This is what an addict looks like

It’s a strange sadness to lose a student. After 25 years I’ve lost a few. One to cancer and one to a heart attack, one to suicide and another to the flu. On Friday I got word that a former student died from an overdose. He was addicted to opioids.

I didn’t know he was an addict, and apparently many of his friends and even some family members didn’t know either.

He didn’t look like an addict. But what does an addict really look like?

This one was clean cut, handsome, a guy who led with love for his wife and little girls. He was funny and a good writer. It’s been nine years since he was in my class, but I’ve kept up with him on Facebook, where he was that rare person who could discuss politics with equanimity. He wasn’t shy about offering his opinion, but he didn’t show up with a sword either. He neither provoked nor was provoked—no small feat on social media.

When I heard the news, I searched for his name on my hard drive because I used to download papers from our course management system in order to grade them. The piece I found was a Burkean analysis of Bill Clinton’s apologia—just the sort of thing a rhetoric professor would love. It was an insightful piece that demonstrated his intelligence and his writing fluency.

Reading it filled me with sadness, but it’s a strange sadness. Though I didn’t know him well, there’s something about reading a person’s writing that makes them seem more familiar, especially when you are their specific and intended audience.

There is a little piece of him in that paper. It’s probably a piece of him that few others saw, just a handful of professors and classmates who knew his identity as “scholar.” Even if it wasn’t a large part or a significant part, it was the part that I knew best.

Oddly, I remember where he sat in my class, up front on the left, next to one of his friends. I remember getting their names and faces switched. They didn’t resemble one another in the least, but they were so simpatico that they bled into one another at first. They were hilarious, playing off each other. I wasn’t always in on the joke, but you could see their eyes twinkling as they suppressed a laugh in the middle of a class discussion.

Last year I became aware for the first time that he was a storyteller and a writer of fiction. One of his recorded pieces is a go to for me when I’m feeling blah. It’s laugh out loud funny.

He also had demons. I don’t know how long he suffered or what havoc he wreaked on his family and on himself. But I do know, now, what an addict looks like. He looks like a sweet guy who loved his kids and other people’s kids, who offered the world kindness and gentleness, who made people think and made them laugh.

His death reminds me how much is below the surface. For the most part we see only pieces of each other, and only for a few moments. For those who knew him well, who have lost a universe in his passing, I send peace and the hope that they find comfort.

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Filed under: Grief, Uncategorized

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