By Sonya Huber
Stuck in traffic on the Merritt Parkway heading south in Connecticut on a Tuesday morning, I’m staring at the tailgate of a beat-up, black pickup truck in the lane ahead of me. An extension ladder hangs on the struts of a metal support above the truck bed, which is scattered with buckets of tools. The tailgate sports the geometric logo of Narcotics Anonymous and the slogan “Never alone, Never again.”
Traffic unclogs, and the green of a New England morning in July blurs past. Even as my car speeds forward, my mind has been hurled backward into to my former life with the sight of that bumper sticker. No—I never met anyone in a parking lot to pay for drugs. I never shook with the physical ache of withdrawal. I just loved an addict. For a long time.
The addict I loved drove a weathered, blue pickup. When we first locked eyes over coffee, he told me a heartbreaking version of the hard-life stories in own family. I saw a man valiantly struggling to right the legacy of wrongs in the fruits of his family tree. He didn’t say, “Hi, would you like to sleep with someone with a substance abuse problem?”
He took me on adventures: fossil picking near a hidden waterfall, a flea market, a drag race. He wrote me notes and left flowers and cooked dinner. As we ate the chicken he’d cooked and ladled from his own crockpot, he told me I had saved him, and I protested. No, nobody did any saving, I said. But I enjoyed the stories he told in which I was cast as Wonder Woman. The stories in my own head starred me being good enough, so a cape and invisible car gave me a rush. Plus, he was sexy.
Once, early on, he left me naked on his loft bed for an uncomfortable moment of silence. I heard the tinkering of his drug tools. As the sweat cooled on my body, I knew another love had taken my Wonder Woman status. No—I half-knew she’d been there long before me. No—I had no idea how deep she was into him; she was his origin song, his mother. I pulled on my jeans and ran from his house, and he chased after me. Later, as we walked beneath the oaks that lined my street, he mulled and said, “I should just quit. I’ve thought about it.”
I, for my part, honestly thought quitting was an option, a simple decision.
I weighed and mulled. I sought advice. “He’s great on paper,” said a sympathetic single friend. The dating pool had slimmed out through marriages, hopelessly twisted personalities, and band guys.
Fast forward years of Googling—is he an addict?—and wondering and diagnoses and indecision about whether to leave.
Because…it was just pot.
So of course I didn’t think it was a big deal at all until I got sucked up into a maelstrom and watched as this one life was derailed.
Yes, I have heard about Sanjay Gupta. No, I don’t think pot is a problem for most people, but people get addicted to standing in front of a slot machine. This is not even about pot. This is not an attack on your Saturday night or your aunt’s legal medical marijuana treatment for cancer. This is about a distant cousin: addiction. If you don’t know much about addiction, you are lucky you don’t know much about addiction.
I clung to my coffee cup and my to-do list and my furious ability to work, and almost nobody knew. I amped myself up on work and my checkbook balance and the hope of scraping enough together to make Plan B. And we stayed together.
The sordid scenes left me shaking. I could frame the moments with their fractured details, but each postcard of me crying in the night could be turned over to read the secret message: Wish I Wasn’t Here With Him. Why AM I Still Here? I was still there—with him. For my own complicated reasons involving hope, my own drug of choice.
Then one day he called me, said, I can’t do this any more. The world had crumbled in a friend’s back yard, where the summer light made the undersides of the dense trees look like an inverse x-ray, a web of black with light at the edges. A knot had tied in his soul. He touched some electric edge in himself. He told me on the phone that he got too high—even with all his experience, he had crossed into the raw slippery meat of his own brain.
It was a secret day for him, maybe not a day he celebrates now.
I trembled as I waited for him to come home, scared like the waiting before birth or death: he was choosing us or maybe something different that included me. He saw the outlines of his life as unworkable, which took such guts.
He entered the house with the colors of his face in livid contrast: reds and whites, blacks of the eyes, the mouth. Half of himself had fallen to the inside. He lay on the bed and I was terrified for him. I had longed for this afternoon, had imagined the action in film stills. In the living of it, I was frozen in a strobe light of my uselessness.
More symptoms would come: The creepy crawlies, a splitting headache that triggered his migraines, dizziness and nausea, sweating. Flu-like symptoms and chills. Later, the insomnia and nightmares. Weeks of aggression, blasted thoughts, plunging depression.
We paged through the phone book—tiny letters, thin pages—in a low spot for which there was no 911 to call. This was too common, we learned, and too expensive for 911. I left messages, handed him the phone when I reached the intake nurse. We took turns on hold with cell and home phones, nodding, taking notes, eyeing each other frantically as we heard phrases like “two month waiting list” or “we could call you when we get an opening” or “we don’t take insurance.” All those private places at the outskirts of the city would be too expensive and too slow. The timing of the crisis and the solution seemed incredibly mismatched. What they didn’t say: twenty million people per year in the U.S. needed treatment and could not get it due to cost and lack of beds. We just wanted one.
