Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Someone to watch over me

Today is the birthday of a dear, dear friend. I met him the first day I was in treatment, and I knew right away that we were soul mates. I believe that each of us has numerous potential soul mates. They are not always (or even mostly) romantic partners but just people in our lives that we connect with on a soul level. This young man befriended me when I so desperately needed to connect with someone who understood what I was going through. He reached out to me because he could see that I was in pain, and he knew that pain in his own life all too well. We talked about all kinds of things, some heavy, some not. I cried about how homesick I was already, and he hugged me. I had never needed a hug more than I did in that moment, and there was something about it that was so genuine and pure, because all we both really wanted was to get better, and we understood that about each other instantly. We became fast friends, and we shared so much over the next few weeks – deepest regrets, fears, goals, hopes, dreams, and laughs. He had a way of making me laugh, even when everything in me wanted to cry. Going to treatment and starting my journey in recovery was a monumentally life-changing experience, and he will forever be a part of that in my mind and in my heart.  

It's hard to explain what his friendship has meant – how deeply important it is to me and how much I rely on it still. I suppose the attachment I feel would seem odd to some. We met at very different times in our lives. I was nearly 40, he was 23; I was from NC, he was from NY; I had a family and an established career, he was just out of school and undecided on careers but had aspirations of making a return to drumming in a band; I was a middle-aged mom, he was young and hip (or whatever the kids call it these days). The substances that got us there were different, but we were both addicts, and we got each other. The worst of circumstances brought us together, but we got to know the best parts of each other in treatment because our walls and defenses were down. In our adult lives, we rarely have the luxury of really getting to know someone on more than a superficial level. Life is too busy to connect with our own feelings and emotions on a daily basis, much less somebody else's. In social situations, we're usually too busy putting our best foot forward to actually be real. In treatment, we were cut off from outside distractions. Our minds were clearing from a toxic haze. Emotions were new and raw. We led with our worst and put it all on the table, stripped everything away until we just were who we were on a basic level, and the love and friendship that came from that was unlike any other I've experienced. It was special.

I'm not exaggerating when I say I don't know how I would have gotten through that time without him. He ended up leaving a week before I did, and I felt tremendously sad to be left behind ("irrationally upset" is how I described it in my journal). His last day was a Saturday. I will forever be grateful to Ashby for readily agreeing to visit on Sunday that week, knowing how important it was to me to spend that last day together. The next day, I had Ashby take me out to buy a disposable phone so I could text him because I couldn't stand the thought of not being connected. He was my life line. In fact, it was the only rule I broke while I was there. I kept the phone with me all day and texted whenever I got the chance. It was comforting for both of us. I felt lost in treatment, and he felt lost in the world. He told me once that he liked being institutionalized. It was safe. We didn't have to make decisions. He was afraid to trust himself in a world that felt dangerous and unknown. I was envious of his newness – his freedom to do anything he wanted to do with his life and make a fresh start, but he was envious of my stability – my family and career, all the things I hoped I hadn't destroyed but certainly had damaged. We shared our fears about what the future might hold. When I got home and started to reintegrate into my life, I could talk to him about all of the frustrations of early sobriety that my friends and family who were not in recovery couldn't possibly understand. I relied on him, heavily.

Being an alcoholic, my powers of denial are particularly strong. The truth is I really didn't see it coming when his sister sent me a message out of the blue asking me to call her. I'd never met her, never heard from her before, but I honestly didn't expect to hear that he was gone, that his addiction had taken his life. At 24. It was a crushing blow. We were coming up on 6 months of sobriety, and I fully expected to be sharing milestones with him for the rest of my life. I was so angry on his behalf because I know how much he didn't want this. He hated the drug – he hated what it did to others he cared about and hated what it did to him. He was disgusted by it. It would never have been his choice. It wasn't his choice. And that's the sad reality of addiction that is incomprehensible to someone who has never experienced it and almost incomprehensible to those of us who have.

All of a sudden, I felt very adrift. He was my whole support system inside of recovery. It was a huge loss, and it felt like no one around me really understood the magnitude of it. Most people in my life are interconnected in some way, but he and I had this very isolated relationship. We'd gotten to know each other in a place most people didn't realize I'd been, dealing with an addiction that most people didn't know I had. Other people in my life didn't know him, and I felt very alone in my grief. I also had this panicky fear that my memories of him would slip away because I was the only keeper of those memories left behind. Inside jokes don't flourish when they're one-sided – trust me, he would appreciate the tragedy of that.

Shortly after his death, I had a dream about him. It was a little fuzzy. I don't know where I was, but I came across him unexpectedly. He was wearing a suit and was glowingly happy and smiling, and he hugged me, much like he did the first time we met. I had such a good feeling when I woke up that I told his sister about the dream. I thought it was sort of random and funny because I hadn't known him to be the suit-wearing type, and I also found it comforting that he had been so happy in the dream and that it had left me with a feeling of contentedness as well. She responded that, although I had no way of knowing it, he had been cremated in a suit he'd had and that he always felt really good about himself when he wore it. I believe in signs from the universe, and I believe this was one. I believe wherever he is, he's finally free and at peace, and I believe he's still with me and somehow wishing me well. Losing him and not wanting to drink over it was a turning point in my recovery. One of the main reasons I didn’t want to drink is that I knew he wouldn't want to be part of a rationalization for destroying everything we'd worked for. I feel that living happily in recovery is one way I can honor his life and memory every day, one day at a time.

I've since learned to expand my support network, which is a necessary component of my recovery, but it hasn't been easy to let people in – not easy like it was with him. Soul mates don't come along every day. He was there at the exact moment I needed him in my life, and to me that's no accident. He continues to be a source of strength and support in my recovery and has taught me great lessons about myself in life and in death.

I still have that disposable phone I used to text him in treatment. I haven't been able to give it up or delete the messages. My favorite - "You're the best friend I've had in a long, long, long time. It's sad but true." While I laughed and gave him a hard time about the backhandedness of it, I understood exactly what he meant, and it is probably the truest, nicest, most reciprocated thing anyone has ever said to me. I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to know him, and I cherish our shared experiences and the love and friendship he gave so openly. I wish him a happy birthday and know that somewhere, somehow he knows that I do.    

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