There’s A Deadly Drinking Problem On TikTok

Carla Garson’s memories of her final TikTok Live with her partner, 23-year-old David Lee Perez — which took place on Dec. 26, 2022 — are blurry.

The couple had found modest fame in the summer of that year through their shared TikTok account, Operation Hangover, which they used to broadcast themselves taking shots in exchange for cash on the platform’s Live function. Together, sometimes multiple times a week, they would sit in the basement of their home and tally up the drinks they’d consumed on a whiteboard behind them for their audience.

According to Garson, their drinking had become heavy by December 2022 as their streams had grown in popularity, and the holiday period meant more people were available to watch and pay them to take shots. Garson said the couple charged between $5 and $15 dollars per shot, although their earnings varied widely depending on that night’s crowd.

“On a good night, we made roughly $500,” said Garson, who told HuffPost that the pair were given money through PayPal, CashApp and TikTok Live’s gift function. “On a bad night, I would say, maybe like $50.” (The BBC reported that TikTok takes a 70% cut from the earnings creators receive through TikTok Live gifts, a figure the platform’s spokesperson described as “inaccurate”; on its website, TikTok states it takes a 50% cut, “after deducting the required payments to app stores, payment processors and any other adjustment required under [its] terms and policies.”)

Garson said she and Perez had tried to mitigate the risk of drinking to excess on the streams by secretly filling a small number of their alcohol bottles with sweet tea and other soft beverages, although she claimed the remaining ones always contained real booze, and that she and Perez were often actually intoxicated on their livestreams.

Sometimes, according to Garson, Perez would chug straight liquor on the Lives, usually when he was stressed. Although she said she often tried to warn him that his actions were dangerous, she was hopeful that they wouldn’t be drinking online for much longer.

David Lee Perez, left, with Carla Garson.
David Lee Perez, left, with Carla Garson.

Illustration: HuffPost; Photo: Courtesy Carla Garson

“We wanted to change our TikTok from drinking to cooking and music,” said Garson, now 21, who lives in Colorado, where she is currently taking a break from studying psychology. She added that she and Perez wanted to spend 2023 looking after their health. “It was pretty miserable for the both of us, I think, towards the end,” she said of the streams. “It got pretty rough.”

Garson remembers feeling the pressure to drink being especially hard on the night of the pair’s last livestream. She told HuffPost that they had attracted a larger crowd than usual and were paid to take four or five shots at a time. Garson said she ended up drinking 11 shots in total, while Perez had 14, and according to her, shotgunned an additional two beers. The last thing Garson clearly recollects, she said, is Perez chugging an entire Four Loko — a 23-ounce can of malt alcohol that can be up to 14% ABV — in one sitting.

It was purchased for him, she alleges, by a TikTok creator who claims in his TikTok bio and some videos to be sponsored by Four Loko. “[The creator] paid 20 bucks for him to chug that,” Garson said, and also alleged that the creator she referenced — who makes videos of himself shotgunning cans of Four Loko for an audience of tens of thousands of followers — had convinced Perez to shotgun two Four Lokos in a separate livestream the night before, on Dec. 25. (The man behind the account did not respond to HuffPost’s multiple requests for comment, eventually blocking its reporter.)

Garson says she doesn’t remember much after that and was “blackout drunk.” According to her, she does remember Perez vomiting in the bathroom and being unresponsive when she called out to him. She remembers sobering up rapidly when she realized he wasn’t breathing and calling 911. She said she began to start hitting his back and attempted CPR. Amid the chaos, their phone — which the pair had been livestreaming on — fell into a pile of bags under their coffee table. According to Garson, she had no idea that the phone continued to broadcast audio of the unfolding nightmare to an audience of 280 people.

In one of the few recordings that remain of the incident, Garson could be heard crying, telling someone that her partner wasn’t breathing. A man in the background — whom Garson identified as a family member — could be heard yelling, saying that Perez had been passed out for a while. Eventually, one of the paramedics that Garson summoned to the scene called to his colleague to give Perez the drug epinephrine, which is administered to reverse cardiac arrest. In the recording, one of the paramedics stated that Perez had a history of pancreatic cancer. (According to Garson and Perez’s mother and sister, Perez informed his family that he had stage 3 endocrine cancer of the pancreas in 2021, and after several months of asking them to drop him off outside of the hospital for chemotherapy, he announced that he had entered remission in 2022.)

