The Hard Truths Hunter Biden Learned About Addiction, How He Survived and the 'Healthy Fear' He Has Now
Hunter Biden is afraid. That's a good thing.
Better, he says, to be possessed of the healthiest kind of fear, surrounded by loved ones and now two years sober, than in the dark and in the depth of his alcohol and crack cocaine addiction.
"You have to have a healthy fear of what's waiting for you on the other side of a drink, but you can't live in that fear," President Joe Biden's younger son said this week on Bryony Gordon's Mad World podcast, where he reflected on some of the hardest and also some of the most heartening lessons from his yearslong cycle of substance abuse and recovery.
"You can't be consumed by it. You can't let it limit your aspirations to do other things that are not only just important to you but in service to other people," Hunter, 51, told Gordon in Monday's episode. "You have to step back out into the world."
The occasion was the release last month of his memoir, Beautiful Things, in which he describes his harrowing pattern of addiction playing out behind the scenes of his father's political career and his family's life in Washington, D.C.
At one point, he writes, he was drinking a quart of vodka a day; at another, he lived with a homeless woman who was also his dealer, whom he remembers as funny and eccentric and exceedingly tidy.
(Beautiful Things also touches on other personal and professional controversies, though with more circumspection, including the acrimonious collapse of Hunter's marriage and his business dealings. He is currently being investigated over his taxes but maintains he'll be exonerated.)
The book's lengthy accounts of addiction have an almost itchy psychological proximity, strapping the reader into the front seat of Hunter's brain. He told Gordon it turned out to be "raw" by design, and he said it was written "for people just to know that they're not alone."
"Even the son of the president of the United States has gone through some of the things that they may be going through right now," Hunter said.
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"The thing that I think trapped me in my addiction was this idea that no one could possibly understand me. No one could possibly have gone through what I've gone through — the degradation, the feeling of shame and guilt, the feeling of just abject loneliness that you feel in addiction," he said. "And you think, I don't have anybody to talk to, no one could possibly understand me. And that's one of the reasons why I was so intent on writing a book that told it all."
Speaking with Gordon, he alluded to the persistent criticism he faces from conservatives and he told her that by sharing his story himself, he wanted to neutralize the attacks and insinuations that sought to tie his own failings to his dad.
Even now, months after the election, the tabloids release a steady drip of intimate texts and photos purportedly taken from a laptop Hunter had abandoned years ago.
"There's been a lot of people working around the clock to make my life as miserable as possible to, hopefully I think in their idea, [so] that I won't succeed in my recovery," Hunter told Gordon. "But today I know that I will."
For that he credited the persistence of his family, even as he acknowledged his addiction had taught him some thornier truths: about coming to terms with trauma (including surviving a 1972 car crash that killed his mother and baby sister) and speaking openly about the seduction of losing yourself if no one else grabs hold.
"The fact of the matter is, my brain figured out faster than a non-addict's brain of the easiest way to erase that pain," he said of his substance abuse.
"I think that there's only one thing that human beings are guaranteed in life, and that's pain," Hunter said. "That's the only guarantee is that you will suffer from loss. You'll have your own struggles. And that pain, and what we do with it, is the real question of how our lives will unfold. And the thing about that loss for me, of my mother and my sister, is so wrapped up in the love that came after."
Beautiful Things, when it is not about Hunter's addiction, is largely about the abiding bonds between him, his father and his big brother, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015. It was Beau he was thinking of, he writes, when he serendipitously met Melissa Cohen in Los Angeles early in 2019 after so many other attempts at recovery and intervention had failed.
The two were married within days and welcomed a son last spring.
"When I was presented with Melissa, my wife, in the most incredible, miraculous way, I was able to see in a familiar soul in a stranger's body — all that had been being offered to me in my whole life, particularly in my darkest times," Hunter said on Mad World, "which was the love of my brother, the love of my father, the love of my three girls and all the people that cared about me."
"The fact that they kept coming back and never gave up is the reason I'm here right now," he said. "I know that for certain."
Guardian angels, he called them: not just his late mother and sister and brother but the circle that still surrounded him. There is still much ahead, he said. Perhaps there would be a sequel.
"That's book two," he told Gordon with a laugh. "That's where the book ends [after meeting Cohen], but the one thing that I really feel almost an obligation to speak about or write about in the future is where the real hard work begins."
The kind of detox that Cohen supported him through — and enforced — was its own burden on her, he said: "I'm forever grateful that she was willing to do that."
Now each morning he follows the same ritual. "I literally go through in my mind everything I have to be grateful for," he told Gordon. Then he brings his 13-month-old, Beau, to sit with him at the table while he paints and his son eats blueberries.
It's one other lesson learned. He had this advice for any addicts listening to Mad World: "Stay close to people, as much as you possibly can, and don't do what I tried to do. Please don't disappear."