What is a junkie? Who is a junkie?
BY EB NUCERO
I always feared I would die with a face of porcelain with no evidence of a life lived. No wrinkles by my mouth from too many smiles, no lines framing my eyes from too many days spent squinting in the warm sun. A few months back, I met a man and I saw in his face the lines of a journey. I saw a life. The first night we met, we walked around lower Manhattan for far too long so said the blisters on my feet.
Despite the plea of my feet, my eyes remained fixed. They were looking for an answer in those lines, like reading tea leaves. There was something there, a comfort that was almost eerie and I was trying to understand it. I saw in his face a tenderness, an honesty that I had never seen before, but there was also so much pain in those lines. I began to see that his journey as an addict was written right there on his face, his lips, his eyes.
By week one, he had a toothbrush at my apartment. By month two, we were moved in together. By month two and a half, I was an addict just like him.
On a Wednesday, he sent me a text. We had nothing planned for the weekend ahead and there as a Narcotics Anonymous convention a few hours away. He asked me a few times if I was sure that’s how I wanted to spend my weekend. I wonder if he knew that I would have taken any excuse to spend more time with him, to make him happy.
It wasn’t until our midnight arrival to the beach town that was hosting the convention that I realized this would be our first weekend trip together. We got out of the car, into the motel and I heard the ocean in the distance. We walked out to the boardwalk. I didn’t let on that I was cold, I just enjoyed the moment. I felt a contentment that scared me. I suppose it was only scary because I had no doubts and thought that maybe I should. Shouldn't I? As I fell asleep that night, it was the first time I stayed up just to stare at the ceiling and think. I tried to see if there was something in the back of my mind that I was hushing, but there wasn't. Before I knew it, it was morning and we were on our way to see the first speaker.
I made him laugh when I said it was like being at a hockey game. The large groups of people immediately made me a bit uncomfortable. I tried to remain cool, not reveal how overwhelmed I was. We made our way through the entrance of the convention center to registration, through convention-sized plumes of cigarette smoke.
I came to realize that he wasn't trying to be funny when he warned me that we would be greeted with hugs. At most of the larger entrances, stairways and hallways, there were people just there to greet guests with hugs. I wondered how I would have felt if he hadn’t been there, with strangers reaching out to me so familiarly.
It was maybe the third time someone hugged me, they said, "Hey there sweetie, good morning!" There was something about that woman's hug that felt so genuine. I saw the same lines in her face that I saw on his. When I looked around I saw mostly smiling faces, people just happy to be there. I saw the lines of their smiles, but also the pain of their past.
Maybe I forgot that earlier discomfort, but by the time we had registered, I was pretty at ease, more so than I thought I would be. We ignored the awkward fact that I didn't have a "clean date," and I simply wrote my name on my ID tag. For the weekend, I was an addict who would only go by their first name. Back through the brigade of huggers, we made our way to the first meeting.
I didn't know what to expect, which again made me uneasy. Sure, meetings, the community, were a big part of his life and so a big part of our life, but I had never actually been to a meeting before, never sat in “the chairs.” When Natalie got up to speak, when her voice cracked, when she said so much in so few words, I looked over to the man by my side and felt all the times he choked on his words, all the times I saw him cry behind his eyes, but reveal no tears.
It's a strange thing to hear someone speak like that. I’m not sure I could do it justice, honestly. She spoke about those silent, lonely moments when one is forced to face themselves, face their faith. It’s all too easy to lose faith and yet, she had it, the people around me had it, the man by my side had it. I wondered if I had as much faith as them, if my voice was strong enough to say I had hope.
At the end of her half hour, there was no resolve to her story, no happy ending, but there was something, something poignant that hung in the air, followed me around for the rest of the day, the rest of the weekend.
She reminded me of that sense of nausea, queasiness I would sometimes feel. I attributed it to my depression, but could never properly put to words the feeling. It was kind of like spotting yourself in a mirror doubly reflected. You know when you see yourself for a moment as a shape, a thing in the distance, a somewhat objective figure? You see your awkward stance, your bony hands. You quickly look away, but it haunts you for a moment. Just a moment though, not too long. You forget.
I couldn't forget. That image, that feeling would haunt me, and I couldn't leave it behind. I would choke on it when trying to speak, it would get caught like dust in my eye and I feared that if I gave it too much rope, one day it would hang me. It was more than just that, though, more than fear, it was the feeling of being alone in that feeling that was most damaging to me. I felt that soon I would tire of this performance I was putting on for the world, I would lose my grip and fall from the stage.
But, what if I could look out into the audience and see that there were others out there like me? Would that fall from the stage be as painful? Could I take a step down to join them in the audience rather than fall?
I finally understood when he said the two most beautiful words he heard in recovery were "me too." What if I had heard that when my struggle began? Would I have felt so alone? What if I had heard someone like Natalie who shared my struggle? What if I had someone get up, speak and reflect myself back to me?
