I first met Brandon Novak in the earlier half of the '90s when he was a promising young skateboarder from Baltimore, Maryland. The next time I met him was just over a decade later while we were shooting footage for jackass number two and he was a shambling wreck of a human shit-deep in the throes of addiction. Since then, Brandon has rebounded off the bottom—a harrowing heroin bottom you'll soon read about thanks to this interview by Rick Kosick—to reclaim the life he was once so close to throwing away for a fix. —Sean Cliver
Kosick: So how’s sobriety treating you?
Novak: I can honestly tell you I’ve never been happier in my life. Like, no bullshit. When I speak at colleges and all that, I tell them that sobriety has given me everything drugs and alcohol had promised me.
Oh yeah, how so?
Oddly enough, out of all the cool shit I’ve done in my life, never in my wildest dreams did I think that my proudest accomplishment would be going into detox on May 25th, 2015. The day I walked into detox, I was in the worst condition I’d ever been in my life. I showed up at the same treatment center that I’d been in four previous times, and the night before I was in Baltimore about to board a flight to Fort Lauderdale. Some chick paid for me to come and hangout with her; she’d read my book and said it saved her life. I’m like, “Let’s do it, but I need some dope, some coke, Xanax, and some wine.” She’s like, “All right, I have you.” I thought that was a little weird… she’s going to give me substances that killed me, but my book saved her life. So I looked a little more into it and I found out she lived in a hotel—that’s not a good look. Then I did a little more research and realized she was a lady of the night or a dancer—which I’m completely cool with, but here’s where the problem lies: she has requirements that I must fulfill. When I get there, she wants to party and she wants to fuck, and when I shoot dope, I do neither. I sleep. So I’m going to wear out my welcome really quick and she’s going to kick me to the curb. I’ll be roaming the streets of Fort Lauderdale homeless and I don’t want to do that because it’s hot. There’s sand everywhere. Fuck that.
So prior to catching this redeye from Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale, I’m in an abandoned house in Baltimore. Bam had just kicked me off this Australia tour I was supposed to go on with him after he’d called me up and said, “Look, if you can just drink wine on the tour you’ll do great.” I’d said okay, so I got on the train from Baltimore to Philadelphia but I stopped in this really shitty area called Kensington where I bought 500 dollars worth of heroin. When I got to his house, Bam said, “Come upstairs, I’ve got some footage I’m editing.” I went to his room, pulled my cigarettes out of my pocket, and all of my heroin falls out. He said, “You’re not going on tour and you’re not staying at my house. Get the fuck out.” Most people would be like, “Wow, you just blew a really good opportunity,” but for me, at that moment in time, I hit the Mega-Millions. I’d been to Australia before. It’s like a 19-hour flight and I couldn’t score any heroin there, so I was happy as fuck. So I jumped on a train, went back to Baltimore, and knocked on my mother’s door. I said, “Ma, congratulations, the tour is canceled and I’m here to take care of you a little bit longer.” She said, “No you’re not. Bam called and told me everything.” With that, my mother and police officers served a restraining order against me. She said she would refuse to love me to death, meaning enable me by letting me live at her house.
So Bam and everyone had left the country and I get a message from this chick on social media. But I’m supposed to meet my PO the next morning at 9:00am to piss in a cup. I’m not supposed to leave the state of Pennsylvania. But I’m in an abandoned house in Baltimore shooting heroin and I’m about to board a flight to Fort Lauderdale. If I was to piss in a cup it would light up like a Christmas tree. But my disease of addiction is powerful. It said, “Go ahead, get on that flight, get to Fort Lauderdale, get the drugs she has for you, and you’ll be able to make it back to piss clean for my PO by 8:30 in the morning.” Which you and I know is physically impossible, but I believed I could do it.
