Almost ten years ago in 2005, I arrived at a convention for people who have a desire to stop using crystal meth: this after a 6-day run of using that drug, having no sleep, and barely having had any food or water. I was confused, slap-happy, and run down. All I can really recall is feeling awkward as I watched people laugh, share stories, and speak a language I didn’t understand. It makes sense now as I reflect on my own experience growing with this group. I remember curling into fetal position next to a cool window in a rec room and falling into a nap as different individuals were murmuring something about gratitude.
Last year, in March of 2015, I showed up to this same convention in a similar state of mind even though I was now ten years clean and sober. I felt sleepy, hungry, and anxious. I was sleepy because I had woken up early after staying up a bit too late watching House of Cards on Netflix. I was hungry because I didn’t allow myself to grab a bite during my long work day. And I was anxious because I have learned that my insecurities creep up on me naturally when I attend large functions of any sort.
Upon arrival, I mentally prepared myself in my car then walked towards the entrance of the venue where I was met by the greeters. “Greeters” are volunteers who welcome you, then direct you to registration. I proceeded to register, hugging and acknowledging friends I have made over the years, and picked up my name badge and weekend itinerary. Although I was surrounded by bright and shiny familiar faces and others who seemed as uncomfortable as myself, I felt the need to flee the scene. I made my way back to my car where I proceeded to collect myself. I convinced myself that since I was early, I should leave and come back a bit later when most others had registered. This way, I would be able to blend in and go unnoticed. But my gut was feeling queasy about this decision.
If I were to leave (probably go home and shower, then return), I would likely return a bit tardy, enter the convention alone, and would likely convince myself to leave before the welcoming ceremony ended- because I would be alone amongst the hundreds in attendance.
Bearing this in mind, I fought my impulse to flee the premises, exited my car once again, and found my way to the entrance of the convention- and was re-welcomed by “greeters”. I encountered a close friend of mine and secured a reservation to sit with him at the welcoming meeting.
I found myself actively engaging in conversation with others as we nibbled on fruit and cake that was supplied for people like me that needed sustenance. I noticed a friend of mine, David, sitting alone and seeming deep in thought. This was not an extraordinary circumstance being that I had known he had just undergone his third of fourth chemotherapy treatments. I cautiously approached him, offered our traditional hug and let him know I was happy to see him.
I met David nine years ago, just a small amount of time after I had reached my one-year sobriety milestone. At that first meeting, David appeared lost and extremely worn down. His story would prove to be jaw-dropping, and it included many years of surviving homeless on Los Angeles’ notorious skid row. He shared vividly his experience of sleeping on the streets and how uncomfortable it was to sleep pressed against cool concrete. As much as I wanted to help, my instincts told me that I should keep some distance and that this poor man was a lost cause.
Month after month, David continued to show up and participate in the group’s fellowship. His gaunt, distant eyes and muffled incoherent speech evolved to focused and articulate. I witnessed this brave man crawl into sobriety from the streets, get on his feet, graduate school, and become a huge inspiration for other recovering alcoholics and addicts. When the cancer card was placed in his path eight years into his sobriety, I couldn’t help but think that this man had beat odds on many levels and that this was just another challenge.
I have learned from experience that asking someone who has been struggling with cancer, “How are you feeling?” is not the best approach. To me, the logical answer would be “I have cancer, how do you think I am feeling?” But after a few moments of engaging in general conversation, I popped the question … “How are you feeling, David?”
I was humbled by his response.
David explained that he was doing great. He was preparing for his final chemo treatment and was in a very positive space. He had been using the tools acquired from his nine years of sobriety and was able to acknowledge that he had recently overcome an obstacle with his battle with cancer. Initially, about five months before, when his tumors had grown to overwhelming sizes, he began to feel that he was becoming the cancer, or a visitor in his own cancer-stricken body. But David demonstrated his confidence through a God-filled smile that this cancer battle was almost behind him. He said that he had been following his doctor’s direction religiously while simultaneously showing up for other recovering addicts and working his program.
Now, David looked me in the eyes and shared that he was no longer a guest in his own body and that his tumors were significantly smaller. It was clear that David was not about to listen or surrender to cancer. I told David that I admired him for all that he has experienced and asked if it were okay that I share his story in detail on my blog. David’s eyes lit up like he had just been chosen from the audience to be a contestant on Price Is Right. He nodded eagerly and said that he was looking forward to reading it.
