On Tuesday afternoons at the center for counseling services on the campus of Penn. State, there is a substance abuse group. There are other groups offered at the center as well. Groups for: undergrads, women, depression management, mindfulness (what?), stress management and yes, a substance abuse group on Tuesday afternoons. Just how out of control is undergraduate drinking on American campuses and just what are we doing about it?
According to the Princeton review, Penn. State is the #1 party school in the nation based on their criteria and responses from an online survey. Graham Spainer, president of the university says he doesn’t mind being known as a party school but wishes they weren’t number 1. This is odd considering Penn State routinely lists alcohol as one of the biggest problems they have in Happy Valley.
A recent broadcast of “This American Life” from the Penn State Campus observed all kinds of drunken mayhem right outside the door of one of the producers of the show. In the span of 30 minutes the show producer witnessed drunken students stealing a stop sign as well as three girls who hike up their skirts and pee in her yard. We have always expected boys to pee in the yard but it’s good to know that this practice has now crossed gender lines. Later the show interviewed a girl celebrating her 21st birthday at a football tailgate party. Stating her goal was to get drunk. The celebrants included her parents and women from a neighboring tailgate who came over to watch this young girl get drunk and deliver her some kind of lemonade and vodka concoction.
According to student surveys, 75% of the Penn State undergrad population (more than 30,000 young men and women) drinks an average of 4.5 drinks on both Friday and Saturday nights more than enough for what the Harvard School of Public Health calls “binge drinking”. This does not include what they are doing on other nights. What is the problem with this? Is this wholesome behavior? A rite of passage? Is it the entitlement of a generation raised on being told they were all “geniuses” and protected from human experience for fear they would have ‘low self esteem”? I don’t think that is it because back in my day, we behaved in largely the same way. Inconsiderate, entitled to drink, party and do as we pleased because we were ‘in college”. Is this behavior so enmeshed into the American experience that we just accept it? Does it need to be “corrected”?
Strangely, for a guy whose life is so steeped in living free of intoxicants, I kind of think much of what goes on is late adolescent hijinks, that when sequestered to certain areas is harmless fun. Incidentally it seems that one of the biggest issues at Penn. State is the conflict that the undergrad revelry creates for the families that live on or near fraternity row. Umm, how about move dip shit? Maybe it is kids just being kids. I can’t imagine having 40,000 young people living in close proximity of each other without many things going on. In one sense, Penn State seems pretty honest about it. They don’t seem to be telling the kids not to drink in a hypocritical scolding. Many of the young people who live this way will be OK. It is true that kids will be kids and for most, they will age out of this kind of lifestyle.
What is disheartening about the substance abuse climate at Penn State, and college life in general, is the flagrant disregard for the recovery life and culture. Considering the overwhelming amount of drinking on the campus, how would a kid in recovery make it? The simple answer is, they wouldn’t. How would a kid questioning what impact partying is having on their life flush that out at Penn State? I guess they could attend the group on Tuesdays but is that really adequate? The short answer is No, it is not in any way enough to support a young person who is having issues with alcohol. My issue is not that Penn State has a culture of drinking but that they don’t have a culture of recovery and marginalizes youth who want to live a recovery lifestyle. Nobody can foster a recovery lifestyle alone. We all need peer support, community, a sense of belonging, and a blend of community based and professional helping to sustain recovery. So I guess, kids who want this are not eligible to attend Penn State? That seems wrong, is it different from excluding a kid in a wheel chair? How about a kid with diabetes? What if they were raised in Pennsylvania, grew up watching Nittany Lion football, idolizing Joe Paterno is it fair to deliver the message that a huge land grant university can’t accommodate you? Fair or not, that is the message. On the off-chance that someone undergoing treatment at Hazelden youth and family or at Caron’s young adult program is reading this and thinking about how to integrate into an undergraduate life, scratch Penn. State off the list.
Recovery is never served by an evangelical membership drive. It makes no sense to try to police an entire culture on undergraduate campuses. Not to mention that I don’t think everyone who drinks has a problem. I loved every beer I drank out of a red cup and oh how I wish I still could but I don’t think everyone else should be sober, it’s really not my business. What does make sense is to start to think of recovery as something for young people and to make strides toward treating it as the acute illness that it is. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Kids might stay sober?
Great Ride Today!!!
