It’s about 7 a.m. on Friday, February 26, 2016. I haven’t shed tears over him in a really long time; until today. It’s sad not because a high school relationship didn’t work out — plenty of those are over before they began.
It’s sad because addiction doesn’t discriminate.
Mental health issues are stigmatized. Warning signs fall through the cracks. It’s hard to help in the right way when you don’t fully understand. It’s hard to help when you’re a kid yourself. Addiction can change people. It can make them do things they would never even think of doing normally — make them say things that are ugly, hurtful and completely untrue. At times and for a very long time, it seemed I was the only one who truly knew and understood Stephen’s struggles, insecurities, dreams and eventually demons.
He was captain of the high school soccer team. Popular. Well-liked. Fairly good grades. Eventually a college soccer player. From the outside looking in, he had it all. On the inside he was fighting a constant battle of self-acceptance that eventually manifested itself in a heroin addiction.
A year or so into our relationship, his behavior was off. Our relationship wasn’t what it once was. He was angry, irritable and his moods were constantly up and down. Sitting in his car one day, I begged him to tell me what was wrong; to tell me what had changed. He broke down in tears and confessed he had made a mistake. He tried something with his “friends” and he was trying to stop. He was withdrawing from heroin.
This has been something I chose to not fully address for years. I’m not sure if it’s because it was too painful, taboo, too much hurt had happened to both of our families or because I thought maybe I was “over it,” that I moved on, I was stronger, I overcame. I think I hadn’t fully processed what happened until today. Until I read a post that his younger cousin wrote today, on the 6th anniversary of his passing. Truth is, I haven’t been to a wake or funeral since. Not when a good friend from college took his own life, not when my step-grandfather passed, not when close family friends passed from muscular dystrophy related complications. I’ve avoided dealing with death ever since; I’ve ignored it. I’ve only let myself be upset for a day or two over loss of life. I haven’t allowed myself to drag out the mourning process ever since.
When he passed, I don’t think I ate for two weeks. I was in my second semester of sophomore year in college. Luckily, the people who cared about me weren’t going to let me dwell in my sadness in my dorm room. Our romantic relationship was long over as I had decided to cut ties a few years prior. Constantly worrying about someone else’s drug use, safety and erratic mood shifts was far too much for me to handle as a teenager. I didn’t know enough, I was so young and that cross was far too heavy to bear. I tried to help him for years. My family tried to help him for years. That fight was taking my life away.
Now, I see posts from the people he used to hang around with. His best friends and teammates that he drifted away from as the drugs took over. The “friends” that he used with that seem to be living normal lives now (except for the ones who also fatally overdosed). I’m not sure if they’re clean, sober or still using. Some of them were my friends too before they used drugs.
I spoke to him just two or three weeks before he had passed. An out of the blue, very unexpected phone call came from him. He had recently gotten out a rehab. He was off the drugs. He was so proud of himself. He felt good. He was gaining the weight heroin had taken away. He wanted me to be proud of him; he said I would be proud of him and he wanted me to see that he was turning his life around. He was letting me know that my efforts to help him in the past weren’t useless and that he was going to finally be OK. He wanted a friend to congratulate him.
He wanted me to know he was sorry for the things he had done and for the pain he had caused for everyone that loved him. He kept me updated on his progress after that. Suddenly, the updates were less often and eventually he stopped updating me. I figured that he was using again. I wasn’t allowing myself to be emotionally invested at this point; so I didn’t think much of it. Within two weeks of no contact, a mutual friend had asked me if I had heard what happened to him. I said, “No, what happened?” He had overdosed and this time he was gone forever.
I’m sharing this to shine light on addiction and mental illness. To demonstrate that bad things can happen to good people. I used to think addiction was a choice. That he chose to do drugs and continue doing drugs. That he chose to cause hurt. I’ve never used heroin. I never had the slightest urge or interest. I hated the thought of it. I’ve never been addicted to anything; I couldn’t fully understand and I’ll never be able to say I know how an addict feels. I had immense trouble accepting that addiction is a disease; but it is a disease. It doesn’t discriminate. Yes, it was most likely a choice to try a drug in the first place. A choice and a mistake. When someone is fighting an inner battle, sometimes the clearest solutions are clouded. Their judgement is clouded. They make a decision they wouldn’t typically make. They fall into the wrong crowd to feel cool, accepted or to have some fun. They decide on the most convenient and readily available escape.
If you’re reading this, I want you to do some simple things. Talk to your kids.
Talk to your friends and family. Ask them if they’re OK. If you’re causing someone you love hurt; try your absolute hardest to make a positive change in that relationship. Don’t let the people you love feel alone.
As human beings we can only do so much, but the least we can do is try to help someone before it is too late or before their story begins to veer down the wrong path. You can’t save everyone, but some people can be saved. Some people can change.
I have two very close people in my life that made a change; made the change. One specifically, who I called and still call my best friend. Someone that came into my life by a series of random chances as she became my roommate and best bud. Different drugs; same demon.
I learned that addiction is not a death sentence. Some people change. I loved someone with all of my heart and we lost him to his addiction. I loved my college best friend as if she was my sister and by some miracle I can still barely grasp, that love saved her. Her will to live a better life saved her. Her determination during her recovery saved her. Someone with an addiction has to find that desire to change. If you love someone with an addiction, show your love and support, and unfortunately — sometimes tough love, very tough love. In many cases, you may even have to walk away, which we all know is much easier said than done. Some people succumb to their demons, but not all people who struggle with addiction will lose their battle. Love can win. Family can win. Friendship can win. Life can win.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, there are people and places that can help. You can call the Addiction Treatment Helpline at 888-987-8875.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Pulse.