Five Things I’ve Learned From Losing A Childhood Friend To Addiction

There’s no single best way to cope with a great loss…

Monday, March 25th 2019 should have been a day to celebrate. My friend Joe would have turned 30 years old. Perhaps if things were different, in a perfect sort of world, I would have been out having drinks with him instead of writing this post. There’s nobody to go out celebrating with, there’s no voice on the other end of the phone to wish a happy birthday to and there’s nothing I can do to turn back the hands of time and have one more day where I could say: ‘I’m here for you, please don’t give up hope.’

Instead I lost him, three years ago to heroin. In fact, I wrote a whole article about disenfranchised grief and the isolation one goes through when losing a friend, relative, or loved one to addiction. We should have been celebrating a birthday today, instead I’m writing a tribute to his life and the five things I’ve learned from losing my friend to addiction.

“I’ve learned not everyone will understand the way I mourn”

This statement is probably the realist statement any surviving relative or friend of an addict can attest to. While after high school ended Joe and I drifted a bit, he was still a very important person in my adolescent life. The fact that he would pop up and then disappear throughout my early to mid twenties was irrelevant, whenever we saw each other it was like no time had passed. He was always one of my best friends, our bond never changed, just our priorities. Many people didn’t or still don’t understand how I can mourn for someone who I could go weeks to months even years at a time without seeing since graduating high school before they popped back up. My answer is that regardless, he was my friend and it’s my right to love him, miss him and wish things could have been different for him.

I’ve learned that in people trying to give me space, they often forget to say ‘I’m here for you if you need to talk‘ which is nice to hear.”

Addiction is a tricky animal as in when you lose someone TO it nobody really knows what to say. Many of my best friends didn’t reach out to me at all even after viewing my Instagram and Facebook tribute to Joe most of them hiding under the pretense of ‘well I wanted to give you your space to reflect’. Sometimes we the survivors of someone addiction took from us really want you to say, ‘I know today’s not easy, but I’m here for you if you want to talk’. People are so used to tip-toeing around the taboo subject of drug addiction that there’s a total disconnect in empathy for those left behind. I’ve learned that’s the way it is: I do not fault people for not knowing what to say to me but I appreciate those who try.

“I’ve learned that I have no tolerance for people who don’t realize Joe was so much more then his inner demons and addiction”

People often forget that behind every addict who lost their battle there was a person who the people left behind truly loved. My friend Joe died of a heroin overdose but he was so much more than a statistic. He hated pictures but was a great photographer, he hated school but he loved nothing more then hanging out playing Xbox with or sitting under boardwalk lights to talk about life with friends. He was low key but outgoing, introverted but social. He kept his close friends circle small but once you were in, you were in for life. He was smart, so smart he was destructive if not challenged. He was funny without trying to be, brutally honest and unapologetically so, but mostly he was loyal to a fault. He put on a grouchy front sometimes but if you were crying he’d hug you close in a minute and make you feel like everything would be okay. He got involved with the wrong people, he experimented with the wrong kind of things and he paid for it with his life. He was more than just an addict: he was a son. A brother. An Uncle. A cousin. A friend. I learned there there are people who will always see him as an addict who did this to himself, I find it really hard to talk to or relate to those types of people who refuse to look beyond the circumstances which led to his untimely demise. I understand there are people who will always judge Joe for what he did in the end rather than all the positivity he gave those he cared for. I try not to judge these people too harshly, but I’m only human it does upset me sometimes.

“I learned there’s no single way to cope with a loss so great.”

Grieving a childhood friend is a lot like being on a roller coaster. There are days where I can look back on memories I shared with Joe and laugh until tears of joy are streaming down my face; on the other hand there are days where I’ll remember something he said or hear a song we used to jam out to in Mike’s car and I’ll just start crying. On the one hand, you remember and reflect as that person had a huge impact on your formative childhood and adolescent years and on the other hand as an adult who’d gone so long without seeing him before learning of his death almost wonder if you have the right to mourn at all.

