‘Lisa’s Light’: Local couple aim to illuminate addiction and hope after daughter’s death

Gary and Judy Stoefen's book, "Lisa's Light," details their daughter's struggle with addiction.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Lisa Stoefen died in 2003 at age 21 after spending much of her teens addicted to alcohol and drugs. But that’s not the end of her story. Her parents, Gary and Judy Stoefen, have written a book detailing her successes and challenges in hopes that it will steer others from a similar path.

The couple, who met while growing up in La Jolla and now live in Rancho Bernardo, will be signing the book, “Lisa’s Light: A Story of Triumph and Tragedy Over Drug Addiction,” at Warwick’s bookstore at 7812 Girard Ave. in La Jolla at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 20.

The book, published in 2020, carries the message that “no one is invincible to addiction,” Gary said. Not even Lisa, who was “just adorable, creative, athletic and intelligent.”

Lisa began drinking at a friend’s house at age 14, unbeknownst to her parents. Her grades slipped from their former straight A’s and she began skipping school, Judy said.

She also became “belligerent” at home, Judy said, impacting the family, which includes Judy and Gary’s two younger daughters and Gary’s two sons from a previous marriage.

Lisa became addicted to alcohol but also picked up cigarettes and drugs. Her problems increased and her parents put her in outpatient addiction programs. When she was 17, they enrolled her in an inpatient program in Louisiana, “away from everybody,” Judy said.

Lisa came home sober at 18 and stayed that way until she was 21. But social circumstances triggered her to begin drinking again and using drugs.

In 2003, as Lisa was driving to Rancho Bernardo from Valley Center, she was intoxicated at three times the legal limit and had traces of crystal meth in her system.

She veered off the road and crashed into a brick wall, igniting a fire. She died at the scene, Gary said.

“I want people to understand … the consequences,” he said. “It’s devastating.”

Lisa Stoefen died in a crash in 2003 after driving while intoxicated.
(Courtesy of Gary Stoefen)

This wasn’t the Stoefens’ first experience with addiction. Gary’s father, Lester “Les” Stoefen, a tennis player who won a Wimbledon doubles championship in 1934 and two Grand Slam doubles titles in 1933 and ’34 and worked as the tennis pro at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club for 35 years, died of cirrhosis after decades of drinking.

Les, who Gary said was a “great man, very affable,” became a “living skeleton just withering away” in the last few years of his life.

Gary was in his teens when his father died, and he started drinking himself shortly after that, not making the connection between alcohol and his father’s death.

“I grew up in this environment where drinking was acceptable,” Gary said, noting that both his parents were heavy drinkers.

He said he also had undiagnosed clinical depression, which exacerbated alcohol’s effects on him.

“I started to downward spiral,” he said, trying “to escape those feelings that I didn’t know what to do with. I chose to drink my feelings away.”

Gary joined Alcoholics Anonymous 41 years ago, attending his first meeting at the La Jolla Woman’s Club. He’s been sober since, though alcoholism is a “tough disease to try to control,” he said.

“I want people to understand … the consequences. It’s devastating.”

— Gary Stoefen

Gary and Judy have worked since Lisa’s death to spread information about the dangers of addiction, speaking to groups of teenagers at local schools and other organizations in an attempt to save lives.

“I want other people to understand this, what she went through,” Gary said. “All this could be prevented if people would just take this disease seriously.”

Gary said he and Judy began working on “Lisa’s Light,” their first writing endeavor, in 2004. “It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

It took 16 years to finish the book, both because of the grief it unearthed and their commitment to their videography company.

“It was very cathartic,” Judy said of the writing process. She added that she still becomes emotional when reading it.

“I had to get it on paper,” Gary said. “My daughter helped people when she was sober. … I knew she wanted to help people.”

People can stay sober, Gary said, “but you’ve got to be serious about it and don’t fall into that trap that my daughter did, thinking she could go out there and do it differently. It will not happen.”

“Many young people don’t realize the effect of alcohol and how it can mess up their lives,” Judy said. “So many teenagers think they’re immortal [and] nothing bad is going to happen to them.”

She cited statistics indicating that people who begin drinking as young teens are four times more likely to become alcoholics.

To purchase the book or learn more, visit lisaslight.com.