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February 2, 1987, it's nearing dusk when my plane lands in Palm Springs. No one in my family is there to meet me. No friends. Just a stranger, an old man with a face that looks as if it has traveled a thousand miles of bad road. He smiles and waves in my direction. I'm sure he's seen countless like me before.
He seems kind, tries to be reassuring, but it still takes all of my strength to move toward him and his aging station wagon. He is a volunteer, the transportation of lost souls now one of his missions in life -- maybe a way to direct a little good karma back in his direction. I understand, I could use some myself.
I have never, ever felt more alone or more frightened in my life; it's as if sadness and despair have seeped deep into my bones.
He doesn't try to talk to me, and I wonder if he knows I am Deaf or just senses that I'm too emotionally fragile to talk. Either way he's right. I have no words right now. I am as close to broken as I've ever been. We head out into the fading light for a fifteen-minute drive that feels endless, the one that will take me to the Betty Ford Center, specializing in treating alcohol and drug addiction, in nearby Rancho Mirage.
My name is Marlee Matlin, and at this moment I am twenty-one years old and at the very beginning of an unexpectedly promising acting career. I've also managed to pack a few other things into those years -- among them a serious addiction to both pot and cocaine. Then there's my two-year relationship with actor William Hurt, which has gone from passionate and troubled to dangerously difficult and codependent.
The sun sets as we pull up to the front of the center, BFC to anyone who's spent time there. The building looks imposing, not welcoming, but I can see through its expanse of windows that a light is on inside.
It should have been the best time of my life. And in a surreal way it was. Almost exactly forty-eight hours earlier and a world away in the bright lights and red-carpet glitz of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, I had won a Golden Globe as Best Actress for my performance as Sarah Norman, the profoundly Deaf and profoundly angry young woman who finds herself and love in the film Children of a Lesser God.
I stood on the stage that night in a simple black dress I'd found a few days earlier, no speech, looking down into a sea of faces. So many of the actors whose careers I'd been awed by were applauding me. I had won in a category that included Anne Bancroft, Sigourney Weaver, Julie Andrews, and Farrah Fawcett -- all Hollywood veterans. I was dizzy with happiness. I felt humbled, unable to quite believe this was truly happening. To the rest of the world it must have seemed that everything was going my way. My very first film had come with a celebrated costar in William Hurt, who quickly became my mentor and my lover, and not in that order. For the most part the critics had been exceedingly kind to the film, it was doing good business at the box office both in the United States and overseas, which always makes the studio bosses happy, and now the Golden Globes had officially launched the movie, and me with it, into the Oscar race.
Though much of my life was falling apart, for that one night I was able to put all the problems and the pain aside and let the extraordinary evening wash over me. I don't know whether it's fate or karma or just me, but for every momentous time in my life -- good or bad -- it seems the gods always throw in something for comic relief. On the way up to the podium to accept my Golden Globe, I looked down and realized that one of the Lee press-on nails that I'd glued on and painted bright red earlier that day had come off. Instead of thinking about what I would say, my only thought was how in the world could I sign and hide that broken nail!
But once I hit the stage, that thought flew from my mind. All I could think about was how grateful I was to be recognized in this way. And that is essentially what I signed. Short, simple, heartfelt.
The walk backstage to the pressroom, Golden Globe in hand, was amazing, overwhelming. My heart was pounding, I swear I could feel each beat, hundreds of strobe lights were going off in my face, photographers were screaming my name until Whoopi Goldberg flung her arms around me, gave me a squeeze, and said with no small irony to the crowd, "Hey, guys, she's Deaf, she can't hear you."
But photographers are a hungry bunch -- a really great shot puts steak on the table and a Mercedes in the driveway -- so it didn't take long for them to figure out the trick to getting my attention. So the shouts were replaced by waving hands, and I twisted and turned and smiled as the hands in front of me waved wildly.
That night I went back to my room at the L'Ermitage hotel and closed the door on Hollywood -- at least for a time.
On the other side of that door, the Oscar campaign for the movie was getting ready to kick into overdrive. I had no idea how Oscar season worked in Hollywood, all that it entailed. There was publicity to do, photo shoots to line up, magazine covers to consider, TV talk shows to book. There were calls from the studio, the media, old friends, new friends, agents.
The calls would go unanswered, the interviews would all be turned down, the photo shoots nixed. I had decided I was going to quietly disappear, leaving it to Jack Jason, my interpreter and increasingly the person I relied on to help with the business details of my life, to run interference for me. I told him to say no to everything -- though I was pretty much oblivious of how much that would be -- but to tell absolutely no one where I was or why I wasn't available. No exceptions.
I was lucky. Today in the world of rabid paparazzi and TMZ such discretion wouldn't be possible. But in 1987, only a handful of people knew where I was going -- my immediate family, Jack, and, of course Bill, whose own stint at Betty Ford was barely finished by the time I checked in.
It was hard enough to go into rehab, it was harder still that I had virtually no support for my decision. Bill was the only person encouraging me. Everyone else thought whatever problems I might have with drugs weren't all that serious, and, besides, didn't I realize my career was at stake?
In a seven-page letter that was typical of the pressure I was under from those closest to me, my dad wrote:
So you smoke pot -- big deal -- do you understand you are just starting a career and by checking into a hospital, can ruin your life.... Don't go to the Betty Ford clinic. You have something going for you -- don't throw it away -- don't waste it.
You missed a lot in life but maybe this little bit of fame can make up a small portion of what you missed.
This letter came as a follow-up to a huge fight my mother and I had over my decision to go into rehab. Even Jack, who was spending hours a day with me interpreting interviews and meetings, thought the timing was wrong and the problem wasn't that severe.
But it was. Consider January 9, 1987, one particularly memorable day of my life on drugs.
I was in Chicago at my parents' house and due to fly to California the next day to be with Bill at Betty Ford during Family Week as part of his rehab therapy. I knew deep inside that during the counseling sessions they would bust me about my drug use, so I tried to finish everything I had.
Here's an inventory of that day: I had a gram of coke, a half-ounce bag of pot, a pipe, rolling papers, and a bong. All by myself, I finished the coke but couldn't finish the pot; though I really tried, there was just too much. That doesn't even touch the emotional issues I had that were fueling my drug use.
I remember cleaning up my desk in a haze, finding anything that I could that was drug-related and throwing it all away. It was in my gut that this would be the last time I would ever use. But I knew, no matter how determined I was to keep drugs out of my life, I needed help.
Looking back on it now, I realize everything in my life up to that point -- my childhood, my family, my deafness, the obstacles, the opportunities, the friends and lovers, the molester and the abusers, the doctors and the teachers, and always the acting -- had all meshed to buy me a ticket on that forty-eight-hour roller-coaster ride in 1987. Forty-eight hours that delivered an amazing, drug-free high at the Golden Globes and an immeasurable low as I faced the entrance to Betty Ford and the hard work I knew I had ahead of me if I was to build a life of sobriety.
The intersection of these two events would change the way I would navigate life -- and the life I would have to navigate -- forever. Copyright © 2009 by Handjive Productions, Inc.