Dave and Chris co-hosted 142 episodes of Dopey, a recovery podcast about “drugs, addiction and dumb shit,” when the worst thing that could have ever happened, happened: Chris relapsed and died. This week, Stephanie sits down with Dave, who’s still hosting Dopey, to chat about Chris’s last day, recovery, and the transformative power of losing someone you love.
[00:44] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Have you ever had the experience of inviting someone to your house, and like 15 minutes before they get there, you get into a knockdown, drag out fight with your husband? And you’re in a shit mood and you should probably just cancel, but you can’t because it’s too late, and so you try to keep up appearances and make small-talk like your life depends on it. That was kind of my experience of going on this podcast called Dopey. The two hosts were the married couple. I was the houseguest.
[01:17] Dave: I just want to say something before I tell you what it is.
[1:19] Chris: Yeah.
[1:20] Dave: You’re an asshole.
[1:21] Chris: Why?
[1:22] Dave: Because you’re in this weird place where you want to belittle me cause I had a bladder issue. I can’t remember a fuckin’ 20-word title. Can you just be cool?
[1:29] Chris: How does it feel?
[1:30] Dave: I don’t like it! It makes me feel bad.
[1:33] Chris: This is my life!
[1:34] Dave: No it isn’t.
[01:36] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. It was April 2018. I was a thousand weeks pregnant with my son Harry. Actually, I was due in two weeks, but it felt like a thousand weeks and I was tired and moderately annoyed because it was late. And I’d been playing the Twitter version of phone tag with this guy named Dave. He’d originally DM-ed me to say he was a fan of my brother’s. He’d bought my book and wanted me to come on his show, which he described as a podcast hosted by two clean heroin addicts who are in recovery. When I didn’t respond — because I’m terrible at Internet communication — he followed up three days later to tell me that Dopey got 40,000 downloads a month, and those listeners would really love my book. Smart guy. So I wrote him back, albeit 35 days later, but who’s counting? We scheduled an interview. Since they only record at night, that interview was at 8 p.m. my time, 9 p.m. for them. And yet here I was at 9:38 p.m., standing in the kitchen, shoveling key lime pie into my mouth by the forkful, which is what you do when you are tired and 1 million weeks pregnant, and while I was doing that, Dave was recording the intro to my episode with his co-host, Chris.
[03:09] Dave: Hello and welcome to Dopey, the podcast about drugs, addiction and dumb shit. And I’m Dave.
[03:15] Chris: And I’m Chris.
[03:16] Dave: How are you?
[03:17] Chris: I’m good. A somber episode today. Talking about big things.
[03:22] Dave: We’re always talking about big things.
[03:24] Chris: Yeah, but we’re always laughing. I mean, this is going to be a little more serious.
[03:27] Dave: Have you ever heard of this guy, Harris Wittels?
[03:29] Chris: You keep asking. No. Yes, Alex, I don’t know who that is. Is that who we’re calling?
[03:36] Dave: No, he’s dead. His sister wrote a book. That’s who’s coming on the show. Wonderful. His sister wrote a book about what it’s like to have a brother —
[03:48] Chris: Oh, and there’s a comedy bent to it. You’ve told me about this.
[03:51] Dave: Well, they call it a tragic comedy book on heroin, genius and loss. It’s called, um, pause it for a second, please. So the book is called Everything is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragic Comic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss by Stephanie Wittels Wachs.
[04:09] Chris: You’ve been reading this book, right?
[04:11] Dave: Well, I listened to it.
[04:13] Chris: Well, even if you listen to it, how come you had to pause it to look up the title?
[04:18] Dave: Because I was just thinking tragicomic. Everything is Horrible and Wonderful — wow. Is that really the way you want to go at this?
[04:29] Chris: No, continue. Anyways, what is it?
[04:31] Dave: I just told you, and you can’t remember what it is?
[04:34] Chris: It was really long.
[04:35] Dave: Now do you understand why I had to —
[04:37] Chris: Say the name again, please. I need to commit it. Lock it in.
[04:40] Dave: No.
[04:41] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It feels like I’m in middle school, and I’m in a bathroom stall, and the mean girls walk in and I overhear them talking about me behind my back, and it’s really icky. And then you layer my dead brother on top of it, and how flippantly they’re talking about him. And then they call me.
[05:06] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Hello?
[05:07] Dave: Hello, Stephanie.
[05:08] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Hi.
[05:09] Dave: How are you?
[05:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m so tired.
[05:13] Dave: I’m sorry —
[05:14] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I had no idea that the interview was actually starting. I had no idea that Dave and Chris had been tearing each other apart only moments before. And I didn’t know that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes during that call. But a few weeks ago, Dave told me all about it when we jumped on the phone.
[05:34] Dave: Chris was fuckin’ a very, very funny, weird character. And Chris, even when he was sober, he didn’t like to have interviews on Dopey. He liked Dopey to just be him and I. And I really think that when you came on the show, he was in his relapse. And he didn’t like people who weren’t addicts to be on the show. Like he didn’t want to hear about it. But when people would come on that weren’t addicts, and they’d be on the phone, he would like give me these death looks. And then it would turn from death looks to notes. And he would start passing me notes that would say, “when are they going to start talking about drugs?” And when you were on, I think you activated that guilt place in his mind because he has a sister, you know. He has people that he answers to. And Chris’ sister actually works in the treatment industry. And Chris’ sister actually was drug testing him randomly and occasionally. So I bet you you being on the show had some sort of like deep, resonating reaction in him. And he — I mean, I remember he wasn’t interested and he was faded, but he did that all the time when we had somebody on the phone.
