Tatum O'Neal's Sobriety Struggle
One Hollywood actress knows the struggle all too well. Tatum O'Neal is best known as the youngest Oscar® winner in history and daughter of actor Ryan O'Neal. Offscreen, however, Hollywood glamour faded away to horror. Tatum says she was physically and emotionally abused throughout her childhood.
During her teenage years, Tatum says she turned to drugs to dull the pain. By age 20, she says she was addicted to cocaine.
In 1986, the darkness lifted when she fell in love and married tennis superstar John McEnroe. They had three children together, but after nearly a decade, they divorced. Over time, Tatum says she began abusing heroin, and in 1995, she lost custody of her children, Emily, Kevin and Sean.
Tatum says she completed several treatment programs, joined a 12-step program and got her life back on track. In 2004, she candidly spoke about her drug and alcohol addiction during her first Oprah Show appearance.
Then, in June 2008, a misguided moment landed Tatum in a New York City jail.
Tatum remembers the day clearly. She says it was just before dusk on a Sunday when she decided to go in search of drugs. At the time, Tatum says she'd been sober for 10 months. "I wish I could describe why I would make a decision like this," she says. "I really can't. It baffles me."
It didn't take long for Tatum to find what she was looking for. "I live in a neighborhood that actually, you know, there's still some activity…drug activity," she says. "I walked out of my apartment, [and] … I sort of saw a guy standing there, and in that moment, I think I would look and see if he was maybe using."
Tatum says she told the man she wanted to buy cocaine. "He looks like he's struggling. He looks like he's addicted to something. I don't know what," she says. "So I said, 'Can you do that?' We were walking, and he brought it to me."
The moment Tatum had the drugs in her hand, five undercover police officers burst onto the scene. "[They] said, 'What do you have?' I showed them what I had," she says. "He said, 'You're under arrest,' [and] put my hands behind my back. He arrested the other guy, and I was really horrified."
In July 2008, Tatum pled guilty to disorderly conduct. She was sentenced to attend two drug treatment classes and pay a $96 fine.
At the time, Tatum was also grieving the loss of Lena, her dog of 16 years, but she says that's not a reason to relapse. "We all lose our dogs, and we stay sober. So clearly I had lost my connection to any 12-step program, to people I was going to meetings with, to my sponsor," she says. "I didn't know that I had cut off, and I was trying to figure out my will. [I] was trying to manage my day, my pain."
As anxiety built up, Tatum says she began to tell herself that she was a worthless failure who had nothing to live for. "These are the things that crop up, and then I have the trigger that goes, 'Well, then throw it all away. Why don't you just throw it all away? Plus, the pain might go away.'"
Tatum believes she abused alcohol and drugs because she struggles with deep-seated self-hatred. "It's really destructive," she says. "And I've had a lot of destructive consequences."
As handcuffs were placed around her wrists, she says she thought only of her children. "They have had to struggle and fight to keep it being okay to love their mother," she says. "I've really worked on that."
When 22-year-old Kevin, 20-year-old Sean and 17-year-old Emily heard their mother had been arrested, Tatum says they were embarrassed. "[But] I think the main thing about that was that they heard that I had been intervened on before I got home to do the drugs," she says. "I think that that is the savior, if you will. That was like the higher power moment or God intervening because all bets are off if I pick up that drug."
Tatum says if she'd been able to take a snort of cocaine, she doesn't know if she would have stopped there. "There's no saying where I would have ended up," she says. "It's not like it's I'll do it and it will be done, and Monday will come and I'll be back at the gym and everything will be fine. … It's like a disaster."
Photo: AP/Rene Macura
Tatum says she also hasn't heard from her famous father. Sharing the spotlight with her dad while she was growing up put a strain on their relationship, she says. "My father and I had a career that was sort of paralleling," Tatum says. "He did Barry Lyndon and I did Bad News Bears and we lived in the same house. We made a bet on which movie was going to make more money. … That was very hard for us." Living in the public eye was also tough on the family, Tatum says. "We were in a carnival in the middle of Hollywood," she says. "We were trying to make our way."
Tatum says she did get a call from actress Farrah Fawcett, who dated Ryan and moved in with Tatum and her father when Tatum was 14. In 2004, Tatum told Oprah that she and Farrah had trouble over the years coming to terms with each other, but Tatum says they've mended fences since Farrah was diagnosed with cancer in 2006.
"Once she got sick, I forgave everything. Any reservations I had about who she was changed," Tatum says. "I have a great deal of respect for her now." Tatum says that after her arrest, she received a voice mail from Farrah. "She wanted to know if I was doing okay, and I was very taken aback that she would do that. She's going through a lot."
Valerie's been clean for two years and says she had a profound spiritual awakening when she was in rehab. "I prayed on my knees on a concrete floor in a rehab facility, and I told God that I was his to do with what is his will," she says. "From then on it was, 'Thy will be done.' … The right answer would come every time."
Tatum says that her aha! moments happen when she faces her problems head on. "My spiritual awakening has come when I let go of the fight with everybody else and take on the fight with my disease of addiction," she says. "It's not about my father or career or ex-husband or any of that. It's me and my drug addiction. I needed to say 'That's the fight' and let go of everything else."
For now, Tatum says she's focusing on being grateful for each day. "I'm thankful that I'm alive; thankful that my daughter has respect for me and understands that I'm in the fight for my life. My sons do as well," she says. "I hit my knees every day and try to remember to write a gratitude list. I'm so lucky that everything has turned out the way it has."