Right now, fentanyl kills one American every seven minutes. It is at least 50 times stronger than heroin, and if you have an addictive bone in your body, good luck. It will get you in its clutches, wrestle you to the ground and never release you. How do I know this?
My daughter, Lola, went to private schools, graduated with honours, was loved to pieces and became a successful artist. But with the advent of the most dangerous drug in history, my kind, charismatic daughter went off the rails.
I’ve bailed her out of jail on drug charges, slapped dealers in an alley at midnight, and sprinted down a Hollywood street chasing a meth-crazed, gun-toting psychotic junkie who’d just stolen her wallet.
And when I’m not meeting interventionists, going to Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon meetings, talking to lawyers and secretly checking text messages, I’m watching her and trying not to get too involved. Ha ha.
And no, before you ask, I’ve not truly heeded the well-meaning advice of folks who insist I should “let go and let God” or “detach with love”. I’m trying to keep her alive.
I believe that with fentanyl you have no choice with a loved one but to interfere. The “bottom” you hope addicts reach, before they see the light, is a myth. There is no bottom. With this drug, the bottom is death.
Fentanyl is dangerous for everyone, but there are two distinct scenarios. There are “party people” who indulge just now and then, and unknowingly buy cocaine – or heroin – laced with fentanyl. They can die within minutes.
Then there are the hard-core addicts like my daughter, who knows her source and confidently boasts that she’s never overdosed and never will. But then I point out how many of her friends have died and she pipes down.
Let’s go back. In September 1999, Vogue published a piece I had written about Lola, titled “Daughter Dearest”.
“In three months, my Lola turns 13,” it read. “Her life is turning into a horror story. A terrifying experience. For me, not her. I may be a mother but I’m not a moron. I’ve seen Dawson’s Creek. I’ve listened to Eminem: first it’s sex, then drugs, then sex on drugs.”
If I found her entry into teenage years upsetting… well, fast-forward a couple of decades. Fentanyl is everywhere. And it became a way of life for Lola.
Don’t get me wrong. The past 24 years have not been one continual train wreck. There have been some glorious moments. Lola found herself an extraordinary mentor: Anjelica Huston’s late husband, the sculptor Robert Graham. Drawn to his sensibilities, she transferred from Chicago to LA so she could be his part-time assistant. Her graduate show was spectacular.
Lola’s empathy and kindness are boundless. When her beloved grandmother’s health was failing, Lola moved in and slept on the floor until her grandmother died in her arms.
I’ve been wildly impressed and moved, watching her play so creatively for hours with her little brother, my adopted son, Nick, now 28; amazed as she created unique, massive flower sculptures to commemorate the ashes of her granny being flung into the sky.
Not so proud when the local beauty supply store owner announced 18 months ago that it was only because he’d known me for years that he didn’t call the cops when Lola and her friend tried to pay with counterfeit $100 bills.
I’d married her dad, Chris Thompson, a gifted TV comedy writer, after a whirlwind romance. (Chris discovered Tom Hanks and created the sitcom Bosom Buddies, which gave Hanks his first big break.) We met in 1987, three weeks after Chris had left hospital following a cocaine binge.
Warning bells should have clanged loudly, but he was sober then. Recently arrived in LA after 10 years working as a journalist in London, I’d been trying to further my new career as a director of comedy shorts for Rowan Atkinson and Tracey Ullman, meeting with dull goody-two-shoes execs.
Suddenly this sexy bad boy had me roaring with laughter. A plumber-turned-stand-up comic, he was already the funniest and highest-paid guy in any writers’ room.
Ten months after meeting him, I was walking down the aisle, three months pregnant, as a gospel choir sang Waltzing Matilda in a celebrity-packed Westwood church.
He’d fallen off the wagon a few weeks earlier and it was a tad alarming. But I was pregnant and busy directing music videos. Even if I’d been as well versed in addiction as I am now, I would not have backed out.
Still, the fact that he nearly missed the wedding after a drug-fuelled bachelor party hosted by Timothy Leary should have given me pause.
But he made it. Outside, a videographer recorded Tom Hanks, Richard Lewis and Bill Maher trying to out-joke each other as Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson and Lauren Hutton partied in the background. You get the idea.
