(Warning: This post is long and kind’ve depressing. If you came here looking for something funny then go here immediately - do not pass go and do not collect anything).
The road to the cafe was straight, save for a bend just before you arrived. Looking out over the road you could see the street lights making something of a corridor bordered by green lawns and fences. We walked slowly as there was no reason to hurry and the night air made a refreshing change from the summer heat. Shaun, for that was my companions name, talked mostly of trivial things. Comic book characters, games and his exploits regarding computers. The first two were common topics and he had always been interested in computers. At one point he may have known more about them than I but after a year of taking programming classes I knew more than he did. I kept that to myself though.
It didn’t take us long to make the journey to the cafe and I, not having expected the journey and not having too much money, bought a can of coca cola and waited for Shaun to complete his purchases. At the time I was surprised, slightly, by his choice - a cheap bottle of wine. It wasn’t that it was out of character for him - it was just unusual for him to buy something like that in front of me.
We had met when my Mom had volunteered to provide a lift for him and his sister to our primary school. They lived just down the road from us. I generally never associated with people older than me (or people for that matter) and at the time I was in one of the lower grades so I approached the arrangement with some caution. I remember him then as confident, one of the older kids who was ‘in charge’ so to speak. I believed him when he told me this - why wouldn’t I? We didn’t associate at all there - I didn’t associate with anyone when I was at school - but we talked in the mornings. Eventually his parents started attending a weekly church meeting where we stayed and Shaun would come on occasion. During those times the kids were banished to our rooms and we passed the time playing video games and arm wrestling.
After he left to go to high school I only saw him occasionally. He would sometimes drop in unexpectedly ostensibly to pay his respects to my mother. We would talk and I would try desperately to think of things to say as our common ground shrank with every passing year. He used to lend books - almost always from my rather respectable Terry Pratchett collection. This used to cause me much consternation as he was hit and miss about returning them.
This was one of those times when he had arrived unexpectedly. After saying hello to my mother, as he usually did, he had suggested we walk to the cafe down the street. I agreed and we left. Walking back he took swigs from the wine bottle (I politely declined when he offered me some) and we talked on about the same things. Just before my house he stopped by a bus stop and sat down. He had something he wanted to tell me. I didn’t quite know what to say or do - I had a good idea what was coming as I had been tipped off by mother some time before. The story was what I expected but still hard to hear.
He was going to the Cape to a rehab centre there. Early in his school career he had started hanging around the ‘wrong people’. He was ten or eleven when he had started smoking. That led, as it does, to marijuana and other things and it led, finally, to heroin.
It was a broken, fractured story full of denials, excuses and shame. I don’t know why he wanted to tell me - we had never been particularly close. Confronted for the first time with a real Issue I didn’t know what to say and stumbled awkwardly through the conversation by making what I thought were the appropriate noises at the appropriate breaks.
Having been raised in a religious home this left me little choice but to brand him a Drug Addict which is what I did. I really didn’t know what to do with such a creature. I knew that I shouldn’t judge and I tried hard not to and I even made sure I kept his secret rather than using the Christian trick of publicly ‘praying for his soul’ that makes gossiping about such things possible. In the end I decided to act exactly as I always had and to treat him no differently. After all - aren’t we all sinners in the end? In hindsight that was probably the best I could have done.
As the years past he would appear at odd times at our gate with stories from rehab, jobs, computer games and requests for more books. Sometimes he even returned them. I think all in all he went to rehab three times over the years - each time for 6 months or more. The weight of what happened told on him - he had to give up his friends and try and forge something of a life. I invited him to our church youth group, the passive aggressive method of saving souls, and he came once or twice but I don’t think he enjoyed it all that much.
He had been clean for months and was back living with his parents when my Mom got a phone call one morning. I believe his sister had found his body in his room. It appeared to be an overdose but those in the know reckoned it wasn’t intentional. Chances are, they said, that being clean had lowered his tolerance for the drug and when he relapsed he tried what would have been a normal dose. That was how I lost the last Terry Pratchett novel I lent him. I hope he had time to read it and I hope it made him laugh, even just once before the end.
We had the funeral at our church. It was the first time I attended one for someone who wasn’t more than a few decades older than me. Having been to one or two before I knew they were supposed to be respectable things, a ritual to bring closure for the mourning. Our church hall didn’t have the gravitas I would have wanted - being of the charismatic strain it was light and airy and had an indecent lack of stained glass, organs and pews. And it got worse.
