A person is drowning in a pool. To those on the surface, the pool appears fairly shallow, that the person drowning could easily get out of their situation by simply standing up. But below the water, the depth is infinite. There’s a powerful suction that appears at random. Waves knock the person down constantly. To those above, it appears the waves are simply caused by the drowning person splashing. And maybe they are, but it doesn’t matter — they’re still there. And the person chokes and coughs and desperately tries not to sink. The people above throw lifesavers the drowning person can’t reach, even though to the above it looks like it would be so simple just to grab hold. Those above are angry, sad. The below can’t hold on much longer before their lungs fill and they’re lost for good.
And all along, what no one has noticed is the one next to the drowning person. This person is also drowning. But they are not the drowning person. No one is trying to save this person. This person cannot save themselves, they cannot save the drowning person, they can only choke back chemically treated water and wonder if they’ve kicked too much or not enough, or if they are the reason the drowning person got in the pool in the first place. They grab and slap and beg the drowning person to come with them but the drowning person can’t or won’t hear them, because their own splashing is so powerful. Next to this person is a staircase that easily leads out of the water. But if they take the stairs, the drowning person will be gone forever. This person is gasping, just like the drowning person. They are just as scared. They are just as dying. And no one can see it. No one cares. Those above blame the drowning person for drowning, and the other one for being there at all.
This is what it can mean to love an addict.
Much has been made of Carrie Fisher’s cause of death over the last few days. The news of what was in her system at the moment we all lost her has been met with gossip, derision, anger and a sense of betrayal, betrayal that she could turn her back on sobriety and life so easily, as though it’s ever easy at all.
To love an addict is to be enraged by this response, because you know it’s all bullshit, that it’s a fundamental societal misunderstanding or refusal to understand addiction and mental illness. And because, despite every screaming muscle that knows better straining to stop you from feeling this way, you feel it too.
I think of Carrie Fisher, who dedicated her life to telling her story, to helping people with her experiences. Those experiences matter and count and they are not undone by a toxicology report, chemical strains found in a vial of blood. I think of Billie Lourd, who lost so much so quickly, and who has been forced into the role of legacy defender. Who understood her mother so well, who is using her pain and loss to speak out about mental health and stigma, who is so strong at such a young age, no doubt in part because of what they went through together, but who likely also feels things she doesn’t want to feel but can’t help, like that same anger, rage and betrayal she desperately wants no one else to feel, and likely feels that same anger, rage and betrayal at herself for feeling those things. I think of Debbie Reynolds who was in so much pain that it killed her, because so many times I’ve thought it would kill me too.
Addiction is a cruel, terrible illness. It maims and kills and destroys. And not just the addict. In the wake of this disease, others fall. We feel everything. We remember everything, even what the person we love doesn’t and won’t. Their story is our story but it’s not our own, relegating us to supporting characters in our own lives. We cannot save this person. The only way to save ourselves is to walk away and that can be so impossible that it’s not an option, like cutting off a limb trapped under a tree.
Carrie Fisher made a difference. Carrie Fisher was good and powerful and made us feel good and powerful and unalone. Nothing and no one can take that away from her. But Billie and Debbie, and every other person whose lungs are full and can’t hold on much more but may have to hold on forever, we see you. And whatever you’re feeling, no matter how much you want not to, just know there are those of us treading water beside you. And eventually we’ll make it to land.