“Rehab is not a spin cycle, where you go in dirty and come out clean,” says director Tess Sweet, eyes unblinking and full of intent behind thick rectangular frames. “What ultimately does work is not what the counselors say to you, it’s your roommates in rehab that are going through the same thing.”
That’s what Sweet hopes to bring to light with Cleaner Daze, the web dramedy she’s currently filming that’s based on real-life stories of addiction from young people in Santa Cruz. Set in a youth rehabilitation center, the show aims to capture the camaraderie, kinship, forgotten innocence and sometimes dark hilarity of rehab: “It’s not a PSA for helping kids get off drugs, it’s about opening and looking at the phenomenon of addiction,” she says.
Sweet, a self-proclaimed “group-hug kind of director,” wants to remove the stigma and get people talking about why young people are driven to drugs and alcohol in the first place. Much like Orange is the New Black did with life in prison and Transparent has done with coming out as transgender, Cleaner Daze is about bringing the experience of recovery out from the shadows.
“When I first started going to 12-step meetings, what helped me was the laughter,” says Sweet. “It’s like survivors of a shipwreck—we share a common bond. We all survived something, and let’s laugh about it because you can’t cry about it anymore.”
The TV shows about addiction currently on the air put it all into a neat and pretty package, says Sweet, where celebrities battle for a few episodes and by the finale they’re clean. Real-life recovery is more complex than that, she says.
She herself started using drugs in high school, realizing in adulthood that she had been self-medicating depression. “I was raped at gunpoint. I had some horrific things happen in my life to where I didn’t really care what happened,” she says.
After one failed attempt at rehab and one successful one, Sweet kicked her addiction to heroin and cocaine when she was 29. She took a computer course at a community college (“My whole twenties were a blur. This is just when email was starting, and I was like, ‘What’s email? Where am I?’”), and worked her way up to the competitive MFA program in production and film directing at UCLA.
After moving to Santa Cruz, Sweet sought to help young people who are in the same cycle she was once in, by volunteering at the Y.E.S. School, an adolescent sobriety and recovery program. For her, fostering empathy for those young people with Cleaner Daze is a logical next step.
And who better to do that than actors who have real-life experience with addiction? Five cast members from Cleaner Daze’s young ensemble shared with GT their stories of rehab, recovery and the road to redemption.
Abigail Reno, 27
It’s easy to see why Sweet says that Reno, who plays Jasmine on Cleaner Daze, has got “it”—a presence that lights up a scene and could lead to a real shot at making acting a career. Her penetrating light-green eyes under long lashes add a thoughtfulness to the careful way in which she describes how alcohol became her Band-Aid for social anxiety and depression as a teenager. After “enough shitty things happening,” she got clean on her own when she was 21. “It was the most miserable nine months in my life,” she says with a laugh. “I was so angry, hated everything, hated everyone. I was completely unable to function socially, and became really reclusive. One of my friends drove me to an AA meeting, and it wasn’t until I started talking to people in AA and hearing their stories that I made a 180.”
Reno’s alcoholism was fed by her surroundings, she says; growing up in Santa Cruz and living with people in their 20s when she was still in her teens, it was considered normal —and so easy—to drink. It’s hard to tell a teenager to not partake in what “everyone is doing,” says Reno.
“I think a big part of it is not talking to kids like they’re dumb, like they don’t understand. Being real with them and straightforward and on their level,” says Reno. “Teens these days aren’t sheltered. Treat them like adults, because at that age you want to be an adult.”
Olivia Orea, 19
Orea is still chewing a bite of her half-eaten sandwich when she walks into the room, plopping down and putting both hands, ringed fingers splayed, on the table. Lighter and darker chestnut swivels of hair move with her as she laughs—and she laughs freely, even when the topic of conversation is her meth addiction.
Orea was 13 or 14 when she started doing heroin with her neighbor in San Clemente. It was a short span of time from life as an honor-roll middle schooler to getting kicked out of four different high schools, getting arrested twice and living in a car, doing drugs. The worst part, says Orea, is that she started meth as a pre-teen to “get skinny.”
