No Surprises

My friend died last weekend.

Al overdosed on heroin, as is all too common in the days of the American opiate epidemic, but we’ll never know if it was intentional or not — Al lived with bipolar disorder, and it’s impossible to disentangle his mental illness from his addiction. Each fed the other, and I’ll always wonder if Al took his own life deliberately, or if he simply slipped up. I’m not sure if that even matters.

We met in a residential psychiatric treatment facility. Your typical Southern California rehab, basically, but for psychological illness rather than addiction (though many who were treated there fought that battle as well, like Al did). We had both been recently hospitalized, thanks to bipolar disorder — Al in Pittsburgh, me in Los Angeles — and we were pursuing more intensive care in order to recover. That’s what brought Al to L.A., and that’s what formed the basis of our bond. We became fast friends, despite significant cultural difference.

Al was a punk. An old-school, ’70s and ’80s New York punk, covered in tattoos, missing a front tooth, with plenty of outrageous stories of boozing and partying and brawling, and a boisterous, gregarious personality to match. He was proudly inept with anything digital, but knew how to weld and work iron. I was a West Coast nerd, who listened to indie rock, relied on computers for all my marketable skills, and had, at that point, never been a fight in my life, in addition to being a generation younger. Nonetheless, sharing a struggle lends itself to camaraderie, and we quickly formed an enduring friendship that lasted long after we both left treatment and Al returned to the East Coast. We chain-smoked and joked and argued and talked about all the shit we dredged up in therapy, which treatments seemed useful (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), and which seemed like complete bullshit (neurofeedback). When Al went back home, we kept in touch mostly by phone, though not as frequently as we should have.

Al’s life had never been easy. From a brutally abusive father that turned his childhood into a nightmare, to watching his mother die slowly and painfully of cancer, to his own mental illness and addiction, Al had endured a hell of a lot, and he had caused others some pain in the process. But he remained optimistic, and ambitious, and always creating art, or trying to — at least designing and imagining when he couldn’t afford steel or time at a metalworking shop. It seemed that he was making progress with his life — the slow, halting, two-steps-forward one-step-back kind of progress, but progress nonetheless. He never could quite get clean, though he tried, but his drug use was moderate and relatively infrequent. He always seemed just on the cusp of finally getting sober.

Despite that progress, I can’t say that I was surprised when I heard. Saddened, of course. Disappointed, even, but not surprised. 15–17% of people with bipolar, after all, eventually fall victim to suicide. I don’t know how many others die of secondary causes still linked to the condition — causes like addiction. When someone who you met in psychiatric treatment dies of suicide or addiction, it still hurts, but it doesn’t come as a shock. The background noise of your friendship is the dull buzz of terminality, the staticky knowledge that death is always a possibility. Those who don’t die often struggle to function, and there’s a certain grimness when you allow yourself to contemplate it, watching as people battling the same illness succumb in one way or another.

That camaraderie which bonded us together became a sort of conduit for Al’s death to function as a goading reminder: you could be next. I can’t help but take his death personally, to some extent. When Al thrived, it gave me hope, and I believe when I thrived it did the same for Al. We drew strength and support from our successes in our common struggle. Hell, even from our failures — as long as we kept going. To see Al fall feels like a bit like betrayal. It’s not, of course, not really; that would be irrational, but the feeling doesn’t care for rationality. I’m not angry with Al, but I am hurt. I feel more alone in the fight than I did a few days ago, and the fight seems harder, less winnable. It makes me wonder when I might fall, too.

I’ll miss you, Al.

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