[06:51] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Two months after my episode aired, Chris died of an overdose. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. This is Last Day.
[07:10] Dave: I do this podcast, it’s called Dopey. We had the P.G. name, which is Dopey on the Dark Comedy of Drug Addiction, and then the more P.G.-13 or R-rated name, which is Dopey on Drugs, Addiction and Dumb Shit. And basically what it is is a talk show through the lens of a drug addict. And I am a drug addict.
[07:30] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So it’s so interesting because whenever we have like experts on the show, they always like school us how we’re not supposed to say “addict” anymore.
[07:40] Dave: I think it’s interesting. People have a lot of weird hang-ups in the world of addiction. And I like to say I’m an addict because I am an addict. And I — I mean, I go to 12-step meetings and I identify as an addict. And I was a terrible, using drug addict. And I feel like to erase that piece, it doesn’t make sense to me. All of the words, though, like are kind of over my head, like disease, addict, former drug users, whatever. What is the — some kind of like —
[08:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Opioid use disorder. Substance use disorder.
[08:18] Exactly. That shit is over my head. Because I don’t think it helps — it doesn’t help me. What helps me is to know that I’m an addict. I’m in recovery. And my life is so much better than it was when I was using.
[08:30] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: To get metaphorical, Dave and I are two podcasters who live in the same neighborhood, but on opposite sides of the fence. Our show is super scripted. Dave’s is fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. Our show tends to lean heavy. Dave likes to keep it light. Using Dave’s terminology, I’m the family member of an addict. Dave is an addict.
[08:55] Dave: I grew up in a super kind-of normal middle-class Jewish apartment in Manhattan. Both of my parents were teachers. I didn’t do drugs until I was 17. I drank one time and I blacked out and I realized I couldn’t handle drinking. But I learned to love pot. And then I became — I was kind of a musician and I loved getting high. And I was in a bunch of bands. And then I started taking acid. And, you know, I just kind of escalated the way addicts escalate. And I wound up doing more drugs, but totally sort of recreationally and not like every day. I smoked pot every day. It wasn’t until my career took off a little bit that I thought I could afford being a drug addict. And I started producing TV. And when I started producing TV and hosting TV, I developed a daily heroin habit, which escalated to a pill habit, which escalated to me losing my job and finding myself in detox. And then at that point, I had kind of committed to heroin and it was very, very hard to ever get away from it. I used heroin for, you know, from like 24 ‘till 36. And then I stayed on other drugs until I was 41. And now I’m 45. So that’s the CliffsNotes of my drug use.
[10:16] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Dave met Chris in rehab back in 2011.
[10:17] Dave: And when I met him, he was always this very preppy Catholic kid from Boston, from money, who kind of lived in and out of these programs for long periods. He was incredibly smart. He was incredibly handsome. And after we got out of treatment, we both wound up relapsing a number of times. Then he had a couple of years clean, and I had a couple weeks clean, and he was like, I would love to do something creative with you. So I was like, why don’t we do a podcast about drug stories? And I had a hunch that any podcast around addiction was around recovery. And any podcast around recovery was going to be proselytizing and boring and progressive and like lame. And I love the Howard Stern Show, and I loved Artie Lange on the Howard Stern Show. And I loved hearing his stories. And I also loved hearing everybody’s stories in rehab and detox and A.A. and N.A. and whatever. And I said to Chris, why don’t we do a show that is about drug addiction, but it’s just the war stories. Because if you go to a rehab or you go to A.A., they say they don’t want to hear war stories. And I said, so our podcast is only going to be the war stories, and it’s going to be so only the war stories that we’re gonna call it War Stories. That was our plan. And it wasn’t until we recorded the first episode that I knew that we had to say, “oh, by the way, we’re in recovery,” because if we didn’t say it, it would have been this ridiculous glorification of drug use. And I didn’t even really — I didn’t want it to be a recovery podcast. It took it took a long time to get it to be a recovery podcast. And it just sort of became like this sort of — I don’t know, I want to call it almost a moral obligation. And it was based on the fact that my life was better only because I was in recovery. So because of that, and because the stories were so far out, and because our lives were so negatively impacted because of our drug use, it kind of by default became a recovery podcast, if that makes sense.
[12:25] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: When he and Chris drew up their very loose plans for Dopey, their default recovery podcast, Dave never expected that it would become this big deal thing with tens of thousands of loyal listeners. He also didn’t expect to get so close to Chris in the process.
[12:42] Dave: Chris and I, like we were not particularly close friends. We had an amazing bond when we started doing Dopey, but it was in doing dopey every week that we became these very, very close friends. And that’s one of the coolest things about Dopey, if not the coolest thing, is that it documented me and Chris becoming these amazing friends.
[13:04] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I don’t feel like people who don’t put out a weekly podcast understand. It’s like the most intense kind of marriage. I mean, you are in it together.
