The first time I caught him swallowing a fistful of pills, he convinced me that they were vitamins. And why wouldn’t I believe him? He spent every morning soaking his clothes at the gym and he was clocking about eighty hours of work a week, so it made sense that he would take extra precautions to stay healthy.
The first time I caught him whispering on the phone to his dealer, I let him explain that he was doing it as a “favor” for a friend. And later that night when his eyes were haunted and red, I let him complain about “jet lag.”
The first time he came home from a work dinner four hours late, I wanted so badly to believe that the tall tale he told — an imaginary co-worker had drove his car home for him and then walked to his own house, nearby. I wanted so badly to believe that this man — who claimed to love this woman (who had already lost a boyfriend to a drunk driver) — wasn’t sick enough to drive home drunk. So I tucked him in and let him gargle about his boss into a “deep sleep.”
The first time I caught him in front of the refrigerator, head back, pouring a Coors Light down his throat, I decided to clear my throat rather than let him get away with his “I’m going to get a glass of water” alibi.
“Why?” I asked him. Really asking.
Begging him to explain to me why he needed the duality of being perfect and being helpless. Begging him to explain to me why he couldn’t bear to let me see him. Begging him to let me love him. Begging him to see himself. Begging him to love himself.
The first time I saw him cry I felt relieved. Happy, almost. Under all of the distractions and chemicals, there was something real brewing, I thought. He was still alive, I hoped. He was going to tell me what it was like to be one of six and what it felt like to not know his father. He was going to tell me why he couldn’t bear to find sleep sober. And I believed those tears to be steps toward a breakthrough. Steps toward honesty. Steps toward hearing him say finally, “I have a problem.” Rather than, “This is the lifestyle. This is what makes me successful.” But they were not steps. They were shields, little pieces of armor disguised as vulnerability. They were not tears that said, “I want to get better,” they were tears that said, “I’m embarrassed.”
The first time I gave up on him was easy. I was trying to barter with him: “What if you try only smoking every other night? What if tonight, you take a bath instead?” and then “Instead of taking a Clonazepam every time we have a serious conversation like, take a deep breath and let me rub your back.” Not ironically, he passed-out in the middle of our argument and I was left with the option of draping his heavy arm around my shoulder and falling asleep next to an almost-corpse, as usual, or leave knowing he won’t come after me. So I left. I walked across the park to my friend’s apartment in my pajamas at three in the morning. Sheepishly, I crawled into bed with her, embarrassed to admit that I was not capable of fixing him. He, the one everyone warned me about. He, the one that I defended against his stereotypes. He, the one I liked to think worked in finance because he was good at math. He, the one who convinced me he loved his friends, not their investments. He, the one who got thank you notes from mysterious women who had received flowers from him. He, the one who maintained his defense that everything he takes is a vitamin because they keep him alive. He, the one who texted me at seven a.m. having no idea where I was or what happened, asking me if he knew where his Gatorade was.
The first time I took him back was a sign of my weakness.
The first time he didn’t come back was a sign of his.
I never saw him again. But I think of him often, in therapy, in nightmares, in despair. Sometimes I miss the glimpses of him I’d catch, between doses. The puppy-like boy who let his hair flop on weekends. The sheep-like, guttural laughing spells that would sneak-up on him and stain his cheeks pink. The way he so humbly marveled at nature even when only standing in his front yard. But rather than feeling like a failure for not saving him, I remind myself to appreciate being successful in saving myself and hopefully bringing him one step closer to the mirror.
“If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” Carl Segan, Cosmos.