Brandon Novak's Rebirth as a Recovery Warrior
I met Brandon Novak for the first time in 2013 at a dingy night club in Johnson City, Tennessee. It was a cold, rainy night in March, and I was there with my husband and sister-in-law to attend the Fuckface Unstoppable show. One can only describe Fuckface Unstoppable as a highly eclectic touring side-show rock band of drunken debauchery, fronted by Jackass star and pro skateboarder Bam Margera. As we stood around the bar area waiting for the show to begin, Brandon Novak parted the crowd with a twitchy unrest in his eyes. I waved to him and smiled, immediately recognizing him from the many skateboarding, Jackass, CKY, and Viva La Bam videos I spent my adolescence poring over. He approached me, gave me a sheepish hug, and hurriedly whispered in my ear, "Hey babe, do you have any party favors?" Alas, I didn't have any party favors (drugs), so I gently said something along the lines of, "No, darlin'. Sorry, but I don't." His face went dark, and he quickly scampered off in the next direction, on the hunt. That night, Pill Collins (Novak's stage persona in the Fuckface Unstoppable group) proceeded to scream into the mic while prancing around butt-ass-naked on stage, eyes glazed over, guzzling bottle after bottle of red wine. He was, very clearly, totally fucked up. It was sad. Heartbreaking, even. This was someone I had admired since I was fourteen. I knew he had had a history with drug abuse, but I naïvely assumed he had gotten clean somewhere along the way. It's a giant cliché to say, but it was very much like watching a train wreck.
But somehow, against all odds, I'm so excited to tell you that this story is one of the rare ones that has a happy ending. Nearly five years after that first encounter in Tennessee, I spent the day getting to know the new Brandon Novak. On a snowy Tuesday in Philadelphia, he took me on a journey showcasing his life in recovery, and showed me how incredibly powerful it is to make oneself available to those in need. This is a photo essay about a day in the life with Brandon Novak: Not just the guy who finally got sober, but the guy who's putting in the real time to help and inspire others.
January 30, 2018
A bright-eyed Brandon Novak greeted me with a big hug at his quiet neighborhood coffee shop. We mapped out a quick plan for the day based on his schedule, downed our coffee and tea, and hopped in an Uber just as a wet blanket of snow descended on The City of Brotherly Love.
Our first stop was at a high-rise office building in Center City, Philadelphia. There, Brandon met with Salvatore "Sal" Wise, Sr., a Forensic CPS Coordinator for the City of Philadelphia's Division of Behavioral Health and Justice Related Services, an arm of the city which aims to provide services and support for addicts. A few days prior to this meeting, Sal had seen an interview with Brandon on Philly's Channel 6 news station. During the televised segment, Brandon gave out his cell phone number. He urged anyone watching to get in touch, whether they were seeking help, actively in recovery, or just needed to talk. Sal immediately jotted Brandon's number down, called him up, and invited him to his office to discuss the idea of collaborating on a future project. And to Sal's delight, Brandon agreed.
"He's an inspiration, this guy," Sal says as, pointing to Brandon and smiling. We're seated in his office, 20 floors up. Sal has been in recovery for 16 years. He talks about his journey with pride, enthusiasm, and awe, still in disbelief that his life has changed so much for the better. I asked both Sal and Brandon how much they've seen the stigma of addiction change throughout their lives. Sal said that being sober today is greeted with much more openness than it once was: "There are more opportunities. People hire ex-offenders. I'm a convicted felon sitting here in a nice office, with a great job as a Forensic CPS Coordinator. You have to have that background to be in this position, because, who is better qualified? I'm open with my recovery. I use it to help other people because I can identify with them." Brandon's answer was similar: "People find it admirable that I don't drink now. It's not like, 'woah, that's weird', it's more like 'oh, that's so cool!' It's not shunned anymore, people are intrigued by sobriety."
Both men cited trust, encouragement, unity, and hope as major keys to unlocking a life in recovery. Other sentiments repeated during the meeting were "Being accountable" and, "Giving back to others." Brandon put it succinctly in his own words: "I was that dude who was deemed unhelpable and unfixable, so how dare I not pay it forward. Together we can do this. But divided, I'll drink and shoot dope." Pointing to the Wawa cup in his hand he continued, "I'm as transparent and accessible as this cup of tea. There's nothing to lie about anymore. This knowledge is open and free for the taking, but it's a program of actions, not intentions. Take a step forward and change your life."
From the outside, the brief meeting between Brandon and Sal was just an introductory conversation between two strangers who also happen to be in recovery. But in reality–and at heart–these two greeted each other like they were long lost brothers, eager to hear one another's story and learn how they can work together to better the cause they both fight for everyday.
After the meeting with Sal, we proceeded en route to the very-soon-to-open Banyan Treatment Center that Brandon is prominently involved with in nearby Bucks County, PA. During the 30 minute car ride, Brandon played correspondence catch-up with his two cell phones (one personal, one business), pounding out emails, replying to texts and calls, and checking in with his social media accounts. He fielded calls from all over the country. From people inquiring about speaking engagements, to important updates regarding the release of his forthcoming books and documentary, to people seeking help with trying to get a loved one into treatment. I know all this because Brandon's phone is permanently set to speaker, allowing him to keep tabs on his other phone while he talks. One woman couldn't contain herself when Brandon answered her call, "Brandon Novak, I just love you!" She was calling to see if he would be interested in speaking at a women's prison in Ohio. "Of course, I'd love to!" was his answer.
When I think "treatment center", I'm not exactly sure what comes to mind, but for some reason it's something crossed between Girl, Interrupted and the DMV (don't ask). But, when we arrived at Banyan Treatment Center in the Philadelphia suburb of Langhorne, I was struck by a bright, welcoming, colorful environment. Splashes of yellow, blue, green, and red accented new, modern furniture. Beautiful natural light spilled in through huge floor-to-ceiling windows along the building's front entrance. It was really quite inviting. With help from Amy and John (staff members at Banyan), Brandon gave me a tour of the 11,000 square foot facility. Amy explained that clients coming to Banyan will experience an eclectic approach to treatment, one that is tailored to fit each client's needs. Some of the many treatment options Banyan will offer are: Relapse prevention, trauma-informed care, gender-specific group therapy, relationship building, a life skills program, yoga, meditation, and art therapy. The 12 Steps will be introduced to clients as an option, but Banyan does not adhere to a "one size fits all" approach. Meaning, clients will have a wide variety of options and activities to choose from during their treatment, ultimately giving them the tools to create their own individualized journey of sobriety. Banyan Philadelphia has four large group therapy rooms, six therapist offices, a rec room, dining area, and even a bio feedback bed. Sometimes known as serenity bed, the bio feedback bed can help with anxiety, depression, inflammation, fatigue, chronic pain, and sleep difficulty.
Brandon is currently employed by Banyan Treatment Center, with the job title of National Business Development. He has been an integral part of Banyan's marketing, promotional, and public speaking efforts worldwide, and continues to develop his role at the company. Brandon was first approached by Banyan several years ago, when they asked if he would be interested in sharing his recovery story at a treatment center in Florida. He agreed, traveled to Florida, spoke, and instantly resonated with Banyan's pure intentions and like-minded approach to addiction treatment. Inspired by this positive experience, he told the folks at Banyan that he'd like to work with them. He saw his role at Banyan as someone who would travel around the country sharing his story on a platform in line with his sincere motives. Before he knew it, he was brought on board, and the rest–as they say–is history. But both Brandon's and Banyan's (try saying that five times fast) histories are still being written. Unfortunately, there is not a shortage of people in this country who need help battling addiction. The way they see it: As long as people need help, Banyan will continue to grow. Banyan currently has six treatment centers located across the United Sates, with a seventh opening later this year. At the time of this publishing, Banyan Treatment Center Philadelphia is set to open its doors in February 2018.
Before we parted ways, Brandon gave me a quick tour of his apartment back in the quiet Philadelphia neighborhood where we had convened that morning. At first glance, the walls of his living space appeared to be plastered with relics from the past: Skateboard decks, an endearing portrait of the late Jackass and CKY member Ryan Dunn, and framed photos of pre-heroin Novak as a little kid shredding up a skateboard in Baltimore. But, at closer inspection, nearly everything else in his living environment represented the present and future. Pointing to a mounted flatscreen on the wall, Brandon announced, "I bought a TV for the first time in my fuckin' life! I couldn't trust myself with one before, because I would just end up selling it for dope." I noticed a bookshelf packed with self-help and recovery titles like Dry by Augusten Burroughs, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas, Recovery by Russell Brand, This Is Gonna Hurt: Music, Photography and Life Through the Distorted Lens of Nikki Sixx, and Brandon Novak's own wildly popular addiction memoir Dreamseller. He proudly showed me his perfectly tidy bedroom and closet, furnished with crisp, clean linens and a very orderly collection of scarves (Novak likes his scarves). Brandon's two feline roommates, Ruby and Theodore, luxuriated in a plethora of toys, their very own lounging space, and full reign of the apartment. At the age of 39, Brandon will be getting his first drivers license this year. He recently took his mother on a cruise to the Bahamas, and bought her tickets to see Rod Stewart in Florida. "Any free time I have, I go down to Baltimore and spend it with my mom. She spent the majority of her life trying to help get me clean, and I just want to be there for her."
It has been remarkable to witness even just a glimpse of the transformation that has occurred within the man named Brandon Novak. From the skateboarder and Jackass many of us admired in our youth, to that sad, shell of a person I first met in Tennessee years ago, and finally, to a full-on recovery warrior hustling the streets in the best way possible. It is quite the metamorphosis to behold. Surviving two decades of drug and alcohol abuse, in and out of 13 rehabs, and rejecting or accepting help from thousands of people along the way, the one person who has made the biggest impact on Brandon's successful recovery is himself: "When people call me for help I say, 'Look, I can draw out a clear-cut, precise, direct map on how to get you out of your position, and it will absolutely work. I'll bet my mother on it, I'll bet my sobriety on it. It will work, provided that you stay the fuck out of your own way, because the only thing blocking you from getting better is you.'"
Some of my favorite Novak quotes from A WONDERFULLY INSIGHTFUL and COLORFUL DAY with him INCLUDE:
- "The lack of plans has produced the best of plans."
- "I suffer from a disease called alcoholism, not alocholwasm."
- "I don't believe in luck and coincidence. I believe in Destiny and Fate."
- "The only thing I didn't end up committing for drugs was homicide, and that's really because the opportunity just never presented itself."
- "I'm that real deal junkie who was supposed to die with a needle in my arm."
- "When I want to make my god laugh, I tell him how my day is gonna go."
- "I just continue to show up like people showed up for me."
- "Your history does not have to dictate your future."
- "Sobriety has given me everything drugs and alcohol promised me."
- "If you don't know where you're coming from, you don't know where you're going."
A very special thanks to Brandon Novak, Sal Wise, and the Banyan Treatment Center Philadelphia staff FOR YOUR GENEROSITY, KINDNESS, INSIGHT, AND ACCESSIBILITY IN MAKING THIS PHOTO ESSAY POSSIBLE. YOU ARE ALL WARRIORS.