Excerpt from Killing Willis
I reached for my gun.
This was December 29, 1992, and I was worn out. It'd been a long time coming. I'd been using and dealing on and off for six years, and even though I'd been trying to get my act cleaned up, it clearly wasn't working. I decided to give the cops what I knew they wanted, the chance to say they'd taken down Todd Bridges, the former child star turned drug dealer, whether they got me with bullets or with bars.
I never would have let myself get caught with drugs in my car before. When I was a serious dealer of crack and methamphetamine, I dealt to supply my own addiction to both. Being high made me more alert, and I was high all the time. Sometimes things got real weird, and I felt like I was living in one of the movies I had acted in during my old life. But I always knew when the cops were watching me, and I kept my stuff well hidden.
The drugs and dealing had been exciting for a while. But more importantly, they had kept me numb. They made me forget all of the bad things that had happened to me as a child. On the outside, I'd had it all, living the life I'd always dreamed of as a TV star with a lead part on the hit shows Fish and Diff'rent Strokes. But that wasn't the whole story.
A few months before my run-in with the Burbank Police, I'd met this girl, Tiffany. With me, there was always a girl involved somehow. There was something nice, almost normal, about this particular girl. She was mulatto, medium height, and curvy. She had this reddish hair that she wore short and spiked. She started hanging around, and pretty soon we were dating. I guess that's what you'd call it. I wasn't exactly the kind of guy who sent flowers back then. But we were together a lot, just doing whatever. And even though she was using drugs herself, she was supportive, in her own way, of the fact that I was trying to get my life together.
I was done with how crazy the drugs made me: the paranoia, the hallucinations, the feeling that maybe if I had to draw my gun on somebody, and then, if he drew his gun and shot me to death, it'd be for the best. I didn't think my mind or my spirit could take much more.
I quit meth. I quit crack. I basically quit selling drugs. I had a little money that my mom had kept safe for me during the years I had gotten heavily into drugs, and I just tried to live something like a normal life.
But getting out wasn't that easy. Not after I'd been so deeply involved for as long as I had been. On the day of my run-in with the Burbank Police, I was in my house in Sun Valley when I got a phone call from this other girl, Joelle, I'd hung around with for a month or so, about seven months earlier. I knew I shouldn't be taking calls from other girls when I was seeing someone, so I went into the other room to keep Tiffany from hearing my conversation.
I knew Joelle was dangerous, but I wasn't thinking too clear right then.
"Can you get me a sixteenth of speed?" she asked.
"No, I'm not doing that anymore," I said, keeping my voice down.
"Well, can you just go find somebody to get it for me?"
Her voice was real flirty-like. I knew if I did her a favor, I'd get something good in return. Girls who needed drugs would do anything. That's how I liked it.
"Yeah, okay," I said. "Where do you want me to meet you at?"
We worked out a plan where I would meet her in Burbank to get the cash to buy the drugs, go buy them, and then hook back up with her in Burbank. If there was one thing I had learned, it was to never buy drugs for someone without getting the money up front. People were always trying to pull something. And if she didn't pay me for the speed once I bought it, it would be worthless for me to hold out on giving it to her, since I wasn't using anymore. What I cared about was how she was planning to say thank you. I had a few ideas in mind.
This was not easy to do. The cops had been a constant force in my life since I was fifteen. That's when my family moved to the San Fernando Valley. The police force started harassing me, pulling me over, calling me a n*****, and finding any excuse they could to hassle me until I came to hate the color of my own skin, almost as much as I hated the police. They'd arrested me plenty of times since I'd gotten into drugs, and they'd been following me pretty much nonstop for the past two years. In fact, my good friend Shawn Giani, who was my neighbor in Sun Valley for many years, had called me and tipped me off that the cops had asked if they could watch my house from his bushes.
At the height of my meth use, I got so messed up on drugs that I went out to their undercover van and started banging on it, shouting, "I know you're in there!" There was a guy in there, all right. He took one look at me, climbed up into the driver's seat, and drove away. But that wasn't the last I saw of him.
