Sometimes God takes the worst of us, and shows us mercy,
to reveal his patience and strength.
So that seeing this others might be saved
I write these memoirs so that those feeling this pain may have hope;
that they may know that they are not alone and can make it out.
And for those that haven’t, so they might not have to.
And for those that once had, so they might never forget.
1 Timothy 1: 15-16 Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the worst sinner of all. But for that very reason, God showed me mercy. He showed me mercy so that Christ Jesus could show that he is very patient.
“This is the end” shouted Noah back to me as he walked away down the sidewalk. This would be the last time I saw him. Soon after, a fierce man delivering street justice to me would, in turn, deliver me to this prison and out of my hellish heroin addiction. That would be December 23rd, 2017. I would learn later that on that same day my younger brother Michael’s wife Daniel had given my parents their newest grandchild, Finnegan, 3,000 miles away in Phoenix. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Looking back now, Noah’s words seem downright prophetic. He had been talking about himself and his life at the time, but from my current vantage, those words, and he, have taken on a changed, sort of adopted meaning. Viewed now through the clarity of abstinence, but the haze of time; a mountain of pain, and not a small amount of personal change, my brief but great friend Noah and his words that day have a dreamlike quality when I recollect them. But at the time, what a nightmare I was in!
“Hurry up dude” I barked back at my dope-buddy (a.k.a. not a buddy at all) as he chewed up the minutes on the strangers Obama phone. I didn’t really care about this guy’s minutes, I just used this latest lie to get me to my next fix quicker, wherever that would come from. Just another lie in an endless procession of lies. Just another schmuck that needed to get out of my way because his use for me was at its end. The phone call was a bust. The person on the other end had turned my dope buddy down. Our fix would have to come from elsewhere. “Alright bro we gotta roll”… “What was your name again?” I said to the stranger, half pretending to half care. “Noah” he replied.
Winter had come suddenly and fiercely on December 4th of ’17. When you are living in the daily cycle of heroin addiction you are so focused on getting the next bag that you don’t notice your surroundings much– except, for example, when the weather changes from a tolerable fall chill to a bitter, wind whipped cold. As I ambled up Evans Street in Pottstown that night, half dope sick and freezing, I remembered the phrase “there ain’t no end to worse”. Never had those words rang so bitterly true. And in a life riddled with falsehood and defined by deception, the only way to go is down. Into depths you thought you would never go. Where comfort is a stranger, companionship long forgotten, and love a fading, distant memory.
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror I looked at a reflection I didn’t recognize. My wife, whom I cherished with every fiber of my being, was long gone. Her only option was to flee from the monster I had become. Having married her on May 14th 2016 was the consummation of a dream. Four years earlier we had met and in a brilliant flash of true love we became best friends, and partners in recovery. Less than a year into marriage she would utter the words “You’re not going to like my decision… I am moving home with my Mom”. The day before I had nodded out behind the wheel and crashed another car. She had given all she had… all she could… all she would. I chose the needle. It took everything from us. This was the damage done. I had turned our dream into an unthinkable, solitary nightmare. My angel was gone. I had eradicated the grace that had colored my life so beautiful. I would spend the rest of 2017 descending further into sheer evil.
