The line sounds like the cliche opening in a movie trailer, but it’s plucked straight from reality: ten years ago, my life changed forever. I was a 17-year-old dreamer who believed in everything, feared nothing, and dove right in. But on April 20, 2005, I became a 17-year-old adult who didn’t believe in anything, feared EVERYTHING, and second-guessed facets of life I’d never even fathomed. I was thrust face-first into a harrowing situation, and the result was a broken human with a temporary case of PTSD and a life-long case of GAD and depression. 4/20/05 literally changed the fibers of my being, down to the very synapses in my brain.
I’ve talked (briefly) about losing my first love before, but sometimes I feel like I could write forever and still not manage to describe the events, the emotions, the people, the smells and sounds. I could never do the day justice through words in a million years. Whether I go a day or a year without thinking about it, when I let the moment completely take me over, I still feel the same dense sadness in my sweaty panic as I remember.
A struggle as a writer–especially one on the Internet, where things are public as public can be–is how much to reveal. Sure, it’s my life and I can tell my stories, but I very much take into account the privacy of others when I tell a story that doesn’t involve me and me alone. A decade out, though, I feel like it’s a disservice to J’s memory to leave out the details of how he died. Point blank, addiction killed him. I didn’t know it then, but god, I see it now.
The thing is, we see addiction as this gross, shadowy thing in our society. Only horrible, gaunt, rotting people who sell their children’s belongings to get a fix are the ones who get hooked and die, right?
Wrong. So wrong.
J was so different from our societal image of addiction that no one saw it, not even I. He was warm and disarmingly handsome. He could make me laugh with such ease, and even in our hardest times, it never felt uncomfortable. He was caring, intelligent as hell, family-oriented, and loved his friends. J attended church, even though I didn’t, because it mattered to him. He, on paper, was perfect. But the boredom of living in a town that didn’t provide enough stimulation for him–for most of us–pushed him on this precarious path of substance abuse we ALL walked down in that time. The thing is, he walked further than the rest of us… and it ended in the worst way, the way it never should have.
But that addiction doesn’t take away what he gave me, his family, and all of his friends while he was still here. The only thing it actually does is make it a horrible accident, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t deserve to hear the memories the rest of us get to share with each other about a magical human who touched us on an intimate level.
I used to think “Hey, maybe I shouldn’t share this because it’s not just my story,” but the thing is, it is a story that saved me from dying, too. Sure, I immediately went cold turkey the day he died, but it was because I didn’t trust drugs anymore, not because I saw an issue. But when I realized how close or knee-deep-IN he and I and so many others were to addiction, I couldn’t believe no one had stopped us. I couldn’t believe no one had noticed. And then I realized, it’s because we didn’t fit the mold. We made straight A’s, looked attractive and healthy, and we could act our naive faces off. We tricked everyone, and probably the best of us paid for it. A lot more did before him and unfortunately, a lot more have since, too.
Ten years later, I am still broken, but I am alive; I thank J for that gift often. But I think I can thank him more by being more open about him and his struggle, about the different faces of addiction and the different ways we can be addicted. I can thank him by continuing to ruthlessly take care of my health, mental and physical. I can thank him by raising awareness of the INSANE amount of teen drug use, especially in tiny towns. I can thank him by living my life for me and ONLY me, just like he wanted me to.
And in a way, I feel like that means he’s not gone because addiction doesn’t change someone’s core. J’s core was kind, and we’ll spend our time left here making sure that core kindness keeps rippling through the world. He left a legacy that will last forever: through us, through the lives we build, and through the people we help. How many people can say that?
Not many, and we’re all better for knowing someone who could.