Steven

When I was 21, I was selected to participate in a writing workshop led by a nationally known, Pulitzer-nominated author. It was a great workshop — inspiring and challenging, everything you’d expect from a master class in writing.

I’ll never forget what this author had to say about my story: “While I find your reliance on Judeo-Christian imagery tedious, you write sentences quite well.”

After the workshop, some of my writing buddies and I decided it would be a good idea to invite our guest out for a late supper. Supper turned into cocktails and appetizers and soon we were on a cross-town bender that kept our glasses full until our wallets were empty.

You see, it turns out this extremely talented, fairly successful writer was also an alcoholic. He was divorced, separated from his children and undoubtedly in a lot of pain.

But I was having too good a time to notice.

Flash forward two years. At 23, I was having the adventure of a lifetime. I lived and worked in Lugano, Switzerland, a lovely city nestled in the foothills of the Alps.

That’s where I met Steven.

Though Steve and I were about the same age, we’d taken different paths in life. But still, we found we had a lot in common. We’d both been engaged and ended it; we’d embraced adventure and uncertainty as a lifestyle choice; and we’d both left our old lives behind to find ourselves in a place foreign to everything we’d ever known.

Steve was trying his luck at college, experiencing the expatriate life for the first time. I was wrapping up my time abroad, finishing out a contract as a college lecturer and enjoying my last few months in Switzerland.

For those few months, Steve and I were inseparable.

What is it that draws two people together? When Steven and I first met, there wasn’t a hint that we would become as close as we did. Perhaps we were kindred spirits bound by some ethereal connection that’s impossible to explain. Maybe we saw pieces of ourselves mirrored back in each other. Whatever the reason, something between us resonated.

Simply put, we loved each other.

Steve was all about joy. There was simply no stopping him once he’d decided it was time to have some fun. Everything was exciting for, and with, Steve.

I joked that Steve had the best bad ideas in the world.

We stayed up too late, danced until they kicked us out, played music, talked to girls and we drank. A lot.

This is where it starts to hurt.

I loved Steve, but I didn’t understand him.

Steve was an addict. He was in Switzerland after being released from rehab. The whole point of his adventure was to start over, far away from the demons of his past. Steve’s particular addiction was heroin. So, he said, it was okay for him to drink. He wasn’t doing anything that required a needle, so he was fine.

Steve was sick. Heroin abuse was only one symptom. Drinking was another. Steve told me some of his story, how there were places he couldn’t go because people there wanted to hurt him. That, I should have known, was another symptom.

But I was having too good a time to notice.

Amy Winehouse died last Saturday. And, while the cause of death hasn’t been revealed, it’s safe to say that even if drugs didn’t directly contribute to her death, they certainly detracted from her life, and robbed her of much peace and joy.

Russell Brand, a friend of Winehouse and a recovering addict himself, in a column for the UK newspaper “The Guardian,” wrote about his friend’s disease. “Addiction,” he wrote, “is a serious disease; it will end with jail, mental institutions or death.”

He also wrote about “the call” that you wait for when you love someone who is an addict. “The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough …” he wrote. “Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone.”

My call came in 2007. It was from a friend. Steve had spent the weekend in New York City, caught a buzz, overdosed and died.

I’m lucky. I am not an addict. For whatever reason, when I drink, even if I drink too much, the addiction switch doesn’t flip; I can put my drink down, deal with my hangover and get on with my life. That’s why, thankfully, today I rarely drink; and when I do drink, it’s in moderation. I have no desire to return to the carousing days of my past.

I’ve been able to flirt with the addict lifestyle through friendships and other relationships while not succumbing to the disease myself. There’s no explanation for it outside of grace.

But that grace is no license for my behavior. I was having too good a time to notice the pain of my workshop teacher; I was having too good a time to learn how to truly love my friend.

I didn’t give him the drugs. I didn’t put the needle in his arm. But my lifestyle supported Steve’s addiction in the time we had together. Our friendship could have been a time of healing and growth.

But I was having too good a time to notice.

And for that, Steven, I am truly sorry.

 

A version of this essay also appeared in The Daily Times, Maryville, Tennessee.