Life Outside the Meeting Room - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Life Outside the Meeting Room

A stunning, disastrous day.

I was sitting at my computer in my office in Beverly Hills looking out at the palm trees waiting for a conference call from some nice people, and then the thought occurred to me to call my pal K. There is hardly anyone on this planet who has been more kind and helpful to me than K. Al and Sally Burton are in the same plane, and so is Phil, and my sister and of course, my wife, but K. really changed my life in a huge way out here.

I called him in Arizona, where he has been sitting by the sickbed of his wife, also named K. His wife has been in the ICU for three weeks (or had been). She was sick unto death (as it turned out) from four-plus decades of alcoholic behavior, severe drug abuse, lack of nutrition, lack of sleep. She had collapsed and been taken to a hospital. For the first 10 days or so, she was on a ventilator. That is a machine that breathes for you, and it is only used when the patient is extremely ill.

She had gotten off that and seemed to be recovering, but then she stopped eating and K., the husband, was sitting by her bed holding her hand and praying with her.

So, I called him on his cell. He sounded ominously sad.

“What’s happened?” I asked him. “Why do you sound like this?”

“K. passed away last night,” he said. “Her body just gave out. She’s gone.”

Then we both began to cry, and although the call went on for almost an hour (I had to join the conference call late), it all seems like a blur now.

K., the deceased wife, is the third close friend I have had “die on me,” as the horrible phrase goes, from drugs and alcohol. I hate it. I hate drugs and alcohol.

I first met K., or “Konnie” as we called her, in 1976 when I met her husband. I met him through my pal Steve Greene, who had an enormous positive influence on my life in every possible way. At the time, the husband was a major “macher” in Hollywood. He knew everyone and could Get Things Done. He had come out of nowhere and was so successful in his work that he literally had plays written about him. Famous, well-known plays.

Konnie was a well-to-do Hollywood wife. She had the perfect hair, the perfect car, the perfect home, furniture, appliances — perfect Hollywood.

But I don’t think that says who she is. She was a genuine person. She was not a West Side leftist phony. She cooked for Jewish holidays. She cared for her son and her dogs on a deep level. She was witty and always had a joke. She remembered all birthdays with marvelous, artistic, handmade cards.

Alex and I spent so many New Year’s Eves, Thanksgivings, Christmases, Passovers, with K. and K. that it was a custom. The food was always great and K. was a wizard of a hostess.

There were just a few little problems.

Konnie was often in a bad mood, and so she took powerful psychoactive meds. She did not feel quite right from them, so she took powerful alcohol. That didn’t fully work, so she took every other drug under the sun, and soon she was a full-blown drug abuser. And that went on for decades.

Her husband patiently waited for her to stop, but she never did, and then she got much worse, and now she’s dead. K., her husband, is beyond devastated. No matter how high she was, no matter how out of it she was, he loved her like the first time he saw her at Arizona State so many years ago.

He was always hoping, praying, begging for that turnaround that would make her into the sober, loving Konnie he had known in Tempe so many years ago. The change never came, and Konnie simply could not handle what the drugs were doing to her body — and now she is gone.

I know it’s not up to me to tell you, my gentle readers, how to live your lives. I know it’s up to you, not to me. But let me tell you, just for myself, that when I stopped using drugs as blinders to blind myself to what a mess I was making of my life, I awakened suicidal more times than not. The only cure — or so it seemed to me — was still more meds. (And please bear in mind, I am talking about legal drugs — and always at a level far less than the doctors prescribed.)

In 1988, I made a basic change in direction. I turned my life and my will over to the care of God as I understood Him. It took time, but so far, it has worked out brilliantly well. Beyond what I could have hoped for.

There were, in particular, a few thoughts that I could bear in mind to keep me sane and able to run through the day without medicating myself into walking anesthesia.

1. I realized that nothing that happened to me that day was especially important. I was not the center of the universe and did not need to act as if everything that happened to me was wildly vital.

2. I came to believe that a power far greater than I was had always been running my life, and that I was His instrument. I was not the director of the movie of my life. That was a far greater Power than I could ever be.

3. Perhaps most vital, I was told that “feelings come and feelings go” and that feelings are not facts. If I felt suicidally depressed at any one point in the day, it did not mean I would feel that way in an hour or an afternoon later. If I felt as if I should commit suicide because of how I was feeling at 8 a.m., I was killing the wrong man. I would almost surely feel totally different by noon.

4. I taught myself that envy is poison and that I must avoid it as if it were the toxin of a viper.

5. I came to believe that forgiveness of everyone in my life, including myself, was my highest and best use of my energy and spirit.

I learned this, and much more, in a 12-step group in Malibu from about 1988 to about 1993. I have picked up the lessons at another 12-step group in Palm Desert, California, and this place I now consider my primary residence — the meeting room, not the town.

