Thursday, 11 December 2008

Letter to a friend


It's just me.

I wanted to let you know that I was thinking of you Sunday as I wandered along South Bank next to the London Eye, looking out at the the most beautiful part of London's skyline in the glorious winter light. My heart should have been full to bursting with joy at the sight of the first city I ever really fell in love with. Instead, I gazed out with nearly unseeing eyes, pretending it was the breeze off the river making my eyes water. My heart was heavy and I was desperately trying to put on a happy face before meeting Ali and David.

But all I could do was reflect on our friendship, from the moment (or half an hour) of mutual understanding when we first met, through long emails, long evenings and lots of laughter. I remember being able to talk to you about anything and everything; you being able to laugh at yourself; hours spent laughing till we cried; being able to say, "Hey, I need to talk," and having you be right there.

Inch by inch, over the years, I've watched that - and you - slip away. I've heard the lies become more elaborate and more frequent (and yes, I know) ; I've taken the brunt of inexplicable snaps of anger that you forget about, but I don't; I've watched you lose interest in things you used to be passionate about; I've watched you stop laughing - both at yourself and at life.

Before I say to you what I need to say, let me apologise. I need to apologise for not having the integrity to do this face-to-face and deal with the consequences, though I've touched on it in the all-too-brief windows where you've brought it up. I apologise for every time I've put my hand on a wine bottle to pour for you. For every time I didn't say, "You don't look well." For every time I didn't challenge you. No, no one else is, true, but challenge is what I DO, and for me not to have done it in our friendship is unforgivable. Now it is a matter of life and death, I think, and you deserved far better from me.

If it is at all possible, hear this and know that I do not hate you, though I know that's what it will feel like. Know that I see in you immense potential and many gifts, and that above all, you are incredibly lovable and loved by more people than you know, even at your darkest. Maybe if you could feel that, if you could know that you are loved when you are angry, depressed, hurt, vulnerable, you wouldn't be here. I know no other way of letting you know that but through words and by being here.

I'm afraid it's not enough.

And now, here is what I have to say, what I should have said to you face-to-face, but this is the only way I know to really speak to you anymore:

You are an addict and despite the fact that you appear to be functioning normally, you are in deep trouble.

I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier.

How do I know, you ask defensively? Your paleness, the sweating, the fact that you're not eating properly - and yes, I know you lied. But what scared me most was that when I went to hug you, your stomach didn't give. That means we're not talking fat; I suspect we're talking ascites, which means that you're in some stage of cirrhosis, and I'm guessing later rather than earlier. I'm guessing you're not eating because you *can't* - it makes you feel ill, because you can no longer process your food properly. To put it simply and starkly:

Cirrhosis is a serious condition. Only 30 per cent of patients with this problem will survive five years after diagnosis and the outlook is worse if the cause is alcohol and the patient continues to drink.

That means you need to face this. Not after Christmas, not tomorrow. NOW.

Know that this doesn't mean I'm going to say it and walk away. If you want help, I'll be here to help move mountains to make sure you get it.

Yes, I know you may think it sounds judgmental or pompous or hateful. You may well think I've betrayed you. I think I'm ready for that, though I'd really rather not be.

But before you snap at me about how it's your life and doesn't affect anyone else's, let me tell you only a few ways in which you're wrong.

The tightness of your friends' voices when we talk about you, the masks we wear, the worry beneath them - even the smartass comments of some - would speak volumes, as would those words we don't say. Your name gets mentioned and whatever ease was in the room flows out faster than sh** downhill. Masks get put on; words are guarded. When you come up, we can't even talk to each other.

I heard echoes of us in the voice of a woman who was looking for help for her husband, a cocaine addict. He had used coke almost every day, gone into rehab, and was now slipping about once every eight weeks or so. I gently suggested AA or NA, but she said that he felt he was beyond that and that he didn't want to be with people in the full grip of addiction and be reminded of how he had been at his lowest. I heard our voices in her attempt to deny that he was still addicted; her weariness; her desperation.

It was a bit too close to home for comfort.

What about me? Let me lay it on the line: you are one of my inner circle friends. That means that to me, you are one of the people who really knows me: one of the people who can handle me when I'm angry, depressed, stressed out, sad, unable to be the supportive friend to everyone and everything. I'll never forget times like the one where you said to me, "That's the second time tonight you've been really down on yourself. What's going on? You ok?" You were always one of the people who could take care of me, not just be taken care of by me. Those moments were always worth so much more than they might have seemed to you, because I knew I was absolutely safe. No more. Now I'm always on eggshells, trying to avoid the next moment of unpredictable lashing out, grateful for the eggshell walking practice I had growing up.

What you've done for me in those moments and beyond is incalculable. It has opened so many possibilities and made me a far better person. Thank you, more than you will ever know. Even if, God forbid, we were never to speak again, there is a place in the inner circle that will ever be yours. If you can't *feel* that because of what else I'm saying, *know* it.

Dealing with your addiction has made it harder for me to let people into my inner circle. It always was, true, but I had reached a balance. I knew I was less trusting than most, that I threw up a lot of tests, but I'd learned to recognise that and accomodate it. When you, someone already on the inner circle, became unpredictable and hurtful, difficult to trust, that created an imbalance. I'm getting balance back, but it hasn't been easy. I expect angry friends to act like you; I can't quite trust friends who want to catch me when I need support, because I expect them to use it against me. Yes, it's feeding on something already there and it's my responsibility to sort it, but it doesn't mean that the effect of others is negligible.

Then, there is the fear.

The fear that one day, I will answer my phone to the news that will shatter my world the way a rifle shot shatters the air around it, never to be the same again.

I'm not afraid every day or every minute. Every so often, I wonder. When your STD code shows up on my phone, I freeze, briefly, afraid it's one of your friends or colleagues going through your phone, making the phone call none of us ever want to have to make.

Those are only a few of the ways in which your addiction affects some of those who care about you. I can't speak for anyone else, I can only speak for myself. And it boils down to this:

I miss you so much, it feels like I'm grieving already. Like I've grieved over and over again.

What do I want from you, I can hear you asking. Above all else, I want you to be happy. I don't know what that means for you or where it will take you, but I do know that it means that you have to be whole, that you can't be hiding from yourself and trying to amputate parts of yourself that you don't think you should have. I know it means you have to face the demons you've been numbing with drink, and all I have to offer is that the shadows are often much bigger than the demons themselves, of whom it could be said:

Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

You've seen them as evil, imprisoned them, tried to kill them...let them in, face them, and I think you'll find that they are born of pain and grief that you've never let yourself feel. Those feelings are nothing to fear. Trust me, you'll find more gifts and more wholeness in them than you could imagine. Let yourself become whole.

I'm not promising you that it will be easy or that it will feel good. There will be times it will hurt like hell, times you'd rather be dead or with a bottle in your hand. Finding yourself is hard enough if you've been committed to it your whole life; it's a hundred times harder if you've been running.

But I can promise you friends who love you, who will cheer for you, who will stretch out their hands to you. We can't walk the darkness for you, but we can walk WITH you and be there for you. I promise you, if you put ONE fingertip within reach on the edge of that abyss, someone will have your hand. Please, give us a chance. Please.

Because watching you die is killing me.


No comments: