Before he became a noted Hollywood psychologist, Carder Stout, PhD, lived a privileged life that gradually descended from elite Manhattan private schools into crack addiction and running drugs for an LA gang. Here, he tells Purist about the journey, and offers a peek at his searing memoir of addiction, redemption and hope in unlikely places.
PURIST: What did you learn about yourself from writing the book?
CARDER STOUT: I learned how hard it is to write a memoir—and a lot of other things as well. Mostly, that I was no longer ashamed or guilty about anything in my past. I had done the deep emotional work over the years that led to the ability to forgive myself completely. The hard part was telling the story in a compelling way that would keep a reader interested in my life. There are a million ways to describe each moment in any narrative, So I tried to be honest as well as colorful with my words. I guess ultimately what I learned was that I wanted to keep writing. Book two is on the way…
What were the hardest truths to face looking back at that part of your life?
It was hard to examine the depth of pain that consumed me in those years. I was sad, distraught and directionless for many years, and that’s not any easy thing to revisit. The chapters that focus on my childhood paint a pretty stark portrait of my parents, as well. I have great love and respect for both of them (may they rest in peace) but when I was a child, I felt neglected and abandoned. I will never point the finger at anyone regarding my own shortcomings, but accurately capturing the sadness I experienced as a child was a painful truth that became more evident as I continued to write.
What was the scariest thing to own up to?
I struggled with eating disorders in my adolescent years. No one really knew that except for my family. I kept it close to the vest. For some reason, the thought of revealing this seemed more daunting than a full inventory of my other addictions. Food was my first addiction—restricting and depriving myself of it. My family split apart when I was 12 and controlling my food intake was a way to soothe myself. It was my dirty little secret. It is a difficult thing to write about, as it is so complex and dark, but I knew it was valuable to put it on paper as a way to connect with others and be authentic. I also had a suicide attempt, that wasn’t easy to share.
Where there any parts that you didn’t want your children to know?
I struggled with this a bit, but ultimately decided that they should know everything about their daddy. I’m pretty much an open book at this point. They won’t be reading it anytime soon, I hope. When they do, they will be ready. It’s as if I’ve lived two lives, and they only know me from the sober one, so I imagine they will be surprised. But so much of who I am comes from the suffering I’ve encountered and it infuses my soul with a profound sense of empathy that I try to share with them each day.
Why was it important to share your story?
I am a kid of privilege who fell from grace and had to reinvent my life completely. I think that it’s important for people to understand that addiction has no boundaries and can touch anyone. Also, that no matter how far you have fallen there is always the ability to rise up again and have a beautiful life on the other side. We all have such strength, such courage, such wisdom deep down. Often, it’s covered by layers of doubt and insecurity, but it’s there nonetheless. I want my story to instill hope in those who are struggling, not just with addiction, but with difficult family dynamics, low self-esteem, sadness and anger. Ultimately, my story is about love and how it saved my life.
What do you hope people will learn from telling your story?
The present tense of the story takes place in Venice, California, when I was consumed by addiction and had lost almost everything. I was actually homeless for a while, but I still had a car, so I began driving for a philosophical drug dealer and got myself into some dangerous situations. Interestingly enough, it was the deep friendship I developed with him, and the love I felt from his grandmother, that ultimately propelled me to get sober. So the message here is that love heals pain and family is what you make of it. Sometimes people float into your life, unlikely people, that have a transformative impact on your perspective. These two wonderful angels from the hood were my saviors and I owe my life to them.
Is there anything you left out that was too scary to share?
It’s all in there. Every gritty little detail. I didn’t want to leave anything out. Of course, as a writer you naturally omit certain moments or scenes that may be extraneous. But the scary stuff is in the book. I had several guns held to my head by members of the Mexican cartel when I did a run to the border for the Shoreline Crips. I almost didn’t make it out alive, but someone must have been looking out for me, as I am still here.
How did you break the cycle of addiction passed along from your mother?
It took a long time. I bounced around for about five years trying to get sober and I could never get more than six months. I wasn’t ready, as I was still so angry with my parents and traumatized by my childhood. I had to hit bottom, and that came when I crashed a car into a tree and nearly died. Lying in the hospital bed, I knew that I had to make a choice between life and death, and something deep inside me pushed me toward life. I finally reached out for help and spent the next several months in treatment. I know that many addicts struggle with this same thing—dancing around the idea of sobriety without success. For many of us, hitting bottom is actually a blessing that begins a real desire to change. It did for me.
