My Partner Started Using Heroin After 17 Years Clean, and I Had to Let Go

By Dorri Olds 08/18/16

“My husband is in there,” I told the EMT. “He’s wasted on heroin and I think he has gangrene.”

Relapse, smashed by pills.

I was rushing when I turned the corner onto Eighth Avenue at West 23rd Street, nearly running into an elderly man. He was frail and bent over like “the crooked man who walked a crooked mile” in the nursery rhyme I’d loved as a kid. His blondish-white hair looked pulled in all directions as he wobbled toward the corner.

He was staring at a plastic container full of quarters that shook in his hands. At first I thought he was begging, but it seemed odd that the cup was only quarters. Then I realized he’d been on his way to a payphone. His sagging pants and t-shirt were rumpled, as if slept in. I assumed he was homeless. “I’m sorry,” I said, because I’d almost plowed into him. “Huh?” he said, looking up. I was horrified. It was my husband.

Two weeks had gone by since I’d last seen him. His face had aged two decades.

“Joe” and I met at an AA meeting in 2000. I’d asked if the seat next to him was free. As he nodded, his eyes lit up. When he smiled, my spine tingled. Blood rushed to my ears. He looked like a blond Keith Richards and obviously a lot older than me so, despite the mutual attraction—that time and every time after that—I never took the flirting seriously.

Until May 2007, after I opened the New York Times Book Review and saw a two-page rave about his memoir. The writer compared Joe to William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson and Jerry Stahl. I showed up for Joe’s book reading at Barnes & Noble and bought the hardcover, which he inscribed, “To the prettiest girl.” It was such a relief that a man still found me attractive. I was 45, never married, and feeling hopeless after what felt like my millionth breakup. What worried me was that he was 18 years older, had AIDS from shooting heroin, and was an ex-con. He’d been nicknamed “Rec” in Greenwich Village because he stole records and sold them. At the reading he said, “I was a professional shoplifter,” which got a huge laugh.

But he was smart and hilarious. That, plus seven years of flirting, launched an irrepressible desire to be with him. We began writing long-winded emails about our favorite movie lines and song lyrics. We lived two blocks from each other which made it easy to go to plays, ride bikes, see movies, and take my dog Buddy on long walks. We settled into a blissful groove. 

Dating for two years led to an engagement, then wedding bands. We woke up every morning saying, “Can you believe how lucky we are?”

During our eighth year together, Joe’s voice became hoarse. When the rasp turned to a croak, he went to the doctor. He had a raisin-sized tumor in his throat. The surgeon took it out and a biopsy showed it was cancer. Joe was told to get radiation.

The next morning, while waiting for his tea in the microwave, Joe whimpered, “I’ll have to get fitted for a radiation mask. They’ll pour liquid plastic over my face and I’ll have to sit there without moving to let it harden.” The microwave beeped. He got his tea, drizzled honey into it and plopped down at the kitchen table. As the steam swirled, he pushed it away, and let his head rest in his hands.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll go with you.”

He lifted his head and I saw sweat on his brow. “I can’t do this,” he said.

“Did you tell the doc you’re claustrophobic?”

“Yeah, they'll give me a Xanax, but is that okay?”

I called my AA sponsor, he called his. We both knew that taking a benzo could be a slippery slope. It would wake up that “easy button” to relief. But our sponsors both thought it was reasonable to take it, that one time.

The hospital arranged for a van to pick him up each day for the six weeks of treatment. I went the first few times but then he said, “It makes me too nervous when you come. I need to do this by myself.” My husband, like my father, wanted to be alone when he was sick, so I obliged.

We’d held onto Joe’s studio apartment because the rent was so cheap. Mostly, he used it to store his stuff and get his laundry and vacuuming done. During the radiation, he began to stay there for days without calling. As a child, I’d learned not to try to talk to my Dad when he wasn’t feeling well so this felt normal, even though I hated it.

When my husband did call, he said, “I’m exhausted but can’t sleep.”

“Come back,” I told him. “You always sleep better here.”

This conversation repeated itself for three days. I was becoming so stressed, it was making me angry. I quit wanting to respect Joe’s boundaries and shouted, “Get over here! I can’t take this anymore.”

