It was the beginning of coming to terms with my life. When it happens, you usually aren’t expecting it. I know I wasn’t. But it would have happened one way or another. It was, after all, my choice to go into the show, my choice to not spare my emotions, my choice to take the plunge.
That is characteristic of me. Whatever I do, I give it my all. There is also the matter of the pressure of performing, the constant reminder that it’s your ass up there, nobody else’s. I also felt the weight of responsibility for my generation of performing artists, not to mention the whole era of Hollywood right behind me. I felt as if it was all on me and if I was perfect, then everybody else would be too. Talk about biting off more than you can chew!
I was on Broadway, co-starring in The Rink. I was playing a rebellious daughter without ever having been one myself. I did it every night. It was like going through unguided analysis and diving into dangerous waters without any help. It kept building up. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I went very deep into myself for that character. I’ve never done that with any other character I’ve played. I didn’t realize how painful it was until it was too late.
When my mother died in 1969,1 had to handle all the arrangements for the funeral, look after my sister and brother, our fathers and all the other people my mother was leaving. This is not uncommon for the oldest child. I was devastated, but I was also determined that it would be as perfect as could be, exactly as she would have wanted it. We felt we had to appear in control and composed. There were photographers everywhere. A doctor was brought in to look me over, and his diagnosis was the obvious one: tension and grief. He prescribed Valium. I was so grateful that someone had given me an order, made a decision for me, that I did exactly as I was told. That was when it started.
And 15 years later, you fall down. Hard.
I didn’t even know I was becoming dependent. It’s just this thing you take that makes you calm and clear. It takes the edge off pain, the nervousness.
I had grown up watching people take handfuls of sleeping pills. I swear. I figured I was nowhere near that. So why worry? Me, the survivor? No. These aren’t harsh drugs, things like pheno-barbital which always sounded horrible to me. In the following years I developed a whole new soothing vocabulary. Valium, Librium, Dalmane, all nice sounding names. The people who manufacture drugs use names like that to make it easier for you to take them.
When I drank, I drank silly little drinks with silly sounding names at first. I tried hard liquor, and I eventually settled on wine.
Nobody takes a pill to become addicted to drugs. You never think that. I never took all that much. It’s the buildup in your system over the years that finally brings you down. And taking one drug leads you into other traps. You begin rationalizing: If Valium calms me during the day, a sleeping pill at night will help, too, and wine doesn’t hurt. Right?
I know people who wouldn’t even consider going to sleep without a Dalmane. You think that if you’re smart and lucky you won’t get dependent. But luck and brains have nothing to do with it. You’re dealing with chemicals that are baffling, cunning and powerful. You can get dependent. For a long, long time I convinced myself I was not. I’d find myself getting dependent on, say, Valium, so I’d switch to Librium. And all the time I was taking the Librium I’d be telling myself: “See, Liza, you’re not dependent on Valium. You just quit it.” You fool yourself for years. I sure did.
Then there are the so-called recreational drugs. They are easy to take, a line of cocaine at a party or something like that. I’m too hyper as it is, so who needed help? I hate marijuana, prefer champagne and my tolerance is immense. After a night on the town drinking I was always the one left standing. I could drive everybody home and still be ready for more. I had been strong all my life about everything, so I felt I could be strong about my problems, too. After all, this is what was always expected of me.
I couldn’t see taking drugs for fun. I thought they held me together, got me over the rough spots.
I never—never—took anything to go onstage to work. That was a rule that was never to be broken, and it never was. I would have a drink immediately after a performance. Earlier this year I decided to stop drinking for a week. I’d done that many times before for even longer periods. This time I only got through four days. That was one of the first signals to register with me.
Don’t misunderstand. When I began taking them, the tranquilizers helped. They helped keep a very busy life together. I didn’t take them to get high. If I had known I was going to hurt like I hurt, to go through what I’ve been through, I would never have started.
I’m not talking about huge amounts of drugs or liquor. That wasn’t how it was with me. I’m talking about a drink or two after a show or on a social occasion, and drugs prescribed by doctors—not all that many—in the course of a day. I know a lot of people feel this way—that you can’t be in a social situation without a drink in your hand, something to loosen you up a bit. How many people can go to a party without a drink? Then there are my own special pressures. I have to be witty. I have to be glamorous. I have to be bubbly. Well, I tried hard to be those things for many, many years.
I didn’t know about cross-addiction. Between the ages of 28 and 35 I took diet pills for my weight. They kept my weight down. But it meant more stuff in my system, and so my tolerance of drugs increased. All that is cross-addiction: If you’re addicted to one thing, then you can be addicted to all of them. Alcohol or chemical substances. In my case being aware of the dangers and thinking myself strong enough to deal with them wasn’t enough.
In the past I took prescription drugs sporadically, so it was easy to think I didn’t have a problem. But during the last year the time between stopping and starting again became shorter and shorter. The fact that I could still stop convinced me I was not really addicted.
