July 17, 2014
I last saw Joey five years ago, just before he started over. He was a mess back then. Thin and shaky and unkempt. A shadow of the man who was once a boy I called a friend. He was still sick. Still “fighting the bear,” as he called it. He was in the pit, yes. But at least he was looking up toward the light. For the first time in nearly ten years, he was smiling.
His life had followed the same downward spiral that more and more people in this area had taken before him. Booze had turned to pills and pills to meth. He had no idea that the foggy paradise he thought he’d found was in reality a grave that was being dug around him. I’m not sure what finally managed to take hold of him as he tottered on the edge of an eventual overdose, whether it was his wife and kids finally leaving him or getting fired from his job. Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was God. Whatever it was, it worked. That Something grabbed hold of Joey and refused to let go.
He entered counseling. AA and NA and nearly every other A you could imagine. Joey made his peace and asked for forgiveness and learned to rely on a Higher Power. The road to healing was a slow process and a brutal one, but then the road to all good things usually is.
“I need to start over,” he told me that day.
He was moving. Away from the temptations that had nearly killed him and had cost him so much. West. Colorado maybe, or maybe Montana. Joey had always loved the mountains, and the Rockies seemed the place to go.
“You know how the mountains here are smooth?” he asked me. “It’s because they’re old. They’ve been worn down by time. The Rockies aren’t like that. They’re still sharp. I’m tired of feeling worn. I want to be sharp again.”
So he left, taking that winding path West that so many once trod in search of freedom and a better life. I understood. We all needed to start over sometimes. And we all yearned for a new place to do it, a place where our sins wouldn’t follow and we could be judged by who we’ve become rather than who we once were.
I told him to keep in touch and he did. There were emails and phone calls and even an old fashioned letter or two. Doing good, he said. Weather’s perfect, he said. Joey found work and a home and bought a dog to keep him company, a Siberian husky with one blue eye and one brown one. He named him Crackhead.
The Rockies soon lost their appeal, though. As it turned out, there was just as much temptation out West as there had been down South. Joey wrote to say he was heading for Alaska to find work on a fishing boat. He’d always wanted to do that.
The years went on. Emails and phone calls stopped. I thought nothing of it. Time and life often get in the way of friendships like currents that push ships apart and send them on separate courses upon the same ocean. I was here and he was there, and somehow that knowing alone made things okay.
I was catching up with an old friend last week when Joey’s name came up. I wondered aloud whatever had happened to him.
“You didn’t hear?” my friend asked. “Joey died a year ago.”
I didn’t want to believe it, but it was true. He’d heard the news from Joey’s mother just after it had happened. They’d found him in his apartment. The needle was still in his arm.
I thought about Joey today. No reason, really. Sometimes things just pop into your head, memories that you haven’t quite sorted out and found reason in yet.
All Joey wanted was a chance to start over. To leave his problems behind. Most addicts are like that, I think. They’re prisoners unto themselves, chained by a desire that goes beyond want and straight into need. They hate what they do as much as the people who love them hate it. They hate it more.
But there is a catch to starting over, and it’s this—no matter where we go, we always take ourselves with us. And not just our hopes and our dreams. Our frailties and our wounds, too.
The Billy Coffey Collection