IT HAPPENED TO ME: Unlike River Phoenix, My Brother Survived Heroin Addiction
On October fifth, I saw that the New York Daily News published an article about "Last Night At the Viper Room," a new biography on River Phoenix who passed away 20 years ago this Halloween at 1:51 a.m.
I was 13 years old when River Phoenix died and I remember how devastated I was when I heard the news. "Stand By Me" was my favorite film; I thought he was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen onscreen and that his hippie lifestyle was so cool. It was crushing to my teenage soul to learn that not only would I never get to meet or marry him in the years ahead when our age difference wouldn’t matter, but that he was an active user of heroin, which was part of the drug cocktail that had killed him.
We had no idea that my brother Michael, who is four years older than me, would nearly meet the same fate years later.
My River Phoenix obsession was born of my love of film, the fact that I was always considered weird in my Irish Catholic circle of friends and that I already had an affinity for fictional stories. My parents were divorced by then and I needed some other world to disappear into in order to cope because it hurt.
So I did strange things; I watched all 13 of Phoenix’s films, acted out scripts alone when my parents with whom Michael and I had a joint custody arrangement were at work and who I got mad at when neither of them seemed to understand my obsession with the arts, a battle that would continue into my late twenties when I pursued an MFA. We might have gone on thinking drug users were losers if our experience with Michael hadn’t taught us different.
At the time my mother cried to me and expressed worry for Michael, I was 16 and coming off an eating disorder and was passing my high school courses by the skin of my teeth. Effects of the divorce had been ongoing for both Michael and I, both of us feeling the loss of structure and general security of having a stable home.
I had thought things could not get any worse but when I learned that my father had found needles in Michael’s room where he and I used to listen to eighties music as kids and had sleepovers on his bunk beds with our cats, I was devastated. River Phoenix was a movie star I never met but Michael had been my best friend, one of the only parts of home I thought I had left, and now he was using heroin. Still he hadn’t died. There was a chance.
His recovery was not quick; first things had to happen such as his almost dying in his room where he kept distant from me due to shame. This night had come after a series of incidents; fights with my parents about his refusal to enter recovery, setting his mattress on fire with a cigarette and other awful times I try not to even think about.
My father had seen the poor condition he was in and hadn’t gone to sleep. He heard Michael fall down a flight of stairs and called 911 and my mother, waking us up for what was one of the scariest and saddest nights of our lives. Unlike the article in The Daily News, where there was speculation about how River might have lived if emergency help was sought earlier, my father’s actions are what kept me from being an only child.
I saw him cry for the second time in my life when he came home from the hospital where Michael was hooked up to machines and I cried, too. I just wanted my brother back.
After his release, he was still using. My parents were forced to give him the ultimatum of getting help or leaving. They could no longer enable him or watch him slowly kill himself, so he packed up and moved in with friends. By then I was so emotionally damaged that even talking about him caused me to freeze up.
I was a 17-year-old senior but I felt like a child. My parents kept me close, sometimes too much, in a way I only recognized in hindsight -- they were losing their son and didn’t want to lose me too. I always imagined the pain River Phoenix’s family felt on that Halloween when he died, and wondered if that would one day be us, questioning what else we could have done, if there was anything that would bring Michael home again.
The hardest part was learning that the choice to get better had to be his.
It was my mother’s birthday 15 years ago when he entered a treatment program that changed his and consequently, our lives. The program director at Dynamite Youth Center rolled up his sleeve and showed Michael the track marks on his arm from years of using, inviting him to begin his road to recovery. The way Michael recently described it on Facebook was saying goodbye to his family and what was left of his friends without looking back.
Every year we celebrate another year of his new life, this anniversary in particular is special because he has a new role of father to a lovely baby girl named Olivia Rose who looks just like him and has brought our family so much joy. I don’t need articles like the one in The Daily News to remind me how many people, famous or not, suffer from drug addiction and the consequences of that for those who love them.But I will always have a soft spot for River Phoenix and his family because their story ended so terribly.
On this Halloween, I will remember myself at age 13, twenty years ago, innocently in love with River, and will take out the scrapbook I made in his honor back then called "Remembering River." If that had been Michael I’d hope that somewhere out there someone would have loved him enough to do the same.