When Opioids Come A-Knocking
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because tragedy is sometimes the rule, not the exception.
By Rebecca Brown
Sometimes I dream that I’m in it again — that cyclone of trying and failing.
I remember the exact moment when I realized that I was too happy. I was struck by the reality that change is inevitable and wondered how that would look for me and Troy. I met Troy two days after he came to the Bay Area to work in the UC Berkeley Controller’s Office, managing its NASA grant portfolio.
He was smart, funny, attractive, kind, well-educated. We would talk for hours, enjoying whatever we were doing as long as we were together. He often brought me big bunches of flowers and thoughtful little gifts. We moved in together after one month and were inseparable for two years after that.
Then he said that he had cancer.
He was trying to “walk it off” as he’d been told by a psychiatrist who refused to admit him …
Looking back, I guess I knew that he didn’t. At the time, though, I didn’t question it. I was his ride or die, and, after all, this was certainly a time to use my rainy-day funds. So I gave him cash, my debit card, anything he needed.
He stopped working, which made sense. So I paid for “MRIs,” “visits to specialists,” a “down payment on an engagement ring,” Uber rides “for chemotherapy and radiation,” weed “for the nausea,” not to mention his living expenses. I was unfazed. It stressed me out to see the money flying out the door, but he was the priority.
Then there were his mood swings, his agitation, his disappearing to “get air.” I helped him up when I heard his body crash to the floor — he had fallen unconscious while sitting in a chair. None of this surprised me because, of course, getting chemotherapy would have all kinds of effects on the body.
It wasn’t until he returned after the first weeklong disappearance that I found out about the drugs.
He’d told me that the cancer was spreading, and I was desperate, thinking that he had decided to end his life. I looked everywhere and cried an ocean of tears. I never did find out how he started taking opioids, but he said they were given to him while he was in treatment for cancer. This was almost certainly a cover story.
There were times, in a rage because I was denying his demands for money, that he would tell me it was my fault for having pills in the house after a surgery I’d had, and that blood would be on my hands when he took his life.
When he returned after that first disappearance, I was relieved. And when he explained that he was addicted to opioid pills, that he was buying large quantities off the street, my only thought was to help him, to get through this together. The first step, he said, was for me to get him some more, but then to slowly step him down.
He was in a terrible state — shaking, gray, his clothes covered with grit from the street. Desperate. So we made the first of many trips to an area of town I didn’t know existed. The desperation in the air was palpable, and it was easy to see that the drug addicts — wandering, sleeping, pacing, trembling — would do anything for a fix.
His stepping-down plan, though, had me policing his drug intake. I would carefully count out the pills, and then very, very slowly lower the dosage, but he would find them almost every time, tearing the house apart while I was at work attempting to keep my job. “Stepping down” never happened.
And if he wasn’t getting enough of his poison, he would steal whatever he could and disappear for days at a time. Sometimes he would come back saying that he needed money to pay off someone who was trying to kill him. It’s unclear how many of the times he said this that it was actually true, but he did come home with his windshield broken and with injuries. I also once found a butcher knife under the mat of his car.
I had to accept that the love of my life was living on the street, and that I had forced him there. I tried taking him to shelters, giving him gift cards for food (which he flipped for drugs), buying him basic things that he needed to get by (which he would flip for drugs). I took him to detox countless times, 15 at least. I took him to the methadone clinic every day that I knew where he was, and waited in the waiting room.
His skin began to hang off his bones, making him look like a 6-foot-6 skeleton. Once an impeccable dresser, he now wore clothes that hung off him — ripped, dirty, stained with urine. He began to attempt suicide. After one disappearance, he called me from the psych ward a week after an attempt that had nearly killed him. Someone had found him and called for help.
Although he tried overdosing three more times, his body was so large and his tolerance so high that he couldn’t buy enough drugs to overdose. So he tried to hang himself — clumsily, given his mental state — and was again spotted by a passerby and taken to the hospital. At one point, he said that if I took him to the emergency room, he would let them help with the withdrawals and then he’d go to rehab. But he refused.
The last time I took him to detox, he’d been gone for two weeks and came back saying he was stronger, that he’d been facing the withdrawals and reducing his use (he was trying to “walk it off” as he’d been told by a psychiatrist who refused to admit him). So I gathered him up and took him to detox. He’d abandoned all of his clothes along the way. I offered to bring him some.
Hitting the Nordstrom Rack, I bought him slacks, button-down shirts and some size 17 dress shoes. Then I dropped them in a bag at detox and hugged him. In the bag, I also included a card expressing my love and saying that I’d see him after rehab, but no sooner.
He never made it to rehab.
He called me and his mother, telling us goodbye, that he loved us, that he was sorry. I looked for him and called everyone. The police were discouraging: The odds of finding a homeless drug addict with no ID, especially since I didn’t know exactly where or when he would have overdosed, were slim.
So I never saw him again.
Some questioned whether he had really ended his life, as I felt with certainty that he had. I just wish I could have been there with him — to hold his hand, even if I couldn’t save him.
But now my savings were gone. Plus I’d quit my job, as the stress had become overwhelming. I had difficulty pushing myself to find other work given what I was experiencing. So I went from a professor and then research director to driving for Lyft, working the graveyard shift in a bread factory and freelancing as a courier, tutor and sometimes a personal assistant. The expenses in the Bay Area weren’t covered by these though.
So in the end, I rented out my condo and moved into a tent in Oakland Hills. Just me and my dog. We both went hungry some days, until finally, I took my brother’s offer to move back east with him and his family. At 42 years old? Humiliating, but I was profoundly struck with an understanding of how people become homeless permanently. Not everyone has a brother to run to, and no one is immune.
- Rebecca Brown, OZY Author Contact Rebecca Brown