The Road to Recovery

How did the star of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods turn his life around?

By Andrew Zimmern, Edina, Minnesota

As appeared in

I sat down on the bed next to Jimmy, this small room at the veterans residential care facility the only thing between him and the streets of New York City. His demeanor was guarded. He smiled, but his eyes were tired.

I knew he thought there was no way I could understand what he was going through, but when I looked at him I saw myself—like I was looking in a mirror.

I get asked to speak to a lot of different groups, one of the best parts of my job hosting a show on the Travel Channel, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. I take viewers to the far corners of the globe and introduce them to other cultures by exploring the foods they eat—at times, pretty strange stuff.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned after a lifetime of dining on delicacies like blood pudding, sea squirts and camel kidneys, even folks who wouldn’t come within 100 yards of a Cambodian tarantula want to hear what it’s like to chomp on one!

That, ostensibly, was why I was here. I was speaking at a fund-raising gala for Services for the Underserved. SUS helps people with developmental disabilities, HIV/AIDS , the mentally ill and homeless veterans.

It’s an organization devoted to supplying housing and supportive services to all of the underserved communities of NYC. I’d come into town on the early side so I could tour their residential facilities for veterans.

I’d met Jimmy in the common room. We struck up a conversation and I asked if I could see where he lived.

“I’ve made a mess of my life,” he said. He told me how for years he’d struggled with physical and emotional problems, lost his marriage and his business. “I had nothing to live for. It just seemed so hopeless before I got help here at SUS.”

“I’ve been there,” I said, my voice just a whisper. “And not that long ago.”

I thought back to that day in New York City, early January of 1992. I’d checked into a cheap hotel with a case of vodka in large plastic bottles. “I had a plan. I was going to drink myself to death,” I said. Jimmy looked at me, his eyes wide.

I was 30. Everyone, my friends, my business partners, my family, had wisely turned their backs on me. My once-promising career as a chef and restaurateur was trashed. I’d spent most of the previous year squatting in an abandoned building, living with other drunks and junkies.

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I didn’t believe in anything or anyone, including myself, and least of all in a Higher Power. The only thing I had faith in was the bottle.

I’d dreamed of being in the food business from the moment my globetrotting parents introduced me to the foods of the world during childhood trips to Europe and Asia.

I worked my way up the food chain, beginning with summer jobs in high school, then on to unpaid apprenticeships in restaurants in Italy and France, then to restaurants back home as a cook, then sous chef, executive chef and finally to a partnership in a foodservices development company and consulting group.

I’d worked in some of the best kitchens in the world, with some of the best chefs in the business.

Outside the kitchen my life was spiraling downward. I told myself I was in control, that I wasn’t really addicted at all. I used heroin to come down from coke, alcohol to moderate the pills. I had it all figured out.

But after a decade of this, my friends, people with successful careers and families, no longer wanted to go out when I called. No longer let me crash on their couches. No longer took my calls. More and more the people I hung out with were other drunks and addicts.

Jimmy nodded. “Yeah,” he said softly. “At first you don’t care. You just want to get high. But then...then it’s too late.” He stood up and walked to a dresser, framed pictures of a smiling family atop it. He pointed to a photo of a handsome young boy.

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“My son,” he said. “He’s a great kid. I didn’t see him for years until I got the new start here.” He looked back at me and wiped a hand across his eyes.

“I know how you feel, Jimmy.” He sat back down and I continued my story.

I was walking a tightrope. I got kicked out of my apartment, then another one. One morning a restaurant owner I was consulting with found me passed out on the floor of his establishment.

“This isn’t working,” my partners finally told me. “We’re through, Andrew.” I was screwing up my own life but they weren’t about to let me screw up theirs.

That night I went to a dive bar, drank myself senseless, then followed a group of drunks back to the building they were squatting in, in lower Manhattan. I stayed there for almost a year, watching all hope drain out of my life. I was a loser. I couldn’t take it any more.

That’s when I went to the flophouse. I lay in bed and guzzled vodka till I passed out, woke up and started again. Days went by. I was down to my last bottles of booze. I couldn’t understand it. I had nothing to live for. Why was I still alive?

Then one morning my eyes slowly, groggily opened. There was the bed. And the floor littered with empty bottles. But...everything was different. I couldn’t explain it, but it was as if someone turned a light on. Was it hope? Was it real?

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The Ace bandage of anxiety and misery I wore around my chest wasn’t there. The ache to make the day go away wasn’t there. The fear just wasn’t there, for the first time in 15 years.

