DJ AM: Why He Went Too Far

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

When I learned about the death of DJ AM—the celebrity spinner who struggled with addiction, but stayed sober for over 11 years—I felt the tragedy at the gut level.

I have been in the substance abuse field for over 20 years, first as a treatment provider and then as a researcher. But it is through the eyes of a person in long-term recovery who has buried family members and close friends (one who was sober over 17 years prior to relapsing) that I understand the battle DJ AM faced.

Recovery, no matter how many years one has nurtured it, is never fully self-sustaining. It needs continued attention and dedication, just like any other chronic health problem. So, I ask, can someone in recovery ever be 100 percent confident they will not go back to drugs or alcohol?

Last year, DJ AM suffered critical injuries when a Learjet carrying him burst into flames during an aborted takeoff in South Carolina. He and Travis Barker of Blink-182 were the only survivors. After more than a decade of clean living, he found himself needing pain medications with abuse liability; he reportedly developed problems with opiates and benzodiazepines.

Then, he shot MTV’s Gone Too Far—an intervention-style reality show set to premier on October 5. He said his inspiration was to work with other addicts in recovery, his passion since the beginning of his sobriety.

I, like DJ AM, believe it’s important that people with past addiction problems commit to helping others. But he may have truly “gone too far.” The drug-using world might not have been one he was prepared to re-visit, given his recent losses and difficulties with pain medications. “I have to calm down after every shoot,” he was quoted as saying. “It’s very intense.” In video excerpts, he described buying a crack pipe to show how easy it was. Then he said, “I walked out…holding [the pipe]…and I realized my palms were sweaty and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is not smart for me.’”

Even after 11 years of sobriety, this isn’t unusual. Ask any one of us in recovery when someone inadvertently changes the TV station and a scene from Scarface shows a group of people snorting cocaine. It’s been over 24 years since I’ve snorted coke, but suddenly, I’m holding my breath—as if I’d just done a line.

So, should DJ AM have done the show? Is MTV at fault for his relapse and death? Here’s the bottom line: Just as people with diabetes are responsible for eating a sensible diet and exercising, we are also responsible for managing our recovery. But, just as the spouse of a diabetic assists their partner in managing their illness, we need people to help us, too.

Based on my research, my clinical background, and my own recovery experience, if I had been DJ AM’s friend, I would have told him, “Examine your motives. Think ahead to any emotions that might arise. Make plans to have the folks who support your recovery nearby when you’re taping and after each session. Talk to them, tell them what you’re feeling, and renew your commitment to your recovery each night. Most importantly, promise you will call me before you pick up a drink or a drug.”

And if I had worked for MTV, I would have advised them, “Make sure DJ AM has someone with him during filming—a long-term recovery mentor who knows him well and will help him process any cravings. Don’t ask him if the show is bothering him; he might be the last to notice it.”

We have to wonder if this type of support might have saved his life.

This Saturday, September 12, I will think of him when I represent Pennsylvania as the state delegate at the A&E Recovery Rally—one of the key events for National Recovery Month. An expected 10,000 of us will march across the Brooklyn Bridge. I will walk in memory of my stepson, who died of an overdose just 15 months ago at the age of 30, and my old friends Mark and Mike, both of whom lost their battles with addiction.

And I will walk in honor of DJ AM, who wanted so deeply to offer those in recovery meaningful support.

It’s now up to us to carry his mission forward.

Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Adjunct Clinical Professor, University of Pennsylvania
Director, Treatment Systems Section, Treatment Research Institute
Consultant, Phoenix House
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  • Kim R.

    Well said. I can tell you that here in the recovery community in Los Angeles, Adam’s sudden death has been a sad reminder for us all of the potentially fatal consequences of even a very brief relapse. We cannot understand the “why” of relapse and the un-reliable decision making that follows, but we can understand that regardless of the amount of time anyone has put together, we are truly, and sadly, always one drink or one drug away from our own very real destruction. One bad decision made in temporary distress my result in a very permanent result. May god have mercy on his soul, and I appreciate your insightful and non judgemental comments.

  • Carlos Tirado

    Can an addict ever be “clear” of his/her addiction? Sadly DJ AM is yet another example of how an individual with this chronic disease is always vulnerable. With 20/20 hindsight one can see it all building to its tragic end: re-exposure to highly rewarding drugs, psychological and physical trauma, reduced physical tolerance from long-term abstinence, triggering events associated with the show. In my work with patients in recovery, I encourage them to mindfully and continuously assess their risk and vulnerability for relapse. In my book, DJ AM was in the ultra high-risk category before his fatal overdose. I can only speculate who, if anyone, in his life was helping him continuously assess this risk.
    Since the “why” of relapse is often so complex and truly a mystery, individuals in recovery and those who help them should focus more on the “how” and “what then” aspect of effectively preventing and responding to a relapse.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  • It is important to always be aware of the potential for relapse. I have a cousin who has said to him self “I can handle it” and ended up at the same place time and again. I remember one time his sister kept telling him “one drink won’t kill you”, but it was his choice to drink or not. He did and the cycle began again.

    Most recently, a visit to his dentist caused him to go off course. He had some dental work done and was offered a prescription for Vicodin. By reasoning in his own mind that he could handle it he accepted the prescription. Before you know it he was taking handfuls at a time. People were coming out of the woodwork that had plenty of the drugs. I remember him telling me how he randomly asked someone who came into his job if he had Vicodin. He did not even know the guy. Guess what? He did! In fact he had access to hundreds of the pills.

    Well, after a few short months his car was repossessed, his relationships were in the bag, and he lost his job and was evicted from his home.

  • H. Robertson Jr.

    This is a really great article in addition the responses. I was touched as Deni Carise, Ph.D. (Thank you) so eloquently shared views on having a support group within reach no matter how much accumulated clean time or sobriety one has (complacency). This disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. May God Bless DJ AM.