I met Jeff Conaway last year on what is supposed to be a festive time: St. Patrick's Day.
But, especially in light of his death at age 60 from complications relating to his abuse of prescription medication, my time with him on that day stands as one of the most tragic encounters of my journalism career.
Jeff was recovering from hip surgery at a nursing care facility just north of L.A. in Sylmar, Calif. I had arranged to interview him to get an update on his condition, which I had been told was improving.
However, when I arrived and saw a frail Jeff being wheeled into the room in a wheelchair, his eyes glassy and his neck swiveling loosely on his shoulders, I realized all was not well with the once robust, charismatic actor.
Like most, my lasting image of Jeff was of Kenickie from the 1978 film Grease, the tall, handsome greaser with a swagger. But the man whom I had to assist out of his wheelchair to get in a sitting chair (Jeff insisted and I had to adjust a pillow behind him to make him comfortable) was a mere ghost of that character.
By the time he sat with me for his E! News interview, Jeff's long spiral into addiction—cocaine, painkillers, alcohol—had been depressingly documented on VH-1's Celebrity Rehab. Our interview was supposed to be about how he had hit rock bottom but was now planning a comeback. Of course, there would be no such Hollywood ending for Jeff.
Immediately, it became clear he was still under the control of his drug demons. He admitted to me that he was talking to me while on OcyContin and methadone, and even revealed that he recently had gotten up to taking 54 OxyContin a day! Yes, 54 pills a day. Sadly, Jeff was sitting for our interview completely drugged out.
So slurred was his speech and labored his movement that he dozed off a couple times midinterview. He choked up at one point, and it was all I could do to not cry along with him. Instead, I stoically placed my hand supportively on his bony shoulder.
"I'm not gonna be really happy until I'm drug free," he mumbled. "You can't imagine how badly I want this. I spent a good part of my life on substances—alcohol, pot, cocaine—[and] I've just had it. I don't want to live in a fantasy world."
In the coming days, I'm sure Jeff's story will be recounted as an exemplary cautionary tale of the extreme downside of abuse and the often discussed dark side of fame. But if there is any take-away for most of you reading this, I hope it is that you do everything in your power to help those, or even yourself, who might be battling addiction. Life is too precious to waste it getting high on drugs that only bring you to deeper lows. This was Jeff's reality show. And I'm sorry to have watched it.