Chasing the Dragon, or Waterfalls

It was Halloween eve, also known as Devil’s Night or Mischief Night. A 19 year old Joaquin Phoenix frantically dialed 911 from a pay phone in front of Johnny Depp’s then “it” Hollywood club, The Viper Room. An onlooker described River as “thrashing spasmodically, his head flopping from side to side, arms flailing wildly” River’s sister, Rain had thrown herself on top of him to try and stop the seizures, then attempted to give him mouth-to-mouth. Cedars Sinai Medical Center pronounced him dead at 1:51AM. He was 23 years old.

Decades later Joaquin would play another famous addict, Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. A few years later, after he and another actor co-won the Best Actor award for The Master at the Venice Film Festival. That other guy was his friend Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman had been sober for 23 years prior to 2012. The day he overdosed he was supposed to pick up his children but instead, police found him on the bathroom floor, syringe in arm, still wearing eyeglasses, with over 50 empty heroin envelopes labeled “Ace of Spades” scattered throughout his New York City apartment. Chillingly, in legend and folklore the Ace of Spades is known as the death card.

Shockingly, deaths from overdoses in America are at levels similar to the H.I.V. epidemic at its peak. It’s so out of control it’s become a major issue in recent political debates. “This dramatic increase of heroin use and abuse in Connecticut is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). Last week Easton Police Officers found $17,000 in heroin and $14, 000 cash in a 26 year old’s possession.

Police Sgt. Sue Lussier said heroin abuse is second only to alcohol in Connecticut. What happened to pot, the alleged gateway drug? Psychotherapist Elizabeth Plummer, Phd who specializes in addiction and recovery said “Most of these kids don’t understand the risk when they’re sneaking around their parent’s medicine cabinets. Black tar heroin’s a cheaper high than prescription pills. Once they’re hooked, that’s it.” One pill of oxycodone sells for $80 on the street, whereas a bag of heroin sells for $4.

One recovering addict said, “To be blunt, I have literally never met anyone who was introduced to heroin with a needle. That’s roughly the equivalent of taking your first drink of alcohol by butt-chugging moonshine out of a gas can.”

Talk about picking your poison. Few things are more toxic and harder to quit. The phrase “kicking the habit” refers to the involuntary muscle twitches that cause a spastic jerky motion in the legs and feet in withdrawal, and that’s one of the more pleasant symptoms. And while physical symptoms begin to abate a few days in, psychological symptoms — the shame and self hatred the habit leaves — can last a lifetime.

Is addiction an attempt to self-medicate unresolved underlying symptoms like depression or anxiety? Is it seductive because it fosters false self esteem? In the past, hard core addicts seemed to fall into easy to identify categories, the impoverished and marginalized, self inflicted, tortured artists or adventure seeking, kamikaze types.

Why then, are our seemingly healthy and well adjusted children, many of them privileged, loved, supported, choosing a drug known for creating “junkies” who end up in a death spiral?

“I don’t want to die in a car accident. When I die it’ll be a glorious day. It’ll probably be a waterfall.” –River Phoenix

River Phoenix chased that waterfall but his death was anything but glorious, instead, the promising young actor overdosed in a fit of seizures in front of his younger brother and sister.

River Phoenix’s grandmother, Marjorie described him as, “Such a terrific kid, sweet and lovable…He watches his weight. He watches what he eats. He doesn’t eat meat. He’s gentle. It’s a mystery.”

Next month will be the year anniversary of my friend’s son’s death. He was a 6’ 5” star athlete, loved by all. His Mom and Dad, sister, brothers, girlfriend, and hometown, Rowayton, Connecticut (barely) survive him. They called him “The Unstoppable Jack,” but he was stopped — literally — dead in his tracks, at 21 years old.

It’s a mystery. Let’s work collectively to solve it.

This piece is dedicated to:

Jim Morrison
 Janice Joplin
 River Phoenix
 Kurt Cobain
 Elliot Smith
 Bradley Nowell
 Philip Seymour Hoffman
 Chris Farley 
 John Belushi 
 John-Michel Basquiat 
 Jack Jackson Scott Conroy, “Jack”

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Originally printed in The Greenwich Girl Magazine, April 2016