1) New England Jonathan Richman
2) No Rain Blind Melon
3) All right Now Free
4) You get what you give New Radicals
5) Tumbling Dice The Rolling Stone
6) Bullet With Butterfly Wings Smashing Pumpkins
7) Elderly Woman Behind the Counter Pearl Jam
8) Judy is a Punk The Ramones
9) This is radio clash The Clash
10) Basket Case Green Day
11) Ball and Chain Social Distortion
12) Misty Mountain Hop Led Zeppelin
13) Don’t look back in anger Oasis
14) High Fidelity Elvis Costello
15) My ever Changing Moods The Style Council
Whole Foods, just a couple weeks after announcing that it will label foods containing genetically-engineered ingredients by 2018, has already started placing “NON GMO Project Verified” stickers in front of qualifying foods.
The accompanying photo is of the vegetable oil section, which, in standard supermarkets, is a hotbed for genetic engineering since about 90 percent of American canola, corn and soybeans (the staples of commercial vegetable oils) are from genetically-engineered plants.
Is it any wonder why the big food and chemical companies spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat state and labeling initiatives? But, we should all hope, the tide is turning against these denizens of disaster.
Who would dare to complain about D.A.R.E.? It’s an organization whose sole mission is to keep kids off drugs, what could be wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, except that they leave a few things out, minimize the problem, exclude people already impaired, shame children of alcoholics and perhaps worst of all, eclipse and consume potential because after all, we must be addressing the drug issue in schools, we have D.A.R.E.
The program itself is standard “Just say No!” fare. It does little to educate about the complexities of the problem, nor does it present it as a health issue. It presents it as a “choice”, don’t make the wrong choice and do drugs, play sports, dance, support your school!! All great ideas but really are we going to combat a complicated biological disease with dance? C’mon kids, dance those blues away! Dance that depression away! Dance your abusive parents away! Dance! Dance! Dance!! I am too old to be a graduate of the D.A.R.E. program but if it had been around when I was in school, I wonder what it would have done. There were individuals and systems letting me know that drinking was bad but it wasn’t doing anything for my internal world, my isolation and feelings of being disenfranchised but that keg party was working a fucking miracle.
The D.A.R.E. message is clear. Drugs are bad. Dumb people do drugs; lazy people do them as well. In other words “bad” folks get themselves involved with drugs. I am not sure what blameless holy virtuous people do, I assume they dance because the DARE website really promotes dance. Does the DARE program have happy feet? Why all the dancing? The message is shaming and shame never helps with drug issues. Additionally there is no mention made of disease, the AMA, treatment or recovery. Nowhere is the message: “not their fault but their responsibility’ delivered. Just don’t be bad, dance!
The advisory boards with the DARE program include: education (makes sense), Law enforcement (Oh, Jesus, not this again) and scientific. There seems to be something missing here. How about a doctor, people in recovery, social workers, family therapists, the kind of people who are on the front line of the drug culture in America. Shall we hear from them? It makes no sense to me – the greatest success of living drug free has been people in recovery. For some it’s 12 step participation, others find their own road. Somehow I would think that government agencies would want to hear from people who live drug free. Never do I see ‘recovery advisory board” in any of this and DARE is no exception.
The cost of the program is unclear. DARE itself estimates anywhere from 438 million to 604 million. I guess that is the cost of running the program, paying for the officers who facilitate it etc. Also I think they have a dog mascot, maybe it’s a lion, one of those creepy American kabuki things. I’m sure those things don’t come cheap. What is the net result of DARE? I don’t know. I don’t know if it keeps anyone off drugs or not. What I think is it is a gross oversimplification of the problem, and the added value is not much. Additionally, I can’t imagine being a school aged child listening to how bad and dumb alcoholics are when they are holding a family secret. That must be torture. Unless of course they are deeply engaged in expressive dance. Thank God DARE isn’t into hiking. I can’t tell you how many conferences I go to where people try to treat mental illness with hiking. Frankly, I hate hiking; I’m not crazy about bugs or dirt. I do however like the comfort of knowing I can order Chinese food at any moment which is why I live in New York but OK if DARE knows something I don’t, let them hike, dance, whatever it takes. In any event, is this the best allocation of funds? Maybe, but it seems lopsided to me. The other thing I wonder about is the kids there will most likely agree with the basic concepts of the program but what about the tortured iconoclasts? Do they agree? Do they challenge the ideas? I don’t think we know because I think those kids are out smoking weed, missing the dance-a-thon.
My biggest issue with DARE is that it has become some kind of sacred cow in American culture. You see their t-shirts, their corporate partnerships, we all know their logo and their bumper sticker, often next to those obnoxious “my kid is a (whatever)’ sticker. DARE has become a fairly powerful lobby, rejecting any idea other than “just say no”, they are the Christian right of all those interested in drug policy. They oppose reform, damn to hell the idea of tax and regulate and shun discourse about the drug issue in America. I was not surprised that all regional directors are white and male with the exception of an Asian female. Lets see some black people on these boards, children who have grown up fatherless as a result of the drug war, overworked grandmas left to care for children of drug war casualties. Where is their voice? As a side note, DARE was listed by the US surgeon generals office in the category of ‘ineffective programs” furthermore the government accountability office reported in 2003 that there are ‘no significant differences in illicit drug use (this would exclude alcohol) between students who received DARE and students who did not.
