This War We're In: When Your Addict Friends Disappear

This War We're In: When Your Addict Friends Disappear

By Jowita Bydlowska 05/27/16

"In trouble” or sometimes “dead” flash neon in my mind when I can't get a hold of an addict friend.

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This War We're In: When Your Addict Friends Disappear

The war lasts for the rest of our lives. Even when our comrades have been out of the trenches for a while, there’s always a risk of a shrapnel—it comes in many different forms, as a needle, a bottle, a razor cutting wrists—wounding them mortally at any time.

Yes, everybody dies, but I don’t think “dead” or “in trouble” are the possibilities that come to mind when people think about their non-addict friends not being in touch. For me, “in trouble” or sometimes “dead” is one of the neon signs flashing in my mind when not being able to get ahold of an addict friend. I might sound dramatic, but I’ve had a few addict friends get sick, end up in jail and even die—silence rarely (never) meant they simply moved to Greenland with no access to Wi-Fi. When I myself relapsed, I kept it a secret for a long time, kept quiet. I just wanted to be left alone. Maybe even die alone, although that was not a conscious thought.  

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.” And the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that “nearly 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making it the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.”

I use this metaphor of addicts and war because soldiers are usually of fit bodies and mind when they’re drafted—and similarly with addiction, the people who succumb are more often than not candidates for long life: they start physically healthy, many of them are employable. And the majority of the ones I knew, who died, were years away from retiring; some had just started families or weren’t even at that point yet. I remember talking to my grandmother who said that after the age of 70, your friends dying is not such a huge surprise—albeit it’s nothing anybody ever gets used to—and that I won’t even think about my friends in those terms till much later in life. 

Not true. Since first becoming sober in 2006, I’ve become so hyper-vigilant that if one of my close war buddies doesn’t answer a few texts or disappears from social media, I panic quietly; think the worst. 

When I first became a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, one old-timer told me, “This is the most heartbreaking and the most uplifting place you’ll ever come to.” He said sooner or later, I will be shocked into finding out someone I had just had a coffee with was found cold and stiff in a doorway in Moss Park—a notorious overdose central in Toronto, Canada, where I live. 

It wasn’t until two years into my sobriety that I experienced that. 

There was a boy at a sober barbecue I went to. He played a guitar and sang me a song about a girl with brown eyes—same kind of eyes I was trying not to roll, hard, as he did that. We later talked briefly about both of us being from Poland, over a plate of burgers. A few months later I found out he drank himself to death. He wasn’t a close friend but I thought of him often since—he was my first death in AA. 

My most recent death was the day I started writing this essay—I got a flurry of texts from a friend, about a woman under 40, who passed away from drinking. Nobody knew it was that serious.  

Last year, five people I knew died from addiction-related causes. 

Whenever I learned of one of those deaths, immediately, in my head, I’d scan my list of addict friends to check which ones I haven’t heard from. I usually end up stalking them on Facebook (recent pictures from Maui—fantastic!) if I don’t know them well, or send a text or call if I do. 

I’ve had the same courtesy extended to me. Many times. But I have one friend who told me, “I find they [friends] tend to give up. They may still worry, but they wait for me to indicate some sort of communication or effort.” 

I’m lucky my experience has been different—recently, I myself have disappeared. No, I wasn’t hurling myself off drunken cliffs, but I stopped attending meetings and I never called anyone. I wanted to be left alone. The past ten months have been really difficult and I was immersed in a lot of challenging personal issues. I was so exhausted it was exhausting to even think about having to tell people why all that exhaustion. But there were always people around me, pesky with their constant “How are you doing?” For a while, this winter, I minded; but now, I don’t mind. In fact, if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be doing well at all. Having to answer keeps me accountable. 

And as for my fellow war mates, other addicts, if I stop going to meetings for a while, I’ll always get an email or a text from someone asking if things are okay. I used to bristle at this, complain about the AA police. But when I went to a meeting after a few months of absence, there was a line-up of friends waiting to give me a hug. I am not a fan of hugging but I wanted nothing more than to connect again, tell people that I was still alive. Earlier, during the meeting, I looked around the room and noted every absence. I was afraid to ask about those people who I used to see but who weren’t there, now. I was afraid to find out somebody I had a coffee with months before, took a bullet. 

Jowita Bydlowska is a regular contributor to The Fix. Her memoir Drunk Mom was published by Penguin.

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