Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of self-harm, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol use.
VANCE JOHNSON LEANS very close to his zoom screen and pulls up his left sleeve. His shirt says “Own Your Sobriety” and he’s just sobriety. “Can you see that?” he asks.
The former Broncos recipient, part of the famous “Three Amigos” of the John Elway-era Denver teams, holds up his forearm where there is a terrible “C” -shaped scar. He says he carved it in his arm with a knife one night when he was in another haze of drugs and alcohol. That night he was in agony again and he just felt like he couldn’t cope with any other day. He was so badly injured that he fell into a coma and woke up two weeks later to find that he had barely survived. Doctors had to transplant parts of his thigh to repair the deep damage he had done to his arm.
He is now holding it up as a symbol of all the pain – the pain he caused himself, the pain he caused others. There was a lot to do. He’s been divorced eight times, had more business than he can remember, has a history of domestic violence, and is still working his way back into the lives of his six children. “I was a terrible man,” he says.
He fought for years to stand near a soccer field because he had promised that drugs and alcohol would be sucked out of him. He’d grown up in a troubled New Jersey house and had a single principle for everyone in the house: get Vance into the NFL. He had been a second round pick by the Broncos in 1985, with a mind-boggling ability, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound alumni who ran back and had recently won a gold medal in the long jump at the Pan-Am Games. One day, the 23-year-old thought, the Broncos would withdraw his uniform number 82.
After a difficult first month, however, Johnson didn’t know if he would make it out of the preseason. After a critical punt muff during a preseason game, he thought he might get injured the next day. It was then for the first time in his life that he consumed alcohol. A few sips later he felt he had arrived. “I had found my way to deal with it,” he says.
During his nine league seasons, he went to three Super Bowls, collected 5,695 yards and caught 37 touchdowns, along with fellow Amigos Ricky Nattiel and Mark Jackson. But it fell apart early and quickly. His addiction wasn’t the kind that had crept on him over a long period of time; From his first drink he couldn’t control it, and substance abuse quickly made his life worse. As Bronco, he says he tried to kill himself three times and was routinely drunk or high during the Games, to the point where his teammates would have him do push-ups between the possessions to try the Burn off alcohol faster. “I ran out of it at halftime,” says Johnson now.
He says he’s been sober since fall 2013. It was challenging for sure, but Johnson detoxed, started working 12-step programs, and said he hadn’t taken a drink or drug since then. He opened a treatment facility in Las Vegas that hosted both his worst exploits and the subsequent cleansing of the past seven years, and made his debut on March 15 as a consultant for A&E’s new season of the show, Intervention. He’s the main interventionist on the next episode, which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday. ET.
Since he was sober, Johnson has become a fan of interventions. He says he has had great success over the years, partnering with families who are finding it difficult to sit down with a loved one and offer help. But he had never done it with cameras before.
“It’s a program that I believe in 100 percent and that offers hope to people struggling with addiction,” Johnson said of the show. “Help doesn’t just stop once the person is treated, either. We want to be there for the rest of your life to make sure there is a next level of care.”
“Intervention” has been an integral part of A&E programming since its introduction in 2005. Those struggling with substance abuse sign up for a documentary on active addiction. However, the reality on the reality show is that family members and interventionists are planning to get help with the person confronting them. In 2013, A&E said 156 out of 243 interventions resulted in people sobering up eight years after the show started. In a recent statement to ESPN, the network said, “We have produced 256 episodes of the Emmy-winning series since 2005. A total of 312 people were offered treatment, and only five featured subjects declined. Of those who said yes, 80 percent successfully completed treatment. “
Getting active addicts or newly sober people on television is not without risk, however. Does the high level of care and attention improve an addict’s chances? Does it benefit 100 mates who watch the show but maybe not mate in the the show?
“It’s a muddy area of recovery,” says William Moyers, VP at the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic and a convalescent. “You have to wrestle with educating the public instead of shaming the person on the show.”
That’s the thing: it’s hard to see an active heroin addict and think, “Gosh, you know what could help this guy? A couple of camera crews and a national television audience.” It’s a show that shows a person’s lowest moments on TV so we can digest them in our living rooms. It is a show that captures the torture of loved ones in this orbit, and it is a show that promotes the final highly personal collision between addicts and their debris for the world to watch. It can be difficult to watch and look away from, sometimes in the same episode.