We found the city option on the cheap: an intake meeting tomorrow and then outpatient meetings during the day and groups at night. He’d stay at home for detox. Work was out of the question. The schedule would keep him contained and safe, with time filled and one place to go. I revered his effort and his guts.
I had hoped for this upheaval, but in practice it a quiet accident, a water leak. No one could know.
One day after he’d gone to group, I sat in the park. I went for a walk where I always walked, but I didn’t even make it to the path. I sat down in a kind of squashed kneel in the outfield of a baseball diamond, my calves alongside my thighs, the way kids sit. I closed my eyes and could not even scream. I felt a glowing heat devouring me, not grief but anger in its purest form. The meteor in my stomach weighed me down, too heavy to even carry. Why be angry?
Dumbfounded, dumbstruck: I had not imagined I’d be shattered at being right. I had guessed that this secret might define our lives, but even more secretly I hoped I was wrong. I hoped this phase would pass without a crisis. This was the birth of the next part of our lives, but dirty, like in a gas station bathroom off an anonymous exit.
A friend put me in her car, and we drove past the outskirts of the city, along a highway to a tourist attraction near the town where she grew up. There was an ice cream stand and a goat pen. You could put a quarter into a red metal machine and twist the knob to get kibble to feed the goats with their angular slotted pupils.
I have those flashes frozen like fresh rescue in my head: a goat clambering up a slanted board to reach his neck over the planks of a fence, his lips straining and flapping to reach nuggets of processed food. My hand on his bony back, the bristly fur. Inside the breezy stand with chained-off looping lines like a carnival ride where I stood. I think I bought a shake, and I think it was strawberry. Even as we rode the highway loop, I knew it would end up with me back at home, empty handed, no comfort to offer. In the end, there were times I had to put stuff in the car and flee, just to get out of the way of the unhinging, unspooling.
The other addicts mocked him in the meetings, planting the seeds of his relapse as they all ground their teeth and raged with red-rimmed eyes. THC can’t make a lab rat’s heart explode. God, how those newly clean, irritable, and strained people in chairs railed at each other, raw as pain without skin, competitive about how close they’d come to the lip of hell. Whose hell was better, stronger, faster. The sickest turn on each other, as they will turn on loved ones, rounding on anyone to shred to distract from their own misery.
His counselor met with him privately and sketched out his damage: because he had used regularly before he was fifteen, he was five times as likely to be an addict as your average smoker. Starting early was kind of a cause, but there was always another factor—everything in his young life—that led to smoking up. Call it the genes, the interaction of the drug in the brain, a crushing narcissism, stresses in the home and beyond—new studies even say that the high itself is not what the brain craves, but that the high comes with a dose of doom that only the drug will lift, and the brain yearns only for relief.
We heard figures I had to look up later to understand, the numbers of people unhappily dependent. It wasn’t cool to worry about pot, his gateway sweetheart, but we were so uncool now. His drug won first prize, four and a half million no-big-deals seeking treatment per annum.
Rehab and recovery brought us to family meetings where we sat in circles, telling secrets. And I got to see him, who he really was behind the chemical screen he’d worn the whole time I’d loved him, and I fell in love twice as hard as the first time. I re-pledged myself to him, then he relapsed. Then again.
I kept going to group meetings for friends and family members of alcoholics and addicts, and I had to pass the gauntlet of alcoholics and addicts who stood near the church basement’s entryway, wreathed in cigarette smoke. They’d nod and say Hey, and I’d ignore them. Or worse, I’d give them the look that equaled death. You demons. You homewreckers, all of you, I thought.
Not so many years ago, I would see a car on the highway with a recovery message on its bumper, and I’d shudder. I’d send out a prayer to that poor sap’s partner, if she hadn’t already left him.
We wore our relationship down to nothing and the drugs won, or I lost. Or I won. Or the battle got played out. After I left, I stayed in the groups because they helped me understand the person I had become. I parked in lots next to cars with bumper stickers saying “Never Alone. Never Again.” I passed through the smoke-wreathed gauntlet of addicts and alcoholics so often that they began to frighten me less. Then I began to go to some of their meetings to hear them speak. I knew their spouses and kids. I began to see in their eyes a humanity that I had lost the ability to see in my former love.
Now he’s still with me in the thousand pop-culture reference to the drug in songs and on t-shirts and in casual conversations. He’s with me when I see any of the thousand references to his drug of choice.
Now I accelerate to pass the black pickup truck and turn my head to the right to catch a look at the driver. I am a practiced eye, even racing on a highway in tandem. I see, despite his sunglasses, a posture of calm and a skin color of health gracing the presence of this stranger up as early as I am on this Tuesday morning. I want to roll down my window and cheer him with a hero’s greeting, but I settle for flashing him a smile.
SONYA HUBER has written two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and a writing textbook, The Backwards Research Guide: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program. She’s at work on a book-length essayistic memoir on the topic of substance abuse. More info at www.sonyahuber.com.