I’m driving my son to fencing class when I get the call.  Before cell phones, calls like this came in the middle of the night.

A woman I know, not close enough to call “friend” but  more than a casual acquaintance has died.  She was in her early forties, had a talented son who played in the orchestra with my daughter in high school.  She wore bright red lipstick and talked too loud, moved her body like she was on stage with dramatic postures and sweeping arm movements.  She made me uncomfortable because she reminded me of myself – bold and bright and loud – threaded with ribbons of insecurity. She reminded me of myself because she was an on again / off again junkie.

When a former addict dies, the first thing you ask is “Do you know what happened?” Really, you want to ask “Did she overdose?” Because no matter how many days/months/years an addict is sober, one slip-up can be more than hiccup, it can be the end.  Maybe that’s why I’m so shaken when I hear the news, that this not-quite-friend with the black mascara and sexy dresses has passed away.

My son asks me what happened.  I tell him the truth, that someone I went to treatment with three years ago overdosed. It’s sad because she’s so young, a mom, an odd character in this often dull and beige and boring world. I talk about her in present tense, like she is still all of things, when in fact she’s not.

“How’d she die?” He asks while trying to do a yo-yo trick in the car.  The green string twirls and catches awkwardly on his finger, but he untangles it and tries again.

I tell him it was probably heroin. We have a frank discussion about street drugs, how they differ in potency, how you don’t always know what you’re putting into your body but when you desperate to escape you’ll do anything.

“How does it kill you?” He turns down the radio, a local pop station that plays annoying songs with bumping bass and snippets from bad 80’s songs I heard when I was a kid.

My words sound sterile and matter-of-fact, a text-book recounting the way a person dies when they overdose on opiates.  “First, your brain dies.  It stops sending signals to your lungs, the ones that tell them to breathe.  Your breathing becomes shallow and soft, your lips pale and blue.  Without oxygen, your heart can’t survive, it starts to smother and short out.” I’m unsure if this is exactly right, but I remember a lecture a nurse gave at the treatment center with slides and stories that showed how the brain shuts-off during an overdose. I don’t know if death comes fast or slow, but I’ve been told it’s peaceful and quiet.  Sometimes, I think it’s a lie, a fairytale spun to soften the pain when someone you know/liked/loved has tragically, selfishly died.

“What kind of drugs did you used to do?” He asks. We are pulling into the parking lot of the Minnesota Sword Club, parents and kids filing into a basement door with duffel bags stuffed with fencing gear.

I pause.  “Heroin.”

“Your not going to do that again, right? You learned your lesson?”

I nod. “Yes, I’ve learned my lesson,” I say.  But inside my head, the words are weaker and soft, whispering “I hope so” instead.


10 Responses to “Slipping”

  1. 1 fojap

    A friend from elementary school died from an overdose a few years ago. I didn’t even know he used. Everyone seems to assume it was a suicide. I still have some guilt that a few months earlier he had called, out of the blue after some years living abroad, and I didn’t have time to talk. I never called him back. There are good solid reasons why I didn’t call him back that have nothing to do with being heartless, but I should have tried. The probability that it would have changed things is low, but it’s not zero.

    • I’ve lost a few people in my life to suicide and drug use. They often go hand-in-hand. The guilt can be pretty intense at times – that feeling that if you had answered the phone/email/door things would have panned out differently. But I’ve also seen that while answering that phone/email/door might have helped that day, it can’t protect people from themselves if they are hell bent on going down that path, sad as it is.

  2. 3 Rose

    Sounds terribly difficult. I am glad to see you writing again. I miss your regular posts! Hoping things smooth out over the next day or so….Rose

    • Thanks for still reading! I’m trying to keep up more often. I sort of fell off the earth for a bit. I guess my new strategy is to write what is really going on instead of trying to perfect a story for publication.

  3. You touched my heart.

    I don’t think I’ve been addicted to anything. The closest I’ve come is with cigarettes – smoked for over 30 years, and yet when I decided to quit, I just did it. Just decided that they weren’t worth the price and a awful smell.

    Nevertheless, there have been things that I’ve wanted badly, but knew and still know that I should never have them. I need to remind myself every once in a while that I live because I resist.

    Be strong for your sake. I’m on your side.

    • Thanks! Yea, this situation has really touched me – reminded me of a path I was once on, a fate I was once headed for. It scary, but writing about it has really helped me see those parallels better.

  4. I am sorry to hear about your friend. What you said to your son was good. Even though you feel somewhat unsure of your addictive path, you are admitting the truth to yourself which is something to hold onto very tightly. Because as long as you can see yourself objectively and increase that ability
    you will be stronger every time you face another moment like this one.
    I hope that makes sense to you.

  5. I don’t know what to say but I’m glad you have a program.

  6. 10 Candace winch

    This story forced a few tears out. Funny I just watched a schmalzy sweet funny movie that made me think of you. ‘Guilt Trip’ with Seth Rogan and Barbra Streisand playing mother and son. I might have more faith in you than you sometimes do yourself, but I’m hella older, for whatever that’s worth. I’m gonna tell you the same thing I told Lesa, even if you destroy yourself, I will always love you. I, of course, will get angry and probably try to be bossy, but to me you’re worthy, no matter what. I know for a fact I’m not alone on this. Your pain can also be one of your greatest assets, when you share your insights. There my 27 cents.

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