All photos by Emily Berkey
In February of 2014, Liza Dye left her friend’s apartment in New York City and headed to the subway. As she was waiting for the train, she began to feel faint and searched for a place to sit, but ended up passing out and falling onto the subway tracks. Once she came to, Liza realized she was stuck beneath the subway car — her leg had been run over and she was pinned down — and firefighters had to cut the mental entangling her in order to free her leg. After countless hours in the hospital, extensive surgeries, skin grafts, and intense physical therapy to help her regain her ability to walk, Liza is now thriving in her fifth year of recovery.
Before Liza’s accident, she was like many other twenty-somethings living in New York City — juggling fashion industry gigs and crashing on friends’ couches, hustling with such vigor that on that fateful day she fainted from exhaustion. Though she once thought a career in fashion was her destiny — and being funny was just a part of her personality that the internet seemed to like — months before her fall Liza discovered stand-up and began regularly performing at Upright Citizens Brigade. She even landed a coveted group audition for Saturday Night Live. Her deadpan, unbothered, and somewhat apathetic delivery, witty commentary on pop culture, and ability to impersonate celebrities like Beyoncé led to fans and attention from the start.
The fact that she was a stand-up newcomer didn’t matter when it came time for the comedy community to rally around Liza after her accident. Noteworthy comedians like Zach Braff and Aziz Ansari donated sizable sums to her recovery fund, and comedy benefit shows were held in her honor. Phoebe Robinson, of 2 Dope Queens fame, threw a benefit for Liza in New York that featured Ali Wong, Michelle Wolf, and Aparna Nancherla. Chelsea Peretti and Aziz Ansari also held a benefit show for Liza in Los Angeles weeks after the incident, and Amanda Seales, Janeane Garofalo, and Hannibal Buress performed at another benefit show for Liza at The Stand in New York, too. Others rallied behind Liza and donated more than $55,000 to help with her medical expenses.
Though she used cannabis recreationally before the accident, Liza has found that it helps to relieve some of her physical pain and allows her live in the moment, quelling anxiety and other PTSD symptoms. MERRY JANE met with the comedian and her support dogs in LA, where Liza now lives, to talk about her recovery journey, how cannabis interacts with her comedy career, and the complications of using opioids to treat chronic pain.
MERRY JANE: What role has cannabis played in your life as someone who is in recovery both mentally and physically from a traumatic event?
Liza Dye: Oh wow, the role that it’s played is probably like 75 percent because I mean, there’s just so much to talk about. There’s so many ways that cannabis helps me. From having post-traumatic stress disorder, to nightmares about the accident, to just memories from being in the hospital. There’s so many things that you don’t think about until something happens to you like being in a trauma unit, hearing other people scream. There was a girl across the hall from me who tried to commit suicide. She jumped seven stories from a building, and she survived but she apparently crushed every bone in her body… I still hear her screams all day.
Cannabis helps so many different aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder. There was a point during my recovery where I had to learn to take everything day by day. You just have to take it as it comes, and cannabis helps in the way that it sort of slows things down and it kind of keeps you in the moment, which I think is important. I started to get into Buddhism and transcendental meditation and all these things to help, too. So cannabis was a really foundational element of all of those things that really helped me to mentally recover and obviously physically, as well.
What role does cannabis play in your comedy?
You know, I’ve never been a comedian that likes to get high before a show. A lot of comedians drink and a lot of comedians like to smoke. I think Pete Davidson used to speak out before he was super famous about smoking before shows and stuff. We had done a few shows at UCB Chelsea together. I remember him openly talking about how marijuana helps him because his dad died on September 11th, and he’s got PTSD from that. But I never was a comedian who would use cannabis for shows cause I was just kind of scared that it would make me forget my material. Cause once again, I hadn’t been doing standup long [when I had my accident]. I’m not a Sasheer Zamata out here. I haven’t been out here for like ten years in the game. I really was just getting started in New York.
Now for writing, sure. Cannabis allows your brain to tap into that creative side where you can just be silly and really come up with good bits and just think about observational things that’ll make people laugh. So it does help in the production aspect and the writing aspect and the preparation. But a lot of comedians do say that it helps them loosen up on stage and stuff.
You have emotional support dogs that kind of need emotional support, as well. You give them CBD. In what ways have you seen that help them?
