They won’t tell you this in training, but you never forget their eyes.
They don’t tell you, because knowing their eyes so well is not a touchy-feely, warm and loving, soul-connecting experience. In the moment, you are checking for dilation, responsiveness to light. You are looking for a glassy sheen, hoping you don’t find one. You are screening, assessing, holding your breath to see if this thing we call recovery has truly taken root.
When they leave, you hope that the next time they come in, their eyes will be just as clear.
But when the text comes, late at night, or when the obituary unexpectedly slips into your newsfeed, early in the morning, it’s their eyes you remember. When the prayer request is shared on a Sunday morning, marking the passing of the nephew of a sister’s coworker or some equally removed relationship, it’s unethical to walk up after the service and say, “I knew him. He was funny; he made me laugh. I am sorry.” You can’t say that, so you sit in the pew, and you remember their eyes. His were hazel, with a hint of green. Hers were naturally bright and cheerful, beautiful and deep.
You wonder who found them, how long each relapse lasted. The obituaries, even the news articles, they don’t tell you the pieces of the story you really want to know.
They tell you only one thing: That no one is safe, that this substance will take and it will steal and it will kill. That it robs our community of energetic spirits, compassionate hearts, and beautiful voices.
Another day, reading another obituary, I sighed and said, “He was so nice.” Jake glanced at the photo and said, “That guy tried to punch me.” I met the guy when he was in early recovery; Jake encountered him when he was dope sick.
It is the contrast in our memories that proves the point: Heroin changes a person, long before it kills them.
Heroin isn’t a problem just because our privileged middle-class kids might step on a contaminated needle at a playground. It’s not a problem just because it’s burning out our first responders and filling up our emergency rooms. It’s not a problem just because it’s sapping our community resources. Middle class America, heroin is not a problem just because of all the ways it bothers you.
But it is a problem because of what and whom it takes from all of us, long before breathing slows and hearts quit beating.
With every use an addict knowingly assumes the risk of death. Most of those who die, already know it might happen. So why don’t they stop?, the pundits want to know. The corners of the internet go wild with judgment every time there’s an overdose, solving problems with a few key strokes in a comfy living room. Just don’t do it, if it’s going to kill you. Just don’t stick the needle in your arm, idiot.
If “they should just stop” is your solution, you are missing the entire fucking point of this epidemic.
Before death happens, there’s a bigger risk. No, not a risk, there’s a guarantee: Because whether it kills or it doesn’t, heroin is going to cause a spiritual and emotional coma that makes death seem just fine. No big deal. Maybe a little inviting.
They don’t stop using even when they know it could kill them, because they do not care.
They do not care, because their brains are chemically hijacked, gripped by a substance that makes them not care.
Sometimes, I have the chance to know them when that grip is loosened, and I get to witness their passion for being alive. They love life as much as you do.
More importantly, they matter as much as you do.
The needle your child finds on the playground won’t tell you this. A mug shot will not tell you this, posted at the top of another article about a bust. The mug shot will show you only hollow, empty eyes, blemished skin and a malnourished frame. The mug shot will show you an addict in their hostile, apathetic, spiritual coma state, when they do things like steal and lie and cheat and try to punch my husband.
When you lurk in your living room tempted to post your easy-peasy, compassionless solutions to the epidemic, please don’t think of the people in mug shots and evaluate their moral failings. It’s not the people in the mug shots we’re trying to save anyway.
Rather, before you even begin to suggest a solution, imagine the addict in that mug shot free from the mask heroin has them wearing: Picture them with their eyes bright and their skin clear, their voices strong. Better yet, close the tab with the mug shot, and listen to the song above instead. We cannot talk solutions if we don't understand what (and whom) we are losing.