My friend James died last week. It was unexpected, but in retrospect not a complete surprise. Both my husband and I had been friends with Jim since we were teenagers. He was a few years older than us, always a total badass. Before any of us were old enough to drive, still wearing clothes our mamas picked out, James was already rolling up on a Harley, his arms adorned with tattoos he’d designed. While I was still sharing my parents’ bathroom with my 10 year old sister, Jim had an apartment he paid for All By Himself. Despite his status as the resident cool kid in our circle of friends, James never let it go to his head. He had perfect manners, and was a favorite with all of our parents. After parties, he could be counted on to give any and all of us girls rides home, always getting us safely to the door by curfew and never, ever taking advantage of anyone who had snuck one too many sips of Boone’s Farm. He doted on the same (drop-dead gorgeous, of course) girlfriend for a decade and a half, and it was clear to all that he only had eyes for her.
After high school, I moved out of the state and, later, the country, keeping in touch with James sporadically. We met up for coffee most years when I came home for the holidays. Jim had always been a mellow, good-time guy, unafraid of Irish whiskey and an outspoken fan of potsmoking, but vehemently opposed to hard drugs. During our 20s, some of our high school-era friends dabbled in powders and party drugs. Jim was a nonjudgmental type, and would always say “to each his own.” Still, he steered clear of that stuff, drifting out of touch with the all-night scenesters.
When I was pregnant with my son, my husband and I bought our first home and discovered James was living nearby. After more than ten years’ geographic separation, we were so excited to spend more time together. Almost immediately, though, I sensed that something was different. The first time we hung out, Jim seemed really sleepy, despite the fact that we were seated outside at five o’clock on a relatively cool evening. There was a DJ spinning loud music, and our table was right next to one of the speakers, which was not just distracting but deafening. How could he be falling asleep? I asked my husband on the ride home, but he thought maybe Jim was just tired. A few weeks later, we met up to go to the firing range. I had no interest in firearms, but was working in the South Bronx, and my husband thought it might not be a bad idea to learn how to shoot. When I arrived to pick up James, he could barely walk. His eyes were not red, he didn’t smell like booze, but he was clearly far from sober. I made an excuse to avoid going to the firing range, since it seemed like a really f***ing bad idea for him to handle a weapon in whatever condition he was in. So we went back to our house and hung out in the back yard with the dogs. The strangest thing of all was that sweet, sensitive Jim didn’t even seem to notice that I was completely uncomfortable.
That night, I called my friend Bonnie who had stayed close with James, and asked her if she thought he might have a substance abuse problem. She said that several years prior, in the span of six months or so, his beloved girlfriend Gina ditched him for someone else, and around the same time he’d had a terrible accident that led to emergency spine surgery. After that, he had apparently just not been himself. Nobody was really sure what exactly to attribute it to, assuming it was either a broken heart “or something.” Next, I went to Jim’s house and told him I was worried about him. He said that he still had really bad back pain sometimes, and took meds for it on occasion, but that he didn’t have a drug problem. “You know how I feel about that shit,” he said. I wasn’t convinced, but I also wasn’t sure what else to do at that point.
Fast forward a few months. I’d just come home from the hospital with the new baby. James brought us all dinner and entertained my stepson for hours. I had just started to think that maybe he was fine after all, when he stood up from the couch and a whole bunch of pills fell out of his pocket and scattered across the floor. While we all scrambled to pick them up, he muttered something about it being Tylenol. I was pissed and insulted. It wasn’t Tylenol! How could he bring that into our home with our newborn, and a little boy? How could he disrespect us like that? He apologized profusely and pretty much bolted. By the next day, I felt guilty that I had not reacted calmly, and tried calling him, but it went straight to voicemail. In the months that followed, I continued to reach out to Jim. Occasionally he responded to text messages, but we never really talked again. I’m not sure who to fault for that – both of us, I guess. Last weekend I walked out of a synagogue and bumped into a mutual friend in the parking lot who said, “isn’t it sad about Jimmy?”
And that was how I found out. The three of us who gave eulogies at the funeral were advised by James’ brother that their parents were unaware Jim had a drug problem, so we were not to mention it. While I respect and understand that his parents would like to preserve the sanctity of his memory, I also feel that we may be doing him and others a disservice by not discussing the issue at hand. My husband and I were far from the only people whonoticedsomething was not right. What code of silence kept everyone from talking about it? What stigma prevented James from seeking help before prescription painkillers led to full-blown heroin addiction? Rather than pretend that a healthy 47 year old died of “natural” causes in his sleep, I wish that we could honor his life while also acknowledging the horrible illness that ended it.
Ironically, a friend showed me an obituary yesterday. This young lady died on the same day, in the same way as James. How brave of her family to put it all out there with love and compassion. Please read about this girl, and try not to be afraid to talk about this disease that in some way touches everyone. Hug your kids a little tighter tonight. I know I’ll be holding mine close.