pfeiffer
Thank you! And I can thank you for that amazing opportunity. It just was life-changing for me. I'm still buzzing after having done that. 

0:01:04 William Moyers
Well, Dedee, you have been very open about your journey from addiction to recovery. And having actually overcome mental health challenges as well. And to be the successful actress that you are today. Tell us just a little bit about your journey.

0:01:21 Dedee Pfeiffer
I'm 59 years old. I just turned 59. And I'm a child of an alcoholic parent. And I come from a generation where, you know, it's the old 'I would drink two if,' dot dot dot. [grins] So, I was concerned a very high-functioning alcoholic. Which we're kinda scary—us high-functioning ones are harder to nail down. But at any rate, four plus years ago I hit my—what I would say was my bottom. Which looks different for everybody. And I was at this point a single mother going to college. Took time off of having been a thirty plus year actress. And did the scariest thing I could ever have done which is go into 30-day intensive inpatient. And have to deal with my trauma and my addiction all at once. Took a year off of college to do nothing but just work on my sober legs. [smiles] And then went back and finished my last year at UCLA as a Social Worker—for a Master of Social Work. And since then, I discovered that one of the most important things and I realized why I'm here in this body is to recover out loud. That's why when you offered for me to speak, I was like, 'Oh, I could speak out loud! To hundreds of people. And tell them they're not alone. That's my journey.' 

0:02:30 William Moyers
Dedee, speaking out loud, it was heard loud and clear that night in the auditorium when you shared a letter from your father. And what struck me about it was that you were impacted by addiction long before you yourself were an addicted person. Talk a little bit about your dad. 

0:02:49 Dedee Pfeiffer
Well what happened was when I was asked dutifully to speak, I didn't even really know what a Keynote Speaker was. I asked my son. He goes, 'Mom, you're gonna set the tempo.' And I was like, 'Oh! Well I better really write,' I was just gonna improv it. So instead I sat down and I looked at my computer and of course, I had no idea what the heck I was gonna say. My son at the time was doing important school and he wrote a letter to the author of a book. And I thought, that's what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna write a letter to my father. The best alcoholic I knew. I learned from the best. [smiles, chuckles] But he, he went to the light with his disease. And I have an opportunity to not do that. Change that in this generation. So I started writing a letter to my father. As my Keynote Speaker speech. And all of these things came out and one of them was, 'I bet you didn't know, Dad, that you had an addiction. Bet you didn't know Deirdre Doo would be up here in front of hundreds of people, keynote speaking on addiction. I bet you didn't know that Mom's illness—which she had a nervous breakdown—and she ended up having shock treatments. No wonder he didn't speak, he didn't go for help, if there was help then, right? So, the whole letter was basically a way of trying to pull my dad's energy back to my heart and let everybody know that they're not alone and to kind of explain my journey. Of being active in my addiction but more importantly, the beauty—the beauty of the rebirth I've been experiencing since the day I said, 'I don't wanna do this anymore. And I need help and it's okay to ask for help.' I don't know who told us asking for help was weak—I don't know who said that! [chuckles] But they are so—one of the most courageous things to do is say, 'Hey, excuse me, I need some help over here!' [raises hands] That's a tough person if you ask me! They're saying, 'I don't wanna do this anymore.' [shrugs] Right?

0:04:32 William Moyers
Dedee, how old was your dad when he died?

0:04:34 Dedee Pfeiffer
He went to the light in his sixties, actually, cancer. Which they say was not related to his alcoholism. I'm not sure how it couldn't be, but that's kinda biology. I think the bottom line is that he checked all the boxes, he provided for our family the best that he could considering he was active in his disease and my mom had some mental health issues and was treated in what I'd say was a barbaric way back then. And that—I'm a child, a product, of these two people. Who did the best that they could do. We are so fortunate right now—we have access to a lot of really great things to help us, you know? And one of the things is using our mouths, communicating. I wanna just take that sting out of the word addiction. I just wanna take the sting out of it so people can talk about it. One of the reasons why I stayed in my disease so long is I was ashamed. The shame just kneecaps you! And prevents you from seeking the help that you can get, right? So I wanna be—I wanna be out there and say, 'It's okay, Dedee Pfeiffer right here, man!' I'm showing you what it can look like, right here.