Just share the pain, no solution, no resolve. It seemed that for the addicts in the chairs around me, hearing her, hearing each speaker, they felt what I felt, but in a much stronger sense. She was an addict, they were addicts. When she spoke, they spoke. There wasn't and eye that wasn't glued to the front of the room. I saw heads nodding, some people smiling, some tearing up. I saw faith.
When he and I first met, even that first night, addiction was part of the conversation. When he spoke about his past it seemed like there were times he was trying to push me, see where I would draw the line--call him depraved, call him a junkie, all the things I heard these speakers say about their past selves.
Instead, I told him the truth: He saw being an addict as the whole picture, but it's only part of his story, it's not all of him. I came to realize, though, that's just how I saw it. Over that weekend I heard countless times the phrase "we have come to understand that we suffer from a disease called addiction."
Natalie's first words were, "Hi, my name is Natalie and I'm an addict." Each of the twelve steps helps them manage and negotiate between themselves and their addiction. Maybe that's why he looked at me the way he did I told him that there was more to him than his addiction.
As we made our way to the next meeting, I thought that maybe he was right. I was reminded of the pills I take daily to quell that voice in my head telling me to destroy myself. The shadow remains because it's part of me, but the volume is turned down. Unfortunately, he needs to silence that voice himself, there are no pills he can take. There's a reason they say "we suffered from a disease from which there is no known cure."
It was funny that most of the things I experienced in this community seemed to contradict any idea I had of what an addict was. What is a junkie? Who is a junkie? What I saw at the convention was a picture that was contrary to any preconceived notion I had. Oddly enough, it seemed that at the beginning each speaker supported by uneducated notions. These people who now hugged me at the door, offered me coffee, smiled at each passerby described a past that seemed so removed from the people before me.
Speaker after speaker painted that same picture: desperate, selfish, cunning. The change is simple, though. Once you start seeing addiction as a disease, a parasite to this person that carries it along with them, you begin to see that one can be a sick, suffering addict and at the same time be selfless, be hopeful, be human. They described their past selves as thieves, as liars while standing before me as people who loved and supported and cared for one another. It's unlatching that parasite that's the hard part, I learned.
Sometimes, maybe most of the time in fact, that parasite remains, just shrinks and weakens. Though it loses its power, it's still there. It's like those times I see him sitting quietly, his eyes staring down at the floor. I see a pain in his eyes I wish I could take away. If only the pain was mine, the demons were mine to wrestle. But, they're not. And it's those demons that made him the person he is. The fight against them has brought him to the place he is today. I know that's what he tells himself, and yet, if I could, I would take all that pain away in a heartbeat.
When we got back to the motel that night, he had that look in his eyes. He looked up, and sat across the bed from me. It was a long day, but there was something else, something that he was preoccupied with. I knew he wasn't going to cry, but before he even said a word, I wanted to. I didn't. He told me some things. They were things that I may look back one day as signs; signs I should have inched closer, or farther away.
I stayed where I was. I let him pause, resume and breathe as the words formed in his mind, and I watched as he carefully chose which words to say aloud. Rather than respond, I let him continue talking. I let him continue to unveil memories that were not just personal, but intimate, deep and dark. I saw a man grow more and more vulnerable right in front of my eyes. I saw him talk about his past self with shame and yet acceptance.
It's funny, it wasn't until that moment that I wanted to tell him for the first time that I loved him. I didn't say a word. When he had finished, he crept over and we laid there quietly as I held him. Again, I wanted to tell him I loved him. Again, I didn't. There was no resolve, he nor I had an answer, but we had the comfort of each other and that was enough to make it through the night at least.
That night I had a dream we were in a boat, a small one that just fit us two. The water was swampy and it was cold and dark, but in the distance there was a warm light, a fire burning. Though I should have been relieved to see that fire, I was scared and tried to steer the boat away. Maybe scared isn't the right word. I think I knew that despite its appearance, that fire was the end; its comforting light was a lie.
When I woke up that morning I knew that the warmth, the call of that fire was the battle he fought every day. I knew that I could never put that fire out. I knew that all I could do was remain in the boat with him, rest my head on his shoulder, hold his hand. It was in that moment, waking up next to him, that I knew that right there was where I wanted to be. And just like that, my weekend as an addict turned into a life in love with one.
While currently writing at her soul crushing job in Finance, EB Nucero daydreams of all the ways to re-arrange the books currently strewn across the Jersey City apartment she shares with her boyfriend, whom she loves, but hasn't told yet. Her degrees in Economics and Anthropology have allowed her to observe all the ways the people around squander their wealth and all the ways she has sold out to pay for said apartment. Despite the ever growing fear that she will never feel professionally fulfilled, she sends thought pieces to editors hoping that someone will see something in them.