Whatever I was doing, I could count on the fact that there was always a cop somewhere nearby. When I was on meth, no matter how high I was, I knew the police were out there. And I was always able to avoid them. Even when I was doing fourteen grams of meth a day, and so high I was having hallucinations, driving around with drugs and loaded guns in my car, dropping off and picking up the girls I had working the streets for me, the cops never caught me.
But on that day in December, I smoked some pot, and pot made me stupid, real stupid. It was the only thing I was doing since I'd quit crack and meth. It should have been an improvement, right? It would have been, except for the fact that on pot, I was a total moron. That made me an easy target. I didn't care that the cops were following me because I didn't know. I had forgotten that cops even existed.
They happened to stop a lady who knew my mother.
"Have you seen Todd Bridges in here?" they asked her, thinking she'd be able to recognize me from TV, not knowing she was a family friend.
"No," she said. "He hasn't been here."
After checking the store, the officers jumped back into their squad car and drove away. As soon as they were out of sight, that lady ran to a pay phone and called my mom.
"They're looking for your son," she told my mom.
My mom wasn't at all surprised to receive a call like that. She'd prayed, and cried. She'd come to family therapy sessions when I was in rehab. She'd bailed me out of jail when she could, and visited me in jail when I was denied bail. But nothing had done anything to turn me around. At the time, I was so far gone that I couldn't register anything beyond how low I was feeling about myself, and how the drugs—whether it was crack or speed or pot—made this pain go away. I couldn't hear what she was saying when she begged me to get sober, and I certainly couldn't understand how much I was hurting her. But no matter how dark my life got, my mom never gave up on me. When she learned that the cops were after me, she called my house. And when she got the machine, she left a message for me.
"Whatever you're doing, stop it now. The police are looking for you."
I didn't ever get that message.
The police hadn't given up searching for me. Far from it. They picked me back up. As soon as I heard the siren, I knew they had me. I pulled over. They came out of everywhere. And they made it clear—they weren't playing.
"Get out of the car, right now!" one of the officers yelled at me, his gun drawn.
Behind him, the officers from the other squad cars and the undercover van stood at the ready, legs wide, guns drawn. A drug dog barked and tugged at its leash. I had been through this before. My trial for attempted murder in '89 was big news. The headlines that ran on TV and in the tabloids were plenty nasty. I'd had to go through it again a year later, when they retried the case.
I couldn't face it all over again. I was totally demoralized.
I hit the button and opened the secret compartment where my gun was hidden. I had a 9mm Beretta in there, and I put my hand on the grip.
The cops were ready, too. They watched me closely.
But then something spoke to me from deep inside of myself, maybe God, maybe some part of me that had somehow managed to survive all of the bad stuff I had been through and wasn't ready to give up, no matter how much pain I was in.
"Don't reach for it," the voice said. "Just let it go."
It was a hard choice. Suicide by cop was easy compared to what I had in front of me. I had gone from being a teen idol to a tabloid joke. I was broke, and I didn't have any prospects of getting my career back. I had been to rehab five times. I usually didn't last more than a few days. It never once stuck for longer than a few months. I had spent almost a year in jail while awaiting trial and vowed I would never go back. I had tried, and failed, to block out all of the things that had been written about me in the press before. I had felt pain and self-hatred so deep and raw that the only way to silence it was with drugs.
But this was not how I wanted to end it. I wanted to live. I let go of my gun and closed up the secret compartment.
I kept my hands visible as I opened the car door slowly, careful not to spook them. I got out of the car, trying to act cool. Everything went crazy after that. The sirens ripped through my skull. The drug dog leaped toward me, barking even louder. I rested my hands on the back of my head to show I was cooperating and backed up toward them, trying not to imagine being shot in the back. The police were all over me. They rushed up, shouting orders, their guns at close range.
The undercover officer whose van I'd ambushed when I was out of my mind on drugs came up and put his gun to my head.