So there I was on Broadway, taking an emotional dive every night and hoping to somehow get through the next day. My energy drained away, and that more than anything else began to frighten me. I am the sort of person who can perform until late at night and still bound out of bed early in the morning and head for a dance class. Because of the buildup of Valium and alcohol, I began sleeping in. Then, after a cup of coffee, I’d say to myself: “I think I’ll take a little nap.” And off I’d go for a couple more hours. Then I’d lie there and stare at the television. I can tell you a lot about soap operas. You want to know about the soaps, just ask me. Finally it got so that I was staying in bed all day long, staring at the television. I’d force myself up at 6:30 and into gear to do the show. I got weaker and weaker.
My personal life began to fall apart too—a not-uncommon experience for people having my kind of problem. I had met Mark Gero in 1977 when The Act opened on Broadway. He was the stage manager, a caring man who at heart was a sculptor. The Act was also a show that had gone through a great many changes and a great many problems. It was the story of a musical star making a comeback, a show within a show, and it had a tremendous emotional impact, both on those of us who did it and those who saw it. I was tired and lonely, and the pressure was unbelievable. But Mark intervened, gave me a form of stability and love which, though I resisted it at first, proved to be the right thing.
For the next several months we were inseparable. He became everything to me. And when I discovered I was pregnant, we got married. We both wanted children and I could see a whole new life beginning for me. I miscarried weeks after our December 1979 wedding, and I miscarried again twice more. Fuel, if you will, to the trouble already beginning to burn inside me.
At the start of this year, The Rink and everything else began taking its toll. I grew distant and uncommunicative, especially with Mark. It had long been the nature of our relationship that when anything was troubling us, we tended to be silent about it, to brood until the blow-up came, a blowup that was typically Italian and loud. So Mark kept his distance and waited for me to make my move. He expected I would get things resolved somehow, and that we’d continue on as we had always been: together. Instead, I surprised even myself by deciding it was time for us to separate for a while. Mark agreed.
That was just one of the wrong decisions I was making. I also knew I was sick, only I thought it was either mononucleosis or hypoglycemia. I went to see one doctor, then another. Both checked me out and said I had no disease. One prescribed a vacation. Neither asked if I was taking any medication, and they both provided me with prescriptions for Valium.
Then, a little mole—I hate that word—on my neck that had been bothering me, became sore. I went into the hospital to have it removed. And I did what I had never done before: I began missing performances because I felt so sick all the time. I blamed everything else but what was really the problem.
It was while I was in the hospital that I called my sister, Lorna. She had just had a baby boy, and her life was going perfectly. She had the stability I now lacked. I remember exactly what I said to her. I was crying: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Lorna is a child of the ’60s and had been through—and triumphed over—a drug problem of her own. She knew what was happening and knew the time had come to confront me with it.
I was just a lump, a hopeless, miserable lump when Lorna came to see me. Lorna knew what she was talking about, and she had the ammunition to back her up. We had both commented on how remarkable Elizabeth Taylor looked when she came out of the Betty Ford Center in January, how healthy and at peace she seemed to be. At the time, Elizabeth had said she didn’t really know what her problem was until she got there. She only knew the symptoms. Lorna, before she came to see me, called Elizabeth. Lorna told her the whole story, and Elizabeth was waiting for my decision before pitching in to help. Lorna and I talked it all over, and finally I confronted what was wrong. I faced my personal demons and nearly ran away. We talked a long time, and as she left I told her I’d think it over and decide in the morning. It took about a half hour, and Lorna had just gotten home when I called and said I was going. Then I called Mark. We had been separated all of four days and he came to me immediately.
I left right away. Mark and Lorna decided to accompany me, but the center had advised against Mark’s coming. So, instead, he took us to the airport and sat with us while we waited for the plane. I was teary and unsteady, but I was so relieved that I might have found help and was finally doing something about it. I was frightened to death of what was to come, but not so frightened that I could forget how very, very bad it had all been for the last six months.
It is customary for people going into the Betty Ford Center to first spend several days at the Eisenhower Hospital being detoxified. You can’t begin the treatment until you’re detoxified. I was examined and was sent immediately into the center. I had nearly detoxified on my own. It was July 18.
And so it began. I was weeping and holding onto Lorna, but finally I had to say goodbye to her. You have to walk through those two doors on your own and I did it. The treatment starts the moment you enter. I met the women I was sharing a dormitory with. Nobody else in the center at that particular time was in show business. All were from other places, but all of us had the same problem. This is not a picky disease.
Once in the center you’re on the go from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Understand: This is no chi-chi drying-out place. You don’t sit around the pool all day. You begin with chores. When you’re drug dependent, the first things that slip are the little things, so that’s where you begin. You make your bed, clean up your table. If you start with the little things and do them well, then you begin to have hope for bigger things. That’s when you begin to reorganize the big thing: you.
You get no telephone calls for the first five days, mostly so that you’ll concentrate on settling into the program. After that there’s a pay phone in the lounge of the dormitory. It’s like being in college. No, it’s more like being in a very difficult graduate school. My first calls were to Mark and Lorna, and they were both loving and supportive.