Also, it’s a show that helped save my life.
TO MY BELOW, I ate 60 pain killers during the day, came home to my wife and two young children, drank a few beers, and collapsed on the couch. For many of those nights, I was barely aware of when my wife would turn on the television. We often chose a show that we both liked: “Intervention”.
It’s a powerful show. You see some miracles happen. Sometimes you see whatever is the opposite of miracles. It’s good television and we were drawn to it. In my case, however, I was disappointed to see it. The whole show was me, my secrets exactly where the world can see them – I didn’t know these people, but I did knew These people.
There’s not a single reason I went into rehab in November 2008. More like 10 different things that resulted in me either dying or asking for help. I asked for help and “intervention” was one of the reasons. It gave me hope and my sobriety date remains November 10, 2008.
Moyers had a different reaction when he first saw “Intervention”. He had been the subject of non-televised intervention 10 years earlier when sheriffs knocked on the door of a crackhouse he was hiding in. When he left the house, he found his father, the legendary PBS broadcaster Bill Moyers, sitting in the sheriff’s car. They all told him he needed help and he agreed. He’s not sure if rolling cameras would have made him work or made him recover even more.
We’ve seen people sober up with 1,000 different formulas. We’ve seen people who we thought didn’t have a chance to sober up, celebrate five years, and people who were sober prodigies … disappear forever a month later. You just don’t know It’s heartbreaking – I want recovery to be math, where you add things up on one page and then it equates to the gift of recovery. That’s not how it works.
“When the show started, I was very much against it,” says Moyers. “But I guess I’ve softened my attitude. I’ve met people who have sobered up and are still alive today because they saw hope on that show. So for me, I say, each one his own.”
Johnson says he’s one of those people. He had watched the show for years, secretly hoping that a loved one would worry enough to stage an intervention on television or otherwise. The truth about his bum, however, is ugly: he says that most of his family didn’t care if he lived or died.
When he overdosed in the fall of 2013, he was in a coma for 28 days. He’d spent the past few years in a downward spiral after his son Vaughn died in a motorcycle accident in 2007 for which Johnson blamed himself. He’d missed a call from Vaughn asking for a ride down a treacherous road in the mountains of the Denver suburb. But Johnson says he “cheated on my wife at the time” and didn’t answer the phone. So his son took his motorcycle instead and was hit and killed by another driver. “It was my fault,” says Johnson now.
On the 24th day of the coma, the doctors informed his family that they would pull the life support. Johnson’s sister came to the hospital to take one last picture of him and was about to die. He woke up four days later. He still wasn’t done with drugs and alcohol, but he’d gotten a couple of exits closer to the exit.
That officially came later in 2013. His seventh wife packed up her children and left. He had been handed divorce papers and shortly thereafter received a stunning phone call: she cared enough about Johnson, saw enough light still burning deep in the pit of his active addiction that she had contacted the NFL and said he needed help . Johnson says he then received a call from former Bucs player Randy Grimes, who is self-recovering and working with the NFL, who pushed him into rehab. Johnson said he would, and he was flown to a treatment facility soon after.
But when he checked in, he stayed to himself. He thought he’d maybe put a couple of weeks together, clean up a bit, reset, and maybe start all over again with a better ability to manage it.
I had the exact same thought when I went to rehab in 2008, and then I had the same revelation Johnson had when listening to some of the sober people around him. These people were do it. They laughed and ate normal food and their children hugged them. They broke the spell. How can that be? The moment when an addict can identify with someone who has withdrawn from the incomprehensible suffering of the end … that is the ultimate mind-changing substance.
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Johnson, who says he is a devout Christian, was weaving his way through the parking lot one afternoon in rehab, trying to avoid another group discussion on sober strategies, when he saw a cross on a building and heard a voice saying, Go go back and listen. He went back inside, he says, and the news spread. Maybe he could sober up after all.
The longer Johnson was sober, the more he fully realized the damage he did, especially in relationships. He was a terrible husband who couldn’t be faithful and will not remarry, he now says. He says he grew up with domestic violence and swore never to repeat the physical violence he saw at home. And yet he did.
The police were called to his home at least five times. Johnson admits verbally abusing and physically abusing his partners, including once when he said he pushed his wife to the ground and knocked her unconscious. He was also arrested for writing bad checks, failing to provide child support, and having multiple drunk driving cases. “The truth is that I was abusive,” he says. “You don’t just have to put your hands on someone to abuse them. You can abuse them emotionally, verbally, fraudulently, and in all possible ways. I’ve had to work on everything you can think of.”
Johnson even went on one Episode of “Oprah” in the late 1990s alongside one of his ex-wives who apologized to her for his abuse over the years. She didn’t accept his apology at the time. “I’m not blaming them,” says Johnson now.
I reached out to two of Johnson’s ex-wives who had said in the past that he was abusive. One didn’t answer and another declined to comment. “It’s such a distant part of my past,” she said. “I have absolutely nothing positive to say. I’m not at all interested in revisiting this part of my life.”
Johnson’s horrific treatment of spouses spilled over into the rest of his family. In the eighth year he tries to become a father to his six grown children for the first time. He tears up talking about how he screwed up as a father. He threw away years, even decades, to bond with his children during their formative years. He says to all of his children, “Whatever you do, don’t be like your father.”
At one point in our Zoom conversation we talk about fatherhood and the things Johnson did or missed that he can never get back. While Johnson is speaking, it hits me harder than I thought.
I’ve been sober since my three daughters were all very young, so I’ve never been drunk at a parent-teacher conference or gym class. My youngest daughter is now in kindergarten, and I found out about a year ago that what I had always thought was a godly, annoying task – dragging a kid through the mall or to an amusement park – was quickly gone. She got bigger, and if my older daughters are showing any signs of it, I’m about a year away from getting frozen from hugs, too. On that rare occasion last year when she skinned one knee and asks me to pick her up, I dive to scoop her into my arms.
As Johnson spoke, I had a hard time finding out how lucky I was when I got out – and also emphasizing how hard I press every day to avoid drinking or using drugs.
When I’m sober, I’m as present as Johnson says he never was. He must try to be a grandfather to his five grandchildren, just as he couldn’t be a father. I have this chance now. In fact, I’ve been keeping a diary of my kids since 2011 and I write down silly things that happen – there’s a Father’s Day entry from last June where the girls got me a “The Dadalorian” t-shirt that I loved . But in the diary of that time I mention that it was a bit embarrassing to wear the shirt. I didn’t want to see myself as someone in the Dad Joke Shirt’s life. I still found myself too cool for that.
But I also write down more poignant things, such as how my youngest boy asks me to pick them up each time and the circumstances. Then I wonder if this might be the last time. It’s always a sad idea to take notes, but I’m so grateful to enjoy them.
These are the moments Johnson completely missed. He is animated and says, “I will never be such a father,” and he moves his hands in different positions, mimicking what a parent might do with young children. He hangs both hands on one shoulder, like a father picking up a 6 month old man and holding the baby to his chest. Then he imitates an imaginary child on his shoulders. “The piggyback goes, that kind of father … I’ll never be that for her,” he says.
The entire time he’s been cycling through the moves of his lost fatherhood, I can’t help but notice that big “C” scar still sticking out of his sobriety shirt.
BEFORE THIS SEASON debut In the aftermath of “Intervention” I asked about 10 sober friends for their impressions of the show. Most shared my mixed feelings about the concepts of intervention in general and sobriety in television. But most also got down where Moyers did: that the miracle of when someone takes their last drink or drug is beyond what each of us knows or should pretend to know. A friend said to me, “It would not have helped me if five loved ones confronted me about my drinking because I already had five loved ones who confronted me every day about my drinking. But the people I saw on the show are at the very, very bottom, and the ground is a desperate place. So who am I – and who are you – to know if this is the Hail Mary attempt that finally works? “
So I prepared for the season premiere on March 15th. I still think that the next time a hardcore oxycontin addict or alcoholic calls me for help every day, I won’t organize an intervention with their family or book a local camera team to come out and capture them.
At the very beginning, the advisors appear on-screen, including a brief appearance from Vance Johnson, who is listed as an interventionist and recovery ambassador for this season. Then we meet Susan, the addict in the center of the first episode. I tore myself open several times over the next two hours and felt my stomach tense up another time. It is very difficult for someone like me to see Susan suffering as much as she does – there have been so many “yes” in the episode, things I hadn’t done that I could do when I return to drugs and alcohol .
She had lost custody of her son and moved back in with her parents. She sat on her mother’s bed for most of the day, smoked black tar heroin from a piece of foil, and then nodded off. Her mother went all out, giving her the drugs every few hours to get her back up.
About halfway through the show there was a big curveball: when her mother was lying on the bed next to Susan serving heroin, she lit a meth pipe at the same time. Then we see two other family members hiding in separate rooms in the basement, both in ugly addictions themselves. Susan was just a member of a House of Addiction Horrors.
For the past 15 minutes, I’ve been entrenched in an existential way for the whole family. I needed them all to accept the treatment. You’re welcome. Walk. Receive. Better.
At the end of the show, we see Susan went into rehab where she looks healthy and happy. A blurb says she has been sober since it aired September 1, 2020 and Son speaks to her every day.
After the episode, I went upstairs and picked up my diary on the kids. I flipped through a little and found a passage from a Friday night about a year and a half ago that I had forgotten.
The entry described how I decided to tell one of my older daughters that I was an alcoholic and an addict. So I went to the meetings and had all these books in my closet. I had a conversation in my head where I would say that I felt sorry for some of my actions when she was very little, that I wanted to spend every day making up for it, that I was some really selfish Things did that I will be happy to answer your questions. It was a scary, heart-to-heart, complicated hour in my head that I started asking for forgiveness.
But there may be nothing more difficult in recovery than the forgiveness process. In my recovery network, we often emphasize that we cannot regret the past … and at the same time do not close the door. That said, we need to acknowledge the bad things we have done and work hard not to repeat them, but also not allow them to be anchors that we can never go further. I’ve found this to be the hardest landing. Vance Johnson can say he is sorry, but people certainly have the right to react the way some family members do when they essentially say, “Thank you, but I moved on and I don’t want to hear from you again.” . ” The only part of the forgiveness process that each of us can truly control is doing everything we can every day to avoid doing unforgivable things again.
Every week I correspond with inmates who wish to sober up and stay. It is remarkable how little they ever write about whether their lawyer was bad or the judge was corrupt, or whether they are innocent or guilty. We spend our time leading a life in which we are responsible for harmful, wrong things that we have done – and also for doing the next right thing.
That was my goal when I walked into my daughter’s room 18 months ago. But as I soon realized, forgiveness cannot be calculated and planned.
I had the idea how our conversation would go. This is how it actually went:
Daughter: “Come in.”
Me: (walks slowly, serious face): “Hey, I just wanted to let you know something about me. You know how you always ask me why I hugged that Rando in the supermarket and how you asked me about the meeting, that I go to on many evenings? Well, I just wanted to explain it all … “
Daughter: “Because you’re an alcoholic, aren’t you?”
Me: “Uhhh, yeah. How did you know?”
Daughter: “I could tell. I’ve never seen you drink, and you’ve never been drunk and vomited or the way they’re shown on TV.”
Me: “Yeah, I’m working very hard not to get back to this lifestyle. Do you have any concerns or questions or anything? I really wasn’t a great dad back then and I’m happy to talk more about it.”
Daughter: You are fine, dad. But can you go I do Roblox.
She turned back to her laptop and I crept out of the room encouraged and also feeling a little silly for thinking. I must have gone straight back to my room and recorded the whole convo.
I read the entry again, put the book down, and got ready for bed. I like laying my clothes out for the next day, so I grabbed a pair of jeans and ruffled my shirts until I found the perfect one for tomorrow. The Dadalorian was ready for the weekend.
Go to SAMHSA.gov or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Authority at 1-800-662-HELP for free, confidential help. If you are a victim of domestic violence or would like more information, call the national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or log on to thehotline.org. You’re worth it.