National Recovery Month 2023 – Together We Are Stronger
Filling The Cracks with Gold
National Recovery Month 2023 – Together We Are Stronger
My best friend was sober for three years when I met her in 2017, in the admissions office of a treatment center in Hollywood. Shauneen was well-known and well-loved, and I could see why. Drawn in by her radiating smile and healing laugh, I found her to be the brightest, happiest, most helpful and wonderful person I’d ever met. She’s the one who got me a job at Hansei.
From living in the Vegas tunnels for years to finding a job, buying a car, and getting an apartment, she built what I believed to be an unbreakable resilience. She shared horrifying stories about what happened during that span and I took it all in like a sponge, realizing how sheltered I’d been in Florida.
I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, in fact, when I was a teenager, I considered my mom my best friend, and we didn’t even get along that well.
I don’t know if you could root my long-term anxiety to being adopted as a baby, or to my mom’s constant concern for my health, or to my dad being an angry alcoholic, but I’m going to be 33 this year and I’m still trying to figure out who I am.
I’ve been in therapy since I was three-years-old, and after years of being misdiagnosed with depression, I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, in early 2022.
The relief that came from hearing a professional explain what I’d been feeling for as long as I could remember, was like a miracle. I’d spent so much of my life in loops of deprecating thoughts –
Why am I so angry?
Why do I feel hopeless?
What is wrong with me?
There were brief moments of euphoria where I tried to suck up as much serotonin as possible, whether it be through a conversation, a spending spree, or a sexcapade.
With my mom battling her own anxiety, depression, and MS when I was growing up, I think her main goal was just for me not to die. This isn’t to say she didn’t love me – far from it, actually. I am still her pride and joy, she just liked to make a lot of rules that would ‘keep me safe,’ and I resented her for it. Eventually I stopped bringing things to her because I knew rather than hear me, I would just get in trouble.
It was kind of ironic, not only because she bought me cigarettes when I was 17, but because she created this safe space for me to express myself through art. If I wanted to tap dance, great – if I wanted to paint something, full support – even how I dressed, totally up to me.
But the music I listened to was monitored, I was prohibited from watching certain movies, and I was absolutely terrified of drugs, as my mom would repeatedly tell me if I tried a drug one time, I would die.
Of course, I’m grateful for certain aspects because it could’ve been a lot worse, but I ended up coping through unhealthy relationships and gratuitous sex. I would either be extremely promiscuous with my body or I would stay loyal in long-term relationships, though mentally I had one foot out the door.
When things were going really well, which is to say the guy was treating me ‘right,’ I was like, eh, it’s kind of too easy, I kind of want the mental jumping jacks, otherwise I’m bored. Obviously I can see that’s not healthy but that’s been my reality.
I never looked back after the romances ended and thought, ‘hm, maybe I should just wait and be by myself for a while.’ It’s like this protector part of my subconscious has been trying to keep me safe and avoid all the pain I’ve accrued over the years.
Speaking of pain, historically when grieving, I would lose weight, but now, with this hyper analysis of myself and everything around me, I’ve put on twenty pounds. It isn’t my favorite thing, but I know catastrophizing the situation won’t make it any better, despite my mom’s growing list of ‘possible medical issues.’
Sure, I could have a blood clot, but I also started birth control, I’m on two new medications, and I’m dealing with significant grief, so on some days, rather than sitting through the pain of it all, I eat a lot of Crumbl cookies about it.
Constantly feeling trapped in my own body, my experience has often been fight or flight –
Do I just pretend I’m okay all the time? Do I panic constantly? Do I take medicine?
With a subtle new sense of empowerment and the desire to not be a victim, I simply decided I would get a new wardrobe that actually fits me.
In addition, I recently decided I’m gonna get all tattoos I want, and I’m gonna dye my hair purple. Life’s too short.
When I think about my younger self, I sometimes think I would really enjoy the person I’m becoming, if I just sat down and got to know her better, though I know she would think this purple hair situation makes me really cool.
My dad on the otherhand – he placed a heavy focus on my looks, often telling me I needed to change or people would I assume I wasn’t intelligent or successful.
“You look like you do drugs… or rob people,” he would say.
“And… what’s your point?” I would push back, “you’re actually an alcoholic and you’re not doing anything about that…”
I’m stubborn, so I’ve placed a lot of pressure on myself, trying to prove to my dad that I am intelligent, and I am successful, despite what people may think when they see me for the first time.
I was 15 when my parents divorced – I didn’t really see it coming. I started to observe more of his abusive tendencies toward my mom, but she didn’t really draw the line until he started taking it out on me.
She was sleeping on a cot in my room because we were in the process of secretly moving out. Scared he would find her and take everything away, she convinced my aunt to put our new house under her name.
It was sad, mostly because I wished she would’ve stood up for herself a little bit more – it would’ve been a really good example for me of what to tolerate in a relationship.
Even still the boundaries are blurred.
My mom was baffled to hear I’d smoked weed once upon a time, though she had no problem downing seven rum and cokes with me at a bar – mind you, she’s like 90 pounds. Seeing how drunk she was getting, I stopped after one – it just wasn’t cute.
During the course of her drunken show, my mom told me how depressed and hopeless she really felt. Still trying to process the fact that my best friend died, I took her home to sleep it off and gave her the breakdown the next morning.
“I don’t remember saying any of that,” she responded, as if it would make it all go away.
“Well, you did, and you need to seek help because I’m your daughter, not your therapist – you can’t put that on me.”
I would typically listen and help however I could, but the details she shared were so jarring – someone I deeply wanted to trust to protect me, who’s so clearly unable to keep themselves safe.
“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” I asked, unaware of the right move.
“Maybe,” she shrugged… maybe?!
