I Love My Drug Buddy
If you're lucky enough to have a friend, you might want to treat her like one. Despite everything.
“What would I have to do for you to stop being my friend?” I asked one of my two best friends the other day. Sam, Poppy and I have been together for 15 years, and I’m the only addict among us. We were friends for nine years before I got clean, and each put up with more shitty behavior than anyone ought to tolerate. They are not enablers—just excellent humans who for some reason chose to stick by me, no matter what.
I don’t know how many times I called them on a Saturday morning, having disappeared with some derelict the night before, and said, “I don’t know where I am, please find me and pick me up. And I think I need to go to the hospital too.” And they would. And then spend the day entertaining me in the emergency room, or the psych ward, Poppy doing crazy dances and Sam making me look sane by enacting a kabuki-style flirtation with an embarrassed young intern.
Sam came to visit me in London where I moved to bottom out. I spent the duration of her visit either throwing up in the bed we were sharing or fucking some guy in a basement. Sam would go to the Tate or the Tower of London while I was somewhere being sleazy and queasy, and she would come home to untangle my hair and tell me about these sights I would never see.
Some people can be decent and good without referring to a book written by reformed degenerates.
I used try to force them to get drunk with me, and from time to time they would oblige. One New Year’s Sam ended up throwing up all over a subway car as a result of my coercion, after which I punched her, really hard. Their fealty, of course, also included the obvious humdrummery of keeping company with an alcoholic, such as unintelligible monologues, self-pity, hot tears, and a total inability to notice their lives. Active alcoholics never realize anyone else bleeds when pricked, that they are more than cardboard cutouts whose limbs are available for tearing when one’s own wounds need stanching. I remember very well sitting in a meeting and realizing for the first time that everyone else in the room was just as real as me, but that was much later.
So, why did they stick by me? Well, apparently it is something to do with friendship. Each decided she was going to be loyal, because they were my best friends. For some reason, they thought they got more than they lost from my haphazard presence in their lives, and far be it for me to put my good luck under close inspection. Each happens to have an unerring ethical sense, but neither is a pushover, or a “co-dependent” as the cloying parlance of recovery puts it. Neither needs a “blueprint for living”—some people can be decent and good without referring to a book written by reformed degenerates.
I am not so naturally righteous, and so I need to blunder through certain well-trodden steps and traditions in search of a moral compass. The first time I fleshed out other humans at a meeting, I realized they possessed feelings as overwhelming as mine. I understood that this was why they had to drink, too, activating stirrings of compassion which I had not felt in a long time. Compassion had all been reserved for myself, invariably leading to self-pity. My first days and months sobering up entailed the process of relating to other people which are the first gestures towards recovery and the primary precepts of friendship. Very slowly, I became less like Dracula and more like Frankenstein, no longer sucking at humanity and preying on good will, but instead feeling newly vivified and craving companionship.
Then come the first forays into “fellowship,” whereby a group of people go to a diner after a meeting and begin to re-socialize—awkward well-meaning monsters learning to converse. Next, we get sponsors, and no matter how many times we are told “your sponsor is not your friend,” my experience has been that a sponsor is really more like an indentured friend than anything else I can imagine.
And then comes real sober friendship, where, trembling, we learn to have a conversation that involves an exchange of information rather than a streaming soliloquy of problems and anguish. Finally, we round out the lives of our friends by attending the events that matter to them, from funerals to the classic early recovery gesture of helping someone move house. These are all lessons that teach us how to participate in human relations and cultivate sobriety. In fact all the requirements of friendship are ones that on their obverse are tools of sobriety: knowing the truth and telling it, self-forgetting, giving credence to opinions other than our own, and hanging around when things are going poorly.
AA was started by two friends, Bill W. and Dr. Bob. They discovered a mutual understanding that became the cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous. After they decided to be besties, they sealed it with a solemn pact of abstinence, just as boys in tree houses the world over have always sworn frightening oaths to demonstrate their allegiance. And then they set forth to recruit yet more friends, and so the movement began, and spread.
Romantic and familial relationships are the ones given precedence in our culture, but meetings are probably not the smartest place to look for successful versions of these. Many of our members spring from families in jaw-dropping disrepair, and of course the rooms are notorious for love affairs that give long-lasting pleasure to the rubber-necker. But friendship, that most undervalued kid sister of the Important Forms of Human Connection, is the one that often gets and keeps us sober. Recovering from addiction is also learning how to be a friend, so if you choose to believe the rhetoric, it is the ship that saves our lives.
So now I too have friends who are dreary drunkards, swollen-headed sots, incorrigible crackheads, and deceitful dope fiends. They are my fellow alcoholics and addicts, and not all of them get sober the first time they try-or ever. Friends who are still getting drunk or high offer an even roomier ship to explore. Sobriety is not a condition of the connection, and lacking sobriety we usually lack the ability to reciprocate, so the friendship becomes one without conditions. I know that unconditional friendship does exist, because it kept me afloat for years before I could consider a jump to the safety of the dry, dry shore.
One of my favorite people is someone for whom the label “chronic relapser” is a kindly euphemism. He is more often high than dry, and I unstintingly adore him. He is no prince among drug addicts, or among friends for that matter. He got high in front of me, borrowed money and then disappeared, and asked me to keep secrets I really didn’t want to. This friendship, one-sided as it may seem, is one of the most important to me, even though I gain nothing from it. It’s not reciprocal, he doesn’t do much to obviously strengthen my sobriety, or to deserve my good will, but that is the point. He makes me laugh and I just like him. I don’t owe him anything and for once in my life I am not trying to get anything. I can’t really think of anything he could do to make me stop being his friend.
So maybe that is the answer to my question.
Hannah H. Hollister is a pseudonym for a writer who lives in New York