Giving Until You Can't No More
Trigger warning for alcohol/substance use, overdose, medical negligence and hospitalization
I went to therapy with a goal in mind: managing and conquering my anxiety about socially transitioning from female to male. As the months went on we talked about other things that happened that were challenging: a family member visiting, the struggles my friends went through, realizations of trauma from my childhood. Things were being sorted out. I was realizing why I did certain things. I was identifying triggers that were always there and utilizing techniques to live a life not controlled by anxiety.
Then there was the vacation that really wasn’t.
As it happened all I could think was “man I can’t wait to tell my therapist this, it’s wild.” I went to a convention out of state with two dear friends, who I’ve known cared for years. One friend, A, brought a college friend along. We had a great time, meeting friends that had moved across the country and enjoying our long weekend. We all needed a break from our stressful jobs, problems in our own lives we struggled with. This was a space I could be out and no one questioned my name, pronouns or identity.
Saturday rolls around. We did an escape room together and beat it in record time. We each had our own sphere of knowledge we excelled at and were able to break up tasks and puzzles to the people who could solve them best. It was an awesome feeling and something I was proud of everyone for. As the night goes on we split up and do our own things. Me and my friend decided to be boring and get some sleep while A and his friend were going to drink and dance. We had brought our own alcohol and the hotel had plenty for sale as well, but this was something that happened every time we went on these vacations. A would probably be super hungover in the morning, maybe throw up later tonight, but it happened so often I didn’t think anything of it. It was the sort of thing you’d expect to see in an 80’s movie about college students.
I’m woken up at 3 in the morning by a commotion in the room. There are 5+ people in the room, including paramedics. A is laying on the other bed unresponsive. He and his friends had come back at some point after I was asleep and passed out, but A hadn’t woken up. He panicked and had called 911.
One of the paramedics asked us if he had any medical conditions, like heart disease or diabetes. No, he was perfectly healthy. He points to all the pill bottles on the bathroom sink, who are those? They’re mine and my other friend’s, I explain, we both have depression and ADHD and are medicated as such. He writes the names of all of them down, asks us if we knew exactly how many pills were supposed to be in each container. No, I’ve never kept count like that before. The paramedics get A to the point where he can moan and they use that to ask some yes/no questions. They asked him if he took any of our meds and he moaned yes.
I knew things were bad but they had just gotten so much worse. Wellbutrin and alcohol can lead to seizures, Adderall is powerful stuff and I could only imagine what that would do to someone who shouldn’t have it. They pack A up and tell us the hospital he’s going to. We put ourselves together and spent the next 20 minutes wandering the huge parking lot trying to find where A had parked the car a few days before. The cold, high desert air cleared my head and I only felt one thing. Frustration.
When we got to the ER A was awake and about as lucid as one could be. He immediately yelled at us for taking him, do you know how much this was going to cost? You were unconscious, we said, you weren’t responding. I was fine, he said. You could have died, this is literally textbook “this is when you call 911.” F you, go to h, I hate you. A nurse came in and talked to him, told him what was going on and he grumbled. She asked questions that he couldn’t answer or speak clearly so I answered for him. I’m all too familiar with the medical system with my issues and I knew everything about him, he was my best friend.
At one point he ripped off his pulse oximeter and the station beeped frequently about it being disconnected. No one came and did anything about it, he yelled about the annoying beeping. I asked what tests they did. He had a bandaid on his fingertip where they did a blood sugar test, came back normal. They hadn’t taken blood or other samples to see if he had actually taken any of our medications, the fact that he was talking was good enough for them. As we were getting ready to head back once they released him I asked the front desk if they could call us a taxi, since we had taken one to get there. We’re not like your California hospitals, the nurse said, we don’t got the tax dollars for that. It was 6 am, I was too tired and drained to argue that placing a call for us would cost them $0 and got a Lyft instead.
We decide we’re just going to go home. There were things we had wanted to do on that last day of vacation but we didn’t have the heart to do it. The room smelled disgusting since A and his friend had been sick not even 12 hours earlier, the bathroom was destroyed. The room was on A’s card, another hefty charge atop the ambulance ride and the ER visit. He has a big-name HMO for insurance, so all of this was going to be out of network. I made a mental note to tell him later that I’d be happy to help him sort this all out.
The drive home sucked. We ended up going through a snowstorm (in May!) and had to fork over $100 in cash to some guys on the side of the road to put chains on the tires. Nothing was open for breakfast so we had to deal with gas station snacks. I text my roommate that we were going to get home way earlier than I had said earlier and would explain later. The first house we get to is mine, we take out my bags and the food/drinks thrown hastily into a box to sort out at my place. Everyone lines up to use the bathroom and I go through the stuff.
There’s alcohol, of course, but a lot of it. I bought one bottle of liqueur and a tall can of beer. A’s friend bought another bottle and a six-pack. My friend bought a bunch of root beer, as he had stopped drinking months ago because he realized he was abusing alcohol to deal with stress and mental health issues. A had brought 5-6 bottles, a crate of beer, a bunch of smaller bottles of expensive stuff, including some he got on his recent trip to Iceland. I knew people at the convention who threw room parties or had fancy whiskey-tasting events. This alcohol was just for us and maybe a friend or two that hung out in our room.