Meanwhile, I am missing Konnie and I will take her son to dinner tonight. God bless her soul. God bless us, every one, as the saying goes.

WELL, TIME FLIES. I took the young man out to dinner and cheered him up. Now, I am on the set of a new sitcom on which I have a small role. It’s being shot at Warner Brothers in Burbank. It is a LOT of fun being here. I mean, a LOT.

Contrary to what you might think, I do not get paid a lot (except on an hourly basis) for this work. But it’s like being in the school play. It’s a group activity instead of the lonely work of writing, which is a solitary activity, and every person on the set is really pleasant, so I am enjoying it completely.

I play a sort of sullen, hostile psychiatrist. Now, my own experience is that only sometimes are shrinks hostile and destructive. My longtime shrink here, Paul, is a kindly fellow and one of the great comforts of my life. My first shrink in D.C., the famous Robert N. Butler, M.D., was sarcastic, but helpful and kind. My shrink my senior year at Yale Law School, Sidney Berman, M.D., was fantastically supportive.

I did have one or two really dangerous shrinks. One of them at the Yale Clinic came close to killing me with wildly inappropriate medication. He gave me something that literally paralyzed me as I was walking across Elm Street in New Haven. I think it was some kind of anti-psychotic. I had asked for something to help me study more. Bad medicine. Then I had a doctor I will only call B.B. in New Haven who was not to my taste. Well, enough of that.

Suffice it to say, I play a mean-spirited, unhelpful shrink. When my patient, a super-talented young woman named (in real life) Jordana Spiro, acts in an even slightly silly way, I just quit treating her. That’s not nice, but I can imagine it happening.

Anyway, being on the lot at Warner Brothers is a great way to spend a day. Far better than hearing that a close friend has died.

A RIDE BACK from our home in Rancho Mirage to Beverly Hills. (I realize that from this it sounds as if I am rich. Please take my word for it that I am not.) The trip is fairly boring and not at all scenic. But right in the middle of the journey is a delightful small town called Calimesa.

I started stopping here for gasoline and a rest stop at the Shell station. The people there were so friendly that I also started going to the next-door McDonald’s. Always friendly, always delicious, never an attitude problem. Then I tried the new Carl’s Jr., a fast food spot with excellent chicken sandwiches. Then nearby appeared a small-town Chinese place called Tang’s, with super-good food, dirt cheap and really fast. The owner is a sarcastic fellow, but I am sure his restaurant will do well. Then there was a new small grocery called Fresh & Easy. This is an offshoot of a huge British firm called Tesco. It is as easy to shop in as can be imagined, and bright and cheerful.

There is also a tasty Denny’s, a Taco Bell, and a sparkling new CVS drug store.

All of these places have fine, friendly help with no snippy big-city affectations. You have probably noticed by now that I am a total sucker for friendly people. I will go way out of my way and spend money to be around friendly people. There are so many smacks and cuts in daily life and friendly people soothe the pain.

Sometimes I think of moving to Calimesa but it’s high desert and it snows there, so I probably never will. But I love the friendly faces. We don’t have many of those in Beverly Hills. But Calimesa is not Beverly Hills. It’s small-town America and I dig it.

And those fast food places? They are like warm, glowing inns that offer hospitality and cheer along the merciless freeway.

IT IS GLOOMY here in L.A. today. Overcast. Cold. I keep thinking of my late friend, John Gregory Dunne, who used to say he hated the climate of L.A. He said it was too damp and cold. I scoffed at him, but maybe he was right.

I often think of him and his brilliant bride, Joan Didion. When I first moved out here, some 35 years ago, they were incredibly friendly to me. They joined me for lunch. They had me to a lovely dinner at their home in Trancas (which burned down after they sold it and which was right down the street from where I now have a home).

When I first moved here, everyone was wildly kind to me. Mike Ovitz. Sherry Lansing. George Diskant. Michael Eisner. Above all, Al and Sally Burton, and Norman Lear.

Hollywood can be amazingly kind and welcoming. When I moved to New York in November of 1974 to write a column for the Wall Street Journal, really only my sister and her family and my dear, dear pal Larry Lissitzyn and my super pal Susan Sgarlat and my dear, dear, dear friend Pat Marriott paid attention to me. My sister made the best meals I have ever had in my life, just as a matter of daily life. I have never had anything like them before or since.

But I think I will soon be spending most of my time in Rancho Mirage if I can afford it. The weather there except in summer is just sunny and perfect and I am getting old.

Now, if you read that I had to sell one or more of my many houses at a loss, don’t be surprised. You win some, you lose some. I cannot defeat the market.

That’s the whole meaning of a free market. I just float along on it. I don’t control it.

I would like to add one more thing. Just to wake up in America is to be FANTASTICALLY rich.

Ben Stein
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Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes “Ben Stein’s Diary” for every issue of The American Spectator.
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