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Oscar Scaggs

My Son's Unfinished Life - And Mine
By Boz Scaggs

Newsweek Magazine
February 22, 1999

On December 31st, 1998, I lost my son Oscar to an accidental heroin overdose. And my world is blown to smithereens. My son – this fine, beautiful, sweet young man – my Oscar is gone from this world. Twenty-one years old. Hooked on the high, the release, that place of no worry about pressures from family or school, or jobs not yet found. And I am trying to put together the pieces of my own life and of his. There are so many unanswered questions when one so young dies suddenly. So many parts of his life were in transition and unresolved. I hardly know how to begin.

I have a dilemma about the role of drugs in our lives, and specifically about the role of heroin in the lives of my son’s generation. A lot of the same drugs were around when I was his age. The challenge to drop out, tear down the walls and live as never before was there in the music, the fashion and fabric of the time. Every generation hears its own call to change the existing order. For many, that includes experimenting with drugs. But the nature of experimentation has changed – then it was primarily a counter-cultural expression; today it’s that and a consumer activity as well.

Recreational drugs far more potent than the pot we smoked in college are marketed like designer underwear, cigarettes, soft drinks, CDs – like equally benign consumer goods, that is. But even among those substances with sure potential to be lethal, heroin belongs in a class of its own. It does not allow casual use for long. Kids believe that if they “only” smoke it or snort it, they won’t get addicted. It’s no wonder that an epidemic of “amateur” use is underway. No surprise either is the large number of accidental deaths being reported: the purity of the drug is so unpredictable.

Heroin used to be an unthinkable choice for all but the hard-core user. It no longer is.  If your son or daughter or friend is experimenting with or using heroin in any form, don’t wait to get information and help. Forget your preconceptions about people who “really” use heroin.

From the time my two sons were teenagers, I talked openly with them about drugs. It was a daunting position to be in as a parent, but I told them what I knew from experience. I didn’t blacklist every drug, but described as objectively as I could their effects and consequences. I think we shared more than most parents and children on the subject.

My son Oscar suffered from addiction – given his genetic or psychological makeup, given the world around him, it was perhaps inevitable that he would come to abuse drugs. Countless people suffer from addiction. Many get treatment and learn ways to manage it; they cope with the pain and uncertainty that is part of life, and they live. Oscar experimented with drugs and alcohol throughout his adolescence. In retrospect they clearly interfered with his ability to develop and to function. Heroin brought his dysfunction into high relief – he became aware of the drug taking over and asked for help.

That was a beginning in his recovery. Oscar entered treatment last January. He worked hard in various programs, but the process wasn’t linear or fast – two steps forward, one step back. It was in the last six months that his recovery program began to take on real meaning to Oscar. He was slowly coming to terms with his addiction and recovery. He worked hard. And slowly, Oscar’s life began to fall into place. Given the progress he’d made and the new job he was clearly thriving in, given his new girlfriend and the holidays – well, it proved to be a sort of classic setup, in a clinical sense, for relapse. The confidence of having it all together may have made Oscar feel invulnerable to heroin. Then came payday; he was on his way to pick up tickets for a concert that night, he was dressed in his finest and he decided, I can only guess, to make a stop at his dealer’s and celebrate it all.

Oscar’s death was an accident, a miscalculation. I say this only to underscore the importance of the open discussions from earlier years, the work Oscar did in recovery, the work we, his family, did with him. None of it was for naught; communication never is. For Oscar, recovery work was a real chance at life; for his family it was an experience that changed our lives profoundly. I had always considered my relationship to my sons to be closer than that of any other father and sons I knew. But in these last six months we rediscovered our profound commitment to one another. I saw him without drugs in his system for the first time in years, clear-eyed and healthy, a true joy to be around himself. I began to see my role in Oscar’s addiction and recovery. Oscar had yet to learn fundamentals of self-sustenance, and I had to learn to stand back while he caught up. I had to learn to give without giving, touch without touching, act without acting. I needed more time; the work was unfinished, his and mine.

Heartbroken Scaggs Family Speaks Out Against Heroin

Musician calls drug that killed son `S.F. plague'
Neva Chonin/SF Chronicle Staff Writer
January 13, 1999

Sitting in his South of Market recording studio, veteran rocker Boz Scaggs occasionally pauses to wipe tears from his eyes as he talks about his son, Oscar. ``This is a parent's worst nightmare. It's as though there were an explosion and everything was blown to smithereens. There is nothing left of the world as I knew it.''

Scaggs' voice is calm, but his face is drawn and haggard. Twelve days ago, on New Year's Eve, Oscar, 21, died of a heroin overdose in the Mission District's decrepit Hotel Royan.

In an exclusive interview with The Chronicle, Scaggs, 54, broke his silence for the first time since Oscar's death to convey a father's feelings of loss, frustration and anger. He also wants to use his celebrity to warn about what he calls ``the plague of heroin threatening San Francisco.''

Being the son of a famous rock musician was no insulation against heroin abuse for Oscar Scaggs, his father says.

``He went to some of the better schools in some of the better neighborhoods, so in that way he was privileged,'' Scaggs concedes. ``But he was a San Francisco kid. He lived his life all over this town. He hung out in the park, he was a skateboarder, he played PAL league baseball and basketball. It would be a mistake to view Oscar as a kid who grew up spoiled and wayward because he didn't have grounded values.''

Boz and Carmella Scaggs were married in 1971. They divorced in 1980 and were awarded joint custody of their children. Oscar and his younger brother, Austin, split their time between their parents' San Francisco homes.