The head pastor preached a perfunctory, substance-less sermon. I honestly don’t how that was possible given that death is a weighty topic and anyone who gives it a passing thought should be able to have something to say about it. Thinking back now I can only conclude that he suffered the same disease that plagued me when Shaun first told me the news: that he was preaching for a Drug Addict, not a real person.
I think the moment I lost faith in church leadership was when, after that sermon, he tried to do an altar call. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be that… callous. I don’t know how he could possibly have thought that was a good idea - did he actually think the ‘friends’ that shared Shaun’s addiction would attend his funeral? Did he honestly think that after mumbling some meaningless rubbish that they would throw themselves on the front carpet ready for someone to wearily lead them to Christ and incidently condemn the crap out of them? It became clear that what I was seeing was a dog and pony show, complete with curtains, stage performers and an audience that knew the script.
Realising that those in authority are seldom chosen on merit was a big moment for me. I rebelled and tried to understand what had happened. Somewhere inside was an anger - I felt like I’d been had.
I directed my hate at the drug. For a while heroin was pure evil - an insidious demon that possessed you through your veins. It was a predator hunting the weak and the vulnerable. He had no chance: once the beast was within him it consumed him from inside. He was an innocent corrupted and destroyed by an evil greater than what he could stand.
Two things fell into place for me recently that finally allowed the pieces to come together. The first was when I flew down to Umtata for work and read a magazine article about Sarah McLachlan’s song “Angel”. She wrote it for the Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin who died from a heroin overdose in 1996. I’ve always liked the song (I’m a sucker for raw acoustic songs in general) but I never paid enough attention to the lyrics. Knowing it’s about the last moments of someone dying from an overdose and that the eponymous ‘Angel’ is a heroin high transforms the song. I’m amazed that McLachlan managed to handle a topic like that with the sensitivity that she did.
The second thing that needed to fall into place was finding out what heroin really is. It’s an opioid - derived from morphine - literally a pain killer. I never knew that. Those of us who’ve never stepped into the dark world of drug addiction don’t understand the differences between ‘highs’. They’re nebulous things, I default to thinking they’re hallucinogenic, and then we’re told they’re bad bad bad. Then we judge those who take them because judging is easier than understanding and it’s the default option. If you’re not addicted you don’t understand addiction.
Something changed. I understand now. It isn’t the drug that’s evil. McLachlan got it. Instead of a demon she called it an angel. And then it made sense - it was an angel, the only thing you had that could get your inner demons to shut up. Again it was about being different. A child who read comics, an introvert, someone who didn’t fit in who wanted desperately to fit in, to be someone is a child who is vulnerable to the harshest of rejections. Who knows what started the whole thing - it could have been loneliness. We forget how powerful a force that is.
We don’t want to be in pain. It’s hard-wired into our brains. It’s easier to understand when we can see the problem, when we’re bleeding or have broken bones. What bandage can you apply to heal rejection? If someone handed you a cure, even if it wore off after a few hours what would you do? Especially if you had nothing to lose and they promised to like you if you took it with them. If for one brief moment life didn’t fucking hurt?
The real problem with addiction is that you want the thing that’s destroying you. You end up needing it on a physical level that makes the need tangible. The real evil isn’t the drug - the real evil is that a person can get to a place when stabbing yourself with a needle sounds like a reasonable idea.
The hardest questions are the parents’. Did they do something wrong? Not enough? Were they to blame? What could they have changed? It was all part of the devastation left in the wake of a tragedy. I remember the flat note in his father’s voice afterwards, like a piece of him had been torn off. Thousands of hours, rands, prayers and desperate conversations disappeared in an instant.
Growing up is realising that sometimes no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you sacrifice, no matter how much you endure, no matter how much you fight: you can lose anyway. One of the darkest lies we can tell anyone is that we deserve something for our efforts. Life just doesn’t work that way and it sets up an expectation that just brings more suffering.
I left that church and Shaun’s parents moved and I haven’t seen them since. Being a parent myself now I can see just how difficult it must have been for them and why they were grateful that I didn’t treat their son any differently after I found out. I know that a parent is at the mercy of myriad different things and that raising a child is a lot like gambling. You can affect the odds but not the outcome. The child sorts that out for themselves.
If there’s a lesson in all this and there probably is I can’t quite see it.