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Dave Coulier: The Gift of Sobriety

Just after the former “Full House” star stopped drinking, he lost his brother, his father and his great friend Bob Saget.
Actor Dave Coulier; photo by Matthew Gilson

There is a common belief that comedians use humor to deal with or even cover up pain they can’t otherwise process. That may be true in some cases. I’ve known a few comics like that. But not me. I became a comedian because I loved to make people laugh. It made me feel good, and it made the audience feel good. That’s a pretty great gig to have in life, a blessing I’m grateful for every day.

But I also fell in love with something else: drinking. I’ve been sober now for two years and counting, two years in which I’ve suffered three of the most devastating losses of my life in quick succession. How did I survive those blows to the heart without alcohol? That’s what I’m here to talk about.

Dave Coulier on the cover of the Sept-Oct Guideposts
    As seen in the Sept-Oct 2022

Back in the sixties, in St. Clair Shores, Michigan—a town north of Detroit along Lake St. Clair, right across from Canada, near what we Michiganders call the thumb (if you think of the state as a left-handed mitten)—drinking was just a part of life. Growing up in “Hockeytown,” we kids would play in a hockey game, then go out for pizza afterward, the parents knocking back pitchers of beer. No one objected when they poured us a little glass. Wow, cool, we thought. We’re just like the grown-ups.

Eight or nine years old and we’d pour ourselves a gin and Squirt at a wedding reception, so much Squirt in there you could hardly taste the gin. No one said, “Hey, what are you kids doing here at the bar?” No one even objected. As far as I could tell, drunks were funny. A source of laughter.

I used to love watching actor Foster Brooks do his drunken act on The Tonight Show or with Dean Martin, inviting Martin to join his own version of A.A. called Alcoholics Unanimous. Who knew they performed completely sober? Nobody can act that perfectly drunk if they’re actually intoxicated, except for maybe W. C. Fields.

I went to Catholic schools all the way through high school and, like a good Michigander, played on the hockey team. Win or lose, we’d celebrate with some drinking while the adults looked the other way. In a big Catholic family like mine, when all the aunts and uncles and cousins got together, they told jokes—and drank, my uncle Dick doing a killer Rodney Dangerfield, complete with the tie tugging and other tics. He had it down cold, even the material.

My family was tight-knit and supportive, in part I think because of my younger brother, Dan, who struggled with mental illness. Dan was the funniest person I’ve ever known. We started doing impressions when we were kids, trading funny voices back and forth from our bunk beds each night. He had this laugh that was so pure and infectious. I sometimes think it was his laugh that ignited in me the desire to make people laugh. I loved to make Dan laugh.

I had two buddies who were really funny. From fifth grade on, the three of us would get up at hockey banquets and do impressions and jokes. I sharpened my comedic skills in high school. I started working in comedy clubs at age 19 and moved to Los Angeles. Drugs were rampant back then. I was never a druggie though. Just liked to drink. It never seemed to get in the way of things. I worked hard.

Comedians are basically writers. Storytellers. Every joke is a story. A lot happens before you actually get in front of the mic. You write and refine your material, try it out, refine it some more until you get that magic you want: laughter.

I moved up in the business. I was a writer, actor, director and eventually a star on a hit television series, your classic highly functional “friendly” alcoholic. I’d gotten my pilot’s license as a teenager, and I even got my instrument rating in L.A.—careful to take a three-day hiatus from the sauce before I ever flew. Didn’t that mean I could control it? What was so alcoholic about that?

Bob Saget was a close pal even before we worked together in Full House. I slept on the couch at his apartment in L.A. during the struggling years when I was looking for a place to live. We made each other laugh, trying out jokes on each other. When he was cast as the dad in Full House with me as his helpful buddy, it was such a gift, running for almost 200 episodes.

I liked to say it was a show about “a G-rated dysfunctional family,” but offstage, off camera, there was nothing dysfunctional about us. There was support, love, affection, respect. If I saw any pictures of myself at an afterparty, I looked happy. The last guy standing. I was the “final, final” guy. Drunk but happy. Making everybody laugh.

When did I cross that line from life-of-the-party drunk to out-of-control alcoholic? When did I see that I was paying a price for this? About five years ago, I started to see the red flags. I wasn’t remembering things. Blacking out, falling. “I’m really worried about you,” my wife, Melissa, would say. By then, we’d been together for more than a decade, and she knew me better than anyone.

“Come on,” I’d say, “I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

“Yeah,” she’d say, “that’s what I’m worried about.”

I loved booze. But it had stopped loving me back.

One day, staying at a friend’s house in Arizona—Melissa wasn’t there—I fell during a drunken stupor. I took a picture of myself, my face a bloody mess. “You’re going to have to show Melissa this,” my friend said, “before she sees you.” I texted it to her, then got her on the phone. I heard her crying. That’s when I knew: I have a problem. A real problem.

