The Heartbreaking Way I Realized My Ex Was Addicted To Heroin

Photographed by Jessica Nash
People are obsessed with the concept of a zombie apocalypse: hordes of the undead, including former loved ones, walking the streets with hungry snarls and blank stares as if in constant pain and unrest, looking to eat you body and soul until you feel the same way they do — tortured and alone. I’ve seen what that apocalypse looks like firsthand — in the form of loved ones dealing with heroin addiction.

For as long as I can remember, I have known what heroin is. My dad was a drug and alcohol counselor, and when I was a kid, we would regularly run into his clients, in supermarkets and state fairs and on the street. They would thank him, and it wasn't uncommon for me to be told, “Your dad saved my life.” I grew up with the knowledge that heroin was just about the worst thing that existed.

Then Cody came into my life. I first met him the summer before college when I was dating someone else. Cody was sitting on top of my car, in baggy jeans, hair hanging in his face, playing a guitar — like I had given someone a checklist of my ideal boy, and they’d created him and placed him on top of my green Geo Prism. All that was missing was the big red shiny ribbon. It was like a scene from a John Green novel. He was friends with the younger emo kid I had been summer-flinging with, and I spent the evening hanging out with a bunch of musician dudes and their girlfriends, staring at Cody. He drove me home later that night, and we talked for hours in my driveway. I left for college a week later, found myself single a few weeks after that, and fell completely head over heels batshit crazy in love with Cody a few months later (thanks, Myspace!).

His demons were morose and real, but he funneled them into music and beer and weed — normal teenage stuff. We jumped off waterfalls and explored abandoned houses and sang throaty renditions of Third Eye Blind songs to each other, living in that “right this moment” way you only really can when you're 18. But one year together turned into three turned into four, and he still lived with his toxic, super-Christian, unsupportive family, and rarely had a job that lasted over a month. He was never not drinking. Soon, I decided to move to New York, and I didn't want him to come with me. He helped me move, and I broke both our hearts for us.

The first time I found a tiny empty bag inside his dresser, we weren't technically together anymore. I was home visiting for a week and needed to see him as an escape from family drama. Both of my younger sisters were struggling with addiction, which was manifesting itself in needles and bottles and pills and lies and pawn shops and stolen money and cold, blank stares of narcissism and indifference. I needed a distraction, so I called him, unknowingly leaving two addicts for another one.

We snuck whiskey into a movie and made out in his kitchen while his family slept, pretending nothing had changed. He looked gaunt, but he always looked gaunt. He was bruised, but he was always bruised. He told me the bag was coke but he wasn't doing it anymore. I chose to believe him and went back to my life in New York.

I wouldn't see him again until the fall that my dad became very, very sick. I had moved on for the most part (except that piece of you that never falls out of love with your first), and was with a man I loved. He would drive me five hours to sit by my dad's hospital bedside while my dad grimaced in confusion from morphine and let me read Harry Potter to him. One weekend when I was visiting alone, I called Cody — the hospital was only a few miles from his house, and he had always loved my dad. I thought he should know; I couldn't imagine him not knowing. He showed up within a few hours, looking gray. It was jarring to see how much older he seemed. Tired. When he left, my sister — freshly sober — pulled me aside and said, “Lyz, that's heroin.” I had no idea.

When he called me a few days later on my birthday, I told him that my dad had died. I sobbed to him sitting in my mom's minivan in the parking lot of a Buffalo Exchange, and he just listened. Then he gently asked if he could come to the wake, if it would be appropriate, and I asked him to please come. He never showed.

When he left, my sister — freshly sober — pulled me aside and said, 'Lyz, that's heroin.'

A year and a half passed, with nothing but sporadic rumors about Cody. Old friends he owed money to, track marks and overdoses, a new flame he moved to Ohio with — a sweet-looking girl who caught the bullet I had dodged. I thought of him less and less and then hardly at all.

Two years went by, and then calls from Ohio started showing up on my phone. I didn't pick up, until the phone rang so frequently I couldn’t keep ignoring it.

He was sober and single and alone; my number appeared to him in a dream and he had to call. He sounded good, if a little sad. He asked me about my life, telling me about meetings and sponsors and the job he was going to start soon. He was no longer playing music. We spoke like old friends, a wisp of nostalgia hanging over the conversation, and we agreed to try to be in touch more often. I hung up feeling a sense of rest, like now he was okay.

Then he started asking me for money. Everything slammed into garish clarity as he asked me for “even $5” until his job started. I fought back cold tears and told him no, we no longer had that kind of relationship. I was sorry. I thought that voice had sounded familiar, a vaguely selfish twinge of desperation, a outward sign of an inner demon — it was the same voice I’d hear from my sisters when they were using. I can recognize the demon of heroin addiction now, that stench of uncontrollable need. I can also recognize the feeling of my heart sinking from the blind hope that just this once, he was telling the truth.

Then Cody started Facebook messaging my friends for money. I’d get texts from people asking if I was okay, if I was back with him, what was going on. The disease of addiction knows no shame. I contacted his most recent ex, who told me he had stolen money from her and now wouldn't leave her alone. I recommended Al-Anon and gracefully bowed out.

I was filled with a dizzying combination of feelings. I would hear from him a few more times, the calls beginning with a recorded voice asking if I would “accept the charges” from my hometown's local jail. I didn't know why he was there. I never answered.

I like to think that the sweet boy who sat on top of my car that summer still exists somewhere, but I mourn him like he died years ago.

Addiction is always the same creature waiting with gnarled teeth, a charismatic wink, and a smooth tongue. It comes wearing warm and comfortable clothing from your youth (a navy-blue sweatshirt, a worn-in band tee), bringing jokes and sweetness and an agenda. It latches on for dear life, begging to take the lives of all who feed it, asking for money and sympathy and your time, toothpaste and milk and cars and cell phone payments and just $20 sent via Western Union for groceries.

Today, both of my sisters are clean and sober. After watching heroin steal so many moments and years of joy from them, their bodies starving and begging for nourishment, the fact that they are both alive and fighting makes them my heroes.

There is no such thing as an old heroin addict. Aging alcoholics can live for decades drinking through that disease’s rheumy-eyed pain. With heroin, you get clean, or you die. I hope he gets clean. I hope a day will come when I don't check the local obituaries for his name.

For you, Cody, I still have hope you'll find your way out of this ugly apocalypse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.

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