We left for a honeymoon in Tahiti. But the joy was short-lived. A few months after I gave birth, Chris was far from clean and sober and started having an affair with the lead actress in his latest TV sitcom.
I was busy directing – more music videos, some Saturday Night Live comedy shorts, TV episodes and a feature for Paramount – but I tried hard to make the marriage work. He walked out for good when Lola was two.
I began a seven-year fling with Al Pacino and made sure Lola saw Chris, now diagnosed as bipolar, on a regular basis. From an early age, she realised that her dad had a serious alcohol and cocaine problem.
She lived in dread that her adored father would die. Out of guilt, he spoiled her and skipped actual parenting. He treated her like a friend, not a daughter.
Chris thought I was insane for insisting that Lola attend “after-school rehab” for smoking pot at 15. He may have been right about that, since she was then exposed to all manner of older druggie kids, but it’s hard to say. By the time she was in her mid-20s she had tried heroin.
The last series Chris created was Shake It Up, but after two seasons he was fired for drinking on set. Guess who he called, in tears? His sensitive, traumatised daughter – who else?
A year later he was homeless, broke and living in the tiny spare room of an old friend, Tim Curry. We were thrilled when out of the blue his former super-agent Ari Emanuel had a gig for him: reworking an Israeli comedy for Amazon. Chris wrote a treatment. “I might be relevant again,” he told me.
I told him that Lola had started using heroin again. He agreed we had to get her into treatment. We would talk with Lola at her birthday dinner in three days.
Two days later, four days before his Amazon pitch meeting, he called several friends. No one was free to hit golf balls with him. So he cruised into a bar, drank martinis and scored drugs.
That night, I got a call from an unknown number. “We cannot revive a Chris Thompson,” a voice told me.
“Please keep trying!” I shrieked.
A long silence. “Is he dead?” I asked after what seemed like an eternity.
“Yep. I’m sorry,” muttered the cop.
Her entire life Lola had feared her dad might die like this, and then it happened. On her birthday. I knew she’d never get over it.
The night of her father’s memorial, Lola shone brightly. But I looked in her bag and saw the drugs, the pipe, all the fixings. It was going to be a bumpy ride.
Lola insisted she could get off heroin herself. Cold turkey. The reality was tough. When a loved one kicks heroin, your own life comes to a halt.
One attempt ended with police and a psychiatric-evaluation team as physical violence broke out between me and some of Lola’s “friends’”who’d brought ketamine to “cheer her up”.
But her art drove her on, and she was full of life. Until she wasn’t. Huge mood swings. High highs, very low lows. Diagnosed as bipolar, like her dad. Despite being high, or maybe because of it, long nights of painting till dawn paid off. She was in her first group show. More group shows followed, then her first big solo show.
People loved her sexy nude watercolours. Her witty captions. She was prolific. And like her dad, she had a wonderfully sharp, edgy sense of humour. She wrote naughty poetry, took part in readings all over town. She’d visit the flower market at dawn and fill her convertible with peonies, pansies and poppies.
But still grief-stricken, Lola had started using more and more drugs.
I took her to see doctors, then grief therapists. Finally I dragged her to a bare-bones rehab near Palm Desert. Healthcare, especially for addiction in the greatest country on Earth, is almost nonexistent without money or good insurance. Somehow in the chaos she’d let her great Obamacare health coverage lapse. I’ve made sure to pay it every month since then.
(Please bear in mind that having a bunch of rich pals doesn’t make you rich. Being an outspoken female director was not always appreciated by the deeply chauvinist folks of Hollywood. Lola has not been cheap, but I have a few very kind and generous friends.)
Surrounded by barbed wire, the facility resembled a women’s jail. Instead of therapy, clients had to clean toilets and do laundry. Fair enough. But after Lola was peer-pressured to smoke meth at midnight by a “bunch of court-ordered crackheads”, she left.