May is Mental Health Month. hat aspects of your own experience—through multiple rehabilitation centers and countless sessions with doctors—compelled you to pursue a PhD and a career in mental health advocacy and family therapy?
I had a therapist when I was in treatment—an old helicopter pilot from the Vietnam War—who experienced unthinkable trauma on the battlefield. He became my friend and mentor and helped to heal my trauma through the lens of his own experience. I was so inspired by his work that I decided to apply to graduate school while I was still in rehab. I recognized then that the challenges I had faced and overcome could eventually lead to an understanding of the psychology of suffering. As I have grown as a psychologist, I still am aware that my healing ability derives from my own wounding.
What do you find most useful from your experiences as a doctor now?
I have true empathy for my patients. Nothing surprises me and I no longer possess even the smallest fiber of judgment. I am always so inspired by the stories I hear and feel so blessed to help shape the lives of others. There is something about looking someone in the eye and saying, “I understand. I’ve been there” that creates a bond and connection that is so valuable in the therapeutic setting.
What are some of the hardest cases to manage?
Sometimes, I am triggered by patients who are similar to me. I want to reach out and take away their pain, but I know I cannot. I care deeply about my patients, but I have to practice good boundaries and not get too involved in their lives. I have had a few patients over the years that I know, under different circumstances, I would be friends with. But I have to say goodbye after our time together and wish them well. I have bumped into a few of them out in the world, and that always creates an interesting dynamic.
How did you cope with relationships that were irreparable?
I let them go. I have lost friends along the way. It is sad for a bit, but so be it. There are so many wonderful people in the world and there is always the opportunity to expand and make new ones.
Your wife, Jennie, has truly been an example of stalwart support. How has her guidance and love kept you staying the course?
We are magically connected, but very different. I believe that complementary relationships are the ones that stand the test of time. Jennie has helped me put my feet back on the ground sometimes—I am a bit of a dreamer. She is so strong and patient and kind. I have learned to become brutally honest, steadfastly reliable and deeply affectionate through her example.
Does addiction manifest itself in other positive ways now?
I have an addiction to fatherhood, to learning, to happiness. Let’s face it, we’re all addicted to something.
What’s the next book?
It’s called We’re All Addicted. It’s about the universal nature of addiction that we all share—to food, phones, work, exercise, toxic relationships, love, looking younger, fame, anger and the future…to name a few. I am shopping it around right now. One offer is already on the table.
AN EXCERPT FROM LOST IN GHOST TOWN
So this is how it ends.
The door to the alleyway opened, and I could hear soft footsteps coming down the stairs. No wonder gangsters wore sneakers—better for sneaking up on anyone who crossed them. If I made a sound I would die. Murdered on the cold basement floor. I had seen the bloodstains on the sidewalks of Ghost Town, watched the wailing mothers and grandmothers try to scrub them away. This was real. I thought of my mother and how sad she would be. What would the papers say? Former Film Producer found dead in gang-style execution. And what they would say at my funeral? All those old friends. Perhaps they had seen it coming.
“He couldn’t get out of his own way.”
“It was the drugs. The drugs finally got him.”
“Such a waste. He was a good guy in his prime.”
“He used to make me laugh. How could he fall so far?”
“He had everything in the world going for him.”
But no silver spoon or diploma or charisma could protect me from a bullet fired at close range. Would it hurt? Would it be over before I even heard the shot? I braced myself for a muzzle flash and held my breath. The footsteps came closer.
“Hollywood, you down here? It’s Trech. Treacherous Wallace. I just want to talk to you. You don’t need to hide no more. It’s all good. Just want to hear your side of the story. Come out.”
But I knew he was lying. If I showed myself it would be over. I had disrespected him and, in doing so, put my life in his hands. And his hands were bloody. He had not risen to the top of the Shoreline Crips for being kind. He was ruthless and unforgiving, and I had pissed him off. I stayed in fetal position, awaiting my fate. I heard him cock his automatic pistol.
Was it worth it?
She was off the streets, reunited with her little girl. Perhaps it was the noblest thing I had ever done. I guess it was worth dying for. No one would ever know besides us. Maybe it was better that way. I had spent a lifetime taking credit I didn’t deserve—so it seemed fitting that my final act would remain unnoticed.
He was close now, and I could smell the cigarettes on his hands.
“Hollywood? You back there?”
I was convinced he could see me.
“I got a surprise for you. Don’t worry. It’s not gonna hurt.”
I waited for the bang.
By the code of the streets, I had earned it.