[13:16] Dave: I’ve worked with so many people on so many projects. It’s like something I’ve always loved to do is make things. And Chris was an amazing partner on Dopey, which I didn’t expect. He just — I think he saw how driven I was and he totally met me. And then the other thing was because we were addicts, we like totally got addicted to Dopey. And we totally got obsessed with Dopey. And he would always say we used to use dope and now we do Dopey. And we also like — it was it was super fun. We would get high from it. People loved it. People reached out to us. He felt like his intelligence mattered to people. And it was true. People loved Chris.
[13:57] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It was like a recovery love story. It was the kind of thing you’d want an option for a movie script.
[14:03] Dave: It was like the trajectory of both of our lives was just — you couldn’t have asked for a better kind of story of recovery than Chris and I. As we did the show, I reconnected with my daughter’s mother and moved back into the house with my daughter and her mother. And Chris started a master’s program to become a psychologist. And he moved to Boston, enrolled in William James University and completed his masters on his way to his Psy.D. in psychology. And he had this very, very beautiful girlfriend who was a medical student at Harvard. And he was working in a sober living. And he was interning, I think, in a school working with adolescents on substance abuse stuff. And I wound up getting promoted at my job and we bought a house and we had another baby. And Dopey was really cruising when Chris wound up relapsing.
[15:04] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s easy to assume that relapses are triggered by hard times. Logically, it’s like watch out for things that make you depressed. Go to therapy, have a support system. But the truth is, relapses also happen when things are really good.
[15:22] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I will never forget that when I got Harris’s laptop back from the cops or whoever, he had a tab open on a laptop for the AirBnB in New York, in Manhattan that he had just booked, because he was going to be moving there in a week to go start shooting Master of None, because he was like a starring fucking role in the series.
[15:44] Dave: He was gonna be the friend, right?
[15:46] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yeah. He was gonna be Eric Wareheim’s character. And like he was in such a good place. I just feel like there’s this relationship between when you’re like soaring and you’re sailing and everything is going great and there’s all this joy and relapse that I don’t hear talked about tons?
[16:07] Dave: It’s talked about like — among addicts, it’s talked about. It’s like as a drug addict, when things are bad, you want to get out of yourself. You know, you want to feel better. And when things are good, you want to celebrate. And the other thing is that, like, you just — addicts have a hard time sitting with themselves. And I think Chris had so much coming true for himself that — he was, you know, he was 10 years younger than me. And I had this feeling like when I had gotten my producer job, I did the same thing. Every time I got a job, I would relapse. Every time something got better, I would relapse. Because you think that because things are going so well, wouldn’t it be better if you could get high, too? I think you have the promises of 12-step coming true for you, and you’re like, but why can’t I have — why can I get high, too? Why can’t that be part of the promises?
[17:01] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: For any non-A.A. people, myself included, the 12 promises are part of the ninth step. When the addict has to make direct amends to all the people they’ve wronged when they were using. It’s one of the hardest and most uncomfortable steps to complete. So the promises are essentially offered as the why of why you should do it anyway. They include amazement, serenity, freedom and relief. All very good things. But by this point, Dave and Chris were on different tracks. Dave was holding on to the promises of recovery, and Chris was holding on to his belief that he was invincible.
[17:42] Dave: And I think that’s what happened with Chris. I don’t know this for sure, but I don’t think he thought his death was even a possibility.
[17:49] Stephanie Wittels Wachs:Yeah, that makes so much fucking sense to me. Like so much sense.
[17:54] Dave: Well, I always thought that — I mean, like Harris was mega-successful, and like lauded by society. Chris obviously wasn’t. But I do see a ton of parallels between them.
[18:06] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yeah, well, when you talk about him, it’s like, I mean, I keep thinking about Harris when you talk about Chris.
[18:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The other striking similarity between Harris and Chris was just how extreme they could be. How they both seem to lack that part of the brain that tells other people to pump the brakes.
[18:25] Dave: He did crazy stuff. Like the first episode of Dopey, he told a story about while in a blackout, he decided he wanted to get drugs. So he went to a veterinarian clinic to get Xanax. This was his drunk brain thinking. He wound up getting denied, and he roughed up the staff at the veterinarian clinic, and he wound up getting arrested. But he wound up assaulting a police officer, assaulting a nurse, like, going fucking ballistic and all in a blackout. And he wound up having to do a year in jail in California.
[19:03] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Oh, my God.
[19:05] Dave: He also like — he went to 16 rehabs and he would like master the system in the rehab. Like he would learn how to make wine in the rehab, or get drugs from the staff by manipulating them. He was — like one of — his stories were insane. And I don’t like to say somebody was the worst drug addict I ever met, but he was up there. He had crazy, crazy stories. And then the thing about him, he was so handsome and so disarming and so smart that when you met him, you you could not connect the two personalities, you know? That was the thing.
[19:37] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The details are different, but this is exactly how I always felt trying to sync up Harris’ charm with his insanely destructive behavior. It’s funny to think that Dave and Chris almost called their show War Stories, because that’s sort of how I felt going back and forth, trading stories with Dave about these two intense maniacs who we loved. When we come back, more tales from the battlefield.
[22:02] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. Dave had another friend named Todd, a friend he’d had since he was a kid, is best friend. And Todd was a recurring guest on the show.
