Addiction was a part of my life before I ever knew what it was. I had a rather large group of friends growing up. Some might even say, we were the “popular” kids. Well, they were the popular kids, I somehow was welcomed into the clique. Per usual, one of the things that came along with that title were parties where experimental behavior was par for the teenage course. This “normal” started as early as 6th grade. Suffice it to say, the group I ran with was anything but “straight edge”.
We all began with your basic, angsty, teenage starter pack consisting of rebellion, beer, cigarettes, and pot. But mainly, beer and pot. At the time, it was like, a social status indicator. Now, it’s like, “How in the hell did 12-year-old CHILDREN get their hands on THAT MUCH beer and pot?!” This was the normal after school activity in my small Columbus, Ohio suburb back in ’96.
As the years progressed, and the group of adolescents changed in numbers, so did the types of people. With the change in company we kept, so did the party goods that seemed to flow at an endless supply. By the time I was 16, I had seen my fair share of cocaine, meth, ecstasy, lsd, pot, shrooms, ketamine, and alcohol. I had also seen most of my friends separate into smaller, more exclusive fractions. We all still partied through high school together, but instead of it being ALL of us throwing a rager together like it had always been, it was now all those separate groups deciding if the party could handle so-and-so and THEIR friends, or THAT group of kids.
Now, let me explain. Of all the kids I grew up with, not one of us had a hoity-toity bone in our body. So, with that being said, the decision to include/exclude certain people/groups wasn’t a decision made on the individuals social standing, but rather if we wanted to deal with the inevitable drama that was going to come with the group of kids who showed up to every party so fucked up already, that I’m not even sure how they made it there to begin with. At 16 and 17 years old, you don’t really know what addiction is. At least, I didn’t. All you know is that some friends from different cliques grew really close and developed an exclusivity that was sort of shocking, because prior to these newly developed friendships, if you had asked me to predict these unions I wouldn’t in a million years have put those people in a group all on their own.
These, now hybrid groups of friends sort of fell to the wayside after high school, as did the heavy partying. For most of us, that is. These “super groups” if you will maintained their ways, while the rest of us sat on the sidelines watching. They kept partying, while the rest of us made comments like, “When the hell is so-and-so going to grow up?” or “We’re not in high school anymore, what’s the fucking deal with them?”
Perfect example, one of these friends growing up, I had known since 1st grade. We were best friends. Like brother and sister. We were together every day of our young lives. Our families knew each other well, and we had functions together, or would just gather randomly because we enjoyed one another’s company. Well, this friend had been long ago recruited into the “super group”. In addition to his alcoholism that had spun out of control by the time he was even an adult, he had now developed a heroin addiction. I had stopped speaking to him prior to this life change because his path had slowly started to turn me off of our friendship. I had only been made aware of these new developments after his Father went to my parents because he was scared for his son’s life. He was apparently using at an alarming enough rate for his family to be concerned, and they had a minimal amount of people they could turn to for support, or advice. Long story, kind of short, this friend was now going around to all the people his Father had told about his drug use, and in an attempt to stop the bleeding of all of his now hemorrhaging relationships, told us his Dad “was lying” in an attempt to get him away from a toxic girlfriend. He later left said toxic bitch, and admitted that he had been shooting heroin for almost the entirety of their relationship. He had gotten his shit together over time, but it was too much for me. I had already checked out of that friendship the second he came to my door trying to convince me he was never a “junkie”. Yup. I said it. The word NOBODY in the recovery community even whispers to themselves. I had written my childhood best friend off as a piece of shit. Even after all of that, I still didn’t recognize what addiction was. All I knew, was that a lot of people I used to be close with, and now even family members, were all the way fucked up on pills, and this shit called heroin.
