As a part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview Aaron Rentfrew.
Aaron is the author of “Turning Point” and creator of Adventure Coaching, a unique and powerful style of executive coaching using adventures and challenges to build leadership skills, resilience, and confidence in all aspects of life.
Aaron lives between Washington D.C. and Miami Beach but is just as often found abroad while working. He cut his teeth in the restaurant and hospitality business, beginning as a 14-year-old New Jersey busboy and eventually becoming a Miami Beach nightclub owner.
Aaron later founded FunnelWeb Marketing LLC, where he further developed his passion for building businesses and working to create leaders in the process. He has traveled the world and learned many profound lessons in the process, experiences he uses to carry his message to his clients the world over.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
It’s my pleasure! I had a relatively normal childhood. Aside from being born without a soft spot and having a relatively risky skull surgery as an infant, I was just a normal kid. Baseball games with my dad and lots of time spent exploring and running around in nature. I was a happy kid. This changed around kindergarten, when my parents started to have major marital problems and decided to get a divorce.
I spent a year with a foster family then shuffled between my parents until the fifth grade when I finally found stability with my mother in New Jersey. Entering middle school, I started to have vivid memories of things that went on in my early childhood. I approached my mom about these thoughts; this was the first confirmation I had that I was molested as a child. It was the family member of a family friend.
This realization was another turning point in my life. Immediately I began to withdraw. My self-esteem was affected. My trust in those closest to me vanished, and I felt very much alone and confused as I entered early adulthood.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
My addiction emerged in stages. In the beginning, it was harmless. My drug use was more a means of connection and bonding with others. A few joints here and there between friends, perhaps some psychedelics thrown into the mix to make it interesting. As time went on, however, my thirst for more powerful substances took hold. It was no longer about connection; it was about escaping myself.
What drew me deeper and deeper into my addiction was the untreated trauma from my childhood. It was a gaping wound that left me feeling empty and confused. I had trouble feeling normal without being intoxicated, and this cascaded into a life of constant drug use and abuse. I had to be completely wasted to find balance and a sense of normality.
Today, I look at it less as being “drawn into addiction” and more as a way to escape my reality. Deep inside, I just wanted to escape, and drugs were the only tool I had. The drugs were just a symptom of a much larger problem.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
The first time I got high, I found a release from the parts of me that I hated. I felt the freedom to cloak my insecurities and bury those parts of me that I wanted nothing to do with. When you and everyone around you are under the influence you have adequate cover to be whomever you want to be; it’s the perfect storm for someone suffering from low self-esteem and an overwhelming feeling of being different.
As time went on and I grew older, it became increasingly difficult to mask my fears and glaring weaknesses. When responsibilities begin to pile up, my addiction kicked into overdrive, and the need to flee from reality intensified. In my experience, this inflection point is where people generally clean up their lives or venture deeper into their addiction and dangerous waters.
I decided on the latter, and the hamster wheel of my vices sped up until the wheel itself finally came off. The process of my addiction can be visualized as a positive feedback loop, such as when a mic in front of a speaker shrieks as it picks up the noise from the speaker and the circle goes out of control unless shielded or turned off. The problems created by addiction add fuel to the fire and in turn, intensify the spread.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
The bottom for any addict or alcoholic is a dark and lonely place, and my story is no different. It’s a cautionary tale that could have gone either way and continuously left me asking, “how did this happy-go-lucky 4-year kid old get here?”
I remember wondering when I would just overdose; at the time, it didn’t feel like such a bad option. I remember my “bottom” like it was yesterday.
I found myself in my apartment, with almost no furniture sitting on the living room floor. My apartment had lingering stale cigarette smoke. I had locked myself away and been awake for a few days riddled with anxiety and immersed in this hopeless feeling.
It was now 9 a.m., the sun was out, and birds were chirping. They were doing carpeting upstairs and using a nail gun which sounded like a real gun – ‘thunk’ ‘thunk’ ‘thunk.’ I was sitting in the middle of my living room floor. I had a gun in my mouth. I was ready to turn off this pain and noise. It had gotten to a fever pitch that I could no longer take.
I sat there for over an hour, listening to “thunk, thunk, thunk” and trying to find any reason not to pull the trigger. I remember thinking “no one would hear it and no one would care.”
I still can’t explain it, but something stopped me and told me I should call my friend; he was an attorney who had helped get me out of many jams. I set the gun down next to me and made the call. Thankfully he answered. I couldn’t even utter a word; I had no idea what to say. I think I tried to piece together a sentence, and he just said, “I’ll be there tomorrow, sit tight and put the gun away.” That wasn’t the last time I got high, but from that point on, I knew I had to change, or I was going to die.
Can you tell us the story about how were you able to overcome your addiction?