[22:14] Dave: Before you even answer, admit it to the Dopey Nation that the last time you were on Dopey, you were high on heroin.
[22:25] Todd: Fine. Goddammit. I was fucking high.
[22:26] Chris: Oh, my God.
[22:27] Todd: Of course I was. I’ve been high for the last fucking four years.
[22:32] Dave: Wait, wait. He’s being truthful. It’s great.
[22:36] Dave: Todd was the only person who was allowed on the show to be high because I knew he wasn’t getting sober. And I always — Dopey was kind of like created with with my friend Todd in mind. But Todd didn’t get clean. I actually bought a mixer that had multiple mics so that Todd could one day get clean and be on the show. But that didn’t happen.
[22:58] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It didn’t happen because a few weeks before Chris died, Todd died.
[23:07] Dave: So once Todd died, the show changed. And it was this weird thing that happened at the same time where Todd died and Chris was using. So all of a sudden, like Chris was like regressing to this place with the show where he just wanted to tell the most bombastic stories about like faking urine tests and this and that. And I was just like, I wasn’t having it. It just wasn’t entertaining me. And he was — and I was like, dude, we can’t we can’t do it like that anymore because Todd just died. And it’s not that funny when your best friend just dies. That’s not the funny part. It’s like the funny part is like the situations you find yourself being in and now you’re not in those situations anymore. But there’s this ability to see how stupid you were, and how lucky you are, and how funny it is — I mean, for Chris and I — Chris was from a wealthy home. I was from middle class home. And we knew everything that we did, how wrong it was to our families. Which kind of made it cosmically funny. Like, you know, how your Jewish mother is gonna react to these things, and somehow, because it’s you, it’s it’s the dark comedy of drug addiction. After Todd died, the tenor of the show had to change. And that didn’t mean it couldn’t be funny. You just had to have respect for the consequences.
[24:33] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is right around the time that I appeared on the show. Dave was starting to take things more seriously and that seemed to make Chris want to push his buttons even more. And it didn’t feel good. You can hear that in the tape. And I remember listening to an episode of Dopey that Dave recorded right after Chris died and really appreciating that he told the truth about that.
[25:00] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I don’t know if you were aware of it, but you were like, he became way more of a dick. He was agitated. He wasn’t interested in things. I was just like, man. What’s so incredible about that moment is that you are telling the truth about him in this way that I feel like if you take too much time after you want to memorialize them as this, like, deity, because they’re not here. And you want to be like, no, he was the best! And like, yeah, he was the best. But also, he was a dick!
[25:36] Dave: He was also just — it’s what happens to anybody who’s using. We all become dicks if we’re using. I just didn’t realize he was using, you know, which is like so annoying. I know that when I was using, I was the biggest dick in the world. You know, I was a dick to my family, I was a dick to my partner, and my friends. I didn’t show up at work. I would steal, I would lie. I lied just to live. I barely told the truth. And I didn’t really detect it when Chris started slipping. Like, I just didn’t detect it. And then after he died, I could put it together pretty easily. But now that it’s been a long time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had relapsed other times too, you know what I mean? And I mean, like who — I mean, it puts this whole horrible doubt on our friends and our family who are in recovery. You know, it puts this horrible doubt on our on the people that we love because — and I can say it for me, like my father — I was years clean and my father would be like, why do your eyes look funny? And I’d be like, I don’t know, Dad, I’m tired. But, like, it’s because we didn’t earn — you know, we don’t earn the pass every time. With him, his friend called me months before he died. I want to say two months before he died. And said Chris is acting funny. He was on the phone with his sponsor and he thought it was you. Could you give him a call? And my best friend had just died that week. So I was like — I was bugged out. I thought Chris was going to die when the guy told me that.
[27:11] Dave: And I texted Chris and Chris literally would respond to every text I ever sent him within like 10 minutes. Even if he was asleep, he would be asleep, he’d get my texts and he would text me back. And that day he didn’t text me back for like a few hours. And then he did text me back and we wound up talking about it. And he did what addicts do. And he lied and he manipulated it. And he like tried to tell me about this problem he was having, when in actuality the relapse had begun. And after that, it was just little flashes here and there. He wouldn’t show up. He would be disinterested. He would be argumentative. And I’m sure anybody who has an addict in their life has experienced that with somebody they love or they count on. When the person is using, they can’t be relied on. And I still — even though that happened, and he swore to me up and down that he wasn’t using, I didn’t think about it again. Like I feel very naive about that because he was such a drug addict. But Chris and I had never dealt with each other when we were using, only in recovery. So I didn’t even consider it.
[28:20] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s weird to think that Dave, with all his experience using lying, hiding, manipulating, hosting a podcast about drugs and recovery, didn’t even consider the fact that Chris might have relapsed. Even when all signs pointed to the obvious, Dave just told himself that Chris had other stuff going on.
[28:43] Dave: Chris was doing a sober companion job in Texas. And every week we would put out an episode I think on Saturday morning. And he would usually wrap up the episode Friday night. And he had come home on a Thursday and he was just not himself. He was very, very like bickering and petty. And he kept pushing off the recording, and saying it was because he was fighting with his girlfriend. Like, I just felt like he had been in this fight and he hadn’t slept. I just I feel like such — like my mom, like my mom believing me. Which is just very frustrating to even retell the story. But we were doing the show on Skype. And if you listen to it now, it’s so obvious that he was high. But we did wind up like fighting. And on that episode, I said, “dude, what’s wrong with you?” Just thinking that he was exhausted. And then when he put out the episode, I think he put it out with like there were like 20 minutes of space, he didn’t put the music on it. Like it was totally not good.
