Roomie (An Excerpt from my book, Big Love)

I found out from his Facebook page that my friend Kevin had died. I’d emailed him twice with a question I needed answered and hadn’t heard back from him. At first I assumed he was traveling (he was always on a plane to somewhere) but knew something was wrong when a week passed after the second email with no response. That was completely unlike him. He worked on his computer every day and was usually quick to respond to messages. Fearing the worst, I thought to check his Facebook page.

I took a deep, nervous breath and clicked on his profile.

Please don’t let him be dead. Please don’t let him be dead.

This was the first post I saw on his page: “With Kevin leaving us I am reminded of how fragile life is. I saw some movie, I don’t remember what it was, but there was this line at the end of it: What is the greatest thing we can do for one another? Be aware of one another. Be conscious of one another. Do not walk blindly through the day as you pass your brothers and sisters on the street. Godspeed, Kevin. Wherever this has taken you, I pray it is a place of joy and light and that you feel free and happy.”

Kevin was dead. Just like that. My dread of finding out that he had died didn’t prevent the shock. Through tears, I read all the comments left by all Kevin’s other friends, everyone stunned and saddened that he was no longer with us. Many shared happy memories of Kevin, and all had glowing things to say about their friend. I learned more about Kevin’s adventurous and philanthropic past and felt even deeper love and respect for him through their comments.

I wondered how many of them had learned of his death on that page, as I had. If not for Facebook, how many of us would still have imagined Kevin to be out there doing whatever it was we each knew him to do? I wondered how many of his friends still had no idea he had died.

I searched within the comments for an explanation of his death but found none. Though it wouldn’t have changed anything, I needed to know how he’d died — as though his death couldn’t be entirely real without my knowing the cause. Is it possible to learn that someone died without asking, “How?” or “What happened?” Is it possible to accept death as is, with no further explanation? It wasn’t for me.

My fear roared stronger than my curiosity: I hoped it wasn’t a prescription drug overdose.

I knew it was a prescription drug overdose.

I messaged the man who posted the movie quote to find out what had happened to my friend. He responded immediately, letting me know that Kevin had in fact overdosed on prescription drugs a month earlier. His realtor found him dead on his bedroom floor. No one knew for sure whether Kevin had killed himself intentionally or by accident, though authorities suspected suicide. Not that it mattered, really. Both possibilities felt equally tragic, either that he could’ve been so desperate and lonely he wanted to take his own life or that he could’ve been so lost in his addiction he killed himself against his will. I wanted to believe it was an accident, though. I wanted to believe he never stopped loving himself, and that he never gave up hope. And though it was difficult for me to imagine that Kevin could have considered suicide, I knew better than to rule it out. It’s impossible to know what’s really going on in someone else’s mind, even those closest to us, even when they share their struggles.

I replayed the words of the first post I read: Be aware of one another. . . . Do not walk blindly through the day as you pass your brothers and sisters on the street. The words stung. I’d been acutely aware of Kevin’s addiction to prescription drugs and chose, for a long time, to ignore it. To walk blindly around it. Now my friend was dead,...and I’d found out on his fucking Facebook page, an entire month after he’d ODed.

I moved in with Kevin in January 2007 and spent two years in his hillside Marin County home, barely twenty minutes north of San Francisco. The first time I visited his house, he and I got along so well we ended up going to lunch after I looked at the room for rent.

“I think we’ll be good roommates,” he told me, over salads. 

“I don’t need to check any references. The room’s yours if you want it.”

I wanted it.

I rented a furnished bedroom in his basement, with a lovely view of the city across the bay. I had my own bathroom and office space, and a charming downstairs living room all to myself. Kevin and I became friends. We shared meals on occasion, gave each other dating advice, and watched more than a few BBC wildlife specials together. “I could watch penguins do absolutely nothing for days,” he declared. I agreed.

We weren’t especially close friends but we cared about each other. I drove him to the emergency room during an anxiety attack that had him convinced he was having a stroke. He cut the price of my rent for a few months when my money was tight. We looked out for each other. He worked at home as a corporate event producer, the kitchen table his office. I worked as the development guy for a local production company, pitching show ideas to networks like National Geographic and Discovery Channel. He spent most of his time at home, and I spent very little time there. In many ways, we shared a perfect living situation — a lot of respect and a lot of space.

