Being a rock star comes with a certain set of expectations.
Fans have expectations. The star has expectations. Society has expectations.
Especially with a band like Megadeth. A heavy metal, hard-charging group which looks, well, like trouble to many.
David Ellefson, a cofounder of the band, knows that kind of trouble, and he brought his story to Fountain Hills High School students in two lunchtime assemblies March 25.
Ellefson, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, started his life in Minnesota, a self-described “Lutheran kid, organ player and school bus rider.”
His appearance at Fountain Hills High School was part of outreach efforts by Teen Addiction Anonymous and Fountain Hills Coalition.
As he became more and more immersed in the world of music, including playing in bands in his hometown, Ellefson told students he began experimenting with alcohol and drugs.
And while he ended up addicted to cocaine and heroin, Ellefson said his “gateway” drug was alcohol.
“I was 15 when I started drinking,” he told the young audience. “I started smoking pot when I was 16, and just followed that with cocaine and heroin.”
Despite his addictions, Ellefson continued an upward climb in the music business. In his early 20s, he was touring the world, playing to large audiences and was just steps away from playing stadium-sized shows.
Then it began to fall apart.
“Heroin is an insidious and sneaky drug,” he said. “And I was completely strung out on it.”
Megadeth was in England at a premier heavy metal festival, then called the Download Festival. Some 107,000 people saw the show. Ellefson played, then checked himself in to rehab.
For a year and a half, he was in and out of rehabilitation. And as he tried to break his addictions, Megadeth “just stopped. No Megadeth while David is in rehab,” Ellefson said.
He said he didn’t hit bottom until he had been in rehab three times. He said everyone’s worst point is different, but he knew when he had hit his, and he was ready to change.
“And I said, ‘Lord, please help me,’” he said.
Ellefson is an active participant in 12-step programs. He often goes to a “higher power” for help, and he knows that he is an addict and will battle his addictions for the rest of his life.
“When I finally hit that bottom, I woke up the next day, and I didn’t do drugs and I didn’t drink,” he said. “And I didn’t on day two, or on day three. And now I am 24 years sober. But it is one day at a time.”
Ellefson said the fraternity of sober musicians is growing all the time.
“I have a lot of friends in the business who are just like I am,” he said. “And sharing this saves us.”
Trying drugs and alcohol is no different than playing Russian roulette, Ellefson said.
“You don’t know if you are going to take a drink, then get in the car to drive home and kill somebody, or kill yourself, but it happens,” he said.
“And you don’t know if smoking pot one time isn’t going to lead to more. But I can tell you this: the best way to be absolutely sure is to just not start. Just don’t start.”
Ellefson said addiction is “kind of a funny thing. Addiction is a lie. It likes to get you alone because when you are alone, that addiction will talk to you and try to take you back to it.
“And addiction, while it can make you feel unique, completely takes away our uniqueness. We’re like any other junkie. Using alcohol and drugs is an equalizer. We just blend in. So the best part of us goes away.”
Ellefson said his relationship with 12-step programs and with his higher power are what get him through each day.
“Your higher power is with you wherever you go,” he said. “When you are in trouble, you ask for help. It may sound kind of mystical, but it works.”
Students lined up after the first assembly to shake Ellefson’s hand and to thank him. He was accessible and gracious and talked to each student. A young woman in the audience came up to him in tears.
Ellefson told her to wait for him to finish meeting the others and he would be there to talk. She walked up the stairs to the back of the room and sat down, tears streaming down her face.
But as Ellefson had told the students, she was not alone. He was ready to help.