He laughed, and said, “Okay, I get it. I’ll be there in an hour.” I was elated. But two hours later, he still hadn’t arrived. My gut churned. I ran over to his building. There’s tight security there, so they buzzed him to announce I was in the lobby. “Tell her I’ll come down,” I heard over the intercom.

It was a long wait. When he finally came down, he motioned with his hand for me to come over. His usually full, thick hair looked flat, and sweat-stuck to his head. As I stepped closer, I saw two large bumps on his forehead. 

“What the…?”

Joe said, “Thaz not the half of it.” He plopped into a lobby chair and lifted his shirt to reveal an alarming red wound on his midriff. It was lined with patches of yellowish-green. At the center was a large black patch. I gasped, “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Joe slurred.

I looked at the grotesque wound and his droopy eyelids, and I knew but asked anyway, “Are you shooting drugs again?”

“Yeah,” he said and shrugged.

My knees wobbled and I felt like I was going to throw up. The next moment, my legs and back stiffened for action. I yelled to the doorman, “Call an ambulance!”

“See, thaz why I dint wanna tell you,” said Joe.

We took the elevator to his apartment. “You can’t come in. Izza mess.”

I ignored him. He fumbled with his keys. When he got the door open, I followed him inside.

It looked like a tsunami had hit. There was barely a clear spot to stand. Clothes were thrown onto chairs, the bed, the floor. His table was covered with pill bottles—AIDS meds, vitamins, Percocet, Vicodin, and Xanax.

I gasped.

“I tole you to stay owzide.”

I gagged when I saw the needle on the nightstand. “I’m getting rid of this,” I said and picked the vile thing up.

“Duzzint matta,” he chuckled. “I got a whole box.”

Freaked out, I went into autopilot, “What will you need? Underwear, socks, what?”

“Doan rush me,” he slurred. “I can do it myself.”

Rage scorched my lower back and shot all the way up to my neck.

“Fine. I’m leaving.”

I slammed the door, pressed the elevator button, but when the doors opened, two EMTs stepped out with a stretcher. “He’s in there,” I said and pointed. “He’s wasted on heroin and I think he has gangrene.”

Once we were at the hospital, Joe began yelling at a nurse, “Ahm not gonna talk. Get me sumthin to drink.” An orderly brought Joe a styrofoam cup of water.

“Whazza guy gotta do for ice around here?”

“Joe you’re not in a restaurant,” I hissed. “It’s an emergency room.” The doctor came. Joe lifted his shirt to show the damage to his side. The doc touched the wound, Joe didn’t even flinch. 

“Can’t you feel that?” he asked. Joe shook his head no.

The doc turned toward me and said, “That’s a burn and it’s not a fresh one.” 

He asked my wasted husband, “When did you get this?”

“I don’t know. I woke up onna floor.”

Joe had overdosed and while unconscious, fallen onto a reading lamp that sizzled his skin. He stood up, swayed, then reached for his cup. He began nodding out like a street junkie, so I went to grab it before it fell.

“Gimme that,” he barked, knocking the cup out of my hand. I watched it spill. Then he stepped in the puddle of water and whined, “My socks are all wet.” That’s when I couldn’t take another minute and split.

The next day the doctor called, “Your husband needs two surgeries but they’re both very risky.”

“What are you saying? He could die?”


The disgust and rage gave way to terror. I went to the hospital to sign forms. When Joe saw me, he began to cry. “I’m so sorry. I’ll make it up to you. I swear.” A surge of hope enveloped me.

Two surgeries and more terror later, he snuck out of the hospital and OD’d again. I called the ambulance again. He signed himself out again. Then he snuck out of two detoxes and a rehab—all the while he called frequently, sobbing. 

The night he’d checked out of the rehab, I dreamt of a beautiful five-year-old. I was in a big crowd when the golden-haired boy ran to me and called me Mama and flung his arms around me. I told him I wasn’t his Mama and asked where she was. “She’s gone," he said. "You’re my mom now." When I told him I never wanted to be a mother, it made the boy cry. So I relented. I agreed to be his mother. Just as soon as I’d accepted that role, his real mother—heroin—came and whisked him away.

I woke up from that dream and ran to an Al-Anon meeting. There, I got the strength to tell him not to call me again until he was sober. That was three months ago. There’s no more positive thinking left to cling to. I have surrendered. I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it. I upped my AA and Al-Anon meetings, took off my diamond rings, and walked away before his disease swallowed me whole.

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