In April and May, Voices on Addiction is partnering with Writing Our Lives (WOL) and its creator, Vanessa Martír.
WOL came out of Vanessa’s deep want to see stories like her own out in the world. Vanessa had always been enamored with creative nonfiction, but despite her desperate searching, she couldn’t find many by people who looked like her and came from where she came from: brown and black, poor and working class, educated and not, immigrant and second generation, LGBTQ, and all things marginalized and underrepresented. Vanessa launched WOL in NYC in the winter of 2011, and has since worked with hundreds of writers. She brought the class online in 2017.
We are proud to have Vanessa guest curate these installments of Voices on Addiction.
I felt the vibration of a text message while I stood in line at C-Town. It was February 2014. A sore throat had pushed me out of my apartment and into the fluorescent lights of the grocery store on a cold Brooklyn Sunday afternoon. I shuffled the boxes of tea and ginger root onto the conveyor belt while fumbling for both my phone and my wallet. I had a missed call and a text message that read “please call as soon as you can.” Both were from my best friend Meg’s ex-girlfriend. Goddammit, I thought. My mind went white, like snowy static on a television.
I had imagined this moment, this call, for at least six years and probably longer in a more passive way. I tried to anticipate where I’d be, how I’d respond, who I’d hear from first, as if by prepping for it, I could survive it. Rehearsing it helped me believe I had some semblance of control in the face of addiction where there is none.
All of that fell away now. The out in public, grocery store, Sunday afternoon scenario was not a part of the plan. My Type-A tendencies were going haywire. I called back and before she could say anything, I said, “Don’t say a word. I’m in line at the grocery store and you’re not going to tell me the worst thing I’ve ever heard at a fucking C-Town. Do you understand me?” She didn’t say anything. She was crying. “Goddammit. Is she dead? Are you going to tell me she’s dead at a grocery store? Fuck!” I might have been screaming at this point. I can’t know. I could hear her jagged breath on the other end of line while a horrified looking sixteen-year-old cashier stared at me, mouth agape. “I’m sorry,” she whispered over the phone. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed across the cash register. The cashier took my credit card out of my hand and swiped it for me. I guess I was shaking too hard. A lot of that day and the days that followed became a blur but that remains one of the most meaningful acts of kindness anyone has ever done for me.
In Judaism, the religion of my upbringing, when someone dies, they are buried quickly. Two to three days, tops. During those first few days, tradition dictates someone stay with the body around the clock until burial so the deceased is never alone. Typically, various members of a synagogue’s congregation will sign up to be on-call for this duty and volunteers take eight to twelve hour shifts so the tradition can live on. It is said this is the highest mitzvah, or good deed, because it is one for which you can never be repaid.
Our connection was instant. Her steady, composed energy, paired with her love of adventure, made me believe we could do just about anything and probably still be fine. This was an entirely new feeling for me. Her easy way in the world ran counter to my hardwired anxious nature. I wanted to be just like her. She was chic and gritty, a combination she did not work to perfect. It was just who she was, and it was completely disarming. She saw my specialness when I did not and showed me there were other ways to see myself beyond the cloak of perfectionism which only served to mute me. Within the safety of our friendship, I found my voice.
Other friends came and went. I didn’t mourn these transitions because I had her. She always said, “That’s the best thing about being best friends. We’ll never, ever break up.”
When she began to break and pieces of her crumbled to places I couldn’t go, I held a line out to her, hoping she’d grab hold and come back to rejoin me. First, it was physical anchors—places to stay, rides, the occasional paid phone bill, and a very public intervention that resulted in a subsequent three-month rehab stay. Then, when I moved to New York and she hopped from North Carolina to Wisconsin, it was the phone line where we sat in the comfort and intimacy of knowing each other better than anyone else could, despite how she was spiraling.
Before Meg died, many people said I enabled her, that she needed to hit rock bottom and I needed to let her. After Meg died, many people said I did all that I could for her, so many good deeds, more than anyone else had done.
