I can only read books where nobody falls in love.
My mother gave me two novels to read over a brief vacation, both stamped with silver stickers signalling approval from The New York Times and Pulitzer Prize respectively, but when I read the blurbs — one about a love triangle in the 1940’s, one about a crumbling marriage in London — I couldn’t pick them up.
This is one of the many tiny but concrete things that have changed in the months he’s been gone. Couples in public make me tear up. Engagement announcements on social media make me violently click the tab closed and throw myself into work. Seeing anything remotely related to him — a cheese plate (he liked them), a guitar (he played), children (he loved them) — feels like a little papercut. This is grieving, and it is always a distinctly lonely experience.
Even more so when you’re mourning a heroin addict.
I met Sam on the first day of graduate school, and I hated him almost instantly. The smell of cigarette smoke clung to him and he walked with a swagger. He bragged and slurred his words the entire time we spoke. I remember thinking to myself, “This is the most arrogant son of a bitch who ever lived.” (I’d later find out that he was ridiculously anxious about the first day and was stumbling in high off of Xanax and alcohol.)
Of course, I ended up dating him.
The first thing that made me like him was a day in class when I’d lost an earring that was very important to me, and he came into the classroom bearing it proudly after hunting for it everywhere he’d seen me standing that morning.
We went to a school event a few days later and I found out he, like me, had a sister with special needs, a liking for the same Pogues song, an upper-middle class background, a penchant for travel and adventures, and a fervent love of books and animals. He was exceedingly kind and considerate the entire time and had to come into my house for a nap afterwards, which I found strangely endearing. Then, a day I missed class, he offered to come over and check on me.
Things rolled quickly after that. Within a month, we’d be saying I love you. A week after that, I’d meet his parents. Soon, he’d shyly admit I was the first girl he thought he could marry. And soon after that, he’d tell me he was an addict.
People somehow think that substance abuse makes death more understandable and less tragic. When my sister heard, she said, “That’s a shame.”
A shame? I thought.
“Well,” another family member said when I expressed incredulity. “You can hardly blame her. I mean, dying young is what heroin addicts do.”
My face must have betrayed me, because they became flustered.
“I mean, this is what we hear of, anyway. Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin…it’s just what happens.”
I understood and didn’t. Is that what you’d say to anyone who’d lost a grandparent? Nonchalantly, “Well, the old die.” To someone who’d lost anyone in war, “Well, soldiers get shot.” To a mother mourning a baby after cot death, “Well, you know this happens.”
He was a heroin addict, but as much as that, he was a journalist, a gamer, a curator of popsicle-stick jokes, a motorcyclist, a dog-lover, a cat-lover, deathly afraid of cemeteries and an uncontrollable purchaser of leather jackets. He was a terrible housekeeper and a wonderful boyfriend.
He was a kaleidoscope of things, just like everyone else. And yet, the cause of his death remained a secret to everyone, because it would reduce him to what it was, and only that.
In an e-mail to our school informing everyone of his passing, they wrote, ’Cause of death is unknown,’ as though in every other obituary they wrote, ‘Died in car crash,’ ‘died of cancer,’ ‘died after heart attack,’. They had to cover the silence with words, that’s how loud it was.
Like many who lose someone, I felt the loss of him was so profound that everyone needed to know, but I kept it locked in my mouth, a small hot steel ball burning through my tongue, because I knew the inevitable question would follow, “How did it happen?” and I wouldn’t be able to answer, because I’d get the shocked eyes, the raised eyebrows, the stuttered, “Oh.”
“That’s a shame.”
When Sam came out to me as a former addict, it was because he’d relapsed.
We were driving home from dinner, and his hands were clutching the wheel so tightly his knuckles were white. I asked him if he was feeling sick. He told me he needed to stay with me tonight. I told him of course, then asked him to pull over at a pharmacy so I could get some tylenol. And he said he didn’t need to come over for tylenol, he needed to come over because he’d relapsed on heroin.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified. But Sam had been so good to me, and he was so kind and funny and ambitious and caring. He was my match in almost every way, and we already had told our parents we’d met the person we’d spend the rest of our lives with. He wasn’t anything I’d been raised to believe an addict was. I took his hand and told him we’d get through this.
Bit by bit, he’d prove me wrong. He’d use one night, then come trembling into my apartment with tears in his eyes, saying he was a failure. He’d put himself through agonizing withdrawal for two weeks, then repeat.
