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How Drew Barrymore Survived a Wild Past and Found Happiness: ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Alive Sometimes’ (Exclusive)

Is there anyone who’s lived more lives than Drew Barrymore? From heart-melting child actor to precocious club-going tween, provocative ’90s siren, goofy rom-com heroine, savvy entrepreneur and now host of the lovably quirky Drew Barrymore Show — think: part therapy session, part positivity workout, all group hug — she’s the undisputed queen of reinvention. Barrymore, 48, wears the crown lightly, with an irrepressible spirit that infuses a room. When people talk, she listens with her whole body. If they cry, she cries too. She grabs hands and gives out hugs like a hybrid of a presidential front-runner and Miss America. “Authentic” has become a cliché, especially when describing celebrities, but Barrymore is simply the real deal.

Throughout a remarkable life of ups and downs (she entered rehab for the first time at 13, then was placed in an institution; emancipated herself from her parents at 15; has wed and divorced three times), she’s taken her lumps with grace and kept her heart pinned firmly to her sleeve. So how has she been through so much and stayed standing? And can she help us do it, too? Over an hour-long chat on a pink velvet couch in her dressing room at CBS Studios in Manhattan, Barrymore — who is mom to daughters Olive, 11, and Frankie, 9, with ex-husband Will Kopelman — uncorked some of her most valuable life lessons.

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Landon McMahon/Art Department

1. Stay curious

I always wanted to make a show that was based on weekly magazines, where you get your pets, your feel-good stories, you get a person of note, you get news, you get pop culture. That’s everything we do on this show. [The segment] “Drew’s News” was inspired by a column called “It Wasn’t All Bad” in The Week magazine, which I started reading 15 years ago. I thought, “Why are these stories not in the news? Why is it always the heaviest [stuff]? Isn’t there room to talk about something fun and optimistic?” Even reading the business section of a newspaper tells me things I might not get otherwise — Lego is reducing its plastic footprint, whatever it is that makes you think, “Oh, change is possible.” Or it could be, I don’t know, a cat psychic was hired, and they found the cat. I really like humor and a wink.

I also don’t want to make [the show] perfect. If I make a mistake, I’d rather keep it in. I don’t want to posture. I’d like to grow and learn in real time and not fake that I know what I’m doing. I’m a student. I don’t want to pretend to be a teacher.

2. Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself

Before starting the show, I was just a struggling mom trying to let go of the work I knew, which was acting, producing and directing, so that I could be home with my kids. I was trying on a lot of things because I knew it wasn’t healthy for me to just psycho-stare at them all day. I wrote a book. I started a beauty brand. I thought that if I had something that challenged me, I would be a better parent. But I still wanted to be a parent that could be home all the time. So, what was that?

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Barrymore takes snuggly selfies with all of her guests (including Anne Hathaway). The Drew Barrymore Show

My lifestyle also was something I wanted to change. I didn’t want to drink anymore. Before children, I could get away with it, but [after] I felt like, “This is too loud and glaring, and I can’t ignore it anymore.” And divorce didn’t help. For better or worse — and I hope and believe it’s for better — you will go through such earth-shattering things a few times in life, you really won’t know where to go or who you are anymore or who you want to become. And especially if children are in the picture, it’s so high-stakes for you to get it together. It’s like, it can’t happen fast enough. And then you’re beating yourself up about that.

Then when Simone Biles came out and said, “I’m not getting on that balance beam,” it hit me so hard that in this world, we sometimes don’t know when to stop running. We don’t think that we can opt out. There was something so pivotal about that moment for me. It gave me permission to not [stay in] the old life I had known.

Drew Barrymore Through The Years

Related: Drew Barrymore Through the Years: Photos

3. Follow your gut

I have struggled to become a character since I had my kids. It [feels like] a violation. Every film I would do, I would have a great experience on, but I would really struggle internally. My Jiminy Cricket was screaming at me, “This is not where you’re supposed to be right now.” That’s something that I’m shocked I honored, because that voice has yelled so many things to me over the course of my life that I just shoved in a closet and muffled. I don’t know how I had the wherewithal to listen this time. I think it was my kids. It was bigger than me. So I just stopped working for a while.

4. Let karma come for you

I’m a busy person by nature. I’m a doer. So I was actually working with another company on a lifestyle thing when I got a call from this woman [about doing a talk show], and I was like, “Oh, s—t. I’ve thought about doing that.” And it had gotten me really excited before. So it’s always good to not naysay things that don’t come to fruition. They’re a seed planted or a building block for a different foundation. Nothing isn’t worth giving your efforts. It will always pay off in the end, even if it doesn’t pay off in that moment.

