Digging for Sobriety

With one of the highest ratings among Friday night programs on cable television and a confirmed third season already in the works, Gold Rush has been one of the Discovery Channel’s most successful programs to date. And one of the most buzzed about plot lines of season two, which ended last month, involved 41-year-old miner Greg Remsburg’s decision to quit the show and return to his family in Oregon, before he ultimately decided to finish the mining season of Alaska with the rest of the workers. The part that wasn’t revealed until the behind-the-scenes special? Remsburg has actively been in recovery from alcoholism for a decade, and with the exception of a few minor slips, has been winning his fight with the disease that nearly took away his career and family. And with the miners pocketing a mere $8,000 each for the gold they dug up during the five-month season, Remsburg will be returning for season three to try to solve his financial difficulties once and for all.

In our exclusive interview, Remsburg opens up about his struggles with the bottle, how he’s managed to largely maintain his sobriety and whether being on reality TV is conducive to a sober lifestyle.

“When you’re in the bush, there’s no AA. I’m not surrounded by other people in recovery and that makes it tough.”

How did the television show come about?

Greg Remsburg: Todd Hoffman, one of the other guys on the show, has been my best friend since junior high school. I’d been involved in the construction business since I left high school at 18 but when the economy turned, I had just finished a fairly long project and there was absolutely nothing to go to next. Todd asked me if I’d be interested in gold mining and it took two seconds to answer. It was easy to see where the dollar was headed and that gold was going up. In September of 2009, he said he contacted a television company about doing the show. I told him there was no way I was going on TV. But about two days later, it clicked with me that this was an opportunity that God had in mind for us to share our lives with the world and that I was supposed to say yes to this, even though I didn’t really comprehend what that phrase even meant at the time. But the show is not a fake or scripted premise. We’re dead serious about gold mining to provide for our families in the short term since there’s no work, but also in the long term since the market probably isn’t going to get better anytime soon.

It’s not revealed until the behind-the-scenes special, but you’re also the only person on Gold Rush who’s actively in recovery.

Greg Remsburg: Yes, for alcohol. Having grown up in a bubble as a kid, I was raised to believe that certain things were right and certain things were wrong. Drinking was one of the things that were wrong. Neither of my parents drank and I wasn’t exposed to it as a kid. But when I got to my senior year of high school, I realized drinking could be pretty fun. In my teens and early 20s, it was just for having a good time.

By my mid-20s, I had gotten married and we were having children, and alcohol became more of a way to deal with emotions that I just hadn’t been taught to absorb properly, whether it was anger or sadness or loneliness. By the time I reached 30, I was using it almost entirely as an escape. Something like a morning golf excursion would turn into an all-day bender, and I’d be abandoning my wife and children.

Did your wife say she felt abandoned or was that your own interpretation?

Greg Remsburg: She had been expressing concern for a couple of years before things really got out of hand. She’d just point out the number of beer cans that were on the counter from the night before, or the mostly full bottle of liquor that was now empty. But her major complaint was that my choices were robbing from her and the children. It was something that just didn’t register with me at the time. I never wanted to be away from my children, but I thought I had reasons for wanting to be away from her and used that as a subconscious excuse.

Was there a moment when you realized something had to change?

Greg Remsburg: It came to a head in my early 30s that I was out of control and needed help. I hadn’t experienced any legal problems, but there were definitely days where I called in sick to work because of drinking and had to lie when they questioned me. The kicker was one particular night when I was about 31 or 32, where I blacked out and didn’t come home, which was the first time that had ever happened. I woke up on someone’s lawn in a strange place and knew this couldn’t continue.

I went to a local hospital, walked into the emergency room and said I needed help. They looked at me completely bewildered and were like, “For what?” They brought me into a room and this man dressed in scrubs came in while I was laying on the bed. He leaned up against the wall and just asked if everything was okay. It was totally shocking. To have someone who cared was the last thing I expected or deserved, but it meant so much. I just opened up to him about everything.

How did you go about stopping your drinking?

Greg Remsburg: I went to an outpatient program for 90 days that was sponsored by the hospital. The people who were there were had a variety of addictions—meth or cocaine or whatever else—and were often forced to be there by the law. It felt like I was in the wrong group, but just needed to go through this for my marriage and family. But when the counselor said to think about the similarities you have with everyone in the room and not the differences, it really stuck. There really wasn’t much difference between us, only the drugs of choice. I faithfully went to AA meetings for the next year after that and started to become more comfortable in my own skin.

From what a lot of people know about how conflict-oriented reality TV is, it seems like it would be one of the most difficult places for someone in recovery to maintain sobriety. Were you ever tempted to drink?

Greg Remsburg: I’ve definitely had those moments. I’ve not been completely sober for these last 10 years and have had some slips. Currently, I’m six months sober. But the show or the cameras haven’t been a contributing factor. It’s just relationship issues with the other people working there and living in a man camp for six months at a time. When you’re in the bush, there’s no AA. I’m not surrounded by other people in recovery and that makes it tough. There are various excuses you make when you want to get away.

What are some the methods you’ve used to maintain your sobriety that other people might benefit from?

Greg Remsburg: Talking to other people has always been important to me. I’m a relationship-oriented person and have been pretty consistent about keeping people in my life that I can be honest and open with. And what I’ve also learned is that if I’m lost, God is always there and waiting for me to come back into the fold. Having grown up in the environment I did, I felt dirty and unlovable if I stumbled. I’ve learned that I don’t have to live with shame or guilt. The more open I’ve been with others about the struggles, the more that others can identify with me—which has been a huge help.

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