Moments of Lucidity
By ERIC A. HOWALD

The friend request arrived earlier this year, nearly 20 years since our last conversation.

That one went something like this:

“Eric, phone call.”

“Thanks, mom.”

“Hello?”

A pause.

“Hi, Eric, it’s Mike. I’m in the hospital.”

This is how my former best friend opened the conversation after twelve months of radio silence.

“Why are you in the hospital?”

“I had an accident. I OD’d. I was dead for four minutes before the medics revived me.”

“Oh.” Another long pause. “Are you okay now?”

He sniffed hard. This was something of a nervous tick he’d had ever since we first met at age 12. We were 19 at the time of the phone call.

“Yeah, it was about six weeks ago, but I’m trying to contact some of my old friends, now.”

This didn’t sound like Mike. This sounded like it was coming from someone in the hospital room with him telling Mike this is what he should do.

“Okay, are you still in the hospital?”

“Right now, yeah, but I hoped I could call you after I get out.”

“Sure, just let me know.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

Click.

As far as I was concerned, our friendship had ended the prior autumn. After five years of near inseparability, with Mike spending entire weekends smashing Nintendo buttons with me at the foot of my bed and taking three-week vacations with my family, I could no longer suffer being the one driving him to his dealer’s house and being asked to wait in the car. It all ended as we stood on his mom’s porch on a sunny day in October. I was in tears and yelling as I confronted him over his drinking and drug abuse. He was drunk, and probably high, but it hurt like hell when I told him I loved him like a brother and he giggled.

Now, for reasons, I struggle to fathom, he’s tracked me down through Facebook. On one hand, I’m relieved. I’m relieved to know he either made it through or is making it through. At the same time, it’s like having Jacob Marley rise from the grave and start rattling chains about. It may seem harsh, but I compartmentalized Mike’s “death” as a suicide. Never speaking to each other again after that phone call made that easier on me.

Before I confirmed his friend request, I sent Mike a private message hoping to talk about how our friendship dissolved. He still hasn’t responded. I stopped looking to see if he would update his profile with photo – some sort of proof of life – after a week.

For a long time, Mike’s substance abuse was the lens through which I entered every conversation about the topic. It infuriated me, not that people would use narcotics and alcohol to excess, but that they were even available at all. With my whole heart, I believed that drugs killed people, not that people killed themselves using drugs. But the latter is what it actually is, isn’t it?

It wasn’t until I was working on a master’s degree in communications that I learned what it truly meant to think critically. I learned to question motives and ask the right questions to get me there. That’s when I discovered a Mike – and more broadly, a country – in an entirely different light. The veil was pulled back, and I saw how socioeconomic forces are typically one of the biggest influences on substance abuse, and I could connect that line right to Mike. He and his sister, and his father, and his uncle were all living under his grandmother’s roof. I saw weed for the first time taped underneath the lid to a toilet basin in his house – his uncle’s stash – and I’ve seen circumstances like his reflected elsewhere in our country.

Which brings me to the lack of needle exchanges in Marion County. I’ve talked with an addict as part of this paper’s recent series on heroin abuse in Keizer. I know what it’s like to watch someone struggle with addiction and hope beyond hope that they are at least being as safe as possible. And the absence of a local needle exchange makes me fearful.

Earlier this year in Austin, Indiana, nearly 150 people tested HIV positive; the disease was primarily transmitted via sharing needles while injecting an opiate named Opana. Tales of whole families doing Opana together are coming to the surface. Until the governor there declared a state of emergency – in only the affected county – there was no needle exchange program for drug abusers. Now it must contend with that lack of foresight at an exponentially greater cost.

Opposing sides try to frame the needle exchange debate as either “saving lives” or “enabling abusers.” In reality, it is both. It’s saving the lives of drug abusers, and there is no wrong there.

I’m not certain how far Mike fell before overdosing, but it likely involved needles and he might have been saved from catastrophic illness by exchanging dirty needles for clean ones. I want to believe that everyone can agree his life was worth saving at age 19. But, I don’t even care about the age of an abuser, I care about the abuser. Even though I left our friendship in the rearview, I value Mike’s life and everything he meant to me.

In the same way that I had gotten distracted with the drugs being the things that killed people, the debate over needle exchanges only keeps us from getting to the heart of what is ailing this country. It’s not meth or heroin or Opana or whatever-the-hell-comes-next that is the problem. The problem, as I see it, is the shattered narratives we were told we, and everyone else, should be living.

When Prince Charmings don’t arrive, when success is no longer guaranteed by way of hard work, when we discover that there are forces working against us through no fault of our own, it’s actually kind of nice to have something to take the edge off. But there will always be those who carry it too far, and sink in over their heads, before realizing what’s happened.

Sadly, the narratives we believe in, like the opposing sides of the needle exchange “debate,” are becoming ever more fractured and diminished. And no one is offering up anything to replace what we’ve lost, least of all me when my 11-year-old asks the big questions. I wish it were different.

What I still believe in is Mike. I want to believe that one day he’ll read that Facebook message (maybe this article) and discover that I still care about him and never stopped. I hope he replies. Maybe then we can both have a good cry about it.

(Eric A. Howald is associate editor of the Keizertimes.)