[29:49] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: But at this point, Dave couldn’t really produce an episode without Chris.
[29:54] Dave: And that was the other thing, is that Chris did all the technical stuff with Dopey. And he also didn’t know anything about the technical stuff. He had just put it upon himself to do it. And now here he was totally impaired, incapable of doing it. And you can hear it on the show. And listeners have written me, you know, countless times saying, how could you not know? You know? And I even took pictures of him through the screen because he looked so deranged, but still, like there was denial in my head. You know, denial is real. When you believe something to be not the way it is, you really believe it. I did not have a shadow of a doubt in my mind that he was in recovery when he was totally using. You know, my friend Todd had never stopped using. And he overdosed and died. And it didn’t — you know, it was devastating to me because he was my friend and he was an addict that I used with more than anybody. Like I used with him constantly. Chris was somebody who I had talked recovery with more than anybody I had ever met. And when he actually did die, and he was gone, the thought of using never came into my head.
[31:08] Dave: My recovery was almost bolstered by his death, because it became so obvious, like, what a reality death could be from using. So I think that I didn’t think he could use because, you know, I’m not — and I’m not trying to, you know, blow my own recovery out of proportion and say it’s iron-clad or whatever, I just knew in that period of my life using was not gonna happen. Like I was not near using. And I’m not near using now. It’s like — it’s not like — I’m not going to do drugs today. I know that. You know, and I didn’t have the feeling that I was going to do drugs that day. I felt like I think the reverse of it is more true. That because my resolve and my recovery was so strong, I totally believed Chris’. I believed that Chris was totally on the same page as I was, and that was the self-deception.
[32:05] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Dave had to hold on to whatever version of reality meant that they could keep doing Dopey. But by the night before Chris died, things have gotten really ugly.
[32:16] Dave: Well, the night before, we had gotten into this gigantic fight because the last episode was so bad, it was cataclysmically bad. And he was using, and angry at me, and I was just so angry at him. We got into this fight and I was like, “you better come to record because the show is dying.” And he was like, “well, I have to take my girlfriend to a Taylor Swift concert instead.” And I was just like, I thought it was the funniest thing, but I also got really angry. I was like, “so you’re going to go to a Taylor Swift concert instead of record Dopey?” And he, like, laughed. And then he called me that night, and he like, had a breakdown that he was fighting with Annie, his girlfriend. And he wasn’t sure that they should be together. And he had all this pressure on him. He said he was in school because he wanted to make his parents happy. He was in school because he always wanted those magical letters after his name. But in reality, all he wanted to do was make Dopey, which was like very beautiful for him to say to me, because that’s all I wanted to do. And maybe he was manipulating me, but I believed it. And thank God we had that conversation because he told me he loved me, and he told me how much the show meant to him. And it was very beautiful, you know.
[33:34] Dave: And I got off the phone with him, it was very late. It was, like, midnight and his girlfriend texted me. “I’m worried about Chris.” And I said OK. And she goes, “can you check on him?” And I got the text that like 2:00 in the morning, and I didn’t check on him at 2:00 in the morning. I went back to sleep and I forgot about it. And I woke up at 6:12 a.m. and I still have the text on my phone. And I texted him at 6:12 a.m. and I said, “Are you all right? Annie’s worried about you.” And he wrote, “I’m OK.” — at 6:13 he texted me back. He wrote, “I’m OK. I’m alive. I’ll tell you about it later.” And then at 10:00 in the morning, my phone rings and it’s Annie. And she says, “I just found Chris, and he overdosed and died.” And the night before, Chris was making Annie sound out to be like a lunatic. So I just figured Annie was lying. She said, Chris is dead. He overdosed. And I thought she was just being like, mean or nasty. Like, it didn’t occur to me that it was a possibility.
[34:41] Dave: And I remember I just said, “Annie, don’t say that.” And she said, “what do you mean, don’t say that? I’m sitting with his body” And I, like, freaked out. You know, I was with my partner. And we had a two-month old baby that we were walking to town — we were just leaving the house, I was bringing the stroller down the steps of our front porch, and we were about to walk to town. It was in July, early July. And I got off the phone with Annie and Linda said to me, “what happened?” And I said Annie just said Chris died. And I said to her, I don’t believe it, though. And I called Chris’s sister and she didn’t call me back. And I called Chris. And I called Chris as friends. And Chris’ friends didn’t know anything about it. And they were like — they kind of had a feeling that he had died. And I want to say, two hours later, Chris’ sister called me back and she said it was true. And it was just like it was — it was totally surreal. And very painful, but it was like surreal. Because our friendship was based on recovery. Our friendship was based on a podcast we were doing about recovery. And now he was gone because of addiction. It was like it was crazy.
[36:01] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So Chris was dead and Dave wasn’t. But as they say, the show must go on. More on that after the break.