Meanwhile, viewers were commenting in real time. Some left messages like “Prayers for Dave!” or expressed their dismay. Others were more insensitive, saying it was “too late” to save Perez or that he was “way past dead.” Many people began to beg the TikToker to wake up, as if he could hear their messages. The livestream’s viewership crept up from 280 to 310.

Suddenly, the sound of clicking medical devices stopped. The paramedics could no longer be heard, and soon the livestream turned to static. On the TikTok video, only viewers’ messages and a “rising star” label — a ranking TikTok awards to creators making the most income from their Live streams — were visible in the corner of the screen. Some 343 people were watching toward the end of the recording. The last thing that could be heard before the recording cut out was the voice of Perez’s family member. “He’s dead, Carla!” the family member screamed. (TikTok declined to comment on Perez, the circumstances of his death, or the fact that it was livestreamed.)

Despite the best efforts of Garson and paramedics, Perez was pronounced dead at the scene. It’s a memory that still haunts Garson. “I tried saving him. I tried to revive him,” she said. “I just remember screaming for him.”

Since then, she has vowed to raise awareness about the dangers of alcohol-based TikToks — and the brands that creators claim they work with to create their content. “It is very common to have partnerships and sponsorships [among alcohol-based creators],” Garson said. “That’s when it’s promoting, literally, alcoholism — and I’m going to bring awareness to it.”

In response to Garson’s claim, a TikTok spokesperson said that such content would be a “breach of our policies.”

Although it is possible they were unaware that their products were being promoted in this way on TikTok, HuffPost also reached out to seven alcohol brands and one alcohol retailer that either had their branded merchandise or bottles of alcohol promoted by TikTokers who engage in drinking Lives, including Pernod-Ricard-owned Screwball Whiskey, Jim Beam Whiskey and malt beverage Four Loko. Only two independent brands — Trust Me Vodka and TC Craft Tequila — responded.

Garson, Perez and many of the peers they met from TikTok all hail from the same sphere: the intense and often dangerous world of drinking on TikTok Lives, where creators stream themselves downing what appears to be alcohol for cash in real time. The niche has been fueled by its lucrative nature, which allows influencers to make a quick buck through streams and potentially attract the attention of brands that have allegedly sent them swag, alcohol and other items. It points toward a larger, more troubling trend: In a saturated social media market where extremes attract the most attention, it pays to take risks and build personal brands around bingeing — and the results can sometimes be deadly.

Despite the prevalence of alcohol-themed creators on TikTok — who have, at the time of this writing, attracted over 24 billion views between the hashtags #alcohol and #cocktail alone — the platform has a hard-line stance on the promotion of booze-based content. In its branded content policy, TikTok explicitly prohibits branded content that promotes “products or services” for alcoholic beverages, alcohol-making kits, alcohol-sponsored events or even “soft drinks presented as mixers for alcohol.” The platform defines branded content as videos that feature “a product or service that has been gifted to [a creator] by a brand, or that [a creator has] been paid to post about (whether in the form of money or a gift), or for which [a creator] will receive a commission on any sales.”

In its community guidelines, the platform also bans videos that facilitate the trade or purchase of alcohol and states that videos of excessive alcohol consumption will be restricted to users aged 18 and over. (In a 2022 study, Dutch news organization Pointer made a fake account for a 13-year-old boy and found that 1 in 5 videos on the feed of this hypothetical minor contained alcohol, despite TikTok’s age restriction policies.)

A TikTok spokesperson confirmed that videos HuffPost provided to the company showing adults consuming “excessive amounts” of alcohol were age-restricted to users 18 and up globally, through a combination of tech-based solutions and human moderation, but said there was “no set level” in its guidelines for excessive consumption. The spokesperson also suggested the Pointer investigation was unfair. “I don’t think this study represents how most people would engage with TikTok,” said the spokesperson. “People don’t intentionally search for one type of content.”

