Optimism correspondent Courtney Cobb and entrepreneur Wes Hurt, founder of Hey Cupcake! and Clean Cause, share an honest conversation about optimism + addiction.
Wes Hurt is known for his fight with drugs and alcohol. Not because it led him to lose his job at the helm of the Austin sweets empire, Hey Cupcake!, but because he used his recovery to fuel a new venture, Clean Cause—an organic beverage company that dedicates 50 percent of its profits to support recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.
*Note: Some parts of this conversation address mental health struggles and suicide. If this might be triggering for you, please take care when reading.*
Courtney Cobb: On September 8, 2017, I stepped down as Marketing Director of Independence Brewing Company and checked into Infinite Recovery.
Wes Hurt: I love it already.
CC: Ha! I can truly say that If someone would’ve told me that within a year of working the 12 steps of recovery I would think that my alcoholism is a gift, I would’ve thought they were crazy. But that is the case. As a recovering alcoholic, I have regained my integrity, healed the wounded relationships with my friends, family, and boyfriend, started a new career working for J.Forks Designs, and am following my dream of launching my own brand activation company. How do you feel about being an addict?
WH: For my whole life, I searched for purpose. Even as a kid, I always asked, “Why?” What I realized when I got older—and sober—was that “why?,” for me, actually meant “purpose:” Why do I do what I do? Similar to what you said, my addiction and my recovery helped me find my purpose, my calling. Not that I’m necessarily at that final destination, but I know finding my purpose is my North Star. I’m able to use my entrepreneurial gifts to do something meaningful! That helped me find my purpose. So it’s kind of ironic. The only thing that I regret about my addiction, the only thing I regret, are the people I have hurt. That is it. Everything else was beautiful, beautiful chaos.
CC: I absolutely love that! Okay, let’s take a step back and take a broader look of who you were, and the person you are today.
WH: I used to be insecure. And I still am. I say that because it’s not like your whole being changes when you’re becoming sober. I am grandiose at times—over the top! But in the deepest sense, I’m an insecure guy that still seeks validation, approval, and acceptance. Today, the only difference is that I am not lonely. When I look back at who I was, I was always looking for the next high and looking to stay anesthetized. My focus was on constantly maintaining my use so I could be close to feeling okay. There was zero depth to me. I did not have a purpose, and I did not find meaning in anything. There was no fulfillment, no authentic joy. It was all superficial.
CC: I know if you had to tell your story—from drug use, to founding Hey Cupcake! and later getting fired from your own company, attempts at sobriety, then actually becoming sober, and finally starting Clean Cause—it would take up all the time we have for this interview. So, what is your two-and-a-half-minute version?
WH: I’ve always been a dreamer, always had ideas that I wanted to bring to life. The cupcake business was the first real manifestation of my ideas. I don’t know if I expected it to work or not, but when it started to [actually] work, I was like, “What the hell? It’s working!” Austin really received Hey Cupcake! with open arms. It gained momentum quickly, and it fueled this energy. That’s when my use started to accelerate, because it was just kind of like, I don’t know, my fifteen minutes of fame. It is cliche, but the energy, the idea, and the excitement that something as silly as a huge cupcake on top of an Airstream trailer was working, was so exciting that it kind of became this whirlwind lifestyle. I was selling cupcakes, making a lot of cash—and spending it on drugs and alcohol.
Cupcakes—when I look back—represented most of the things I was not and the things that I wanted to be: light-hearted, authentic, fun, and making people happy. It was weird because I was maintaining that image on the front with the company, but from behind I was just distraught. I always felt guilt and shame from the disconnect.
My quick destruction happened when I got hooked on opiates. It essentially led to my removal as CEO and getting kicked out of my own house. The destruction led me to this place, where essentially, I hung out in a cemetery for nine months every single day crying, drinking, drugging and wanting to kill myself. It is morbid to say out loud, but I went as far as putting a rope around my neck and pulling on it to see what it was going to be like, what was I going to experience. That was my reality. I did not want to live, but I did not want to die, and to be in that state of limbo in the middle is almost more painful than one or the other. At that point, the only place I felt safe, the only place I felt like maybe I was moving closer to some type of solution, was in a cemetery, just bawling.
Looking back on exactly what happened to get out of that state of being—as you know for yourself—there are things you cannot explain. Circumstances just lined up. I got into a recovery program and I had a lot of people that reached out to me.
Then, I cannot remember exactly, but I was sitting somewhere when I had this epiphany. I was like, “What the hell am I going to do with my life now?” And I had this idea that I wanted to do something radically different and use my entrepreneurial gift to create something that would give back in a meaningful way, and something that would help me find freedom and find purpose via recovery.
The idea of Clean Cause was born pretty fast. It happened within a two week period of time from the idea spark—bottled water, the name—Clean Cause—and the 50 percent give back. It just came fast. Then it was like, “Okay, let’s go!” Just like true addict nature, impulsive, you know?
CC: [Laughing] Yes! I know it all too well.
WH: I mean, the worst that can happen with starting a company is you lose your money and pride-—I had already lost all that! So I was like, “You know what? This can only be the same, or better.”
CC: Oh my goodness. I can relate, so, so much! As we both know, addiction is tricky, or as the book says, cunning, baffling, and powerful. All recovering addicts have a common denominator: they must first admit, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are powerless over drugs and alcohol, and that their lives have become unmanageable. For me to be able to admit this, I had to hit “rock bottom.” I am a firm believer that rock bottoms are unique to each individual, and happen when someone stops digging. What is your definition of rock bottom, and how did you use it to make a change?
