On our second date, he was tripping on mushrooms. All logic says I should have run the other way. But I did the opposite. I didn’t know anything about his alcoholism yet (nor the extent of his drug use) so we proceeded to hang out at a bar down the street. We got tacos on Myrtle Avenue later that night, by which point he was so far gone that he sat slumped over in a chair barely able to keep his head up, clinging to me while I struggled to order four tacos in Spanish. To say I was freaking out is an understatement. I was thinking about how I’d get him up the four flights of stairs to his apartment, worried about whether his roommates were home and if they knew or how I’d hide this from them, but also hopeful that if something really terrible happened, someone would be there to help. I also worried about what the woman behind the counter was thinking and whether she thought I was drunk or high, too. Mostly, I was wondering what I could possibly do to help this person. I was terrified and clearly in over my head but already in so deep. My heart was already breaking.
That is what it feels like to love an addict.
And this is what it feels like when they die: The world is instantly worse and unimaginable without him. It’s sad, empty, lonely, devoid of beauty and truth, all the things that I told myself defined his life. Nothing feels normal and I don’t know when or if it ever will again. I’ve cried more than I ever thought was possible, felt angry, depressed, scared, anxious, suicidal, and been brutally honest about the darkness of it all. I feel so lost and disconnected from everything and everyone because my anchor, my person, is gone. Half the time I don’t recognize myself. I move through most days robotically, just existing. That’s the best I can do right now.
Two years after that second date, I found myself standing on the other side of a locked bathroom door at his apartment on one of my late night something-doesn’t-feel-right-visits. Would I knock the door down? If I didn’t, could he harm himself, maybe kill himself as I stood by letting it happen? What kind of crazy person knocks a door down, I asked myself? And what kind of crazy person doesn’t, when she thinks someone might be dead on the other side?
If we believe that everything is predestined, then each time I found him in such a state, it meant he was already leaving this earth. That tracking his every move, keeping him nearby, practically handcuffing myself to him, would never work. But that’s what we do for those we love. And this was no ordinary love. I would have given my life for his.
I may have pulled him back from the abyss a few times, but I knew that one day I wouldn’t be able to. Maybe he would want me to pull him back, but the abyss would pull harder.
He didn’t die that night in the locked bathroom. But he did a few months later, on a Monday night in May 2017. Of an overdose, at home alone, probably an hour after he’d sent me a text about how happy he was to have a cat in the house who’d come with the new roommate who had just moved in. He left the world the same way he entered it, the same way he lived: dark, beautiful, thoughtful, honest. Full circle, in some ways. Almost perfectly timed. Almost like he knew.
Most days, I’m so angry, I hate the world and everyone in it. I’m never mad at him, though, not for leaving so soon or in the way he did. Instead, my rage is (perhaps unfairly) turned on everyone else, including myself, and for anything or anyone that ever wronged him, causing him pain, stoking his addiction.
I’m jealous and resentful of everyone who has everything I won’t get to have anymore: their person, their stability, their life. It’s so hard to be happy for people. When I return home at the end of the day trying not to drop the bags or find my keys and everything falls apart anyway, I just want to scream. But I usually just cry in rage, hoping I’ll get it together before anyone gets off the elevator and sees. For someone who prides herself on being composed, I sometimes feel like I’m decomposing.
I walk around aimlessly, thinking about all the things he’ll never have to worry about again, like the L train shutdown, people always in his way because their heads were buried in their phones, girls in yoga pants, mini cupcakes—all the things that really pissed him off. Or maybe I think about how he isn’t suffering anymore. And I’m always apologizing to him. Sorry for anything I didn’t do, sorry I couldn’t erase what happened to you, sorry the world is so shitty and everyone in it is so checked out. And I’m sad. So sad that sometimes I feel like my heart will explode and I’ll die, too.
Who was this man? He changed my life. He taught me how to see, how to live, how to be a person in this world. How to love. He unlocked something in me that made me able to love and accept love and open up in ways that had eluded me for most of my life. His love made me real.
With his death, he ruined love. That’s the one thing I let myself be angry with him for. He ruined it for everyone else. He ruined me for everyone else.
He was a unicorn. The kindest, smartest, most beautiful, handsome, curious, caring, loving, fragile, tender, creative, wondrous being I’d ever known. He had the kindest eyes that revealed everything about him. And he had grace.
Despite his darkness, there was so much light to him. He made you feel like you wanted to live in his world. He was full of contradictions: funny when you thought he was angry, clever when you thought he was quiet, gentle when you thought he was hard. He was so cool and so humble. I wonder if he ever knew how in awe of him I was.
Of course he was an artist, and an exceptionally gifted one at that. His paintings were as magical as his mind. It wasn’t the easiest path. Just as he didn’t choose to be an addict, he didn’t choose to be an artist: He just was one.