After she got out of her last jail stint, after she left the last halfway house, after she bucked the rules and baulked the tools she’d learned at the last rehab facility, after she overdosed for the last time in a stranger’s house, after the heroin wasn’t just heroin, after it was too strong for her several months sober system, after the stranger slapped her and shook her, after he hid pipes and needles, after he didn’t call 911, after he didn’t try to save her, after it was too late… After, they said I was like a saint. Death changes people’s memory.
I never got to sit with her body. It was held for more than two months by coroners and investigators but not by anyone who loved her. There was a memorial but no funeral. I gave her eulogy. She was cremated at some point. I don’t know who has her ashes. It is particularly agonizing to know she did not die well and I was not there for her in death. I sit with that.
I sat on my therapist’s too-stiff couch a year and a half ago and tried to end what people in our shared line of work call “the therapeutic alliance.” The soft lighting of the Midtown East office was grating my nerves. I didn’t want to explore my shame, my decisions, or the suffocating dualities that seemed to press on my head and chest throughout my waking hours and some of my sleeping ones. I did not want to address how poorly I was handling being a therapist and having a partner who was struggling with substance use. It felt too painful to speak, to illuminate the dark yuck of my own judgments about the territory I ought not traverse, so I tried to cut the tie instead.
It didn’t work.
Secrets had become the placeholder for boundaries that had been blown through in my personal life. Somehow I told my therapist I was dating an addict. Again. I laid bare my repetition compulsion. The compulsion I’m supposed to be too smart for, and yet the missive “when you know better, you do better” seems to miss me. Waves of nausea crashed into instant relief, shining light on my shame. I felt dizzy. She listened and said, “I’m so sorry you’ve been going through this alone.” I realized I was crying. She paused and said, “Do you feel like being with him is extending your time with her?” I couldn’t answer.
I’ve been extending myself in all sorts of ways for the past two years. I think back to the first five months my partner and I were together, and imagine my efforts to help him were as useless as trying to tie a tarp down in a hurricane with thread. Futile and exhausting. The magnitude and strength of his addiction could not be wrangled and I lost a lot of myself fighting a fight that could not be won at the time. I don’t know how either of us made it.
Then, things got different. He made big changes and cut a lot of cords. We cleaned his room, first in preparation for his move, then in preparation of him remaining with hopes of a fresh start. We laundered bedding and towels. We tossed pillows and a comforter in the trash. There was too much blood to salvage those. He moved the bed and swept dozens of caps, cottons, needles, and baggies into the middle of the floor. It surprised him.
It did not surprise me.
I’m privy to the madness in ways he isn’t when he is using. I know the soundtrack to it. Caps and tops popping off, the clink of the flick of his finger against the barrel of a syringe, water being sucked up, cheeks and breath being sucked in. I know the way his body flapped on the small twin bed when we stayed at his apartment for those first several months, shaking it against a wall. His movements were a strange and convoluted mix of rigidity and a flopping mess, like fish out of water. I know how he laid with his hands under his back awkwardly or clutched his basketball shorts immodestly to keep his hands from moving. But he still moved and shook and bled while he grabbed at fabric like his arms might spin off his body like cyclones if he didn’t stay gripped, anchored to something. Like basketball shorts. His eyes became giant black gaping pupils, vacuous holes like the small ones in his arm. He seemed to see nothing, least of all me, and he was gone.
For the months before his drug use slowed, I witnessed this night after night. I was the receptacle of the spectacle, holder of the memories of which he has none and I have too many. But he knows the madness more intimately than I do because it’s in him in a very different way than it is in me.
After he swept, I donned rubber gloves and scrubbed dried blood off the floor. I wondered how many times Meg did this and if anyone was there to help her while I was several states away. I wondered how many times she didn’t do this and skipped town, broke leases, left messes for others to clean up. I wish I had been able to do some of this with her, holding hope alongside her when she, too, yearned for new beginnings. But hope can be fickle, like addiction’s tumultuous river, with its constant ebbs and flows.
I wade through these unknowns becoming more assured in my choices, even with the remnants of my shame in the tangled undertow. This love is valid even if there are some bent pieces. Many may not understand but I know Meg would. Gravel scratches my bare feet. Steadiness in moving water doesn’t come easily but I still stand here, with him.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.