I grabbed the phone and called the only person I could think of who might listen to me, a publisher who’d been my best friend for 20 years.

“I need help,” I pleaded. “Please. Please come get me.”

“Don’t go anywhere,” he said. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”

I had escaped that hotel with my life, but I was still an addict. By the time I got to my friend’s house I was already backpedaling, scheming, telling him I didn’t need anything more than a loan. I could fix my problems.

The next morning, not five minutes after he left for work, I broke into his liquor cabinet. This time I would stay in control.

Each day for three days he asked me what I was going to do. He asked me to meet with another friend who’d been sober for a year or two. I agreed to meet her at a restaurant for coffee. When I got to the restaurant the back room was packed—filled with people I’d thought had long since forgotten me.

“We’re taking you to the airport,” one friend said. “You’ve been admitted to a Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota. They’ll be able to give you the help you need.”

Jimmy slapped his hand on the bed. “You had an intervention,” he said. “Me too, once. But it didn’t take.”

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Mine either, at least at first. I went willingly to the airport because I had nowhere else to go, but after several days in treatment I was a mess.

All I kept hearing about was a spiritual solution to my human problem, a new way of living that would put my life on a different footing, if only I could find a way to turn my life over to a power greater than myself. Seriously? I was supposed to believe there was someone out there looking out for me?

C’mon. If there was an almighty anything in charge, he was doing a pretty lousy job. So day after day I filled the pages of my workbook where I was supposed to write my feelings with one word: HOPELESS .

One day my counselor came into my room. “I know you don’t believe in anything, let alone a God who is personal to you, Andrew. I get that. But you better find something you can believe in or we’re just wasting each other’s time here.” Then he turned and left.

Were they going to kick me out? I was in Minnesota in the middle of winter! I didn’t have any place to go. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with a terrifying sense of desperation, of utter separation from the world, of complete isolation.

Once again the rules had been laid out. Find a Higher Power, and you will get well. And once again I knew that the solution to the problem would elude me.

I walked outside and stared up at a tree near the building, its skeletal branches stretching toward the sky. “If you’re out there, you’re going to have to show me something,” I said, looking up, begging. “I need to know I can really do this. That you’ll be there for me. You have to show me something, anything.”

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I was from New York. I needed something real, like a burning bush.

But all I heard was the freezing wind whistling through the branches.

I went inside. It was dinnertime. I sat down next to a guy I recognized from the in-house meetings. I didn’t know him well. He nodded. “How’s it going?” he said. More like a grunt really. I doubted if he cared.

“I don’t know,” I said. “This stuff just doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, I can’t believe...”

“Look,” he interrupted, somewhat rudely, I thought. “Recovery is like a recipe. There’s the twelve steps, there’s God and there’s you. Put them together and maybe you can stay sober.”

I explained I didn’t know how to find God, and he told me about the promises of the 12 Steps. That by following Good Orderly Direction and the wisdom of the sober community I would come to believe. I didn’t need to believe at that moment, I just needed to believe in a future where I would.

I didn’t know if I should feel insulted or enlightened. There was a recipe. I could understand that. A phrase I’d heard over and over, “Keep it simple,” finally made sense. Read the instructions and follow the recipe. Stop fighting it. It all came together in an instant.

“No, Jimmy,” I said. “I didn’t get a burning bush. I got a grumpy dude who finally got through to me by saying the thing I needed most at the exact moment I needed to hear it. It saved my life.”

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I put my arm around Jimmy. His eyes turned to the pictures of his family. “They haven’t forgotten you,” I said. “They’re just waiting. Don’t give up. It gets better. Way better. Even if you can’t imagine how.”

We walked back to the common room together. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m grateful that you came by. I was a soldier once. I’m not going to give up.”

I don’t know what happened to Jimmy. I haven’t seen him since, though I pray often for him. I am grateful every time I can share my story with another addict or alcoholic.

I am grateful to have my life back and for the friends and family who never gave up on me, for a God who was there when I was ready to find him. I am grateful for so much, that every day, one day at a time, is Thanksgiving.

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Your Comments (32)

i sent heartfelt and good wishes for Mr. Z.
despite the claim that all private info is to be "kept private" - IT IS NOT
Although I have nothing to be ashamed of, I resent the deceit.

When I find myself depressed I find a way to get by praising the Lord. I find by praising and thanking him in any experience it lifts my spirit.

