One of my co-workers died of an overdose this past week.
I’m finding that I don’t really know the “right” way or the best way or the most respectful or honoring or correct way to talk about this, or if I should even talk about it at all. But as is often the case in death, we evaluate how we, the living, are impacted. In working for an agency that provides addiction recovery services for women, and in being a woman who battled my own addictions years ago, who spent a lot of time in the rooms with a lot of other fellow battlers, a lot of my own personal connections were made with her loss. A lot of tender spots were troubled.
She was a former client who’d gone through one of our programs and then came to work with/for us. I remember meeting with her on her first day of work, and there were times over her tenure that I helped her with various IT-related things. The last time I saw her was in the lobby of our building; she noticed my back tattoo and came over to pull my shirt back and take a look. She loved it, and said so, and it was a sweet moment quickly interrupted by the usual chaos of the reception desk.
We had an all-staff meeting to talk about her loss, to open up the discussion to everyone struggling, honoring the different ways we all grieve. Grace was asked for and given. It was absolutely the best way to address something like this, considering our line of work, our relationships with her and each other, and knowing how many would be impacted. Having counselors on staff who could address the important parts, and calling in a therapist from our EAP to be available for anyone in need, helped.
But the most touching and important part was when someone relayed a story of the last time she’d seen her. She (the storyteller, who I’ll call G) was at a desk, head down, doing some work. Our co-worker called G’s name, and G acknowledged it without looking up. She called G’s name again, this time prompting her to look up and see tears running down our co-worker’s face. She was struggling, and sad, and asked G for a hug. G took the time to remind her of how loved and important she is, how much she matters to so many people. Our co-worker said something to the effect of, “I wish I could believe it.”
I remember saying, thinking, and feeling that exact same thing the day I walked out of treatment the first time. I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t done yet, that I wasn’t worthy of sobriety, that I wasn’t ready and wasn’t loved and wasn’t meant for anything other than the drugs that were waiting for me on the other side. After a few days with nothing in my system, I was panicking at everything I was thinking and feeling, but at the same time, it was like nothing could penetrate the walls I’d erected. Some of the staff and clients tried to talk me out of leaving, telling me they loved me and wanted me to stay. I remember crying tears of resolution and defeat as I said, “I hear what you’re saying – I just can’t FEEL it.”
I am fortunate to have survived after going back out; not everyone does.
When I learned of her passing this week, I was immediately transported back to the time when I was sober, going to meetings, working the steps, trudging the road to happy destiny with so many other strugglers and survivors. I remember learning that someone from my home group had relapsed; he went out drinking, passed out outside, and he froze to death. I thought of my friend Paul who I met in the 3/4 house I lived in for 15 months after treatment. He was close to a cherished ex back then, and I’d been grateful to reconnect; I was supposed to visit him in NY about five years ago, but when I went to reach out on Facebook to talk about plans, I learned that he’d died two nights earlier. And then all of our conversations prior to that made a lot more sense; the struggle I’d detected underneath the bravado and humor he’d done his best to maintain.
Somewhere along the way, I got used to learning of people dying from their addictions, and I think that’s what hit me the hardest of all. I don’t want to get used to this. I don’t want to be numbed to the fact that this shit is hard, and scary, and real. It may just be one of my own defense mechanisms, to protect me from re-living just how close I’m sure I came to meeting my own demise. And when I think about that time in my life and compare it to the beautiful life I have now… well, I breathe an enormous, anxious, guilty sigh of relief that I’ve managed to overcome.
Not everyone gets there.
Addiction is different for everyone who goes through it. What gets you there, what keeps you there, and what gets you out of it – if you get out of it alive or at all – is unique to every single person who experiences it. I’ve been asked what I think it is that got me through it; I can attribute some of it to having a solid, loving family; some of it to doing all the hard work I’ve done (and continue to do) emotionally and spiritually; some of it to the people I met and loved along the way who showed me how to live; and some of it to pure, dumb-ass luck.
But because it’s unique, there’s no one cause, no one simple fix. And it is horribly unfair, unrealistic, and simplistic to make sweeping generalizations about addiction, or the people who live it. I am able to drink wine these days without fear of falling back into using heroin or cocaine or methamphetamines, but that doesn’t mean I get to rest on my laurels with the emotional work I’m doing, and it doesn’t mean I’m “cured” or that anyone else could or would have my same experience. And because of that, I will absolutely spend my life correcting those faulty assumptions people make about addiction, because those assumptions can be damaging – even deadly.
All of this to say… I could have been her. And to me, the heartbreaking part is she could have been me. It took a really long time, and a lot of devoted, loving friends, family, and now, Carter, to hold presence and remind me how loved and lovable I am. It took years of undoing all the self-loathing and insecurity and fears I’d amassed. There are still moments where I can’t feel it, can’t believe it, and need to be reminded, but those moments are few and far between, and I have the confidence, wisdom, and trust that they’ll pass. They always do. And I think that’s the golden spot we all strive to reach; not perfect confidence that never waivers, but unearthing and amplifying that little voice that tells you to just hold on until the hard parts pass.