While well meaning, DARE misses the mark, stifles progress, shames us children of alcoholics and the government calls it “ineffective”. Maybe it’s just incomplete. Maybe education needs to expand to families and schools about how to handle a substance misuse issue. Of course we would have to be honest and assume that all schools and communities have some range of substance misuse. I will chair the committee to design the curriculum, make the board of many people from many disciplines. My fee will be HUGE but no matter, we will partner with Perdu Pharma (makers of Oxycontin), I am sure they won’t mind my fee and giving me the keys to the jet, me and my board will be busy and we will need to travel. DARE? You have got to be kidding.
— Joe Schrank
Google “Death toll in the drug war”. Not much comes up, mostly the content is about the number of people killed in Mexico. What about here in The US?
It was Nixon who declared war on drugs, which means the war on drugs has been going on for a very long time now. Sure there are statistics or records of some kind kept as to the numbers of people who die in the drug war. What is the body count? Does anyone know, and if not, how come? Why is there no discourse in political arenas about this? It’s staggering, really. I can’t come up with a good answer. How did the “just say no” culture win over science, logic, personal freedoms? Have we just accepted this as the way it is? Will we ever have a cultural first step?
An article in Esquire by John H. Richardson tries to come up with some numbers about the death toll in the drug war. The numbers, rough unresearched, and speculative are amazing. With overdoses the estimate is 15,223 dead, annually. The number in Iraq is 4,684 over the last seven years. The estimate for what the drug war costs is $52 billion, yes, billion. That seems like a lot of money to spend trying to control a personal choice. More offending then the cost of life and financial resources is that the war is completely ineffective. In other words, we pay a huge tab to kill people, shatter families, incarcerate our own people, all because we don’t like that people get high?
I am never quite sure which layer of the drug war bothers me the most. At the moment I think it’s that we just keep accepting this, keep letting government leaders brush it under the rug and not really take on the issue. Will there be a time in history when we look back on the drug war with shame? Will future generations look at it as a form of genocide? They might. ‘There was an era when we used to shoot drug users or try to incarcerate them, we denied them fourth amendment protection because we didn’t like them.” Email your senator, your congressman, and while you’re at it, shoot an email to Gil Kerlikowske and ask: “What is the death toll of the drug war?” Go on, just ask.
There are few certainties when dealing with chemical misuse but one of them is that treatment works better than punishment. Part of the diagnostic criteria is that the individual is willing to use in spite of negative consequences (like punishment).
In Section 126.96.36.199.1 4 (yes, that’s what it says) the NCAA drug policy states that if a student athlete (a questionable label in and of itself) tests positive for a street drug a second time they will lose all remaining eligibility. So in other words, “we will threaten and punish you” two things that almost never work with chemical abuse. Additionally, what is done with these “bad” kids who would use street drugs? Not much, I surmise. What University can claim a mental health professional as a member of the staff? Not one across campus in an over extended counseling office but one integrated into the daily lives of young people? None that I know.
As an additional weirdness, only the rifle sports ban alcohol. That is good policy: “give a kid a gun; don’t let them get drunk”. What the NCAA is saying is: go ahead and use the most damaging drug, the one that financially supports us.
I agree that being drug free is a good idea for athletes; I think it’s a good idea for everyone, but why is a very dangerous psycho reactive drug (Etoh, demon alcohol) not banned with the rest of them? Additionally, why is there not a proactive plan to engage athletes before the damage is done? And why, oh why, is there not treatment for the young people who fall into a very easy trap?
The NCAA is a very important system to have sensible, realistic policy. At some point in their lives many young people aspire to be accomplished athletes so a system like the NCAA is an important communicator whether they realize it or not or feel they have a responsibility to the issue is another question.
— Joe Schrank
“The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war”, so says Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardosa. Latin America has grown weary of a failed drug policy and endless violence. In reading the perspective of Latin America, it’s remarkable how they play the addict to the co-dependant of the US. Just like a sanctimonious co dependant, the U.S. blames the Columbians and other nations for producing the products. Meanwhile we are the consumers. They have to be selling it to someone!!
