It wasn't until his heart started skipping beats and he could barely breathe that Todd Zalkins finally crawled into a drug-treatment facility in Laguna Beach. That was in February 2007, and Zalkins had been addicted to Oxycontin and other painkillers for 17 years. He knew that if the pills didn't clear out of his system, he was a dead man. “I didn't sleep for 44 days,” Zalkins recalls. “The doctor said it was the worst case of addiction he'd ever seen.”
What nearly killed Zalkins provided the basis for his self-published, 2010 autobiography, Dying for Triplicate, an almost-over-the-top tome that Zalkins says has already sold more than 50,000 copies. His descent into life-threatening addiction also fuels what has now become a full-time career: speaking to teenagers about the dangers of prescription-drug abuse and helping families bring their loved ones into treatment through his website, allininterventions.com.
You might recognize Zalkins as the star of Sublime's 1995 music video for their first hit song, “Date Rape,” the uptempo ska-punk ditty about an unrepentant rapist who meets with jailhouse justice, which became the most requested song in KROQ history. He remembers getting the call from the band when they were staying somewhere in Texas during their breakout cross-country tour that year.
“Z-man, can you be in the video with Ron Jeremy?” they wanted to know. Zalkins readily agreed, knowing full well the assignment involved portraying not only one of the world's most despicable breed of criminals, but also the anal-rape victim of one of the porn industry's most notably rotund actors.
Zalkins didn't necessarily land the gig because of his acting skills. He grew up in Long Beach's Belmont Shore neighborhood and was childhood friends with Sublime members Eric Wilson, Bud Gaugh and Bradley Nowell. “I lived just about five houses away from Eric as a young boy and was one of the first people Bud met at Rogers Middle School,” Zalkins says. “We all grew up together.”
Growing up in Long Beach in the 1980s put him and his friends in the middle of an epic punk-rock scene. “All of our friends surfed together and played in bands together,” he says. “It was a melting pot of extremely talented musicians playing backyard parties and punk-rock shows. When Sublime started playing collectively in their late teens, they had a really organic following of backyard parties and things getting burned down.”
Zalkins remained close with Sublime as the band's success grew. “There were a lot of hangers-on but only a few people in the inner circle,” he says, “and I was privileged to be in that.”
Along with the music, of course, came booze and drugs. “All my high school years were centered on surfing and keg parties,” he continues. “Some people died along the way from overdoses. We ran hard. We went deep and hard; we pushed limits and never intended to harm or bum anyone out, but that was generally the result—mayhem.”
By the mid-1990s, Nowell had become hopelessly addicted to heroin. The band became notorious for unreliability, occasional moments of brilliance marred by no-shows and often disastrous performances. Zalkins recalls breaking up a fight between Nowell and Gaugh, who had recently left drug-rehabilitation therapy and was furious with his friend for failing to show up for a $10,000 gig in San Francisco. “I got some 911 calls from Eric where I had to break up a massive brawl,” Zalkins says. “Bud was beating him to a pulp. I took a few shots from Bud trying to break that up.”
In May 1996, just months after the group's break-through success with “Date Rape,” which had landed them a deal with MCA Records, Sublime headed to Northern California to prepare for a tour. Zalkins traveled with the band and was at what turned out to be their last show in Petaluma. “We were all drunk out of our minds,” Zalkins says. “We all drove back to San Francisco—Brad, Eric and Bud and me. They had a sold-out gig the following night. Brad was sleeping on my chest.”
According to Zalkins, he was one of the last people to see Nowell alive at the Ocean View Motel on May 25. Before he said goodnight to Nowell, they talked about how the singer, who had just become a father, missed his wife and son. “He tried calling me at 4 a.m.,” Zalkins says. He slept through the call, and when he woke up hours later, he learned that Nowell had overdosed on heroin early that morning. “He was trying to get ahold of me, and I'll never know what he wanted to talk about,” he says. “I just wish I could have known what I could have been there for. That haunted me for a lot of years. My addiction spiraled from there.”
After finally kicking the pills more than a decade after Nowell's death, Zalkins began traveling all over the country, speaking and helping families get loved ones into treatment. Two interventions stand out in Zalkin's memory. One involved a 21-year-old man in Newport Beach who had wrestled in high school. “He simply refused to go into treatment despite the pleas from the family for him to get help,” Zalkins says. Finally, the father challenged his son to a wrestling match, with the condition that his son check himself into a hospital if he lost. “Next thing you know, there is a full-blown wrestling match in front of 10 family members, and it was intense. The dad won; the kid tapped out. . . . I took the young man into treatment, and he wanted nothing to do with it, but just recently, he celebrated a year of being clean and sober.”
Another case involved a twentysomething woman in New York, the daughter of a Wall Street broker. “She would not go into treatment unless I flew back to Orange County with her cat,” Zalkins says. “I had to get all of this special gourmet cat food before she would even go to the airport with me. But she ultimately went—with the cat, of course. I was able to get the pet to a family friend in Laguna Beach for the 60 days she was in treatment.”
On Feb. 17, Zalkins celebrated seven years of sobriety. “My whole purpose is to help an addicted individual find recovery, a new path and a life worth living,” he says. “When people hear how drastic and dire my addiction was, it gives them hope that if I got well, they can, too.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).