0:05:38 William Moyers
Dedee, I'm intrigued by your creativity. You were an actress and you come from a family I mean your sister, Michelle Pfeiffer, successful actress as well as you. You were a successful actress before you ever found recovery.

0:05:56 Dedee Pfeiffer

0:05:56 William Moyers
How did you do that? 

0:05:59 Dedee Pfeiffer
Wow, like I said I was high-functioning. But let me tell you, there wasn't a day that I was working or interviewing or walking the pavement of Hollywood—before we had cell phones, I might add—that I wasn't thinking about the drink at the end of the day. It was always like it was my reward for getting through a really tough time. Very painfully shy. How I became an actor is a mystery to me. But I know that there was also this yearning to be loved, liked, accepted, and I'm not alone. A lot of artists feel that. You go in the addiction and then all the trauma that just kept adding to it. In each role I would pull on that trauma which made my performances really dynamic, but when I went home, I was spent. I had no way to replenish that other than to drink the feelings away. And often that didn't work; it backfired, as we all know, right? That's not the way to deal with that. And I didn't know any other way! I didn't know—I thought this was what you do.

And when I saw people in AA in recovery, I thought, I'll be honest I thought they were like kinda culty. They scared me. They were a little freaky. I judged them. I had a lot of judgement. And I hold my hand on my heart right now to say I'm sorry about that. [smiles] 'Cause I just misunderstood and more importantly, my addict was scared of you guys. I was scared. 'Cause you guys had the courage to do it and I didn't, so my addict just went, 'Oh they're crazy, they're drinking the lemonade,' you know? Just all that toxic talk to keep my addict in the driver's seat, you know? And I now look back and realize that's what was going on. Totally fear-based. 

0:07:29 William Moyers
But you did it! You did hit your bottom, you did turn it around, and what's extraordinary about it and I've done a couple of events out in L.A. at the Skirball Center around people who have—actors and actresses who have struggled to hold onto their creativity once they were no longer lubricating it or stoking it with substances. Was it difficult for you to continue on in the profession and to be the successful actor that you've been as a sober person? Or was it easier?

0:08:00 Dedee Pfeiffer
You know it's interesting because that is a huge fear for anybody creative. How am I gonna do this and get to those levels without that substance? Shockingly [chuckles] I feel I have access to all of those places and more now because I've gotten rid of that fear. And I've also gotten rid of that pleasing—I still want you to like me, I still want you to love me. [laughs] But I'm learning how to really start to like myself first and have that be priority. Also, I think that again, when we're fear-based, you know, we just have to step into the unknown. Trust other people who have already done it and been there. And when they're like, 'It's okay over here, it's okay, the water's okay over here.' I went into Big Sky—first acting gig sober—scared shitless! In quarantine up in Canada! And I was carrying in also my ten years of college weight. But so Denise was a little voluptuous, that's fine. Hadn't been in front of the cameras in ten years, so I saw myself and was like, 'Ooh wow! Woo-hoo!' So I had to kind of you know really constantly work on checking old thoughts. Old feelings. Old behaviors. And relying on everything that I learned from people like you and everybody around me who just have more years of sobriety. They have all those little nuggets of little helpful skills. [grins] That I just grab 'em, grab 'em like little treats. [gestures with fingers pinching] You know? For me at the end of the day, you know what I do? I just I have chocolate, I'm sorry, instead of a drink, I have chocolate. And it could be Hershey's, I'm not picky, no Godiva. It's actually a little weird. You know, peanut M&M's, everyone knows me on the set; 'Just give her peanut M&M's.' And when I get too hyper, the camera guys are going, 'Don't give Dedee any more sugar!' [Moyers laughs] I go, 'I wake up like this!' You're like, 'Oh, Lord.' [laughs, puts hand against forehead]

0:09:48 William Moyers
So is your recovery—does it have a role in your profession? Does it have a role in making you the actor that you are today? Or is it separate?