[37:48] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. If I know anything, it’s that time doesn’t give a shit about grief. And sure enough, three days after Chris died, it was time to record Dopey. But it’s just him. So where does he start? What does he say? How does he do any of this without Chris?
[38:13] Dave: It was a weird thing. And I was pretty much on autopilot. I knew that I wasn’t going to let the show stop, first of all. And secondly, I didn’t want to — it’s like nobody knew that he had died. And the audience is connected to us and it was connected to him, so I knew it had to happen. And I knew what — I was talking to my partner about it, and she was like, well, why don’t you just do 10 minutes and just let them know? And I thought about that. And then I talked to Chris’ girlfriend, Annie, and I said, “would you come on the show with me and tell them what had happened?” Because she found him. I mean, if you heard the episode, you know, it was totally brutal. And she agreed to do it. So I set up in my father’s kitchen and I took out the gear, but I only took out the one mic. And you know, the other thing, the weird thing is this sort of — you know, your own self-knowledge or you know — I was kind of nervous that I wasn’t going to sound sad enough. I wasn’t going to sound how deep it actually was when in reality one of my best friends had just died. And I’m trying to fuckin’ hold it together or whatever. And, you know, I can’t listen to it. I’ve listened to a little bit of it. It’s just like total stone-cold, you know, it’s as though the blood has drained from my whole face and body.
[39:42] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Here’s how he opens the episode.
[39:45] Dave: The worst thing that could have ever happened happened. And Chris relapsed and died. And here I am alone at my dad’s, with one microphone plugged into the mixer with GarageBand open on my computer, recording Dopey, which I’ve never done. Every time we ever did it, Chris would record it on his computer and I would be able to futz around. And now this is going to be very weird.
[40:20] Dave: It was a brutal, brutal thing. And also, I think just to not take any time, just to do it, was the right thing to do. But on the other hand, it was just like it was crazy. It was like total freefall.
[40:34] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: But isn’t that sort of like — my understanding of recovery, being a person who’s not in recovery, but, you know, has this peripheral knowledge — is that like you have to keep showing up, and doing the stuff? And like there’s this ritual about you doing the show that seemed like it was so tied into your own recovery. And it seems like it wasn’t really an option to stop also in that sense, is that true?
[40:58] Dave: Well, that’s the obvious thing that I didn’t even think of. You know what I mean? Like that never crossed my mind until like a year later. And somebody was just like, “you showing up for the show and you doing the show is really what your recovery is about.” And I didn’t I didn’t make that connection. But absolutely. The only thing that recovery is, is showing up every day. And living life on life’s terms, not, you know, not getting high, not putting into anything into your body, and not lying, not, you know — just being who you’re meant to be. That was my favorite phrase in all of this stuff was to be your truest self, your most genuine self. And I found that doing the show, it was a lesson in that. And I think that the audience really related to that, even though I didn’t get it. I thought I was still pursuing Dopey. I didn’t realize I was just showing up.
[41:56] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Dave continued to show up for the show, and as he did, the tone of the show started to sort of organically shift.
[42:06] Dave: After Chris died, I was totally, totally out of my mind in grief. And I could not — the show took a long time to get funny again. And when it did get funny, I also — it got funny around recovery, I think. I also always thought when we were doing the show that there was a lot of room to laugh about a drug addict who tries to live soberly. Like the idea of being in recovery is so strange to somebody who was a total crazy drug addict. Like it’s like this spiritual primer for somebody who has no spirituality. And I think that’s ripe for great comedy. Like I played Dopey for my sponsor, and he was like, “this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” He’s like, this is Wayne’s World. And Chris and I, we loved that, you know, we loved that he said it was like Wayne’s World. Because that was the idea. It was like we were going to talk about everything that had happened like idiots, and then also talk about what idiots we were. And it created this this world of people listening without shame and recognizing themselves in it, and then feeling like they could one day look back at all the dumb shit that they had done and feel empowered that they didn’t have to live like that anymore. So here we have one of those people, Chris, who was lying, and he succumbed to it, you know. So it’s a very, very fragile aesthetic at that point. And I think many, many, many shows were very, very, very sad. And I think to this day, there’s a ton of tragic sadness in Dopey. But like, why shouldn’t there be? You know, when I told — I changed sponsors, my sponsor had moved away. And I got a new sponsor, and when Chris died and I told the new sponsor that Chris had died, he just said to me, “this is him carrying the message.” Which like, I was like, fuck you. This is him carrying the message. But it’s true. We’re all dealing with these deadly chemicals. And he didn’t get to live through it, you know, and like, that’s part of the story.
[44:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Another important part of any story is the inciting incident. The thing that happens that sets everything in motion. Harris’ his death did that for me. It changed me and every fucking possible way something can change a person. It changed who I am. How I think, what I do. And I don’t see that ever shifting back. Dave experienced this, too. But the one-two punch sort away. First with Todd, and then six weeks later with Chris.
[44:56] Dave: I was like, holy shit. Everybody better, you know, get into recovery and find a path. And I think, you know, Todd literally sniffed two bags of dope and dropped dead. He sniffed two bags of dope and dropped dead. Chris definitely injected fentanyl, and it killed him. You do not have the luxury to think that you’re just getting high. Like and everybody talks about this. But when Chris died, it really, really cemented the truth about this — that it is life or death. Or instead of life or death, it’s life and death. Like that tons of our audience are in harm’s way all the time. And there were also like five deaths that happened at the same exact time. And it was like, you know, we’re in this moment in history where drug addicts are in incredible danger because of fentanyl.