It wasn’t until YEARS later, at the age of 31, that I finally recognized the disease of addiction, and what it did to one’s psyche. It wasn’t until I lost a family member. Was the drug use of this family member a shock? Nope. He had been abusing prescription pills, cocaine, and pot for years. I knew. Hell, the whole god damn family knew. Did any of us ever ask him to stop? Nope. Why? Because, “he wasn’t that bad”, and “he knew his limits”. To me, he was superman. He always had been. One of two cousins on my Mother’s side that I had grown up with. He and his brother were more than cousins, they were MY BROTHERS. He was there when I needed him, he was family, and he had never done anything to me, so why would I address his recreational activities? Towards the end he had started in with “lean” and heroin a few times. He was able to walk away from heroin, unlike so many others. Unfortunately, at the age of 32, the other drug use caught up to him in the early morning hours of September 14, 2013. A father of 4 beautiful girls, a son, a brother, a grandson, a valuable young life was cut short due to the disease of addiction. Getting that phone call, well, let’s just say surreal doesn’t begin to explain my world on that day. I was in denial. “No way! Not Mitch!” I didn’t even know what had happened, and the thought of an overdose didn’t even cross my mind until details of how he was found, and pieces of the night before began to be put together. I couldn’t help but think, “I should have called him today”, as it was a Saturday and that was Ohio State Buckeye’s game day. He would sometimes pop over to watch the game with me and my parents, and now that wasn’t going to happen ever again. I should have called him. Maybe he would have been able to answer his phone, and I would have known something was wrong and got him help. His loss affected me on a level I wasn’t aware I even knew how to feel. I miss him more than words can describe, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about him.
After the initial shock wore off, and everyone’s voice stopped sounding like Charlie Brown’s mother when speaking, the realization hit me. Someone in my family overdosed on drugs. Someone I love overdosed on drugs. Someone I knew, who wasn’t a piece of shit, overdosed on drugs. How? How could this happen? How did we not see this coming? How was I able to say I loved this person, but was not able to see the signs that had apparently been beating me upside the head for years? On top of all these feelings that had inundated my now traumatized brain, a moment of clarity seeped in, and then my thoughts went immediately to his brother. My other cousin, who was currently serving a two and a half-year sentence in prison for his own drug related crimes. He too had an unhealthy addiction to prescription pills that he soon outgrew, and developed into full-fledged heroin addiction by the time he was in his early 20’s. How was he going to react to this? He had already lost his Mother tragically when the boys were young, his Father committed suicide by drug overdose while he was in prison, and now his big brother had died of an unintentional drug overdose. I can remember looking at my Husband, tears streaming down my face, choking on the words before they even came out of my mouth, “He isn’t going to make it through this! This is too much! I’m going to lose him now too! He’ll have to be put on suicide watch!”
It wasn’t until living through this, that I realized, all those people I stopped hanging out with years ago, the “super group”, my old best friend, all the people who I had said “needed to just fucking grow up”, my dead loved one, had all been suffering the disease of addiction. They had a disease of the brain. They weren’t making the shitty life decisions willingly, their disease was making the decisions for them. Unless they were high, they didn’t even feel like they were living. Most of the time they were fighting multiple battles simultaneously. Fighting to stay clean, while the inner demon was fighting to get high. The inner demon won. THAT is addiction. You know what you should do, but the urge to do what the demon wants to, prevails.
Armed with my newfound understanding of addiction, and driven by my own personal fear of losing someone else I cared about to the disease, I focused on my other cousin. At the time, he had roughly a year left of his sentence, and I made it my personal mission to be there for him, and get him through the rest of his time. Video visits, JPay’s, letters, phone calls, whatever I needed to do to try to help him keep his mind off the fact that all of his immediate family was dead. We talked a lot about how his brother’s passing had really “opened his eyes” and made him see how he needed to make changes in his own life once he was released, because “these drugs had everyone fucked up” and he didn’t want to go back to the life that had gotten him arrested so many times, the life that took his brother and Father, the life of an addict.
Fast forward to early November of 2014. MY COUSIN IS HOME! By the grace of God, he had muscled through a situation that would have had most people ready to throw in the towel. He was a solider. Now it was time to put his well thought out life plan into action. Stay away from all the people he used to use with, spend more time with his family, get a job, and just be a totally new person. I was so proud of him. He had been through so much in his young life, but he wanted to change. I was going to support him no matter what. His brother always took care of him, and he was no longer here, so I made a subconscious promise to my deceased cousin to take care of his little brother.