“Well, there’s a lot of options out there to help, I just can’t be the main source you come to for it,” I said, doing my best to set a boundary.
This is why I’m unwell, by the way (and yes, my mom is okay)
Let’s go back to 2017 –
Having worked in the treatment industry for years, Shauneen moved to Hollywood to relocate for work. I’d left Florida with my boyfriend and soon found a job at the treatment center where I met her.
Quickly discovering we only lived a street apart, we started driving to work together. After work, we’d go to the gym, get dinner, then go home.
This routine went on for about a year, at which point my then-boyfriend and I split up. I was scrambling to put his abuse and alcoholic tendencies in the rearview; I wanted to start fresh, and my best friend was able to help.
Turns out, the apartment building she was living in just so happened to be owned by her family, so once a unit became available, I moved in. We were smoking cigarettes on the patio in no time, talking about everything, and nothing.
I attribute a lot of the strength I have now, to her.
I had such a hard time being in LA and Shauneen would always encourage me to believe in the universe – in something greater than myself. I’d always been so against organized religion but this introduction of spirituality, from someone I trusted, just seemed to come through with divine timing. I wanted to believe her – that everything was happening for me and things would unfold exactly as they should; that through all of my brokenness, I still shine.
My anxiety often crept in, trying to convince me not to trust anything, but what I did trust implicitly, was the value of giving back to people.
We’d go through our closets regularly, handing clothes out to homeless people living on the streets; my friend often carried $20 worth of $1’s and $5’s and would hand it out because “they need it more,” she would say.
Shauneen relapsed in 2019 and even though I’d worked in the industry for a while, I am what they call a “normie.” Despite my novice status, it was clear my best friend changed – her skin was worse, her eyes were red, and her attitude towards life had shifted into something unrecognizable.
She was angry and incoherent, screaming, groaning, and slapping herself often.
Though I could tell she was in there somewhere, life quickly became constant chaos. Her house was a mess and people were rotating in and out several times everyday; I didn’t know what to do.
I was scared, both for me and for her, and my cat was dying, so yeah, life took a turn.
She still wanted to hang out regularly, but I didn’t know how to process our interactions – I was uncomfortable when she was high, annoyed with her disregard, and so, so angry.
I didn’t realize I’d been giving her rides to places where she’d pick up drugs, and my loyalty caused fights in my new relationship because I was always on her side, always trying to protect her. It’s like I was reaching into an endless abyss when trying to get through to her, only to be reminded there was nothing I could do, except miss my best friend.
I cried constantly while my anger turned into a rage so deep it felt like my blood hurt.
She got sober months later, around my birthday, and stayed on suboxone for about six months before COVID hit, which is when I came back to Florida to be with my mom. I gave her the keys to my apartment so she could watch over my things while I was away, plus I’d installed a security camera since I didn’t know how long I would be gone.
We shared clothes often so when I’d see her take things from my closet, I thought she was just wearing them, but over time, as I watched her spend hours in there, taking bags of clothes and items from my house, I realized she’d relapsed and needed drug money.
I felt violated and lost my trust in her, which is when my resentment fully formed.
I was so passive, never wanting to push her away, but she kept asking me to come visit, and finally, after my cat, Cleo died in December (2021), I found the courage to tell her I couldn’t be around her when she was high.
She didn’t yell, she just apologized for how I felt and said she understood, and with that, even more distance was formed.
We reconnected about six months later, talking casually here and there until we started making plans for me to come back, which is when Hurricane Ian hit – the most devastating natural disaster this part of Florida had seen in years. She expressed an appropriate amount of concern and I told her I’d be fine, that I’d see her soon, and that I loved her… those were my last words to her.
Her last words to me were ‘you’re protected.’
Shauneen died in her apartment on September 30th, 2022. I got the call once the storm passed and cell service came back. I couldn’t recreate the sound that came out of me if I tried. It felt like I had been stabbed in the stomach, even though I already knew…
It was an accidental overdose. In addition to Meth and Xanax, the toxicology report showed Fentanyl in her system.
I realized she’d been trying to get ahold of me for the last 24 hours and the weight of this new reality was impossible to process. I was supposed to go back to California that Saturday… we were supposed to start over.
Even though it felt like half my soul was being destroyed while seeing her in active addiction, and logically, even though I knew moving back wouldn’t have saved her, it didn’t stop the narrative from swirling in my mind as I flew across the country to pack up my stuff and clean out her apartment.
Walking towards her door, I felt sick knowing she wouldn’t be there to greet me.
I really don’t know how to explain the feeling of going through Shauneen’s space; being in the same room where she died, trying to pack her clothes to donate to charity while there’s vomit on the floor in the same spot we used to journal.
The silence became deafening, as if the conversations, music, and laughter were muted; like her passing took the life out of everything that meant something to me.
It was all just so traumatic, I’m still working to understand the impact it had on me, though I do believe part of my healing is recognizing where the disease of addiction often leads. She was sick for a very long time and her body just couldn’t handle it anymore.
The end of this month will mark a year since she’s passed. I’m going to Vegas for the revealing of her headstone. If it’s anything like the funeral, it’ll feel cathartic, and even though I’m pissed at her for breaking the retirement plans we had, I got so much out of our friendship, I wouldn’t give the love or pain back for anything.
I see her in different people I meet, and in places I visit; I feel her in everything I do, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.
‘Seeking’ is the phase of life I’m currently in – seeking the truth in what I like, what I want, and reminding myself that even if my story isn’t “as bad” as others, it’s mine, and I want to own it.
As for putting trust in people now, death was always my greatest fear, so I think it’s gotten a little easier.
And if I could leave you with one last thing from my beautiful best friend that’s always stuck with me – “you have to have the cracks so you can fill them with gold – that’s where the sunshine comes through.”
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