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A 6-year-old Barrymore believed her ‘E.T.’ costar was real in 1982. Mark Sennet/Getty Images

5. Make every interaction count

I knew from being asked questions my whole life the unpleasant feeling of [an interviewer] just wanting to make sure to ask all of their questions. Sometimes I felt like I would be speaking to punch a clock. And what I really was looking for was an interesting conversation. We’re here, we’ve booked out this time — what are we going to make of it? When you feel like you’re not getting anything personal across or the other person’s not really paying attention… I know how I would’ve loved it for myself, and I love doing that for others.

6. Know who your friends are

I’ve never really partied with the pretty people. I don’t have a ton of famous friends. I have connections and relationships in this business; but I’m not at dinner parties or on yachts with famous people. That’s not really my life. I detest the schmooze. I don’t feel comfortable with that put-on. I’d rather be armorless and silly. I connect with who I connect with and it has nothing to do with their occupation or status or background. A lot of my best friends are Hollywood-adjacent — one is a makeup artist, one is in hair — but they’re not out in front.

I don’t want to be “anti” — I love my life, this world has been nothing but good to me. But I didn’t want to make a show that’s like, “I’m in the Hollywood Club.” That’s not the world we need to be living in.

7. Don’t be “fine,” be real

I don’t have time for small talk or chitchat. I want to go really deep, really fast. I can be on the sidelines watching Olive play soccer and another mom next to me will be like, “How are you doing?” And I’m like, “I’m s—t. I have had a day where I can’t seem to get out of my own way. I am under-slept. I’m f—king everything up today. How are you?” I would rather give the truth than just passively not admitting something. Saying you’re fine if you’re not — “fine” can be code for, “I’m not going to burden you.” I value just diving in.

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Barrymore’s go-to move is curling up on the sofa with guests (like Jason Momoa). The Drew Barrymore Show

8. Stop beating yourself up

I’m only figuring out in the last five years how insanely unforgiving I’ve been to myself in my life. Probably the most unhealthy thing I’ve ever done is my self-talk. In most ways, I had to parent myself. So when I’m worried about [how I’m raising] my kids, I don’t have fault with my parents, I have fault with myself. That’s a jumping-off point for self-criticism. Or, if you’re not in a relationship, you go, “Is there something wrong with me?” We all can go to the place where we question ourselves and not in the kindest of ways. So that is the big focus in my personal life. I’m going to fix it. I’m not going to stay stuck.

Drew Barrymore Daytime Emmy Awards 2022

Related: Drew Barrymore's Honest Quotes About Dating After Divorce

9. Lean on a community

I went to a workshop this summer with 200 people. I have zero problems opening up in front of others, because I was taught that in the institution I was in [as a teenager]. You would work on yourself all week, and then Wednesday night was prime time. All the people would sit around the edge of the room in a circle and then chairs were put in the middle. And you talked about everything with your caretakers or people in your life, sometimes your assailants — because there were all types of people there. Some were abused, some were abusers, some were substance abusers. And I loved that the message was: Don’t sweep it under the rug, talk about it. You’ll be cheered on, you’ll be supported. There’ll be laughter, there’ll be raw, scary moments, but you’re not alone. If you only work through things with yourself and don’t communicate, how’s that ever going to function? So it was just the best breeding ground for me to feel really positive about being open. It brought this sort of awesome, emboldened gamifying of talking about all of your s–t, all the baggage, all the good, the bad, everything.

I went in there because my whole life exploded. And I just thought, “Well, the one thing I don’t like about Hollywood is the
f–king veneer. So guess what? I don’t have to do that anymore. I’m not perfect. I’m flawed as s–t. I would like to fix myself.” That was my first concept that there was something you could do about it. And since then, I have fallen backwards, but I pick myself back up, too.

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Barrymore appeared in ‘Playboy’ and flashed David Letterman on ‘Late Night’ in 1995. S. Granitz/WireImage

10. Attract the right kind of love

I no longer have toxic relationships with men. I will not engage in a relationship that’s going to take away from my life. I have too many priorities in my kids and my friends and my work. I can’t imagine bringing someone in who would pee all over that. That’s a boundary that I never had. [Now I can say,] “I won’t be treated like that.” But it’s equally important to ask yourself, how do I want to treat people? It’s not just what will I take and not; it’s what will I give?