So I went to buy some heroin before boarding this flight to Fort Lauderdale and the dealer robs me and I never get my drugs. When they robbed me, they ripped my front and back pockets out of these nice dress pants I had on, but I wasn’t wearing underwear and my dick and ass are completely hanging out. They ripped my button-up shirt open and the only button that stayed buttoned is the top one—so I’m roaming the streets of East Baltimore looking like a gay East LA cholo gangbanger. I go to the airport and get up to the counter and the lady says, “Mr. Novak, are you under the influence of anything?” I said no. She said, “I believe you are and you’ll not fly for 72 hours.” So I got out of line and called my AA sponsor. I said, “I’m stranded at the airport and I want to kill myself.” He said the most mind-blowing thing to me. “How about you just don’t. Get on the train and some people from AA are going to pick you up. They’re going to let you stay at their house, they’re going to take you to see your PO in the morning, and God willing they are going to send you to get some treatment.”
So I went to see my PO wearing the same outfit from the night before and she said, “I don’t even know what to do with you. You’re a mess. I’m going to give you one more chance, but what’s going to be different this time?” I said, “I don’t know.” The reality was, I was tired of hearing my own fucking voice. I knew my words held no weight any longer. I wanted to give my PO officer an elaborate answer, like a saving world hunger kind of answer, but I was sick and tired. So she gave me one more chance and I went back to the same treatment center I’ve been to four previous times. When I get there, I sat in the same seat, talking to the same intake lady. She said, “Okay Mr. Novak, insurance will cover 90 days.” I said, “Ninety days is great, but I’m more of a 45 kind of day fella, because I have a lot of things I need to take care of.” She would laugh at me every time and say, “Sweetheart, you have no idea. Anything you put in front of your recovery does not and will not matter—you’ll lose it.” “That sounds good and all, but you’re talking to a guy who is a New York Times best-selling author who’s written an autobiography memoir, so I’m saving all these peoples’ lives but I can’t keep a needle out of my arm or a bottle out of my mouth.” She said, “You can stay for 90 days.” I couldn’t say no to that. I was so low at that point in time that I had the gift of desperation. She said, “Clearly you’re in no condition to do your intake, so let’s get you out to detox and I’ll see you in four days.”
When I got there, I see my therapist and she said, “Novak, you’re back with us again. If you play your cards right, today could be the best day of your life.” I looked at her and said, “Are you high? You know who I am what I’m capable of doing. There’s no way in hell today will ever be the best day of my life.” She said, “Trust me.” So they took one look at me and said my clothes were not rehab appropriate. I needed to have a pair of underwear, sweatpants, and slippers. I never wanted simple articles of clothing so bad in my life. when I showed up to the rehab my worldly possessions consisted of the clothes on my back and a duffle bag with eight scarves, two jackets, three socks, and a stick of deodorant. It was all I owned despite all the things I’ve done and accomplished in my life. I’m 35-years-old looking like a gay East LA cholo gangster and nobody wants anything to do with me. So I said I didn’t have anything and they took me downstairs to the donations box. All they had was a pair of size 40 women’s sweatpants with no drawstring, a women’s tank top, and a pair of size 13 Jesus sandals. A) I’m not a woman; B) I don’t wear size 13. So to say I was uncomfortable is an understatement, but what happened when I received that gift of desperation—I became willing. The combination of those two put me in a state of being teachable, because what I learned along my journey of sobriety is that I know that I don’t know.
How many years were you addicted to drugs?
Twenty-one years. I had my first arrest in New York City at the age of 17 for possession of heroin. I walked into that treatment center 21 years to the day.
Why do you think it took this long to find sobriety?
I was too smart for my own good. I would outthink myself out of the programs, rehabs, and meetings, thinking I could just do it a different way. And then with Bam and the crowd I ran with, you know, everyone liked to party. So if people wanted to be friends with me, they came up to me and handed me drugs. It’s not like I was running with the most sober of crowds.
So your running around Bam fueled your drug problem?
