June 19, 2021

We Don’t have “Demons”—We have Trauma.


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We sat across from each other at our first NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting like two kids on the first day of school—nervous and uncertain.

I was there because I’d reached the end of a road that had no exit ramps. The doctors told me that it really came down to getting all of my affairs in order or getting my ass to rehab. As much as I could not stand my life anymore, dying seemed a bit over the top.

She was there because she was arrested recently for possession of a controlled substance—the judge mandated her to be there. This just caused her to walk around with the constant threat of losing her children and serving jail time if she slipped up and used substances again.

“Slipped up” is such a ridiculous way to put it, though. For a person who is addicted, the most natural thing in the world is to feed that addiction. It didn’t take me too long to ascertain that she had a rough history (if you were around drugs and addiction for as long as I have been, you are simply attuned to your tribe). These are the people you have been friends with, neighbors with, and running partners with. It almost goes without saying, even from the earliest days of high school antics, that a common trait runs through all of our lives.

We are the people who don’t work on Wall Street, who don’t go to church, who don’t get our first mortgages when we’re 25 years old, and who don’t have good credit. You can sit almost every single person in that meeting down and interview them and come away with some of the most horrific stories of parental abuse, spousal abuse, sexual assault, and/or neglect. This was the ever-present thread that ran through the skein of our childhood—and it was obvious long before Dr. Gabor Maté began to talk about it.

As the meeting filed out, she approached me and began asking me questions about withdrawals from opioids. She wanted to know, essentially, if I had any tricks or tips I could share. I remember she laughed when I said, “That’s kind of like asking someone if they knew the best way to get shot.” We went out for a slice of pizza and promised to meet the next night at the next meeting.

A week or two later, I asked if she wanted a ride home. It was April in New York, and the rain was coming down by the bucketful. It wasn’t too long before the conversation turned heavy. It was exactly as I had suspected. She’d experienced sexual assault well before she was a teenager.

There are many textbooks that will go into great length about the damage this sort of thing does to a person and this is neither the time nor the place to go into it; however, let us simply agree that there is no chance for someone with a history like this to assimilate into adulthood with any degree of success. The amount of trauma produced by this kind of childhood can not even properly be described by language. It utterly transcends words.

I remember driving home after that conversation feeling as if I had been eviscerated. The conversation kept playing over and over in my mind, creating movies in my head that made it difficult for me to concentrate on anything else for days. By the summertime, we were really tight. We spoke on the phone for almost an hour every day.

To be perfectly honest, there were times when it became difficult to listen to her tell the same stories of her struggles with child protective services, the fights with her children’s father, and her inability to juggle everything that the legal system kept throwing at her. Still, I had an allegiance to her that I could never explain.

I wasn’t simply “holding space” for her. I felt like the universe put me in her life at that time for a reason. So when I picked her up for a meeting one Sunday afternoon and she asked if we could go to the beach instead, I obliged. It felt a lot like “cutting class,” and I was somewhat thrilled about the nostalgic element.

I remember how funny it was when we were walking through the sand, and I gave her a break from carrying her toddler. I put the little boy down into the sand with a pail and shovel, and when he was occupied for a split second, she leaned over and kissed me.

We looked at each other for longer than a few seconds before she asked, “Was that weird?”

“A little,” I admitted.

Then we both laughed hysterically and never pursued that avenue ever again. We were way too important to each other at the point to ruin it with anything as typical as a 90-day affair. I knew my track record, and I was old enough at that point to realize that I wasn’t going to magically become a different person just because I cared about her so deeply. I had my own trauma that I was dealing with.

We drifted apart eventually as our paths went in different directions, but we stayed friendly. There were amiable comments on Facebook and the odd holiday text here and there. As my life began to get busy, she drifted a little from my consciousness until I began seeing all of our mutual friends posting her pictures with the ubiquitous and annoying “RIP” typed along the top. Again, I felt like my guts had been ripped out.

Later that evening, I saw a long post about her with an idiotic phrase: “she lost the battle with her demons.”

I lied in bed, fighting back the tears and thinking, “It wasn’t f*cking demons. It was trauma.”

Not that I don’t understand the temptation to refer to the fact that she was preyed upon as a child as something magical and romantic like demons—but that lets too many people off the hook. It was trauma. As far as I am concerned, calling it anything else is fouling up her memory.

And unfortunately, as it always happens in this world, memories are all I have left of her.

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