If I focused on it, I think I could probably have a great relationship; it’s just not where I’ve been [lately]. But I also have two kids. I have so much love. I’m so lucky. There’s nothing missing. Being in a minivan with eight girls singing songs and driving to the movie theater or some corn maze, I’m like, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced.” I didn’t experience that kind of life when I was young. And it feels like such a privilege to witness it and be a part of it and be cultivating it.

I think we seek love, we need love. It is the reason to live. But I have it. It’s just in a different form.

11. Celebrate your past

I’ve had great relationships, most of whom I’m still really good friends with. [The secret to that is] enjoying your history and never allowing yourself to be with someone who’s going to beat you up about it. That’s so toxic.

I love my crazy youth. Part of why I’m single now is because I had so much fun. Part of why I don’t miss drinking is because I did. I’m glad I had a nudist, exhibitionist, wildflower, wild-child, little wood nymph time. I’m glad I partied. I’m glad I was wild with boys. I’m glad I was wild in every way, shape and form because it led to my contentedness with a quiet life now. And it was fun. I’m not apologetic. I’m not mad at myself about it.

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There are tears, but also laughs! (Like with Chrissy Teigen and Barrymore’s dog Douglas). The Drew Barrymore Show

12. Don’t worry about your oxygen mask

Everyone [talks about] that selfish thing with the oxygen mask where you put it on yourself first. I don’t know how to do that. My kids are my North Star. I like myself a lot better as the person I’ve forced myself to become in honor of them.

[Motherhood is] so surreal [for me]. When I see one of my kids going through something that reminds me of something I went through, I just go straight to fear, and then I have to talk myself off the ledge and get proactive and empathetic and [focus on] discipline and boundaries and guidance. “How am I going to handle this? Do I have the skill set to fix this?”

Drew Barrymore's Motherhood Quotes

Related: Drew Barrymore’s Best Quotes About Motherhood

I have no blueprint, a crazy track record, and there’s nothing I’ve ever wanted to get more right in my life. But it isn’t a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of doing your best. Also doing a lot of work and research. The answer doesn’t just land in your lap. You’ve got to go out there and mine for it. Put on that headlamp and go figure it out.

13. Self-improvement is a lifelong journey

I drank for, oh God, since I was nine. And then one day, I just thought, “I’m never going to do this again.” I don’t have cravings. I have alcohol all over my house. I serve people drinks. It’s a confident choice. But it took me 35 years to get there. So, once I got there, I was really done.

But when I stopped, everything didn’t fall into place. I then had to really go to work and start figuring out how to build myself up and get in touch with why I was drinking like that. It was my coping mechanism. I loved the way that alcohol emboldened me. The anxiety went away. It makes you feel like an immortal that can handle anything. And then the next day you are living in that chemical aftermath and you feel worse. It wasn’t a new concept to me; it was something I knew my whole life did not work for me. I kept saying, “I’ll master this one day.” And sometimes it’s as simple as just getting so sick of yourself wanting to do something for the majority of your life, and one day, it finally clicks.

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Playing ‘Little’ Edith Bouvier Beale in HBO’s ‘Grey Gardens’ earned Barrymore a Golden Globe in 2010. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

14. Know what you don’t know

But I am not your person to talk about sobriety with. I’m not your person to talk about working out consistently. I’m not your wellness guru. I am running myself into the ground. I ate like s—t last week. I’m sleeping terribly. There’s one quadrant where I’m not a poster person, and that’s how to be the healthiest. That’s not my lane. If it becomes about mental and behavioral stuff, I feel more competent. If it’s the mental gym, I’m a full athlete. If it’s like, “How do you drink water?” I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m going to die of dehydration.” Do not look to me for an example on how to live in health and wellness. I haven’t figured it out yet.

15. Change your story

I’ve had a “bad girl” narrative on my back my whole life. I thought I deserved bad things. Now I’m raising two daughters. I can’t do that to myself anymore. Kind of like the drinking — I’m picking off things one at a time, going, “I can’t carry you anymore. You aren’t good for me.”

The personal part of me has been the ultimate work in progress. The professional in me feels really brave and never entitled. Always so privileged and grateful. I’ve lost everything. I’ve got it back. I’ve lost it again. Got it back. So I don’t assume anything stays. I know not to take anything for granted. Whatever difficult times I’ve gone through professionally, I believed I could rewrite things. Then in my personal life, I was a failure and a broken person. I can’t f–king believe I’m alive sometimes. And it’s the first time in my life, going on 49, that [the personal and professional] are complementing each other. Time is the greatest asset we have — it allows things to get better, to shift, to have light come into a dark space. It has taken my whole life to get here, but I’m so happy to be out of the jail in my mind.

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