It was a jolt to Sum 41 fans and the music world at large when pictures of Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley, looking half-dead and confined to a hospital bed, emerged in 2014. The singer candidly outlined his near-death experience and the depths of his alcohol addiction on his website while embarking on a mission of recovery.
Healthy and happily remarried, Whibley — who was married to Avril Lavigne before their 2009 split — opened up to PEOPLE about hitting rock bottom, his journey to sobriety and Sum 41’s new album, 13 Voices, which Whibley and the band will be touring behind through March 2017.
How has the whole process of getting out there and performing changed since your recovery?
There’s a lot of things that are the same, and there are a lot of things that are different. The lifestyle on the road is completely different from what it was before: for all of us, not just myself. I obviously went through my issues with alcohol, but our whole band and crew — everyone in our world — we were all pretty bad.
You guys were basically kids when you first started playing.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been on the road since I was 17. So we were all pretty bad, but it was just sort of the norm. I think it was a wake-up call for everybody. At this age for all of us, we just care more about different things. Even though there were the health issues that went along with all the partying. … It also just gets really boring after a while. After that many years, you’re looking for something else, and you realize that, really, playing music and being on the road and doing what you love is the most exciting thing that you could do and that you’re clouding it all by adding drugs and alcohol. It already is a high.
Are you back at 100 percent by this point? You had some problems re-learning guitar initially?
Yeah, but it’s been two and a half years now, and I feel better than I’ve ever felt, so I would say I’m more than 100 percent. I feel like I’ve gotten 100 percent back and then some. The only thing that bothers me know is, like, the common cold.
Just being in social situations, being around people…every little thing that you used alcohol as a crutch to get through — for me, pretty much everything — all of the sudden is there, again, but you don’t have that crutch anymore. So it was really frightening [at first]. I mean, I remember at one point, thinking, “I don’t even know how to get on the phone and talk to someone without having at least a drink or two already.” And then that was the realization of how bad it had really gotten: “Man, I can’t even make a f—ing phone call without having a drink.”
For more on Deryck Whibley’s road to recovery, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.
Where did realizations like this fit into your recovery? What was the looming prospect of sobriety like for you?
Before I went into the hospital, when I was still drinking every day, the clearest thought that I could have was that, “This is probably not good, and I’m going to have to deal with this eventually — just not right now.” So I knew that it wasn’t great, I just thought I was going to fix it, like, tomorrow. When I woke up sober in the hospital, I knew instantly how bad it was and what had gotten me there and that I wasn’t going to drink anymore. I was so done with it. If anything, it almost felt like a bit of freedom: “Finally, something has stopped this whole cycle.”
Your fiancée — now wife, Ariana Cooper — got sober along with you. What was it like going through that process together?
We definitely helped each other, but she probably helped me more than I was able to help her. We both got sober at the same time, and we were both pretty bad together. We were a bit of a team. I think I’d been drinking much longer than she had, but she was just there the whole time, and I couldn’t do anything for myself. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t walk; she had to take care of me completely. And my mom had moved in as well, which really helped because she’s actually a nurse, and when it turned out that I was going to need 24-hour care, the two of them just took care of me for months.
All the success of the new single, album and tour has to feel really welcome.
Everything’s been amazing. You just feel really lucky. We didn’t really expect anything coming back, we didn’t really know what would happen. I just knew that I had to make it and put it out for my own sake. Putting out a record and going out on tour, the whole idea of that, was the only thing that helped me recover as quickly as I did. So I didn’t really think about how it was going to do — because what it was doing was keeping me alive. All this other stuff has been a huge surprise, and it’s been great, like a bonus. [The final stop of this leg of the tour] in L.A. was such a great show, and it felt like a victory. All our friends and families were there, even my doctors came to the show! All the people who had seen me go through all this crap over the past few years — to have them all there and see how far I’ve come…