On The Loss Of Friends And Strangers To Addiction
Photo by Mike Labrum / Unsplash

On The Loss Of Friends And Strangers To Addiction

I have survived and I don’t deserve it. I am glad it wasn’t me because it could have been me, and it still could be

The first time I found out someone I loved had died from their disease, I immediately broke out into a sweat and the only way I could calm down was to remind myself that I was sober, that I had quit drinking and the drugs and she hadn’t and for a moment I felt better, smug even. I had survived.

I might as well be honest about it. I have survived so far. She wasn’t the last, either. There have been so many. I loved her, and I loved him, and when I found out a few years ago that another friend had died, this time in rehab, I thought about filling a glass with bourbon. I didn’t but I threw up anyway.

Even now, I feel like I should be able to call or text and talk to them, their voices bright like road flares. It’s unfair. I met him for the first time at a party and he wasn’t drinking and he seemed so cool. The last time I spoke with her before rehab, we yammered about how much we missed her, and it’s just impossible that they’re both gone.

They wanted to live. I know this. Even if there were moments when it was all too much. I want to live and there are moments when it is all too much.

When I hear that a person I know, or don’t know, with a history of substance abuse, has had a heart attack, or their liver has failed, or they just never opened their eyes again, I think, “I have survived” and then something inside me falls, a part of me, it just falls without a crash, and it’s still falling, that part of me, a part I want back that is lost forever, falling.

This is hard to admit, and yes, of course, I feel guilty. I have survived and I don’t deserve it. I am glad it wasn’t me because it could have been me, and it still could be; the only way I’ve been able to stay sober for this long is by forcing myself to be thankful for what I have, even if it isn’t much. I have to, every single day, tell myself that I am lucky to feel lonely and anchorless. I can’t dwell on possible futures or terrible pasts, I can’t allow myself to celebrate or mourn, I have not had a drink in years and tomorrow it all starts over again. I wake up and pray to a God I don’t want to believe in: “Oh Lord, I am a moth in a house full of candles.”

The booze and the pills can make it all go away, simple. It’s like taking a sip or inhaling sharply or taking one step forward, and then you fall and nothing can touch you, your family, your friends, your responsibilities and dreams, and all your selfish, thoughtless fuck-ups disappear into the darkness above as you plunge deeper, deeper, into an even darker endless trench.

I sense chilled judgment from normal people, too, whenever a famous person passes away prematurely and the news reports mention it was a suspected overdose or there was drug paraphernalia found at the time of their death. Addiction isn’t a failure of willpower, as if the cemeteries aren’t full of the righteous.

And when I write “normal people,” I mean those who don’t share my disease. I don’t even know if it’s a disease, like rabies or cancer or a disorder, a mental illness, but I guess it doesn’t matter. I have it. A disease. A curse. A talent. Sometimes, I want to detonate myself, explode like a cartoon bomb, and become nothing.

That will happen soon enough without my help, but until then, I will be gentle, I will be brave, I will be compassionate. That is all I have to do until the day I die. It will not be easy.

None of this is easy.

One of the first times I ever went to an AA meeting, I quietly listened as an 80-year-old man talked about how happy he was to have a hot plate in the room he was renting. I did not know if he was my future or not but I was happy he was happy.

The next meeting I went to, I was a little more confident, a little more resolved to stay off the sauce because it was destroying my health the way it destroyed my relationships, and a little more willing to open up and tell a room full of strangers what a monster I am and then someone talked about how their daughter didn’t ever want to see him again and how he accepts that and loves her.

A few months later, an old woman walked up to speak and told a story about stealing a car and waking up at the Canadian border. I thought my drinking stories were crazy outrageous, I used to tell them to friends as if my drunk misadventures were part of some great oral tradition.

The old woman’s story didn’t get interesting until she got to the part where she had nothing in her life except what was in front of her every day: a cup of coffee, a cat, a job search, a phone call with her sponsor, and there were times good things happened, like a slice of a friend’s birthday cake or a crisp sunny day, or the sudden humbling realization that being alive is enough, and it’s not time yet to crawl into the dirt.

It was at that same meeting that I made eye contact with another alcoholic for the first time, having unsuccessfully willed myself invisible. They knew who I was, and I knew who they were, and it would take a few more months until I worked up the nerve to be seen and even longer until I would let myself be heard.

Eventually, I learned how to let others care about me. They taught me how to care for myself, and in time, I learned that who loves you back isn’t as important as loving someone and opening your heart like a window, no matter the weather.

I care about you, even if I don’t know you. You suffer. You rage. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your fears. Are you selfish? Cruel? Heartbroken? So am I. Have you said something that hurt someone? Have you betrayed a loved one? Have you walked past a stranger, a filthy drunk, begging for help, and hated that person for their weakness and pain? Have you ever begged for help? Did someone give you a hand? Were you ignored? Yes, yes, yes. To all of it.

I know some people call this disease a battle, which seems like a mixed metaphor, but that’s what they also say about people sick with cancer. Cancer doesn’t always win. And neither does the bottle, but eventually, something gets you; we’ve all got a secret expiration date.

Whenever I hear about a celebrity who died from their addiction or whose life is otherwise collapsing, I remind myself that it’s only a matter of time until it all falls apart. In the end, the only thing that matters is whether or not I tried to love others and myself. Did I ask for forgiveness even if none was given? Was I awake and honest? It’s okay if I wasn’t always gentle or brave because every breath you choose to take is a miracle.

I think about the friends I’ve lost, all too young. They were alcoholics and addicts and I’m an alcoholic and addict and I think they each knew I loved them, and I know they tried, and there are times I pray for them and me and everyone struggling, I whisper to myself: “Oh Lord, catch me in your arms.”


This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of John DeVore's work on Medium. And pre-order his book, Theater Kids: A True Tale of Off-Off Broadway here.