Andrew, What an amazing tesimony. I am a wife of a recovering addict and hear many testimonies like yours from people in all walks of life. We have watched you on the travel channel many times. The impact, influence and credibility you have is tremendous. I'm so happy to hear of your journey to recovery and pray that as you grow in Him that many will come to the saving knowledge of Christ and impact others for His kingdom and purpose.

Thank you so much Andrew for telling your powerful story compassionately and also keeping it 'real'. When I was young and naive, I became involved with an abusive and manipulative man. I felt trapped in every way and saw no way out. But God reached down and rescued me and I also finally stopped denying my then desperate reality. I got a job, met a wonderful Christian man and we've been married for 27 years now. God meets us right where we are, every day. He's there, especially when we can't see or feel His presence. Thanks again Andrew for sharing!

Wowee, this is a truly inspirational testimony given by you Andrew. This thing called LIFE is such a huge challenge to be a part of and sometimes, a lot of the time, it can throw you for a huge loop and before you know it monkey wrenches are being hurled at you from all directions when you decide to do things and go down a path of destruction and destroying your life. I too am so thankful & grateful that he kept his eyes and hands on you and helped you to make the glorious decision to start living and stop dying!!!

Thank you for your story. I've been down the drug and alcohol path and God delivered me in 1985. I still struggle with depression, like right now. I feel worthless and hopeless. I don't pray much anymore because I don't feel like God wants to hear what I have to say. I've done 3 mild OD's in the last month. More to punish myself than trying to kill myself. I feel so lost and alone and God feels so far away I can't find my way back. God bless you.

I will be praying for you Teresa, God loves you very much and wants to heal you. Allow the love in.

Teresa I am praying for you and that you will know that God does listen to you and He does care. You also need to listen to Him. Keep in mind you are a child of God. He created you, he has a purpose for you and your are worth so much more. Reach out to God and He will be there. God bless you!

My prayer is with you and for you, I also have been on drugs,alcohol with depression not easy at all, God is with you and God always listens to our prayers he might not answer right away,but he is with you always. I'm will go boldly to the throne of God on you behave, I pray for strength,joy, deliverence, patients, i pray for a Godly companion for you, draw near to God and God will draw near to you, and you will find your way back in his arms in Jesus mighty name, to God be the Glory Amen Amen Amen Call on his name Jesus Jesus Jesus is Lord over you and me. Amen

Hi Teresa. My name is Janet and i unerstand because i have been in a place where you are at, a place where the bottom of everything fell out. but when it did there was a God so big, bigger than anything that i was going thru. He never and i mean never lets go of our hand. If you have asked HIM into your heart HE will never leave you or forsake you. He pulled me out of a pit of despair so deep, it would take me an hour to tell you about it. Dont give up, go to church because that is the hospital and it is a place where there are people that have been where you are and know how to help. Christ is the answer. He knows and understands your pain. Love Janet

Don't give up Teresa and prayer is the most important thing to do ..God loves us no matter what we have done or what we are going your word I read proverbs every day it really helps and read Psalms. Also I do a small book called Our Daily Bread you can get it for free if you would like to get one here is the address RBC Ministries P.O. Box 266 Grand Rapids, MI 49501-0266 write them and tell them you want there daily devotion book and I will keep you in my prayers keep going forward and find a good church where they will love on you ....God Bless You My Lady...Lord help my sister to be strong and not give up cause you never forsake us or give up on us.....:))

Don't every give up. Depression usually needs more than just thinking you'll get over it. It's a true medical condition and can be helped. It doesn't mean anything is wrong with you. You shouldn't feel guilty about it. I never had time to read these stories before and I did this tonight, right now, and saw your comment. I will pray that you feel God's love and presence and know how much He cares about you. Because He does. See a doctor and don't give up. God bless you and hold you close.

Teresa, I am praying for you right now, that you can somehow feel the presence of God in your life. Keep praying yourself....God always wants to hear from you, even if you don't feel it. Please do not OD again. Liz

God bless you, brother. I've always loved watching your show because your vibrant spirit comes shining through. I love the way you show respect for all people.

I should have known that you belong to God. I do, however, envision Him laughing when you give thanks for your food, saying "Andrew, now seriously son, does that really look like food to you?"