“In middle school I started doing Adderall and Vyvanse, because that’s what my friends had. They were like ‘Hey it makes it so you don’t eat.’ A lot of girls who I’ve talked to who started meth just wanted to be skinny—you know how sad that is?” says Orea, picking at her cuticles, laughing a little. “As I got a little more into the drug world, I was like, ‘Oh, ADD meds are like a legal version of meth. What’s meth? That’s cool.’”
Her bottom, as it’s called in the recovery world, came when she was babysitting her 2-year-old brother. “I was sitting in my room doing drugs and heard him call my name, and was like ‘Hold on, hold on,’” says Orea. “I was like ‘Wow, I’m a piece of shit. I’m doing drugs in the other room while you’re watching cartoons.’”
Orea was one of the few people in the Santa Ana county-subsidized rehab who wanted to get clean. Because of that, she received special responsibilities, her own room, computer privileges. Even though that led to instances where other patients would ask her to hold drugs for them—and she did—she didn’t do drugs in rehab.
Not that things were all that easy when she got out: her uncle almost immediately offered her meth, but it was still a few months before she relapsed with her “sober buddy” from Narcotics Anonymous.
Orea has been clean since then. She finished high school with multiple honors in veterinary science and presented her research on ocean acidification at the Ocean Institute in San Clemente.
“I really want to help the world, and I know that I can because of all that effort that I was putting into doing drugs. If I can apply that to now, if I work hard enough, I can make a difference,” she says.
Looking back on how her rehab experience compares to what’s depicted on Cleaner Daze, Orea says she’s thankful to Sweet for reminding people that kids in rehab are still just kids.
“Being in there, they want us to be these adults, but we are not only children, we are the most immature children. A lot of us have been in more adult situations than some adults, but there’s an element of innocence that needs to come to light with troubled youth.”
Nick McCollum, 21
What bursts through the phone when “Nick, the white rapper” answers is that he’s a no-holds-barred kind of guy, with an almost-cornball charm that makes his resiliency approachable. It’s that attitude that has led the 21-year-old to choose a drug-free lifestyle, despite going to school in Chico.
“Chico is a party town. The roommates I lived with for two years in the dorms—I lived with five roommates—I couldn’t find a passion in them other than partying. They were doing cocaine, drinking, smoking. I would occasionally drink and smoke, but I ended up leaving that house and living in a solo because the partying was too much,” says McCollum. “In all honesty, I haven’t talked to them since, because they were connecting with each other through the drugs and partying. Since I wasn’t a part of that, I didn’t connect with them in that way.”
That’s the problem with college towns, says McCollum—binge-drinking is the way of life. McCollum watched a friend at school go from a promising athlete on the pro-lacrosse track to becoming dependent on Xanax and eventually doing heroin in McCollum’s bathroom.
“I still go out and have a good time with people,” says McCollum. “But I don’t feel that you need all that stuff to have a good time. I’m an ambitious guy and I always want more from life. I feel like once you start with drugs you’re just chopping days off your life.”
Nick McCollum, “The White Rapper,” is going to school in Chico, a “party town,” he calls it. But that doesn’t stop him from dedicating his energy to staying clean and building his craft. https://soundcloud.com/ightweightiterate/work-only-lightmix
Brandon Martin, 19
For those who do make it through the utter agony of getting sober, though, there’s a huge community of young people waiting on the other side, says Brandon Martin. Martin’s turquoise top knot is visible at the GT office before the rest of him is, peeking out above the rows of cubicle dividers. He’s friendly, cautious, but when he talks about the annual convention for the California Young People of Alcoholics Anonymous, he lights up. “For a weekend, 30,000-plus young people storm into a hotel, wreak havoc and have a bunch of fun and sobriety,” he says.
Martin started drinking alcohol and dabbling in weed and opiates during his sophomore year of high school. Raised in a single-parent household steeped in AA and NA philosophy, Martin says that it was precisely their taboo status that made substances so attractive.
