Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, drug overdose, and recovery, which may be triggering for some survivors.
“Survival isn’t Pretty,” Andrea
My friends started dying my freshman year of high school, and it hasn’t stopped since. My grandmother used to call the obituaries the “Irish funnies,” and it was amusing until she had to hide the Herald when I visited because I’d immediately turn to the death notices to see if I recognized any names. 19 years later, I don’t even need to do that. My Facebook feed has become a roll call of the dead and barely-alive. I deactivated social media and, still, my phone lights up with texts asking, “Did you hear…?”
I always know what it means: Another person I know has succumbed to the disease. Another coma that may or may not offer a second (or 92nd) chance. Another 911 call that doesn’t require sirens because it’s already too late. Another needle, another line, another cocktail of chemicals that an exhausted and broken body couldn’t sustain. Another one bites the dust.
Sometimes, though, we survive.
Survival isn’t pretty. It’s painful and non-linear and dirty. Survival isn’t just waking up from an overdose and breathing again; some of us never overdose. Some of us hit our bottoms in glass after glass of wine, or waking up and needing to smoke some weed before facing life. Some of us graduated from top-tier universities and got impressive jobs and then blew all that potential on prescription pills we didn’t get at the pharmacy. Some of us had families who cared, with resources to spare, and we ended up in therapy with counselors who said things like, “You’re growing up in a war zone.” Some of us lived in that war zone at home with parents who were also addicts. Many of us eventually lost every home and person and dream we’d ever had. Many of us ended up incarcerated, or in detoxes and mental hospitals, or dead in a train station bathroom.
But some of us survive.
The people I survive with gather in dirty church basements, in police station conference rooms, and on the beach on Friday nights during the summer. We share our experiences: the places drugs took us, the feelings we suppressed in active addiction and have to face in recovery, and the ways our disease manifests when we stop using. But we also share our strength and our hope. We learn that whatever happens, we don’t have to go through it alone. We learn how to process trauma and loss, trust ourselves and others, and become responsible members of society. We form and develop our values, and begin to understand and apply the principles we want to guide our lives.
We fuck up – frequently, and in catastrophic ways at times. But we welcome one another back with unconditional love.
We understand recovery is a process, and that we don’t get to graduate. We put an empty chair in the middle of the room to represent the addict who died before finding recovery. We laugh at really dark jokes and sit in silence while men cry for the first time and go out for ice cream to celebrate milestones. We find joy in life again and hold each other up during the really hard moments. We cheer each other on as those dreams we squandered turn back into possibilities, and we practice rigorous honesty and intimacy with people whose last names we may never know. We answer the phone during crises and when we put some time together, we help others. Service has become crucial to my survival; when I help others I also help myself.
Survival isn’t an upward trajectory, at least for me. It’s more like a heart monitor – there are going to be ups and downs, but as long as it keeps moving I’m going to be OK. Without drugs clouding my thoughts, I now have a lifetime of pain to address. I’ve been sexually assaulted. For years I blamed myself for the death of my boyfriend. I still struggle with self-harmful behaviors like cutting. I’ve caused others harm and don’t know how to forgive myself. I’m learning how to negotiate my sexual identity and define what being queer means to me. I’m responsible for the life and safety of a child as I do all of this. There are times when I think I’m starting to figure it all out, and the next day I’m so overcome with fear I can’t move from my bed.
But I keep going—I don’t have any other choice. In recovery I’ve learned to begin letting go of some of the guilt and shame that kept me using for so long. I’ve started turning those lost dreams into reality. I found a career I love, I’m in graduate school, and I plan to pursue a PhD. I am the best parent, friend and partner I can be. I’m not perfect and much of the time I’m unsure I’m even worth the effort, but I’ve surrounded myself with people who remind me I am.
Survival isn’t pretty, but I was never big on traditional beauty standards anyway. There’s something to be said for landing in the gutter and crawling back out, for wiping the dirt off and remembering how bad life can be if I turn around. There isn’t a finish line. It’s either survive, or don’t. Today I choose to survive.
About the art:
This survivor’s story emanated resiliency, and so I wanted to create a simple piece that would remind them of this. Throughout their story, I heard the repetition of “I survive” and thought of a heartbeat, as they describe in their writing.
With every heartbeat, I hope this individual is reminded of their joys, their struggles, their progress, their community, their resiliency, and most importantly their survival.