EDITOR’S NOTE: “My latest, and not my usual. It’s long, and deeply personal. Feel free to not use this,” said the note from Neal Lemery that accompanied this article. What?! Of course, I’m posting it! This is a story everyone needs to read, to glimpse a bit of addiction, and what it’s like for families and friends to witness this devastating disease. So many people that are dealing with addiction or the repercussions of someone else’s struggles. Empathy and understanding, outreach and education are so necessary and needed, but as Neal reveals here it’s not easy and most often heartbreaking. See the end of the article for resources and information about help that is available for those with substance use disorder and their families, friends and those just wanting to reach out with hope.
by Neal Lemery
It was about a minute into our conversation that it hit me, a realization I had in the back of my mind for the last several months. He has been avoiding me, dropping off the face of the earth, or at least with me, not responding to texts or the letters I had put in the mail.
He was high as a kite on the phone with me, his usual sharp and kindly mind in a fog. It was all going to be better, he kept saying. He was going to get back on track. Most of what was happening to him was a conspiracy, people turning against him, hating him, making life almost impossible. What he thought people were doing to him was all a lie, the dope giving him his only relief, some form of false courage.
During our good times, we’d worked through a rough patch in his vocational math class, getting through some math concepts he had missed out on in the fourth grade, when the family was in upheaval. His patient teacher, and some worksheets we’d gone through on a video call, one step at a time, cleared the fog. He experienced a rich and satisfying epiphany, his confidence growing by leaps and bounds. He realized he had potential and could overcome failure. The future looked bright, filled with promise.
He dropped out of sight, neither seen nor heard for the next three months. Last week, though, there was a text, saying “hi’, that he wanted to talk. We set a time and he didn’t answer the call. Then, another text, another suggested time. We talked for a minute, he saying that he would be a hard conversation and he needed more time to find his courage.
There were a few more days of texts and scheduled times, until I finally connected with him. I was kind, patient, trying to put him at ease, so he could spill his guts and get his obvious pain off his chest. I’d been his ear for the last few years, and I knew we could have a good talk, maybe move forward. He could be quite the talker, insightful on where he was and what he needed to work on.
In my gut, though, I felt disaster loom. Relapse was on my mind, its ugliness and all its destructive ways.
I knew he had potential. The possibilities were there, underneath his anger and his lifelong struggles with feeling worthy of love and self-respect.
I listened to his hoarse, gritty voice, picking up most of the signs of how a meth user relates to the world.
I call it meth madness, the craziness of delusional thinking, that drug use was normal, expected. Getting high was where he was now, just who he was. Part of me wanted to argue, but he wasn’t listening. Meth blocks rational, introspective thinking, taking away all sense of reality and sanity. I knew all that, yet part of me wanted to be in my own denial, wanting him to be the guy I knew who was sober, healthy, and focused on doing good in his life.
The call went downhill, as he slowly told the details of his life the last three months, the abandonment of his job, his affair with the meth addict, his own meth use, the vaping of some kind of drug he inhaled while driving, to the point he lost consciousness and crashed into a house. He totaled his car, yet walked away unscathed. Even the car purchase sounded sketchy, him mentioning that the license plate didn’t match the registration, and him being able to drive the car off the dealer’s lot even though his loan application was denied.
He told of lying to the cops after the crash, how he tried to stiff the rental car company. He’d left the recovery house for a while, living in an addict’s garage in return for some day labor. I still wonder where he is living these days.
My old buddy talked about his drinking. “Not every day,” as if that would reassure me and himself. Then, suddenly, “she needs me,” referring to the girlfriend-meth addict who didn’t have a name. We are well into his roller coaster ride, me resorting to taking some notes, just to find some continuity and order in this tragic tale.
His parole officer hadn’t violated his parole because “she believes in me, is willing to give me a chance.” “I’m going to see a counselor tomorrow, and start a job search class.”
Our one-sided conversation was like commentary at a ping-pong tournament, bouncing from one story, one lie to the next. Where was the kind, sweet young man I’d known the last few years, who dreamed of a good job in the woods, learning to play guitar, wanting to fall in love and start a happy family? As he rambled, sometimes slurring his words, I felt those dreams slipping away, lost in the clouds of addiction, denial and self-anger. Truth was rapidly fading away, if it had even been here at all.
Meth is a jealous mistress, stealing one’s youth, dreams, and hope, all in exchange for a few hours of being high, not caring.
His voice was raspy from his recent renewal of other addictions: cigarettes and beer. This was the guy who prided himself on working out at the gym, watching his diet, grateful for the vitamins I’d sent him. He had seen his future as a fitness trainer, a nutritionist, a practitioner of yoga and organic living.
Or was all that a smokescreen, a distortion of who he really is? The guy on the phone was, I realized, a stranger now, so different from the young man I’d talked with and mentored the last few years, today transformed, poisoned by meth and poor choices. I careened from being angry, frustrated, disappointed, and powerless in suggesting change, advocating for sobriety and recovery.
This guy only wanted to give me the list of all of his “bad boy” stories. Maybe he felt he needed to update me, impress me — somehow. I’m not sure he wanted my affirmation or my best wishes, or just hear his voice fill his own distorted reality. He rambled on, wrapped up in his own narrative, as if his recent criminal episodes were his achievements, and he just wanted me to know that.
I wanted to blame the meth, how it could savage the heart and mind of a young man I had thought was getting himself together, ready to do well in the world, given the chance. Yet, it isn’t just the meth. There was more at play here, and I’m still trying to figure that out, just like the rest of us when meth slithers into our lives.
Like most of us, I’ve seen most of the episodes of our society’s horrifying reality series, “Meth: The Reality of Our Lives”. And, I know I don’t have a magic wand to make things right. I haven’t written the episode that offers the perfect solution and a happy ending for all. I can listen and love and give some advice, if I am asked. Too often, I’m in the role of the frustrated bystander, left with my tears and hand wringing.
It was time for me to go, to end this call with this stranger. I’d had little to say, even less now that this monologue was over. He didn’t want my advice, my opinion. He was too high, too much in denial for that.
We said our goodbyes fairly quickly, with neither one of us making any offers or promises of getting together or talking again. It is a tragedy worthy of my grief, as I watch his life in flames, turning to ashes.
I put my phone down, wondering if I’d just been in an alternative universe, or living a really bad dream. Like all of us, I try to keep my exposure to Meth World to a bare minimum, and long to see the day when the ravages of addiction and unaddressed trauma and drug abuse are no longer plagues, and the destroyers of dreams and young lives.
Deep down, my buddy is a good man. I don’t see his flaws and susceptibilities to drugs and mental health crises as punishments for being a “bad guy”. There are successful answers to the burdens he shoulders, and good-hearted knowledgeable people are hard at work saving lives and helping others build solid foundations for their lives in recovery.
Like most of us, I get thrown for a loop and punched in the gut when the hells of Meth World are right in front of me. My journey is not my buddy’s journey, and I cannot walk his path for him. Each of us has the responsibility for our own journeys. I have my own anger and rage about the cruelties of addiction, and the pain that being unloved and uncared for can bring to vulnerable souls. The addictions in this world affect all of us. No one seems immune.
Knowing I’m not alone, that there is help available for those who are ready for it, I can remain hopeful and optimistic. I am often in awe of the courage of those who are able to move forward and are working to resolve their anguish. I’m stubborn enough not to give up on the possibilities of redemption and recovery. I can still believe in my buddy’s potential, his deep down goodness. That’s not to say, however, that I need time sometimes to lick my wounds and to mourn the crises, disasters and disappointments that come our way.
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