Macklemore on working with CLEAN Cause, relapsing during the pandemic, and why he 'hates' the term 'California sober'

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·8 min read

Ben Haggerty, aka Macklemore, just signed on as the first creative director and celebrity investor for CLEAN Cause, a yerba maté beverage company that supports individuals in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction and has granted more 2,823 sober living scholarships. It’s a cause near and dear to the Grammy-winning rapper/singer-songwriter's heart, as he has long been one of pop music’s most prominent recovery advocates.

“Recovery is at the very forefront and the foundation of my life today, and it has been for a long time,” Haggerty tells Yahoo Entertainment. “If it wasn't for my experience going to treatment and having that opportunity, I probably wouldn't be alive today.”

Macklemore’s CLEAN Cause partnership launches at a time when recovering addicts are especially struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic of the past two years. “I think that when the lockdown happened and people were forced to stay home and stay with their own thoughts and kids running around and all the other stresses, financial and everything in between — what do people do? They escape. Or, a problem that's already there becomes worse,” he explains. Haggerty himself relapsed in 2020, which he first revealed during a podcast conversation with fellow recovering addict Dax Shepard, who also relapsed during the pandemic.

“Yeah. Um, everyone listened to that Dax Shepherd podcast,” Haggerty says with a rueful chuckle. But he adds, “I love talking to other addicts. It's like, those are my people; that's my community.” And he understands why his story, and Shepard’s story, resonated so widely. And he doesn’t regret telling the truth.

“This has not been a linear path. I would've loved to have been one of those people that's like, ‘I got clean in 2008 and I've stayed clean ever since and have 12 or 13 years of sobriety.’ But no, that's just not my story,” Haggerty shrugs. “But I believe that there is power in my story, and in everyone else's story, if we share it in a way that's transparent. … I want to be able to be real. I want to be able to say, like, ‘No, I don't have a couple of years sober. I‘ve got, you know, 15 months’ — or, I don't know. I don't even know what [length of time] it is anymore. Time to me is a beautiful thing, but what's more important is what I'm doing today around my recovery.”

Haggerty explains that his “disease thrives in secrecy” and was “just peaking” in 2020, and “there was something in my head immediately with the pandemic that was like, ‘Ooh, the world is shut off. You can shut off. You can't even work if you want to right now. The tour’s canceled. The festivals are canceled. You can just get high and chill at home.’ And that voice got louder and louder and louder, until I finally relapsed.”

Haggerty is grateful that his 2020 relapse “wasn't a long one,” but he notes, “It was still traumatic, and it was still really hard. And there was still trust that had to be rebuilt with my wife. And whenever that happens, you never know where you're going to end up. So, I'm grateful that it was brief and that it wasn't too bad, but at the same time, there was a lot of pain that was caused there, and I'm still feeling those residual effects. But the only thing that I can do is just for today, one day at a time, keep prioritizing my recovery, because my life absolutely depends on it. And when I don't put it at the forefront of everything, the rest of my world collapses.”

Haggerty, who first entered rehab in 2008 and relapsed in 2011 and 2014, is clearly open about his complicated recovery journey. But that wasn’t always the case. “I am someone that when there's been relapses in the past, my first instinct, my first inclination, is I don't want to tell anybody. There's this guilt and shame over a relapse,” he admits. “And I think that as I've been in the rooms of recovery for 12, 13 years now, and have relapsed, I don't care anymore,” he explains. “I’m not a proponent of relapse, of course, but for me, for Dax to share openly and honestly about his relapse gave me some motivation, a reminder of like, ‘Yo, who are we trying to save face for here?’

“As I get older, I care less and less about how I'm perceived, and I care more about what my story might actually do if someone else hears it. And if we shield those parts of our story, if we only tell half the truth or only use Instagram filters and don't really show who we truly are, that doesn't give anybody else an accurate picture of what recovery looks like. And it's not pretty. It's not easy. It takes work. And to get to your question about what happened in the pandemic is: I stopped doing the work.”

Haggerty has battled addictions to various substances since his teen years, and he has a major problem with the fact that “certain drugs are more stigmatized than others. I think that probably at the root of judgment in America, we judge people that are addicted to meth and we judge people that shoot heroin the most — or crack. Those are like at the top of the judgment hierarchy. And then you might have your prescription opioids, and then at the bottom, it's 'just weed.' It's like, for me, I've done a lot of drugs, and they all lead me to the same place. They lead me to a place, and whether that's at the very brink of death or whether that's just sitting on my couch, I might as well… you know, I'm living like I'm dying. They all lead me to desperation. They all lead me to utter depression and eventually the feeling of 'I don't really wanna be here anymore.'

“I don't minimize or overdramatize any mind-altering substance. I think that for me, in my own experience, weed has been just as detrimental on my journey as Oxycontin was,” he continues. “And yes, Oxycontin was a worse thing to detox from and it's more dangerous, but weed also was a sneaky one, because all of a sudden, you're stuck on the couch for 10 years — the way that I smoke it. So, that's just my own experience. I do think that we are in a place where we are talking more about drugs, but we still have preconceived notions of what a ‘crackhead’ looks like, or a ‘meth-head’ looks like, or a ‘junkie’ looks like. We've coined these terms that have such a negative connotation that the guilt and shame around them is really hard to be honest about it, because we don't want to be categorized as this — when really the through-line of all of it is the disease of addiction.”

So, unsurprisingly, Haggerty is no fan of “California sober” — a term, popularized by a Demi Lovato song, coined to describe people who drink alcohol and smoke marijuana but abstain from using “harder” substances. (Lovato has since denounced the term.) “I hate the term ‘California sober,’” he gripes, almost growling.

“And I don't say ‘hate,’ very often — definitely not in any sort of media. I think that it's a very dangerous term for people that are in recovery. And it's just not true. Like, that's not sober. Sober is complete abstinence. Being clean is complete abstinence,” Haggerty stresses. “So, from my experience, that doesn't work, this idea that we can replace this drug for that drug: ‘I'm just not gonna do that,' or ‘I'm just not gonna drink hard alcohol,’ or ‘I'll just smoke weed.’ If the disease of addiction is present in the person, the allergy is there for anything that alters the way that that addict feels. And I have done the substitution dance. I have done the ‘geographical location cure.’ I have tried all of those things. I have known hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of people that have tried same thing. I think it's a common thing that all addicts try, like, ‘If I just could get off that and just do this and this maintenance...’ And it does not work if you have the disease of addiction.”

Macklemore — who also serves on the board of directors for MusiCares; was featured in a 2016 MTV special with Barack Obama about America’s opioid epidemic; and has addressed the subject of addiction in songs like “Starting Over,” “Kevin,” and “Drug Dealer” — says he loves working with CLEAN Cause because, obviously, “I get to talk about recovery! … And when I talk about it, when I share my story, I find freedom in that. With CLEAN Cause, we're going to be giving away 50 percent of the profits to help other people — like, that is the most ideal, perfect partnership that I could ever dream of. It’s a team of people that have also either lost someone or have someone in active addiction or are addicts themselves. … And we're going to help. CLEAN Cause is already helping. They've already helped so many people transform so many lives. And we're just getting started.”

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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by John Santo

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