"I've got you now, motherf***er," he said.
I wasn't exactly in a position to argue.
They grabbed me, got me onto the ground, and held me there. They patted me down and let the dog go over me. I was wearing baggy Cross Colours clothes, which young black men were really into at the time, and they checked all of the pockets for weapons and drugs. When they cuffed my arms behind my back, I knew it was all over. As they put me in the back of a squad car, I actually felt a sense of relief. I hated my old way of living so much that I had been ready to die. And now I had a chance at something better, if I could only hold it together this time.
When the cops searched my Mercedes, they found my gun and the speed. They knew right where to look. Not too many people were aware of my secret hiding place. But Joelle knew. I was sure she had set me up.
I wanted to kill her. I would have, too, if I'd seen her right then. My mind was still all screwed up from the drugs and everything I'd been through.
But I was tired of feeling like that, of living in a world of drugs and guns, where surviving meant getting the other person before he could get me. I felt lucky that I had made it out alive. I was going to at least try to stay that way. I basically told the officer everything. Ironically, there wasn't much to tell, not like if they had arrested me a year earlier. Since I had quit using hard drugs, and pretty much quit dealing, my life was fairly tame. But there was enough to keep me in jail.
I called up my lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, who went on to make his name defending O. J. Simpson during his murder trial. Johnnie came down and sat next to me in the cell. He rolled his ring around on his finger, thinking, before he spoke.
"I'm going to tell you what," he said. "This is the last time I'm going to help you with anything. If you don't straighten your life out, I'm done. Don't call me. Don't be my friend. I don't need you in my life if you can't straighten yourself out."
"You know, Johnnie," I said, "I'm ready to stop. I just need to know how."
"Well, you need to figure out how to do it," he said.
That was the problem. I didn't even know how to start.
I was bailed out of jail a few hours later. I went home, and even though I had the desire to turn my life around, I couldn't. I started getting high again right away, and not only on marijuana either. I was back on meth and crack. Like I had told Johnnie: I didn't know how to stop. I stayed high for the next few months, until I had to go back to court. I probably would have felt bad about letting Johnnie down, and about letting myself down, and about letting my mother and everyone else in my life down. But when I was high, I didn't feel anything. That was the whole point.
Finally, I went to court in Pasadena. My mom was there, sitting next to this old guy I had never seen before. I looked at the judge's bench, and I saw this circle with a triangle in it. I knew it was from AA, and I knew that it meant unity, strength, and hope. I was looking at it as the judge was talking to me and thinking about how I'd never been able to stay sober for longer than a few months at a time.
"I'll tell you what I'm going to do, Mr. Bridges," he said. "Two things can happen. I'll either send you to jail tonight, or you can go to rehab tonight. What do you want to do?"
"I want to go to rehab," I said.
"Okay, well, you need to show up there by eight o'clock tonight," he said. "If you do not show up there, I will put a bench warrant out for your arrest."
"Oh, no, I'll be there," I said.
I turned around and looked at my mom. I knew that she was behind the rehab deal, and I was angry at her for doing this to me. She had set it all up with the guy sitting next to her. He worked over at this rehab called CPC Westwood, and he made deals with the court system so people like me, who needed help getting sober, could go to rehab instead of jail. I should have been glad that I didn't have to go to jail. I should have felt lucky that my mom hadn't given up on me, even though I'd put her through hell for the past seven years. But I didn't want to kick. I had done it before; I had sweated it out and been sick with diarrhea and the shakes and the worst cravings I'd ever known in my life. I did not want to do it again. I did not want to go to rehab. Being sober allowed me to feel way more pain than I could bear. And I hadn't been taught anything to help me manage my pain during those five other times I had gone to rehab. I couldn't believe it would be any different now.
But at the same time, I was already turning away from my old ways. I didn't want to continue being nothing but an addict and a dealer. I knew I had to get over the anguish that tormented me from my childhood and dig my way out of this hole.