I was starting to put 2 and 2 and 2 together. A and I were still hurting from being unemployed for over a year in 2017-2018. We were both in a bad place, watching our bank accounts shrink and worrying about looming homelessness. We didn’t have insurance, I was down to only one medication, the only things we had were each other and alcohol. It’s cheap and easy to get, you can’t put marijuana on a credit card. I hate to admit it but I did drink myself to the point of being sick a few times when my roommate was gone and things were bad. I knew I could do better and just had to hold out until I got a job, got insurance, could get back on my medication and see a therapist again. I had no hopes of transitioning without a job, all I could think about were the statistics of how transgender folx have so much higher unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, suicides. I just had to keep myself functional until I had the chance to move forward with my life again.
A drank too much, too. So much that he threw up on his laptop, destroying it. He had to borrow one from a friend since he needed it to apply to jobs. He would pass out or go missing and couldn’t get him to respond to messages. He was clearly depressed about many parts of his life, more than just unemployment, had been ever since I got to know him to that level. I had told him to seek help, things weren’t like a movie and would magically get better once a singular good thing happened. He said there was a chance therapy or medication wouldn’t work, so it wasn’t worth the time, money, and effort to get those set up. I tried explaining some of the techniques I had learned in therapy that could help him, he said he was already doing those and they weren’t working. He didn’t need someone telling him things he already knew. Right before our trip, he told me to never bring it up again because he wasn’t going to change his mind. I agreed because he was my friend and I didn’t want to hurt him.
So I look at the $150+ worth of alcohol, almost all his. The whole trip back he was silent and ashamed of what he did, I knew he was in a bad place mentally and would be for the next few days. He would be again once the bills started coming in. I decided to keep it at my place. I knew he would be mad but I was willing to give it back to him, the earliest he’d be able to do so was next weekend. The only way he had to cope was to drink and I didn’t want to make it easier for him to hurt himself again. I explained it to my friend while A was in the bathroom and he agreed with me; he couldn’t keep it at his place since he was sober and refused to have any around.
Once they left I recount the whole story to my roommate. I told her how this was a pattern that I hadn’t realized was escalating. He was an angry drunk, the opposite of his quiet, bookish everyday self. This was a messed up situation and I was still processing it. My entire therapy appointment that week was sorting out this event and how I kept thinking I was the bad guy for keeping the alcohol. I knew he was going to ask me about it and I was dreading the argument it would cause.
He asked me a few days after my appointment about it; he had been hungover for most of that week from his case of, and I quote the ER nurse, “having a little too much to drink” and only then felt good enough to do so. I told him I was fine giving it back to him but I asked if he knew why I did it. He said it was because I wanted to control him. I was flabbergasted. I explained my reasoning, but he wasn’t having it. You know I could always buy more, right? You can’t control what I’m doing. I knew that, I told him, I was just worried about what would happen with him being alone and feeling horrible.
Honestly, he said, it disturbs me that you care so much and I’m not okay with it.
I had no idea what to say. He could have died that night, and being worried for him was unacceptable? He had no memory of saying he took our medication, had no memory of yelling at us, no memory of us explaining all this to him the day after. It was like a 24-hour chunk of his life was gone from his memory. The veil was finally lifted, I had to accept that this person who’d been my best friend for years was a toxic person and wanted to control me to ease his own suffering. I couldn’t talk about my girlfriend around him, as it would make him depressed. He mocked me when I found a spiritual community that gave me great support and comfort. He pointed to one of the metaphysical aspects of it that was important to me and said “You know the only reason that’s in there is because it was a major part of the dominant religion at the time, right? He didn’t want to alienate them, he only wanted to convert them.” He was an academic in those cultures and it confused me why he would say such a thing.
I’m not going to apologize for being worried about you, I said. You’re my best friend, I care for you deeply, I want you to be happy and healthy and if that’s unacceptable to you then that’s your decision. So that’s it, he said. And we hadn’t talked since.
It’s been almost 3 months and it still hurts. When my girlfriend says she’s going to drink I catastrophize and imagine her ending up in the same situation, but she’s across the country and I’m helpless. I question how I can practice lovingkindness and generosity by stopping being friends with A. I hurt him, I made him upset, and a part of me knows that my leaving him was a gift in some way but I still doubt myself. I could pretend it never happened, go back to the ways thing were, but what if this happened again? What if it didn’t and threw this all away for nothing? I’ve been accused of being selfish growing up, my mother gaslighting me for asking for comfort or support. It’s selfish of me to not want to see a friend hurt himself, since that happening would make me feel bad. It’s twisted logic, to guilt me into enabling him, but I can’t do that anymore.
Caring for someone isn’t something that you should have to apologize for. And sometimes, caring for yourself means making others feel bad. One of my teachers told me that the ultimate generosity you can give is to yourself. You can give and give and give, but if you never give to yourself there won’t be any of you left to give to others. Everyone suffers, that’s part of existence, but absorbing the suffering of others will only make you drown. You need to balance the give and take, and sometimes that means giving no more.