WH: I’m weird. I don’t like talking about rock bottoms as much in the sense that I do not really believe in them. What I believe in is a place where you are willing to finally make your own decision. But I understand the concept. Rock bottom, to me, is when someone faces their consequences: they get to choose to live or die, to have the people they love in or out of their lives, to go to jail or not go to jail.
For me, one of the biggest things that helped was when everybody withdrew from me; when every single person I loved and cared about finally unified. That is when I had to face my own existence and say, “Okay there is no one else here who I have to drink against because I am mad, there is just me and God. Do I want to live or die?” That removed everything and I had to face my own consequence that I would have to live with forever. For me, it has to do as much with enablement as it does rock bottom—you cannot get to rock bottom if people are enabling you. Does that make sense?
“Your eyes just start to open. It is a gradual process, and you keep getting these little victories and little insights of hope.”
CC: Yes. And I agree with you 100 percent. Now, when I finally walked through the doors of Infinite Recovery, I was not what one would necessarily call “hopeful.” I was terrified and desperate. However, over time, my attitude changed and I became optimistic. Looking back, I cannot pick a single day or moment when my attitude switched, it kind of evolved. What was your experience with hope and optimism in recovery?
WH: It was really almost like a heartbeat, up and down. I think getting support right out of the gate is so critical to those more short-term ups and downs. I was pretty volatile at the beginning, but I was hopeful. You know, chemically, coming off substances, your brain is acclimating and getting back to normal it takes a little time, right? So for me, at first, I was inspired when I thought, “I don’t want to kill myself.” So there is the first one. Then, I will never forget, one day when I was a month sober I pulled up to a stop light, and I looked over at the leaves of a tree. Then I looked up at the stoplight and realized that the light was made up of all these little lights. I will never forget that moment because I was present. I was like, “What the hell? I haven’t looked at a leaf in the last 10 or 20 years!”
I know it sounds weird, but my point is that my awareness of the world around me became clear. Then, there were additional little things like that that just kept me going. Little puffs of inspiration, something as small as your parents calling you saying, “I am really proud of you, keep going.” Or looking at the leaves on a tree and recognizing, “Wow, that is pretty cool, I wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass about that 31 days ago.” Your eyes just start to open. It is a gradual process, and you keep getting these little victories and little insights of hope and life being good!
I still experience that now. It’s sometimes hard to realize how far you’ve come. It’s the people around you who knew you in your former life that are like, “You are a different human being.”
CC: Now, for the general public, non-addicts, can you explain the process of becoming sober?
WH: The first things are physical, and your body is getting over it. At this stage, you can’t expect someone to be crystal clear and start talking about solutions, which a lot of non-addicts want to do. They say, “Let’s get a game plan together! It’s going to be great!” It’s way more complicated than that. Then, there is a lot of confusion and shame. I felt ashamed of all the people I hurt, all the stupid things I did, and all the money I spent. So, at the beginning, it’s about hanging on for dear life and really embracing the sayings: “Take it one day at a time,” and “This too shall pass.”
My advice to non-addicts would be to show us some more grace. We need it at the beginning more than ever. We’re ready to face the reality to try to make our lives right. I think it’s key to add that we are not victims. We are not asking for something because we deserve it, we are asking for it because it is necessary at that time because we are facing reality.
I think a lot of non-addicts look at getting sober as a black and white decision: “Put the bottle down!” Addicts wish it was that simple, because then we could drink normally.
CC: Jumping ahead to Clean Cause, the “give back” portion in particular. Why did you decide to give such a large percentage back to the addict community, and how does it evoke a ripple effect?
WH: Above all, I wanted to do something that was going to be truly impactful.The give-back portion really needed to be something significant, especially in the field of addiction where medicine and doctors are involved. It’s expensive. So, from a practical standpoint, if you want to create an impact, you need to produce funding. Giving less than 50 percent [of profits] back would’ve made it difficult to produce a meaningful amount of money. The reason we don’t give 100 percent back, and we are not a non-profit, is that it needs to be sustainable.
Sustainable means we use the vehicle—which is the product—to deliver the message that continues to fuel the mission each time someone buys it. Fifty percent also helps attract investors since they will get a return. They can feel good about investing in something that will make money and also help people. So it was those three things: funding to make impact, sustainability, and financial attractiveness so people would want to fund it and give it the ability to grow. I like to think that Clean Cause is part of a private solution for a public problem.
CC: How did perspective play a role in the turning point in your life?
WH: I think your perspective is formed by lots of things—your environment, your friendships. Today, my perspective is guided by my profession more often than not, because I am still an a-hole [laughs]. My company and my kiddos, my family. My outlook is guided by my purpose.
CC: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to become sober AND What advice would you give to people that have an addict in their life?
WH: For people trying to get sober: All you stand to lose by trying is the misery. Otherwise, you have nothing to lose. Give it a shot.
For people with an addict in their lives: Research credible resources to learn more about what “enabling” is. That way, you’ll understand whether your support is helping lead your loved one to recovery, or whether it’s actually an obstacle to that.
CC: That’s exactly what I hoped you’d say! Seriously, Wes, thank you so much.
WH: Congrats on everything you have cooking, with your career and all the awesome gifts that are coming your way. You deserve it, so keep kicking ass.
CC: Thank you! For all that you do. You are a huge beacon of hope to people like me.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide or addiction, we encourage you to reach out to the resources available to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255