BY SUSAN CANFORA and TROY MASTERS | News of Mac Wessels’ death struck deep into the heart of Los Angeles’ LGBT recovery community on January 13, 2017.
Facebook erupted with pictures of Mac, beaming as usual and always commanding the center position in hundreds of joyous group shots. And then there were those fabulous shots of glittering Mac, dressed as a Rainbow tutu fairy, replete with Wand. And, of course, there were his angel wings.
“The LGBT community loses another angel. Devastating. Oh my God. Mac was one of the coolest people in treatment here in Palm Springs. It’s just heartbreaking to loose people so young,” Richard Noble, a substance abuse counselor from Palm Springs wrote on Mac’s Facebook Page.
West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran wrote, “I am sad to report the passing of one of our young club kids – Mac Wessels. Always hard to lose someone in the neighborhood but more so when too young and beautiful. RIP Mac.”
“I can’t….” wrote another. Many hundreds wrote that Mac was ‘an angel gone too soon.’ Some tributes groped to reach beyond the obvious pain of the loss. “Noooooo noooo,” wrote another. “I’ll never believe this,” wrote one young man who had shared a room with Mac at a Los Angeles sober living home. The pain was palpable in post after post from friends and family around the world. “Thank you for lighting up my life,” wrote one.
Mac, although he relocated to Los Angeles for his recovery, was ultimately drawn ever deeper into a world of escape — psychedelic drugs, alcohol and sex — resisting, relapsing and repeating. He tried hard to focus his life, completing what Michael Wessels, his father called “high-thread count” rehabs, including Breathe Life Healing Center (which offered an extended family care program that remains critical to his parents), Michael’s House, Cliffside Malibu among them; sober living including Westwind Recovery properties; and most recently in a private mental health facility.
Mac had even become something of a critic, writing a scathing review of Access Malibu. Over a 2 year period Mac completed many programs at different rehabs in Southern California.
As jarring as his death was for the LGBT recovery community in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the long, slow, exhausting and excruciating toll his addiction took on his family has been nothing short of tragic.
Amid the crushing heartache of losing a son, this is certain – Mac Wessels didn’t want to be an addict and he didn’t want to die.
Yet, he did.
He died in an apartment in Pasadena, where he was attending classes, a continent apart from his parents who adopted him at birth, parents who urgently sought help for him and who endlessly worried about him until that morning, when, well before sunrise, a deputy knocked on their door and delivered the tragic news that 23-year old John Mackenzie Wessels was dead.
“Mac was never the easiest baby. He was very small. We kept hearing ‘failure to thrive,’” his mother, Debbie Wessels, said, sharing the story of the young man whose obituary she wrote, carefully focusing on detail in a non-traditional tribute to help others who struggle with addictions instead of hiding behind stigma.
“Mac was a solid student and a happy kid. With his seemingly endless positive traits, he had the potential to be anything from a captivating politician to a brilliant engineer, but addictive behaviors began to creep into Mac’s life before leaving for college. Recognizing his struggles and strife, the family engaged in counseling with the hope to provide Mac with a toolbox for life,” she wrote in the obituary accompanied by a photo of Mac, smiling.
Growing up in High Banks, MD, Mac was a “happy-go-lucky kid,” his mother remembered.
“We were a big boating family. We went skiing in the winter. He was a creator. When he got on a project he went to the extreme,” she said, thinking about how the haunted house he made extended into the basement and garage.
Mac was endlessly detail oriented.
“When he was growing up, we felt Mac’s senses were on overdrive,” Wessels said.
“My son would have qualified for help for sensory perception problems but at the time society didn’t talk about anxiety in children.
“We started to see manifestations of anxiety and depression as a teen and he had started using Xanax. He wound up abusing it when he went to college,” she said.
Because he chose substances that were cheap and accessible, Mac wasn’t considered addicted to a particular drug.
“He was self-medicating,” his mother said.
“Up to 60 percent of drug users have mental health as co-occurring. It’s hard to know for sure because there is a chicken and egg effect. But with the rise of anxiety and depression, we will see more drug use,” she said.
