Rehab saved Joel Relampagos. Now he gives back

Joel Relampagos began learning to box earlier this year when he turned 40. He wanted to start a new decade in the best shape of his life, but he also found that high-intensity circuit training was good for his mental health.

Whether he’s throwing hooks in a punching bag, pushing a weight sled, or drumming battle ropes, he’s forced to focus on the present moment. By the time he’s done, he’s drenched in sweat – but less anxious, more at peace.

For Relampagos, it’s an important reminder that it’s okay, even necessary, to be uncomfortable — to feel the pain and learn how to move forward. It was also important to his recovery from alcohol addiction and how he gives back and helps others.

September February 22, 2022 marks three years of sobriety for Relampagos, an executive producer of The Biggest Loser who has worked on Hell’s Kitchen, Going From Broke and Pimp My Ride.

Before entering rehab in 2019 at the age of 37, Relampagos had been drinking for 17 years. For the five years before he got help, he drank two bottles of wine every night at home alone.

“I saw people stop over a glass of red wine at dinner,” he said. “And I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way I can stop for a drink.'”

His addiction was easy to hide because he woke up the next morning, went to a TV show, and still hosted a TV show. At family gatherings, he played the role of a good Filipino American son and didn’t touch the alcohol. But after he left, he went to the liquor store.

“I didn’t know how to have a balance,” he said. “It’s like an abusive relationship that you’re not proud of. But at the same time you love it because you feel like you’re not good enough to get anything else in life.”

Joel Relampagos squats and holds a heavy weight

Joel Relampagos trains at a Trinity Boxing Club in Los Angeles.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Relampagos was born in Quezon City, Philippines. On his 6th birthday he moved to California.

“I remember my mom looking at me on the plane and saying, ‘America is your gift. Happy birthday,'” he said.

He was excited. But looking back, it was also “the beginning of knowing what it’s like to feel different.” He had a heavy accent. He struggled to make friends. His parents were in a divorce. He felt alone.

At home there were explicit expectations. He has four sisters and joked, “As a Filipino son, you’re the doctor and your sisters are going to be nurses.” His parents had given up their banking careers to come to America and work as a used car salesman and cashier.

He was very afraid of disappointing her. There was always an underlying expectation, he said, that “your parents made the sacrifice for you, so eventually, as you get older, you have to make sacrifices for us.”

It made him anxious, depressed and unworthy.

“What happens as a kid is you start creating those beliefs,” he said. “And my number one belief as a kid was that I wasn’t good enough.”

Joel Relampagos hits out during his workout.

Boxing helps Joel Relampagos manage his anxiety – he’s forced to focus on the present moment.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

From a young age, he also understood that he had secrets.

The first secret was that he’s gay. While attending UCLA, he came out in the sizzpiest, most Hollywood way.

After his father survived a heart attack, he realized it was important for his father to know who he really was. He saw that MTV was casting for a documentary called “True Life” and looked for coming-out stories.

He wrote to MTV about growing up in a strictly Catholic home, and he wanted to get out of the closet and show other kids, especially Filipino American kids, that there was nothing wrong with them. Two weeks later, MTV came to film him for a month, and he came out to his family on national television.

“When the show came out, I realized the power of storytelling because other kids would come up to me and be like, ‘You changed my life,’ and ‘You saved my life.'”

This revelation led to the second truth he had to admit to his parents: that he didn’t want to be a doctor. He dropped out of college to become an assistant at MTV.

“A big reason I got into reality TV was to help other people tell their stories, just like a producer from MTV helped me tell my story about coming out,” he said. “I think the other reason I got into television was because it was literally about validation — and ratings. And that was something I didn’t get growing up to feel validated.”

As a young adult, he threw himself into work, making money and getting ratings for his shows.

“Growing up in a household where you don’t talk about mental health, you don’t know what coping skills you need to have as an adult,” he said. “So my first coping skill as an adult was to just focus on work and become successful. My other coping skill was alcohol.”

This was his third secret, which he kept for a long time.

Joel Relampagos works out with weights.

Joel Relampagos used to drink two bottles of wine a day alone. Since then he has found better coping mechanisms to deal with his depression and anxiety.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Social drinking in Hollywood, especially as a young adult, is a norm, he said. But he would travel to work, drink alone at the hotel, and do his best to hide the empty bottles from the housekeeping staff. Even when he began therapy for his depression and anxiety, he never told his therapist about his alcohol use.

He reached a breaking point where he did what he would never do: he asked his Filipino American family for help.

At that point it was a choice, be seen as a failure or keep spinning. He confessed to his father that he had a problem.

“Vulnerability was something I wasn’t used to,” he said. But “Vulnerability is really a strength. … It takes strength to actually say, ‘I need help.’”

Boxing trainer Tyler Wood helps Joel Relampagos with an arm wrap

Joel Relampagos and trainer Tyler Wood rest between high-intensity circuit reps.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Relampagos said he was scared of rehab because he didn’t know what to expect.

“I was such a control freak,” he said. “When I went into rehab, I felt like a contestant on one of my own reality TV shows. Because I had to leave my keys and car and go to a facility I couldn’t leave. There were security cameras everywhere and a bunch of strangers and this is where I spend so many weeks with them.”

The first part was physical detoxification.

“As someone who had been drinking alcohol for 17 years, I had major withdrawal symptoms that first week,” he said. “Luckily, there was a medical team and therapists who helped me get through it — literally get it out of my system.”

But after that it became more of a psychological journey.

He had to realize that his previous ways of dealing with his ingrained belief that he wasn’t good enough — working hard to succeed, drinking to numb the pain, avoiding thinking about his insecurities — weren’t working. He needed new coping skills.

Rehab provided him with what he called the “Therapists’ Avengers.” He learned about mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique and hypnotherapy.

“I was like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, exploring everything [about being human]how excited she was,” he said.

When he left rehab after 50 days, he was grateful for his time there but aware he came from a privileged position. He could afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to save his life.

Others, he knows, cannot.

“I made it my mission to create some sort of program where I would find a team of therapists who would volunteer their time and services to lead group classes – just like I’ve experienced group classes in rehab,” he said.

He dubbed the program “Change Your Algorithm” because “when you’re depressed and anxious, that becomes your algorithm, like on social media,” he said. “You kind of hold onto it and you’re like, ‘I’m always going to be sad. I will always hate myself.’”

But he wants people to know that’s not true.

When Change Your Algorithm launched in June 2020, only three people attended the virtual class. But now the nonprofit organization offers multiple classes per week for up to 40 people per hour.

“You show up, you can turn your camera off and you don’t even have to talk,” he said. “…But once you start to feel comfortable, you can ask questions and engage with the other community members. And our most important rule is no judgement. Replace judgment with compassion.”

Relampagos wants people to understand that therapy comes in different forms. He needed hypnotherapy to lower his walls and he loved hypnotherapy so much that he recently became a certified hypnotherapist. For others, group therapy or art therapy might be more effective.

And he also finds solace in his six-day-a-week boxing routine.

“They say in rehab that feeling heals,” he said. “So when I’m training and I’m like, ‘I just want to give up. That is too difficult.’ I’m like, ‘This actually makes me stronger.’”

He transfers this philosophy to his emotional well-being. When he feels uncomfortable, he tries to figure out where it’s coming from, where he feels it in his body, and what it’s trying to teach him.

Whether you’re recovering from an addiction or just coping with life’s daily stressors, this is a lesson everyone can benefit from.

Joel Relampagos trains with ropes.

Joel Relampagos said he has a love-hate relationship with Battle Ropes. They make him feel both exhausted and stronger.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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