Losing Nick Stahl

The actor -- who has struggled with addiction -- has been missing for two weeks, and his family has lost hope

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 22, 2012 3:30PM (EDT)

Nick Stahl is missing. For many, the only surprise in this news may be that he's missing again.

After a marital separation last winter, the actor disappeared for two weeks in May. But shortly after Rose Murphy Stahl -- his estranged wife and mother of his young daughter, Marlo -- filed a missing persons report, Stahl reemerged and announced he was entering a 30-day rehab program. Days later, against his doctor's wishes, he checked himself out. Stahl was last seen at a friend's house on June 14.

The actor, whose credits include "In the Bedroom" and "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," has a lengthy and public history of drug and alcohol abuse. But what makes his latest episode particularly agonizing -- even as tabloids continue to make jokey references to calling in Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator to find him -- is the utter sense of defeat this time around.

Just a few weeks ago, during his last disappearance, Stahl's wife told reporters, "I want my husband to come home. He is an amazing father and we miss him…. He wants to be well. He's a good man and we want him home so we can help him." In stark contrast, now she says, "I'm backing off. He knows exactly where home is. It's the loving thing to do for him, myself and our daughter."

The hardest, most heartbreaking thing in the world about substance abusers is that they are so often good men and women. Our culture shames them and labels them as weak; it writes them off and makes fun of their self-destructive spectacles. Yet those who care about the junkies and the alcoholics and pillheads of the world know who these people can be when they're not messed up, how often they truly do "want to be well." But wanting to do well and being able to do it aren't the same thing. Four years ago, when his Stahl's "Bully" costar and friend Brad Renfro died of a heroin overdose,  he observed sympathetically, "For someone like me, who has been through drugs and drinking, it was pretty easy to spot that Brad had problems."

It's tremendously hard for an addict to give up on his vices. But it's a whole other kind of grueling for someone who loves an addict to give up on him. It means conceding that the addiction has become bigger than the person living with it -- the person you know is still there inside of it, hurting. It's horrible. Because no matter how many times the addict stops trying to save himself, it's a very different ballgame when his friends and family stop as well.

Nick Stahl, the alcoholic train wreck who's been spotted so often staggering around L.A.'s Skid Row, is also a father and a husband, a son and a friend. So are a lot of those other men and women passed out in alleyways and drug dens right this minute. They were loved. They still are. And there's a special kind of grief that comes the moment that people who care about them decide the loving thing to do is "back off." It's the brutal, grief-inducing admission that they're not just missing. They're lost.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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