As time went on, the stretches between his lapses got fewer and farther between. Sometimes he was really good at lying to me. Sometimes I was really good at lying to myself. Both of us were silent partners in maintaining the illusion that his addiction was second to our relationship, just something we had to face together and could eventually defeat.
It didn’t fully hit me until one night, I walked into the bathroom to take a shower. I went to brush my teeth first, and messily spread over the sink next to the soap and the toothpaste were cotton balls, a syringe, a lighter and a small tin — I didn’t need to guess what was in it. He wasn’t even trying to hide it anymore.
I walked out and used the shower downstairs instead.
I did the stupid things that people do after the people they love die.
I texted his phone, telling him he needed to stop playing this game and come back now. I looked at his page on facebook (I’d defriended him when we’d broken up, but his mother and I reset his password), on LinkedIn (I’d disconnected him from my network, and didn’t bother re-add him because I cared little about his resume, but I liked that I’d taken the picture that he used on it), I checked his twitter (he had one tweet, that I’d written while he rested his head on my shoulder — “My first tweet!”)
His mother gave me two jackets, and I forgot I had pyjama pants, an undershirt, boxer shorts and socks — enough to make a whole (strange) outfit. I wore them constantly.
His clothes didn’t look like a heroin addict’s, his facebook wasn’t covered with pictures of needles, his LinkedIn didn’t have ‘Substance Abuser: 2012–2016’ written on it. A heroin addict had died, sure, but he’d taken Sam with him.
Our breakup was inevitable and ugly. Sam was a full-blown addict. He needed to use every few hours. Everything he said was a lie, and all I was doing was crying. We’d both lost ourselves.
After, I refused to speak to him in the halls and started counselling, and he left school and dived into alcohol and ex-girlfriends. One night, he texted me, desperate and brokenhearted, begging for help.
“You need to get clean,” I wrote back. “I’m changing my number.”
It killed me, but I slowly rebuilt my life without him. I graduated. I got a job. I made a new circle of friends. I even went on a few dates again. Eventually, I was happy.
Nonetheless, I still missed him. I looked for him every time I saw a boy in a leather jacket, but I kept myself from texting him. We had agreed earlier on, before things really spiraled, that if it got bad enough, I’d leave and only come back when he was clean. I kept an eye on the months, and told myself I could reach out in a year or two, if he’d gotten clean, if it still felt right.
One day, his mother would text me.
“Can I call? I have some bad news to share with you.”
I keep turning over in my head if I’d done the right thing. I’d broken up with Sam because of his addiction, hoping it would propel him into treatment, worried sick it would send him to his grave. It ended up doing both, at different times.
I read books on grief to try to sort through it, and though there are a huge number on all sorts of death — death of a child, death of a parent, death by suicide, death by disease, unexpected death, death by automobile accident — there’s precious little on death by heroin overdose. The suggestion being that the death of children, parents, suicides, sudden deaths, deaths in cars — these are all tragic. But heroin addicts? That’s just what they do.
Somehow, despite this, I’m healing. I used to look for Sam whenever I saw a motorcycle, peering at the face under the helmet hoping to see his. I’ve stopped doing that, though I still don’t like the sight of black bikes parked on streets. I still think of him when I wake up and when I go to bed, but I’m no longer in a therapist’s office twice a week. I cry, but not as often. My to-do list is soothing rather than unmanageable.
But although I left the country we met in a week ago, I still text his mother across 1,767 miles of ocean and land, and anxiously check my phone until she responds, because nobody else understands. I don’t think anyone else much wants to.
He often told me I didn’t understand what it was like. He spat out the word ‘junkie’ in reference to himself with such vehemence it frightened me. If I wanted to hurt him, all I had to do was hurl the term ‘heroin addict’ at him and he’d collapse like a house of cards.
I do now. I understand what it’s like to desperately need help, crave understanding, and know you’ll be shunned for asking for it. I get why he was so incredibly lonely, no matter how tightly we closed ourselves around him. I understand why he thought heroin was the only thing that wouldn’t judge him, and wouldn’t leave him. I live in regret that I didn’t grasp it sooner.
Shame plays a large part in sending addicts six feet under, and leaves their loved ones reeling — and alone — above ground. More than anything, I want him to come back. But given that that is so painfully impossible, at the very least, I wish I could talk about how much I want it.