By Christmas, he was using again. He started dodging the family, lost his job, and spent most of his time held up in a hotel with two other people he was actively using with. When they weren’t partying like rock stars in shit hole motels, they were joyriding to the scene of their next B & E for shit they could hawk or trade for their next high. One of the people he got mixed up with blew through an entire income tax return on dope. The hardest part for me, was watching my Grandmother completely shut down with fear and worry. When he did talk to her, he was so annihilated he was incoherent, but he always went to his default excuse with her, which was that he “just smoked a blunt”. She didn’t know any better, because she had never seen him, or anyone for that matter after chasing the dragon. I couldn’t do it anymore. You see, while I had vowed to protect him, what I was actually doing was enabling him. I didn’t tell Grandma, or my Mom he was back on heroin. I knew. I knew, bigger than shit. The only person, besides me who knew was his Aunt from his Mother’s side, and we hid it from everyone. He didn’t know that I even knew. I finally told him one day, enough is enough. I’m not lying for you anymore. I know what you are doing, and you need to own up to it. I told him not to be ashamed, and to let us help. One less thing to hide, and lie about would be the first step in recovery. He did. He also flopped back and forth between recovery and relapse.
In late March, early April of 2015 we had talked him into going to treatment. We shared a movie worthy embrace, and tearful words before he headed to TN for his attempt at regaining control of his life. Some family had went to see him for a visit, and sadly discovered the treatment facility wasn’t all we had hoped. It was more of a homeless camp, that took in addicts with no family and nowhere to go in exchange for slave labor basically. It was a joke. They sure got us on that one. Preying on the hopes and dreams of families who had reached the end of their rope, and wanted nothing more than salvation for their loved ones. In mid May, he was brought back to Ohio after only a month and a half of “treatment”.
Suffice it to say, he did really well when he came home. You could see a visible change in him. He was different. He was SOBER. I guess it wasn’t a total loss then, something clicked, and he cleared a hurdle. FINALLY. Some weeks passed, and unfortunately he was caught driving with no ops, and had a warrant in another county that hadn’t been cancelled, so he went to jail. On the plus side, he was sober when arrested and didn’t have anything illegal in his possession, or in the vehicle. THANK GOD. He spent about 3 weeks or so in the lock up of a Podunk jail, and was released on June 4th, 2015. He called me later that night, and we talked about how his attorney was trying to clean everything up, and get rid of the warrant. He talked about how he was worried about having the money for his attorney , and without paying him, he knew he wouldn’t help him. He didn’t want to go back to jail. He couldn’t go back. He had finally sobered up, and was doing good. Everything that had happened recently was just a hiccup. We were going to get through it. We had already tackled so much in those few short months, come hell or high water, we would get through this too. He had roughly about 90 days sober under his belt. Things were looking up for once. Before we hung up for the night, he asked me if I would come pick him up in the morning, because he wanted to hang out, and I told him “of course I would”. We laughed for a second, then he told me he loved me before hanging up for the night.
The next morning the phone rang, woke me up. I thought, “Damn Josh, it’s kinda early dude!” Without looking at the caller I.D. I answered groggily at 8:30 am. It wasn’t Josh. It was my Mom. “Stephanie…?” she said hesitantly, “something’s happened.” Still half asleep, I remember thinking to myself, okay Mom, I’m not awake enough for phone charades, just spit it out. After a weirdly long pause, she finally stated her purpose for calling me at 8:30 am on my day off and waking me up early. “Stephanie, Josh is dead.” I remember shaking my head, thinking she’s fucking nuts! “No. No way. You’re wrong. I just talked to him last night. Who told you this?” I could tell by her response to my push back, that it was true. My disbelief, then turned to an involuntary scream of horror before I collapsed into a sobbing pile on my living room floor. I don’t even remember walking out of my bedroom, but there I lay, a crumpled mess, clutching the phone and screaming at my Mother. She listened to me cry for a solid 5-10 mins. before I was able to make myself utter, “What the fuck happened?” My cousin, who had turned his life around, and overcame so much had overdosed on heroin after 90 days sober at the age of 30. 3 months prior to his 31st birthday. His disease had won. I failed him. I failed his brother, and broke the promise only I knew I had made.
I can’t help but think that if I had been educated on the disease of addiction sooner, I could have saved him. I could have saved them both. My brothers. All that time judging people in the “super group”, that I was unaware were sick, I could have been noticing the signs. I could have known that they were sick, and talked to them about their drug use, instead of ignore it until it was too late.
This ramble is my journey through addiction. The journey of the non addict. The journey of the friend, and family member. They journey that everyone has to take when dealing with this disease, and the journey it takes for one to realize that this disease is real. It’s real and it’s ravaging our neighborhoods, and families across the country as I type this. Educate yourself, and your family of the destruction this disease, and the blindness to it causes. “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” -Matthew 7:1-3 King James Version