The dance of the addict and co dependant is a difficult one to unravel. Co dependants don’t see that they are as sick as the addict, often sicker and so they try to control consumption by controlling availability and blaming. How many of us are guilty of flushing drugs down the toilet or throwing away bottles? This can be done forever and yet the addict will drink and use again. It’s a similar dance with U.S. and Latin America. We say to Columbia “Wouldn’t you rather grow chili peppers or flowers?” but we keep snorting coke and we blame the Columbians? We tell scrub farmers trying to feed their families not to grow the most lucrative product, coca. Coca is deeply ingrained in their culture, contains only trace amounts of cocaine, and is believed to have medicinal purposes. It’s like tea to the English. How far would that go in London?” You have to stop tea production because we don’t like it in America”. What a mess. What an arrogant, entitled, way to deal with a problem; blaming. with no reflection into our contribution to the problem. Where is the discourse, the collaboration?
Obama has a unique opportunity to shift this paradigm. He could tariff and regulate products that the American people want and consume. Create a whole new tax base and funding for all kinds of health and human service programs. So what if people want to get high? Who are we to tell them not to? What would be so terrible if you could buy weed at 7-11? What if we did work closely with the Latin American governments and drafted policy that made sense for all Americans, north and south?
A Star is Reborn: Kristen Johnston’s Gutsy Comeback
After nearly dying from a Vicodin addiction, the irrepressible actress is back with a blistering new memoir, a hit new show, and a candid interview with Joe Schrank.
By Joe Schrank
Kristen Johnston was 28 she was cast as John Lithgow’s co-star in the runaway hit sitcom, 3rd Rock From the Sun.Suddenly famous, the statuesque beauty was unprepared to handle the pressure. After popping an endless array of pain pills, she almost died in a London hospital when an ulcer in her stomach exploded while she was set to star in a new show on London’s West End. Johnston’s new book, Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, is a profane, outrageous, tragic, hilarious and often disturbing portrait of an addict who nearly succumbed to her disease. We sat down with the actress at her apartment in Manhattan for the interview. As her drooling pit-bull Pink dozed placidly beside her, Johnston described coming clean about her addiction (on David Letterman, no less), her regrets about a youth lost to drinking in Wisconsin, and her work with a new foundation, SLAM (Sober, Learning and Motivation), that’s lobbying New York City to open a sober high school.
Joe Schrank: Addiction in the media tends to have a pretty familiar story arc: hero falls from grace, hero learns a lesson, hero never does it again and everybody loves hero.
Kristen Johnston: And then hero writes a book about it! [Laughs}
But you make it clear that you’re very much a work in progress, that you haven’t really solved your addiction.
God knows, I could relapse in a second. And I just might, after this interview. Kidding! No, really, I think one of the biggest things is that most people write the book after they’ve had the arrest, or the DUI, or the public shame, and it’s the mea culpa moment. People would ask me, why are you exposing yourself? No one knows you’re an addict, you don’t have to tell the story. Or at least my mom says that. But I am sick of that cycle. I am sick of the fact that people think it’s just actors or Whitney Houston. It is your neighbor, it’s your postman, it’s your son, it’s your daughter. It’s not just narcissistic actors.
I had the first sane thought that I’d had in like eight years: I was like, there are people outside who are not thinking, “Oh my God, when is my next prescription?”
I get that question a lot—why are so many actors addicts?
Please. When I go into an AA meeting, there’s like one other actor.
I suppose if people followed accountants around with cameras, they’d say, ”Why are there so many accountants addicts?”
I think actors like me are predisposed to addiction. It’s somebody with low self-esteem and yet a desperate need for approval, and now a little disposable income; it’s a tough combination of things. And actors do become a cliché. You know, I just couldn’t believe it the moment I realized I had become one. I was like, I can’t be a pill-popping actress. That’s so embarrassing. But the bottom line is, so are a lot of people. That’s kind of what the first chapter in Guts is about—I’m not trying to take the piss out of anybody, but you know, everybody is an addict in some way.
So you think of addiction as having a range?
Well, I think everybody is addicted to something. People will say to me, “Oh my god, my brother’s in so much trouble, let me tell you what he did yesterday.” I’m like, “I don’t need to hear it: he’s just an addict.” And they’re like “No, but he’s really bad.” No, he’s just an addict. That’s it.
So there’s a story behind why the book is called Guts, and how you got sober. You were taking a lot of Vicodin and other stuff while acting in a play in London, and your stomach basically exploded. If you didn’t have that traumatic experience, would you still be using?
I would be dead.
So that was your turning point?