Just as my addiction was a progression, the way out was a similar process, but in reverse. I was fortunate enough to have someone there for me when I finally reached out for help. He introduced me to other people who were living happily sober and guided me toward the long road to recovery.
Overcoming addiction was crushing in the beginning. It meant I had to admit that perhaps I was wrong all this time. It forced me to begin the work of repairing all the damage I had done in my past and the ego-deflating process of making proper amends to those I had adversely affected.
I had no hope of recovery unless I could feel good about myself and create a life of freedom from insecurities and self-doubt. I had to recreate myself and ensure that I was able to do everything I wanted, without the use of drugs or alcohol. The only way to do this was by overcoming fears and doing rigorous work on my self-esteem.
Finally, and most importantly, I had to deal with the trauma around my childhood, which was the spark that started the fire. I did this by having frank and honest discussions with my parents and seeking to understand the full scope of what happened.
Forgiving the person who harmed me as a kid was more manageable once I had a full grasp of the circumstances. Once I was able to let go of the pain and discomfort, I turned my energy to helping others. I genuinely believe that getting yourself to a position where you can help someone else with a problem you worked through is the key to recovery. It’s the foundation of the step-by-step process in my book.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
If I had to rank in importance the phases of recovery from addiction, the reconciliation process would be right at the top. I don’t think it would have been possible to recover longer term without cleaning up my side of the street in all matters. It was a vital component in feeling better about myself and building self-esteem.
I started the long road to reconciliation as soon as I had some clarity of mind. It takes a little time to dig deep and illuminate all the damage done. Once I was able to flesh out all the details of my past and make an honest appraisal of the chaos I created, the difficult work of making amends and restitution had to begin.
Some people were just happy I was alive and sober. Others required deeply personal conversations about events of the past, and often financial paybacks were in order. Taking the time to sit with those I affected, and to actively listen to the way I made them feel, was a powerful experience, and one I attribute much of my self-awareness to today. Harmonization of the turmoil I caused was different for each person; doing that work was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
Great question — this aspect is often overlooked. Cutting out drugs and alcohol created a massive vacuum of space I needed to fill. I spent a tremendous amount of time at bars and doing things that were a complete waste of my time. Although it seems like any use of time would be an upgrade from my previous life, it didn’t feel like it in the moment. Boredom can kill you if it forces you to relapse into old behavior.
The first few times I attempted sobriety I didn’t fully understand this dynamic, and it cost me dearly. However, this time around, I was determined to fill my time with productive things that nourished me in a variety of ways. I focused on my health almost immediately. I began a strict paleo type of diet and started outdoor workouts in the parks around Miami Beach.
I looked to explore topics I was always interested in but could never quite attempt while using: namely stock market investing, studying human nature, and developing my own business. As time when on and I regained confidence and self-esteem, I started dating, something that was surprisingly difficult in early sobriety.
Just over a decade ago I could have never imagined the amazing things I’m filling my time with today, but it all started with simple things that got me through the day.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
Positive habits and routines that I lean on today are all somewhat strategic. Every part of my routine nurtures parts of myself I see as vital to continue my personal growth. I have trouble anytime I feel static. I strongly feel I must continue to develop over time and evolve to avoid any slippage back towards the dark place I used to inhabit.
According to those who helped me tremendously, working with others and selfless pursuits do more for recovered addicts than anything else. I wholeheartedly agree with this line of thinking for two reasons.
First, helping others, especially those struggling with the same thing I once did keeps it fresh. It’s easy to forget where I came from. Working with others that are struggling keeps me grounded and grateful for the progress I’ve made.
Second, giving selflessly of my time and attention makes me feel good about myself. It’s the best kind of self-esteem boost one can get. I tend to get back a far more considerable amount than I give in the end.
Some of the specific things I do today consist of sharing my story far and wide, which puts me in contact with people from all over the world. I have authored a book on this topic specifically as it relates to spending your time after the “turning point” in one’s life.
I created my executive coaching business, using adventure to keep me doing things I’m passionate about while also helping others reach their full potential in the process. It’s the perfect model for me and works wonderfully for my clients.
I also work directly with people daily who trust me to listen and help them grow and flourish through my adventure coaching business. In my spare time, I share deeply personal and sometimes self-deprecating truths about myself and my recovery on Instagram as almost a mini-blog where I can engage with people in an open forum.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
I always aspired to own a business. I had a grand vision of what that might look like, and I knew I was capable. My first foray into entrepreneurship, however, did not go well. I decided with about one year of sobriety to invest my time and money into a nightclub partnership. I had a background in running bars and restaurants, so it wasn’t such a stretch.