0:10:00 Dedee Pfeiffer
Oh it's absolutely all of it. Because I'm very fortunate that Denise, my character, is sober. But what I love about the way they write her is it's not a forefront thing. It's not constantly telegraphing, 'Oh she's sober, she's sober!' It's mentioned here and there, when appropriate and when it makes sense, and moving on! She's no different than all the other characters with their different colors and nuances, she just happens to be in recovery, and she—Denise—Deniseypoo—people who watch the show know exactly what I'm talking about—Deniseypoo is strong. She's the Office Mama. Mama Bear. Funny. Sarcastic. And she's very curious. She's in her fifties. So she's curious. And once again, I know in my sobriety, always remaining curious versus resistant [gestures with hands into camera]. Look at what resistance looks like [demonstrates with palm up to camera] and look at what curiosity looks like [holds palm open]. I always remember to bring that in with my character. So all the scenes Denise is curious, and I do that—I try to do that in my life. I catch when I'm doing this [palm up to camera]. And I'm like, well, take a big breath, D, nah nah nah nah, be curious [pushes hand down out of frame, chuckles]. It's all like learning how to use new muscles. New strengths. I just feel like I'm actually more my authentic self now than I ever was before. Because I was running from something always before. Running from addiction. Running from my trauma. Running from painful—from pain. I get that if you're to go to the light or die, if you go there, I now know I can lean right into that shit. And I'm not going anywhere but right here. [points into camera]

0:11:21 William Moyers
And so you've been authentic and that authenticity and we're gonna come back to the recovery out loud in just a minute. But you are in a world of spotlight, Hollywood. [Dedee nods] You're successful, you're good at what you do, you're relevant. And you're a recovering woman who shares that openly. What is it like for you to be so open about your recovery and what response do you get in the role, in the community that you live in, what's the response you get to being a recovering woman like you are?

0:11:53 Dedee Pfeiffer
Shocked. When I got to Big Sky and I was like, 'Hey, Dedee Pfeiffer, nice to meet you! Hi, I'm in recovery, I'm three years' sober!' 'Cause at that point I was three years' sober. And they're like, 'What did she just blurt that out?! Why would she do that?!' [laughs] I said, 'It's one of the many things I am.' [laughs] And shockingly, they thought oh how refreshing. Right? What I thought was more interesting, people would come up to me, Directors, other actors, come up to me and quietly said, 'Hey, I love how you're recovering out loud. I have 35 years sober. Or I have 6 years sober.' And I'm like, 'Hey, why are you whispering?' And they're like, 'Oh I don't know.' I said, 'Think about that.' [grins] I'm like 35 years?! Aaah! I wanna take my hat off to you! I got three years, I'm a newbie in this!' You know? But it's shocking how we still have that shame, that 'let's be quiet,' and I know there's anonymity and people really wanted to have their own personal journeys, you know, I spoke about this. I respect that! But I would like everyone to stop and say, 'Well why am I so quiet? And why aren't you proud to say I have not used my substance for multiple years when there were moments—moments I almost gave in and I didn't!' That should be celebrated. I think it should be but if you're not there yet, that's okay. I just wanna be one of those squeaky wheels to remind you that this is what it looks like. [smiles] No one judges me; I think they're just very taken back. At how like I own it—this is what I've done, it's not easy and I've done it! Right? It's kinda like I did a marathon or something, right? Or I won an Oscar. It's like, 'Yeah, that's right, I earned that puppy.' But I think that people who were normies who don't have addiction aren't really aware—and that's okay—of how hard it is to really do it on some days. Other days it's really easy and amazing. But it's both! Just like life, life is easy and hard, you know. 

0:13:38 William Moyers
So I was gonna ask you about that because I thought when you leaned into the camera and said, 'Yeah I've got 35 years,' I thought what you were doing was leaning into the camera and saying, 'Can you help me?' Do you get a lot of requests from people for help? Because they know you are that beacon of hope?

0:13:54 Dedee Pfeiffer
Well not on this set because we work fast. [laughs] We have a big show. There's really not a lot of time for that. But I have had people come up to me and say, 'My mom's been in recovery for meth for ten years,' and I'm like, 'Oh honey, that's so beautiful, tell your mom that I say yeah yeah, girl, that Dedee said yeah!' And they love that, they go home and say—or they call their mom and say, 'Mom, 35 years in recovery, she said she loves you, she shouts out keep it going,' and that mother's like, 'Huh? Dedee just shouted out to me?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, girl!' Because just actually wanna come tell me those things. Again I still get a lot of kinda quiet. But I know that other people who are in recovery love talking to me. Not for support on how to stay sober, just 'cause we know each other. Like I've never met you, but you've got me, I got you, period. It's like people who are survivors of rape, or whatever, or have cancer, they've got—you just know each other. So there's just a silent support there. Yeah. [nods]

0:14:47 William Moyers
Yeah. Dedee, you do live in rarefied air, and you know, L.A. is L.A. Hollywood is Hollywood. How do you manage the pressures of expectation, the pressures of success, the pressures of money, and stay grounded in the way that you're grounded?

0:15:08 Dedee Pfeiffer
I'll tell you how. I just got back from a seven-day retreat in Colombia. I went away for a seven-day retreat to work on all the love in my heart and the energy from my brain and manifest just a lot of beautiful things. And I came back and I thought, you know, I have to trust in the unknown. Quantum field kind of thing. And I have to believe in the love I have in my heart. Dude, I have a lot of love and that's a love of energy! That I just need to continue to put that out there and believe—like sobriety, remember I said in my letter they ask you to have faith, which works best in the dark, in the "process" [uses air quotes], which is something you can't see or touch. [chuckles] Those are two big things to do, and we do it every day in recovery. Especially in the beginning it's really hard, but you do it. And I think it's the same thing with trying to handle all these pressures because otherwise I'm gonna slip back into stress, fear, 'oh my God am I ever going to work again.' Is that there? Absolutely. Well, could it make me relapse? Sure, it's always an option. If I allow it. Certainly not interested in that shit today, okay? I'm loving sobriety today! [laughs] I'm excited about the unknown. I don't know if I'm gonna come back to Big Sky or have to go get another job. It's a little scary, sure, but I'm gonna lean into it a lot. Just like it's the same applications and skills to get sober as I'm gonna do with the industry. But you're right, it's a lot of pressure. There's a lot going on in the industry and I'm a little odd—I'm an odd chick too. I'm not really—I'm not out there a lot on the red carpet or hanging out with actors. I'm on a mountain with coyotes and big snakes. [laughs]

0:16:42 William Moyers
Well and you do—I mean I've gotta say, from the few months that we've been working together, I mean you do seem remarkably grounded. I mean I don't know what the alternative would be for you, but, you know, you are grounded. And that letter that you read that night at the Betty Ford Center 40th a couple months ago, it really did resonate. I wanna with just the few minutes that we have left, talk to me about recovering out loud. How does that work for you, why is that important for you? Although you've eluded to it already and what do you see yourself doing as you continue to recover out loud?

0:17:23 Dedee Pfeiffer
I would love to follow the journey of men like you. [smiles and points into camera]

0:17:28 William Moyers
[laughs] Yeah, be careful.

0:17:30 Dedee Pfeiffer
[throws head back and laughs] Hey aren't you married, I'm like, 'I'm single!' But I see people like you who are out there. Every day. And you guys just break my heart. I love people who wanna help people. And I know that you do a circuit where you go out and talk. I would love to do that. Because honestly I do believe, and this is from what I hear across the board, one of the ways we stay sober is to help other people. And they go, 'Well isn't it kind of like selfish?' I'm like, 'Well, how is that selfish? You help other people, and it bounces back and it makes you feel good.' And if you feel good, you don't really wanna drink, right? So if that's a bad thing, then I guess I'm really bad. [laughs] Because what I see a lot on my Instagram is listen, do something nice. Random acts of kindness. Use that little tag. 'Hey Martha, have a beautiful day at CVS,' right? And Martha goes, 'What, child, she just used my name?' Spread a little light out there. And then I can see their face and it bounces back at me and I go, 'That's another reason why I'm sober today.' Because I'm able to spread light and energy and love. And to me, if that's not what life's about, then what? It can't be about the money, it can't be about the things, the fame. 'Cause I know a lot of people who have all that. And they're still pretty sad. There's still some darkness in their heart. And if I have to sit here and not know where my next paycheck is but I've got a light in my heart, I'm still ahead of the game. So that is a big, intricate part of my sobriety. But everyone's sobriety looks a little different. Mine it all revolves around love and giving back. That's my new heroin [pats upper arm]. I never did heroin but I'm sure I would have had it been like free and [INAUDIBLE]. 