Well no. It was a confluence of events. First it was stomach-bursting—and the agony, the true agony, of that, and there was the shame and the loneliness. Then something happened while I was in the hospital—my dark night of the soul. It was New Year’s Eve, and there were fireworks all over the city. I had the first sane thought that I’d had in like eight years: I was like, there are people outside of my hospital bed watching these fireworks who are not thinking, “Oh my God, when is my next prescription? Have I called this doctor or that doctor?” You know the fuckin’ terror of being in that prison of addiction. I just thought there are people that don’t have to do any of that—that thought struck me, and it stuck with me. Then about a week later, my very close, long-time friend Laura wrote me an email saying, “Everyone knows you’re a drug addict.”
You write “This is the main event” on your dressing room mirrors. Is that your mantra?
I have to read a little bit about it because otherwise “this is the main event” could sound really dumb. Listen [reads from her book]: “When you’re in a play and all you care about is where you’re getting loaded afterwards, that’s slightly worrisome. But if you can’t fucking wait for the fucking audience to get over it and stop giving you a standing ovation already, because you’re dying to get to the bar? Well, then—that’s just a whole other kettle o’ crazy. But it was all I knew, really. Plays were simply a conduit, an appetizer to the most important event of the entire day: getting hammered. Endless, sometimes heated arguments between the cast over which place had the best martinis would continue right up until entrances. (And sometimes even beyond.) Nowadays when I’m in a play, the very ﬁrst thing I do when we move into the theater is to grab a dark red lipstick (frosty pink just doesn’t have the same panache), and scrawl in my dressing room mirror my new mantra: This is the main event.”
So it is a mantra. Does it work offstage as well?
Yes. Because it’s my way of saying, this is the moment. I don’t really have that problem as much anymore. I did when I first got sober. It was always like “Ah, yeah, maybe dinner will be better. Eh, maybe if we walk it’ll be better, maybe if I sleep it’ll be better,” you know what I mean?
Learning to be in the world sober is not easy.
I wouldn’t say I’m an in-the-moment person, but I’m not dying for the next moment. I’m okay in the moment right now. Well, this moment kind of sucks, but yeah… [laughs]
In Guts, you describe a state of being that you call “Shultz-ville”. Please explain.
Well, there was this show called Hogan’s Heroes, and one of the characters was a big fat German guard named Shultz whose motto was, “I hear nothing! I see nothing!” So I say, well, the only sane remaining part of myself was Shultz. So I was living in Shultz-ville. It’s funny if you read it…
So it’s denial?
Yes, it’s denial
You know, I’ve been trying to get a sober high school built in New York City for a long time. I’ve created SLAM [Sobriety Learning And Motivation], and it’s a great organization. But throughout all of our experiences working on this together—I’ve met dozens of people and have gone to City Hall many times—I’ve learned that politicians just couldn’t be less interested. And I started to realize it wasn’t the lack of funding or anything else like that. It was this: if they say yes to a sober high school, it means they’re admitting there’s a problem. It’s like, I know somebody whose children are addicts, but she has never told one of her friends. Never.
Because it’s real if it’s verbalized?
Exactly. As long as it’s a secret, it’s okay. And I’m sick of that attitude. That’s why I wrote the book.
Now my ambition is more about learning and trying to be a better person, and making enough money to have a kid, because I want to buy one.
You’re the daughter of a senator…
A Wisconsin State senator. And here’s the deal: there are over 35 successful sober high schools all throughout the United States of America, and New York City, the greatest, most influential city in the world, has zero. New York teens actually have to go to Boston to have a sober learning experience. The Boston area has over four. It’s really revolting. Here’s the deal: one out of three teens meets the medical criteria for addiction. One out of every 70 teenagers is going to rehab in the United States. And when they get to New York, it is way higher.
NYC is the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.
Yeah, New York! It’s a national health crisis and nobody’s doing anything about it. But there are findings from the National Center of Substance Abuse that say half of all high school students use addictive substances. It starts early and it’s urgent. Anyway, the fact that I’m still fighting to make this fucking school makes me sick.
A lot of people do service as part of staying sober. Is this your service?
It is. But I don’t want to be a public advocate, I just want the school. I don’t even care about those brats. [Laughs]
No me neither. I don’t like them.
I just want to make the school. It’s what’s right. It seems like to me that we are a community and they are our children. Other communities take care of their young people. In five years, that’s who the grownups are going to be. They’re all gonna be messes. They’re all gonna be in jail.
You grew up going to a Catholic school and were the rowdy, loud girl. That was your persona. Do you think that was the impetus of your addiction?
Absolutely. It helped shaped my—I hate to say just addiction—but shaped my fucked-upness. My wrong way of being. My other. I call it “other”.