In the months before his death, he’d started on a series of black paintings he later gave me that were haunting, arrestingly beautiful in their simplicity, their restraint, their discipline, and their symmetry. (He loved, and sought, symmetry most of all.) He focused on black in an attempt to strip away excess, and he said that in a way the austerity of the works pacified him, quieted his mind. And, of course, in some way blackness also reflected his state at the time.
Why did I choose him? Someone so seemingly wrong for me, someone so different from me, but whom I lasered in on in the most intense, most certain way. I’ve always felt sort of awkward going through life, like I was never in on the joke, misunderstood. I never really wanted to submit to anyone’s expectations of how to be, yet at the same time I was desperate for people to see and accept me. I wasn’t a radical or a rebel. I was always just maybe a little off the path. In this man, I saw the me I wanted to be. He gave me the greatest gifts anyone can: self-awareness and self-acceptance, and the realization that acceptance and love are the only things that really matter.
Now, that love is gone.
I feel like I failed him in so many ways because I couldn’t save him or save us. And I can’t forgive myself for the times I secretly hesitated, afraid of fully inviting in a life with addiction, uncertain of what our path would look like.
Despite his alcoholism, the intermittent substance abuse in his past that I came to learn about over time, and the fentanyl-laced heroin that ultimately ended his life, I don’t think of Damon as an addict. To put it that simply would diminish the meaning of his entire life. He was an angel on earth who suffered from a monstrous disease and was cursed with having to suffer its demons. A disease I was completely unprepared to handle, and about which I was hopelessly uneducated. And although I’ve learned a great deal since his death, all that knowledge seems like a cruel joke or terrible consolation prize because he’s gone. I want answers to questions I won’t ever be able to answer, and I’m trying to apply rational thinking to something that is completely irrational. So I keep asking questions and seeking. And sometimes, just to stay sane, I have to make the answers up as I go along. Maybe the pain was so great that being alive just became too hard. Maybe I should have looked at it like someone battling a terminal disease. He was on a path I couldn’t stop, certainly couldn’t control, but at least we had a few great years on his way out. His death is now a statistic amid others who have suffered the same fate in the face of this unspeakable epidemic. But it’s mine and he was mine and therefore that makes it the worst, most tragic one ever.
I promised myself that after the one-year mark had passed, I would stop memorializing Damon publicly. Or even talking about him in public, which I imagine must be such a downer for everyone else. But I can’t stop. Time is arbitrary when grief is in charge.
I often think about the Jewish mourning calendar and wonder if having those so-called guidelines or parameters would have helped to contain the grief. Observing seven days of shiva, 30 days of shloshim, and a year of kaddish, one then begins a gradual reentry into normal daily life. While my level of observance has waxed and waned over the past several years, those traditions have always served as a familiar comfort. But those parameters did not exist for us: I am Jewish, he wasn’t.
I suppose in some ways I did feel robbed of a certain formality or ritual, which made it feel like I was often grieving alone. Of course I had my own community in the form of friends who became family. Those people extended kindnesses I can never repay. I owe this year to them. But actual family (who had otherwise been overly involved in my life), checked out, barely acknowledged my grief or his death (barely acknowledged him while he was alive), because I was grieving for a non-Jew, which somehow made it feel invalid. So mostly I grieved alone. And it now occurs to me maybe I grieved for both of us—for his death, and in small part for myself—feeling quite abandoned by some who chose religion and a set of rules, and some who chose indifference, over empathy.
Now it’s everything I can do not to word-vomit all over anyone who’ll listen, including the checkout girl at CVS. Before Damon’s death, I was incredibly reserved (I think the less euphemistic term is “shy”). I was closed off, living by the self-imposed credo of don’t talk about your problems, stiff upper lip, and all that. I’ve softened. Everyone says so. Which feels weird because for so long, I was the sarcastic, angry-but-funny, mildly self-deprecating one in my group. I wore that armor for years and letting go of it feels like losing a part of myself.
Part of the struggle in even talking about Damon’s addiction has to do with the stigma surrounding it despite statistics that reveal how many lives are touched by this epidemic. Here I was, a grown woman in my mid 30s with a fancy job and a shiny New York life, and yet I somehow found myself at the center of a nationwide opioid crisis. Sometimes I feel like this isn’t even real life. Never in a million years did I imagine that my reality would include addiction, alcoholism, or heroin. (That one still makes me cringe.) Or that I, the girl who barely drinks and probably couldn’t tell the difference between powdered sugar and cocaine, would fall madly, deeply, heartbreakingly in love with an addict. But not speaking about his death would be contributing to the shame that clouds addiction. It would feel like watching him die twice.
Damon always joked that he either wouldn’t make it to 40, or that God would punish him by making him live forever. The last birthday we celebrated before he died was his 33rd. June 23. Sometimes I wonder how much longer I’ll commemorate that date, if the pain will ever be leavened by happy memories and if the anxiety leading up to it will ever pass. One day, his birthday might go unnoticed, only to be remembered belatedly. But not this year. And not next.
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