Last year on Joe’s birthday, I lit a candle for him, said a prayer for his soul, and cried for a good 45 minutes. This year on Joe’s birthday I said a prayer for him, but I also spoke to him out loud on my way to work and had a conversation with him. Sure, I was essentially talking out loud hoping wherever he was he could hear me but I popped on my Pandora put on the Black Sabbath station and listened to all our favorite songs we used to sing aloud to come on in a row-I’d like to think that was him saying he was thinking of me too and listening to what I had to say. Sometimes I feel Joe’s presence so loudly in my life even though he’s not here physically and others I feel a void, this sense of silence. I’m not sure how I’ll celebrate his birthday next year, for every year since he passed it has been different. Sometimes memories make me smile, sometimes they make me cry but they all make me lucky I knew him and had him in my life no matter how brief it was. I realized that the grieving process is an ever evolving and ever-changing cycle of cherishing the good times and mourning the loss of someone you’ll never get to experience making more memories with in the future again.

“I’ve learned that I really hate when people think I should be over it by now.”

Losing a close friend (especially under the circumstances of addiction) is the type of loss that you simply learn how to cope with. Miraculously, everyone thinks there’s a statute of limitation to the grieving process. I don’t really think people realize when they ask me how I can still be so sad when I haven’t seen him in years just how insulting it really is.

The answer to the question is really simple I will never be over the fact that I lost my friend to heroin. I will never be over the fact that although there was nothing I can do to change the outcome of what happened, that I don’t still wish there was something I could’ve said or did to have kept him still living on this Earth. I will never be over wishing I could have pulled him away from the people who influenced him to try harder drugs which lead to his untimely death.

I will never be over wondering what his last few minutes on earth were like: whether or not he was alone, whether or not he was scared, whether or not Mike and I’s faces were some of the last people he saw flash before his eyes before he passed away. I wonder if he wished he was sitting at a bar with both of us or either of us watching a hockey game and busting Mike’s balls for liking the New York Rangers instead of wherever he was when he took his last breath. I wonder if he wished in those last few moments of life that he can do it all over again and I wonder if he still would’ve made the same decision knowing the outcome would bring.

I don’t believe that Joe meant to hurt anyone by dying on that night or day in February, I do firmly believe he thought he was invincible. I do not believe anyone who truly knew him as a person could ever really truly be over the loss of his life. I also learned that many do not understand this because they do not understand him, they do not understand our bond, and they do not understand what he meant to me.

“I’ve learned that while I don’t like to believe Joe’s death was God’s Will, I am proud to see the loss of his life inspired many in our graduating class to get clean and stay clean.”

Bringing religion into a topic where addiction is concerned is very touchy. As humans on a daily basis we often sometimes struggle with what God’s will truly is. While I do not believe that God necessarily willed Joe’s life to end the way that it did I do believe his death was not in vain.

Since Joe’s passing, several members of my graduating high school class have reached out to me and expressed their genuine sadness in the loss of Joe’s life. They have also expressed to me that his death inspired them to seek help, get clean, and stay clean. For this I have learned that although I do not like to think of Joe’s loss of life as God’s plan perhaps it was the catalyst to save others from the same fate so that they could fulfill their life’s purpose before they died. Maybe Joe’s life purpose was to be a catalyst to change, no matter how painful that may be.

I like to think that Joe would have been very happy that he saved a life that he inspired those left behind to get clean and stay clean. Joe was very private with his battle I often knew when he wasn’t doing well because those would be the months and sometimes years in which I would not hear a sound from him. I knew when he was doing well because that would be when he would be very active in my life, calling and meeting up, laughing together like no time had passed. While Joe kept his struggles and his inner demons to himself I do feel like he would be very proud in knowing that he helped those around him to defeat their inner demons and live life to the fullest.

But mostly I learned that life isn’t fair and addiction doesn’t care who you are or what your social or economic standings are. It’s thieving, it’s cheating and unrelenting in its pursuit to destroy lives and breakup families and friends. I also learned that while these circumstances which addiction destroys life as we know it by taking those we love we have two options. We can choose to let it consume us in grief or emboldened us to live on carrying ourselves in a way that would honor their memory. I learned that mostly I am successful at choosing the latter.

I hope that in writing this very personal piece about what I’ve learned from losing someone I care for to addiction I inspire someone else who is struggling and drowning in the grief and loss to know they’re not alone. Whoever you are and whatever the circumstances surrounding your loved one’s death please know that their life was so much more then a statistic and you can honor their memory by finding strength in each passing day to live and share your message to bring the taboo of addiction into the forefront and change people’s minds and hearts for the better. God love and God bless you all.

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