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From Heroin To Hollywood: Kansas Native Shares Story Of Addiction And Recovery

Susie Fagan
Heartland Health Monitor
Actor David Dastmalchian spoke Friday outside the Statehouse at a rally highlighting mental health and addiction treatment options in Kansas.

Los Angeles-based actor David Dastmalchian returned to Kansas with a message he said should transcend politics: We can’t give up on people who struggle with substance abuse and mental illness.

Dastmalchian is now a budding Hollywood star, with roles in blockbusters like 2008’s “The Dark Knight” and 2015’s “Ant-Man.” But 15 years ago he was a self-proclaimed “full-time heroin addict” living out of a car near Shawnee Mission Parkway.

Dastmalchian headlined the Kansas Recovery Rally on Friday outside the Statehouse, speaking about his experience getting clean and turning his life around.

“You never give up on the men and women who are suffering from addiction and mental health (problems),” he said. “Within each of them is a human being just like me.”

Friday’s rally was sponsored by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services and various mental health and addiction treatment service providers.

‘More people in need’

Kansas has had one of the lowest rates of drug overdose deaths in the nation in recent years, but abuse of prescription painkillersand methamphetamines are on the rise in the state.

Dulcinea Rakestraw, former president of the Kansas Association of Addiction Professionals, said there are a variety of substance abuse treatment programs in Kansas, funded through a mix of local, state, federal and charitable dollars.

State-funded treatment programs have been largely unable to take on more patients lately, she said.

“The funds for all of those have been very stagnant over the years,” Rakestraw said. “We’ve been very lucky to not be a part of recent budgetary cuts, but certainly rates as well as services have not increased.”

Credit Susie Fagan / Heartland Health Monitor
Heartland Health Monitor
Friday's rally on the south side of the Statehouse was sponsored by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services and various mental health and addiction treatment service providers.

  When lawmakers approved state-run casinos in 2007, they also established a Problem Gaming and Addiction Fundthat funnels millions of dollars from the casinos to treatment programs every year.

Programs to treat addictions other than gambling were made eligible for money from the fund because research showed that problems like substance abuse increased in areas that added gaming.

But Rakestraw said the casino money — instead of being used to supplement state general fund treatment dollars — has been used as a substitute for those funds, leaving the overall amount available for treating substance abuse largely unchanged.

“There continue to be more people in need of treatment than we’re able to treat,” she said.

The result, she said, is that Kansans who struggle with substance abuse ultimately are costing taxpayers more because of preventable stays in hospitals and prisons. A legislative post audit cost-benefit analysis on drug treatment programs is expected to be released soon.

Friday’s rally is important, Rakestraw said, because it renews the commitment to helping more Kansans emulate Dastmalchian’s successful turnaround.

“The important message is that recovery is possible, that treatment works,” she said. “People are able to recover and are able to be contributing members of society that are able to make a big difference. When we put dollars into treatment, then we’re able to have individuals on the other side that are able to contribute to society instead of needing services.”

Quieting the voice

Dastmalchian made that journey over the course of years.

He grew up in Johnson County, in what he described as a loving, solidly middle-class family that kept a history of depression and substance abuse well-hidden.

By his early teens he was experimenting with alcohol and found that getting drunk could quiet a persistent voice in his head telling him “You are alone” — a voice he later recognized as a symptom of depression. By high school he was regularly abusing alcohol and marijuana but still managed to be a good student, a skilled athlete and a promising member of local theater productions.

He credited his teachers and coaches with helping him excel and encouraging him to pursue a career in acting that seemed out of reach for a kid from Kansas.

Dastmalchian earned a scholarship to a prestigious theater school at DePaul University in Chicago. He excelled there as well, even as the voice in his head kept “tapping” at him and he turned to a new drug to quiet it: heroin.

“For certain people, one taste is all it takes,” he said of opiates. “And that’s all it took for me.”

Dastmalchian graduated from DePaul and had opportunities to audition for television roles. But within six months he was living in his car back in Kansas, scamming relatives for money to get his next fix, his life revolving around heroin.

After his family cut him off financially, he spent years shuttling between Kansas City and Chicago, strung out and not working. He walked into a church looking for things to steal and wound up swiping wedding gifts from a couple getting married. He contemplated using a dirty needle to mug a young mother in the park.

All the while, the voice in his head got louder and more persistent.

So one day he took all the heroin he had and tried to overdose. When that didn’t kill him, he went into the bathtub and cut himself.

At that point Dastmalchian had what he calls “a spiritual awakening” in which he saw all of the country “in the palm of God’s hand.”

The vision led him to seek help, starting a years-long recovery process that included stays in a state hospital in Illinois and a treatment facility in Atchison and several relapses.

“My family never gave up on me,” Dastmalchian said. “Nor did all these strangers in the public health hospital I was at. Nor the law enforcement officers who had to transfer me to all these places. All these people didn’t give up on me.”

After he spent five years clean — working as a telemarketer and sweeping out movie theaters — Dastmalchian got back into acting when a friend offered him a part in a theater production.

His resurrected career took off from there.

Dastmalchian’s recovery included writing a screenplay for a movie called “Animals” that mirrored his experience with drug abuse. It was released last year. While doing media interviews for the movie, he went public for the first time about his addiction and recovery.

Before going into the crowd Friday to offer hugs for others going through similar journeys, Dastmalchian talked about the triumphant feeling of getting his life back, which was crystallized in a single moment last year.

His son was newly born. He had just accepted the award for Courage in Storytelling at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival for writing “Animals.” And then he got the call offering him a substantial role in “Ant-Man.”

“This is an extreme example,” Dastmalchian said. “This is an extreme, incredible life moment. But I really feel it’s that incredible for everyone who can get to that place.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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