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I sat in the audience of the ornate theater, bubbling with anticipation. I was now mere moments away from seeing my closest friend, my pretend “sister” at the time, performing for the first time in years. We had known each other for many years and seen each other perform in many shows, mostly musicals on and off-Broadway.
My friend was always a sparkling, shining star, but onstage she took on the rare glow of a natural-born entertainer, someone who was able to command a stage with minimal effort and maximum effect. On this night, I was there to see her headline a huge musical, her wheelhouse of wheelhouses. The lights went down, the curtain went up, and I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I didn’t recognize her. The person in front of me was not my beautiful and talented friend and she was not gracefully moving across the stage as though she had been born in a theater dressing room and raised in the wings. The person on stage with my friend’s name in my friend’s role was certainly up there. And she was performing. And she was shaking. And she was high.
I started to cry. Right there during the opening act of a big, splashy musical. My friend’s addiction to drugs and alcohol had gotten in her way so many times before. She had bravely, honorably gotten sober. She had done the programs, seen the professionals, stepped the steps. Not that that ends addiction in some people, but this was a return to the stage, where she belongs, after more ups and downs than many people will see in a lifetime.
And she was high.
I could see it from my orchestra seat, although I don’t think the people around me had any inkling of what they were actually watching or why a random woman in a house comp seat was quietly weeping at the very beginning of a big Fun Musical. The songs were sung, the show went on, and she was high.
I thought of that difficult night as I read the first lines of Mary Weiland’s editorial letter in Rolling Stone on Monday, about her ex-husband Scott Weiland’s death just a few days before. The direct and damning essay begins:
December 3rd, 2015 is not the day Scott Weiland died. It is the official day the public will use to mourn him, and it was the last day he could be propped up in front of a microphone for the financial benefit or enjoyment of others.
Being an addict, knowing an addict, loving an addict, having a family member who is an addict; these are all different states of being that intersect and overlap at different levels of pain, struggle, sadness, and loss. When speaking of adult people, we know that there is often “only so much we can do,” “you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help,” and so on.
But addiction occurs on a wide spectrum and affects so many of us in different ways, that sometimes it actually does make the most sense to hold an adult’s hand or demand that they make a change. Everyone’s life circumstances are different; for example, an intervention can terrify some and be a loving wake-up call to others. But one set of circumstances that seems to yield the same outcome every time is the combination of an addict’s substance abuse and a successful performing career.
Mary’s letter, written with the help of their two teenage children, continues:
We don't want to downplay Scott's amazing talent, presence or his ability to light up any stage with brilliant electricity. So many people have been gracious enough to praise his gift. The music is here to stay. But at some point, someone needs to step up and point out that yes, this will happen again – because as a society we almost encourage it. We read awful show reviews, watch videos of artists falling down, unable to recall their lyrics streaming on a teleprompter just a few feet away. And then we click ‘add to cart’ because what actually belongs in a hospital is now considered art.
My friend had previously been hospitalized. She had gone away for long stretches for rehab and religious retreats. She would take the stage again to great reviews, and then she’d have a “bad spell.” We would make the theatrical party circuit with only water in her glass until one day it would be wine again and then something harder.
I had held her hair and her hand as she was violently sick on her knees in the bathroom, and none of that usually showed onstage. Until this one night, when that just wasn’t her up there. That was someone who had graduated from alcohol to prescription pills, and was mixing different doses by going to multiple doctors and pulling strings with medical staffers.
What Mary Weiland says about her late ex-husband might strike some as cold, and there is certainly an edge to some of it that might be fueled specifically by their layers of romantic history as well as his substance abuse and addiction, but there is a specific horror at watching the shell of a loved one performing in an altered state for profit.
The world is full of both wonderful and broken people, but the entertainment industry seems disproportionately packed with people who are hurting and suffering and acting out in ways that feel too large to fix and yet too heavy to ignore. The Tortured Artist, Drunken Diva, and Junkie Rockstar are such pervasive and, sadly, accepted tropes that we overlook such behavior or comment on it sadly even as inner circles enable it.
There are even those who believe that deep, debilitating human suffering is a prerequisite to great artistry and cannot exist without it, which is a notion that I push back on with all of my strength. Marriages break up, people cause physical and emotional harm to themselves and each other, people are hospitalized for “exhaustion,” and if it happens to be in Hollywood or a person who performs for a living, we shrug it off or shed tears way too late.
Of course people are addicted all over, and I’m not doing the thing where we pretend that one person’s addiction matters more because they were in some movies or you have their music in your library. Mary Weiland wanted people to understand most that Scott Weiland was the father of her two children, and that they had all lost him before his heart stopped beating for good on December 3.
When I logged onto Twitter and I saw Scott Weiland’s name trending that morning, I prayed that it wasn’t for the reason it turned out to be. His voice, along with Eddie Vedder’s, were in heavy rotation on my personal soundtrack for damn near a decade. I also love the stuff he did after moving on from Stone Temple Pilots to Velvet Revolver, but this isn’t about the music. Like Mary Weiland, I’d like to let those more deeply involved with his creative side delve into the art.
This is about loving an addict in crisis who has been thrown onstage by producers who either don’t know or don’t care, and a whole circle of folks being paid to help your loved one’s decline or look the other way. This is about anyone who looks the other way, or shrugs and walks away, who needs help and doesn’t know how to ask for it, or who could do a bit better at managing their personal dark side, especially in the performing arts.
“Let's choose to make this the first time we don't glorify this tragedy with talk of rock and roll and the demons that, by the way, don't have to come with it,” writes Mary, and I damn near stood up and cheered when I read that. The demons don’t have to come with the art.
No one’s “demons” ever have to win. You, and the people we love, are worth more than that album or that show or that song. I hold the minority opinion in certain circles, but I will never stop asserting that celebrities are humans first. Too many humans are killing themselves slowly, right in front of us. Sometimes we even buy tickets to sit in an audience and watch.
Thankfully, my friend is still with us. I certainly confronted her and it was hard, but ultimately it was her father who drew the hardest line. Her path included moving to the middle of the country where people didn’t know her name for a while, and she’s back and she’s got a big new show coming up soon. I love her sober like I love her in darker times, but never again will I remain a spectator as she struggles to speak dialogue through a jaw that’s wobbling furiously back and forth.
It can sound like a trite voiceover tacked on to a Very Special Episode of a sitcom from the 80’s, but this is real life and substance abuse snatches lives every day; if you or someone you know needs help, please say something. Please do something. I’m not saying it’s easy, but no human is truly, completely lost until they’re actually gone forever. The demons are not mandatory and they don’t have to win.
Photo credit: Getty / Mark Horton / Contributor