Noah was tough as nails. He had survived homeless. In Boston. In the winter. So that sudden onset of winter probably didn’t faze him too much. But even he said it was pretty cold to sleep outside, which he did that night. Soon he signed up for a shelter and began sleeping there. The last time I ever talked to Noah it was outside of that shelter. We had just eaten dinner. The topic of conversation happened to be God. Noah was bringing up his doubts and a misgiving about his general view of man’s relationship with the God that supposedly was looking down upon him. He was not disavowing the existence thereof but rather asking questions that a lot of people ask. The human condition is such. We question the visible world. Of course we question the invisible. Noah is on his own path. It’s not for me to judge. “ God is strong enough, he doesn’t need me to stand up for him” I was taught once. So I answered Noah’s statements in this spirit. Not with vehement retorts from a spiritual hilltop; but with mere statements of my own belief. The conversation stayed fairly lighthearted and didn’t devolve into anger and ignorance like these can and often do. I don’t know if I affected his view of God at all. What I do know is this was quite the ironic conversation: In the doubting Thomas that was Noah, I look back and fondly remember a person that God was using to comfort a lost soul. In this capacity he became an angel of the very God he questioned even existed. This to me, a broken man. Divorced. Tired. Hungry, lonely, and addicted to heroin to boot. My role in the conversation held its own irony: a man that had cut himself off from God being used by that God, nonetheless, to perhaps gently guide someone to Him. In spite of myself, and in all the unlikelihood of my circumstances, deeds and thoughts, God used me as an agent of his ministry. Long before the day that shook my world apart and broke me to the core, God was already using one of the worst of us for his purpose.
A light snow blanketed Pottstown that night. It was just a few inches, but was enough to completely transform the landscape, being the wet, sticky variety. I remember looking out of the window and marveling at the beauty of it. The golden street lights glowing, shedding light on the snow-accentuated details. Every branch and twig. Every nook and cranny. The mundane view from my window now suddenly turned beautiful. In the dungeon of addiction one becomes perhaps unable to perceive beauty. But in this moment the dark, horrible curtains of my world parted for a moment, allowing me a glimpse of what I’d almost forgotten existed. But like being in the eye of the storm, soon the clouds would roar back over.
“I need something.” “You always do”. My brother Michael quickly responded with a familiarity only a sibling could know. It hurt but he was right. I always did. The year was 2006 and we were watching the Phillies, a team on the rise. I couldn’t sit still. As usual I was feeding one appetite or another. This is the hallmark of an addict. The reality is my drug of choice is “more”. The difficult thing is that there is never enough. But I chased my impulses around the world it seemed; trampling hearts, breaking dreams and missing opportunities all the while. But to still be alive and miraculously full of hope has a way of reducing feelings of shame and remorse. Whereas they might be crippling and result in relapse, they are now more a deterrent; a reminder of where and what I never want to be again. Furthermore, they can be my most valuable tool in helping others.
“You gotta savor it” Michael proclaimed as he slowly chewed on a bite of food. This I had never been able to do. Not with food. Not with life. All was devoured. I was all appetite. Whether shepherd’s pie or a 12 pack, it was always gone in a flash. Neither love nor happiness ever came into my world without my quickly soaking them up for all they were worth. I wrung out every last drop and in the process missed their true beauty failing to reciprocate and thinking not to truly appreciate. Such was life for this troubled man for the better part of twenty years. I shudder to think how much of life I squandered. How much I could have given, and how many hearts I needn’t have broken. As Graucho Marx once remarked “I never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.
“Reminds me of your uncle Fred every time” taking in my Dad’s words then… I had no idea how much and how often I would remember them later. He had been talking about how his great friend, Fred, had once lectured him to leave the water at a prudent trickle when shaving and now every time he did so it reminded him of Fred. Currently estranged from all my family and friends, except for my father, I more and more experience the same sensation when prompted by certain simple things; like a back stretch that my brother taught me, or when I say something that a friend used to say. At times it comes to me like a warm blanket and others like a stomach full of lead. An example of the latter is when I say “okay” out loud to myself as I complete one task and switch to another. The best friend I ever had used to do this in an indescribably adorable manner. Her name was Holly. She was my wife. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. After she was gone I would soon enter the lowest level of my personal hell.
Life is to be cherished and savored. These words I know thanks to my brother and a friend who had to bury his brother long before his time. “You gotta cherish them” my friend said into my ear with tears of unfathomable sadness dripping from the edge of his words, his brother having just been laid to his final rest a few feet away. I spoke before of my brother talking about savoring food. Thinking of these two quotes from men I truly love, I have come to think: “Life is to be cherished and savored, not taken for granted and devoured.” I have tried to echo and intertwine these words into my conscience. The notion is so true, but I must not forget: I am a part of life, too. I have not loved, nor cherished, nor savored. And my gifts are part of me. Like so much else I have been blessed with, I took them for granted, not nurturing and growing them as I should.