Absolutely. And I used that to my advantage. It’s kind of like I got to the point where my mother had bought me a plot, people had taken out life insurance policies on me, and I was on life support for seven days. I got to the point where, you know, it would have been much easier to die, but the reality is I was fucking horrible at suicide because I kept waking up. And the worst part wasn’t dying, but waking up every day and using against my will. Doing things that I didn’t want to do for ten-fucking-dollars, like selling my body on a street corner in Baltimore.
That’s pretty fucking heavy.
My mother exhausted all opportunities, options, and resources. She sold three homes to financially pay for me to go and get treatment, because I had no more insurance. All she had left to do was go to God with one simple prayer: “God, please cure him, kill him, or kill me, because I can’t take it anymore.”
What’s your daily routine like now that you’ve found sobriety?
A complete night and day from before to now. The more sober I get, the more OCD I become. If you walk into my home, my bed is made. If I have more than three articles of dirty clothing in my hamper, I freak out. Everything is meticulous, I’m program-oriented. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is pray. I’m not a religious person, but I’m spiritual. I went to that rehab, stayed there for 90 days, and when I got out I went to a sober-living house and stayed there for a year. My biggest problem I always had was when I would go to treatment, I’d get out, go to the gym, go to yoga, drink smoothies, be all healthy, shots of wheatgrass, but then I would hangout with those guys. I would go on tour. I would film. Do all of these things I had no business doing early on in sobriety. So I thought at first that I could just drink wine. So I started drinking. Then blow comes. Then I want to go to bed and there’s Xanax… and the next thing I know I have a needle in my arm.
So when I went to this rehab and I got out, my people didn’t allow me to do what I always did, because I had some money put away. I said, “Look, I’m going to live in this sober house and I need to pay $660.00 a month, that’s $165.00 a week.” They said, “No, you’re going to get a job. You’re going to open a bank account. You’re going to pay your own way.” My biggest problem, I had this false ego and because of that pride I couldn’t get a normal job. I was afraid of what people would say about me. That kept me dying for a lot of years. So what happened this time, my people knew a guy who owned a restaurant. They called him up and got me a job washing dishes for eight bucks an hour under the table. For the first three months I washed dishes next to a 13-year-old boy. Then I got a raise and they let me wait on tables four days a week. I started putting money away in a bank account. Before I knew it, I was paying my own rent in this recovery house and I had a couple of grand in my bank account. I had a sense of accomplishment. It taught me how to re-enter society without the use of a drink or drug—to have a civil conversation with people while not fucked out of my mind.
Now that you’re on a new path have you been riding your skateboard?
Yeah, I have been. It’s crazy because I went from having all the time in the world to not having enough time in the day. The fact is, I’m 37-years-old and my mind doesn’t realize I’m 37. It still thinks I’m a fucking 16-year-old skater riding for Powell-Peralta. So when I’m trying a trick, I either try it until I make it or I get hurt. Skateboarding doesn’t pay the bills and it’s tough for me to differentiate that. So I do it for the love and my soul, but I don’t nearly do it as much I would like. I just moved into Philadelphia right next to a park, and I’m going out to London in mid-May and Bam and I are going to skate. CKY is playing out there and we’re going to the last two shows.
Do you feel it could be dangerous hanging around Bam at this stage of your sobriety?
The reality is, when I got into rehab they said to change people, places, and things. In the beginning it was imperative, but it wasn’t that hard because I didn’t have to change people, places and things—people left me for the safety of themselves. No one was really looking forward to hanging out with me. What I’ve noticed now is that my interests have changed. I don’t have the same thing in common as someone who’s sitting in the pub all day or sniffing cocaine or shooting heroin. They don’t want to do what I’m doing and I don’t want to do what they’re doing. I’ve worked the program and the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and I’m literally a free man. I’m in the field where I do interventions on people and walk into hotel rooms seeing people shooting heroin and cocaine, and the furthest thing from my mind is like, wow, I hope I can get a little bit of that without anybody knowing—this from the guy who shot heroin for 21 years. I didn’t get sober to not be a free man. So I know my limitations, the stakes are too high, and I’ve accepted it. Drink one glass of wine or do one of anything and I will die. No questions asked. The moment it changed was when I accepted I was an alcoholic. That’s what has allowed me to get out of my way and to start getting better.