[45:52] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, it is that now the narrative. Do you do you feel like if I use again, I will die?
[45:59] Dave: To be honest with you, Stephanie, like I don’t feel like if I used, I would die. Even though I would. But that’s how deep the fucking denial is in me. I just feel like I have no interest in using. Like I love getting high. I knew by the time that I got sober I was never gonna get higher than I had been. And now I have two children, who if I get high, there is no getting high once for me. That’s the other thing that I’m very, very aware of. I can’t get high once. It’s not possible. Like it is impossible for me to even, like, smoke a joint. For me to take a drink. For me to take a pill. For me to smoke a cigarette. If I do any of it, I’m just done. And the second I’m that person, I am incapable of taking care of my family. And that’s who I am now. That’s who I want to be. I’m not so scared of the dying part as the not being able to be a good parent. I had great parents. I have a great father. I would hate to not be able to be that to my daughters.
[47:04] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Man, I wonder if, like, if Harris had kids, maybe he wouldn’t have died. You know? Like it’s like the thing I always think. It’s probably dumb. But I don’t know.
[47:14] Dave: I don’t think it’s dumb. I don’t think Chris would have done it if he — it’s like forget consequences. It’s identity stuff. It’s like when you don’t have children, you kind of are a child. You know, when you do have children — when you’re responsible for these — you know, I heard you talk about your children. You always say little people, you know. I’m responsible for these little people. And it’s up to — it’s my role to keep them fed. It’s my role to set an example. And I love it. You know, I love that I have this opportunity to live a different part of my life.
[47:53] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Obviously, being a parent isn’t a cure-all for addiction. We’ve covered that and we’ll cover it more. Even Dave still struggled with using after his daughter was born. What he’s talking about here seems closer to what we heard with Ahren in episode 14. You can’t get sober for someone else, but you can define the things that are meaningful to you, and build a recovery program around that.
[48:19] Dave: And I think that’s such an amazing part of life, that we’re capable of changing. You know, like that you don’t have to be the person you were yesterday. Like, I’m such a better person now than I was when I was using. And it’s because I’m not using now. It’s just that simple.
[48:36] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yeah. Like you have a thing that you can point to. And you can say, like, this is the root of my change, you know?
[48:44] Dave: And your thing, it’s so tragic, you know. It’s not like you didn’t get to stop using drugs to change. Your brother had to had to be killed by substance abuse for you to change. But still you get to be an advocate now, in a way that you never would have been. I mean, it’s not it’s not a worthwhile trade.
[49:05] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Nope. It is nowhere near a worthwhile trade. Part of losing someone is grappling with all the things that you get to experience that they’ll never know. And I remember hearing this when Dave talked about Todd shortly after he died.
[49:28] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: You said this amazing thing. You said “he never gets to be sober and he never gets to be free.” And that is just like, I don’t know, it was just really profound to me when I heard you say that.
[49:41] Dave: I mean, I was on methadone for years, for seven years I was on methadone. And I wasn’t free. And I think, you know, I think it is scary the idea of getting clean and then overdosing and dying. But I know that, like, I did not make any choices when I was using. I did not have the ability to, like, do anything besides get high, watch TV, eat, find ways to get money and get high. It was the only thing I could do. Anything else never, you know, entered into the picture. And if it did, it was just to pass the time until I could get high again. So my freedom in my sobriety is just having choices to enjoy life. And in the past, the only thing I would try to enjoy was getting high.
[50:37] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, we talk so much about medication assisted treatment on the show. I mean, so much.
[50:42] Dave: But that’s because it’s, you know, it’s statistically more likely that people live longer when they’re on medicated assisted treatment.
[50:51] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yeah. I mean, you are the unicorn here. It seems like your story of being able to just not use drugs, you know, and to quit the way that you have is incredible. I mean, it’s like what I always hoped for for Harris.
[51:10] Dave: My story, though, my story isn’t like that, though. It’s like I failed a million times, like I relapse like a million times. I had all sorts of conditions on what I was willing to do in order to get clean. You know, you have to give me 50 bucks so I can get high on my way to detox. And at treatment, I better be able to smoke. And I better be able to smoke like 20 times a day or I’m not going. And it’s all bullshit because if you put conditions on this thing, you’re never going to get it. And that’s the other thing, that the worst thing about the whole story is there is no way to make somebody get it. It’s like magic. I mean, when I got it, my partner had found pills in my house. And I tried for years to get back with my partner. And she knew that I was smoking weed and she didn’t know that I was taking pills. And she found pills in my house. And we had our daughter in my apartment that day. And she was like, “that’s it. You don’t have custody anymore. This is over.”
[52:14] And I started writing her this long letter about, you know, please don’t take away — begging, begging her not to take my custody away. And simultaneously begging her to let me smoke pot. That I should be allowed to smoke pot in the letter. And I had this moment, you know, and it was the closest thing to a white light moment I’ve ever had, where I just realized I was begging for the wrong thing. Like, how long am I going to beg to be able to get high? I was like, what am I doing? You know, sitting alone in my kitchen, writing this beggar letter to my ex that I just want to see my kid and get high. And I never was capable of surrender. Everybody talked about surrender all the time. And I was never capable of it. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it. And in that moment, I was like, what the fuck am I doing? And I threw my hands up and I said, I’m going to go to a meeting tomorrow.