While alcohol-based content on the platform is largely produced by creators like mixologists and bartenders, who pour drinks that they consume off-camera, there is a corner of the niche specifically devoted to alcohol consumption — even to excess. Perez, for instance, occupied a corner of TikTok streaming that was dominated by creators who appear to be heavy drinkers and who sometimes refer to themselves as “senders,” as they always finish their drinks in one chug.

Popular creators in this sphere include @izzydrinks, who has 382,000 followers and has previously posted videos of himself chugging what looks like several beers in succession until he violently vomits, and the creator who allegedly bought Perez Four Loko the last two nights of his life, who has over 20,000 followers and films himself shotgunning cans of the beverage while wearing branded gear. (@izzydrinks did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither did the creator who has aligned himself with Four Loko.)

Other creators film themselves downing what they claim are potent cocktails, like @pourdecisionmaker, who has just over 200,000 followers and has recorded himself drinking a mix that he says is made up of 128-proof moonshine, Don Q 151 rum and 190-proof Everclear, which allegedly left the TikToker vomiting for “three rounds with the toilet.”

“That one would probably be the most extreme I’ve ever done,” said Chris, the 28-year-old military veteran and IT worker behind the @pourdecisionmaker account, who told HuffPost that he would prepare for such drink-based events by drinking a lot of fluids and eating a meal to “cradle” the alcohol. (Chris asked HuffPost to withhold his last name for privacy reasons.) Although it’s possible that creators like Perez, Garson and Chris water down or fake their drinks, Chris claimed to be drinking real alcohol in his videos and asserted that he is often inebriated in his content. “I’ve had some nights I wish I could take back, obviously, and I’ve had some nights where I went to bed with a little bit of a drunk feeling and I wake up fine the next morning,” he said. “It would just depend on the night.”

Most creators in the “sender” niche also broadcast themselves on TikTok Live, where they offer to down drinks or take shots in exchange for cash gifts from their viewers — sent either through TikTok Live’s gift function or directly to PayPal and CashApp accounts. Influencers who engage in these streams have formed a small community, often appearing in the comment sections of each other’s videos or broadcasting themselves on TikTok Live opening and drinking cans of beer and other alcohol, slurring and using breathalyzers, among other things. While the nature of live broadcasts makes the sessions hard to trace, remnants of them persist online.

Some can be found on YouTube, where @izzydrinks has posted a clip of his peer @rudysends — who has 295,0000 followers — participating in a TikTok Live. In the video, @rudysends shotguns what appears to be his third beer in a row while standing in what appears to be his own vomit, before encouraging his viewers to “send him another [beer]” and stumbling off to continue vomiting.

Another recording taken in January of this year shows the TikToker @drinktesterofficial, who has over 800,000 followers, slurring on Live and seemingly inebriated as he pours himself shots in front of his audience. (HuffPost reached out to @rudysends and @drinktesterofficial multiple times for comment, but did not receive a response.)

Two more videos HuffPost viewed feature Chris, aka @pourdecisionmaker, taking part in TikTok drinking Lives. They include a promotional TikTok directing people toward his livestream, in which he promised to do a shot for every TikTok gift he received while livestreaming. In that video, he could be seen brandishing a breathalyzer, which he promised to use regularly so his followers could see exactly how drunk they got him. It has been viewed over 600,000 times.

According to Chris, who built a bar in his East Coast home just before the pandemic started, the Lives were just a way to support his hobby and TikTok account. While he claims it isn’t necessarily about the money, he does use his earnings to reinvest in his channel and “buy more alcohol to make more content with, and then it’s just an endless cycle from there.” He said he participated in roughly 15 TikTok Lives where he drank alcohol in exchange for cash, which he said generated roughly $50–$75 in profit. He also says that the breathalyzer was used as a way to combat viewers who argued that he wasn’t drinking real alcohol on Live, although he admitted to HuffPost that he could “skew higher numbers” on the device by breathing into it immediately after taking a shot. “It would bring in the views,” he explained, “and it would obviously do well.”

When HuffPost approached TikTok for comment on @pourdecisionmaker’s videos, the platform responded by deleting his account. “Content which encourages people to drink in exchange for gifts does violate our dangerous acts policy, which covers behavior that is likely to cause physical harm,” a TikTok spokesperson later said to HuffPost. “We removed [@pourdecisiommaker’s account] for violating our guidelines.”