Next stop, another rehab, this one suggested by Giles, Lola’s new art director boyfriend. It was in Tijuana, Mexico. (And her American health insurance was not accepted.) They gave her ibogaine, a psychedelic – illegal in the US but unregulated in Mexico – made from the bark of the iboga tree. The “trip” can result in diminished dependence on opioids. It seemed worth a try. Lola stayed clean for four months.
Then alarming things begin to happen: Lola’s apartment swiftly turns into a “trap house”, where drugs are used all hours of the day. Jane, a Midwestern college grad, introduces Lola and friends to fentanyl, the cool new street drug that’s easy to find when heroin is scarce.
Fentanyl is cheap and easy to make. Drug cartels love it because it’s easy to smuggle and transport. Dealers love it because it’s so addictive. Addicts can’t get enough.
Then, as is always the case with Lola, out of nowhere something good happens that gives me hope. Lisa Gorman, an Aussie fashion designer, spots Lola’s Instagram posts and asks to put her “exceptional art” on to clothes to launch her first American store.
Lola then pulls off her best solo art show yet, at a gallery in Hollywood, exhibiting huge watercolors and smaller, gorgeous oil paintings of flowers and plants. I beg her to go back to rehab. She tells me she desperately needs help to fight the crippling self-loathing, grief and shame. Fentanyl makes her feel light, happy and pain-free.
Soon after, Giles puts her paintings into storage and quits their shared studio. He can take no more. Mothers have to be fatigue-free, but weaker mortals, like boyfriends, drop by the wayside. His departure leaves her reeling. Unanchored.
Soon Lola becomes a full-on drug dealer, something I first realise when she leaves her phone unattended on a rare visit. There are messages from sick dope addicts begging for “more of that great shit you sold me last week”. Texts to warm the cockles of your heart.
My worst fears are confirmed when I FaceTime her one Saturday. She cheerfully says she’ll call right back. But she doesn’t, forgetting to hang up, and I watch in horror, as Lola stocks up. Drugs, tattooed creeps, a big bodyguard and scales come in and out of view.
“You got any more of that Midnight Special?” she asks. “I can move that all day long.’”And then, “How much fent you got?”
This continues until I see a strange face come closer to the screen. It sees that the video call is continuing. The face starts to scream and curse Lola out: “What the fuck? Are you a snitch?” The screen goes black.
By then, many of Lola’s friends have gravitated toward me. I’ve let them stay over for weeks at a time. Helped them get health insurance, abortions, food stamps, money for underwear or money for a lawyer. Many, many rides to rehabs.
I meet with several interventionists, but when they hear about Lola’s out-of-control life – counterfeit money and friends with guns – they run. Then a friend of hers calls and tells me Lola was woken at dawn and extorted at gunpoint to the tune of $8,000 by a gang for dealing on their turf.
Now truly desperate, I call Sean Penn, a very well-connected old pal, who’s seen loved ones struggle with addiction. He thinks an undercover cop he knows can scare some sense into Lola. He suggests dinner. He’ll bring friends in the rehab world, plus the undercover cop. Between us we plan an intervention and an ambush involving the cop.
Sean tells me he’ll meet Lola at her apartment and instructs me to tell her she’s in real danger and must pack a bag and avoid her apartment for a while. I do so and Lola buys the whole story.
Sean rushes from Malibu to pick her up, shocking her seedy roommates who are gobsmacked when “Spicoli” [Penn’s character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High] shows up to take Lola to dinner.
Sure enough, when I arrive, waiting at the old-school Santa Monica Italian café are the undercover cop Joe, Sean’s girlfriend and two other men. Sean finally appears and I see Lola following 10 steps behind, anxious to bolt.
Joe launches into his speech, saying she won’t enjoy prison, which is where she’s going for allowing counterfeit money to be produced in her apartment. It’s almost certain rape for a pretty girl like her. He lays it on thick. Her only hope, he claims, is to leave the state immediately, before her apartment is raided. I’m already texting rehab admissions people. There’s a bed in Tucson. Tomorrow!!
Sean excuses himself, and returns a few minutes later, saying he’s hired a private jet to take her to any rehab she chooses: tomorrow. I’m blown away by such generosity. I protest. He says it’s done.
