Stephanie Wittels Wachs Reveals the ‘Horrible and Wonderful’ Memories of Her Brother Following his Death From a Heroin Overdose
Stephanie Wittels Wachs was devastated after losing her brother Harris, a star comedian known for his work on shows like “Parks and Recreation,” to a heroin overdose. In her new book “Everything is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love, and Loss,” Stephanie paints a compelling portrait of a comedic genius and chronicles the story of family, addiction, grief and the love between siblings. The following is an excerpt in which Stephanie recalls family memories, both with and without Harris.
Nine Months, Six Days
Holidays are drone strikes: calculated and deadly. On the first Thanksgiving without you, Mom, Dad, Mike, Iris, and I fly to Phoenix to be with my in-laws. Mike’s brother Jeff, his wife Hannah and their two girls, Sylvia and Judith, have all flown in from LA. So has my father-in-law, Steve. He and my mother-in-law, Ruth, divorced after Steve came out when Mike was thirteen years old, but they’re still best friends who unite for most holidays and special occasions. It’s very beautiful and inspiring and progressive and sort of like the TV show Transparent, minus the trans part. Ruth still lives in Scottsdale, where Mike’s brother Dave and his wife Jenna recently bought a gigantic house. This is where we’ll stay for the long weekend.
While I love them all, I quickly realize it’s acutely painful to see Mike’s brothers, their wives, and their children all under one roof. My nieces, whom I adore, remind me that I’ll never have nieces or nephews who share my DNA. My mother-in-law and father-in-law have three grandchildren, including Iris, with two more on the way. Mom and Dad just have one.
Out in the world on any average sort of day, it’s hard to hear people talking about their big families, multiple siblings, and the three, four, five, six, seven, eight grandchildren their parents have. It’s hard to see photos of sprawling families communing by trees or in front of fireplaces wearing outfits in matching colors—-partially because matching color schemes are absurd, but mostly because my family lost one member but shrunk an entire generation. I don’t want to see anyone’s happy fucking family, especially on a holiday. A holiday is the worst: an entire day built around togetherness.
But Thanksgiving is easier than I expect it to be, in large part because Iris is extremely sick. Vomiting, fever, rash, congestion, cough, generalized irritability. She’s on her very worst behavior and leaving a trail of snotty tissues all over the house. I feel awful for her but realize in hindsight it’s an excellent distraction. There’s so much vomit to clean up, I have no energy left to feel sorry for myself.
It’s weird–no one really mentions you over the course of the weekend and not at all on the Big Day. This happens on regular days, too, but it feels extra shitty on a holiday. And there’s no green bean casserole. You loved green bean casserole. It was your favorite Thanksgiving dish. You used to make Mom prepare two every year so you could save an entire casserole for leftovers. I guess it’s apropos that the dish is absent today too.
As I lie in bed that night, tears stream out of the corner of my eye onto my pillow.
“The whole point of the holidays is to be with your family, and a quarter of my family is dead,” I say to Mike.
He tries to comfort me: “A quarter of your family isn’t dead.”
“A quarter of my original family is dead.”
When we get home from Arizona, we put Iris on her second round of antibiotics for a double ear infection. She hates it. Twice a day for ten days, it’s a two-man, pin-down job involving a sippy cup, a syringe, and a pacifier. Administering the meds tonight, I remember that time you basically claimed that antibiotics were some sort of sci-fi miracle antidote that boosted one’s immune system for months at a time.
It was Christmas Day, 2004. It had snowed the night before, which was extremely unusual in Texas. I had gotten home to a room full of presents at 2:00 p.m., wearing the same clothes from the night before. Dad, who was super sick with some sort of upper–respiratory infection, made a passive-aggressive comment about how late it was or how Christmas gets later and later each year or something along those lines. Whatever it was, I took great offense because I was twenty-three and had the energy to take great offense to things.
“This isn’t one of our better Christmases,” Mom said.
I was in the kitchen building a giant lox sandwich, and all of you were sitting in the living room. Dad sat on the couch next to Mom with the blanket pulled up to his neck. You were filming all of this on the video camera.
“You’re making it worse by making me feel guilty,” I shouted from the kitchen.
Dad chimed in: “That’s what mothers are supposed to do, Stephanie. Loving mothers make their children feel guilty.”
“She’s not making me feel guilty—you are.”
“I am!?” His voice raised an octave. “What did I do!? I’m sitting here with a blanket over me. I’m dying. Ever since I quit smoking, my health has gone to hell. I better start smoking again just to save my life.”
I laughed loudly. This. This was one of my favorite things about how our family functioned. Even in the midst of an argument, we could always break for a laugh.
“You should. It works for me,” you said.
“Did you go outside to smoke last night in the middle of a snowstorm?” Dad asked.
“That’s unbelievable. You could have had pneumonia by now.”
And then: “I took a Zithromax, like, two months ago. My white cells are through the roof.”
Tonight, as I fight to get the medicine into my kid’s mouth as she writhes on the ground like a piece of bacon in a frying pan, I think of your magical white blood cells.