Shortly after his account was deleted, Chris began using a second @pourdecisionmaker account and uploaded a video promoting merchandise and alcohol that he claims he received from alcoholic iced-tea brand Arizona Hard. The video has since been deleted, and Arizona Hard did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. As of Wednesday, @pourdecisionmaker’s account had reappeared; by Thursday, after HuffPost reached out to TikTok for comment on whether the account was reinstated, it was removed again. “This account has been banned in accordance with our rules,” a TikTok representative said.

The behavior seen in the Lives of creators like Chris — reminiscent of scenes that were once reserved for shock television shows like “Jackass” or frat parties — is becoming more common on social media. Meanwhile, the competition for views incentivizes risk-taking and aggressive or dangerous content that helps new creators stand out and generate an audience quickly.

The internet responds well to extreme content — either through anger, interest or a mix of both — and as a result, our social media platforms are saturated with dog-stealing pranksters, climbers who illegally ascend the world’s tallest skyscrapers, and singers who willingly allow their pets to savage their faces to attract views. But this approach to content-making, unsurprisingly, can be dangerous. In just the last few months, a prank YouTuber was shot in a Texas mall after intimidating the wrong person, a Chinese drinking influencer died after drinking several bottles of spirits on his livestream, and a third influencer fell to his death from a cliff edge while filming a TikTok video. And there’s no sign of this extreme behavior slowing down in the race for virality.

But according to Perez’s mother, Angela Mosbarger, at first, the drinking in Operation Hangover’s Lives wasn’t extreme at all, and she even took part in one to celebrate Halloween 2022. At the time, she said, she had little cause for concern. There weren’t many viewers on the stream, and while Mosbarger admits someone paid her $20 to take a shot with Perez, she said she’d only had one drink by the end of the evening, and believes that Perez and Garson had consumed five between them. No one was drinking to excess or being pressured to do anything reckless, she said, and it felt like a relaxed atmosphere.

“I didn’t think of it being a harmful thing, because there wasn’t a lot of alcohol,” said Mosbarger, 51, who works in the hospitality industry. She remembers the evening on TikTok Live — which attracted a humble 20 spectators — as being one of her best memories with her son. “He was really excited about it,” she added, “because he was making good money on it.”

According to Jennifer Pauley, a 61-year-old stay-at-home grandmother and former Operation Hangover viewer from Texas, many of Perez and Garson’s viewers were enticed by the pair’s personalities. “It always started out fun and friendly, and you could see the love between Carla [Garson] and David [Perez],” she said. “They were so young and playful, it was nice to see at the beginning. But then you knew where it was going to go. They were so personable — and they were so young.”

As the summer went on and their live audiences swelled from tens to hundreds of people, Garson said that she and Perez found it harder to control the amount they were drinking. She told HuffPost that the situation was complicated by Perez’s medical debt — he had told her that he’d accrued it due to struggles with lupus and arthritis, although she said she’d never seen him take medication for the conditions — and the income from the streams spurred them to push through even as the number of shots they were taking each night began to rise.

“David thought it would be a good idea to do the [shots-for-cash] TikTok as a side hustle. Just more money to help us financially take care of the family and the bills,” she said. The real draw for Perez, in Garson’s eyes, however, was the adoration and approval of his newfound audience. “He finally felt accepted. He found a place where he was able to be himself. He didn’t have to be anybody else,” she added. “I felt that was definitely what contributed to him doing it — the people encouraging it.”

Pauley said she also noticed the livestreams were getting out of control, and as a person who claims to have spent large portions of her life around alcoholics, she said she felt compelled to stay in order to try and protect the pair from both themselves and their increased levels of drinking. “I would just watch and try to comment to the point where I wouldn’t get banned — you know, like telling them to eat something, or take a break, or drink some water,” she said.

She said she often felt helpless against the majority of viewers, who, from her perspective, seemed more interested in getting Perez and Garson hopelessly drunk, to the point where — Pauley said — Perez would often pass out. “People knew what the outcome of buying [them] the strongest shot is, but they still did it, because they wanted to see a tragedy,” she added. “It was a whole audience of pushers.”