We know now that kids who start drinking in high school are exponentially more likely to have a lifetime problem than those who delay until 18 or 19. We used to let kids drink in the basement and take their car keys, but the truth is…
Well, again, we’re alcoholics, so for us there is no such thing as a sane glass of wine or a beer at any age. And some kids do just have a beer at a party.
You admitted on the David Letterman show that you took Suboxone to treat your pill addiction. Did you plan that?
Nope. I was nervous and talking for the first time about my addiction. And I was saying that I’m from Wisconsin, so I drank because that’s what you do, and I got a lot of shit for it because I guess it’s offensive to Wisconsin, but it’s the truth. I mean that’s what we do. That’s what we did. That’s all we did. When I came to NYU as a student—you know, in savvy Manhattan—and I got to my dorm on Fifth Avenue, I was like “Let’s party!” It was a school night, and people were like, “ummh…” and I was like, “Come on! Shots!” That’s all I understood. That’s why this is the main event.
So if you had grown up in a less permissive place…
…I’d still be a fucking mess, believe me. But that’s what made me great. My addiction is what has shaped me. I think my addiction has formed all of the things about me that I like. My sense of humor and my joy and my love of people and all of that is kind of intertwined, and so in the last five years of trying to live a sane sober lifestyle I have to kind of weed out the little things that aren’t healthy. I’m still learning, like, the dumbest lessons. For instance, toxic friends. Boundaries. I’m totally still learning that. When you’re newly sober you’re a toddler who has no idea how awful life usually is. Just kidding! Sort of.
Have you regained your burning need to succeed?
Ambition is one of life’s greatest painkillers, because when you are ambitious you are driven. I wasn’t ambitious like, “I want to kill!” I didn’t even want to get famous. I wanted to be an actress and I wanted the lights, and I wanted people to applaud. I wanted it. There was no moment of sitting and thinking and asking myself simple things such as what do I like and who am I? So when 3rd Rock From the Sunhappened overnight at age 27, my ambition was ripped away from me. Of course, combined with overnight fame, I felt like I was locked in a dark closet with only myself for years. I had really bad depression. I love 3rd Rock, but it was the around that I couldn’t navigate. I didn’t have that ambition anymore. Now I have a different kind of ambition. It’s more about learning and trying to be a better person, and making enough money to have a kid, because I want to buy one you know. I’d make a great mother. I really would.
You want a baby?
Absolutely. I already went through the adoption procedure seven years ago, right up until the home visit. I got really far into it. When I was hiding all the booze, I was like, I can’t do it until I’m sober. I cancelled the appointment. When I got to rehab I said I’d adopt after a year sober. But at that point I was broke. But I’m there now. It’s the right time. That’s my ambition. I’ve always imagined, since I was really young, having an adopted kid. But there was never a husband or anything. We would learn together. And then I’d start drinking when they were 12. [Laughs]
You have a new show that’s a hit on TV Land called The Exes.
So cool. It’s great. I love making funny. It’s an old-school sitcom, which is cool because it’s sort of a dying art-form. When it’s done bad it’s the worst, but when they’re done good it’s the best 22 minutes out there. A good sitcom is true art. And it suits me. And I love the cast.
Do you worry about dealing with fame now that you’re sober? Before, it helped fuel your addiction. Has that changed at all?
I’m happy to say it’s not a problem for me now. When I was in my 20s, a big part of the problem was when people would recognize or stare at me on the street, I would interpret it as them saying, “What a freak! Look at you, freak!” And that was because I played an alien. So I looked at it as malevolence. It never seemed nice or joyful to me. And now it only seems sweet and kind and sometimes a little loud, but I love it! I don’t get off on it, which would be gross, but it’s part of my life. It’s fine.
Fans of the cultish 44-year-old comic were stunned when he overdosed in a Jersey motel room a year ago today. But his close friends saw it coming. Comedians from Andy Dick to Colin Quinn remember the man behind the mask.
Comedian Greg Giraldo overdosed at 44, leaving behind a wife and two kids.
It’s been said that the fundamental problem with alcoholics is our inability to form a true partnership with another human being. Feelings of isolation, disenfranchisement, and alienation are common among us. Rarely, if ever, do we truly tether ourselves to one another, perhaps because we’re too selfish, arrogant or fearful. For some alcoholics a true friendship—as opposed to a passing chapter—is as rare as a truly great fighter or a perfectly elegant fastball.