0:19:03 William Moyers
I can feel that energy and that muscle. We're gonna have to close here, I've just got one more question for you. You know, we do these stories of hope. Not all of our podcasts are stories of hope, but we've done several in this last session. And you are also a story of hope. What we have discovered in doing these podcasts is that we get a lot of people who tune in because they don't have any hope. And they're struggling. Or they have a family member who's struggling. They're going through grief, they've lost a loved one. Et cetera, et cetera. So I would like you to leave our listeners and our viewers of this Let's Talk podcast, I'd like you to leave us with hope. What do you tell people, what would you tell people who are tuned in who are looking for some wisdom from you, but are looking for some hope? What is your message for them, Dedee?

0:19:51 Dedee Pfeiffer
Wow. First thing I would say if you have somebody who's active in their disease, first remember that it's a disease. It's not a choice. Okay? We do have constantly educate people on that. No more than it's—people wake up and say oh I don't wanna have cancer. That's not how people wake up and say I want cancer any more than they wake up and say I want to have a disease of addiction. Number one. So maybe have a little compassion. Two, if you're trying to get them into recovery, that's not gonna work. They're gonna reach for help when they are ready. The best you can do is say to them, 'I love you, I can see you're struggling, let me know when you want help.' That's about it. And just say, 'I do love you, I see you're struggling, and when you're ready for help, I'm over here.' Then they know, I mean, anything else you're just gonna—they're gonna push back. Having lost people to addiction, I have lost sadly many, I promise you they're still with you. [smiles] And I you have a religion or spirituality, this might be a really good time to reconnect with that. So you can feel their love and energy around you. And if you are struggling in your recovery or you're thinking about it, first of all if you fall off, jump back on! It's okay, no one's gonna judge you. Especially if you go to AA. And by the way, here's what I wanna say: if you go to an AA meeting and you don't like it, 'cause some people are a little snarky, sometimes they get a little—they do get a little weird. Go to a different one! Go to a different one! I mean it's not like all dentists are--sometimes the dentists poke you and they make you bleed; go to another one! [laughs] Don't go to the dentist who pokes you! 

So I've had—this is why sometimes I've had to go to different AA meetings until I found one that resonated with me. That's all! No judgement! Just like, 'Wow, I just left in a worse mood than when I walked in. I think I'm gonna go try another one.' [laughs] There's online ones now because of COVID, but reach out, I know you don't have hope. Reach out and it doesn't have to be AA. There's other ways as well. There are—and some people have issues with some religion and I respect that—there are other groups that have no religious aspects, but have the same skills and techniques. Reach out to those! Like don't let the religious thing be the reason you're like, 'Wow they're all crazy,' like I was doing, right? And by the way, your God can be anything. My God is Mother Earth.

0:21:59 William Moyers
Mmm. [smiles]

0:21:59 Dedee Pfeiffer
Mother Earth is one big badass b**ch and I love her. [Moyers chuckles] And she—she's got a lot of power. Yeah, that's my God, is just Mother Earth. You know, that's it. I mean is she bigger than me, more powerful? Yeah, that's it. That's your Higher Power. Anything that's bigger than you. So, I say just reach out. And you can do it anonymously, you don't have to yell loud like me. And don't give up. And the people do love you unconditionally. I've never seen more people love me than I did in recovery. In my rehab, at AA meetings, and even now on the set. When they find out I'm sober they're like, 'Oh, I loved Dedee but now I love her even more knowing that she's sober.' [Moyers chuckles] I'm like, 'I know, aren't us sober people'—when I say sober that means not using. 'Cause it can be meth head. I went to rehab with meth heads, heroin addicts, food addicts, gambling addicts. I mean we were just all addicts, right? Addicts in recovery, we are cool. I'm sorry. I think we're like some of the coolest people. So I say come join us! That's what I say! Come join the cool cats! [laughs]

0:22:58 William Moyers
Well, Dedee Pfeiffer, thank you for joining us today and being so cool about it. [Dedee laughs] Thank you for recovering out loud and for really giving yourself to us at Let's Talk, to Hazelden Betty Ford, and most of all, giving yourself to those who struggle and need your inspiration. Dedee Pfeiffer, thanks for being with us today. 

0:23:18 Dedee Pfeiffer
Thank you. [smiles, waves]

0:23:19 William Moyers
Take care. [turns to camera] And thanks to all of you for tuning in for this series of podcasts, Let's Talk. On behalf of our Executive Producer Lisa Stangl and the crew at Blue Moon Productions, I'm your host William Moyers and we'll see you again soon. Take good care. 

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