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Actress Mackenzie Phillips shares story of overcoming addiction at Utah conference

Mackenzie Phillips arrives at the 32nd annual Imagen Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Aug. 18, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Richard Shotwell, Associated Press

OREM — Actress Mackenzie Phillips noted the impact of trauma and that “survivors don’t ... have memories” as she talked about her heart pounding when a movie producer reminded her years later of details she experienced as a 12-year-old on a major Hollywood film.

Phillips, whose father was in the popular 1960s folk rock band the Mamas & the Papas, described her struggles with addiction after her tumultuous childhood during the annual Conference on Addiction at Utah Valley University on Thursday.

While attending a screening for “American Graffiti,” the early George Lucas film that Phillips acted in when she was 12, Phillips said she learned shocking details of her youth — ones she’d forgotten.

At the time of the screening years after the film’s initial release, Phillips was by then a mother in her 30s. A producer on the film asked her if she remembered when she got off a plane to film the movie, carrying a “fake leather suitcase” and all by herself.

“And we said to you, ‘Where’s your guardian? You’re only 12. You can’t be all alone,’” Phillips remembered the filmmaker asking.

“And my heart started to pound. My hands started to shake,” Phillips said.

She learned the producer had needed to scramble to become her legal guardian for the duration of the film, and Phillips lived with his family.

“I had literally, absolutely no recollection and I still don’t to this day. I tell you that story because it gives a practical representation of how trauma lives. … Trauma survivors don’t necessarily have memories,” Phillips said.

“But I have symptoms that have taken me throughout my whole life. Restlessness, irritability, trouble sleeping. All of these things,” she said.

That was just one example of a childhood with parents who suffered addiction Phillips shared during the conference, which took place virtually this year after being canceled last year due to the pandemic. Phillips appeared in her home in California over videoconferencing.

The conference focused on aspects of addiction including recovery, healing and understanding addiction through the lens of trauma.

Toni Harris, assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at UVU, said in a statement that the pandemic “has presented the addiction community with many additional challenges.”

“Depression, isolation and insecurity can lead to an increase in addictive behaviors. Those experiencing challenges may be less likely to reach out for help because of social distancing and the complications around attending group meetings or counseling sessions,” Harris said.

She said treatment providers need to look for new ways to provide service and connect.

The volatility in Phillips’ life led her to become “a baby addict” as she developed drug addictions throughout her teen years. She said she hitchhiked around Los Angeles, stole, lied and got assaulted.

She later landed a role on the popular sitcom “One Day at a Time” and found a “safe haven” and feeling of family among her co-workers, including television giant Norman Lear, who hired her.

But addiction got in the way of that success, and she got fired. Phillips noted that now, when actors struggle with addiction or other issues, shows will often temporarily write their characters out while they receive treatment. Actors are then often able to return.

“We are chipping away at the stigma, we are chipping away at the shame,” she said.

That’s why Phillips said she insists “on recovering out loud” to help reduce the stigma surrounding addiction.

After years of getting off drugs and then relapsing, she says the turning point occurred when she got caught with heroin in 2008 at an airport on her way to appear on the “Rachael Ray Show” with other castmates of “One Day at a Time.”

This time, she realized she wanted to help others overcome addiction and returned to school to be able to work in a treatment center. For the past several years, she’s worked at Breathe Life Healing Centers in California.

“And I’ve found a second representation of that kind of family I felt I had when I started working on ‘One Day at a Time.’ A safe family, a wonderful family. A predictable family, because living the way I lived and growing up the way I (grew) up, nothing was predictable,” Phillips explained.

She recently also guest-starred on the popular Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”

Phillips urged others going through addiction to love themselves despite their mistakes and the mistakes of those close to them.

“I am not the things I have done. I am not the mistakes my family made. I’m light. I’m a child of God. I also learned so many things — but I learned that I, for many years, carried other people’s shame as if it were my own. Not my shame to carry. Give it back to the people who did the shameful thing and stop carrying it like a rock,” Phillips said.

“It’s not my shame to carry.”