Carmela Wallace was in good spirits when she picked up the phone. Kind and somewhat soft spoken, she sounded strong and like she was on the other side of the most tragic event of her life. In the two years and two months since losing her son Juice WRLD to a drug overdose, she’s learned a thing or two about resilience. Now spearheading the Live Free 999 nonprofit, Wallace has dedicated her life to raising awareness around addiction and mental health in an attempt to carry on Juice WRLD’s legacy.
Juice WRLD (real name Jarad Higgins) had just turned 21 when he suffered a fatal seizure, but he’d already made a profound impact on his fans. From 2018’s Goodbye & Good Riddance to 2019’s Death Race For Love, his music was intensely personal and often explored themes of drug addiction, struggles with mental health and relationship woes.
His relatability made him a god among teens, almost like a modern-day Apollo. But inside, he was wrestling with demons who were gunning for his soul. Wallace had no idea how much he was struggling until she heard his music, something that completely caught her off guard. But looking back, it made sense.
“He started in high school, and I know when his behavior started to change,” she explains to HipHopDX in a recent interview. “Now that you look back in hindsight, I can pinpoint when the differences started in his behavior. I would think something was different with him, but I couldn’t quite put my hand on it. It wasn’t the weed, it wasn’t the smell. That makes that one even more challenging, because a kid could pop a pill, parents won’t even know. But it’s just the little things in the personality. When you think about it, that tells the story. But when I started hearing him sing about it, oh it was scary. It was frightening.”
Wallace, a single mother who always had a close relationship with her son, would ask Juice WRLD, “Is this true?” And while he was always honest with her, his addiction would tell him certain dosages were OK to take.
“It was true,” she says. “So when I dealt with him, I confronted him based on what he said [in his music]. I was pretty direct with him. He did share it with me, but it was just getting the help part. He thought he had it. He thought he could control to the point where he would tell me, ‘This amount of dosage is fine,’ and we would have this debate. ‘You’re not a doctor. You’re medicating yourself.’ I didn’t even know when he was getting the information from, to say that this amount was OK. That’s scary, too.”
Live Free 999 aims to educate and hopefully destigmatize both addiction and mental health issues. As explained on its website, the organization’s mission is to “bolster organizations providing positive mental health treatments and alternatives to drug use” through financial grants and partnerships. But she understands there’s a long way to go.
“I think it shows a weakness,” she says of the ongoing stigma. “People may see it that way. Something that you’re not in control of, something that … and you have to humble yourself to ask for help, as well. I think it just depends on the situation. Some people, it may be a trust issue. Some people, they’re not comfortable sharing like that. So I think it’s a myriad of issues, why that stigma is attached to it. But I think if you could do it where you don’t have to identify yourself, I think that just makes it a lot easier for somebody to come forward.”
Live Free 999 is currently working on an initiative for Mental Health Awareness month, which kicks off in May. Although Wallace couldn’t say too much about it, she did reveal it will revolve around “normalizing the conversation around mental health” and people telling their personal stories. That alone is harder than it may sound. Often times, addicts find it impossible to open up and ask for help, something Juice WRLD found difficult to do.
“A lot of people think that they’re the only ones going through what they’re going through and we know that’s not the case,” she says. “So it’s just a way that somebody could you even look at someone’s story that they shared, and it might be similar, they could relate to it and see that, ‘Hey, if they overcame it, I could overcome it. I’m not alone.’ And I think that’s a trick of the enemy to have people feel like they’re the only ones going through, nobody understands, and it causes them to go within themselves instead of sharing that they need help.”
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Tragically, it was too late for Juice WRLD. Toxicology reports revealed he died after ingesting toxic levels of the powerful painkillers oxycodone and codeine. Wallace tried her best to talk to him, but it wasn’t enough.
“We talked about mental health and addiction as he got older,” she says. “But that in itself didn’t really help his situation. It helped him talking about it, but it didn’t help him like I would have wanted it to. Because I would share advice about talking to his therapist that he had in high school or getting help and just dealing with the addiction. And Jarad had a way of knowing how to say what you wanted to hear.
“So of course, I’m going to be very optimistic, but I always challenged him on those things about getting help. He didn’t hide it from me. But ultimately it’s up to that individual to make a decision that they’re going to take that step. You could say it and say it and say it, but they have to hit that point where they look up and realize, ‘Where am I? How did I get here?’”
Juice WRLD also became famous in a very short amount of time. He essentially went from being a high school student to international superstar, which is a lot of pressure to put on a young man. When asked what she thought he was trying to escape with drugs, Wallace says pointblank, “I think they’re hurting. I don’t understand it because it’s so different, but it’s like the anxiety. They have a lot of pressure now, and I think social media does not help you.”
“For somebody’s persona, that’s not even the person. I think they have those challenges that just make it so much harder for them. With Jarad, I think the music industry was a lot for him, even though he loved it. I think it gave him anxiety. I think that might have been where his stemmed. But he would still also tell me, ‘Mom, I’m fine.’ Because I would always check, ‘Are you doing OK? Do you like what you’re doing still?’ Just to check and of course, ‘Mom, I’m fine. I’m fine.’”
As Wallace’s grief journey continues, she’s doing her best to navigate each day in a way that honors her son, but she understands it’s OK to have a bad day. Unlike some mothers, she still has his music, videos, photos and performances to remind her just how special her son is. His second posthumous album, Fighting Demons, arrived in December 2021 and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, proving just how loved he still is by his fanbase. A new video for “Cigarettes” was released just minutes before Wallace spoke to DX and has since racked up over three million YouTube views.
“It makes me so proud of him,” she says of his recent accomplishments. “It really does, it does. And the fact that he cared enough to share and be so vulnerable and that he really wanted to help people and to be so young, it’s just … I’m proud of him. And I’m glad he knew I was proud of him. When I would tell him that, I had no idea how he was impacting people. But I was just proud that he was working hard and he was living his dream.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction and/or mental health, visit Live Free 999 here or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.