Cut to Jeff Conaway, hunched over an outdoor table in the spacious expanse of backyard at his San Fernando Valley home. It's 5 in the afternoon on a hot October weekend, nearly six weeks after the wrap of Celebrity Rehab. A brace encases his torso to stabilize the fragile vertebrae that doctors operated on just a week ago; slippers warm his feet. A walker waits by his chair, and in his hand are two pain pills, put there by girlfriend Vikki Lizzi.
His back injury pulled him out of the show 17 days into the run, but it was his dramatic withdrawal from pain meds and cocaine and only God knows what else that launches the drama for the first episode, which ends with Jeff being wheeled out of the recovery center by paramedics.
"They told me I had a seizure. I said, 'I didn't have a seizure, I just passed out. I do it all the time.'" He stops the story to take the pills in his hand. "Drew is looking at me like, 'Oh Jeff, oh Jeff, you don't understand anything, that's not normal.' I said, 'For the amount of pills I'm taking, it's normal for me.'"
This wasn't his first time at the barbecue, as it were. Jeff's had six, seven (who's counting?) stabs at rehab. Then there were the 14 years he swears he was sober. But one night—his third date with Vikki, he recalls—it was raining and he said wistfully that all he wanted was her, a warm fire and…a little cocaine. She pulled out her phone to call a dealer, and the rest is—well, you know the line.
But back to the issue at hand: What was it like being on the show?
"I called it Looney Tunes Rehab, because I said, 'This is not a rehab. You've got cameras all over the place, 24 hours a day, microphones in the background.' It was really, like, disturbing," he says. "You are not only rehabbing a drug problem, you are rehabbing a whole spiritual malady. You're going deep—if you go…"
Still he knew that, in essence, what they were paying him for was to display some good dysfunction. "They kind of prodded me," he says. "When I got back from the hospital, Shelly [a drug counselor on the show, who normally works with Drew] said, 'Thank God you're here, it's so boring without you, nobody is even puking.' I said to myself, 'Okay, they want the wild, crazy Conaway; that's my part…' At one point someone asked, 'Are you acting?' And I said, 'Of course I'm acting. What do you think? It's a show. It's a job. Getting clean is just a perk.' I'm serious. If these people had called you up and said, 'Do you want to go to rehab?' and they weren't paying you anything, you wouldn't be here."
Jeff's eyes drift for a moment over the table, and a smile curls his lips. He then begins to talk about Halihan, a leprechaun he has just seen, one who lives at his house. An actual leprechaun.
In the language of drug recovery, that's called…being loaded.
Focus on the brain. According to Drew, addiction is not—and this he wants everyone to fully understand—a failure of willpower. During a recent hour-long lecture at the facility in Las Encinas, Jessica sits cross-legged on the linoleum floor, a small bag of Cheetos in hand, her head tilted as Drew explains that there is a "powerful biological explanation." It has to do with neurological changes in the reward and survival system. Excessive drug use chemically tricks the brain so that the pursuit of the drug becomes a higher priority than survival. He tells the crowd that drugs may seem more important to them than staying alive because that's exactly the message their brains are giving them.
We Hear You!