Greg Giraldo and I met through a mutual friend in 2004 and became instantly connected. He’d long been considered the comic’s comic—a favorite among peers who were far more famous and commanded much bigger audiences; he had amassed a dedicated cult following through his celebrity roasts on Comedy Central. We shared common experiences: blue-collar upbringings, Catholic school, similar tastes in music, and political beliefs that could be simultaneously described as reactionary and bleeding-heart liberal. We were both uncomfortable in the kind of Manhattan circles filled with smug strivers who felt entitled to city parking spaces that cost the same as a suburban mortgages. We preferred walk-ups, slices of pizza, disposable T-shirts and other pieces of working class bravado. More important than all this was the connection we felt through our alcoholism and mutual self-loathing.
There were twists in his brilliant mind that were not reachable. He wore his life like uncomfortably, like an itchy wool sweater.
Greg—a Harvard-educated son of immigrants and a stand-up comic who achieved international fame—believed to his last day that he was incapable and unworthy of any sort of achievement. We both felt overwhelmed and insecure in our roles as providers and fathers. While we going through simultaneous divorces, the two of us became roommates and were consumed by the fear that we’d end up living in my tiny West Village apartment forever. It became like a bizarre bipolar, alcoholic, version of The Odd Couple. We spent hours laughing, ranting about lawyers, refining his act and sharing our irritation over Oprah’s lack of personal insight into her food addiction while she demeaned other addicts. This was when I witnessed Greg’s genius, through his comedy and his cultural observations.
There were days when Greg lost his ability to stay related to what was happening around him, as he played fake folk mass religious songs on his guitar in my living room. Back then, before my business took off, I had more flexibility and a distance from my alcoholism that Greg couldn’t seem to achieve, no matter how hard he tried. I was his traveling companion in modest motels in mid-sized Midwestern towns, where he performed in grimy clubs that were far beneath his potential. One of the saddest aspects of his demise was that he would let me do what he couldn’t: after his performances I would decline the drugs, hookers, and party invitations that were sent his way so that we could go back to the hotel to watch marathons of Flip that House. Hardly sex, drugs and rock and roll, but there was safety in the mundane boredom. Greg would always autograph the bible in his hotels with a simple message: “Best wishes, God.”
There were twists in his brilliant mind that were not reachable or understandable, least of all by him. He wore his life like an itchy wool sweater and never seemed like he was truly at ease. Between all the drinking and drugs, the sporadic periods of remission, clarity, and hope started to become less frequent and I would confront him, telling him he was getting weirder and that I was going to stop trying to rescue him (I never did). In the last six months of his life, whenever I saw his manager’s name flash on my phone, I’d think, “Today is the day; Greg is dead.” I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that the day I feared eventually arrived. When it happened, after an overdose on prescription pills, it was like losing a friend to a terminal cancer—jarring and shocking, but not surprising.
I don’t have any stern warning parables about loss of genius and unrealized potential. I don’t know what it was that tortured my friend. I don’t know why I am intoxicant-free and Greg is dead. I just know I miss him—the non-judgmental empathy, the jokes, the impromptu folk mass performances.
The week of he died, he was supposed to introduce the singer Courtney Love to thousands of fans at the New York City Recovery Rally in New York’s Randall’s Island. Once again he complained that he was “no example” for a recovering crowd—a familiar retort. I responded with my usual lecture: “You’re not the only one who struggles with this disease. Advocacy doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. You don’t have to wear a bra to sell one.” His final text to me, a few hours before he dropped into a coma was, “I can’t do it, I’m sorry.” How true that was. Later that evening I received the dreaded call I’d anticipated for so long.
“Is he dead?” I asked his manager. “No, not yet,” was the terse reply.
After a ambulance rusheed him away from his New Jersey motel, Greg spent three days in a coma at a local New Jersey hospital. He died there, at the age of 44. I guess in a way, he got what he wanted. He always aspired to be a modern version of Lenny Bruce, and his early demise helped make him a comedy legend. Last February, stars such as Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Quinn performed before thousands of Greg’s fans at a comedy performance to celebrate his life, and to take care of his wife and three kids. Sales of his CDs have exploded. Death made Giraldo a very famous man. But the saddest part is that although he always was an incredible talent—profane, profound and powerfully funny—he never really thought so himself.
We asked some of Greg Giraldo’s fellow comics and others who knew him for their thoughts, memories and tributes:
“Greg brought a refreshing intelligence to the comedy scene. You could tell he really thought through what he was joking about and gave the audience a fully-realized bit, because he’d been turning it over and over in his mind.”
