Upon my return from a wonderful weekend praying and meditating at a retreat center in Vermont I check my phone messages. One of the messages is from a friend in Gloucester, which is where I currently live, telling me that another friend of ours who was in recovery has relapsed and died of an overdose.
She says to me,”This is the first time anyone I’ve known in recovery has ‘gone out’ and died. I’m really shaken up.”
I tell her,”It shakes me up too. Which is why I get nervous when people pick up (use drugs) for a night or two and then come back into recovery. I know so many who have died on that one night out or soon after relapsing.”
At times I wonder why, having experienced so many gifts of recovery, my mind drifts into thought patterns which glorify drug use. Today I have a wonderful woman in my life, my health is relatively good, I have a close personal relationship with God and I have become, on some levels, a positively contributing member of society.
Then, all of a sudden, the desire to pick up a bag of heroin hits me, or maybe I think of trying that new drug called Oxycontin. Maybe, I think, I could use just a little and keep it under control. Wouldn’t it be nice to just spend an evening drifting in opiate dream, carefree and without pain?
The desire to use is on me like a heavy weight. It is familiar, with the smiling face of an old friend saying, “let’s hang together. It will be just like old times.” Suddenly the lie seems as if it were true.
In Central Square, Cambridge, where I sell the Spare Change News, I am surrounded by people who are using. I look over to the bench at my right. There is a woman, bereft of teeth, who is polishing off a bottle of Listerine.
A short time later a man who is about my age stumbles down the street in disheveled clothing. He is talking to anyone who appears to be listening, yet it is all jumbled word salad to anyone who passes by him. He is totally detached from his own senses. He talks to his reflection in the Fleet Bank window. He is a regular in Central Square.
I watch as a couple pass by. They are both dressed in dirty jeans and the ghosts dance in their eyes. They walk up and down the sidewalk. They wait. They sit on the bench. Then they get up and walk some more. A little later they pass by and their eyes are half-closed. He disappears into the crowd, she sits on the bench in front of me. Her head bobs up and down. At times her eyes are open but her pupil and iris are hidden; only the whites of her eyes are visible.
People I know to be junkies from my own active days gather on the street across from me. Someone walks up quickly and they gather around him or her and then they all vanish in different directions. The dope has arrived.
A junkie I really care for begs me for six dollars so he can get well. He tells me he will pay me back tomorrow but I know it is a lie. He may be conning me or he may even believe the lie himself. The delusion that lives in people like myself is so powerful that we, in the grip of active addiction, believe anything the monkey tells us.
The caretaker in me wins this time and I give him the six dollars. He kisses me and tells me he’ll pay me tomorrow morning first thing. I tell him, “Either you will or you won’t” knowing the odds are against it. I remember too well the feeling of dope sickness, when my guts feel as if snakes are slithering through them, the sunlight is burning my eyes and making them water, my muscles ache in every part of my body and even the cigarettes I keep smoking make me gag.
I watch as he runs across Mass Avenue to the dope man. He is desperate to make the sickness go away. He is no longer using for a good time. He is just “yenning” now, attempting to keep enough heroin in his body so he is not wracked with dope sickness.
I think of what he was like when he was clean. I think of the gifts he has to offer the world. I think of his special gift. When he is clean he works as a clown. He is a source of magic for both children and adults; he shines like the sun helping us to open to ourselves and reach the blessed child within us. Yet today his inner child is being smothered by active addiction, by the lie of the opiates, by his own inner terror which tells him he cannot stop, that, for him, all hope is gone.
I remember that feeling so well.
How little we know about the call of the Sirens of Addiction. I watch the actor Robert Downey rise out of hell, fall back, rise again, fall again. The newspapers publish critical accounts of his journey.
“There he goes again,” the news tabloids say.
When I look into his haunted eyes in the newspaper photographs, I see my own eyes staring back at me. The eyes of the addict.
I know, even though I have been clean for over two years, how my drug of no choice sings to me. I call it my drug of no choice because when I use it the drug takes all my choices from me.
The lie of the opiates sounds so much like the truth. If I stray far from my necessary treatment of this disease, soon I will forget that the disease is the voice of my own mind and I will begin to believe it again. The truth is, sadly, on some days I almost believe it even when I am in the midst of recovery. Then I drop to my knees and ask God to help me stay clean.
I am an anomaly, something that, to all intents and purposes, should not exist. I am a heroin addict, a junkie that does not use heroin. Today I am a powerful example, proof positive that a heroin addict can stay clean. My success today is not indicative that I will stay clean tomorrow. I am always one bad thought, one bad decision away from active addiction.
I do not judge Robert Downey for I know well the demons he struggles with. As addicts we are all houses divided and without treatment and daily maintenance of our spiritual condition we are all eligible to fall back into hell.
I get off the phone with my friend in Gloucester and think of Judy, our friend who has been taken out of our lives by active addiction. I remember the last time I saw her at a meeting. I think, “If only I had known she was struggling.”
But of course, I did know. We all struggle on one level or another. I think of her eyes looking into mine when she said hello.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Okay. Things are a little rough though,” she said.
And, because I was in my own little world I said, “See you soon.” And I walked away.
I won’t see Judy again. Not in this material world. It is time for me to pray.