AJ McLean on Trying Cocaine Before a Backstreet Boys Music Video Shoot: 'I Was Freaking Out'
Though the first time AJ McLean tried drugs was nearly 20 years ago, he remembers the night like it was yesterday.
In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the Backstreet Boys singer, 42, opens up the moment he "caved" and did cocaine for the first time, his years-long addiction to drugs and alcohol and how he kept his substance abuse a secret for months before seeking treatment.
"I never really had a desire for the drugs, but being an addict — to me, that word encompasses everything," says McLean. "I was introduced to cocaine literally the night that we shot the video for 'The Call.' It was the first time I ever tried it because it was a late-night shoot. I was with a 'friend' at the time — who's clearly not a friend anymore — and offered it to me. I said, 'No.' Then I caved and I did it."
"When I showed up on set and I got in the makeup chair, I told everybody," he recalls. "I was like, 'I'm freaking out. I'm on this. I'm on that.' They were like, 'You need to stop. Don't tell the world that you're on drugs right now.' Somehow someway, I kept it a secret from everyone for the next at least 18 months before the boys caught on, before my family caught on, before my real friends caught on. I found a way to really keep it under the rug."
For years, McLean says he didn't see the sunlight due to his substance abuse.
"I would go to bed when the sun was rising and I would wake up when the sun was down," he admits. "Like they say, the definition of insanity, repeating the same mistakes over and over expecting different results. That's what I did for two years."
Chasing an endless high, McLean used substances as a "big Band-Aid" to numb his pain.
"I thought drugs and alcohol would make those feelings of insecurity go away," he explains. "But it doesn't work that way."
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However, on July 8, 2001, the other Backstreet Boys confronted him and encouraged him to go to treatment. Though McLean was initially resistant, his bandmates eventually got through to him. "The most crucial part of that conversation was the final thing Kevin [Richardson] said to me: If I continued using, he said, 'I will never trust you again. You're dead to me.'"
From there, McLean sought treatment but continued to fall in and out of sobriety for the next 20 years until his ultimate awakening on Dec. 9, 2019.
"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.'"
"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."
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"That was it for me," he adds. "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.'"
Now McLean — who is currently competing on the 29th season of ABC's Dancing with the Stars — attends daily 12-step meetings online and checks in with his sponsor six times a day.
"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."
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