For those closest to Perez, the months after his death have been confusing and shocking. His sister, Dayana Sandoval, who is 33 and lives in Wisconsin with her young daughter, was floored when she learned of the Operation Hangover account. She remembers her younger brother as a gentle soul who wasn’t the type to drink or behave recklessly — according to her, he opted for non-alcoholic beer on his 21st birthday as he wasn’t fond of the substance. Even during the period when Perez and Garson did their TikTok Lives, Sandoval says, he avoided alcohol at family gatherings on the weekends.

According to Sandoval, the first time she heard about her brother’s TikTok career was at 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 27, when Perez was receiving CPR on TikTok Live. Her younger sister had called to explain the situation and said that it was being broadcast on the social media platform. Sandoval tuned in as quickly as she could. “I was trying to read the comments because everything was blacked out, and then I heard on the phone — and on the TikTok Live, at the same time — that my brother had been pronounced dead,” she said.

Although Sandoval says she’d tried to participate in the Live, asking questions and attempting to attract the attention of moderators, she claims she was muted on the basis that they didn’t believe she was Perez’s sister. “It was just a very odd situation, and I was panicking.”

It’s a memory that still haunts Pauley, who watched the night of Perez’s death as it unfolded live on TikTok. “It was horrific because you could hear everything — every step, the EMTs talking to each other, saying that [Perez] wasn’t going to make it. I just couldn’t turn it off not knowing if he was going to be OK — and I know in my head that there was nothing I could do or say, but it was kind of like I wanted to be there for Carla,” she said.

Both Garson and Pauley also claim that moderators had seemingly repeatedly deleted messages urging Garson and Perez to slow down their drinking that night, although no records of the chat remain. (According to Garson, the moderators, who were appointed jointly by Garson and Perez, were fans with extra powers allegedly tasked with helping to police the chat, although Garson said she and Perez did not know them in real life, and HuffPost was unable to locate them. TikTok’s own content policing team, which only moderates content based on user reports, is a separate entity.)

“I feel like if I saw [those messages], I would have done something,” noted Garson. “Even if I was in that vulnerable state, you know?”

Both Garson and Sandoval also have questions for the TikTok creator who Garson alleges bought Perez one of his last-ever drinks. “A big content creator [in this scene] knows alcohol and the risks,” said Sandoval, who felt it was an irresponsible act for someone who claims he is “officially sponsored by Four Loko” in his TikTok biography. “He’s just going to come in and say, ‘Hey, do a Four Loko!’ when someone is already clearly inebriated? That seems destructive to me. I don’t understand it.” (Four Loko did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Although there are no strict rules around alcohol advertising on social media in the U.S., there are self-imposed ethical standards that companies are meant to adhere to; according to the FDA, these standards include not advertising in areas where more than 28.4% of the audience is under 21.

This means that, in theory, alcohol brands should not promote themselves on TikTok — a platform where an estimated 32.5% of its U.S.-based audience was thought to be under 19 in 2020 — but such guidelines are hard to enforce, as TikTok does not release official information about the ages of its users. (Big brands like Smirnoff, Jack Daniels, Bacardi and Budweiser do not have accounts on the platform, although the latter did partner with TikToker Dylan Mulvaney, who sparked controversy after she posted branded content for Bud Light on her TikTok account.)

Industry-wide guidelines set out for distilled spirit brands also state that alcohol advertisements should portray drinkers “in a responsible manner” and not show alcohol being consumed “abusively or irresponsibly,” while beer and malt liquor guidelines state advertisements and marketing materials should not depict situations where beer is “consumed excessively [or] in an irresponsible way,” or “portray persons in a state of intoxication or in any way suggest that intoxication is acceptable conduct.”

Despite these regulations, HuffPost has reviewed several videos — which are still online at the time of writing — that seem to show influencers flagrantly ignoring these rules while saying they’re working with alcohol companies. Creator @izzydrinks claims to have received samples of alcohol from independent brands ’Merican Mule, Trust Me Vodka, as well as branded merchandise from Pernod-Ricard-owned Screwball Whiskey. Even Garson said she still receives requests from alcohol brands: She shared an email from TC Craft Tequila Company with HuffPost that promised Garson a free bottle of tequila in exchange for an unboxing video after her partner’s death. (HuffPost also has copies of videos posted by @pourdecisionmaker in which he claimed to receive alcohol from independent brands ’Merican Mule and Kurvball Whiskey, and branded merchandise for Pernod-Ricard-owned Screwball Whiskey and Suntory-Group-owned Jim Beam Whiskey, before TikTok removed his account.)