“I’m one of those people who, if you say ‘Don’t do this,’ I’m going to say ‘Fuck you, watch me,’” he says.
Martin started out smoking weed at the train tracks next to his school and quickly ended up homeless. He was arrested for threatening to stab someone and was forcibly sent to Youth Services Tyler House in Watsonville for a four-month program—which he stayed in for eight months. “I threw a table at someone, I snuck a phone in and I snuck drugs in,” he sigh-laughs. “I wasn’t necessarily the best person in rehab.”
For Martin, it was the support network after rehab which kept him clean, specifically the Y.E.S. School.
“There is just a magic of that school that only someone who has gone there can describe,” he says. “When I first went there I was like ‘Feelings are gross, I don’t want to talk about them.’ But it helps, getting it out there, getting feedback on what you can do.”
When he and Reno describe how easy it was to get drugs and alcohol growing up, they’re not exaggerating.
In 1997 the Office of National Drug Control Policy designated Santa Cruz County, among others, a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. According to the 2014-2015 California Healthy Kids Survey report, 12 percent of seventh graders had tried alcohol, 9 percent had tried marijuana, and 4 percent had tried inhalants. Among juvenile probationers, 16 percent were involved with methamphetamine; and among juveniles who were facing non-drug charges in court, defense attorneys estimated that methamphetamine was a contributing factor in 24 percent, according to the 2013 Report on Collaboration of Substance Abuse Treatment and Intervention Services. Among children with open Child Welfare Service cases, 49 percent were cases in which parental methamphetamine use was alleged or confirmed.
In other words, the hard part isn’t getting drugs, says Martin, it’s getting clean and staying clean.
“Getting sober was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but continuing to stay sober has opened a lot of doors for me. I got my first job, I got my first car, I have been able to graduate high school,” says Martin. “I’ve had friends work their asses off and graduate university, but I’ve also seen friends pass away—one of my friends relapsed on a Monday and was dead by Wednesday. I get to stay sober through it.”
Kemi O’Connor, 27
Kemi O’Connor was adopted by a middle-class white family in upstate New York when she was 5 years old. She was the only black child out of nine in the family—and, by her account, the only one in town. “I was a really good kid, got good grades. I actually graduated valedictorian of my school. I was like yearbook club advisor, the star of every sports team I was on. I was student council vice president,” says O’Connor, “But my adoptive parents were just really emotionally and physically abusive. I was the one that always stuck up for my brothers and sisters; they just saw me as a problem that needed to go.”
They sent her to the closest city, where she lived in a group home and couldn’t make friends at the new school because there she was “too white.” Only the skaters and the stoners let her in.
“I just wanted to be cool, so I smoked weed with them. I didn’t even like it back then.”
After high school, she joined the Marine Corps. Her unit had a “really big problem with sexual assault,” and after her fiancée, who had broken up with her because of her drinking, was jailed, and O’Connor was dishonorably discharged for being gay (before the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” repeal), her house was burned down by a jealous ex.
“It broke my heart so bad. I was just so broken from losing my career, my house, the whole sexual assault thing, losing the person I was in love with and just … I was just broken,” says O’Connor, trailing off. “I spiraled out of control.”
Fast forward a few years: O’Connor settled in Santa Cruz, but she couldn’t afford rehab, and the county wouldn’t grant her Medi-Cal. She tried going to AA, even tried going to rehab back in Schenectady, New York, and tried the one free bed from Santa Cruz County. But she couldn’t stay clean (she did “everything” to stay numb, but ecstasy ended up as her drug of choice). The free center had six women to a room, which proved too overwhelming—and her PTSD was so severe that she couldn’t hold a job for longer than 30 days, let alone stay sober. She tried again last year when a close friend died from an overdose, but around the same time she met her birth mother, who has schizophrenia, and her birth father, who was dying. She lasted three months that time. Throughout the whole six years, O’Connor was homeless.