Kevin struggled with insomnia, anxiety, and chronic lower back pain from a slipped disc. He took prescription meds for each of these conditions. He’d put his trust in a psychiatrist to come up with a drug cocktail that would alleviate his ailments. And it worked. He eventually became too doped up to feel much of anything. As months passed, I’d often come home to a somewhat disoriented, slurring version of my roommate — a stark contrast to the insightful, intelligent, and eloquent man I’d come to know.

Kevin and I had a couple of conversations about his meds. “Maybe you should look for a different psychiatrist,” I gently encouraged, “at least to get a second opinion about all your prescriptions.” I told him I worried about his health, and though I believed he was addicted, I never suggested it. I put the responsibility on the doctor rather than on him, fearing he would become defensive and shut down if I hinted at addiction. I didn’t want to invite conflict. It’s amazing how much harder it is to be a good friend when being a good friend calls for more than commiseration, laughter, or BBC wildlife specials. But isn’t that one of the truest signs of friendship — being willing to piss off your friend, and even jeopardize your connection, because you care more about his well-being than anything else?

Kevin told me he planned to wean himself off the meds eventually but that his anxiety and back pain especially were too debilitating to do things differently yet. “I’m not ready,” he said. I mostly believed him. I’d seen the effects of his anxiety in more than one panic attack, and I’d watched him limp around the house at times and shriek in pain from his back. He wasn’t faking either condition. Still, I listened to my mind judge him for all the medication he took and frequently complained to my partner about Kevin’s habits.

It’s easy to judge people for their choices when we haven’t walked in their shoes. Who was I to condemn Kevin for wanting to be comfortable? I couldn’t relate to that degree of panic or pain but suspected that I, too, would want something to alleviate both if that were me. Nobody likes to suffer. 

I knew Kevin was addicted to his painkillers and that he was in denial, but I never mentioned it to him while I was living there. Even though he often slurred his speech. Even though he’d binge-eat in the middle of the night with no recollection of having woken up. Even though it had gotten increasingly difficult to catch him in an entirely lucid state. I didn’t want to get involved. I didn’t want to invest myself in his story. I didn’t want my world to be consumed by substance abuse. Not again. I grew up in a world of addiction and wanted nothing to do with Kevin’s. It was easier for me to hide out in the basement and pretend that all was well, that he would get himself together eventually.

I knew I wasn’t to blame for Kevin’s death any more than I was to blame for his addiction. We can never own the choices of another. I felt guilty, though. I could have been a much better friend. I could have cared more about his well-being than I did about my comfort. I could have put his health first, even if suggesting addiction meant being asked to leave his home, or being asked to support him through his recovery, or being asked to accept his habits as they were. It’s not for us to decide how others take care of themselves.

I could have done something more than nothing. I eventually did.

About two years before his death, while I was living in Brooklyn with my partner, Kevin and I had a long conversation over the phone. He talked about a fight he’d had with a cousin over his prescription drug usage. He’d awakened in the middle of the night and had ravaged several desserts his cousin had prepared for the next day’s Thanksgiving dinner. “I ate the entire pumpkin pie,” he laughed. “And half the cheesecake.”

His cousin exploded and told him she wanted no contact with him until he cleaned himself up — from drugs and alcohol, which he admitted he’d been consuming more and more of in recent months.

“She’s always been uptight,” he said, “and I was sick of it, anyway.” He took no responsibility for his actions, and neither of us made any references to his drug use. I didn’t speak up in the moment but knew I wouldn’t stay silent any longer, especially because Kevin seemed increasingly lost and unhappy.

Once we hung up, I wrote him an email. I told Kevin I thought he had a serious drug problem and that he was in denial, that he needed to find a new psychiatrist, and that his life was not going to improve until he made some drastic changes regarding his prescription drug habit. I told him I loved him and was there if he needed me, even though a large part of me hoped he wouldn’t need me, that he’d handle it on his own or with the support of other friends. I kept seeing flashes of my brother and father, remembering all the trauma their addictions caused our family.

I went back and forth over whether to send the email. It’s hard to speak the truth when the truth is going to hurt or when you’re not sure it’s going to make any difference. And what if Kevin did need me, even more than I’d imagined? What if he needed me as an anchor in his sobriety? I worried I might be committing myself to his life in a way that didn’t feel comfortable.

I sent the email.

Kevin responded by email a week later. To my surprise, he agreed with everything I’d written and thanked me for writing it. Since receiving my email, he’d already reached out to a new psychiatrist, as well as a psychotherapist. He had begun to make changes and said that he planned to work hard to get himself off the meds. I felt relieved by his openness and happy to know he was taking action to heal himself. Though I’d waited such a long time to bring up his addiction, and only said something once I was living across the country, safe from having to play too present a role in his journey, I still felt grateful to eventually have found the courage, and the love, to send the email. It seemed to have helped him in some way.