The convention evening continued to surprise me with small miracles: hugs, smiles, and meaningful moments. My night concluded with a late night dinner with a group of friends. The anxiety had passed and so had my ninth year. The clock struck midnight as I drove home, and I was officially one decade sober. When I entered my apartment, my cat Kiki greeted me at the door with a snarled “meow” implying that I was a bit late for his tastes. He forgave me when I rewarded him with some catnip, tuna, and his second half of a can of Fancy Feast.
I washed my face, took my evening medications, brushed my teeth with my Sonicare toothbrush, put moisturizer on my face, picked out my clothes for the next morning, got into bed, snuggled with Kiki, and meditated. I fell asleep filled with gratitude that my life is no longer an experiment. I am no longer a self-proclaimed guinea pig for street chemists. I’m certainly not morally perfect, but do care about myself and those around me. I am grateful for what I have and anticipate more obstacles and accomplishments along the way.
A few months later, my friend David (DC) took a turn for the worse. I ran into him at a meeting and almost didn’t recognize him. I approached him slowly and attempted our usual, friendly embrace. When my arms wrapped around him with a very slightly squeeze, he snapped back and quickly retreated with an “ouch.” David was clearly in a lot of pain and his speech was unclear and barely lucid. I sat down beside him and he began to share with me that he had not been well. I noticed the tumor on the side of his neck had returned and was now the size and shape of a squished baseball. Although slightly unclear, David expressed to me that he had been isolating in his apartment and unable to get out or ask for help. He said that my coming to him had motivated him to show up for the meeting and be with his (sober) people. I asked “So I came to you in your dream?” David said to me with clarity, “No, you were in my apartment.” Being that I did not know the exact location of David’s residence, it was highly unlikely that I was physically there. But I am a firm believer that if something is real to someone, it doesn’t matter if it was a dream or vision because it is their truth. He said that the words I had shared with him at convention months ago were reiterated to him when he saw me at his apartment. And that was enough to get him out of his apartment and seek the help of the group. David then asked if he could read my blog that I told him about months back. “I really would like to read it,” he said. I hesitantly assured him again that I would be posting it soon and promised to tell the story of his journey. I gave David a ride after the meeting and it was difficult to see him struggle to get into my car. I had to carefully pull and fasten the seatbelt around his aching body. When he exited the car, I had a suspicion that this might be our last ride together.
I received a message from David’s Facebook account a couple months later. It was sent from David’s dearest friend, Mark. Mark had taken on the messenger role for David as well as many other roles. The message stated that DC’s decline had escalated and he was hospitalized. Another message was sent to David’s friends expressing urgency, and that if we wanted to say goodbye to David, to come to the hospital as soon as possible. Many of the friends that David and I have in common were away at a weekend retreat. It would be stretching the truth to say that David and I were the best of friends. However, it is absolutely the truth that we had been significant in each other’s lives. The decision for me to go to the hospital was simple because I have learned to do whatever I can, when I can. I needed to go for David, Mark, myself, and as a representative for all of our friends who couldn’t be there.
Before leaving for the hospital, I forwarded Mark’s post on my Facebook page to other mutual friends of mine and David’s who may not have been aware of the situation. I quickly received a message from an acquaintance, Jimmy, that he had no way of getting to the hospital and he asked for a ride. Although Jimmy was more stranger than friend, the company was certainly appreciated. I couldn’t ignore my conscience that was telling me to print the rough copy of the blog I had started months before. I had promised DC that I would share it with him, yet my finalizing of it had been curtailed by a highly stressful event in my life. Even so, my plan was to read it to DC in his hospital room.
I picked up Jimmy and we became acquainted as we shared feelings and stories about our departing friend. I told him about the blog and wasn’t sure if it was appropriate that I read it to David. Jimmy asked if he could read it. I hesitated since it still seemed premature for public perusal. As Jimmy read, I kept telling myself “It isn’t ready.” His response, though positive, reaffirmed my decision to leave the blog in the car once we arrived at the hospital.
Jimmy and I were greeted by other friends who had just arrived moments before and we followed them to the elevator and up to the third floor. More friends were clustered together upstairs and guided the new arrivals to David’s room. Because of the small space, we took turns filtering in and out of David’s room to say goodbye. There was quite a bit of tension in the air. Sickness and death had brought out a large range of emotions from the 15-20 people that were needing to find some sort of closure.
When it was my turn, I walked up to find David on the hospital bed with tubes down his throat and a machine to his side that was acting as his lungs because they no longer functioned on their own. I struggled to find the right words. I found it difficult to speak to David, who may or may not have been able to hear what I was saying. It was especially hard for me to express myself while I felt my friends and some strangers critiquing my one-sided conversation. I tuned everyone out and spoke directly to David, “David, it’s Jonathan and I am here to be with you. And I am going to help guide you to your next home. I promise DC, that I will share your story as long as I am able.” Others in the group took their turns having one on ones with David and then the announcement was made by Mark that we had an hour before David would be taken off life support.
