It starts out with denial.
The days you used to spend hanging out together suddenly start turning into something
new, something you don’t quite understand. They look you dead in the eyes with a
perfectly charming grin as they say it’s no big deal, they’re just going to be hanging out
with this new crew tonight.
You try not to think anything of the guarded behavior, the rapid instinct to shield their
phone whenever a new message comes through. You comment casually on how much
weight they’ve lost and beam at them with pride because it still hasn’t set in yet. It won’t for a while.
They start coming home later and later. A midnight bedtime stretches to 1 am, 2 am, 4
am. You try to act casual but a hot wave of fear washes over you. What if something
happened to them? Visions of everything from car accidents to getting stabbed and shot
in an alley flash through your mind with alarming speed as you frantically try to stay
calm. You’re being paranoid. Everything is okay. Go to sleep.
You wake up the next morning and the sheets are untouched but the room smells like
cigarettes. You assure yourself that canceled plans here and there are perfectly normal
and brush it off. Coping now is all about getting a good breakfast and some
Weeks go by and you start noticing things you desperately want to ignore.
like thin hair and brittle nails, slightly discolored teeth, an abundance of long sleeve
sweaters in July.
If you had any sense at all, you would get out now. If you want to get through this, build
a bridge over it and sprint across.
Burn the bridge and never look back.
You’re starting to think dangerous thoughts when all of a sudden they do something
that stops you mid-breath. As they let out a long laugh through a cloud of smoke, you’re
reminded of just how much you love them. Reminded of just how much you’ve been
through together, and how you should have more faith in them. You scold yourself for
having doubted them.
To save yourself the pain of accepting the truth, your brain suddenly begins to question
everything it sees. Your judgment is clouded. You’re not quite sure what’s ‘normal’ and
what isn’t anymore, and so you start hanging out with other people, too. This is the best
thing you can do for yourself, and after a while, you almost start to forget. Almost.
It’s been a few weeks so you decide to catch up over some coffee. You pull up to the cafe
and see their car parked across the lot. They open the car door and the smell of
something you can’t quite put your finger on creeps up to you.
You try to hide your reaction when you see a grinning skeleton staring up at you, but
your heart feels heavy, feels like it’s in an iron vice, and your face involuntarily falters.
The realization that is enough is enough, that denial isn’t cutting it anymore, hits you
violently. It’s time to talk. This is something you should have done earlier, and the
thought of clearing the air now feels like a relief.
But the relief doesn’t come. Instead, a calm question is met with a round of loud
shouting, a verbal tirade like you’ve never heard before.
Are you okay?
You hear them call you every name under the sun, and grin like an idiot because you
have no idea what to say, how to react. Dumb with grief and shock, you apologize (yes,
apologize!) for having offended them. But they go on and on, louder and angrier with
each word until they leave you sitting in a Starbucks with ten pairs of eyes on you
and a face burning with shame and humiliation.
You can cry now if you want; cry into your coffee and nibble brownie bites if you’re
brave enough. The denial stage is over.
The next part of coping is learning how to build your armor.
Wandering from room to room at a house party, you find them in a closed off, dark
room with that same smell, that perfumed marshmallow smell laced with something
acrid, with smoke and fire wrapped around it.
You take a seat, light up a cigarette and try to act natural. After all, you know a few
people here; you’ve had a beer or two, and things are looking okay, until…
Until you hear that hiss and see the flicker of fire and the smell hits you, and you know.
You turn and see it with your own two eyes, and waves of disbelief rock your body so
forcefully you feel faint. You might even stumble backward, or have your eyes start to
water, as you try and find a way to form the words.
But it doesn’t matter now because even though they’re two feet away from you
won’t be able to touch them.
Your words will cease to become words; your horror
becomes “being uncool”, the increased pitch of your voice becomes the butt of a joke.
You give them one last look in the eyes as if to say, can this be true? as they brush you
away out of the room.
Welcome to the cycle of using and abusing.
This is the part of the narrative as you slowly watch the person you love turn into a monster, a monster that thieves money out of their mother’s purse and gets behind the wheel with red, glassy eyes. If you were the hero of this story (and trust me, you aren’t), you would slay the monster before it’s too late.
But you can’t.
You try everything: talking to their family, shouting matches, googling stupid questions
online, flushing their stash down the toilet, crying; hell, you start even asking strangers
All you can do is watch. The pain of watching them transform is too much to bear, and
to cope you find yourself becoming stronger, more able to deal with the extreme. You
start flinching less and less and becoming wiser to the tell-tale signs. You learn how to
do incredible things, things you wouldn’t have believed possible: how to lie under
pressure, how to safely navigate out of dangerous situations, how to negotiate with thugs
and drug dealers.
Your newfound strength starts showing.
Stage three of coping is to try and break away completely
you think the pain will take you under. There is nothing left to save. You turn off your
phone and block them on Facebook and think it’s enough, and maybe that night have
one too many drinks but you’re okay, you’re okay for now.
Life goes on back to “normal”, whatever that is. You’re holding in so much pain that just needs to be let out. It comes out in gibberish, in off-hand jokes that aren’t funny, and soon you lose the desire to talk to anyone at all.
Until you get that phone call, and your body reacts faster than your thoughts are able to
You’ve never driven so fast in your life before. The whole world and giant freeways have
never seemed so small as you break every law trying to get there, as you fly through the
night focused on only one thought: saving them.
As you sit down next to them they suddenly let out a giggle and slump off the couch onto
the floor. Their eyes roll back in their head as their pulse slows and slows to almost
nothing while their skin starts turning blue, and in this moment you’re at your finest.
You do the unthinkable and manage to save their life.
One of the final stages of coping is trying to make sense of the pain
but the fact of the matter is this: while you may have saved their life, you’ve only saved it just this once.
Just once, out of hundreds, thousands of times where it may be endangered when it
could end simply and quietly at a minute’s notice.
The final stage of coping is realizing that love sometimes isn’t enough
and the only
thing you can do now is to appreciate what you do have. To take care of your own body,
to build relationships with people, to be able to feel love, are all blessings in and of
Simple things you may have taken for granted before will find a home in your new heart,
and if you’re one of the lucky ones you’ll come to realize this:
Finding beauty and feeling gratitude in the everyday, no matter how mundane it may
seem, is sometimes the only way you can learn to cope with just about anything.