Buy a Black Dress

Buy a Black Dress

By Kristen McGuiness 09/29/14

When death starts becoming common in sobriety.

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In my second week of sobriety, I lost my first friend. Wade was a tweaker from Denton, TX. He had brighs red freckles and despite how many times I told him I had a boyfriend in LA, he kept calling me. I had just moved to my hometown of Dallas to get sober and I didn’t have many other friends, so I started taking the calls. We talked about why we were both trying to get sober, what we thought about the meetings, whether we thought we might stick around. Two weeks later, Wade died of an overdose. Nearly eight years later, I’m still here.

When Wade died, an older friend in the program told me, “If you’re gonna stay sober, one of the first things you’ll need is a black dress… people die in these rooms.”

That should have been enough to send me running, but Wade’s unexpected death made me want to stay. Was that what was out there for me? Would all my good intentions and shaky desire for a different life be expunged in one bender that suddenly and inexplicably contained heroin?

And so many years, and far too many deaths later, those questions still ring true. In the last two months, three very important people died – whether directly or indirectly – from lives filled with drugs, alcohol, and depression. The first was Robin Williams. Though much has been said about his Parkinson’s, his depression, and his sobriety, when I heard the news of his suicide, the first thing I thought was “He was one of us to the end.”

One of us. The drunks, the druggies, the suicidal depressives. The people called too sensitive, too crazy, too wild to ever be fully contained by this world. And yet, I also know that if I stay sober, if I stay close to other sober people who know what it’s like to imagine the sweet relief that a tight belt around your neck might provide, than that tight belt doesn’t become so necessary anymore. In fact, it’s in that communion of like-minded people that the deepest relief is felt.

Two days later, legendary skater and a close associate of my husband, Jay Adams, died. Jay was also sober at the time, but sobriety for him had been a hard and weary road. Years of alcohol and drugs and adrenaline had done a number on his heart, and he collapsed in the water surfing off the shore of Mexico. What would have happened if he had only stuck around so many years before when he was first introduced to sobriety? Before the prison terms, and the ruined relationships, and the ever-stronger pressure on a quickly aging heart? Another one bites the dust so they say and the black dresses come out again.

And more recently, a man who was only famous to those who knew him died. Jimmy was a 65-year old poet and musician who lived in Paris. He was born in South Africa, had lived in Brazil, Pakistan, Nepal, and more places than most could list. He looked like Keith Richards, was tattooed from head to toe, and was one of the craziest, wildest, most sensitive men I had ever met. We still don’t know how Jimmy died. We know that he couldn’t stay sober. We know that he had been living a hard life for far too long, and perhaps like Robin and Jay, he just simply could no longer be contained by the world.

All these men were in their 50s and 60s, and we could say that they lived good lives. But the sad part was they lived hard lives. They took the treacherous road, one filled with relapse and disappointment. They left heartbreak in their wakes, and they refused to accept the deep relief of knowing that you’re not alone. Instead, they sought the relief of addiction, of adrenaline, of suicide.

According to the Psychiatric Times, “Individuals with a substance use disorder (i.e., either a diagnosis of abuse or dependence on alcohol or drugs) are almost 6 times more likely to report a lifetime suicide attempt than those without a substance use disorder. Recent evidence from veterans indicates that men with a substance use disorder are approximately 2.3 times more likely to die by suicide than those who are not substance abusers. Among women, a substance use disorder increases the risk of suicide 6.5-fold.”

And that’s for those who go out by their own hand. Heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and of course, cirrhosis can also be less popularized but all the more frequent ways that alcoholics and addicts meet their maker. For my father, who also died at 63, heart disease and cirrhosis was the deadly combination. Killing him one night in his sleep, only one year out of prison. Hard living might sound good in a Lana Del Rey song but it also takes its toll. It’s the type of toll that kills friends in car accidents, that kills daughters under suspicious circumstances, that kills fathers in their sleep. Because whether it takes the long way or the fast shot, that’s what addiction does. People die in these rooms.

Much has been written about Robin Williams’ death. I didn’t know the man, but I know this, going in and out of sobriety can take the biggest toll of all. I saw it in Jay Adams, I saw it in my friend Jimmy. Living in purgatory is just as hard of work as living in hell, and the guilt, remorse, and fear that comes from wondering if you can ever put Humpty Dumpty back together again are enough to make anyone wonder whether letting the final breaths out of the beast might just be the best option. I know I have asked that question, both drunk, sober, and relapsed. 

And maybe that’s what keeps me sober. Knowing that I just don’t have the constitution any more for hard living. Knowing that the sound of chirping birds while my bleary eyes are still awake would be enough to make me reach for the leather belt. Knowing that being the raspy voiced woman at the end of the bar just means no one will really care when I’m found slumped over it. Knowing that being a freewheeling spirit is great for epic poems but heartbreakingly difficult for those who love them. Addicts like my father. Like Jay. Like Jimmy. Like Robin fucking Williams.

In a way, I’ve always known I wouldn’t go out like Wade – 22 and his whole life ahead of him. I would go out like those old men in their 50s and 60s. I would hang on for as long as possible, a dog being dragged for miles. I would be by turns bitter and depressed, joyful and loving, but I would break every heart that dared to trust me. I would take the slow death, and in turn, I would miss out on the blistering life. I won’t need a black dress for any of the men mentioned. There will be no funerals, or not ones I am invited to, but I will offer a memorial all the same. Because every death is a reminder of why I have stayed, why I want to stay. It’s not about fearing the inexplicable heroin anymore; it’s about embracing the beauty of my sober life. One I want to keep to the end.

Kristen McGuiness has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. She last wrote about her shamanic recoveryShe is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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