He had been in and out of rehab four years but never tested positive for heroin use. “He had just finished rehab. You know there is like a 95 percent failure rate for rehab. We were optimistic. Addicts are so self-centered, but the recent conversations we had with him were more grounded and realistic. We heard some humility from him and that gave us hope,” his mother said.
The day he died, Jan. 13, he had attended class at Pasadena Community College and texted a photo of himself to his parents. Later, he returned to his off-campus apartment.
After 24 hours, the apartment building manager still hadn’t seen him and noticed his keys in the door.
“He was in bed, dead,” his mother said.
“A syringe was there. We talked to the investigator and she said he was not a full-time user because he would have had tracks on his arms and he didn’t have tracks,” Wessels said.
California state data released last week show that in the first three months of 2016, 412 adults age 20 to 29 went to emergency departments due to heroin, double the number for the same time period in 2012.
“One of the unintended consequences of this prescription drug epidemic has been the increase in heroin addiction and overdoses, in part due to the transition from prescription opioids to less expensive heroin street drugs,” according to state health officials. “Heroin deaths have continued to increase steadily by 67 percent since 2006 and account for a growing share of the total opioid-related deaths.”
Mac had been living in California three years, a state chosen because more rehab facilities are available and he seemed happy there.
“He had drug problems the last few years,” his mother said, remembering him experimenting with drinking and marijuana when he was a teenager.
A 2011 graduate of The Salisbury School, he received the Presidential Scholarship to attend Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
“He left for college in fall but his anxiety and depression plus his addiction impeded his education. From there, the next four years were a blur of drug rehab facilities, moments of recovery, followed by relapses.
“Mac most recently had been in a facility that was working diligently to help him cope with his mental illness. Mac’s one true love was academics, and during his last week he took the significant step of starting winter term at Pasadena College. In his last text to his parents, he proudly sent a picture of himself sitting in class. If only for a moment, he had succeeded,” Wessels wrote in the obituary.
“He was being taught mindfulness two rehabs ago. We had wonderful conversations about mindfulness and I had finished two Eckhart Tolle books. He had asked me to read the Power of Now, which, like mindfulness, speaks to the power of being in the moment and being connected to the world. It is on my bed stand,” Wessels said.
“During the last couple of decades we have had a complete shift in society. Now, it’s usually a two-parent working family. I think parents are tired, so they give devices like cell phones to their kids.
Parents sometimes feel guilty, but they do it so the kids don’t have a meltdown. And a lot of parents want to be their child’s friend instead of being a parent. But kids thrive on boundaries. We have got to get off these devices,” Wessels said.
“It is all very difficult. I am very sad. It’s just terrible for parents. We are fortunate we started counseling before we sent him to college because this will just rip a couple apart,” she said.
The director of the Lower School at The Salisbury School, she also teaches first and second graders. She didn’t mention her son’s death to the children but word got out.
Two years ago she suffered depression and fear, often feeling sick as she worried the call would come that her son was dead.
“If he telephoned in the middle of the night, he would be high on whatever drug and he didn’t have any money to get back to his apartment, he lost his wallet or any number of scenarios. There wasn’t anything we could do, being so far away. That’s the hardest thing, to quit enabling addicts. We need to get back to a society of tougher love,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have signed up for this journey but I am determined to do what I can for other people. This could happen to anybody.
“Two years ago I started having the reality, after going through a couple of rehabs. You come to grips with the facts. When you send your kid to the first rehab every parent thinks, ‘OK. They’ll fix him.’ Then you start knowing what happened to other people he went to rehab with and reality sets in,” she said.
One counselor told Mac’s parents he would either wake up and decide he wanted to be clean, end up in jail or die.
Tragically, the latter was the news a deputy carried when he knocked on the family door at 4:30 a.m. and told them the young man was dead.
“It got us out of a dead sleep. The dog started barking. I saw the lights on the car moving. At first I thought somebody was trying to break in,” Wessels recalled.
“But you peek around the corner and you know. You just know.”
— The Wessels family is planning a memorial service in Palm Springs on Friday, February 24th at Eight4Nine, in Palm Springs, at 2pm.
A version of this article also appears in the Salisbury Independent.