We already know how to support our friends when their partner is sick, but what about when their partner develops a heroin addiction?
There aren’t many variations on that dreaded middle-of-the-night phone call: Someone’s been in an accident, arrested, slipped away in their hospital bed before you had the chance to say goodbye.
I think I’ve received them all.
But one August night in 2010, my best friend Maddy called with something very different to tell me. Before she could even get to the words, I said them for her. “Evan’s sick, isn’t he?”
My boyfriend Max and I had just returned home from spending the weekend with Maddy and her husband Evan. I knew something was wrong. Evan was painfully thin. He had trouble following conversations. Twice I heard him throwing up in the bathroom.
AIDS. Cancer. I thought about what I would say when she confirmed one of my guesses. “I’m so sorry.” “You’ll get through this.” “I love you both, and I’m here whenever you need me.”
Instead, Maddy told me her husband was a heroin addict. All those supportive, best friend words would not come. Not for another three years.
I’ve known Evan a long time. I knew his story. A young man with a lot of family troubles, he moved to California from a small Montana town to work construction with the hopes of opening his own contracting business. Whip smart and funny, there wasn’t much not to like about Evan. Best of all, we loved the same girl. I knew he’d struggled with chronic pain from an injury he sustained when falling from a roof. He’d taken pain killers for years and was depressed about not being able to work.
“I can’t stand not building something,” he once told me. “It’s like a slow death.”
It was no secret Evan would sometimes take too much of everything. He’d fall asleep in restaurants, forget items from the grocery store. I remember the night he hijacked a conversation about our pets, rambling with frenetic energy about different dog breeds then nodding off in between the sentences he couldn’t finish.
But hey, who could fault the guy for seeking the occasional head change from a life he no longer had any passion for?
Then came that call. Someone I love like a sister is living with a hard core drug abuser. Everything I had ever thought about Evan began to disappear. Instead of listening to her story, a strange contempt obstructed the spaces between supporting my best friend and protecting her.
I’ve heard that all reactions come from only two places: fear or love. Not so subconsciously, I used this as an excuse to judge my friends. I’d been ready to hear Evan was sick with something valid. Something valid to me.
I know now ignorance certainly has its place among that fear and love.
Whenever Maddy called I’d keep our conversations brief, superficial. “How’s work?” “Did you see that guy on Leno?” “Tell Evan we’re thinking of him.” I didn’t want to hear about how she and Evan had no money, how Evan was desperately wanting/vigorously fighting rehab. I couldn’t take her crying whenever Evan disappeared for weeks at a time.
Maddy is a tough city chick who uses her middle finger on the freeway the way most people use their turn signal. I’d watched with envy over the years as she precisioned her life like that Kelly Clarkson song: Miss Independent/Miss Self-Sufficient/Miss Keep Your Distance. So it only seemed natural, not cowardly, when my advice came as a straightforward: “Leave his ass!”
Besides, the misfortunes of her marriage weren’t the injustices of a real illness. It was a man playing my best friend for a fool. Maddy deserved what she was getting for allowing herself to be treated like one.
Recently Max and I planned a trip to Northern California to visit family, just a few miles from Maddy and Evan’s home. “You realize we have to see them,” Max said, reminding me that once I posted pictures on my Facebook page, she and Evan would know we’d been up their way. On many visits we’d witnessed Evan load himself with pain meds. But heroin, I thought, how can we pretend to have a good time in the presence of an IV drug user? I sent Maddy an email to let her know we could only stop by for a little while, then tried to busy myself by packing up my clothes, my makeup, my Xanax, my Zoloft, my muscle relaxers and my Tramadol.
I was so nervous the day of our trip. What was their life like now? Would Max and I be walking into an Irvine Welsh novel? Black-tipped syringes and rubber tourniquets strewn about the floor, the smell of piss and metal which seems to permeate the skin of every junkie. What I know of chemical dependence I learned from my sister’s addiction to street drugs and my mother’s abuse of prescriptions. But my mother passed away and my sister and I became estranged before I had the opportunity to see addiction from the other side. Not recovery, but coping.
Ten hours and four hundred miles later, I would get that chance.
Our plan of “stopping by” turned into three days of visiting our friends. We sat in their immaculate kitchen eating spinach lasagna and drinking diet soda. We talked about the Zimmerman case, smoked an ungodly amount of cigarettes, and laughed through the muck of coffee and nicotine when Evan told us a story about his childhood pet raccoon biting him in the face when he tried to take it for a swim in the family pool.
It was almost like the old us, but not.
There were times when Evan was noticeably restless and in pain. Maddy, who seemed to instinctively know when these bouts of edginess were due to arrive, would bring her husband one of their six rescue dogs, as if to remind him of all the different ways he is loved and needed. They had always been an openly affectionate couple, but now it seemed the physical had been replaced with a quiet, tender monitoring. Like two people navigating their way through a new city, turning back at regular intervals asking the other only by expression if everything is OK. Maddy was in control of Evan’s meds and slept in the living room, closer to the safe. Everything that could be considered a drug or pawnable was kept in that safe, including our purses and Max’s wallet. At first it was weird, me asking Maddy to get my sinus pills right in front of Evan.
“Welcome to our new life,” Maddy said, which instantly cleared the tension. It was the truest thing we’d heard since we had arrived. After that, we talked openly about Evan’s addiction, about Maddy, and the job she hated but had to keep because it was their only source of income. “It sure would be nice to show you our new Ulta,” she said one afternoon while counting out Evan’s allotted lunchtime pills. “But walking into my favorite store with no money to spend is too depressing.”
“You’re right about that,” Evan said, “There’s nothing more I’d love right now than to see you shop for some new makeup.” What would have begun a nasty fight three years earlier, was now a sprouting seed of camaraderie. A couple owning and sharing their frustrations.
One night when Maddy and I stayed up late talking, I spewed out a phrase I hate because it sounds so purely ego infused. “You didn’t sign up for this,” I said. Mostly because I couldn’t think of anything else.
“But I did,” Maddy answered. “In sickness and in health.” Then she started to cry. “Evan is my husband. And right now, we’re sick.”
This is what I needed to hear. She and Evan had been together for 12 years, and while I’m certainly not equipped to understand the delicate symmetry of living with an addicted partner, I began to wonder if the “all or nothing” method of tough love was the right thing for my friends. The more I watched them team through the system they’d developed to make it through the day, the more embarrassed I felt about my ill-informed advice of just go. By not supporting Maddy in staying with her husband I was ignoring a part of her life that is just as important, if not more, as the role of my best friend: being Evan’s wife. She is not a woman allowing a man to destroy her. She is someone who loves another person and cares about what happens to him. She is trudging her way through a darkness she had not planned for herself, and with a man who is doing the exact same thing.
The night before we left, Maddy told me she was the most tired she had ever been. “I’m exhausted in my body and my mind,” she said, and for the first time in three years I could offer the kind of support I knew she truly needed. “You can do this,” I told her, “because I don’t think Evan can do it without you.”
I used to be afraid of having Evan in my home, but this fall will be the first time he and Maddy will come for a visit since Max and I learned about his addiction. We’ve talked to our sons openly about Evan’s problems with drugs. Yes, we will lock up our medications and hide anything we think he might take. Evan and Maddy know this. Our boys know this. “This is how it works,” I told the kids. “It’s kind of our job now to help Maddy help Evan.” And whenever Maddy needs me to, I will remind her of the night she spoke about her wedding vows and how watching her love someone in sickness and in health changed the way I see the both of them, and their story.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.