There are lectures, group therapy sessions, a lot of writing, chores and exercise. I am still keeping my diary. I write something every night—it helps keep me centered. The whole point is to get in touch with yourself. I was cut off from the outside world. All the outside pressures were left behind. You are left with yourself and with a great deal of help. And you have your peers in the program—people you learn to depend on—and also you have a counselor.
It’s very intense, very personal and very private. The therapy sessions are long and in my case were in groups of usually 10 people. You participate with the understanding that what is said in those sessions is between you and the others, and that nothing is ever repeated. That rule doesn’t just protect privacy, it makes possible the sort of candor necessary to get well.
It’s healing through conversation. Sharing your experiences, really—shared trauma. The point that you are not alone is the most important thing. Nothing you’ve ever done in your life can shock these people. We’ve all done things, even the people reading this article. The thing is to get it out, let go of old fears and feelings.
It’s a sort of reality therapy. Dealing with what is, not what was or what could have been. You don’t deal with things intellectually, you learn to deal with your feelings, your emotions. I live my life one day at a time with God’s help. How many times have you heard that? Not enough.
I had spent years going along, and that was a big mistake. I felt obligated to the whole world and I didn’t keep in touch with the little girl inside me who needed to be cared for and nurtured—and who never really got a chance to come out. I feel higher now without alcohol and chemicals than I ever did when I was using them. I’m also calmer and more relaxed. Being in control of your life is a wonderful feeling.
I had one special thing to get rid of. I had to bury my mother, At last. I had never had the time—or taken the time—to mourn her or to really bury her, the sort of burial that doesn’t take place in the ground but rather in the spirit. My mother is dead—a fact a lot of people may not like, but it’s true. I wasn’t allowed the normal grieving process. I went through it now, 15 years after her funeral. There’s a danger in keeping somebody who’s dead alive in your mind. I had been very good at that. When you bury somebody, you stop justifying, defending and thinking about them all the time. A burden is lifted. Believe it or not, I’ve never been in any therapy, never been to a psychiatrist. I was overprotective. I saw myself as my mother’s mother. What I didn’t know was that I had loved her too much. Now, at last, I understand.
I’ve learned that the very thing you thought alcohol or tranquilizers could help you with—things like relaxation, energy, self-confidence—are the very things that chemicals suppress. In fact, drugs and alcohol ultimately stifle all feelings. A big part of “getting sober” is learning to feel again.
I learned something else too. More than my talent, more than anything else I have, I’ve gotten by on my sense of survival. That’s what got me to the Ford Center. Day by day I regained my integrity, my determination to survive.
Finally, it was time for family week. Lorna came; so did Mark. After the emotion of greeting one another, of presenting the beginning of the new you—so to speak—they too participated in the program. Mark had heard all the ugly rumors about our marriage, all the gossip about divorce, and for a long time he said nothing. Nothing deterred him from making our life together work. And it has. Our marriage is fine. We understand each other and accept each other’s faults.
I also came to terms with all of the publicity, all of the rumors. There is this curiosity about me, about my personal life and my career. I guess a large part of it is to see how my life parallels my mother’s. I know the curiosity will always be there, so what I do now is to remind myself that this is my life, and I’m going to live it as best I know how. You can inherit a lot of things—including addictive disease. I know that. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that it was my mother who taught me—by example and deed—about survival.
I had other adjustments I had to make. One was that most people in the center were admitting a problem to their family and friends. I was admitting mine to the world. A big question I kept asking myself was: What will people think? When you come out of it all, you understand this one thing perfectly: What other people think is not my problem; it’s not my responsibility.
I needn’t have worried. There were thousands of letters, all of which I’ve tried to answer. I think people are marvelous, that with their own troubles they can still care about someone else. I heard from my friends. All of them. I’ve somehow, through it all, kept them. I’ve even stayed friends with my ex-husbands [Peter Allen and Jack Haley Jr.].
The program lasts four to eight weeks. You form friendships there that can never be replaced. You’re all fighting a battle. I watched every woman in my dorm fight for her life and get well and it would make me weep, weep with hope. I took to the program immediately, and when, after seven weeks, it was my time to leave, I was ready. Nobody who has this problem ever has to be afraid or ashamed. There is help. I believe I have learned my lesson.
They tell you that for the first year, avoid making big decisions. Get used to your sobriety. It’s a spiritual thing, a profound alteration in one’s attitude toward life. I’m 38, but I think I went through middle age in my late 20s. It seemed a much bigger problem five years ago than it does now. Now, I feel new.
The future? The important thing is today, not tomorrow and not the day after or the day after that. I love musical theater, but I’ve done that. Now I think I’d like to get back to movies and to television. I’m going to live in California for a while now and work on film projects. Mark is sculpting and has a show coming up in Los Angeles, so he’ll be working here too. I am full of optimism. And I feel so damn healthy. Mostly I’m grateful.
I think I’ve known the depths of despair and loneliness and—guess what!—I never have to go back there again. I know where I am.