A month after Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean left his bandmates to undergo treatment for alcoholism and depression, his mother says he is still struggling to reconcile two conflicting sides of himself.
Though the world knows A.J. as the tattooed, flirtatious bad boy of the hit-making heartthrobs, his mother tells Connie Chung on ABCNEWS' 20/20 that she knows him as "gentle" and "insecure" Alex.
As the Backstreet Boys achieved immense fame, Denise McLean says, Alex retreated into the A.J. persona, in part to escape his insecurities and emotional distress.
Though it stunned fans, A.J.'s decision to enter treatment was a great relief for Denise. It was the beginning of what she hopes will be a homecoming for her son Alex.
"'Mom, you've got your son back,'" Denise says her son recently told her.
Passion for Performing
Alex was only 4 years old when his parents divorced. He and his mom lived with his grandparents in West Palm Beach, Fla., and his mother says there was a strong bond of friendship within the family. "We were inseparable, we were this mom-son buddy team," she says.
He landed his first job in show business when he was 6 years old. It was a part in a play at the children's theater where his mother worked. She says he was immediately hooked. "He walked on the stage that day when he was 6, that first show, and I don't think he ever wanted to leave," says Denise.
Alex continued acting as well as taking piano and dance lessons. By the time he was 8, he was spending his weekends in professional theater productions. "Everything that was involved around the theater, he wanted to learn. It was like he had this drive," says Denise.
He dreamed of eventually going to Broadway but his plans took a turn when he answered an ad in a trade newspaper announcing auditions for a boy band, which would become known as the Backstreet Boys.
The band spent two years in Europe, where they became a pop phenomenon, then they returned to the States, where they rocketed to stardom. Denise traveled with the boys, first as a guardian and later as part of their management team, but the mother-son team became increasingly difficult to maintain.
"It wasn't like you could just go somewhere as a mother and son anymore and enjoy the privacy, and the special moment of being with your child. There was no such thing. It was fading very quickly."
Alex's relationship with his mother was not his only relationship that was strained by his success. He seemed to attract people who were intoxicated by his fame and there was little substance to many of his new friendships, his mother says.
"I think people started coming around that really were not interested in Alex anymore," Denise says. "They were interested in what the Backstreet Boy could do for them. ... It was not about him, it was about them."
Instead of eschewing these people, her son would embrace the A.J. caricature, Denise says.
"He, wanting to please, would be the, the big guy … he would turn into A.J., and he would take them out, and he would pay for [them], and he would be the big shot."
The private Alex was giving way to the public A.J., and he often went out drinking and carousing at night, she says.
"He wanted to sleep all day," his mother says. "He wanted to just go out and party at night."
Denise says A.J. was hurt by his father, who had been out of his life for 15 years.
A.J. had sought him out, hoping to build a meaningful relationship and find answers about his past. But like many of the other people coming into his life, Alex's father seemed less interested in his son than he was in A.J. the pop star, Denise says.
"He was interested in him because he was a Backstreet Boy," Denise says. "It wasn't about Alex. … Alex had already seen so much of this in his friends happening that that must have been just devastating for him to see this in his father."
Alex's father disputes that he was only interested in Alex because of his fame.Robert McLean says he was elated when his son first contacted him, and is now disappointed that Alex no longer returns his calls.
"I love my son Alex very much and would do anything I could to help him," says Robert. "It is my deepest desire for us to work together to resolve our past and to move forward."
This year, Alex/A.J. took another emotional blows, which his mother believes contributed to his depression.
His beloved grandmother, who helped raise him, died of heart failure. Denise says her son never had a chance to grieve. "He really didn't have the coping mechanisms," she says. "And his lifestyle didn't allow him the time to deal with it."
Denise believes Alex's way of shutting the door on his personal pain was to retreat further into his stage persona. "He found a back door he could go through, and that was A.J.," she says. "He just got lost in the hype, the drinking, the lifestyle, the fame. It just pushed Alex out."
'I Can't Cope'
Last fall, when the Backstreet Boys launched their third album, Black & Blue, and began touring, A.J.'s bandmates became distressed by his self-destructive behavior. His voice was faltering, he lost energy on stage, and he wasn't living up to his responsibilities in the group.
It was clear to Denise that she was further losing touch with her son. A therapist began traveling with him. Denise says she tried repeatedly to get through to her son, but he wasn't receptive.
Then, one Sunday, he called his mother and asked for help. She says he was desperate and scared and told her, "I can't stay out here … I can't cope with it. I need help. I need to go somewhere."
In July, his bandmates made the announcement on MTV that A.J. would be seeking treatment, and the support from the fans was overwhelming.
Denise says she saw an immediate change in her son once he decided to seek treatment. "I was absolutely amazed at the calmness in his voice," she says. "I was so relieved that you could hear in his voice that he felt safe. He was where he needed to be."
Denise says Alex has been out of residential treatment for six days, but remains under a doctor's care in an outpatient program. She says her son now recognizes that he needs to learn to differentiate himself from the pop star persona.
"He needs to learn that when he walks off that stage, he becomes Alex," his mom says. "He was capable of doing that. And he needs to regain that capability."