Did you ever suffer any medical or health issues from the drug use?
Yes, I had Hepatitis C. I went on this drug called Harvoni. It’s a real expensive drug. You see a lot more TV commercials for Hepatitis C now, because it’s a curable disease. I took 90 pills for 90 days, and I just went to the doctors again, had my blood work done, and it looks like I’ve been cured. That was the only thing I walked away from. At one point in time, I was homeless in Baltimore and shooting heroin in an abandoned house when I clogged my needle. There were needles all over the ground and I knew my shit would gel up if I waited too long. I was sick, so I’m looking on the ground to find out what needle would work the best, like which is the least used. I did that and I was like, “Dude, it would not surprise me if I just contracted HIV.” Right? So a few months down the road, I’m sick and there’s this study in Baltimore where they’re paying addicts 30 dollars to come in and get tested. My intentions were to go in, get the check, and never go back to get my results—because it wouldn’t shock me if I caught HIV or something like that—but then they weren’t going to give me the check until they gave me the results. I didn’t want to do it, but just couldn’t be sick, so I said, “I’m here for the results, but do me a favor—if I have Hepatitis, okay, you can go ahead and tell me that, but if I have HIV, please don’t even tell me,” because at that point in time ignorance was bliss and I was living a reckless lifestyle. They said, “We have some good news: you don’t have HIV but you do have Hepatitis C.” As fucked up as it sounds, I was happy as a pig in shit because I didn’t have AIDS. I remember that happening like it was yesterday. And really, like in my mind, I’d built this up, knowing that it was time to meet my maker and I would die a long, slow, painful death from cirrhosis of the liver, because even if I was to stop doing heroin and cocaine, I loved drinking wine. So this time when I got sober, I did the medication, I did the rehab, and the doctor said, “Mr. Novak, your Hepatitis is in remission, but you have to get tested again in six more months to find out if it’s truly gone. It’s a 98-percent success rate with this medication, so you’re pretty much good to go.” So I just got a second lease on life—well, not a second, it’s like my ninetieth, but I cannot take advantage of this.
Now that you finally found sobriety, what’s your lifestyle like? What changes have you made?
I eat better, I joined the gym, and I jog three miles every morning. I still smoke, but not as much and that’s on its way out. I’ve become a cat hoarder; I’ll be like a crazy old cat man. I have six cats right now and if they could talk I don’t know if I would ever leave my house. I’ve been traveling like crazy, telling my story as a cautionary tale at colleges, high schools, and recovery walks. I have a graphic novel that’s getting ready to come out. My new book, which is a release of the first book with a new cover and ending, was released yesterday, and I have a documentary coming out about my life called “Where’s My Needle” that will go to the Sundance festival. Honestly, when it comes to 8 or 9 o’clock at night, I become a tired man, so I go home, or back to my hotel room, and take it easy. I don’t like that crazy extravagant life I used to live.
Do you have any advice for anyone who might be looking for help?
Your history doesn’t have to be your future. As long as you’re breathing it’s never too late. I was that alcoholic deemed poor and unfixable. Nobody believed I would get sober—nor did I. Addiction is a disease that kills 144 people a day. One-out-of-seven will be affected by this disease. AA or NA is the biggest and fastest growing movement to date in history that no one ever wanted to be a part of, and if you think about that it kind of says a lot. There’s not one clear cut, direct, precise way on how to get help, but I always give my personal number out in any interviews. It’s 610-635-9092. I deal with anybody that is struggling. I’m kind of like a concierge in the treatment world. After 21 years of addiction and being in and out of so many treatment centers, I have a lot of ways and means to provide help for people.
(Portrait photos by Adam Wallacavage; Jackass photos by Sean Cliver)