How Finding a Kindred Spirit is Worth the Risk of Friendship in Recovery
I met Nathan in a Heroin Anonymous meeting about two years ago at a downtown social services agency. He was the new guy–a super-thin, hollow-eyed gutter punk. He looked strung out as hell. His face was covered in a little tattoos, a star map of arrows, triangles, dark dots. Underneath, his cheeks were high and sharp as two knives under his skin. There was something feline about him.
He caught my eye and parted his dry lips. “Nice bunny,” he said, gesturing to his neck. He’d seen my tattoo.
“You too,” I said.
He grinned without smiling, a grimace that showed all of his teeth. He was in his first 30 days. All he wanted was a cigarette.
After the meeting, I stood around and talked to him for a few minutes, just chit-chat. I didn’t think I would see him again, or that he would stay sober, but he did, and he kept coming to meetings. After he got his first metal coin, we went out for pie and coffee, talked about surviving. He had a felony. He had stories about Oakland. His hands were tattooed as well as his neck and he told me other places, too.
“I feel weird at the meetings,” he said.
“You are weird.”
That made him grin again. He waved a hand over his head, face, skinny torso. “All this. I don’t fit in.”
“Sure you do,” I said. “You know why?”
“Why,” he said.
“So that when some other motherfucker walks in with tattoos all over his face, he sees someone who looks like him who’s got some time. Sometimes, I think I got sober just to show somebody else it was a possibility. You know?”
He nodded. “Well, it worked. That black bunny.”
Nathan was a seeker, a questioner, a lover, a weirdo. Like me. He stayed sober, too, picking up coin after coin. We hung out, drank cappuccinos, called each other fancy. We clinked cups and toasted our many near misses, our escapes, and our close shaves.
He was respectful, never touching me unless I asked him to. He never named the girls who hovered around him like fairies, flitting through his bedroom. He told me he drank blood and drew pentagrams in Sharpie. He said his sponsor was full of shit. He had visions of snakes.
But he was also sober, and levelheaded. When he came to me with his worries, I told him to keep doing what he was doing. “It works, doesn’t it? You’re still alive, aren’t you?”
Who was I to judge Nathan’s path?
When he told me he had taken the 12 Steps once and wasn’t interested in going to meetings, was feeding his spiritual side elsewhere, I listened. He told me about his meditations, the books on Satanism and esoteric spirituality. He marveled at the beauty of the universe, which was to him as present in the heavens as it was in a pretty girl’s eyelashes.
We went to Cannon Beach on a windy, stormy weekday in March. It was a couple weeks before Nathan’s birthday. He was about to turn 39. On the beach, we leaned into the wind, holding hands. The sand whipped around us, so thick in the air that it got in my ears and nostrils and all I could taste was salt and mica. His hands were tough, a craftsman’s hands. Black ink on his knuckles, a word scrawled on the back of one hand. We counted to 39, loud, in unison, and then for no reason at all both took off running down the beach with our arms out, as though we were flying. Nobody saw us. It was as though we owned the world.
125 people overdose and die every day in America. On March 29, one of those people was my friend Nathan. The day I got the news, I was still finding sand in my hair from the day I spent with him. There must have been a mistake. But no; he was found in his room. His body was found.
Here’s the thing about getting sober: it means that you are going to lose people.
It’s a different kind of loss than I experienced when I was in active addiction. Before Nathan, I lost friends to overdoses, saw them disappear into the legal system, got the auto-message that this number can no longer be completed as dialed. But this time, my grief is present and painful. Loving someone in recovery is a calculated risk because active addiction is fatal. One relapse, and the person you knew, the one called your best friend, your lover, your partner, your sponsor—they’re gone.
To this day, I am not certain that his overdose was deliberate or not. Knowing Nathan the way I did, it’s hard to buy into the old story of the Big Bad Heroin Wolf blowing down my friend’s straw house. After all, when he died he had been sober for almost two years. He was living in a sober community, checking all the right boxes, working, getting laid on the regular. He had a job and he was composing music in his studio. His family was talking to him again. He had a lot of joy in his life, which makes me think that something else was missing.
Resilience, in early recovery, is a kind of resistance. I refuse to die, I told Nathan once.
“Damn, Girl, that’s a good thing, because you are hard to kill,” he said.
But there had to be something that came after that—something to grow towards. I found my light and headed in that direction, hoping it would lead me out of my darkness. But Nathan? Maybe it wasn’t time yet. Maybe he got stuck. He knew as well as I did that “normal life” is an illusion for most of the people I’ve met in recovery. We aren't normal; we never will be, and impersonating a non-addict is both tempting and problematic.
It wasn’t enough to survive, in the end. Recovery, for me, isn’t about waiting out the storm—it’s about tasting the rain on my face, and believing that the sun will shine again. Even in my grief, the non-sense land that is life after Nathan, I know I will heal.
These are the things I will miss about him: his dry and lovely laugh, the tattoos that covered his hands and face, his broken front tooth, the way he called me Girl so often instead of my name, his stories about Oakland, the way he wanted to have a wife and a baby someday, his ironic t-shirts, the way he could sit with me for hours drinking coffee and bullshitting, his appreciation of women and female power, his jokes, the way he wiped the rain off my face, Nathan smiling and holding my car keys, Nathan listening to the secret I never told anyone else, Nathan telling me I have burrito breath, Nathan lying down on the beach and pretending to be dead.
I didn’t go to his memorial.
It’s been six months and I still miss him, every day. I was not his only friend, and I know I’m not the only one who feels his absence. Loving someone in recovery is like strapping a time bomb to your chest and hoping it doesn’t detonate.
But I will say that having loved, and having a friend as special and cool as Nathan, is absolutely worth the heartbreak. I suppose his story is now part of mine: he lives in me.
And now, because you know, in you as well.
About the Author
Claire Rudy Foster is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. She's also a published author and you will not regret buying her brand, spankin' new book I've Never Done This Before. Her critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is afraid of sharks, zombies and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon.