Q & A

Tom Arnold Will Share His Mental Health and Addiction Journey in Sarasota Tomorrow

The comedian, actor, producer and writer is the keynote speaker at Sunshine From Darkness' Inspiring Hope Dinner. Ahead of his talk, we caught up with Arnold for a wide-ranging interview about addiction and recovery.

By Kim Doleatto January 11, 2024

Tom Arnold

Tom Arnold's Hollywood career has run the gamut. He's appeared in blockbuster movies like True Lies, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and starred in Nine Months, with Hugh Grant and Julianne Moore. There have been TV dramas and sitcoms, and he even anchored a sports talk show. Plus, he’s written and produced television shows and written an autobiography.

Many of us remember when Arnold was married to comedienne Roseanne Barr, who rose to fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s with her eponymous sitcom. Arnold and Barr met in 1983 in Minneapolis, where he opened for her stand-up comedy act. In 1988, he was brought onto Roseanne as a writer. 

He's funny on stage, too. He performed his stand-up act at McCurdy's in 2015 and 2017. 

Now, the 64-year-old comedian, actor, producer and writer, who is also a father to two young children, is giving a different kind of performance. This Friday, Jan. 12, Arnold will be the keynote speaker at the Sunshine From Darkness "Inspiring Hope" dinner. Sunshine From Darkness is a local volunteer-driven nonprofit that raises funds for research and local charities that provide mental health and addiction services. Arnold will speak about his journey with anxiety and addiction to give hope to others who face the same challenges.

Before his talk, we caught up with him to learn more about his story. The interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

What’s your connection to the Sarasota area? 

"I grew up in Iowa, and if you live there and everything goes right, you end up in Sarasota. I've also performed comedy here, and there are lots of Iowans here.

"My biggest connection is my own journey of recovery—sharing that and getting involved with organizations like Sunshine from Darkness that are doing amazing things. It’s an honor."

Why is the topic of mental health and addiction important to you? 

"I'm an addict in recovery and have mental health issues. Growing up in the '80s, people didn't talk about it. It was considered a weakness. I’m from a blue-collar town and worked at a meat packing plant there for three years to save money for college. There was a lot of drinking and drug use. I’m not the only famous Arnold. My sister was the biggest drug dealer in America

"There was so much shame around mental health, even though it affects just about all of our families, regardless of our backgrounds or beliefs. To make things better, you have to talk about them. From my experience of talking and sharing, people are constantly trying to figure out better ways to help more people. It's a constant work in progress.

"I’m not cured. I have small children who have, unfortunately, witnessed contentious things. Each day you have to get up and do something good, and that starts to slowly add up. I get up and say, 'The most important job I have today is to be in a good mood so the kids have nothing to worry about.' That trick works for me. But it's hard. Some of us think the stuff we have to face is insurmountable. That's why having hope is important. If I can do it, anybody can, and that's just a fact."

Does sharing your story help you, too?

"I think there are bits of my story someone can connect to. I still get nervous when I go in front of people to do it because I care, but afterward, I always feel better. It gives you a natural high. 

"As an actor, you’re supposed to present yourself as cool as possible, but I’m committed to sharing. I’d rather do it before someone else does. People have been very generous and helpful to me. I want to do the same."

Do your kids know about your addiction and recovery?

"With kids, you wonder if they will have the same issues [as you do], but you just have to share honestly. They know Dad goes to sober events and he has to work out for his mental health and to stay alive as long as possible. I tell them addiction was dark and gloomy. Everything I do now is from the perspective of a parent."

When did your issues with addiction and anxiety start? 

"By the time I was about 13, I was drinking, due to the way I grew up. People like to blame Hollywood, but I come from a place with lots of drinking and drugs, where factory workers took drugs to work longer hours. 

"When I was young, the people who worked there had union jobs and lived on the same street as the doctors. When the union jobs ended, there was a lot of despair. Some people dealt with that by using drugs and alcohol."

Were there addiction issues in your family? 

"My dad was a single dad at age 22. I was 4 years old. Mom would show up wasted and fall into the Christmas tree. My dad would just laugh, thinking he was taking the high road. My sister idolized my mom, and my mom made her marry a pedophile at 14."

How did you get into recovery? 

"In the '70s and '80s, I got arrested for drunk driving. So I thought, 'Maybe I'm drinking too much and I need to do more drugs, instead.' In 1988, I moved to Los Angeles to write Roseanne. Roseanne and I have been friends since I was 23. We both drank and did drugs, but when I moved there, she asked, 'Do you do this every day? I thought it was just once in a while. That’s bad.' I said 'OK,' but what I meant was, 'You won’t see me do this, but I’ll keep doing it and keep it secret.' I kept figuring out ways to lie. It was sad and depressing because I realized people didn’t like it when I did that stuff. I'd go overboard. So I thought, 'Instead of quitting I'll hide it.'

"I haven’t drunk since 1989. Then, at 19 years sober, I wrecked my bike and broke my back. Alcohol and cocaine were my thing—then the ambulance came and they gave me a shot of fentanyl. I thought, 'Oh, that’s what I've missed.' 

