So someone else is dead. Her name was Amy Winehouse. She was a famous person. She sang songs and served as a punchline and an object of fascination for a long time for a lot of people. I’m sure she’ll continue to be a punchline even though she’s dead now. A lot of people have compassion for her because they believed she was talented, and some have no compassion because she liked drugs and didn’t stop using them despite the overwhelming evidence that drugs were problematic for her lifestyle.
Lots of people like drugs and don’t stop using them despite lifestyle problems. I did tell you my friend Skeptic died last year, I told you about it often, but did I tell you how he died? The fire, but exactly how? I’ll tell you after the jump. It’s gnarly.
So. He was someone who quit when I quit. And then ten years later he wasn’t quit any more. And he struggled. But he always struggled. He always wanted things on his own terms, and then would take something that was the antithesis of what he was looking for in the first place. Kind of like people who make you drive around town for two hours because no restaurant is what they want, and then when everything is closed they just grab the expired nacho cheese pork rinds and two Slim Jims at the 7-11 register to eat? He wasn’t like that in food ways, but he was like that in his work life and romantic relationships, and in other major life-changing decisions. Nothing was good enough for him, except the absolute worst.
Well, long story short: Skeptic was under a doctor’s care (an addictionologist–did you know they exist?) at the end of his life. He was up to a really high dose of benzodiazepines, and you can’t just go cold turkey on those. The seizures from benzos (and the DTs from alcohol, by the way) can kill you. Be glad if you have no reason to know that. He was resistant to go to less than gold-standard drug treatment because he knew kicking was going to be hell. So I got a call one day that he had been smoking a cigarette in bed one night and had nodded off. His dose of meds was so fucking high that he lit himself on fire and didn’t come to. Luckily, his brother got Skeptic’s two-year-old daughter out and no one else was injured. My friend died once on the scene, was resuscitated when the paramedics literally massaged his heart in their hands, and was taken off life support after six weeks in a coma.
Unfortunately, I have too many stories that end a lot like this. The person who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge was bad. Or the person who slit her wrists in an alley after telling a group of people on the street that they couldn’t help her, that was really fucked up one, too. Oh, or the one whose aged aunt found him naked with the needle in his arm a few days after he OD’d. That was really awful.
And people who don’t like drugs and don’t have an abusive relationship with them say things like, “Why didn’t they just stop?” “Idiots.” “Good riddance.” “Fucking useless bags of organs.” It’s much easier to judge than to show compassion. It’s easier to see junkies as shells, mistakes, fuckups, and The Other, because if they start to see them as humans, with children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, and fucking lives, it might make them a little sad to make a “crack ho” joke, and who wants to miss out on that? It might make them a little sad when you see a person with a shopping cart, or who gets too wasted at parties, or who falls on the red carpet. It’s easier to see someone who just makes bad decisions. Someone who is very different, who chooses to rebel from society.
Even the people who do believe that addiction is a disease (it is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM-IV TR, issued by the American Psychiatric Association) are often baffled, confused, frustrated, angry, and intolerant of addicts. Why?
Let’s be clear: addiction is not like most other diseases. Being near someone with cancer generally does not put you at risk of having your money stolen, and my ex-boyfriend owes me big. Heart disease does not usually lead your partner to look for women on the internet, and I know someone who did that to his wife (I was friends with both of them at the time and had been to the wedding). ALS doesn’t usually come with a high risk of physical and verbal abuse. Diabetes doesn’t in many cases lead to neglect of one’s children. Hashimoto’s disease doesn’t often mean that a family member might become volatile and embarrass you at Thanksgiving. Sickle-cell anemia doesn’t so often cause driving accidents where other people’s lives are lost. (Not that all addicts do these things, I’m just attempting not to exclude other patients from such activities. I don’t know everyone’s life.)
