The last time I saw my Dad, he told me that he felt good, that he felt optimistic, that he felt clear-headed for the first time in years. When I left that conversation with my father, I also felt good about where he was headed for the first time in as long as I could remember. I left that conversation feeling sure that my father had finally conquered his demon. That his addiction problems were behind him. However, few months later, on my third day of law school, I got the call from my sister. My clear-headed father had died from a drug overdose.
The months between the time I last talked to him and when I got the call remain shrouded in mystery to me, and they always will, I suppose. I have no idea what his state of mind was. I have no idea what led him back into his addiction, and I have no idea if he was lying to me when he said he felt good, that he felt optimistic, or if he was just trying to tell me what I wanted to hear to put my mind at ease.
I tell you this because when people like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Harris Wittels die from drug overdoses, I often find myself searching for answers to my father’s death within their stories. Over the weekend, I listened to several hours of podcasts with Harris Wittels — the Parks and Recreation writer and author of Humblebrag who died of a suspected drug overdose last week — and while I didn’t get any clear answers, I did hear a familiar story of addiction, although it was one with some interesting — and often funny — details involving a woman, the Church of Scientology, and a harrowing trip to skid row to score some heroin.
But the most familiar detail was that three months ago, among the final words that Harris Wittels spoke to Pete Holmes on the You Made It Weird podcast were these, echoing my own father’s, which came only a few weeks after Wittels left rehab for a second time in a year: “I feel good. I feel hopeful. I feel optimistic. I feel clear-headed. But I also feel like, sometimes, I still want use drugs, and that feeling will be there forever.”
It’s how he got to that point that Wittels spent the majority of that podcast discussing.
But before we get there, I also listened to a Wittels on WTF with Marc Maron from late 2013. At that point in Wittels’ life — he was just 29 at the time — drugs didn’t feel like a “problem” yet. He was the “drug guy.” He talked at length in that podcast about doing drugs, but there didn’t seem to be much cause for concern. In fact, he was extolling the virtues of drug use. He and Maron joked about it. He was engaging, articulate, and very, very funny.
Wittels — who, as he told Maron — came from a good family that loved him (his Dad, like Maron’s, was a doctor). He seemed to have no real complaints about life. No depression. No darkness. He did drugs recreationally. He was a huge Phish-head (I used to listen occasionally to his Phish podcast, although he never did manage to convince me they were any goddamn good). He told Maron that he used drugs not to combat depression or to escape his life, but because he was bored. Because they felt good. Because it helped get his creative juices flowing (he wrote the entirety of Humblebrag while he was high). At that time, he was in the midst of his transition from psychotropics to oxycontin, but it felt like he had it under control, inasmuch as you can have a drug habit under control.
A lot changed in that year between the Maron and the Holmes podcasts, and Wittels laid out the entire harrowing descent into relapse. In the event you don’t have an hour and forty minutes to listen to the entire podcast, here’s the brief recap. Note that Wittels played most of the story for laughs because it was a great, engaging and often funny story (in the way its told, anyway), but in light of his death, it obviously doesn’t feel very funny anymore.
It began, as these things so often do, with a girl. Wittels was in love with someone he described as the perfect woman. She was funny. She was in a band. She was beautiful. But there was a catch? She was a Scientologist. Wittels didn’t believe in Scientology. He had the same skepticism as most of us do about the church. He thought it was a fraud, and he didn’t want to get involved with it. But he was really in love with this woman, and also held her parents in high regard, despite the fact that they were also Scientologists.
It was the stress of dating a Scientologist, he told Holmes, that led him into heavier drug abuse, and then, eventually, to his first stab at sobriety. His girlfriend and her parents staged an intervention for Wittels because they were concerned that his drug abuse had become a problem. They attempted get him to enter the Scientology rehab. He refused at first, but after his girlfriend broke up with him — and broke his heart — he went back to the Church of Scientology and paid them $700, signed the contracts, and agreed to enter. The church, however, insisted that he be two weeks sober before he enter their rehab facility. He never made it to two weeks (and lost his $700 in the process).
As much as he loved that woman — who he hadn’t spoken to since bailing on Scientology rehab — he simply wasn’t prepared to sell himself to the church.
Eventually, however — and again, in an attempt to win back his Scientologist girlfriend — he did enter rehab. He went to Promises in Malibu. He paid $57,000 for a 30-day treatment, and he got clean.
Unfortunately, Wittels said he relapsed the day he got out of that rehab. He told himself that he just wanted one last score. He wanted to feel high one more time. Before he had entered rehab, he was no longer doing oxy to feel high. He was doing it to ward off withdrawal pains. He was dropping oxy like candy — five, 10, 15 pills at a time — and his tolerance had gotten so high that he could no longer feel the pleasure of the drugs. However, with his tolerance low after rehab again, he decided he needed to feel that high one more time before he quit.
One more time led to two, which led to three. He fell off the wagon hard. Within a couple of days, he found himself in MacArthur Park in the middle of the night trying to score heroin. He’d transitioned from oxy to heroin because he wanted a bigger high. He got robbed three times that day and put his oldest friend in danger before he was eventually led to skid row at 2 a.m., where he finally scored some heroin. He said that heroin felt like, “One thousand dicks all over your body, all coming at the same time.”
He was hooked. He quickly moved from crushing and snorting heroin to injecting it. He even went on YouTube to learn how to use needles.
He finally hit his rock bottom, he told Holmes, when he did heroin three times in the same night and essentially overdosed. He felt like he’d died, like a ghost trapped in his body. He could no longer function on drugs, as he had been doing for years. He called in sick to Parks and Recreation the next day. And the next day. And the next day, and it’s then when he realized that, “Hey! I’m just at home shooting [heroin] now.” He couldn’t avoid it any longer. He called his sponsor and said he didn’t know what to do. At that point, no one even knew he’d relapsed.
His boss at Parks and Rec (Mike Schur, presumably) understood. Schur told him to go get healthy. His sponsor came over. They packed his bags, and he went to another rehab. In Oregon. The same one that Robin Williams went to. “I guess that’s not a glowing endorsement at this point in time,” Wittels said of the rehab. But, he added in reference to Williams, “Death is beautiful. It’s part of life. It’s not really that sad. Everyone dies,” he continued. “It’s sad to lose his comedy. It’s sad for his family.”
Recognizing the beauty of death, Wittels still maintained that — in his sobriety — he could also appreciate the beauty in life. He insisted in the podcast that he was taking his sobriety more seriously because he knew that if he took heroin one more time, he would probably die. “It’s life and death now, and I don’t want to do that to my family. I don’t want to do that to myself.”
Sadly, Harris Wittels apparently couldn’t resist the lure of another high. You could almost sense the way his wheels turned. Every day he spent sober meant a lower tolerance, which meant that the high from heroin would be that much more powerful. It was that powerful high that he was chasing. That he simply couldn’t resist.
Three months later, it appears the chase finally caught up to him. May you rest in peace, Harris Wittels.
Also, be sure to catch tonight’s series finale of Parks and Recreation, where they will pay special tribute to Wittels at the end of the show.