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Laguna filmmaker documents the fall and rise of life as a drug addict

Laguna filmmaker documents the fall and rise of life as a drug addict
Producer Michael Meeker, Todd ‘Z-Man’ Zalkins, Jakob Nowell and director Richard Yelland, from left, on the red carpet at the Newport Beach Film Festival. Yelland, a resident of Laguna Beach, released a film about how one man is surviving after a life of addiction. (Courtesy of Richard Yelland)

Sixteen to 18 Oxycontins, 12 to 14 Norcos, two to three Fentanyl sticks and about a gram of smoked heroin. The balanced diet of a drug addict.

Specifically, the daily regimen of Todd "Z-Man" Zalkins during the height of his addiction.

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Zalkins' struggle with drugs and eventual redemption is the subject of a recently released documentary, "The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd 'Z-Man' Zalkins,"by Laguna Beach filmmaker Richard Yelland.

The film was named Best Documentary at the Phoenix Film Festival and was an Official Selection at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

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It's currently available on all major platforms, including Amazon, Vimeo On Demand and iTunes.

For Yelland, 50, directing the film, his fifth, was an obvious choice. Losing a friend to heroin and a brother to drugs and alcohol imbued a poignancy to Zalkins' story.

"It's unthinkable that [Zalkins] could be alive," Yelland said. "People don't survive opioid addictions like this.

"[Zalkins] went through what other people wouldn't survive. So people see his story and say if he can do it, then I can do it. That's the power of the story."

Zalkins, 50, of Long Beach grew up with Sublime band members Bradley Nowell, Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh. Each lived in the Belmont Shore area at a time when the music and party scene were intrinsically linked.

Zalkins' descent into addiction accompanied the rapid rise of Sublime in the early-to-mid-1990s into the upper echelons of the ska music scene.

"Drugs were a big part of our culture," Zalkins said.

From left, Jon Phillips, Sublime's former manager; Michael "Miguel" Happoldt, co-founder of Skunk Records; RAS-1, Long Beach Dub Allstars; Bud Gaugh, Sublime; and Todd Zalkins, at front, at a bachelor party in Laughlin, Nev., in August 1999.
From left, Jon Phillips, Sublime's former manager; Michael "Miguel" Happoldt, co-founder of Skunk Records; RAS-1, Long Beach Dub Allstars; Bud Gaugh, Sublime; and Todd Zalkins, at front, at a bachelor party in Laughlin, Nev., in August 1999. (Courtesy of Todd Zalkins and "The Long Way Back")

Things got worse for Zalkins when he injured his back while working construction and a doctor prescribed him opioids to tame the pain.

While the pills quickly collared Zalkins, his best friend and the band's frontman, Bradley Nowell, was delving deeper into heroin, eventually dying at age 28 of an overdose at a San Francisco hotel on May 25, 1996.

Nowell was survived by his wife, Troy Dendekker, and 11-month-old son, Jakob Nowell.

The widely reported death ended the band and sent shock waves through the ska and reggae-rock scene. It caused particular harm to Zalkins, who discovered that Nowell had tried to call him the night of his death.

"He tried calling me at 4 a.m.," Zalkins said. "I was staying at the band manager's house and I just couldn't wake up. I had been drinking with the guys and taken some pills. In that lethargic mode, I just thought I will talk to him in the morning. I wish to god I would have taken that call."

The death of his friend coupled with the mystery of that unanswered phone call lodged into Zalkins' psyche, encouraging further drug use to cope.

"He probably just wanted a friend to hang out with or someone to talk to," Zalkins said. "It really broke my heart when I found out. My addiction spiraled for years and years after that."

Bradley Nowell and Todd Zalkins on stage at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma on May 24, 1996. Nowell died of a heroin overdose the following morning.
Bradley Nowell and Todd Zalkins on stage at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma on May 24, 1996. Nowell died of a heroin overdose the following morning. (Courtesy of Todd Zalkins and "The Long Way Back")

Then in 2007, after a sleepless 44-day detox, Zalkins was able to overcome his addiction. He had come to the realization that he needed to quit the drugs if he hoped to save his physical and mental health. The drugs had tormented him for 17 years.

With a renewed sense of vigor, Zalkins began to travel to schools to teach children about the dangers of addiction and drug abuse. Yet, Nowell's phone call still clung to his mind.

A form of redemption arrived a few years ago when Jim "Papa" Nowell, Bradley Nowell's father, reached out to Zalkins, asking him for help with Jakob, 22, who had developed a problem with drugs and alcohol.

Zalkins, knowing the pain that Bradley Nowell's death inflicted on the Nowell family, had to step in. Perhaps he couldn't save the father, but he could help the son.

"My whole body started pulsating," Zalkins said. "I was run over with emotions because I would do anything for that young man. Of course, all the memories rushed back of losing Brad. It's kind of like getting a second chance of trying to help that family."

Zalkins succeeded in getting Jakob Nowell sober, and while he now works as a drug interventionist and public speaker on the topic, he doesn't believe the "scoreboard" is even.

"It's that unknown," Zalkins said about Bradley Nowell's call. "By nature, I am just one of those guys who is there for his friends.

"It's one of those things that will always be a little bruise on my heart. I have to accept that. I think the best tribute I can do to honor him is to stay clean and sober and continue to help other people and look after his son."

Zalkins believes the film will serve as a testament to others that the deepest of addictions can be overcome, providing him with further opportunities to save people from the depths of drug addiction.

"I don't think the work's even done yet," Zalkins said. "It's just starting."

Twitter:@benbrazilpilot

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