"I dropped to my knees and I said, 'God, I cannot do this on my own,'" McLean, who is now 10 months sober, says of the moment that forced him to seek help for his addiction to drugs and alcohol

By Christina Dugan
October 14, 2020 09:30 AM
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After years of substance abuse, AJ McLean is now 10 months sober — and counting his blessings one day at a time.

In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the Backstreet Boys singer, 42, gets candid about his 20-year struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol, the devastating encounter with his younger daughter that forced him to seek help 10 months ago and the hard work that's going into maintaining his sobriety

"So literally 10 months ago, I went to go see my girl Shania Twain in Vegas," says McLean. "Before I even got on the plane, I had already mapped out the whole night. I knew where I was going to go get my drugs. I knew where I was going to go get drunk. I knew all of it and I figured, 'Okay, it's one night. As long as I don't go past a certain time and I don't smell like it, I can go have a nice last hurrah and then come back home. My wife won't know; everything's going to be great.'"

AJ McLean
Yuri Hasegowa

"It never, ever works out that way," adds McLean, who shares daughters Ava, 6, and Lyric, 3½, with wife Rochelle, 39. "I never slept. I missed my first two flights back home and reeked of alcohol when I got home. My wife and I had always had this agreement, which was, if I smelled like alcohol, I wasn't allowed to play with my kids — I couldn't be around my kids. But what really hit me was the moment, my youngest daughter Lyric said to me that night, 'You don't smell like my daddy.' And when she said that to me, that was it. Enough said. I felt disgusting."

McLean, who says he's had "many rock bottoms" while being in and out of sobriety throughout the years, admits this was the ultimate awakening.

Watch the full episode of People Features: AJ McLean streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

"That was it for me," he says. "As we say in the sober world, that was my moment of surrender. That was the moment I dropped to my knees and I said, 'God, I cannot do this on my own. I can't. I have tried and I have failed miserably. So help a brother out.'"

McLean continues, "Literally the very next day, I went to a sober living house to celebrate a friend of mine's three years sobriety date. I was still hungover, but my sponsor looked at me and said, 'Okay, he's here. I see the final desperation in his eyes.' The next day he said, 'Be at my house at six o'clock and we're going to start the work.' I showed up at 5:20. I'm like, 'I'm in this, dude. I'm in it.' I've been in it for the last 10 months. It's the hardest I've ever had to work."

Backstreet Boys circa 1996
Mirrorpix/Everett

The singer, who found fame and fortune as a member of the Backstreet Boys in the late '90s, says he was a "late bloomer" when it came to substance abuse despite his easy access to illicit thrills.

"I was anti-cigarettes, anti-tattoos, anti-drinking, anti-drugs," says McLean. "I was a very late bloomer and didn't really pick up a true drink until I was 25."

Eventually, "I fell into that world of low self- esteem and seeking external validation," he adds."Looking up from six feet under seemed like a good idea for the longest time, even if it wasn't done intentionally. I thought I didn't have anything worth really living for."

Today, 10 months sober and competing with partner Cheryl Burke on Dancing with the Stars, McLean is proud to say he's finally found his purpose after that life-changing interaction with his younger daughter.

"This is the clearest I've ever been," McLean says of his state of mind. "I'm floating high—naturally. My family has saved my life, God has saved my life, and my recovery has saved my life. Without those three things, I wouldn't be here."

AJ McLean with daughters Lyric and Ava

Attending daily 12-step meetings online and checking in with his sponsor six times a day, McLean feels grateful for the slower pace of life in quarantine.

"The silver lining of the pandemic for me is that I can really work on myself, get to a meeting every day and build a foundation of recovery before going back on tour next year," he says. "As hard as it is to say, I have zero regrets and am beyond lucky to still be here. I can genuinely say I love myself today."

For more on AJ McLean's sobriety journey and current spin on the dance floor, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.