In the spirit of this thought, I recall standing in line at the pawn shop with my guitar, anxious and impatient with the initial pangs of dope sickness riddling my body and mind. As always, it would only get worse by the minute. This all too familiar, ever brutal reality loomed over me as I had made the decision minutes earlier to pawn the thing. So what if it was my prized possession. So what if I loved it. I loved dope more. Love is an action word.
What a magnificent fall. When that guitar was given to me it was a dream come true. Very expensive indeed, but to me it was priceless. A Martin G-series rosewood special edition. Playing it was transcendent. The gift from God with which I played it was one I had found around the age of 14. I think everyone has a truly special gift, just some aren’t lucky enough to find theirs. I was, and man did this guitar embellish mine. It made me better, it really did. Playing it felt effortless. It became an extension of my body. It even smelled beautiful. I would often play it in the spare bedroom of my girlfriends and my apartment. Hours would go by in a blink. Now here I was, exchanging it for a mere 300 bucks, which would be all shortly injected into my arm. To think, that dream come true, that wonderful instrument that had brought me sheer joy, now reduced to a few needles full of brown liquid. Soon my entire, and I mean entire, life would follow suit.
“I found it honey”. Pretty clever plan if I did say so myself. My girlfriend had misplaced her necklace. I had the ring… yeah, that ring, but didn’t know how to pop the question. I had a gig earlier that night, with many beloved family and friends in attendance, and had thought about bringing her onstage to pop the question, but knew she would never forgive me for that. When we got home and she started looking for the necklace, the idea was hatched. I used a piece of long, slender ribbon and slid the ring onto it, tying the ends to make it a necklace. I told her I had found it, and slipped the fake over her head from behind her. It took her a second to realize what it actually was, and as she turned around I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. She said yes. Pieces of heaven, it seems, sometimes slip through the cracks and fall to earth. This moment, this woman, were proof to me. I’m so scared of forgetting her. I will miss the tears. I will long for the heartache. Because in this pain her memory is strong. As our love begins to fade to the recesses of my mind I shudder to think about what I no longer will be able to recall. All the precious little things that were just ours. Those moments when she was my whole world and nothing could ever tear us apart. “You are so beautiful” I would say most every day. And she was. And so were we.
As I watched George Bush weeping at his wife’s funeral yesterday, I was moved to tears myself. First at the sheer tragedy of the scene: a marriage of an incredible 73 years come to its end, and a proud man whom has lived an incredible life visibly crushed over the loss of his sweetheart lying at her final peace before him. Second, for the utter contrast in my own life. Whereas this man, I imagine, would give anything to be with his love again, I threw mine in the trash, like a dirty rag. Casually pushed aside that which when I had found it, was as if the angels had allowed me a piece of heaven while I was still here on earth. This is what my addiction did to me: it turned the apple of my eye to either an obstacle in the way of, or a means to get, my fix. For all the love, hope, dreams, and joy we had shared together, heroin became a black hole at the center of it all; the darkness I allowed into my soul swallowed the light of our love. It took time, partially headed by her love and my resistance, but ultimately all was lost.
Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
1 John 2:4
Blood gushed from my nose. The rain poured outside. The two men were shouting things at me, asking things that I really couldn’t answer. “Oh so that’s why you walked by and talked to us a lot huh!?” They had just caught me stealing tools from their job site, the house next door to where I was squatting. The swift kick to the face I took explained the blood. Earlier that morning I had been watching from my window and noticed that they were gone for a while. I was still without a “get well bag” as they called it. So I was well into the progression of dope sickness. I decided that I was gonna steal some of their tools and take them to the pawn shop. I knew I would get caught for this one eventually, but figured I had until Tuesday for that to happen. It was the Saturday before Christmas Eve. I figured these guys had just come in for a few overtime hours and were now gone until after Christmas. Yup, I had until Tuesday. I could enjoy a few days off of a nice score or two and then let it all crash down for all I cared. I just didn’t care anymore. A big part of me wanted to get caught. I have heard people say this before and though they were nuts. But now I understood. I had been drowning for so long I just wanted air, regardless of the cost: for my soul must have known that on this path I would soon breathe my last. Then all hope would be extinguished.
“Jesus is the only hope” said my father. My cousin Andrew had been talking about the job site we were on and the dire circumstance that we were in. He summed up what we needed to get done to be ready for concrete and how to do it by saying “that’s our only hope”. My father’s irrepressible faith put it into an almost comical degree of perspective. He didn’t often do this. And his point was not to belittle Andrews point. But there it was: a towering statement amidst the mundane and the miniature. Those words from that beautiful man hold more weight to me than all the concrete in the world.
Whatever spiritual, earthly or heavenly forces came to intertwine and intervene that morning… they did so swiftly and painfully and much sooner than I expected. They say if you wanna make God laugh, tell him your plans. He must have been hysterical that day. Because, the two construction workers came back alright… and they didn’t wait until Tuesday. They came back around noon that same day. Just as I had gone back into the building to steal more tools…
I recently read about a man who went to jail and claimed he wasn’t really arrested, he was rescued. Man could I identify with that. The events that took shape that morning saved me from the horror of drug addiction. Divine intervention. Dumb luck. Whatever it was and is, I still have a chance. Cause I’m still breathing.
“I love you Damon” the words kind of spilled out of me. I didn’t really plan them or expect them. But there they were. Within days Damon would be gone, taken from us by the monster of heroin addiction. I had never said those words to him. It was like God, in his timeless, infinite wisdom had given me the chance to tell my friend what he meant to me before he passed. Gruff and outspoken, tough and unfiltered, Damon was what he was and offered no apology. I often said he was a lovable asshole. Some, actually most, people I got high with were just that and nothing more. He gave a shit about me and it showed. Underneath the street tough exterior was a big teddy bear. I wish we could have been friends outside of our active addictions. I wish I could have done something to perhaps help him save himself. But the dying can’t save the dying. Once he was gone a terrible loneliness accompanied the typical sadness. One I didn’t foresee: Damon was my dope partner, and he taught me a lot of things about how to get high — the tricks of the trade. More to the point he was, at the time, the only person who knew the depths to which my addiction had sunk. I put a lot of time and energy into making sure this stayed true.
But once Damon was gone, it was just me and my monster. Never had I felt fear and despair like this. Those walls I had built to keep the world out were now the cage that kept me in with this demon that had just killed my friend. Now it had its eyes fixed on me. I had nowhere to run, no one to cry to, and now no company in my misery. I wanted to scream to the world of the terror in my heart, but feared what I would lose in the process. Had I done so then, I may not have lost everyone I loved. Damon, horrifically, was lost to everyone who loved him.
I knew the route well. I would head down to the city the usual way. Hop on the 93 bus to Norristown, and catch the high speed line to 69th street. From there it was a quick trip on the Market-Frankford line to Somerset station. I’d take the steps down to street level, grab a set of works, and walk a couple blocks to cop. All that was left was to find a spot off the beaten path where no one would find me too soon. I’d mix up the whole bundle, and bang the whole thing. Goodbye and goodnight. Lights out. No more torture. No more endless chase. Then finally the voice would be silenced — the one that asked me “how could you?” They are your family. She is your wife. The love of your life. At last the daily hell of doing what I hated and hating what I did would be over.
