Mom of Alice In Chains' Layne Staley Talks Opioid Crisis, Son's Legacy

By Paul Gaita 08/17/17

Staley's mother, Nancy McCallum, spoke about addiction, over-prescribing and drug treatment in a recent interview.

Layne Staley
Layne Staley Photo via YouTube

Fans and fellow musicians will pay homage to Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley on Saturday, August 19 at the 15th annual tribute concert at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, Washington. The event will benefit the Therapeutic Health Services network of clinics, which provides treatment for substance dependency and mental health issues, and also manages the Layne Staley Memorial Fund, which supports education and treatment for heroin recovery in Seattle's music scene. 

This year's event is also marked by a pair of historical dates: Staley, who died from a heroin overdose at the age of 34 in April 2002, would have celebrated his 50th birthday this year, and Alice in Chains' critically acclaimed second record, Dirt, will earn its quarter-century anniversary.

For Staley's mother, Nancy McCallum, the event is a bittersweet reminder of not only the loss she suffered with her son's passing, but also the struggle faced by countless individuals dealing with their own loved ones' dependency issues. "I will never be able to understand even trying something that is so dangerous," she told the Seattle Times. "I'm as bewildered as the next person, because I see a beautiful world."

Since Staley's passing, McCallum has been sought out for support and advice by others whose lives have been impacted by substance dependency. She offers what wisdom she can: "I don't have any magic answers," she said. "I just try to console people. It's heartbreaking and overwhelming and unnecessary. But I know it's coupled with a proclivity for habitual behavior."

What's needed in the midst of the national opioid addiction epidemic is open dialogue about dependency—what it entails, how it can be treated, and what those with dependency issues and their families need to know.

"Addiction is a disease like any other," she said. "Like a cancer, it can be treated, but it can also reoccur. We shouldn't judge. The emphasis should be on research and treatment." McCallum is quick to add that while dependency can be treated, it can't be eradicated, and those facilities that promise such a "cure" should be regarded with caution. "When someone is charging you thousands of dollars, promising they will heal addiction, far away from home or with religion, you are being misled." 

McCallum is well aware that dependency can take on a nightmarish cyclical quality. Staley went through 10 rounds of drug treatment, and needed reviving five times, surviving only because he was with other people. The sixth time that drugs stopped his heart, Staley was alone in his home in Seattle's University District. McCallum raced to his home, having just heard from her son's accountant that he had withdrawn a large sum from his bank account before disappearing. She was too late.

The police she summoned to gain entry to Staley's apartment told her to wait outside, but she entered all the same. "I promised that I would always be there for my children," she recalled. "I told him I was sorry this was how it turned out."

Though devastating, McCallum musters the strength to continue to fight for issues regarding dependency. She sees the overprescription of painkillers by medical professionals as a key component to the opioid epidemic: five years ago, a periodontist who extracted her wisdom teeth gave her a prescription for 20 "oxy-somethings," with a refill for 20 more. She returned the pills with a note that read, "Shame on you. You get rid of these."

"Society thinks mothers are weak and whiny," she said. "But women go to war, we have babies. This was my war." 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.