I don’t judge alcohol and drug addiction anymore, but I still notice myself shutting down around it, particularly when an addicted person has no interest in getting sober. Not that he has to want to get sober. We make it through this life however we can. That choice is his alone. Still, I want to sprint in the other direction, away from all the painful triggers addiction calls up in me — away from the choices of my heroin-addicted brother and my gambling-addicted father. I lived my childhood, in great part, in a world of addiction, on the receiving end of the unstable actions of addicts. Though addiction became the norm in our home, I was always aware, even as a child, of the damage my father and brother caused because of their choices.

I see how my past influenced my choices with Kevin. So often we find ourselves unwilling to face a present reality because we know, consciously or subconsciously, we’ll also have to face the past. The hardest experiences of our lives never stop living with us. They move forward into our day-to-day existence, and we are left to decide how we want to integrate the pain. Do we build walls to hide it or open doors to face it? Walls have helped me survive when I’ve needed them, but they’ve played no part in my healing. Still, I built a wall around Kevin’s addiction for a long time so I wouldn’t have to look through the open door of my childhood, to heroin and gambling and lies and death.

I know that’s okay, and that we show up however we’re able to show up for whatever situation presents itself. Healthy boundaries matter, too, especially in our friendships. We can’t always give what needs to be given. Still, I wish I had shown up stronger with Kevin sooner, even though I know it may not have made any difference at all. He would always have been the only person deciding his fate.

As far as I knew, after his response to my email, Kevin had been doing really well. I had lunch with him in New York about six months before his death, and he looked great. He had put on some weight since I’d last seen him, with a belly that seemed to me reflective of someone choosing food over drugs. He was energetic, optimistic, and refreshingly lucid. The months passed with a couple of quick texts back and forth but not much real interaction. And then he was dead, alone on his bedroom floor for who knows how long before his realtor discovered his body. I’ve tried to consider how lonely and afraid he must have felt in those moments, days, and months before he died. I still want to believe it was an accident.

It was Kevin’s birthday recently. I know, because Facebook reminded me, its algorithm obviously unaware of Kevin’s death. I clicked on his page to spend a little time with my friend. Scattered among a handful of missing you posts were dozens of Happy Birthday, Kevin! posts by those who clearly still had no idea he’d died — they still imagined him at his kitchen table surrounded by stacks of paper, or on his yearly flight to Australia, or planning some corporate or philanthropic event. To these friends, Kevin lived on. Lucky them.

I scrolled until I found the post from two years before that told me of Kevin’s death, and I reread the words that had so struck me: Be aware of one another. Be conscious of one another. Do not walk blindly through the day as you pass your brothers and sisters on the street.

I’d like to believe I’d act differently today if put in the same situation, but I don’t honestly know. We think we’ve learned lessons, until we’re given another chance, until we’re made to act. Then we see what we have or haven’t learned. I would hope to be more up front with my feelings and less inclined to put up a wall, even if I felt the need to create certain boundaries within the experience. Walls and boundaries are not the same thing; walls shut people out entirely, while boundaries invite them in, with conditions.

I’m working hard at being more real with my friends, and more available — at saying the tough things, at holding up a mirror, and at staying open to their truth when they share it with me. I fail at friendship constantly, however. I catch myself all the time biting my tongue, becoming defensive, retreating — because I worry about how my words will land, or because I’m not in the mood for a difficult conversation, or because I fear my friends won’t like me as much afterward.

I want to be a better friend than that. A more fearless friend. A less selfish friend. A friend driven by love, no matter what, and by the desire to see those I love living their best possible lives, whatever that means for them. When I had that final lunch with Kevin in New York, I felt excited to see him back on track, optimistic that he had rediscovered the path to some version of his best possible life.

Kevin was a good man — kind and smart and so very quirky. I feel lucky to have spent a couple of years as his roommate, lucky to have shared space with a man who cared for others, even when he could no longer manage to care for himself. I miss him.

I won’t stop working at being a better friend. I’ll keep pushing myself to act from love, even when love demands the most difficult conversations, or interrupts my routine, or calls on me to give more than I thought I could give. That’s the thing about love: it’s clear. When we put our trust in its instructions and follow its lead closely, we don’t need to think as much about what we’re doing or worry that we’re doing it all wrong. We just have to be present in its energy and listen to however it’s asking us to show up.

Then, we have to show up.