I don’t know the day or the month, the hour or the place, but somewhere along the line, far too late for me to stop it, heroin had become my god. And I laid anything, everything, and everyone I loved upon its altar in sacrifice. In return I stayed well, but it demanded ever more and I just couldn’t do it anymore. If it was my god on earth then I would rather be in hell. And if I caught the 1:40 bus, I would be there by dinner
But God had other plans for me. He put things in my path that disallowed me from pulling off my plan. And by November, I was back in rehab. I can remember lying there at night, obsessing over using. And still thinking about suicide. But then I pictured my own funeral, and my brothers carrying my casket as my mother wept tears of infinite sadness. I just couldn’t do it. God had foiled my plan. But now my predicament was worse. I was the veritable hole in the donut. I didn’t want to stay, couldn’t leave, and to imagine a life with or without heroin was impossible. “Make me better Father” I begged in prayer from my knees as hot tears rolled down my cheeks. Luckily God’s delay does not mean God’s denial
“That’s why you are the best”. Such simple words, but they were some of the sweetest, most blown-away-with-love compliments that I had ever gotten. Holly used to say them to me, and when she did I could have just died right then and it would be OK. You see I made it a point to remember all the small things she loved; I was always on the lookout for a comment or gesture here or there that would reveal the finer things in life that she cherished. At a later time I would do something that would bring that thing into her little corner of the world, right when she needed it. Often times when she didn’t expect it. That’s when she would really light up. And when a true beauty like her lights up, it touches a person very deeply. I treasured her. I adored her. And for some reason I will never fully understand, she loved me unconditionally. We had great times together, especially during the first few years. But I went through several crises that I think most women would have run from. I had some fairly big health issues. Also there was a mental breakdown. But rather than erode her love for me, it strengthened it, expanded it even. I guess I was experiencing true love for the first time. I had thought I was in it before, but I was never sober and couldn’t love truly. This love showed me how deluded I had been. I am reminded of a little argument or debate rather that we used to have. She disagreed with the notion of a saint. I didn’t. In the end I think I won—because Holly, you are one.
I parted the hair from her forehead, leaned in and laid a tear-laden kiss on it. The day was April 19th, 2017, and it was over. No more us. For all the times I never could have imagined the day I’d be without her, here it was. I had just gotten out of rehab earlier that day. I spent 19 days at a place called Keystone in Chester. We were renting a house together at the time. While I was in treatment she moved all but a few things of hers out. The cats needed to be taken care of; otherwise she would have been gone entirely.
What a staggering fall it must have been for her to watch. When we had met in the late spring of ’12, the attraction was instant and the ensuing few weeks saw us fall madly in love. For as much physical attraction as I had for her, she was also truly my best friend. She was outspoken, yet courteous and respectful. Gorgeous and lady like, but also able to be just one of the guys. Smart and sweet, she mixed a little bit of crazy in, but knew damn sure who she was and how to handle herself and the world around her. And sweet Jesus, she was mine. We met in recovery. I had a little over a year clean and sober, she just a few weeks. Good things come in small packages, and sometimes so does strength. For this little girl had just gone through a self-imposed detox, no meds, no rehab, off of about 14 percoset 30’s a day for at least a year or two. Incredible. Now she was in a relationship with a man whom, I hesitate to say, she could look up to, lean on a bit. A match made in heaven. In this context I think about that last goodbye. This poor woman had to watch the man she so loved go down in flames to the very evil she had fled from; that led her to his arms. He had betrayed himself, her, and everyone else he loved. If only he could have been as strong as her.
I bear the marks of the beast that is heroin. Scars of a battle nearly lost. Of a war that can never truly be won. Only an uneasy ceasefire keeps me off the battlefield daily. “The cracks and lines from where you gave up” is a line from a song by Lane Staley. Hell of a way to describe a track mark. He was the drug embattled lead singer from Alice in Chains. He died alone in a hotel room of an overdose; I can remember wanting to kill myself in one.
