Three guys died when I was at the halfway house: Chris, Arturo, and Luke. They all died right after I left in pretty quick succession. Each one hurt like a motherfucker.
I haven’t been to war, so I can’t comment on what that experience is like, but people who go through rehab or a halfway house walk a tough road together and not all of them make it. We knew we faced a powerful adversary that demanded respect. Unlike combat, the adversary was inside of us.
Chris was the ﬁrst of my friends to die. He was a “rock star” and had been in a band whose videos I’d watched on MTV in the ’80s. He was the prototypical rock dude; tall, incredibly skinny, with long dark hair and puffy bangs. When he checked into the halfway house, he had a big abscess on his arm from where he’d gotten infected shooting up speedballs. Speedballs! Coke and heroin shot into your arm—the shit that killed John Belushi. I am laughing thinking about it; who in the fuck does that unless they are fully 100 percent at peace with dying at ANY moment?
What’s funny to me is that I never really did drugs. I smoked a lot of pot, but I’m among those who think that doesn’t really count. Not that it can’t make your life shitty and boring and a little shorter due to pizza overindulgence and general malaise, but there are certainly plenty of perfectly well-adjusted people who smoke a doob now and then and suffer, roughly, no negative consequences. I’d take “pills” if they were handed out, and I took acid once and did mushrooms and smoked opium a few times. But that’s it. I never did coke or heroin. I believed, as I was told growing up, that crack was indeed whack, so that never called out to me. I have an explanation for that. In 1986, the Boston Celtics drafted 22-year-old Len Bias, a preternaturally gifted forward from the University of Maryland. I was nine. Right before he was supposed to join the team for training, he did some coke at a party, immediately had a heart attack, and fucking died. It was the ﬁrst time I’d heard of cocaine and it was introduced to me as something that killed beautiful athletes. So COCAINE WILL KILL YOU IF YOU TRY IT EVEN ONCE was permanently imprinted on me.
Even when I was an abject alcoholic scumbag, years deep into my booze problem, riding the subway IN THE MORNING with visibly urine-soaked pants, I remained terriﬁed of coke, even though, as we know, booze kills more people than every other drug combined and then multiplied.
Chris, despite his rock-star looks, was quite down to earth and fun to be around. I got a charge out of talking to someone that “cool.” He would have correspondingly “rock”-y chicks visit him at the halfway house. They had dyed blond hair, tight outﬁts, and big fake boobs.
Most nights, a gang of us, including Chris, would go and occupy a corner of a little frozen yogurt shop in West L.A. You’d have guys just out of jail, actual rock stars, guys who’d been living on the street, and tall, gangly me in my two casts from a recent car accident. Every night I’d get chocolate and vanilla swirled in a cup with crumbled Heath bar on top. My urge to eat sweets in the months after quitting drinking was INSANE. A lot of other people I’ve spoken to have said the same thing; they developed a crazy sweet tooth in early sobriety.
I don’t remember what Chris would order at Yogurt Town, but we probably went there 10 times together. Then I left the halfway house, and a short while later he shot up the speedball that killed him. The last time I’d spoken to him he was excited about some session work he was going to do with David Bowie.
The second friend to die was Arturo. He was a short Mexican bass player from Austin. I liked him right away because he had a Danzig tattoo. Anybody who felt strongly enough about the bands of Glenn Danzig to emblazon his weird goat/devil skull on his shoulder was A-OK in my book.
Arturo was just a little cutie pie, really. He was warm and pleasant and fun to be around, but Arturo was also a crack smoker. One day Arturo came to me with a quandary. He told me that he’d met a guy at group therapy and went to his house. They hung out a bit and the guy showed him some records and gave him a soda or something. Then he asked Arturo if he’d like to jerk off with him. “No touching each other or anything; we’ll just jerk off together. No big deal.” Arturo declined and later that day he asked me what I thought. He said, “I don’t know—is it rude that I told him no? He’s a nice guy and everything.”
I wanted to cry. What a little snuggle mufﬁn he was! He was really young and despite drug addiction hadn’t been out in the world enough or seen enough good behavior modeled to know that it is a major-league-wacky anomaly for straight dudes to take out their dongs and play with them together even if they don’t touch. I told him that jerking off was off the table for social situations. I told him that was nonnegotiable and that even if he, Arturo, and I were friends for years to come, I would never ever ask him to jerk off with and/or near me. I told him that as “nice” as the dude might be in other areas, it was a very, very awful idea to jerk off with someone you’ve just met at a group therapy meeting at a hospital.