Christmas and New Year’s were coming up. All those parties. I’d wait till the end of the year and start 2020 sober. The drinking would be over on January 1. Never again. Not a drop. “Yeah, sure,” I could hear people say. “We’ll believe it when we see it.”

In my mind, I heard that old W. C. Fields line: “Now don’t say you can’t swear off drinking. It’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” Yet I was determined, as determined as I had ever been about anything. No. More. Alcohol. I’d promised Melissa. How hard could it actually be when I was that committed?

Hard. One of the hardest things I’d ever done, my body in torment, completely cold turkey. I trembled. I sweat. I knew the only thing that would make me feel better was a drink. But only for the short term. This was long-term. Not till March did I share the news on Instagram. Letting the world know. No secrets. Dave Coulier was sober now.

As painful proof of my past, I shared that photo of me looking like all hell. If I fell again, it wasn’t going to be because I was drunk. Clumsy maybe or from an accidental stick or puck during pickup hockey, but not stumbling drunk.

I couldn’t have done it without the support of Melissa and friends like Bob. I also called on something deeper, a part of me that had almost gone dormant, a faith from within, my spiritual DNA. It was always there, that inner fire—ready to keep me warm, give me light—but I’d almost forgotten. I began throwing logs on that fire, keeping those spiritual flames burning, a blaze that cast far more light than alcohol ever did, a healing, life-renewing light.

Melissa and I had moved back to Michigan, to be closer to family. My mom had passed, but my brother, Dan, was living with and helping take care of Dad, who wasn’t doing so well. Dan was incredibly funny, funnier and more talented than me. And suffering for all those years from mental illness. Each day was a battle for him. I knew the darkness that was always at the edge of that wonderful laugh.

I was the one who found him. In the basement of the house where we’d grown up, Dad’s house. It shocked me like nothing I ever knew could. Life gone, dead. I called 911, but it was too late. Had there been anything more I could have done? It’s the first thing a person asks as the guilt closes in.

I wondered how I should share the news. Death by suicide. I had come out about my drinking. I would be honest with this. On social media, I posted a picture of Dan and me in Western costume with Mom, taken a couple years before. And told the truth. In sharing, I could only hope that others, people whose families had such tragic stories, would know they weren’t alone.

I would not have had the courage to say all that if I hadn’t been sober. The pain, at times, was unbearable. Drinking would have buried the pain. But it also would have buried the love. That grief, that pain, is the price we pay for love. It drove me to call on that fire of faith more than ever.

It was shortly after my father went into assisted living that a second blow came, one I could not have imagined. Bob Saget’s death. My mind recoiled. It simply wasn’t possible. He was out on the road, doing comedy. We’d just been texting each other that day, sharing jokes and making each other laugh. I’d told him to have a great show.

Later that night, he died in his hotel room of head trauma. He’d hit his head before going to bed. He died in his sleep, which can happen if a concussion causes bleeding in the brain. Bob probably thought it was nothing. He was just looking forward to his next show.

John Stamos was the one who called and told me that Bob was gone. The shock, the horror of it, was immense. For too many years, decades of drinking, I had sheltered myself from addressing sorrow like this. Not now. I felt pain as I never had before, and I had to deal with it on many levels: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. But I felt human too, more human than I had ever realized.

Was I angry at God? You bet. “Why am I getting punched in the face like this?” I asked.

I think the answer was that I was finally ready for it, finally in a place no matter how painful that I could deal with it honestly, feel not just the hurt but the love without the haze of alcohol. The pain was a gift. But, boy, did I ever pick a time to get sober.

I was talking to God. Not ignoring him. Not running away from faith any more than running away from the pain. I would look at the sky and go, “Hey, is it my turn? Are you kidding me?”

I would hear, “Of course, I’m kidding you. You’re a comedian.” I needed this. I would laugh, cry, get angry and feel the loss, truly feel it. This is what being human is. This is what sober is.

God wasn’t done with me. My father was dying. A person who had been there every day that I’d been alive. I held my dad’s hand at the assisted living facility, Melissa by my side. He was in hospice care—the final part of his journey here on Earth.

I looked into his eyes and told him how proud I was that he was my father. He was a blue-collar guy who put all four of his kids through private school. He sacrificed. He loved us. And now I told him how much I loved him.

Afterward, I felt this huge opening up, a new perspective, a whole new appreciation for the smallest things in life. I could lie on the grass and look at the sky, the way I did as a kid, and gaze at the clouds with wonder.

You realize how short life is and how precious it is. How beautiful. And, yes, how funny. That’s one big way we deal with it all. Humor as salvation.

I still love to make people laugh, to connect with audiences I usually don’t know and make them feel something. It’s the most genuine thing I know. I help them feel human, and whether they realize it or not, they make me feel human too.

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