“But this has to be your decision, Lola. You’re a free agent. Are you in?” he asks. She says yes. Now Lola must get rid of her drug inventory and burner phones. By 9am next day she’s exhausted, sad and terrified, locking herself in the room, until I literally kick the door down.
After more chaos and screaming, Lola and I finally make it to Burbank airport, on to the tarmac where a jet awaits. Airplane staff take her duffel bag, suitcase and make-up bag. For a junkie, she’s certainly well groomed.
As I hug her goodbye, she bursts into tears and says: “I don’t deserve this.”
Every addict deserves all the help that’s on offer. I did not expect Sean’s extreme and generous gesture. However, he’s an extraordinary, admirable human being.
The plan works. For a bit. Lola spends 32 days in rehab. When we speak, she sounds different: deliriously happy, grateful, and proud of herself. Like the Lola of old. But on day 32, she makes a silly joke to a therapist.
She announces that with Subway sandwiches for dinner (the chef had quit), she’s so hungry she might as well kill herself. Lola is kicked out. Corporate-run rehabs don’t like people threatening suicide, even in jest.
I only hear about this 24 hours later, by which time Lola is AWOL in Tucson. My greatest fear is that, once clean, she’ll take a bunch of drugs, OD and die. I call hospitals, morgues, police stations. I even call Sean again; he connects me with ex–Navy SEALs to help look for her.
Turns out, she’s in Tucson, taking fentanyl, and shooting up meth. Finally, of her own accord, Lola hops a Greyhound bus back to LA.
Another two long years of hell as fentanyl drags her down, down, down. No one who knows Lola can believe she’s still alive. And still I haven’t given up on her for a second. Because I know the combination of mental illness and addiction drenched in shame are almost insurmountable foes. I had a front-row seat. I still do.
But I have infinite sympathy. She’s an addict. She inherited it and has it bad. And I’m one of the lucky ones. My daughter is alive. I know there’s nothing to do but keep fighting for your kids. Nick and Lola are the loves of my life.
Lola has since gone to rehab three times, been kicked out, got sober and then slipped. I’ve written this account and shared my story in the hopes that it will help other parents and addicts not to feel ashamed or alone. Honesty is crucial. Finding a path back to sanity and a drug-free life is brutally hard.
But finally, in Lola’s case, there’s now brilliant news. After a horrifying Christmas spent in Sydney last year where her addiction was truly out of control, Lola finally agreed to a long trip to a South African rehab. I’d heard it was good and it was suitably far away.
I was convinced she’d be arrested either at Heathrow or Johannesburg airport as I knew she’d be “holding” drugs. No addict can get through a 40-hour trip without going into debilitating withdrawals.
I guess the sniffer dogs have yet to be trained in fentanyl. She arrived, stayed four months and then travelled to London to continue her ongoing recovery at a great place called Start2stop.
She is now nine months sober and it’s a miracle. Petersham Nurseries has made her its artist in residence and she is painting beautiful watercolours of flowers that will soon be on sale in its shop. She’s already being commissioned to paint bigger ones by people enchanted by her work.
There’s no way of knowing when fentanyl might get her in its grip again. The relapse rate is 93 per cent. I’m still terrified and simply cling to the fact that Lola once told me, “Mum, you’ve saved my life.” It’s all I need to keep going and stay vigilant. And pray.
Because it’s the worst, most addictive drug to come along in history. Over 70,000 fentanyl overdose deaths were reported in 2022 in America. Figures for 2023 will be higher. Fentanyl can cause brain damage, memory loss, depression, strokes, genetic disorders, chronic fatigue, hormonal imbalances, seizures, dementia, Parkinson’s – and an inability to make any sort of reasonable decision.
President Biden talked about it in his recent State of the Union speech, and fentanyl has recently emerged into the heroin street market in the north-east of England.
I hope she’s still alive by the time you read this. It could all change on a dime. I’ve been asked to write a TV series about it all. I’m almost finished. The world needs no end of warnings. Because a mother’s love is not enough.
Lola Rose Thompson’s paintings are now on sale at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond; petershamnurseries.com. Visit lolarosethompson.art or follow @lolarosethompson on Instagram to see more of her artwork.