Addiction is often a liability to society. The closer one is to an addict, the more likely one is to be financially, emotionally, physically, mentally, and even spiritually affected. It hurts. It hurts when someone lashes out at you, and when someone is in the depths of their disease–or if you don’t believe it’s a disease, just call it addiction–they are often cruel. Drunks can be mean. They usually aren’t too happy. Many people, by the time they have to use to live, aren’t feeling too good about their use any more, and they take it out on those around them. They so often use you. They so often steal from you, let you down, break their promises and are so unpredictable. The closer you are, the more fallout you get.
So why do people stay in their lives? It’s kind of like asking why people use when it causes so many lifestyle problems.
Most people stop using drugs whenever it gets to be a problem. Most people who use any drug (besides alcohol) will never use it again. “One time and you’re hooked” is only true if you like it irrationally, and most people don’t. There are a select few who will abuse it and cause themselves unquestionable harm. And most people will get out of the way of the drug addict. There are a few who will never give up on a full-blown, raging addict and will let them run rampant in their lives. Most of us will say no when they ask us for unreasonable things. But a few of us will grant them unreasonable requests.
Why? Why? Why? If you don’t know, you may never, ever know. There is something about some people that feels intrinsically broken–not necessarily to anyone else, but to ourselves. All of life feels like a dinner party with eight forks at Buckingham Palace. We don’t know which to use. When we do this one behavior once (like smoking heroin), we feel fixed, and believe that this is how normal people have been getting on just fine for so long! (It seems to us that “normal” people don’t feel embarrassment, shame, guilt, loneliness, etc. like we do. They are happy and saved.) This is why we were on the outside! This is the key! The heroin [cocaine, donuts, sex, shopping, plastic surgery, children, relationship, even the addict] is the instruction manual we were missing forever! So we try this behavior again and again, not realizing the magic is never there again. It only worked once. Twice or thrice if you’re lucky.
So why don’t we just stop? The love for the behavior is branded in our brains, deep inside, in the reptilian part. Some people fall in love on a molecular level. It becomes ingrained that using drugs [or insert other addiction here] is a solution to every single thing in the world. It is a hunger as basic as the sex drive or the need to be loved. There are people who even say they had the behavior pattern before they ever used drugs, and that drugs simply took the place of an older pattern. They say they were addicts from birth; they were born, not made.
I do think everyone who uses too much of anything can stop. But they have to be willing to make some changes. And it’s hard. It’s really hard. But I really think that anyone can stop.
But really, here’s what I really wanted to say today: not famous people died the other day, too. They died today. They died in piles of newspaper. They died in marble bathtubs. They died in bed. They were shot. They drowned. They overdosed. They died in fraternities and sororities. They got alcohol poisoning in dormitories. They had heart attacks. They got in car crashes. They were hanged. They choked on vomit. They were stabbed in prison. They fell out of windows. They had strokes. They were strangled by clients while they were selling their bodies for money. They got a hold of some dope that was cut with too much rat poison and they started hemorrhaging and bled to death.
Some were talented, and some weren’t. Some were 27, but I’ll hazard most weren’t. Some were younger. Some were very old. Some were just kids. Little kids. Some were experimenting, and some were old hands at getting high. Some meant to die. Some died on accident. Some hoped to die. Some never wanted to die, ever in the world, no, they just wanted to keep on living forever.
There were witnesses to some deaths who will remember the death forever, even if they didn’t know the life of the person–isn’t that strange? Perhaps the only legacies some of these people will leave are the memories others will have of their last moments on this earth, impressions of death left all over strangers. Some memories might wipe off easily, like fingerprints on glasses. Some may be there forever, footprints left in wet cement.
Some of them died alone.
Some didn’t know what was happening, but I’m sure some did. Some probably felt some relief, but some were probably very, very, very scared.
Every single one of them was a tragedy. They all mattered as much as Amy Winehouse did. Not a one of them needed to happen. It is always a preventable death.
Neil Young — “The Needle and the Damage Done”
Or, for you more symbolic folks:
David Bowie — “Ashes to Ashes”
If you need to be beat upon the head and shoulders (just please, stop dying on me):
James Brown — “King Heroin”