For reasons far too complicated to explain, I spent part of my afternoon yesterday standing on a sun-beaten, splintered ocean walkway with Paul, a 22-year old heroin addict. The crook of his elbow was an angry pulsing red, still reacting from where he had shot up only moments before. He would nod off in mid-conversation, pitching forward until an instinctual state of self-preservation woke him up before he lost his balance completely.
Paul tried to maintain a conversation during his stupor, and I kept up with him to the best of my ability. We talked about stand-up comedy and his dream to be a tattoo artist. He talked about music and his best friend, who was stabbed the night before. Half of his sentences trailed off into the ether as his head dropped, eyes closed, mouth agape.
We shook hands upon parting company, and it took every ounce of willpower to avoid wiping my hand on my clothes. I knew I could wait until I was out of sight before using hand sanitizer and finding somewhere to wash away that dirty, sick feeling. Even after scrubbing my hands with soap and scalding water, I couldn’t shake that need for a shower, even though my rational side knew that there wasn’t anything to wash away.
On the drive home, I made light of the situation. “You know, if you play connect the dots with the track marks, it makes a unicorn.” “Boy, some people take heroin chic way too seriously.” My friend said that she never wanted to go back there and that she would make excuses and deal with the fact the he would think she was an asshole for the rest of her life. I looked at her and said, “No, just for the rest of his.”
Paul is on his way out of this world. He hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but it’s coming up fast. And while I looked at him and thought “This is his fault. He deserves whatever happens because he’s the one who injects that shit into his body,” I felt shame. Not at my thoughts, because the responsibility is indeed his, but shame at the fact that for every paragon of virtue and human achievement, there is someone like Paul. Our society advances in leaps and bounds, but we still leave so many people behind. Every time someone like Paul loses his fight with addiction, we all fail as human beings.