The chihuahua, he’s the emotional support. And then Noah, the poodle, he’s kind of like a service animal. He’s being trained now to help. I have a lot of nerve damage in my leg, so he walks in front of me and helps to clear a path for me to make sure I don’t trip up over anything or knock my leg on anything. He’s really good for that, but he came from sort of an abusive environment, so he has really bad anxiety, really really bad.
So apparently when my accident happened, these two dogs almost died. They just sensed something terrible was wrong. My friends who were taking care of them were like, “We don’t know what’s wrong with them, they’re vomiting, they’re shaking, we’re freaked out.” They took them to the vet. To this day, we don’t know what happened to them, but they somehow knew something had happened to me and they just totally broke down and got really really sick. We’re very synced. We’re very spiritually connected. They have helped me so much.
The chihuahua’s a senior dog so he has really bad arthritis. He used to be in a lot of pain before I brought him to LA. I gave him CBD when we got out here and it wasn’t even a month before he was skipping, and one night he shot up the stairs at my apartment. Something he couldn’t do before. I was shook. I was shook, Emily. It freaked me out. I give them CBD if I feel like they’re in pain. But now I’ve started to give them hemp oil daily.
When your accident happened, were you given prescription pain pills?
Yeah, I’m prescribed super strong opioids. I’m supposed to take it three times a day and it’s pretty scary.
Do you ever use THC or CBD instead of the opioids?
Yes. At the end of last year, I started the search for the strongest CBD product that I could find so I could do away with opioids. Cause the thing is, you know, we are literally in the midst of this opioid epidemic, right? I don’t wanna have to take these for the rest of my life because I’m gonna be in pain for the rest of my life. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to move to California and not stay in New York. I knew that there were more holistic natural options in California for people who have chronic long-term pain.
So the thing is that opioids do help me. I feel like I’m in between a rock and a hard place because you know, they’re abused by so many people but then there are people like me who do benefit from them. They help my mood. When I’m in pain, I’m just in a bad mood and I don’t wanna get out of bed. I don’t wanna do anything. [The prescription pills] change my mood. I can get things done. I can clean. I can go grocery shopping. I can do my laundry. It’s amazing. But I do recognize the dangers of [opioids].
Like I said, I’m supposed to take [the prescription pills] three times a day. If I don’t take it, I get a terrible migraine. I Googled it; that’s a sign of withdrawal. You know what I mean? I’ve been on this [medication] less than a year. So I already see the signs of the things that I don’t want to happen. So I’m searching for the strongest CBD. What I did not know was that unfortunately the price points were so high for good CBD products — like $160 and up!
It’s interesting that you’re trying to go the natural route, but it’s so expensive. Seems like it’s almost forcing you to stay on the opiods.
Yeah, I’m on disability. That’s how I pay my rent. It’s not a lot. They give you just enough to survive. So I definitely couldn’t afford those products. Now my plan is to just do some research and see if there’s any programs that help disabled people get natural pain medicines. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do now.
Let’s talk about you moving forward. Is comedy still the main thing that you are doing? How is recovery going for you?
This month is the five-year anniversary of the incident.
It is. The accident happened February 13th, 2014. So on the 14th it’s gonna be five years which is crazy. I moved to LA three years ago.
Have you been able to focus on comedy at all? Or are you mainly focused on recovering?
It’s very hard to figure out. As cheesy as it sounds, surviving a near-death experience changes everything. You’re not the same person. I’m not living in the same city. I’m not in my 20s. I just turned 30. This happened when I had just turned 25. Everything is totally different now. So comedy — I’m trying to kind of continue on the path that I was on, but I’ve really found music to be therapeutic these last five years of just dealing with this new life and learning how to navigate this disability....lately I find myself doing music more than comedy. [Liza also often DJs comedy shows when she’s not performing]. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning; I put some music on. I’m just trying to figure it all out. Honestly, I think I’m gonna end up in a tipi somewhere in Eagle Rock giving spiritual readings. I think the subway accident gave me superpowers, like psychic powers. I don’t know how it’s gonna end up, but it’s gonna end up with me in some type of shaman-like position.
Do you feel like you’ve walked into your own power?
I just feel very spiritual now. I feel like... not an X-Men but a store-brand X-Men. I read that sometimes people have things that are dormant within themselves, and when you go through a near-death experience it can activate them. I also had this steak of gray hair that just appeared overnight when I was in the hospital. It just came out of nowhere.
Wisdom came to you overnight.
Follow Emily Berkey on Instagram