The first time I knew somebody outside of my family to die was in my 10th grade of high school. I was in school in Colorado and my best friend from Virginia called me. She told me our friend Jennifer had died of a brain aneurysm. I hadn’t been very close to Jennifer; I sang with her in a couple choirs, sat next to her in a couple classes. I had known her since the 6th grade. I couldn’t understand how somebody so young could die. It’s hard to wrap your brain around. After all, we were only fifteen.
Then, right after graduating high school, my friend Emily was killed in a car accident. Visions of standing alone at her funeral still haunt me. I wasn’t sure how to mourn. Again, she and I had not been particularly close. However, we had many good conversations and the last one had been only a month before. Dealing with her death was confusing and difficult. After all, we were only nineteen. Her death was a result of a fatal car accident when a semi-truck didn’t slow down in time.
The next death came ten days after I turned twenty-three. My friend Carl had frozen to death, essentially, in his yard. I still don’t know all the details of his death. I found out Christmas Day when we were about to sit down for dinner and I was in Colorado visiting my dad. I found out through Facebook. This one hit hard. I had been Carl’s manager at a pub and he had been my cook. We had spent countless hours next to each other working, laughing and having drinks together. I considered him one of my best friends. I loved him very much. His death rocked my very core. At his funeral, his mother softly stroked his curly brown hair. He didn’t look real. None of it seemed real. After all, we were only twenty-three. Every time I went out after that Brett and I would toast our first drink to Carl. Every place we would go-I could remember a time I had been there with Carl. Although it was difficult, it was like he was with us. He was everywhere because we had gone everywhere.
Then Brett died. A death that has forever altered my life. The loss of someone so important to me that my entire existence has literally been shifted. His lack of presence is overwhelmingly apparent. Every. Single. Day. He had just turned 25. I was only a few months into being 24 years old.
I went to treatment for the first time a few years later, approximately four years later. I was in treatment for one-hundred and twenty days. My last ten days there I was in group with a kid named Ian. Ian had been clean for a little over a month and was homeless. Some strings were pulled and he was able to check into treatment. He was battling severe depression and wondering where he fit into this world. Six days after I left treatment I heard that Ian hung himself. I couldn’t believe it. When you’re in the same group with somebody, have the same counselor as somebody, you share everything with each other. I knew this kid. I knew his spirit and his heart and they were good. So desperate to escape this crippling addiction that he hung himself. How could this be? He had just turned eighteen a month prior. Hardlyy eighteen years old and already consumed with such sadness it snuffed out his ability and desire to survive this life.
I also had group with a young man named Colby. right before checking into treatment he had been in the same room when his best friend shot himself in the head. He was sitting on the same couch with him. Literal feet away from him. When he went back to his small southern town in Georgia we were all scared for him. His whole family used. Well, the family he was close to. The rest of them had started to keep their distance. Colby thought it would be okay to drink and eventually ended up using hard drugs again. I do not know how Colby died. Was it an overdose? A car accident? I don’t know. I just know he is gone. I have a picture of myself and a couple other people from treatment that time. He is in the picture in the back with that big gorgeous bright smile and that long blonde hair. I think Colby was 19. Maybe 20. He was my friend.
Then there is Sean. Sean got drunk after leaving treatment. I believe he’d been out for a while… maybe even over a year. But, he got drunk and wrapped his car around a tree. Dead. Twenty-five and dead. Sean was sweet, gentle, funny. I met him my first time in treatment, as well. He immediately came up to me and introduced himself; plopped right down at my side. I didn’t feel alone when I met Sean. I was so scared and it was a gift not to feel alone. He gave me that gift and he is dead.
Sweet, funny, tenacious Erin. Erin and I were in the same home group together. We went to a meeting together every day. I loved her. She was sassy. She was super intelligent. She’s the only other human I’ve met with a Shel Silverstein tattoo. We would do medicine cards together. We would talk about literature together. She would make fun of me for reading the Fifty Shades books. Erin was a twin. There is a woman walking around right now who has lost her other half. Literally. That half is gone. Erin overdosed on heroin. I believe she was 24. And not that it really matters but, she was absolutely beautiful. Everywhere. Her outsides and her insides. All of it. She was one of those rare people who sparkles.
And now, here is the last year. A client I had named Helen was 19 and she overdosed and died. She didn’t think she had a problem and left treatment. She lived in boxes on the street. Literally. She said she preferred to be homeless and took care of the older people. She was clever and brave and innocently naive.
And then there is Nicole; she was 21 and she overdosed and died. She was eccentric and sensitive and beautiful.
A client I had named Ben was 19? 20? 21? I don’t know. I know he is dead. He overdosed. Ben was shy and inquisitive and loyal. Ben was a good kid and had a heart of gold. Gentle Ben. I get choked up every time I think of him or see his picture or run in to his best friend.
And then there is Todd. The young man my mom mentioned. We’re not sure but we think he might have killed himself. He had literally been out of treatment for one week. I’ve known him for months. He was an intelligent, energetic, thoughtful man.
Those are just the last year! Not even a full year, even. Since January!
This is my life. It is sad. It is hard. It is heartbreaking. And it has become completely normal. Normal and tragic. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to hearing that one of my people is dead. And we die every day. These are just the ones I remember. That may sound terrible, but I know there are more. I know it. And everyday I get on Facebook- I see somebody with a ‘Rest in Peace’ post. Everyday in my group of friends another friend is dying. Thousands of us are dying every day. Luckily, we usually have each other. The funeral of an addict is a sight to behold. We show up for each other. In life and in death.
I have heard things you could not even imagine. People who have been nearly beaten to death, women who have lived a life filled with rape and unspeakable violence. I have a friend who, when she was a toddler, was hit over the head with a sledgehammer by her father. That same father shot her mother in the head and left them both for dead. This friend just lost her only daughter to the court system. She is considered unfit to raise a child due to her brain damage and history of addiction. Her child is gone and it is a closed adoption. She will most likely never see that little girl again. If she does see her, she certainly won’t be little anymore. That is just one tiny story in an infinite mess. And it is a mess. We addicts are messy people. We are often like an atomic bomb, going off and obliterating everything around us. For every one of those people, my friends, my clients, whom have died there is an entire tribe missing one of their humans.
I have given CPR to two people, watched countless people have seizures from alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal and, visited eight people comatose in the hospital. All drug-related.
Every morning when I wake up….every time I say goodbye to someone when leaving a meeting…every time someone leaves treatment…I ALWAYS wonder, who is next? Who will I be mourning next? Or, will they be mourning me? Because I could be next. I can always be next. I am them and they are me.
And we are dying.