“I was asked by Entertainment Weekly last year to write a tribute to Greg. Here is what I submitted:
Greg Giraldo was the sanest person I encountered when I started stand up comedy. When I first met Greg he was a Harvard Law graduate working in a high-powered NYC law firm with the same crazy dream I had. We immediately became good friends. Greg was so funny but his warmth, intelligence and likability made me immediately know he would master the art form. It’s ironic that many only knew him as a judge on Last Comic Standing or from Comedy Central’s Roasts. The real Greg was the opposite of judgmental. I knew him only as inclusive, humble and warm. Watching Greg do stand up I marveled at the marriage of true intellect and childlike playfulness from the soul of an accessible philosopher. I loved Greg. He was the last person on earth I thought would fall victim to addiction. Greg was so passionate about comedy and his boys. I can only imagine his anger at himself for leaving his wife and 3 children so abruptly.
Now, over a year later, I still feel amazingly strange when I realize that Greg is really gone. I sometimes thoughtlessly expect to run into him at a club or get a text from him saying, “What up Gurl?” This recent stretch of frosty weather in New York reminds me of Greg’s funeral and the bleak emptiness I felt the day he finally died. Greg did many things, and he did them well. He was a great friend, a dedicated father and a first-rate comedian. But in the end, he was yet another a reminder that even the world’s brightest, warmest and funniest people are not immune to to addiction and its ultimate price.
“I still think about him at least once a day. What I miss most is not having an older brother. That’s what our relationship was. He was a guy who had already made all the mistakes in life, love and comedy that I was about to… I can’t even count the number of times this past year that I have had the knee-jerk reaction to ‘run it by Greg’—to pick through his wisdom on the pitfalls of my new marriage, the confusion of negotiating a show idea, the decoding of LA meetings with network showbusiness types, or sharing in the pride of a mean-spirited roast joke.
I’ve had to confront things in my early thirties with the attitude, ‘What Would Greg Do?’ and quite a lot of the time I do the opposite. But by watching what he did better than anyone, AND by watching what he fucked up, I have learned how to be a more honest comedian, a pretty competent roaster, a genuine guy to younger comics, a better husband, and eternally grateful for my sobriety.
As a fan, what I share with the rest of the world is missing all the comedy gold in the past year. I know I’m not alone in wishing I could have heard his take on the killing of Bin Laden, the Chilean miners, the BP oil spill, Schwarzenegger’s illegitimate child with that house keeper who looks like a Guatemalan Mickey Rourke, and the roasting of Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen. But what I’ll always be grateful for is that for about 6 years I had the best older brother anyone could have.”
“It is hard to believe that we lost our friend one year ago. I can still so easily picture his face and hear his laugh; sometimes it feels surreal to think that he’s really gone, that he will not come walking in the door showing off his new tattoo or leap onto the stage to perform. One of my favorite memories is accompanying Greg and Joe on Greg’s comedy tour in the Phoenix area in ’08. I have never laughed so hard or had so much fun. His ‘If you see something, say something’ bit is one of the all-time greats. Greg was a generous, brilliant, tortured soul. He could make you laugh out loud by simply looking at you or make you tear up by listening to his ongoing struggle with this cunning, baffling, powerful and PATIENT disease. I wish he’d been constitutionally capable of staying clean, but he simply couldn’t do it. My heart is full of love for him…and for Mary Ann and those three beautiful boys.”
“It’s funny how often Greg pops into my mind. His spirit and vitality still linger in all of the clubs and on all of the stages he performed. I learned so much from Greg that I’m sure it finds its way into my own expression from time to time—at least I hope it does. Greg, thank you for being my friend and such a good example in so very many ways. My love, respect and gratitude to you always, friend.”
“The Greg I knew was incredibly sweet and respectful. And troubled. After I met him, I saw a comedy tape of his and just couldn’t believe how brilliantly sharp and clever he was. I hate this disease for killing him.”
“It was just a complete tragedy, it just sucks. People don’t have to die. I didn’t know him very well, but we did one show. It was with Shannon Elizabeth, called Live Nude Girls or Live Nude Comedy or something like that, it was at a casino. He was a super nice guy, really extremely nice, one of the nicest people—and one of the funniest. I definitely think he was underrated. In the world of comedy, he was known as being one of the funniest guys out there, and he’s definitely known as being the funniest guy on the roast every time—and that’s hard to do, you’re up there with the best of the best, and he was the best of the best. Everybody knew that. Right before he died, he just got a pilot—he was really about to burst, in a good way.”
“Greg was very easy to be around, very easy and enjoyable to spend time with. It was mostly brief meetings, as it is with comedians, before and after shows. He may be have been running in to do a spot and running out again after, but the time spent with him was always genuine and unhurried. And he asked questions. He was a family man and asked about my wife. We talked about anything but comedy.”
“Greg was a strong, good force. Funny, smart, compassionate, brave. He filled everyone around him with his energy. And that energy will never fully burn out.”
— Joe Schrank