As a child Chesare Bono grew up surrounded by wealth and fame as the son of the well-loved entertainer-turned-politician Sonny Bono. But in 1998, when Chesare was just 9, his father died in a freak skiing accident at Lake Tahoe, and the boy’s life changed forever. Still devastated five years later, he began experimenting with drugs. By the time he graduated from high school, Chesare was stealing from his family and friends to feed an addiction to the powerful painkiller Oxycontin. Now sober since August 2007, Chesare, 20, with his mother, Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, 47, of Palm Springs, Calif., spoke to PEOPLE’s Johnny Dodd about his ordeal and how he finally got clean.
Chesare: I had a really good childhood, but my dad’s death was a big blow to me. He was a really good guy. He loved me and took care of me.
Mary: Sonny’s death was huge for both kids [including younger sister Chianna, now 18]. The first impact was a fear of what will happen to Mom, but the long-term issue was that they just missed Sonny terribly.
Chesare: I was in seventh grade the first time I tried alcohol. I got drunk on margaritas and I liked the feeling. I’m a pretty shy person, and suddenly all the anxiety and fear went away; I just seemed more fun and outgoing. By the end of eighth grade, I went out into the desert with a bunch of older buddies to smoke pot. It started out as a weekly thing, but by mid-ninth grade I was smoking pot every day. One day when I couldn’t get any pot, my friend offered me Oxycontin. I’d never heard of it. But it soon became the perfect drug for me. It was such a mellow feeling. I’d put it in my mouth, suck the coating off, then use a hose clamp to grind it up into a fine powder and snort it.
Mary: That first time he got drunk, I thought it was a terribly stupid thing to do, but I wrote it off to adolescent experimentation. In no way did I think it would lead to addiction. It was not until Chesare’s junior year of high school that I started to notice a pattern. I found paraphernalia and I got really angry.
Chesare: By my senior year, I’d become a fiend. I started stealing from my mom, my sister and friends. I pawned all my video games, guitars, amps, my father’s ring. My room was empty. I even snuck into one of my best friends’ homes and stole his Xbox, then sold it for $100 to get some Oxy. As soon as I’d get a pill, I’d go do it in my car.
Mary: I used to do the old sniff test on him, just smell him to see what I could detect. But the thing about addicts and alcoholics, they always have lots of good excuses. If I smelled smoke, he’d say someone else was smoking, or it was just cigarette smoke. I started using the burglar alarm, not to keep burglars out, but to keep my son in.
Chesare: During my freshman year of college at the University of California, Riverside, I tried heroin. I had always thought heroin was the worst of the worst. But I smoked it off tinfoil and realized it was the exact same feeling as Oxy. At the most, I was spending $120 a day on drugs. I never thought I was addicted. But one morning I ran out of pills and woke up in my dorm room feeling terrible, wanting to rip my skin off.
Mary: I finally knew drugs were an issue when I found Chesare’s hose clamp. At first I thought it was something he found on the street. Suddenly he had this hose clamp everywhere he went, even on his nightstand. A light went on, and I thought, “What’s going on?” So I Googled ‘hose clamp’ and went to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s Web site and learned it was a tool used to crush Oxycontin.
Chesare: When my mom called and asked me how long I’d been addicted to Oxy, I acted like I didn’t have a problem. But a couple months later, I ended up calling my mom up and asking her to take me to rehab. I was in so much pain. In the end, since my mom was in Washington, my sister Chastity drove in from Los Angeles [see box] and took me to the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs. But I left early because I was fed up with the place and became hooked on Oxy again two months later.
Mary: I’d always had a fear of opiates like Oxycontin. Sonny had had a problem with Vicodin for years. My biggest failure as a parent was that I never told Chessy that he had a genetic tendency to like opiates.
Chesare: My mom eventually kicked me out of the house after she found a piece of aluminum foil I’d smoked heroin off of. I spent a couple weeks couch-surfing, telling myself I could control my using, but before long I’d run out of drugs and was going through withdrawals again. I went back to rehab, but after a few months, they busted me for using heroin. I ended up going to Cirque Lodge in Utah, and that turned out to be a pretty cool place where I learned all the things you can do to have fun without drugs. I’d do an indoor ropes course, climb and do archery. Lindsay [Lohan] and I were in treatment together, and we got pretty close. But most importantly that’s where it hit me that I can never use again.
Mary: Recovery is a lifelong process for both the addict and their family. And I plan to continue to raise the profile of the issue on Capitol Hill. I’ve begun having discussions with the Partnership on how to better promote their message to parents.
Chesare: My life is pretty good right now. I’m back in school at Santa Monica College and also work as Barry Manilow’s tour manager’s assistant. I’ve come a long way, but I never think I have my addiction beat. No matter how good it is, it could all go bad again.