The reality TV star was coming down from a high when he discovered he had a 10-year-old son
Coming off of his stint on MTV’s The Real World: Philadelphia in 2004, Brown’s career in social services took a backseat while he was paid to do college and club appearances.
“I was using drugs excessively at this point,” Brown, 38, writes in his new memoir, Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope. One Friday night in 2006, he arrived at his home in Los Angeles “in a sort of stupor because I was depressed and coming down from the drugs I had just done” and discovered an envelope at his doorstep subpoenaing him for $230,000 in back child support for a little boy in Houston whose mother was Brown’s high school friend.
“My family said, ‘Hey, let’s get you on a plane after the weekend,’ and I went on a bender,” he tells PEOPLE.
When he arrived in Houston and his sister picked him up at the airport, he was still high on cocaine.
“She said, ‘You have a child who is potentially going to need you; you have to get your s— together,’ ” Brown recalls in his book. “I stayed in her house under her supervision.”
“I was just so scared that my life was always going to be dark,” Brown admits to PEOPLE. “I just was scared that I’m going to create another bad situation in my life, but this time it was going to involve an innocent child.”
By the time the results of a paternity test confirmed he was a father and he went to meet his son Jason for the first time, he was sober (and has been ever since).
“If it wasn’t for my sister and the time period it took me to meet with the attorney general’s office and to take the paternity and all these other things, I would’ve probably met my son still completely addicted to cocaine,” Brown says.
The night Brown met his son Jason, they went bowling together. While Brown doesn’t recall the exact date — and jokes that iPhones hadn’t yet been released to help him figure that out — he absolutely sees it as a turning point in his life.
“What stands out was that was the day that I started to feel like I started to heal,” he says. “My son saved my life — and as much as people have always said I saved his, he saved my life because it gave me an opportunity to see that there was more to life than just me.”
Soon after that first meeting, Brown upended his life in Los Angeles and moved to Texas, where he went into what he calls “full daddy mode.”
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At the end of Jason’s fifth-grade year, his mother and Brown’s high school pal, Stephanie Brooks, gave the reality star custody — on the condition that they remain a family.
Brown also grew very close to Brooks’ other son Christian, and after he got into trouble, the boy moved in with the reality star.
“One morning I had been in bed and 7-year-old Christian walked in and said, ‘Hey, Dad, can I go outside and skate?’ It felt natural,” Brown recalls in his book. “I said simply, ‘Yes, Son.’ I called Stephanie and said, ‘How about I become Christian’s legal guardian, just to get him back on the right path?’ Christian came back and I said, ‘Your mother and I talked. Would you like to live here permanently?’ He said yes and jumped into my arms.”
Now 22 and 18, Jason and Christian remain close by Brown’s side, even accompanying him to Japan while Queer Eye filmed there recently.
Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope hits bookshelves on March 5. Season 3 of Queer Eye arrives on Netflix on March 15.
If you or someone you know is in need of help, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.