In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death by overdose of heroin, much has been written about the need for those of us who are not living in the throes of addiction to remember that addiction is a disease, not a lifestyle choice, and to be loving, non-judgmental and forgiving of addicts, while urging them to get treatment. Their addiction is akin to having cancer or another illness that’s out of their control. I understand this, and yet I also believe that, at times, it’s OK to cut an addict from your life. At least, I did, and I have no regrets.
I have a blood relative who’s addicted to heroin. I won’t say here who that person is to me, because I feel that it’s up to the addict to go public about his illness or not. I will say that we felt very close to each other growing up. As children, we played together and enjoyed each other’s company immensely despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that he was six years older than I. It was when he turned 16 that things started to change. When he told me about his addiction, he described the drug lovingly as his “mistress.” I felt jealous of this mistress who was stealing him from me, but I was naïve about how far away he and she would travel together.
“Read William Burroughs,” he advised me, when I was 12, “and you’ll understand me.” I tried reading "Naked Lunch" and felt lost, but I devoured "Junkie," which made the life of the addict seem romantic. I was especially affected by how Burroughs said that one junkie could always spot another. I looked at everyone for tell tale signs: nodding out, hooded eyes, constant scratching. Spotting one made me feel closer to him, since by then I saw him less and less. The drug had taken over his life.
When he was 19, he was arrested for the first time, but let go. When he was 20, one of his friends told me that he had overdosed twice and had come very close to dying. When he was 22 and I was 16, he offered me some heroin. “Just see if you like it,” he cajoled me. I declined, heartbroken that he wanted me to become what he had become.
Years passed, and although he was often able to hold a job, there were periods when he was homeless. He occasionally tried rehab (and sometimes methadone). Throughout these years, I rarely heard from him, other than when he appeared out of the blue to ask me for a “loan,” although we both knew that whatever I gave to him would never be paid back. I begged him each time to try once more to get clean.
On one or two occasions, he called me to bail him out of jail. I wept each time I did so, but it never occurred to me not to help him. Once, he told me that he had taken to mugging people in order to get cash, but I believed this couldn’t possibly be true, that he was still too good at heart to do this, no matter how desperate he might be, and that he was lying to impress me by how “bad” he had become. I felt as desperate to cure him, although I didn’t know how, as he was desperate for his next fix.
He never asked me a single question about myself, never called or stopped by just to chat. When I went off to graduate school to study writing, I didn’t hear a word from him. When I returned, ready to dedicate myself to becoming a published author, he said, dazedly, “Were you away?”
Through hard work, I became a published author, as I had hoped, taking day jobs to help me pay my rent. The only times I saw him were when he came around asking for money. I didn’t know how to say no to him, and didn’t recognize how I was enabling him. He assured me that the money wouldn’t go for drugs, but for food and rent, or to pay off a loan to a friend. I sometimes deluded myself into believing him. But just as often, I felt used by him, and had to look deep within myself to remember the shared bond he and I had once had. He was wearing me out.
After I married and became a mother, the money my husband and I earned had to go into raising my daughter. I no longer had any money to give to him. He showed no interest in my daughter — he came to meet her once when she was an infant, stayed briefly, went out for a five-minute “cigarette break” and never returned. I presumed he’d gone off somewhere to score drugs, and I felt so hurt on my baby’s behalf that I clung to her long after he’d left.
When my mother died, he showed up looking disheveled for her memorial service. He left before it was over, perhaps to score drugs, or to go off and get drunk, because by then he’d also become a heavy drinker. A few days after the service, he called me. “You must have inherited money,” he said (which was untrue, as my mother had spent all her money on medical and living expenses), “so can you lend me a big chunk this time, bigger than usual, and I’ll use it to go straight, I promise?”
And that was when I had had enough. Illness or not, he was toxic for me. I didn’t want to see him any longer, and I didn’t want him around my daughter. I hung up and wrote him a letter. “Don’t ask me for money again. If you want to visit us because you care about us, I would love that.” My hand trembled as I wrote, so painful was it for me to tell him this. He didn’t respond, and I haven’t heard from him since. Yes, I understood that he was ill, and that in so many ways he had no choice. But neither did I.