He had said that he loved me, and since I asked him not to, said that he’d never shoot heroin again. At the time I thought he was my salvation. Beautiful, brilliant. Didn’t look at me like my life was all over me. Didn’t look at me like what I did was all I was. I thought we could play house I guess and in that illusion, life would be safe, and happy. Not like either of us had those skills, he just seemed to have them a little bit more than I did.
We lived in Tucson, Arizona. I had two friends. His brother Luke and our neighbor Michael. Luke looked like the frontman of a rock band and Michael had a big head of brown curls, the most impressive desert garden and toy collection.
I went out of town to visit my family. To this day almost 20 years later I cannot just walk out of my house without staring at everything first. There is always the background thought that it will be the very last time I see where I live. I still struggle with getting caught up in the story of past loss every time I go through an airport process. Am I nervous because I am traveling or am I nervous because my life as I know it is about to end and it isn’t my decision?
He shot up mexican black tar heroin one more time right after I left. I spent three days hoping he was locked up in customs at the Mexican border,as nobody would answer his phone. A work friend went to check on him and found his body. Shortly after the paramedics called me. I just screamed at them over and over to take him to the hospital and wake him up. The first thing the man on the phone asked me was
“How long has he been using heroin?”
“He said he loved me. That he wouldn’t do that.” I replied dumbly. The paramedic replied, “There is a spoon and a syringe right next to him.”
Back then I thought 24 was old. I didn’t have the vision I have now to feel how he would never graduate college. We would never break up and move on. He would never move to California or have a wedding. He would never go to Burning Man or to Thailand or surfing in Perth. He would never become a Dad or do his first yoga class, order anything from Amazon, see an iphone or have a facebook account. He would never be free. And he would never even know what he lost.
But I would.
For a long time I would go to this website titled ourwall.net. Staring numbly at the tens of thousands of names of people that had died of a heroin overdose. Like if I saw enough names I would believe that this happened to lots of people, they just didn’t talk about it. A year later to the day Luke also died. That's the thing with addiction. No matter what you think you’ve lost, there is still always more to lose. You just don’t know it until you live it.
I didn’t get clean for six more years after that. I really had to put myself through the victim cycle and destroy everything I would build for my life for a number of years. I lived my life on a belief system that it was all “happening to me.”
It was never appropriate to talk about either of them. There's a certain shame I guess that comes with dying like that. Like it blacks out the light parts of what that life was, replaces it all with silence. It took me a long time to remember that I didn’t die with them. I was firmly led to believe that talking about either of them was wrong. That I needed to “get over it.” That I could be very well, as long as I didn’t miss them or act like I was in pain. Because to be in pain was to somehow take the people in front of me for granted.
Eventually I got clean and today, I have 11 years of working a successful program of recovery. I got some outside help with a therapist and eventually, I was able to appropriately process the loss of both him and his brother. When I got clean I had all of this time on my hands, so I started painting. Today my art hangs in homes all around the world. Today life isn’t a hologram of what happens to me and dealing with the consequences of my victim based reactions. Today my life is what I create within the space of gratitude and perseverance for the gift of making it through. That is represented by the illumination of gold within this canvas. I made it out alive and I thrive within that gratitude.
My friend Michael also got clean. With so much of recovery going online to Zoom after the pandemic I was able to reconnect with him. We attended the same meeting regularly. For his five years clean, I covered my five year chip in glitter nail polish and sent it to him. The weight of those moments of silence - the prayer taken for those that still suffer and those that never made it out- when we are in a meeting together is undeniable. Every year when I celebrate another year clean by tradition you read your coin out loud. Every single year my voice cracks right on the part that says that “no addict seeking recovery need ever die.”
This painting represents the light and hope of recovery at war with the shadow and horrors of active addiction. I have lived this process long enough to know that both will never stop, it just depends on what side of it I want to focus on.
I have a respect for my life experience these days and it’s that I will only ever tell the story if it is the healing - the light - that tells the story. This painting is being auctioned on international overdose awareness day at an event being held by Southern Nevada Harm Reduction Alliance. The full amount of the cost of this painting will go towards a scholarship fund to help people get into treatment.
In my mind, this gives someone I’ve never met the opportunity that my family never lived long enough to know they had. The opportunity to learn the skills to start over so they can get married and surf and have babies and travel. The opportunity to be a daughter not a statistic, to make art instead of arrest warrants. Even if they don’t know that all of those things are possible for them yet.
The message of the painting is the same as the intent behind it - hope and grace within the storm, through the storm, and out of the storm.