[53:12] Dave: And once I got a day back, I just I didn’t want to give it up. And then, you know, some weirdo at the meeting ran up to me and he said, I want to take you through the steps and I’ll make sure you do it quickly, which was very attractive to me because I’d never done the steps quickly. I’d never done the steps at all. I just thought going to meetings would be enough. And doing the steps with this guy and doing — and that’s the other thing, I never went to A.A. and people don’t like talking about this stuff publicly. And, you know, I’m almost anonymous, so I’m just gonna do it. I had never gone to A.A. I’ve always went to N.A. Because I wasn’t a drinker. So I just figured I’d go to an N.A. But in the end, I was just so fucked and so desperate to get better, and I knew that A.A. was a historically stronger fellowship. So I went to A.A. and they say in A.A., rarely have we seen somebody, you know, make the most of this thing and fail. And I guess I had never made the most of it. So I did — for the first time, I was like, I gotta stop bargaining. I got to just do what I’m told.
[54:26] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: OK, so Dave’s referring to a section in the A.A. Big Book called How It Works. I only know this because my producer Jackie told me. And she only knows this because her sister is in A.A. and 10 years sober. My brother, on the other hand, never got anything out of A.A. He went to the meetings. He collected the chips. He literally had a copy of the Big Book in his backpack when he died. So when I hear people talk about the promises of A.A. a little, or not-so-little part of me shuts down. This is the actual quote that Dave is referring to. “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot, or will not, completely give themselves to this simple program. Usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. These are such unfortunates.” Ugh! I’m — I hate it! Like I hear what they’re saying, but the second we get to “unfortunates,” I’m out. And like the word “fellowship?” I just can’t. I mean, every single time Jackie has written the word “fellowship” into a script, it is the first thing that I cut. But it is impossible to talk about Dave’s story without talking about A.A. And so this time, instead of fighting it out on Google Docs, she sent me an audio file to listen to. It’s a clip from her old show, Voices of Recovery, and it took place at a conference for young people in A.A.
[55:55] Speaker: Hi, I’m Danielle, and I’m an alcoholic.
[55:58] Audience: Hi, Danielle. We love you, Danielle. Lots and lots and lots.
[56:06] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Young People A.A., or YPAA, are familiar with the concept of how it works, and they use it actively in their meetings, taking some young people-ish liberties with it.
[56:16] Speaker: There are such unfortunates. They’re not at fault. They seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing —
[56:18] Man: Firmly grasp it!
[56:29] Woman: Grasp me vigorously!
[56:30] Speaker: Their chances are less than average.
[56:33] Man: I’m below average!
[56:35] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Let me tell you about this white-light moment I had listening to this clip. I started in my default eyeroll position, but the minute I heard the sound of that room — the call-and-response, the sound of — fuck me — fellowship in action, something clicked. Harris would have loved his. He was a joiner. He loved group activities. Summer camp, improv, Phish shows. I mean, Phish, my god, is there anything more representative of the power of fellowship than Phish? And like what people get out of the meetings is what Harris got out of Phish shows. Feeling like you belong somewhere, feeling like you’re with your people. It’s not that Harris hated A.A. He just wanted to keep using drugs. Maybe if Harris had experienced this kind of A.A., he would be Dave.
[57:39] Dave: The worst thing about the Harris story is that he died. You know, I bargained a billion times and got to live. And eventually I gave up the bargaining. How old was Harris when he died?
[57:50] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Thirty.
[57:51] Dave: Exactly. You know, I mean, I got to make the bargains until I was 41. And then I stopped bargaining. You know, it’s like — and so many people get to get sober young, and I don’t understand it. It just wasn’t going to happen for me like that.
[58:10] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is the magic part. Dave’s not a unicorn. His moment of clarity is the unicorn. And it’s the thing that no expert we’ve talked to has been able to explain. Who gets to bargain a little bit longer, and whose story gets cut short? It’s not like Dave did anything profoundly different than Harris, up until the time he was ready to let go and give himself over to recovery. The only difference is that he had something that Todd, Chris, Harris and Stefano did not. More time to change his mind.
[58:58] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Next week, we talk with Dr. Gabor Maté about the root of addiction. And spoiler, it’s not genetics, it’s trauma.
[59:08] Dr. Gabor Maté: So life brings pain, but pain is not the same as trauma. Pain becomes traumatic when that pain isn’t resolved, when it doesn’t get the support it needs, when it isn’t metabolized, when we don’t learn and grow from it. Trauma is not what happens to us. Trauma is what happens inside us.
[59:29] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Last Day is a production of Lemonada Media. This episode was produced by Jackie Danziger. Our associate producer is Nicolle Galteland and our assistant producer is Claire Jones. Jessica Cordova Kramer is our executive producer. Kegan Zema is our technical director. And our music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Westwood One, our ad sales and distribution partner. You can find us online @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me @wittelstephanie. If you liked what you heard today, tell your family and friends to listen and subscribe, rate and review us on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. See you next week.