"On my 20th sober birthday, I realized I was still on pain meds and wasn’t sober. I went to South Africa to do a reality-type show, and you parachute out of a plane over the biggest game reserve with nothing and have to survive. I remember thinking, 'I can do this but I need Xanax.' 

"Getting off benzos is harder than any of the other drugs. You’re not supposed to read the news [when you're on a reality TV show], but I broke the rules and got on the Internet and found out that a friend of mine, a musician, had hung himself in a hotel after arguing with his wife. Benzos can lead you to do that. It was sad. I thought, 'That could be me.' I’ve been sober for six-and-a-half years now. It's been the best six-and-a-half years of all of my sobriety. When you go through a high-conflict divorce and custody battle, you have to be immaculate." 

Who or what inspires you to stay sober?

"I can be addicted to anything. The kids help you get going, but eventually, you have to do it for yourself. It gets easier over time. Now I don't know where I'd find the time to get high and find drugs. I haven't had a date in six-and-a-half years, either! You get divorced three times and blame the other person. The fourth time, you realize, 'Maybe it’s me.' 

"Kids love their parents, no matter what. It’s in their DNA. When something inappropriate happens, I acknowledge it with my kids, but I don’t engage. If they say, 'You want to know what mom did this weekend?' I say no, for my own mental health and sobriety. 

"You have to disengage from all your toxic relationships as much as possible. Your circle gets small. When you’re 64 with kids this age, your circle is already small. But you’re able to look around and see who you can count on. For me, it’s mostly others who have recovered, too. I’m grateful for them. I've downsized a lot and we don't have the money we used to, but we have a lot. It’s one day at a time. I take nothing for granted.

"In recovery, they tell you to love yourself, which is important. I have a picture of myself at 4 years old, and I love that kid."

What is the best piece of advice you could share with those who have loved ones dealing with the same issues? 

"No. 1: There’s help out there. No. 2: You’re a saint. No. 3: There are other people in your position you can talk to. It’s so important to get online and reach out. The people helping addicts and mental health-affected folks are often ashamed, and we need to end that stigma.

"There’s a lot of hope. You can get into a support group and share, and it helps you feel less alone and get more information to make better decisions. My advice is to be honest. Secrets are bad for people like me, because [that means] the thing that wants to kill me is still in my head. 

"Be patient. Not everyone is the same. It takes time. After you have all the information and set your loved ones up with the right people, you have to let them do it—and it’s hard to release the control. You get addicted to helping them and it becomes your life. You can get them rolling, but they have to continue. You can't spend the rest of your life making them go to this meeting or that meeting. When people take ownership of their stuff, that’s the best thing for them."

What about parents who are worried about their kids? 

"Talk to your kids early. You also have the luxury of keeping tabs on them now. If I thought one of my kids was using, I would check their phones. It’s not spying. Ask them. I have their passwords, and they have my passwords, too, even if there might be filthy jokes on my phone. I’ll talk to them about anything. Once kids are adults, you can’t do that. They grow up so fast.

"There's security when kids know their parents are on it. My mom let me do anything. But kids like to know you’re on top of things and that they can share with you. Don't overreact to your kids sharing something that seems crazy with you—they need to be able to trust you without you being a maniac and threatening them or their friends. 

"If you find your kid smoking pot, don’t freak out and send them to a reform school or a camp. It helps to be a little more analytical while making sure they don’t get in any more trouble. Me and Roseanne made that mistake with my stepkids, who were doing drugs and having sex. We panicked and sent them to rehabs out of state. But the panic keeps you from making wise decisions. Every kid screws up. If they’re honest with you, you’re lucky you hear about it.

"There are great places for kids who have problems, but pace yourself with those. It’s hard to recover—you’re feeling all these things, and then you’re sent away. If a kid goes to rehab, everyone should be involved and [the rehab facility] should welcome family, too. When an addict hears their family is coming to visit, it’s comforting."

What's a happy recent memory with your kids? 

"Late Christmas Eve, we started opening gifts, and the vibe was great. We do Hanukkah, too. And we do road trips, which they’ll probably hate as teens, but for now, they love the act of packing and driving somewhere new for two hours and checking into a hotel and getting takeout. Each of us picks a place to eat on the way. I do dad-daughter day and dad-son day to take a little time to focus on one [kid] and make it super special. In the old days, I’d try to talk the kids out of trips like that. Now they know we’re going to do it. I just want my kids to be happy."

You do a lot—write, produce, act and do stand-up. What's your favorite and why?

"My dad loved Bob Hope, so I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. The only time Dad laughed out loud was when he watched Hope on TV. I remember thinking, 'Whatever Hope does is what I want to do.' Years later, in the same living room, he watched Hope on TV with me, and that was magic for me.

"I write and produce and I enjoy a variety of stuff. I enjoy coming to Sarasota and telling my story. It’s all part of the balance. I have four ex-wives, so I have to work forever."

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