And I laugh.
Before November 2014
Two weeks after the Pete Holmes podcast aired, we expected Harris to come home for Thanksgiving. It was the Tuesday before the holiday weekend, and he was supposed to land in time for dinner. I assumed he’d either want seafood or Mexican. I was already at work that morning when I got a text from my mom who copied and pasted a text she had just gotten from Harris. No preface or explanation. Just this:
Mom, I love you and I’m sorry but I don’t think I can come home. I had another relapse and was scared to tell you but I’m dealing with it and am just not in a place to come home and pretend everything is fine. I’m sorry I’m such a fuck-up. I really wanted to be with everyone. I’m not trying to hurt you guys. I’m so sorry.
I erupted into screaming sobs because there was now a volcano where my heart should be. It was messy and hot and all over the place; bubbly and sticky and oozing. It was also very uncomfortable for everyone in the office. They quickly vacated the room. I called my mom and screamed into the phone: “What a fucking asshole! I knew he’d relapsed! I fucking hate him! What the fuck is wrong with him?! He ruins everything! He has destroyed our family. Fuck him!” This went on and on. Lots of fucks.
I worked at a school.
I was a raging bull. The togetherness I’d been loosely holding together all unraveled in this moment. I was so sick of his shit. Given the opportunity, I would’ve pummeled him and not stopped until I saw blood.
That night, my dad finally called Harris and asked if he wanted them to go out there to help him detox. Harris said yes. My dad said it would have to be Friday because they wanted to spend Iris’s first Thanksgiving with us. I thought, “Yet another first that Harris is missing. Another holiday he’s fucking up.” The hate grew deeper.
This would be the first time in our entire lives that our family wouldn’t be together for Thanksgiving. Harris would spend the day driving around LA with his drug dealer while his niece messily slurped up cranberry sauce for the first time.
Over the next few days, I purposely didn’t reach out to my brother. I’d been angry at him plenty in the past, but in those moments of typical sibling tension I just yelled at him for a little while, he yelled back, and it was over. This felt heavier, more permanent.
However, as shitty as I felt about Harris’s absence from Thanksgiving this year, I knew he felt a million times shittier. He was occupying the darkest space, sending texts like this to my mom:
I got back on suboxone and just feel like crap.
I miss you a lot. I hate this.
It’s my fault.
Mom confessed to him that her biggest fear was that her son was going to overdose whether he wanted to or not. Maybe he had a secret death wish. She said she was scared of losing her baby boy. He told her he wouldn’t do that to her.
“No one ever overdoses on purpose,” she said.
When my parents got to LA, my mom reported that Harris seemed empty, sad, and lonely. She cried a lot. The three of them spent a lot of time that weekend sitting in the dark with the curtains drawn, watching the giant television. My mom made a huge Thanksgiving dinner from scratch for Harris on Friday. He loved Thanksgiving food, and she loved him. She said he seemed grateful, as grateful as someone who was dead inside could be.
She also reported that Harris didn’t seem to be in any physical pain or experiencing any symptoms of withdrawal. “The Suboxone must really be working,” she concluded. My fear was that he wasn’t detoxing at all. My fear was that he was shooting up while my parents slept down the hall in the guest room.
That weekend, he and my mom had a candid conversation outside on his back patio. He was smoking, as usual. My mom told him she was on a merry-go-round with him and didn’t know if she could hang on for another relapse. It was killing her. “I’m an addict,” he said. “I’m gonna relapse. That’s what addicts do. But you’re my mom. You’ll always be there for me.” It scared the shit out of her. He was basically saying he was going to relapse again and again and again. He already had. He was telling her he wasn’t ever going to get better.
She begged him to come back to Houston and stay indefinitely. She said he needed to get away from this place and clean himself up and be with his family. Harris said he wanted to come home but had to finish up blah blah blah thing first. Granted, he was busy. He’d done so well in his career up to this point because he was reliable and hardworking. And funny. Very funny. However, his career wasn’t our priority—he was. He promised that when he wrapped things up in LA, he’d buy a one-way ticket home. It shouldn’t be longer than a week or so. He wanted to come home. He was on board with our plan.
I wrote him a letter that weekend that still sits in the drafts folder of my email, a letter that said exactly how I felt. The truth. How angry, hurt, betrayed, sickened, scared, and anxious I was about him every minute of every day. How I was terrified he was going to die. How I wanted my brother back. But I got scared and sat on it. I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t want to make him angry or push him farther away. I just wanted him to come home. I figured if we could get him home, maybe we could make him stay. Maybe we could look into his eyes or hand him the baby and inspire him to change. Maybe we could save him. Sometimes, I look at this letter and wonder if things would have turned out differently had I sent it.
This is an excerpt from hoopla Book Club’s Spotlight Title: Everything is Horrible and Wonderful by Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Access the full ebook, discussion guides and exclusive content with Stephanie at theclub.hoopladigital.com. Published by Sourcebooks. Copyright © 2018.
This excerpt was featured in the Dec. 9th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.