Cooper Wise

Part I: Theatre’s Church

by Larry Greco Harris

Cooper Wise, at 23, has been searching for a feeling for a long time. And this search has led him from the bright lights of the theater stages in Nevada, through the through dim-lit heroin bathrooms of the Pacific Northwest, behind the metal bars of San Luis Obispo County Jail, and recently into a heavily monitored halfway house for ex-offenders.

Most every child spends his or her young life trying on different hats and engaging in different adventures in search of what feels right. Many find their emotional needs met through the fellowship offered at their place of worship—that is if they are ever introduced to such a place. Well, Cooper Wise was. As a child growing up in Las Vegas, his parents had him baptized into the tight-knit and family-supportive Mormon Church. But the beneficial feelings of that experience did not last long for Cooper.

“I was young and impressionable, so at first I got into going. But by the time I was twelve or thirteen I was smoking and drinking and saying ‘screw this church thing’.”

Though he didn’t know exactly what feeling he was looking for, Cooper was sure it wasn’t going to come from the traditional avenue of a religion, nor from that other typical activity set aside for teenage boys—sports. But luckily, through trial and error, he did find an outlet that began to feel a lot better—theater.

“There is a children’s theatre ensemble in Vegas called The Rainbow Company. It was an alternative to the school sports that weren’t really fulfilling me. I remember the first time being on stage in front of people in eighth grade. Part of me stepped outside of myself. It was a surreal experience to be playing this character who wasn’t me.

“I definitely got high off of it. I remember I had a ritual. Before they opened the doors and let the audience in, I would sit alone in the house seats of the theatre. I’d be in costume and make up and ready to go—and I would just sit there. It was like a spiritual church for me, just being in that theatre, just being behind the scenes in a space where there was all that focus and excitement. It just felt right.”

Once he’d had this experience, Cooper was reluctant to let it go.

“I ended up liking it so much that later I went to a performing arts high school where I majored in theater. That meant you studied theater two hours out of every day. They taught us the whole gamut, from doing the sets, to ushering, to lights and sound. It was an outlet for me. We did five shows a year, and I got a lot out of it. But once you graduated, you were done with it.”

So at 18, with theatre no longer structuring his time or providing the spiritual energy that made him feel good, he took his high school diploma and set himself a new course, northward, in search of the next thing that might feel right. He moved away from home and enrolled in a college up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. It was there that Cooper Wise got into sociology and philosophy . . . and also Heroin.

Part II:  You Can’t Go Home Again

For Cooper Wise, something just felt right about attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He had toured the Pacific Northwest during his junior and senior years in high school and had liked the area. Much different from Las Vegas.

Also, the school had a non-conventional and progressive structure much like his high school. There he decided to leave theater behind to take up sociology and philosophy. Though he enjoyed the ideas presented in these disciplines, they clearly did not trigger for him the emotional or spiritual feelings that he seemed to need.

Another reason Olympia, Washington, might have felt right to Cooper is because of the special advantages it offered to marijuana users.

“Being a heavy pot head,” says Cooper, “Washington was appealing to me—living away from my family, being out in the woods, smoking pot. Along with the progressiveness of the school came a lot of drugs and partying. Evergreen College is a good school, but the pot’s cheap and the acid’s flowing.”

Cooper dates his earliest drug use back to a shoulder surgery he had when he was a junior in high school.

“The doctor prescribed pain killers. I think that kind of started it. Soon I was taking them when I really didn’t need to be. I just liked the way they made me feel. Then it progressed. My mom was on pain management, so I would sneak into her room to try out any of her pills that were labeled may cause drowsiness.”

When Cooper lived at home and stayed involved in high school theatre, he must have been getting just enough of what he needed to avoid severe drug involvement. But once he moved away, nothing seemed to feel as right as the drugs he began to take.

“It was just a miserable time. I was eighteen, a freshman in college, living away from my parents. I was supposed to be out on my own, experiencing the world, and instead I was in my room every night calling my girlfriend back in Las Vegas.

“I found that drugs and alcohol worked for the time being to take away the pain and the awkwardness of being in a new place and meeting new people. Then something just clicked, and I said to myself, OK, I’ll just stay high like this all the time, and that’ll work. That’s when I started to progress into sticking needles into my arm. And with heroin, it got bad really fast.”

Three quarters of the way through his freshman year at Evergreen College, Cooper dropped out.

“I called my parents and said ‘I have a drug problem. I need help’. Then I went back to Vegas and got into an outpatient residential treatment program. I thought to myself, ‘If I can just get off Heroin, then my life will be better.’”

Maybe Cooper thought that going back to his old life would make him feel good enough to kick this use of narcotics that was bringing him down so quickly. Maybe he thought that the feeling of being around his parents, the feeling of being back with his girlfriend, the feelings he could recapture by limiting himself to alcohol and pot would pull him back from this ominous cliff of heroin use.

But as the saying goes, You can’t go home again. And it was true for Cooper, too. Despite returning to his hearth and his home, things were about to get much worse.

. . . this true story to be continued . . .