“The drugs weren’t my problem, they were my solution to my problem,” says O’Connor.
Since they booted her out as a teen, O’Connor’s adoptive parents have cut her off completely, and if any of her adoptive siblings are caught talking to her, they risk the same, emotionally and financially, she says.
“They just don’t understand, even though they’re alcoholics themselves. They don’t see themselves as alcoholics because they’re really high-functioning middle class—so they just look down on me like ‘You have a problem and you’re going to ruin the rest of the family,’” says O’Connor.
That stigma keeps addicts from seeking help, says O’Connor.
“People always imagine an addict or an alcoholic as someone that’s carrying a brown paper bag laying on the street,” she says. “It’s hard for them to be compassionate because they don’t see it as an illness, they see it as ‘You’re a problem.’”
In many cases, there’s a monied part to recovery as well—most people who stay sober do so because they have a support network on the other end, says O’Connor, which people from lower socioeconomic means are less likely to have.
“It makes it 10 times harder when you don’t. I’m a huge advocate for having places to go for therapy, affordable therapy and affordable rehab, because to be honest that was the thing that turned everything around for me,” says O’Connor. “I had fought for years and was denied. I had tried to get sober at 21 and if I had had those things at 21, I honestly think I could’ve stayed sober back then.”
Last year, O’Connor finally received medication and therapy from the county. She’s now nine months clean.
Her character in Cleaner Daze, Squirt, has a backstory eerily similar—she finally goes to rehab because her girlfriend ODs and dies. At the time of casting callbacks, O’Connor’s then-girlfriend had OD’d and was still in the hospital after she had died and been resuscitated.
Playing Squirt has brought up a lot for O’Connor: “I remembered showing up to rehab for my first time and wanting to change—wanting a better life, but not thinking that I was going to be able to do it,” she says. “I just want people to see the humanity of addicts and the struggle. It’s not just the decision of, like, I wake up and ‘l’m going to change now.’”
Kemi O’Connor’s real-life experiences are eerily close to those of her character on Cleaner Daze. Now nine months clean, O’Connor channels her energy into creating poetry, like her “Goodbye Letter to Drugs” which she reads for the Loud & Clean Youtube Channel.
Cleaner Daze is a web dramedy about what it’s like to be a young person in rehab fighting to get clean, get a feel for director Tess Sweet’s vision for the project here: http://www.cleanerdaze.com/the-pitch.html
Check out more information about how Cleaner Daze will integrate Virtual Reality technology into their webisodes in the online version of this article (Goodtimes.sc) and keep an eye out for their Seed & Spark campaign soon available on their website: cleanerdaze.com/donate.html.
Cleaner Daze will release updates on the pilot episode this fall on their Facebook page: facebook.com/CleanerDazeSeries.
One way that the show will be able to inspire empathy, is through Virtual Reality 360 (VR), says Sweet’s partner and co-writer Dan Gambelin and producer Cheryl Isaacson of Lincoln St. Studios. It’s a medium that they’re dying to build up with supporters to secure an ongoing series (“Especially in Silicon Valley—hello, hello, hello” ) and one that until now, hasn’t really been used in narrative works. In Cleaner Daze the VR option will pop up during the episode as a link where the viewer can leave the episode and dive into the realistic 360-degree view of a scene which they can move themselves to decide what to look at, maybe someone stealing Sharpies during an art-therapy round table while the counselor is talking.
“What you mostly see with VR right now is outdoor sports, extreme things, so you can feel like you’re sky diving or in the the barrel of a wave, which is awesome,” says Gambelin, pulling out a small, black cylinder that looks more like the Men in Black neuralizer than a camera. “We really feel like we’ve cracked the code for narrative VR.”
Isaacson says that the potential for building a connection between viewer and character goes deeper than snazzy new technology.
“If you’re a person that’s struggling you can literally sit in a group: is there the potential for the virtual experience of sitting in recovery to have an impact outside of that experience? I think there is,” says Isaacson. “Sometimes you have to see it to be it.”