One of the beverages featured in these videos — Bakesale Cookie Liquor, which has been used in multiple clips created by both @izzydrinks and @pourdecisionmaker — appears to have been sent by CW Spirits, or Country Wine and Spirits, an online alcohol retailer. A number of creators in TikTok’s alcohol niche appear to be advertising for the company, and a hashtag dedicated to it, #cwspirits, has attracted almost 40 million views. In some unboxing videos, where influencers unpackage gifts from the retailer, affiliate codes for purchases are visible in the captions. Others display affiliate codes for CW spirits in the background of each of their videos, while a select few — like @jonesnmann, who has over 500,000 followers — overlay the website’s address and discount codes on their videos. (@jonesnmann did not respond to a request for comment. CW Spirits did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

A few savvy TikTokers — including @izzydrinks, as well as @beauty.and.the.booze, who has over 300,000 followers, and @heavyhands94, who has over 1 million followers — share their personalized discount codes for CW Spirits via Linktree. (Content facilitating the sale or trade of alcohol is explicitly banned on TikTok, something a TikTok spokesperson confirmed to HuffPost. Several TikTok accounts promoting CW Spirits were removed from the platform after HuffPost requested comment on the matter. @izzydrinks, @beauty.and.the.booze and @heavyhands94 did not respond to requests for comment.)

Chris, the man behind @pourdecisionmaker, told HuffPost that he was always approached first by alcohol brands when it came to offers of merchandise or free alcohol, although some brands — like Jim Beam Whiskey and Screwball Whiskey — only offered to send him things after he’d already made videos with their alcohol on his account. He also told HuffPost that he’d been approached directly by CW Spirits, which sent him free alcohol each month if he made around two sales a month on the platform from his affiliate codes.

When asked if he knew that such partnerships were in violation of TikTok’s content policy, he admitted that he did. “I was told that there was some kind of workaround for that,” said Chris. When asked if an alcohol company had told him that, Chris refused to answer. He is ambivalent about his future prospect for partnerships. “If it just so happens to be, that’s wonderful,” continued Chris, who told HuffPost he has “gained considerable traction” with a new TikTok account that hosts both alcohol-based and comedy-based content. “If it doesn’t, life goes on and I can continue my content creation without it.”

HuffPost sent multiple requests for comment to ’Merican Mule, Trust Me Vodka, TC Craft Tequila, Screwball Whiskey, Four Loko, Jim Beam Whiskey and CW Spirits in response to allegations in this article. Only two companies responded.

A spokesperson from TC Craft Tequila told HuffPost over email that the company only sends alcohol to U.S.-based Instagram influencers, suggested that a company it had outsourced work to was at fault, and claimed it had launched an investigation to understand how “an insensitive and misdirected communication” had occurred between Garson and one of the company’s representatives.

Mitchell Bailey, co-founder of Trust Me Vodka, also responded. “No, we do not send alcohol to influencers for promotion,” Bailey said over email. “We are aware of the numerous rules and restrictions around alcohol. Everything we do is governed and approved.” When HuffPost sent Mitchell a video of @izzydrinks promoting Trust Me Vodka on TikTok and asked for additional comment, he said: “We do not and have not sent product to him.”

Over five months after her brother’s death, Sandoval still has plenty of unanswered questions, especially when it comes to TikTok. Her family, she said, has not been contacted by the social media company in the wake of her brother’s death, despite the fact that Perez’s accident made U.S. headlines. No one has explained why the entire scene was broadcast on Live, despite viewers’ purported attempts to report it.

“I would like to understand why the hell there’s nobody that’s actually monitoring during these Lives. I don’t understand how someone gets pronounced dead online, and the whole aftermath of crying and screaming and trauma is just right there, live, in front of hundreds of people,” she said. (TikTok did not respond to this specific allegation.)

Pauley — who claims to have reported the Live to TikTok “at least” 10 times when it became clear that Perez was in trouble — has also been horrified by TikTok’s silence on the matter.

