Harris Wittels Lives on Through His Family's Fight Against the Opioid Crisis

Comedian Harris Wittels died of a heroin overdose in 2015. Five years later, his family is working to change how we approach substance abuse and grief.
February 25, 2020, 3:40pm
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Harris Wittels was a comedy genius with a brain that produced some of the weirdest and naturally hilarious thoughts to land on web pages, TV screens, and podcasts. In 2015, Wittels died of a heroin overdose. In his memory, Wittels’ family is still working to help others dealing with substance abuse and grief.

For Harris’s sister, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, that meant writing a book. “It helped to work it out that way," she told VICE. "It gave me something to do, gave me a place to channel all the stuff I was feeling."

Harris Wittels had an extensive comedy resume, writing and co-executive producing for multiple award-winning TV shows like Parks & Recreation and Master of None. He invented the term “humblebrag,” which he wrote about for Grantland and also published a book about. A talented standup, Wittels flourished as an improviser on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast, and the Analyze Phish podcast, in which Wittels, a dedicated Phish advocate, attempted to sway his co-host, Scott Aukerman, into loving the jam band.

Wittels was only 30 years old when he died in 2015. He’d been shockingly open about his opioid use in an episode of You Made It Weird, a podcast with comedian Pete Holmes, explaining how he’d gone from taking prescription opioids for back pain to buying heroin in a park, with details about his stints in rehab and his experience relapsing. “I’m going to write a movie about this shit,” Wittels told Holmes. At the time, the episode sounded like someone who had gone through addiction, in the past tense. Not someone who was going through it.

Five years after his death, Wittels’ family is intent on using Harris’s story as a meaningful way to help others and change how people approach addiction and grief, as the Houston Chronicle reported on February 17. His mother, Maureen, founded the Houston chapter of Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing, or GRASP, in Houston, only six months after her son died, though the group usually only permits those to start after being “18 months out,” but Maureen Wittels was insistent in providing support for others trying to process tragedy. She’s also written about her son’s death with specific calls to action, such as making Naloxone and safe injection sites more readily available and changing drug laws to recognize substance abuse as an issue of health, not crime.

Wachs first wrote about her brother’s death on Medium, and she eventually published Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love, and Loss in 2018. In the book, Wachs talks about the moments before her brother’s death, as well as the details of mourning and grief in the moments and months after he died. There are also fascinating and hilarious memories of Harris scattered throughout, such as the time a teenage Harris approached Louis C.K. after a show at the Laff Stop in Houston, earnestly saying he could help him be funnier. (Wittels would later open for C.K.) Another particularly insightful part of the book, Wachs details her experience in hearing her brother talk about addiction on Pete Holmes’s podcast, a particularly enraging experience since Wach knew Harris was using at the time.

Though writing a book about a sibling’s death seems like intense and emotional undertaking, to Wachs, it felt necessary to her survival.

“I was deeply grieving, and I really did feel like I was going to die of grief. I've never felt pain that acute,” Wachs told VICE. She wrote the book in nine months, which she said helped her channel her emotions in a way that helped her commit memories to paper, that might’ve been lost forever if she didn’t write them down.

In the book, and in conversation with VICE, Wachs describes a profound feeling of learning more about substance abuse, only to wonder if this information would’ve been able to help Harris, which she said is a “fucked-up game to play, a losing proposition.” For example, the luxury 28-day rehab facility that Harris checked into, Wachs said, has been found to be largely ineffective, versus a cheaper, medicine-based alternative, like an outpatient methadone program.

“Progress happens when it happens. And unfortunately, he was part of this epidemic before there was as much information and resources available as there are now.” Wachs said.

Even after writing the book, Wachs did not feel she was done with grieving Harris through her work.

Wachs also started a podcast network, called Lemonada Media (a play on making lemonade from life’s lemons), with Jessica Cordova Kramer, whose brother died from a fentanyl overdose in 2017. Their podcast, Last Day, focuses on the opioid epidemic, tells the stories of the last day of people who died from overdose, or their last day of use before getting clean. When she first started the podcast, she thought it would be “a major giant bummer.”

“I didn't want to continue to talk about and think about and focus on opioids, and death and destruction. But my son had just been born and then three months later, I read an article that it was killing more people than car accidents and I was like, ‘Okay, well, fuck. I don't really have a choice.’” Since launching Last Day, Wachs said the experience has actually been therapeutic in realizing she is not alone in her grief.

“It's not a bummer,” Wachs said. “It's a bummer that my brother's dead. That's always been a bummer. But like, I think about him 100 million hours a day. So for me to be doing work that focuses on him feels right. Maybe I'll get to a point in my grief where I don't think about him as much. And then maybe I won't feel the need to create art around it. But at this point, I still do.”

Those struggling with addiction or related issues can visit the official federal government SAMHSA National Helpline website for treatment information.