In addition to eating a lot of sugary foods in early sobriety, it can also be tempting to jerk off all the time. The desire for human comfort and closeness can be acute. A hug is like Christmas—or at least it was for me. Some people don’t want to be touched at all, I’m sure. Whatever your wants and perceived needs are at that stage, you are nothing if not raw. So a young kid from out of town, giving up his crutch of drugs, would be very vulnerable to a “kind” stranger and would and should be forgiven for wondering, “Should I jerk off with this guy?” You don’t know. He didn’t know. He was lonely and fucked up and learning how to live.
I don’t know what happened when Arturo left the house and went back to Austin, but it wasn’t good, because a few weeks later we got word that he’d shot himself. I don’t know what to say beyond that. I don’t know if he got high and did it or if the prospect of living without getting high was so unappealing that he didn’t want to live at all. And I never will know. But I know that he was a good guy and I enjoyed the couple of months I got to spend with him.
The third friend who died was Luke, an emergency room doctor and one of the most handsome guys I’ve ever seen. He was muscular and blond and blue-eyed. He looked like Captain Mister Doctor Nordic America. It’d be tempting to hate a guy like that on sight, but he was nice, too. He helped me interpret my intake paperwork from when I was admitted to the emergency room after my accident.
It was all fairly self-explanatory, but there was one anatomical phrase that I didn’t understand. It said, “There is no blood present at the meatus.” I’d never seen the word “meatus.” It sounded very terribly disgusting and I gathered it was good that there was no blood “present” at it.
After Luke and I had been shooting the breeze about various emergency room shenanigans he’d seen, I remembered to ask him what a meatus was, and he told me it was the opening of the urethra at the tip of the penis. Or the vagina. What a fucking awful word. It has “meat” in it but then it’s pronounced as a three-syllable word with two for “meat,” so “mee-ay-tus.” Yuck. It’s a strong candidate for my least favorite word. It’s as gross as calling it a “penis meat-hole.” If there are any doctors reading this, please band together and push to just have it called a penis meat-hole. Don’t pull any punches.
Luke was at a halfway house because he’d become addicted to Oxycontin. It’s generally accepted that doctors as a population have a higher percentage of addicts than non-doctors. And when they have ready access to delightful drugs, it’s easy to imagine them indulging. Though I’d never taken them before I got sober, I was prescribed Vicodin and was given Dilaudid at the hospital and those drugs felt utterly wonderful coursing through my veins. But therein lies the rub; you feel too good when you take them. Your arm or head or whatever’s been injured might still throb, but you note the “pain” and think, “Throb away, lil’ buddy, I am too busy doing lazy somersaults through the ether with Jesus.” So they’re incredibly dangerous.
Shortly after I left the house, I got a call from one of the guys and he told me that Luke had OD’d and died. I was crushed. He was a doctor and so fucking handsome and smart and nice. Shouldn’t all that have added up into some sort of cosmic or karmic armor that protected him? What was his fucking SAT score? I ﬁgured Luke was just lured by his easy access to prescription meds and that he would get it together after getting burned. How were people like me supposed to stay sober if handsome doctors could just up and relapse and die?
A few days later his brother called me. I’d never met his brother, but he’d gotten phone numbers of some of the guys Luke had told him about and decided to call them. He cried as he spoke to me and I’m crying right now thinking about it. He asked me to stay sober because he didn’t want anybody else to die like his brother did. He loved his brother and he called me, a stranger, to ask me to not get loaded again and die, to honor his brother. I don’t know about the value of blood pacts or oaths, but I know that when I recall that conversation, with me sitting on the edge of my bed, stunned and crying, listening to another man cry, I am prompted to stay the fuck sober and try to help others do the same.
Naturally, in the years since, other people I met in the early days have died, but those three guys all died within weeks of one another, immediately after I’d left the house. It was like the grim reaper swooped through my pals, cutting them down, saying, “Fuck you clowns. You think this is a joke?” I think of Chris, Arturo, and Luke a lot. I really feel them in me, sort of seated in my heart and along for the ride. I feel stronger when I think about them too. I cry, of course, but they’re not just cautionary tales to me; they’re not excuses to say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” they’re my friends and I sort of think of it like we’re on the path together. They may have vacated their earthly bodies, but they’re welcome to ride in my hairy, borrowed vessel to reach the goal, whatever it may be. And I don’t know what it is, but I do feel compelled to do what Luke’s brother asked of me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I imagine miniature versions of them, in my pockets, shooting the breeze as I walk into Yogurt Town to get us all treats.
This post is adapted from Rob Delaney's Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.