She also said that, a week before her interview with HuffPost, she witnessed another incident on TikTok in which a young man was swigging large amounts of alcohol for his livestream audience first thing in the morning; by the evening, she said, he was “stumbling around his living room” and had seemingly passed out behind his sofa. “You couldn’t tell if he was alive or not,” said Pauley, who claims she had reported the Live four times that morning, while the TikToker in question was still standing. “I reported him [again, when he passed out] probably four or five times.”

A TikTok spokesperson said the company invests “heavily in training, technology, and human moderators to detect, review, and remove harmful content,” and stressed that frequently reported accounts that are found guilty of “repeated or severe violations” are either denied future access to TikTok Live or have their accounts suspended.

The turmoil that Sandoval and her relatives have gone through in the wake of Perez’s death has been further compounded by a shocking revelation. In the process of obtaining an autopsy — in which a coroner ruled that Perez had died from acute ethanol toxicity — Perez’s family found out that he had never had cancer at all. It had all been an elaborate lie.

“We’re really angry at him because it’s like, ‘What were you thinking?’ — but I can’t ask him that because he’s not here,” Sandoval said. “He was completely healthy and he had his whole life ahead of him — and he died because of what? So he can gain love and attention from thousands of people? He was successful in doing that, but at the cost of his life.”

Garson and Perez.
Garson and Perez.

Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Courtesy Carla Garson

Although it wasn’t his intention, Perez has become a cautionary tale about seeking social media fame — and the approval of others — no matter how dangerous the method is. But although drinking Lives are destructive and irresponsible, they would not exist in the first place without the viewers who watch and sometimes even encourage them.

Sandoval finds that hard to think about. “My brother was in so much pain,” she said. “How do you watch somebody and not understand? Are we seriously that oblivious as a society, that we can see someone doing something so destructive, and we literally don’t stop it?”

Garson was left heartbroken by the news of Perez’s lies. “I’m trying to wrap my head around that too, currently, and trying to figure out why. You know, I have so many questions,” she said. Garson is also struggling with what she sees as the lack of humanity on TikTok. In recent weeks, she has taken to entering the drinking Lives that still occur on the platform and telling people Perez’s story in the hopes that they might change their behavior.

While some folks have been receptive, according to Garson, bigger creators in the scene don’t want to hear her message. “I got completely blocked and banned from everything,” said Garson, who has been kicked out of chats by creators and their moderators for trying to educate their audiences. “It’s one of those situations: You could bring the water to a horse, but you can’t make the horse drink.”

Some creators, however, have made concerted efforts to change their ways. Chris said he has stopped doing drinking Lives in the wake of Perez’s death and has made efforts to curb his drinking.

“It happened so suddenly. It shocked me and had me make changes in my life that I needed to,” said Chris, who has also toned down the drinking in his regular TikTok videos. “Alcohol is meant to kill you, not meant to keep you alive. It’s nothing to be played with — it’s a very serious thing,” he continued. “Alcohol takes such a toll on the body, that when you do drink every other day or three times a week, your body doesn’t have time to heal.”

Looking back, Garson recognizes that she and Perez were once in the same position: using liquid IVs to recover from Lives as their drinking became more intense and refusing to acknowledge that they were in a bad situation. According to her, they were drawn in by the promise of success and a community on social media that they could utilize to build a life together.

Now, Garson — who is staying with Perez’s family while she recovers from the loss of her partner — feels sad that drinking is part of his legacy. “He’s more than just alcohol — he’s a person. He had a lot of ambitions,” she said. “He had a heart of gold. I think that’s the biggest thing: He had a heart of gold.”

“He had a smile that could light up a room, even from the other side of a screen,” Chris added. “It made me want to be a better person. Hopefully, from here on out, I can be a better [advocate] of responsible drinking.”

Perez’s ability to draw people in, spread joy and even inspire others is something that Garson and Sandoval, who have grown close since his passing, frequently discuss on the phone.

For them, one of the saddest parts of losing Perez was realizing that he couldn’t see himself the way his family, peers and fans saw him. “So many people loved him — and he didn’t feel like being himself was enough to get loved,” Sandoval said. “I don’t get it.”

Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.