I stepped outside of the room and decided to post something about David on my Facebook wall. It read, “If anyone would like me to pass on a message to DC, please message me or post here. He is surrounded by friends who love him… And will be taken off life support within the hour.” Of course, this is a touchy subject- making a public notice about our friend whose physical life was coming to an end. I took it a step further and asked DC’s friends if it would be okay to take a couple group photos of us surrounding David. Everyone present agreed that it was appropriate. No one was forced to be in the pictures. Many of us were total strangers to one another and the only thing we had in common was that not one of us was a blood-relative of David’s. The majority of the group had met David during his last nine years when he became clean and sober. We were his family.
The next hour was spent reading to David the constant flow of messages coming from several of our Facebook pages. Each time a message was read into David’s ear, his heart rate would increase, which lead us to believe that he was hearing the words of love and support we were sharing with him. We literally had hundreds of messages that continued to collect even after DC’s final hour had passed. The group joined hands, participated in group prayer, shared final thoughts, and prayed out one last time. Once the life support machines were shut down, our friend was gone within a minute. There was no struggle to be seen, just an eerie sense of emptiness. We all took our last looks at DC’s body and said our last goodbyes, parted, and went our own ways.
A week later, Mark requested that I join him and a small group of DC’s friends to go through David’s belongings. I said yes because, as I mentioned before, I do what I can when I can… and I could. We sorted his items in different piles: items to be donated, items to be on display at his memorial, stuff to be given to friends, and trash. I was sorting through a box of random items and came across a cd that was labeled “Adventures In Sobriety, 10/20/14, DC”. I asked Mark if I could take it with me and find out what was on the cd. I promised if it was of value, that I would make sure he got it back.
When I got home, I inserted the cd in my laptop, and realized I had struck gold. The cd was a 37 minute audio file of DC sharing his life experience, strength, and hope. I transfered the file to my computer, uploaded it to my Google Drive, then shared it with DC’s friends. A path was now cleared for me to help spread his message just as I had promised him. DC’s story is so inspirational and he was a survivor on so many levels. Cancer may have taken him in the end, but miraculously, he beat the odds and died a sober man.
A month later, I attended DC’s funeral and made my personal contribution of handing out copies of the cd I had found. Each person who took a copy expressed immense gratitude because they desired to once again hear his powerful message. Some had only seen David around and were curious to hear his story.
I sat towards the front of the memorial at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. The church was gorgeous, the sermons and stories shared by David’s closer friends were nice, but I found the service to be unsettling. I chose not to volunteer to speak up and say a few words because I didn’t want to seem intrusive. The friends who spoke had more experience one on one with David. I had some slight regret afterwards because I believe what I had to say would shed some light on the other side of David. The missing voice of his extended friendships that may not have always been by his side. David’s voice was heard by people who witnessed him from afar, across the room, in the nosebleed section of the auditorium. David was seen and heard… he was kind of a legend, even to those who hadn’t actually known him on a one-to-one basis.
When I got home from the memorial, once again I uploaded David’s share on his Memorial Facebook Page. Sharing it helped me feel better about not speaking up at the service.
And I also believe that David would have appreciated the gesture.
Like clockwork, this year, on March 25, 2016, I attended the annual convention again. This year, I wasn’t nervous as I was greeted, registered and welcomed into the celebration. Maybe I was less distracted, maybe I was in a better, mental place, maybe I woke up on the right side of the bed, maybe the location of the convention had something to do with it. The convention was held on the grounds of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, the same location as DC’s memorial service.
Time had mended the discombobulated feelings associated with the loss my friend. I was celebrating my 11-year Anniversary of committing to sobriety, and was proud to finally be in a place where I felt comfortable sharing my story: The story of a guy who was addicted to Crystal Methamphetamine, came to believe he needed help to fight his disease, surrendered to sobriety, achieved eleven years sober one day at a time, and learned that life isn’t easy- with or without drugs.
Though DC never had the opportunity to read this blog himself, I hope that by finally posting this I am fulfilling at least part of the promise I made to him. He was a good man, he was a brave man, but most of all he was a sober man who spent the final 8 years of his life inspiring others to overcome addiction. I hope that this blog entry, and the audio below of DC sharing his experience strength and hope might help inspire others who are struggling with achieving sobriety, and further inspire those who already have.
DC, you were loved.