In May of last year, almost a year ago, my dear friend and former roommate Welby died. Cause of death was respiratory failure due to an overdose of heroin. He was 25.
I’ve often felt that one of the more common failings of those of us who value reason and rationality is a denial of our emotions. Our false and untenable aspiration towards Spockhood. We know that emotions can distort our perceptions and lead us into faulty lines of reasoning. That’s true. But where we often make the mistake is when we try to shed them or imagine ourselves as “above” emotions. They are an inextricable part of being human… one of the ways our brains work. You really can’t separate emotional processes from cognitive processes as a whole. Were the achievement of moving beyond our emotions and subjectivity even possible, the best we could accomplish is an impoverishment of our experience of our all too limited time in this world.
What commonly happens in those who fancy themselves above the influence of emotion is, rather than achieving a greater degree of rational objectivity, one becomes beholden to emotional influence instead. One doesn’t develop the necessary skills to recognize, understand and adapt to emotional changes, or even to perceive emotional influence when it is there. “I AM NOT OVERREACTING!!! I AM BEING RATIONAL!!! IT WAS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE AND HORRENDOUS THAT YOU WOULD LOAD THE DISHWASHER AND FORGET TO HIT ‘START’!!!”
So in my efforts as a skeptic, as a person who values truths (as dark as they may be) over falsehoods (as comforting as they may be), I seek not to rid myself of my human fallibility and emotional subjectivity. I seek instead to understand it and learn to cope.
All those of us who have tried to rid ourselves of as many of the comforting falsehoods as we can face particular difficulty when it comes to dealing with death. We can’t tell ourselves that our loved ones are in a better place, or that we will see them again some day. They are gone. They aren’t there any more. They never will be again. And the rest of us simply need to carry on as best we can. This is unimaginably difficult… reconciling oneself with the absence of an afterlife, the fact that those who are gone really are gone and we really won’t ever see them again, that that longing for their company we feel in our hearts will never be resolved, is far more difficult than accepting there’s no creator. The one thing that still gives me those pangs of regret that I’m not still a believer is that; the knowledge that those I’ve lost are truly lost. And the only thing that keeps me hanging on to my resolve in atheism and skepticism in those moments of doubt, sadness and loss is how palpable a reminder that is of the danger of faith- the power of what we want to be true over what we know to be true.
But skepticism is not necessarily useless in the face of these losses, nor is it only a source of pain.
When Welby passed away, I was faced with a tremendous wave of unfamiliar and difficult emotions. Despite the dangerous life I’ve lived in society’s dodgy margins, I’ve been amazingly lucky in avoiding the worst that can come from such an existence.
My first experience with death was my nagy, my grandfather, Zoli, a psychiatrist who specialized, as it happens, with geriatric patients and the confrontation with mortality. But I was young then, when he died and hadn’t nearly the depth to grasp what it meant. I also, at the time, had my faith and the concept of heaven to lean on.
The second experience was my TA Rachel Corrie, who in late 2002 left for Gaza to do protest work on behalf of the Palestinian people. She never came back. In March 2003 she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer as she attempted to act as a human shield protecting a Palestinian home. She was standing upright, wearing an orange vest and speaking through a megaphone. The driver knew she was there, and drove forward anyway.
The subsequent media circus, with its intense surreality, completely distorted and compromised my ability to work through what it meant to lose a peer; a bright, shining, passionate young woman only a couple years my senior, with just as much of her future ahead of her as my own. All these years I’ve lived since, that she should have had too, are what marks the weight of that tragedy.
Since then, there wasn’t much… my grandma, but I didn’t know her very well. And the loss of an acquaintance to an overdose occurred in January 2011, shortly before Welby’s death, but he was nowhere near as close as Welby had been. Despite living my dodgy existence, I had been lucky in avoiding the worst that can come from such an existence. Welby was not so lucky.
There but for the grace of chance rest I?
