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Beautiful boy

One of the teens I worked with died last week. A boy (truly a boy, not yet old enough to be called a man) whose battle with addictions had raged for much of his young life.

He walked through our doors a few years ago and asked for help. He admitted being addicted to crack and expressed a desire to receive treatment for this addiction. We managed to find him a bed the very same night he came in asking for help. This was a miraculous event, one that almost never happens (as treatment centers for youth are chronically overloaded) yet this type of urgency, immediacy is completely necessary. Sometimes a delay of even one day can be enough time for a kid to change their mind and bam, you’ve lost them, won’t see them again for weeks, sometimes months.

When we sent him to rehab he looked rough, but still healthy. You could see that the drugs were taking their toll but he still had some baby fat, the rounded face and full cheeks. Light in his eyes. When we next saw him, the last last time I saw him, he had been back from treatment for a few months, he came to sit in the office and I asked him how it went, “Good” he said, smiling “It did what it was supposed to do- I’m not addicted to crack anymore.”

I congratulated him and we sat and talked a little more about the facility, the therapy. Then he told me he was “doing a little meth now and then.”

Fuck, I remember thinking, this is bad.

No one is a casual meth user. It was written on his face, sallow skin and sunken cheeks, he was thinner than I’d ever seen him. Twitchy. He didn’t look like a boy anymore, he looked broken and worn. Meth is the worst thing ever to happen to addicts. It’s fast-acting, cheap and incredibly, devastatingly addictive. So of course we talked about that, I broached the subject of going back to treatment. “No” he said, “Not yet.”

Eventually he left and I never saw him again. And then this. Slowly over the past week, rumours started to trickle in, bits and pieces of the story. Yesterday it was confirmed when we read his obituary, there in black and white. His family had used an old picture, one where he was still babyfaced and smiling.

I imagine ripples of culpability are spreading amongst those who knew him. It’s almost impossible, when you have played a part (however small) in an addicts life, not to imagine how you could have somehow prevented this sad, seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Could you have pushed harder? Insisted on yet one more stint in rehab? Demanded it? Offered more support? Used tough love, let them know that they were loved? At the end of it all, these unanswerable questions, what if’s and possible ways it could have been different (if only it could have been different) are all that we’re left with, because by the time it comes down to a funeral, that smiling, babyfaced person in the memorial photos has been gone a long, long time.

Addicts burn a lot of bridges. They lie, cheat, manipulate and steal. They break your trust over and over, and then they ask you to trust them again. The addiction takes control and destroys their closest relationships along with their health and of course, sometimes their lives. People close to long-term addicts will almost always reach the point where they have to let go. And lest you judge, lest you sit back and say you could never do that, I can almost guarantee you that you would. If you lived years and years of this loss, watching your son or sister or friend find new and terrible ways to hit rock bottom, at some point the pain of letting go would seem far better than the alternative. At some point you might decide that despite continuing to provide for their basic needs (clothing, food), it becomes necessary to shut off the emotional connection to this lost person.

At some point the day to day reality of being betrayed and abused over and over again by someone who has become all but unrecognizable becomes too much. It hurts too much.

And of course that’s where we come in. Social workers, youth workers, clinicians at treatment centres and staff at homeless shelters. We are just removed enough to keep trying; it is our job to keep trying.

If only it could have been different.

I don’t believe drugs are the problem. My dime-store psychology take on this, from experience and observation, is that heavy drug use is almost always a symptom of a deeper, more nefarious issue, one that takes more than a 14-day rehab stay to conquer. The quick fix a high gives is almost always serving as a cheap approximation of what love feels like, what belonging feels like. At some level, most addicts do not feel they are good people, do not feel they are worthy of a good life. Sometimes they do not feel they are worthy of life at all.

They use to escape that reality and eventually they use to escape life altogether.

It makes my heart hurt to see his picture in this context, his lopsided, hopeful smile. I feel disgusted that this happened, that we allowed this to happen. I think of the handful of youth I know right now who are on this same road and my hands feel tied. I can talk, I can cajole, I can insist. But I can’t force them against their will and they know it. If I push too hard they won’t come back, yet if I don’t push hard enough I might be here again in a year looking at a different chubby face and a different hopeful smile.

Last year the funding for our Youth Drug and Alcohol Counselor was cut. I don’t have words to express my feelings on this. It isn’t good enough. We are failing an entire generation. We need to try and understand addiction at a deeper level. We need to end this bullshit “War on Drugs” and tackle the bigger issues that require long-term effort, instead of quick media-friendly soundbites and statistics.

We need to push harder for treatment centres that go beyond addressing a physical addiction, we need to push for more prevention, more counseling, more family support.

In the meantime though, there’s yet another goodbye.

Goodbye to that beautiful boy who sat in my office and smiled like he could see what was coming but, like me, felt powerless to change it.

Edited to add: I do not want to overstate my role either as a youth worker, or in this boys life. Although we deal with many youth struggling with addictions issues, a typical day at my job is more likely to involve running my gardening program or helping teens write resumes rather than mourning their deaths. And although (obviously) this boys death has hit me hard, I don’t want to lay claim to more of his life than I have right to. I find that too often in death, strangers call themselves acquaintances, acquaintances call themselves best friends. My interactions with this boy probably spanned a cumulative total of a dozen or so hours and we were one of a handful of people trying to help him. So.