The Ones Who Didn't Make It

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The Ones Who Didn't Make It

By Gayle Saks 02/09/17

How can one ever be prepared for the sudden deaths of young, vibrant and kind men who you essentially share a home with for 40 hours a week? 

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Gayle Saks

I am petrified of dying. If I think about my own death for more than a few seconds I have to shake myself out of it to avoid bringing on a panic attack.

As the daughter of a mother who had several failed attempts at suicide throughout my childhood and adolescence (she was finally successful when I was 21) death was a concept I was forced to grapple with from a very early age. There were no religious platitudes thrown at me about an after life, nothing hopeful that I could latch onto.

When two years ago I became a substance abuse counselor in a halfway house for men in recovery at a time when people were dying by the fistful every day, I didn’t look at it as a way to confront death head-on. I was warned about how painful the work would be but I never could have imagined how much it would hurt. How can one ever be prepared for the sudden deaths of young, vibrant and kind men who you essentially share a home with for 40 hours a week?  

The first two to die had both been discharged from the program due to relapse and positive drug tests. One came by a few days later to get his belongings and we sat outside on the stoop in front of the residence. I listened to him tell me how he had been clean for a week while he picked at his face and struggled to keep his eyes from rolling back in his head. I just let him talk as he tried to spin himself out of his shame and encouraged him to do what he knew he had to do to keep clean. Two days later, another resident read on Facebook that he had overdosed and died at his girlfriend’s apartment.  

Less than a week later, I saw the other one outside the bay window of the house, chatting, a bit unsteady on his feet, with another resident. He had taken a long time to warm up to me when I first started my job and we had a big breakthrough one morning in the kitchen as we bonded over our love of online shopping, he specifically for sunglasses and me for far too many things I never needed in the first place. From that point on, he warmed up to me so when I went outside to give him a hug, he welcomed it without hesitation. Less than 24 hours later he was dead.

With these first two deaths I was having a very hard time comprehending that men who had been just inches from me just poof, were gone. When I had lunch with a former resident just a few weeks later, and the following morning learned that he had overdosed and died that night, not only did I feel myself buckle at the knees, I began to feel as if I was cursed.  

These three guys were program veterans, in and out of halfway houses and detox for most of their lives. They watched their friends die one by one, until their worlds became completely decimated and they inevitably joined their ranks.

When the next was an overdose death of a 24-year old on my caseload, I couldn’t find a way to keep it together. He had never been in a program before and was starting to become terrified of these stories of the men he never knew, but heard so much about from other clients and counselors.

I watched as his baseline anxiety grew exponentially and when he started to avoid staff and stopped smiling his broad and engaging smile, we knew something was up. He was drug-tested, the results came back positive and he was discharged from the program. Within 48 hours, he was dead.

His obituary, accompanied by a high-school class picture, was held down by magnets on the refrigerator in the dining room of the halfway house. Even though the picture was a little old, he still looked the same, so young, so happy, so baby-faced. I attended the wake by myself fearing the entire drive there that there would be an open casket.  

As a Jewish person, I had never been to a wake until I met my first husband, an Irish Catholic with a big family. Not only did they terrify me but I never knew quite what to do when I felt obligated to approach the casket. When I arrived at the funeral home for my client I saw him, his powdered face, with a rosary gently draped around his outstretched hand.

As quickly as I saw it, I snapped my head away and stepped into the receiving line. I introduced myself to his shattered mother and murmured some words that I knew she was incapable of hearing at the time. As I was leaving, eight guys from the house arrived, just having taken two buses and an hour to pay their respects.  

The deaths didn’t stop there.

Five more have followed, each more devastating than the one that preceded it.

The last one, a little over a month ago, still doesn’t seem real. He had 18 months clean and had just done some work on my house before it went on the market. He ate dinner with me and my family and helped us move. He was the most gentle of souls, very soft-spoken but he was incredibly wry and funny. He had a six-year old daughter who he wasn’t allowed to see and this devastated him to no end.

At his memorial service, I brought her the Barbie doll that I knew she wanted, and even though she wasn’t in attendance, her mother videotaped her opening the present. It was a magnificent moment that he would have loved.

There are a bunch of my former clients who have gone off the grid and are most definitely running the streets, sleeping under bridges or in rooming houses masquerading as hotels. I fear the words I will see in my Facebook feed or the phone calls and e-mails I will inevitably get of another death.

I think of all of these men who have died from the same disease with a deep sense of pain. It has not altered my own fear of dying, but if I could be assured that every once in a while someone thinks of me, even for a fleeting second in the way I think about these men who were in my life for a very short period of time, that might make it a little less scary.

Gayle Saks has written extensively about her work as a substance abuse counselor from the unique perspective of someone who is not in recovery herself. Her blog was voted one of the Top 20 Recovery Blogs for 2016 by AfterParty Magazine. Saks grew up on Long Island, New York, and lives in the Greater Boston area with her husband, daughter, two cats and two dogs or as her husband says, “Too many beating hearts.” She works as an Admissions Counselor at The Boston Center for Addiction Treatment, a brand new program of Recovery Centers of America.

You can follow her blog at mylifeinthemiddleages.wordpress.com and on Facebook at My Life In the Middle Ages.

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Gayle Saks has written extensively about her work as a substance abuse counselor from the unique perspective of someone who is not in recovery herself. Her blog, My Life In The Middle Ages, was voted one of the Top 20 Recovery Blogs for 2016 by AfterParty Magazine. She has written on the subject for The Fix, HuffPost, mindbodygreen and Thought Catalog. She has also written about being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and the eventual suicide of her mother. Her pieces on the subject have appeared in kveller where she is a regular contributor, The Jewish Journal, and MammaMia. Saks grew up on Long Island, New York, and lives in the Greater Boston area with her husband, daughter, two cats and two dogs or as her husband says, “Too many beating hearts.” Follow Gayle on Twitter.

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