I met a man in 2003. He was soy chai lattes and Ben and Jerry’s “Everything but the Kitchen Sink” ice cream. He was flowy, red Hawaiian shirts, country music under neon lights, and moonlight strolls on red rock beaches.
The first time he kissed me, he led me into a desert field surrounded by ancient sycamores. When I started shivering, he pulled his faded gray sweatshirt off, stretched the neck open, and pulled it over my head. I opened my eyes as my face emerged and our lips met like crackling sparks. The moon was smiling, the red rocks clapping. I’d never felt a kiss like his.
In one held breath, he became a cloak wrapped around me, a soft plaid garment to cocoon in. So much had undone me before he came along—how was I still walking, in pieces?
I met him a year after I held my first love—my nephew—for the last time. I’d kissed so many boys, but my nephew was the first to steal my heart. I’d cupped my hands around my sister’s belly to feel him kick. I’d felt him stroke my hair as I gave him bottles of her milk. I’d lived inside his world for 1,035 days. What could my world be without him, then?
I stumbled from the sterile halls of his last breaths, the towering walls of the hospital staring down on me with windows like spaceships, and everything, everything felt foreign. How could the earth still be spinning? It felt like it had stopped without his buoyant spirit to propel it.
Kory, with his soy chai lattes and moonlight kisses, started the earth spinning again. I marveled at the wonder of him. He so broken and bruised, yet so beautiful and lovely. He held my pain in the same hands as he held his own. He was three years into grief, four steps ahead of me, yet he was laughing, playing, breathing life into life despite knowing his best friend had died alone on a road in Steamboat Springs.
He sat at the kitchen table, and he smiled as he drew circles on my tablecloth to show me how he put himself back together.
Then he wrapped me up in his love, until I could put myself back together, too. It was his mission now, to put a bright smile upon on my face. He would spend his life finding ways to do so.
When I walked down a glittering, golden aisle to him one warm September afternoon, we chose the road less traveled by, together. We’d taken it to find each other; we’d take it together now, too. We were hopeful buds in spring, earnestly blooming toward the light, as if it would be easy to keep finding it.
We built a life; we built a home.
Then the road less traveled by diverged in a wood and took him in the night.
I could still see him on the path beside me but when I reached for his arms, I found only shadows. He swallowed a pill—was it the red one or the blue one?—and disappeared.
Somewhere in the years that followed, he forgot how to draw circles of strength for us. He needed his fingers for opening bottles with tiny white pills inside.
Did you know he injured his back helping his grandma with a home repair?
Did you know it happened one month after he first kissed me in the moonlight?
That day I walked to him in September, I wondered if his wedding gift to me was leaving the lid on the bottle for just one day.
He quit smoking six months before our daughter arrived. In the first photo of him holding her burrito-body, tears fall onto the nicotine patch on his bicep. He wanted to give her the best of himself. And oh, how he did. For two years and two weeks, I forgot he was an addict.
Then the deaths began.
He was an addict while they died—twenty-nine souls we loved. We lost our home (to the recession), we lost a baby, and Kory forgot we vowed to walk the road less traveled together.
I walked ahead with his shadow beside me. Grief married to addiction is the most haunting, wretched journey. I slayed the beasts on our road alone while Kory curled up to hide inside his pills.
Just after my grandma died, Kory appeared on my road again when he found me alone in our bed. Like a watchman in the forest, he came bearing torches and flame. He could see how grief had swallowed me whole, how I was disappearing into the shadows now, too. He put his phone to my ear and his father’s voice, burning with empathy and compassion, rescued me.
Then, he disappeared into the shadows again, a mirage in the desert of our marriage.
We moved five times in the next five years. We put pictures up on walls, took them down, put them up, took them down. We scattered like ashes in the wind as we blew from house to house, funeral to funeral.
But we’re walking the road less traveled by, I told myself. Keep going.
Then the day came when I took my heart back from his hands. Ten years after he kissed me under the moonlight, I sliced myself wide open and ripped him out.
I said, “Leave. Get out.”
Severing myself from a love that had held me, even in addiction, was like amputating a limb. He was not just my lover, my savior, my friend—he was blood of my blood, bone of my bone. He was braided into my being: a rope.
A rope: a noose for my neck. I’d been dangling from it for a decade, ever since our road diverged in the woods.
I started filing for divorce after he stole all our money in the night and threatened to kidnap our kids from school. I sat in a courtroom begging a judge for protection from my soulmate, feeling my insides shiver and melt into glass.
Then, just as I had reached the depths of my own rock bottom, Kory decided—finally—to cloak himself in love, to fight his poison and his pain. He walked into rehab and handed his life over to something greater.
I left him alone on his shadowed road there. I’d walked with him as far as I could go.
But he found a new path in rehab, and soon realized all roads led back to me.
He came looking for me, forty days clean, carrying torches and flame once more. He gave me his cloak, drew finger-circles of strength, and offered me his love again. Like a gentleman pulls back a chair for his beloved, he stood ready and waiting.
I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. I could only hate addiction, the beast, and what it had stolen from me.
I fought to forgive him, to love him for the beauty of his soul again. Then, finally, perhaps inevitably, I fell in love with him all over again… for the second first time.
Now look, look at what lies on the other side of destruction and death: we’re standing on a red rock cliff, a forest of trees and seven sacred pools around us. We hold two silver circles and slide them onto each other’s fingers. We recite vows. This time they don’t just say, “I do.” They say, “I see you, and all your darkness and light, and I choose to love you still.”
There is a rare kind of love, grown amid the thorns and weeds, that blooms into a rarity. It’s as deep and as strong as the ropes that wish to strangle it. It is equal and opposite to the force it reckons with. It is the love we found on the road less traveled by. No easy love could make us feel the same.
I forgave Kory all his crimes, then he wrapped his cloak around me, and he never let it go again.
He held it there when depression tried to steal my life. He said, “I’ll fight with you, for you.”
He held it there in a hospital bed as he watched me seize twenty times a day after I developed a rare seizure disorder.
He held it there for seven more years. Now, we walk together: whole, recovered.
We face more uncertainties ahead, but they only strengthen our grip on each other’s hands. We know pain can only dig love deeper into us. We’ve chosen the road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference.
Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher.
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.