Welby and I had been roommates and “partners in crime”. We began using together. We had the same hook-ups. We descended into addiction arm in track-scarred arm. We scored for one another. We shared rigs. We helped shoot one another up when we couldn’t find veins. We sabotaged each other’s efforts at sobriety. “I need to make it to Friday clean. If I can do that, I’ll be good” “Come on, man, who are you kidding? You know you can’t make it that far. Fuck it. Let’s go see Nova.”
There’s an intense bond that develops through that process. Something that I don’t think could really ever be articulated to someone who has never been in such a dark, mutually destructive pair-bonding. We were each other’s oblivion, and oblivion is exactly what we were seeking.
But it didn’t last. Though we began down that road together, we didn’t share it to the end. I eventually bolted and made an escape to England where I tried to get clean (and sank into alcoholism instead). He made an escape to Sioux Falls and attempted the same (with similar results). I moved to Vancouver, and relapsed. He headed to Portland, and relapsed. And there our paths became different.
In Vancouver I had access to our safe injection site, Insite, which kept me safe and healthy and ultimately offered me access to the services I required, such as methadone maintenance, to eventually get clean. He did not. He lived in the United States with its absolute prioritization of enforcement-based approaches to “the drug problem” over the science-based model of harm reduction. The United States, where the healthcare system is privatized and the social safety net is being steadily dismantled bit by bit, year by year… where nobody cares if a junkie dies, because hey, they’re just junkies, they made their choice.
I also had my way out. My demons were categorizable, addressable. I could give a name to them (“Gender Identity Disorder”) and find a solution. The pain Welby was trying to numb was abstract, had no name, and had no immediate solutions.
In short, I got lucky.
So there I was, alive, closing the e-mail that carried the news. My heart was beating. Blood cells rushing through my now healing veins. My lungs were breathing.The spring sunshine felt warm against my skin. And Welby was gone. We had begun down the same road, and ended at completely opposite destinations. Had I even ended at all? I was better, I was happy…honestly happier than I had ever been. I don’t think I ever even got the chance to tell him I was transitioning. And he was gone.
Making it worse was that I couldn’t say I deserved any better. It certainly wasn’t because I was stronger. It wasn’t because I’d made better choices. I wasn’t a better person. I had simply been dealt a better hand. Born in the right country. Living in the right city. Having the right tools and access to the right services. More easily resolved inner conflicts. Wounds that could heal.
And what comfort could I draw? What God could I turn to with whom to find consolation or absolution? How could I believe Welby was at rest, that his pain was gone? There was no more pain, sure. But there was no more Welby, either.
But the skepticism wasn’t cynicism. And I don’t scorn my emotions or shirk them. As said, I’ve sought to understand them. I knew what I was feeling and believed myself capable of working through it.
This was survivor’s guilt. This was grief. This was dealing with a foreign emotion, a foreign experience. It was difficult, yes, but it would pass. And while I had no false comforts, I was able to steer away from assigning false blame or engaging in magical thinking.
I knew that nothing that had happened was my responsibility. I knew that there was no real connection between my fate and his. While I was incapable of believing that I deserved to live, I also was incapable of believing that I didn’t. I could sidestep the tempting belief that my survival came at his expense. I had no fear of he or I being punished with damnation for our transgressions. I knew that I needn’t feel any guilt for my survival or the fact that I had overcome our illness.
And mostly I knew what my emotions were… that they were emotions, not reason. They were a rich and beautiful and important aspect of being human, of enjoying the time we do have, but they do not dictate the realities of a given situation. And they are transient. They move through us, and we through them, and when this is over they pass on. The experience remains with us, the grief, the loss… and in a sense binds to those aspects of an individual that stay with us. But we remain. We are alive. We move forward. We go on waking up, making our coffee, getting the paper, taking a shower, having my Frosted Flakes.
This is what life is. A series of transient experiences, a set of perspectives, some emotional responses. They pass, and we may enjoy them or be hurt by them while they’re here, and hopefully we allow ourselves to live them. We needn’t deny them and we needn’t feel they control us or our realities. They just are and then are gone. It’s what we have, and that’s enough.
Welby is gone. I’m alive. I miss him. I’ll remember him.