"Look," I said. "Come pick me up at seven o'clock. No matter what, you have to be here at seven o'clock. You have to take me to this rehab place."
I decided that I wasn't going to give myself any excuse to want to use drugs ever again. I went out and spent my last bit of money on crack and weed and meth. I brought it home and sat down on my living room couch and spread it all out in front of me. And then I just went for it. I smoked about $200 worth of crack. I shot about $300 worth of meth. I smoked a bunch of weed in one of the homemade bongs I was always building from PVC pipe and whatever else was lying around. I did all of the drugs I had bought before it was time for my buddy to come pick me up. That way I wouldn't be able to say, "I didn't do this or I didn't do that."
I didn't want to leave myself any excuses. I was tired of excuses.
My friend showed up to get me at seven o'clock, and we drove over to CPC Westwood. Even before we got there, all of the paranoia I used to feel when I was shooting a lot of meth came rushing back on me like no time had passed. I was chain smoking and looking every which way, sure everyone was after me.
I got myself checked in, and not only was I paranoid, but I was furious, too. It was a really nice place, with beautiful grounds and a pool. But I did not want to be there. Right away, I went from wanting to get sober to being angry that I had to stop using or go to jail. It was not fair that it had to go down like this. I was mad at everybody. I called my mom, and when I got her on the phone, I didn't thank her for standing by me for all of those years, or for getting me into a safe place in the end. No, instead I said, "I hate you, and I never want to talk to you ever again."
A nurse came in and smiled at me.
"You've got to go to a meeting," she said.
"I'm not going to no meeting," I said. "Screw you."
All of my anger erupted then. It was like when I was in school and a bully pushed me too far, and I started releasing this pure rage built up from everything bad that had happened to me in my home life. There was no stopping me until I let it all out of me. I stormed into the bathroom, ripped the shower rod down from the wall, and held it up like a weapon as I ran back into my bedroom.
"Come on!" I shouted. "Any of you guys come in here, I'm going to hit you all with this shower rod."
I didn't care how many staff members they sent in after me. The anger had a hold on me, and I was going to fight them all.
I heard them sound some sort of alarm out in the hall.
I stood there with my shower rod in the air, wondering what was going on.
"I don't care," I thought. "What are they going to do? Send all of their guys in here? Let them. I'm going to beat the crap out of all their guys. Come on!"
That got my attention.
"What the hell is that?" I thought. "Sounds like a big guy."
This huge, black, bald-headed guy came in. He was so big, he had to duck under the doorway to get inside my room. He looked at me, sized up my lifetime of anger and my shower rod, and I could tell that he was not impressed.
"This can be hard, or this can be easy," he said.
That was enough to convince me.
"Easy," I said.
I dropped the shower rod, and it made a pathetic clinking sound when it hit the ground. But their definition of "easy" wasn't exactly the same as mine. They grabbed me and took me upstairs to the psych ward. They put me in a diaper, and they strapped me down in four points. It was the same thing they had done to me back in county jail in '89. I guess I hadn't learned all that much in the meantime. Talk about demoralizing.
"This is a far cry from Willis Jackson," I kept thinking.
For three days, they kept me strapped down like that. It was the worst way to kick drugs. I was super-aware of every inch of my body, and it all felt sick. My skin itched. I was sweaty, and shaking with chills, all at the same time. My mouth was dry. My stomach cramped up, and I had the worst diarrhea right there in my diaper. But there was nothing I could do to stop it from happening, or to clean myself up. The whole time, I couldn't stop thinking how simple it would be to just smoke some crack or shoot some meth and make it stop. That's all it would take to make the bad feelings go away. Not only that, but I'd feel good. I'd feel better than good. I'd feel invincible. When I wasn't thinking about drugs, I was obsessed by thoughts about the girl who had ratted me out, and how I'd like to make her pay for what she'd done. But I was trapped there, and so I had no choice but to get through it.