LOL !!! about God's comment on the food :)

Dear Andrew, Thanks for sharing your story. I'm lost right now and landed in a pit after losing not one but two GOOD jobs and now only have a part time position at minimum wage. I keep running into the same pushy people who lie, cheat and steal and they run me down and out. In the past, I always felt God's presence but now when I feel I really need Him, nothing--and I feel He also abandonned me. I never felt this level of emptiness nor what God wants me in this world for anymore. I'm older and grown tired and do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Your story gives me a sense of hope - while I don't know the road ahead of me, I will keep on pushing through my journey of trials and pray for a successful ending. I pray a mentor into my life before I lose everything. God bless you for sharing!

JCB just when we think God isn't there that is when he is carring us footprints in the sand, stay in prayer and ask God to reveal what he wants you to do sometimes he don't answer us when we want him to but his time is better then ours.....what is something you are really good at is something to focus on because you can enjoy it more and you know what to do and we all have gifts that God can use even if it is giving some time to some one or something....I pray you stay strong and stay focused and never give up and no matter how old we are God can use us....God Bless....:))

What a beautiful story. My daughter, Michele is a recovering addict. She is a beautiful and very brave person. She lost custody of her children due to her addiction. We pray every day to see them again or at least to talk to them. The people who have them won't allow any communication. It hurts a lot.i keep praying. My daughter doesn't deserve this treatment. She works hard every day to maintain her sobriety.

My youngest daughter was also an addict. She, too, lost her children to her ex, but did have ~~ at first ~~ supervised visits with her young children at our house. Eventually she had a couple of evenings a week and every other weekend unsupervised visitation. She has remained sober and drug free for sixteen-plus years. Now her son, 19, lives with her here with us and her daughter, 17, is graduating from high school this year, thinking about moving up here on the lake with us also. Please tell your daughter to hang in there and know that we'll be praying for her.


Thank you Andrew for sharing your story. I really needed this today, may god bless you in your journey.

Thank you Andrew for sharing your story. It was exactly what I needed to read today. May God bless you in your journey. May God help all those still suffering from this wretched disease. Thank you.

Hi Folks, my name is Larry and I'm a grateful recovering Alcoholic.

Through the GRACE OF GOD and this program I've been sober for quite some time and have found there is a wonderful, productive, happy, secure, and beautiful life after Alcohol.

I know live in reality and have the "good ENOUGH feeling"
naturally that Alcohol gave me chemically.

You have touched my heart and my soul..thank you.

Thank you for your courageous and very personal revelation. Look how far you have come! You are to be commended not only for your exquisite knowledge of food (and astounding willingness to "experience" new cultures - [personally, blllleaaaaaaaaaaaaakkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk!!!!!!!])
You have a show that educates the world about others diets and cultures.
Congratulations on not only looking upward, but LIVING upward.

Thanks for sharing your story, Andrew! My drug is food, and I am currently working a 12-Step program to overcome my addiction. It is working, but more importantly, I am finding a whole new way of living my life in more simpler way. The 12-Step recipe works for those who want to change.

Liz B, I am also addicted to food. What is the 12 steps?

Dear Andrew:

Welcome to the greatest adventure of your life! I am glad you have found the God of the Alcoholic.

I have been blessed thru the grace of God and the fellowship of AA with a long soberiety.

I bless and keep you in my prayers.

REMEMBER - It works if you work it sober

Kathy K

Thank you Andrew, for your story. Food is my drug, and I have been attending 12-step meetings since July in hopes of learning how to turn my life over to God to release my compulsion, and more importantly, my fears that feed it. Some days are easier than others. Your words came at an opportune moment, as I was not abstinent yesterday, and was feeling like I failed, again. You give me hope to begin again today, to start my day by giving it to God. Thanks.

Thank you Andrew for sharing your inspiring story with us! Having Managed a recovery home these past years,I have learned that we as staff, family, friends and residents need to have and develop a genuine belief in something/someone, bigger/beyond than ourselves in order to experience healing within ourselves and with each other! It is this personal relationship with God (our Higher Power) that makes it possible for each one of us to live a healthy, happy and productive life and to help others to discover the same.
"Life is for making memories and having dreams" how we do this is our choice! The Serenity Prayer is a awesome guide for this.....Amen. God bless and guide us all! Angel David

I am a recovered alcoholic.I love the Lord with all of my soul.I had issues though.I am happy to be celebrating recovery and I love praying for people.I love writing and blogging instead of bottling my emotions and keeping the pain within.I found prayer an uplifting way to change my own life and help others also.I am proud of your story! Good luck and God Bless you! Amy Nichole

Thank you so much Amy for sharing your healing experience! May sharing your healing experience be an inspiration and motivation for others caught in addictions to reach out for help and recovery! My personal prayers for you and yours at this time! Angel David