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It was an ironic death for legendary comedian Chris Farley, whose unmistakable talent for making people laugh was interrupted by a final sobering moment when he was found dead as the result of a drug-overdose in 1997.
Tom Farley tells the story of the ongoing substance abuse problems that led to his brother’s death at age 33 as a reminder that even being on top of the world in so many ways is no match for drug addiction.
Tom Farley started a mission to put an end to — or at least a dent in — substance abuse problems among teens when he started the Chris Farley Foundation 15 years ago.
Realizing his famous brother’s death gave him a sort of brand-power to reach teens, Tom Farley has been touring around the country, speaking to high school students about Chris’s story while using improv to increase peer-to-peer communication skills.
The Madison, Wis. resident was in Skokie Thursday to meet with about 150 teens from 33 Chicago-area high schools who attended a day-long substance abuse prevention conference focused on building anti-drug and alcohol programs in schools.
About five students from each school who are actively involved in teen-led drug prevention groups were chosen to attend the Cebrin Goodman Center High School Substance Abuse Prevention Conference held at the Illinois Holocaust Museum Nov. 7.
Arianna Diaz, a junior at Lake Park High School in Roselle, said prevention was about being a good role model among her classmates.
“It’s about having empowerment to say no, and using that as a light to shine on others,” Diaz said.
Using his brother’s style of in-your-face humor, Tom Farley led the students through improve workshops where they learned better skills for dealing with peer pressure.
“Find out what drives you, and you won’t let anything to come between you and those goals,” Farley said.
Mike Elkins, executive director of the Cebrin Goodman Center, said he hoped the teens would take the lessons they learned at the conference back to their schools.
“I’m convinced that the better the life we all help each other to live, the less vulnerable we are to go after things that are artificial and are potentially addictive and even fatal,” Elkins said.
Tom Farley believes Chris would never have started using drugs if he’d discovered his Hollywood talents earlier in life.
The Saturday Night Live sensation and David Spade sidekick started using drugs and alcohol in his early college years at Marquette University, during a time when Tom Farley says his brother dealt with self-esteem issues and felt unsure of where he fit in amongst an athletic family.
After trying his luck on the stage at a school play one day, Chris was an instant hit, Tom Farley says. In a few years he had made it bigger than anyone in the Wisconsin-bred Farley family could have imagined.
But even under the bright lights of Radio City Studios in New York City or putting on that goofy smile for the cameras on the Hollywood red carpet, Chris’s drug-addiction lurked.
Tom Farley remembers Chris working hard to fight his demons, recalling one family Christmas when he drank coffee while the rest of the family had alcohol.
He sometimes accompanied Chris on his regular trips to a shanty NYC neighborhood to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where he wouldn’t be recognized.
After battling an all-day urge to have a drink, Chris’s reward would be cake and coffee after the AA meeting, Tom recalls.
At the height of Chris’s success, Tom remembers one haunting remark his brother made: “I’ve seen the devil, and it’s heroin,” Chris said.
It wasn’t long after that comment that Chris was found dead of an overdose in a Chicago hotel room.
Tom hopes to use Chris’s death as a lesson to young people to avoid getting hooked on drugs at a young age before they have a chance to bloom.
“Find out what it is that empowers you before those behaviors derail that,” he said. “Chris fought his whole life to live his dream, but the addiction just wouldn’t let go.”