Things went well in the beginning and throughout the development phase. I loved doing the work of building the business and all the processes that go along with it. I avoided the glaring clash with my new set of core values and pushed on because I was sure I was on solid footing. It was a terrible miscalculation.
When the business started to struggle, I was surrounded by drugs and alcohol whenever I was at work. Even with all the knowledge I had about myself, I allowed vanity and shiny objects to blur my vision. As almost the exact opposite of my prior answer regarding habits and routines, my business exacerbated all of my negatives. The business failed and I lost everything. It was a painful lesson, but I learned the value of living my truth and sticking to the things that push me in the right direction. From that failure was born a new strategy in which every aspect of my life must be in alignment with my overall goals.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
Entrepreneurship is one of the most challenging things I’ve done in sobriety. Every day is new and unique. It has tested me every step of the way. Despite more than ten years of continuously working on myself, those annoying character flaws can always find new and innovative ways to take root.
Much like when I was in my addiction, I am prone to impatience. I can easily fall prey to negative thinking if things don’t go my way for an extended period. It’s easy to feel as though you’re owed something when you’ve worked so hard. But, in the business world, you’re owed nothing. Perseverance is the name of the game, and I am sure to remind myself and take a step back when impatience kicks in.
Also, defensiveness and stubbornness are natural behaviors to regress to when I feel attacked or challenged in some way. When I put yourself out there in the public sphere, people won’t always agree with me; it’s something I’ve had to learn to manage.
On the bright side, the past work I’ve done ensure that these characteristics are fleeting. I can recognize my faults and own them today, often right after they appear. This flexibility and ability to keep an open mind as it relates to my behavior has proven quite powerful in business. It has allowed me to take a 360 view of my position and hone my message. I can fail gracefully today and learn. There is no part of me that I will not attempt to fix and improve if I feel weakness in that area. This willingness to change was pivotal in early sobriety, and, as an entrepreneur, it’s the key to long term success.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
Vulnerability is a relatively new concept for many people and anonymity plays a large role in recovery. Many people I know fear bosses or clients may not like to hear about their imperfections or the insanity of their past addiction.
I have found the opposite to be true. I am quite open and honest about my past, even when it comes to business consulting. Many times, it has put me in a position to help someone who is struggling. You’d be surprised how many people – once they know you have found a way to get clean – will come to you for help. The technique I use is not right for everyone, so I usually recommend people only share what they are comfortable with.
There is a stigma around drug addiction and alcoholism that is tough to shake. Many lives have been affected by a family member suffering from addiction. I think people are right to be cautious until they are on firm footing. One harmful thing, in my opinion, is to scream to the world around you that you’re newly sober before you have made substantial progress. It applies tremendous pressure and can elicit a ton of questions someone may not wish to answer.
I have found sharing my experience to be quite liberating. When I gave my first television interview about being on the edge of suicide and my childhood trauma, my friends were stunned. But, shortly after that, so many people reached out to me that I knew it was the right move for me.
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
Of course. I’m going to start from the back of your question and address the shame element first because it’s a significant roadblock. What’s most important to understand is I had the same issue. “Shame” was my fragile ego trying to keep the mask on. The reality is, most people probably already sensed there was a problem, and I was only fooling myself. The truly shameful thing for those on the outside would be if you knew you had a problem and didn’t seek help.
First, if you’re reading this and you’re struggling with addiction the way I was, the most important thing you can do is admit to your innermost self that there is a problem and you are not in control. Many entrepreneurs assume that success means they may not have a problem: “I can’t be an addict, look at all that I’ve accomplished.” Don’t fall into that trap. I know recovered addicts who came from the top ranks on Wall Street and those from the homeless shelter. Addiction doesn’t discriminate.
Next, if you have admitted to yourself that there’s a problem, and you know you need help, it’s up to you to reach out for help. It’s a matter of humility. No one else can do it for you. I recommend finding someone who has recovered from a similar addiction (me included) and opening the door by asking how they recovered. Throughout this process, be honest and open with those trying to help whether it’s a therapist, a psychiatrist, or a support group of some kind.
And, finally, be willing to make the necessary changes. This is easier said than done. For many people, this means changing everything. What matters is that you don’t hold onto destructive behaviors that can stunt your progress. Escaping addiction is about building yourself up and fixing all those character flaws that make us want to get out of ourselves and get high in the first place.
These three pieces will get most people on the right path, but it’s just the beginning. There is a life of contentment and joy outside of addiction. Many people never find it; I am grateful that I found the willingness in myself to do whatever it took.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can reach out to me directly through my website https://www.aaronrentfrew.com/ for inquiries.
Email me directly if you ever need help with addiction [email protected] and I will help you free of charge or find someone who can.
Thank you so much for your insights. That was really inspiring!