Though stable, the Scaggses' lives as part of the city's music and nightclub scene were a far cry from the squeaky-clean American ideal. And there were strains in the family's life. Though popular, Oscar never excelled in school. At an early age, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and he often had trouble reading and processing oral information. He changed schools several times and never found his niche -- but neither, his mother said yesterday in a telephone interview, did he ever give up.

Asked if his own experience with drugs might have affected his ability to raise his children, Scaggs responds that his only drug since 1967 has been alcohol.

``At the most successful point of my career, I could have been termed an alcoholic because I used hard liquor every day, and at times it took control over me,'' he acknowledges. ``And Carmella and I were among a generation of people who used drugs and alcohol socially. That was in the '60s. It was part of the culture. As far as its being around in the presence of the boys, I would say emphatically no. There was no exposure on their part to any abuses at all on my part or Carmella's.''

Although the reports of Oscar Scaggs' death have focused on his famous father, Carmella Scaggs is suffering a mother's grief -- and anger as well. In a hushed, shaking voice, she called heroin abuse ``an epidemic that could happen to any mother's kid. When I was Oscar's age, it was the ultimate -- something you only read about. Nowadays, kids are sniffing it as easily as they're smoking marijuana.'' The fact that heroin is no longer ``the ultimate'' is one of the reasons for increased overdoses among young people today, says Millicent Buxton, a counselor at the Haight- Ashbury Free Clinic who tried to help Oscar Scaggs.

It's seldom the hard-core addicts who die by overdose, but rather sporadic users and those trying to kick the habit whose lower resistance to the opiate pushes them into respiratory arrest. Oscar, who never used enough to suffer from physical withdrawal, belonged to the latter category, his father says.

How did Oscar discover heroin? His father doesn't know. His mother, with whom Oscar was living at the time, initially sounded the alarm.

Recalls Carmella Scaggs quietly, ``Oscar came to me in January of '98 and told me that he had tried heroin and was afraid he would have a problem with it. I was shocked. The next day we talked to Millicent Buxton, whom Oscar had been seeing since he was caught smoking marijuana in school. He was willing to do anything he could to get away from it.'' The next day, Oscar entered a program in Montana called Wilderness Treatment, where his mother and brother spent a week with him as part of his two months of rehabilitation. From there, Oscar spent time in a Louisiana drug treatment program, then asked to come back to San Francisco, where for three months he continued his treatment at the Sequoia Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Center on the Peninsula.

Oscar emerged from his months of treatment, his father says, ``an alert, vital young man who was beginning to put together a reality of himself that he was pleased with and proud of. He was beginning to see a world that he could manage. But success is measured a day at a time. To get through a week is immense; to get through a month -- I've got a coin in my pocket that he gave me commemorating his first two months. It was a big celebration.''

But there were relapses, too, four to six during the course of the year. ``Oscar was working hard,'' his mother says. ``But there was always that urge, that tremendous call to try it again.''

Still, by the time autumn rolled around, the Scaggses were feeling that everything was going to be OK. Oscar seemed strong. He had a new girlfriend and a great job. Life was good.

Then came the unmistakable signs of another relapse.

His father remembers the last time he saw Oscar, two days before Christmas. ``He was in a bad mood, tired and depressed,'' Scaggs recalls, tears welling up in his eyes. ``All he wanted to do was lay on the couch and watch television. He said he just wanted to go to sleep because he had to work early the next morning. We later realized that he had been out all the night before using heroin and had probably had some earlier in the day.''

A week later, Austin called to tell his father that Oscar was dead.

In the shell-shocked aftermath of Oscar's death, Scaggs says he has resolved to use his celebrity to warn kids and parents about the heroin epidemic.

``These dealers are selling death,'' Scaggs says, his eyes flashing with anger and grief. ``Kids need to be given the means to defend themselves. They've got to know that they're under attack so they can take care of each other.

``I know there are only so many public resources, but there are priorities, and perhaps it's time to rearrange those priorities. The city of San Francisco that we love and call our own is getting a very dirty reputation. My son is like many other sons, and there are going to be more deaths until we respond as a community. Heroin is far more seductive and lethal than other addictions. It's the most dangerous, unpredictable and volatile drug of all.''

The huge tragedy has carried a small silver lining: Boz and Carmella Scaggs have made peace after years of estrangement.

``Carmella has been very supportive and helpful to me, and I've tried to support her in every way I can,'' Scaggs says. ``No mother could have loved her sons more. No mother could have given them the unqualified support that she did. She gave them her entire love.''

The Monday before he died, Oscar and Carmella won a trivia contest at a bar in North Beach. The weekly contest was one of their favorite shared activities, and Oscar was elated by the victory. ``He felt great. The day that he died, he left the house smiling and happy,'' she says.

``I'll always remember watching him walking out the door, looking like a million dollars. `I love you, Mom,' he said. `I'll see you later.' We'll never really know what happened.''

She pauses, the words catching in her throat.

``The Monday after he died, we went back to win the trivia contest for him a second time. We're going again tonight, me and about 10 of his friends. And next Monday, too.''

If anything positive comes out of his family's loss, Boz Scaggs says, it will be the opportunity to reach out to other kids with addiction problems. It's the most fitting memorial he can think of for a young man who was always looking out for his friends. He was the kind of guy who'd spend his lunch break from his job at the Diesel clothing store on Union Street helping out a stranger with a stalled car, his friends remember.

``Oscar was quite a rich little character, quite a piece of work,'' Scaggs whispers sadly. ``He was unique. As we all are.''
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle

 

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