Chris and I were texting Dec. 11, 2016, when at 3:50 p.m. he went silent.
I assumed it was because we were arguing. We were always arguing, ever since his addiction had taken over his life. The signs were there: The man who would write beautiful songs on his guitar became sluggish and angry. He wouldn’t spend time with the people who lifted him up and instead sneaked out to see those who enabled his addiction. He stopped going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and group therapy.
“NA doesn’t help me,” he’d say. “I can handle it on my own.”
At meetings for family members of addicts, I was told that addicts have to want recovery for themselves.
“Let go and let God,” they’d say in those meetings.
It was later that December day that I found my fiancé unconscious in his car in South Philadelphia. As I watched my father and the paramedic pull Chris’ body out of the car, “Let go and let God” felt very real — and very unfair. Two hours later, seated in a small white room, the ER doctor informed Chris’ family and me that staff had done everything they could do, but that Chris didn’t make it.
Chris never felt powerless over his addiction, and, to me, that’s what facilitated his relapse and ultimately his death. He thought he still had control, so who needed rehab? In the meantime, to support his recovery, we had already canceled our wedding and moved away from our apartment in South Philadelphia. Leaving our old life behind to make new friends, experience new surroundings, and a create a new life — that was supposed to help his recovery, too.
“Now should we move again?” I asked myself as the latest plea or threat failed to shake him from his drug use. “What can I do to make sure he recovers?”
I had once interned as an addictions counselor and could not believe that my Chris, the man who called his mom weekly to check in, who wrote me love letters regularly, whose compassion led him to a successful career helping others as a nonprofit fund-raising coordinator, was now directly affected by the heroin epidemic. I did with Chris everything I was taught to do with clients: support and encourage him to leave his old life behind. But I felt so out of control. I had the tools to save him, but it felt like everything I was doing was wrong.
It is my experience that when it comes to addiction, people — myself included — cite the narrative in which “bad things happen to bad people.” Addicts are called junkies, blamed for lacking “will power” or the ability to “just stop” using drugs. People even have an idea of what a drug addict should look or be like.
However, drug addiction does not discriminate. Anyone can dissolve into a powerless shell of one’s former self.
As Chris deteriorated, I, too, became addicted — to saving him.
If you love an addict, you will become familiar with the need to follow his every move, second-guess every word, beg from across the kitchen table to please just tell the truth, listen at the bathroom door to make sure he is not using, overnight drug tests to a lab in California for a final read, because you will still see glimpses of who he once was, and there is nothing you want more than to have back the kind and beautiful person behind the addiction.
When I lost Chris, my entire world shattered. People would say, “But he was an addict.”
He was. He also was the man I loved, the future that we had planned together, my soulmate. Heroin robbed him of his future. He will never play another show with his band. He will never get to be a husband or father to our children. He will never grow old. He will never again experience the day-to-day mundanes: treating himself to a doughnut in the morning before work and eating it while waiting for the bus in the rain.
I have had difficult days — days where I feel a sense of accomplishment if I can manage to get out of bed. I have screamed into my pillow, “Why?” I’ve also had productive days, and even good days. I have cried tears of sadness and joy, I have laughed with family over a meal, I have lost friends and gained new ones.
I have forced myself to go to new places and have new experiences. This spring, I faced my fears of traveling alone by going hiking in South Africa. I drove through the country and walked along the edge of a rocky cliff with only a fraying rope separating me from the waves crashing below. I didn’t hesitate as I looked past the sign telling me not to continue. And as I scaled the shadowed rocks to reach the summit, I felt a sense of peace. It was the first time I had done something for myself, and with myself, in a long time.
I then descended to the desolate beach below and settled on the sand, accomplished. As I gazed onward to the Indian Ocean, I wondered in that moment what Chris would have said if he were there.
If only I could ever know.
Corin Bellomia is a learning and development specialist and portrait painter who lives in Fishtown. firstname.lastname@example.org