Finally, they released one arm. I was exhausted, and my anger was starting to fade, so I didn't make a fist and punch any of the orderlies in the face. Instead, I scratched my itches and held on to my stomach when it hurt and kept listening to those kids. They were my link to the outside world and the possibility of a better life. A full day went by, and then they released the other arm. The whole thing had been pretty humbling, and I wasn't really feeling angry anymore, so I didn't threaten anyone. The next day, they released a leg. On the fourth day, when they felt confident that I wasn't going to hurt myself or anyone else, they released my other leg.
Finally, when they let me up off the table on which I'd been restrained, I was able to look out the window. The voices I had heard belonged to normal kids who lived in the neighborhood. There was nothing special about them or their circumstances. I was the one who had been given the charmed life, and the chance to live my dream of being an actor from the time I was seven years old. But they had something I had never had: They were happy, and they felt good about themselves. Now that I could see happiness right there in front of me, I wanted it for myself.
"God, I want what they have," I said.
"I want to get down there" I kept saying, over and over again.
"Nobody wants you down there," Dwayne replied every time. "None of the counselors wants to deal with you. They think you're out of control and violent."
I could see why they would think that, based on my past record, and even how I had acted on my first day in rehab. I had been out of control and violent. But I didn't feel that way anymore. I felt like maybe I was ready to change. I wanted to try.
"Please, just let me down there, even on a temporary basis," I said. "Let me prove to them that I can do this."
Dwayne was working on getting me to where I could leave the psych ward. He had figured out that my impulse-control mechanism was damaged, and so he put me on Depakote, which calms the brain when a person gets angry. It helped me be able to do what I call "add and subtract in my head," so I stopped going all nuts on people, and I could think about the consequences of something before I did it.
But even with the Depakote, I had a lot to live down, and they weren't convinced I was ready yet. So I stayed where I was.
And then, one day, I was sitting on my bed upstairs in the psych ward, and all of a sudden, a light hit me. I felt the power of something bigger than me—I don't know what this life force is for other people, but for me, it was God—and He spoke right to me.
That's all I wanted. It had taken those kids outside to make me realize it, but I wanted what everybody else in the world had, even when they were going through a bad day. I wanted to be happy to be alive. I wanted to be happy about me. I wanted to be happy about my life. I wanted to be happy about my surroundings. Because, for so many years, I wasn't happy, even though I had everything that was supposed to make me happy—money, fame, women, and the chance to live out my dream as a successful actor on a hit TV show. Since I was a kid, I'd been sad about who I was. The world had taught me that the color of my skin meant I could expect to be called names and threatened and hated. For years I was sad about what had been done to me when I was young. I kept blaming myself for that and for everything else, too.
But then it hit me. The only thing I really had to take responsibility for was using drugs. None of that other stuff was my fault. After that moment, they told me I could go downstairs. This real sweet redheaded woman named Judy said she would be my counselor in rehab, this meant she believed in me, and she thought I had a chance at staying sober. I was scared that I would let her down. I had tried this so many times before. I knew that without the drugs to keep me numb, I was going to start feeling all of the things I'd been trying to outrun for so many years. I knew that no matter how much I wanted to change, my first instinct was going to be a return to the drugs to dull the pain. I didn't know if I was capable of anything else.
But slowly I was starting to think that maybe I was. Because, for the first time in a long time, I did something different than I had done before. When I got downstairs, and I started working with Judy, I finally knew enough to just shut up and listen. I took in everything she and everyone else had to say. It started to make sense. I wasn't happy yet, but at least I wasn't dead. I wasn't even as unhappy as I had been before. I started thinking about what had happened to knock me so far down in life, because I sure didn't want to go back to those depths ever again. What I wanted was to be the good person I knew I could be. What I wanted was to stop feeling guilty about getting people strung out on drugs, and making my family worry, and letting myself down. No matter how painful it ended up being, I made up my mind to remember. I vowed to face everything that had driven me to become a drug addict, finally let it go, forgive myself, and move on with my life. I could tell it wasn't going to be easy. But for the first time in a long time, I was determined to try.