Booom! The sound startled me awake. It was the opening of the Pottstown Rumble, and enormous volleyball tournament that Pottstown holds every year. I was in a hotel room by myself. With my two cats. A week earlier I had received a $5000 check from a situation that I lucked out on. The money was almost gone already. Crack, heroin, the room cost, and $1500 that I actually paid people back with explained the tab. What a terrible wake up that was. I decided I was going to use a pair of scissors to slice my wrists. I filled up the bathtub. I don’t recall exactly why that way maybe it would make it more pleasant or help me bleed out quicker. Maybe it was to make less of a mess. At any rate there didn’t end up being much blood. The stupid things weren’t sharp enough. I was able to cut some if I pushed real hard but it was no use.
The next day I had to meet with my estranged wife for some reason. I actually told her that I tried to kill myself and showed her the scars. What a sick, selfish, careless person to do that. Watching, helplessly, as a person that you love, who can’t or won’t let himself be helped, destroys himself slowly but surely, day after day, must be excruciating. Now there he is in front of you playing show and tell off a failed suicide attempt. Unbelievable. Careless. Selfish.
I have done many bad things. I could tell you stories that are riveting and despicable; tragic and sad. Of these things I am forever in deep regret. I may be absolved, but will never be completely free. Nor should I hope to be, lest I, perish the thought, forget. Of all these sordid tales and depraved misadventures, a small, simple one comes to mind. For what it lacks in theatrics, it sharply illustrates and encapsulates what a state of fallen grace I was in.
My wife had went and got herself a mini-pig. She joked that although I had been outspoken about us not getting a dog, I had said nothing about a pig. So there he was, a tiny, energetic little thing. She named him Levi. He ended up being a great pet. A pain in the ass for sure, but lovable and fun. Smart and clever, he was like a little person mentally at times. It is said that they are actually among the smartest of animals. And heroin addicts make the worst parents.
The poor little guy was teething and going through a lot of pain. And he sure wasn’t quiet about it. One day when I was home alone with him it was particularly bad. And I was really high. Sometimes we would give him advil liquid-gels with food. I gave him two without. Like a derelict. Next thing I know he is making all kinds of noise and his legs keep splaying out from underneath him. I overdosed the little guy. It probably felt like extreme restless leg. As he looked up at me I could see the pain and fear in his eyes. He was bewildered. And in his way he was begging me to fix it. That snapped me into reality and I gave him a good amount of food to perhaps soak some of it up and make him feel better. It worked. Quite well actually. I wonder if I almost killed him.
This can never compare to the things I have done to those who love me, but the picture of that innocent creature, utterly dependent upon me, looking up at me terrified and in pain, haunts me terribly nonetheless. The juxtaposition of innocence and guilt is staggering. I was a wretched worm, who not only failed to take care of, but put to suffering a blameless little animal.
This is what we do. We say we care but we miscarry. We claim sympathy but act carelessly. We say we love. But we hate.
The opioid epidemic towers over us all. In obvious ways and insidious ones. In big numbers and shrunken lives. So much pain. So much loss. Touching everyone. Sparing no one. You can hear it in the politicians campaign promise. See it in the grieving mother’s eyes. It gave birth to the local task force. It stole the wife’s wedding ring. It measured out the grave plot, and it lowered the body six feet down. Indeed it turns weddings into funerals, laughs into tears, joys into despair, and death becomes of life. Somebody’s daughter. A friend’s father. The stories an endless parade of tragedy and tears. For all its hopes and dreams, agony and ecstasy, to live life is an incredible journey and profound privilege, which heroin robs you of, then puts you in the ground.
“I don’t know how someone could hate themselves so much” my mom once said about heroin users. I didn’t understand what she meant at the time. But I sure came to find out. The hard way. If love is an action word then so is hate. And hate myself with that needle… I did. I wanted to die by the end, I really did. But God kept me from that end and the fire that waited. I now have a second chance at life, where so many lie silent in the eternal sleep of death. Why some are taken from us and some elude fatality is a mystery. People say some must die so others can go on. And I’m not going back. Not today anyway.