I can remember being around 18 or 19 years old and being scared that my best friend was going to die.
I was driving down the main road, fresh out of dealing with one of his drug-induced rages and as my body shook, I signaled my left blinker and my mind went to one place — “What if he overdoses?”
I thought, “What if he overdoses? What if he dies? I’d have to explain to my mom that the closest person to me was a drug addict. And we’re both underage. My mom doesn’t even know I drink. If he died, it would be the first time I’d have to admit to anyone around me that this was going on.”
It’s a peculiar thing to think. Now, it’s more ironic than anything else, as he did end up dying from an overdose years later.
Immediately after he stopped breathing, there was too much going on. There were the wakes and the funeral to think about. I had to leave school for a few days, all to come back to a plethora of classes and lessons missed as though a huge chunk of my life hadn’t just been chewed up and destroyed without my permission.
My conservative parents and the rest of my family were too shocked and confused in that immediate timeframe to convey their true feelings about the fact that what led to Nick’s demise was drugs.
Primarily, it was business. It was all, “What’s Stephanie feeling? Let’s attend to that.” I was grieving — loudly, at the top of my lungs, with every bone in my body, both externally and internally — and so the entire network of people who loved me concentrated their attention on keeping me placated, keeping me stable, and keeping me alive.
There were shoulders to cry on. There was a perpetual, ever-lingering, and unspoken rule that I wasn’t to be left alone — that at all times, someone would be with me, whether it was my mom, dad, boyfriend, or sister. There were more family dinners than usual. There was cuddling and tucking me in at night as if I was five again. Someone was always there in the beginning and mostly, there wasn’t much talking. It was all listening. They either listened to me talk about him or they listened to me cry or they listened to me scream.
Immediately following his death, no one had the chance to say anything about the fact that he died from an overdose. A 19-year-old kid dying is enough trauma to go through without exploring the reason why. I don’t even think they so much as uttered the word “drugs” those first few months.
That’s the immediate grief. But there’s this longer, more-drawn-out kind of grief that I’m only experiencing now. The commentary. The negative connotation associated with a death by an overdose.
The first time it came up — about a year later — a famous celebrity died. While my immediate reaction was a mixture of heartbreak, devastation, and compassion for that actor’s family and of course, for the actor himself (me being a person who had seen firsthand what battling addiction and self-medicating looked like). But some of the people close to me had a response that was much less understanding. It was overtly rude — heartless. The complete opposite of empathetic. It was as if, in their eyes, this actor deserved death. He chose it, did he not?
When I expressed how terrible his passing was, one friend responded, “Yeah, but he was a drug addict.”
In other words, we can’t feel sorry for drug addicts because they actively choose their fate. Should we eradicate all of the drug addicts of the world? Because they’re barely human, right? They’re mongrels: Gross, disgusting, horrible almost-people who don’t have loved ones or dreams or willpower or goals. The fact that they depend on a drug (or alcohol) to get through their daily life deems their completely unworthy of love. Of friendship. Of any good thing ever. Of life. Right?
No. No, no, no. Absolutely fucking no.
How come I know this at 23? How come the people around me, much older, much wiser, whose eyes have seen so much more life and death than mine… do not?
It struck me like a metaphorical, emotional blow, but I was so taken aback I was speechless for a few seconds. I finally managed, with wide eyes, “You know that Nick qualifies as a drug addict. Right?”
“But I don’t mean him.”
“But what you said — it’s a label you’re automatically assigning to all drug addicts, which means, it applies to him.”
Flash forward a few years and I’m still experiencing the same lack of compassion concerning my reaction to drug-related deaths.
“When are you going to stop being so sensitive about that?” I was once asked as I yet again confronted someone close to me about their lack of empathy regarding the subject.
My best friend, who I had feelings for, died from a combination of lethal substances when he was just 19 years old. So, um… NEVER?
I’m not the only one facing the aftermath prejudice of an overdose. When talking to one of my friends who experienced a similar situation as me, she confirmed she too deals with the negative legacy the nature of her loved one’s death has left behind. People don’t understand. Weirdly enough, it seems like the people closest to victims of violent loss, such as overdose, are the ones who are the most prejudiced.
I don’t give a shit how he died. The fact that he injected drugs into his body to get high doesn’t make me love him, his goofy smile, his personality, his boisterous, mega loud laugh any less. He’s still the person I knew, who made up of all the good things I loved.
Addiction was part of his story. Part of his makeup. And part of his demise. But just as I loved all the positive parts of him, I’ve learned to accept and love the ugly, the toxic, the fatal, too.
You can’t bring me down with your selfish, ignorant reactions. The way someone died doesn’t matter. It doesn’t take away from who they were when they still had blood pumping through them and their cells still multiplied. Please remember that and proceed with empathy when you approach someone who has lost a loved one to a traumatizing, violent end. Just as you wouldn’t make jokes about murder around the survived victims of a homicide, you shouldn’t approach suicide or addiction lightly.
Everyone is working their way through something. Navigate those sensitive waters accordingly and don’t ever criticize the nature (no matter how negative) in which someone met their end. Death is death and it’s never easy to come to terms with whether it was death by suicide, overdose, homicide, or natural causes. Pain is pain; never be the cause of even more pain for someone who is struggling with loss.