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‘Summer House’ star Carl Radke: Watching myself on reality TV helped me get sober

In a personal essay, the 39-year-old Bravo star shares how seeing himself on the show was like a "mirror into my life."
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Today Carl Radke is celebrating more than three years of sobriety.Rich Polk / Bravo via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

I don’t think I realized I had a problem with drugs and alcohol until the early seasons of “Summer House,” just watching myself back. My co-star Kyle Cooke says this a lot, and I think he’s spot on: “Being on this show forces you to have tough conversations with yourself and with other people.” It’s that reflection in the mirror I had to answer to.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a pivotal moment for me. In 2019, I had a really rough year. I was partying a lot and not in a great place, mentally. When the pandemic happened, it forced me to isolate, and I had to reflect. I decided at that point that I really needed to figure this out. I was sober for a few months, then I moderated — I thought I could just drink Loverboy (Cooke’s brand of canned cocktails that I’m affiliated with) or a few beers. Then, tragically, my brother passed away. I got the phone call the next morning when we were filming. He overdosed. Heroin sadly took his life and has taken a lot of people’s lives in the Pittsburgh area, where I’m from.

My brother suffered from mental illness and addiction issues that crafted a huge rift in our family. At the same time, I was also struggling privately. I went back to old Carl — drinking and using a lot of cocaine, which led to spiraling out of control. 

I continued down the spiral until I had what I would describe as my rock-bottom moment. On Jan. 6, 2021, I started drinking and doing some work at home. I put on CNN and was watching everything going on at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., that day. It was incredibly upsetting — not that that was an excuse. I continued to drink and use cocaine by myself at home, so much so that I don’t really remember what happened, but I scared a lot of people. I came out of that the next day and had a kind of epiphany: I couldn’t live like that anymore. It was killing me mentally, physically, emotionally, financially. I was powerless. I couldn’t do it on my own. I realized I had to get a sponsor and start going to meetings and really fall on my knees and admit that I had an alcohol and cocaine problem.

I couldn't live like that anymore. (Addiction) was killing me mentally, physically, emotionally, financially. I was powerless. I couldn't do it on my own.

Sharing and releasing this monumental discovery about myself disarmed it in a way and allowed me to be really honest. To me, sobriety means having brutal honesty. I wasn’t always honest about that. A few years ago, I would have said I was just into alcohol. But cocaine is a big part of my story, too.

I started to date probably six months after getting sober. The advice is that you should wait a year, but I did not. A lot of change happens in that first year of sobriety — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was having feelings for someone I had a real friendship with. I can’t change what happened, but I definitely learned from that. It’s a good tip, but everyone is on their own journey. Watching my ex (and “Summer House” co-star), Lindsay Hubbard, question my sobriety in the current season has been uncomfortable. We were having a difficult moment. You’ll see more of how that plays out during the season.

People say, “How are you involved in a show where there’s a lot of drinking?” And my response is, “If I were drinking, I wouldn’t be there.” I do believe that if I were not on reality TV, if I didn’t have that footage and that mirror into my life, I wouldn’t have gotten sober.

I’ve been afforded an amazing opportunity with an amazing group of friends. You can still have a good time without getting blackout. You can still have fun without alcohol, and I’m proud to show that. I like being social. A lot of times, my social-ness with alcohol was embarrassing, cringey, aggressive, weird; not my best version. So, I’ve really enjoyed actually showing up to situations and events and conversations as myself. I’m more myself than I’ve ever been on this program, and I think people are more interested in seeing that than seeing someone masking themselves with alcohol and drugs.

I’m more myself than I’ve ever been on this program, and I think people are more interested in seeing that than seeing someone masking themselves with alcohol and drugs.

Today, I’m 38 months sober. It’s a constant journey. What has worked for me personally is having a sponsor and finding sober people I can relate to. I learn from others — Bradley Cooper, Michael Phelps, Kevin Love. Hearing those men share their stories about sobriety and mental health helped me, so I thought maybe if I could share mine, I could help someone else. I know I’ve made an impact — it’s still kind of crazy that I have. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a therapist. I’m just some random guy on a reality TV show.

I’ve talked to people who say, “I’m having a hard time staying sober.” I ask them, “Have you gone to a meeting? Do you tell your close friends you have a problem?” And they say “no.” Well, there’s your answer. It’s scary. It’s hard. I understand that. Saying you’re an alcoholic doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It’s actually a sign of strength and courage that you’re willing to look within and be honest about what’s happening. It works, but it takes work.

I don’t know how I ever would have stayed sober had I not had a sponsor, had I not connected with other sober people, had I not read books about sobriety, had I not done the work on my internal self. Why do I drink? Why am I angry? Why am I sad? I had to face that. And I don’t think many people are willing to face that. They’ll stop drinking, but then they’ll drink again because they don’t want to face that stuff.

It’s all about one day at a time. I wake up every morning, and I typically attend a meeting. I meditate. I say a mantra, and I remind myself: Don’t drink today. And that’s what works for me.

As told to Rheana Murray. This interview has been edited and condensed.