Sunday, January 27, 2008


Last week, I was in line at Trader Joe's when I got a call from Kim telling me that the actor Heath Ledger had died. I knew the name, but I couldn't remember his face. When I got home and saw the New York Times online story about it, I recognized his face. I'd seen it in ads for A Knight's Tale, The Patriot and most recently Brokeback Mountain. Ledger was 28 years old. His death may have been self-inflicted, or may have been an acccidental drug overdose.

His death comes on the heels of the drug-related death of Brad Renfro, who was 25 years old.

Ten years ago, I Iost two friends within weeks of one another, both victims of substance abuse. My friend Mark (not the friend Mark who was murdered in a robbery a year and a half ago-- another friend Mark) was a bartender and manager at Neo's, a great Chicago punk bar. As he and I became good friends, I also became friends with his girlfriend. At one point, she asked me to spend more time with him-- that she liked him hanging out with me, rather than his "other friends." I was a little puzzled by the comment, but figured it out later. Mark's "other friends" were his drug friends. He had developed, unbeknowest to me, a heroin addiction.

A few months later, I found out, she confronted him about the addiction, telling him he had to choose between her and the drugs. She left their home, and he took his own life later that day. He was 28.

Around the same time, my friend Bobby became seriously ill. Bobby was a well-known figure on the north side of Chicago; he was a bouncer at a number of Chicago clubs and taverns, including the Gingerman. He was a former cop and ex-Marine, having served two tours of combat in Vietnam. When he was a cop, he was involved in a story that is a local legend, and has been depicted in a couple of movies. After his shift, he was hanging in a bar that was a well-known cop bar, on Cortland Avenue. In the heat of the summer, two guys walked in with with overcoats on. The dozens of policemen having a libation knew that the guys were about to try to hold up the bar. They were actually, Bobby told me, taking bets on which guy would draw first. When the guys drew their guns, oblivious to the fact that there were dozens of armed off-duty cops there, they were quickly disarmed. Bobby told me that when they called the police to pick the guys up, they had trouble getting the dispatcher to believe it had happened; these two schmucks must have been the only two guys in Chicago who didn't know that the bar was a police hangout.

In 1998, Bobby developed cirrhosis of the liver. We were all stunned; despite the fact that he worked in bars, we had not observed him drinking heavily on a regular basis. Within a few months, Bobby died of liver failure. He was 49 years old.

Both guys were near and dear to my heart for the support they gave during my custody fight with my son's mother. It was really strange to lose them both right after that fight had finished. With both guys, I kept looking back, wondering what I could have done to help them. I realized, though, that both guys had hidden their addictions from me. It's part of the disease, hiding it from people you know will intervene.

Though I never met either of the actors who died recently, I find it heartbreaking that two guys who were successful in their fields couldn't find happiness. I find it even more puzzling and sad that both guys were parents. Renfro had no relationship with his child; his son lived in Japan with the mother. Ledger, by all accounts was a doting dad.

Becoming a parent changed me. I have found being a parent to be the most satisfying thing I've done in my life. I find it profoundly sad that Renfro and Ledger couldn't find that joy in their own lives, and that at least in Renfro's case, his addiction was more important than his own kid. The awful cost of addiction is not just in the lives lost, but the heartbreak of those who are left to miss the victims.


Erik Donald France said...

Thoughtful post. Heath Ledger is particularly good as an addict in Candy.

On the life's worth living side of things, a Trader Joe's opened recently in Chapel Hill, NC, and another one is opening up in Metro Detroit. They sure beat Wal*Mart.

Not sure having kids *necessarily* makes a difference.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. I'm not sure people who are addicted care about people or how they're affected at all. The drug takes that away from them. So sad.

Bubs said...

I'll echo what Erik and Suze have said--another thoughtful post. But, the sad truth is you couldn't have done anything.

Whether someone kills himself quickly, or over years on the drug/alcohol installment plan, there's not anything a friend can do. It's sad that people fight so many demons in their own heads and hearts while concealing it so well from the people who love them the most.

I'm right there with you about having kids changing your life, and not understanding how it can't bring others the same joy it brings you.

Go give your family a hug. That's what I'm doing as soon as I get home.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Boy, you sure do have some sad stories JYen, but I love reading them.

Mob said...

Sad stuff indeed, but you have a very compelling way of telling your tales.

Personally, I'd like to think that Ledger's death was accidental, I can't imagine leaving behind a 2 yr old daughter under any other circumstances.

Natalie said...

I'm also hoping that Ledgers death will be found to be accidental. He just seemed to love his daughter so much and have a lot to live for.

Beth said...

It's heartbreakingly sad that the joy of a child — or joy in anything — can't save someone who is overwhelmed by the perceived darkness in his life.

Johnny Yen said...

You're absolutely right about the kids. My experiences in public education unfortunately showed me that plenty of people fail to pull it together for their kids.

Trader Joe's makes it a lot easier to eat healthily and inexpensively. They've got good wine for reasonable prices too.

Did you know that they're owned by the same family that owns Aldi's?

Absolutely. The drugs take over.

My father was telling a story about a co-worker who had a brother who was a heroin addict. The brother broke into his own mother's home and stole anything of value, including family heirlooms.

In retrospect, I realize you're right. Hiding it from friends is part of the behavior.

Amen on hugging the family.

You pointed out once that I've had a lot of death around me. You're very much right. It puzzles me.

Fortunately, I have a lot of happy stories, too!

Thank you!

I agree with you on that. It's looking like his death was accidental. It is hard to imagine that someone would walk away from a young kid, though I saw it plenty when I was a teacher.

He certainly did, didn't he? He went from making junk movies to being able to choose interesting and challenging roles. I have actor friends who'd kill to have the opportunities he had. What a waste.


sexy said...