I met my first angel in rehab, and she appeared in the form of a heroin addict named Joanie.
She introduced herself to me while I was sitting on the back porch of a brand new women’s sober living facility, searching for my cigarettes in a tattered Jansport backpack filled with dirty clothes. At the time, it was the only possession to my name.
I was 21 and strung out on meth and alcohol and my parents had somehow managed to negotiate with me, the terrorist in their lives, and get me to agree to enter rehab. At 6 feet tall I weighed a little less than 100 pounds. My hair was stringy and falling out, my face was covered in acne, my eyes vacant and lifeless. Addiction appeared to have robbed me of everything, including the ability to love and be loved.
As I rifled through my backpack on that porch, my hand brushed against a familiar plastic baggie. My heart raced, and I looked around to see if anyone was watching as I pulled out an old and previously forgotten bag of weed from the zippered front pocket. I needed relief from the pounding in my head and the fear in my blood, and this was just what I was looking for. I felt the familiar excitement, mixed with something else. A little doubt? Maybe.
I quietly wrestled with my demons while turning the worn plastic baggie over and over in my fingers.
Then a voice came from a figure hunched over at the top of the steps. The sound was coarse and cool, yet still held the softness of a female tone.
“You need to get rid of it or its going to call to you, and you know you won’t be able to stop.”
I turned, startled and surprised that I hadn’t noticed anyone sitting there before. I quickly shoved the weed back into my bag, and casually lit my cigarette.
“Hey.” I said, trying to stay cool even though I was l convinced I had just been busted by a staff member.
I glanced in the direction of the voice, catching a brief sight of its owner. I guessed that she was probably in her mid-fifties, and her face wore the familiar pattern of the many sleepless nights harrowing stories and hardened truths so many of us from the streets can recognize in each other right away.
“Hey back.” She answered quickly. Then she looked me right in the eye.
“You need to get rid of that stuff. If you keep it, it’s going to call to you and then you are going to use it. If you want, we can have a funeral for it in the bathroom and flush it down the toilet. Lets go.”
These words, spoken out loud by an unknown woman and left hanging between us in the still afternoon air, were saturated with the most truth I had heard in a while. They hit me hard. They destroyed all my rationalizations and great ideas about how good it might feel to find quick relief in that plastic bag. I knew I was fucked if I gave in to the drugs one more time.
For reasons I have never been able to explain, I got up and followed this small woman with the hunched shoulders and long greying hair to the tiny bathroom on the first floor of a new house, and flushed the only thing that had ever kept me sane down the toilet. There was no eulogy or flowers, and the finality of it was brutal.
“There,” she said, matter-of-factly, “Its done. Want to go to a meeting with me?”
Before I even had time to mourn the loss of my weed, I again I found myself following my mysterious new roommate to a place I didn’t want to go, simply because with her it felt like there wasn’t any other option. She told me her name was Joanie.
It wasn’t long before Joanie and I went everywhere together, and I moved my belongings into her room in the house and slept in the extra bunk next to hers. I learned that she had been a hope-to-die heroin addict for many years, and like me her odds of survival had been pretty slim. I felt safe with her, and she had a calming effect on me that no one else seemed able to harness. In my unsure world, Joanie became my sanctuary.
I loved going on outings with her, and small everyday activities always seemed more important because of the way Joanie experienced life. If she saw something like fresh flowers displayed at a local farmer’s market, she would demand that we stop to look at and smell every bunch.
“Wooowww,” she would say, barely above a whisper, as though she didn’t want to shatter the perfection of what she was experiencing with the full volume of her voice. Sometimes it would be followed with, “Aren’t we so lucky?” At the time I didn’t get it. Did I feel “lucky” to be staring at a bunch of flowers at a tiny Farmer’s market in Old Town Torrance? Not really. But watching the little things in life take her breath away was what made hanging out with Joanie so incredible. So I always went with it.
One night we went to a sober dance at an old and run down Alano club and I swear it was the best night of Joanie’s life. She danced with everyone, all night long, with the hugest smile on her face. She appeared to be young again, and I had never seen her happier. When I asked her what was so great about it, she told me she had never gone to dances in high school because she was too busy getting high. This life was her second chance.
“Now I can really dance,” she proclaimed. “Now I am free!”
I began to notice how Joanie embraced everyone without judgement or fear. She would walk into any 12 step meeting in some of the worst areas of Los Angeles and be greeted with a warm hug by the toughest looking addicts in the room. Those that appeared the most menacing were immediately disarmed by her smile, and few were able to resist smiling right back at her. When I was angry at someone (living in a sober house with 14 other women made this almost impossible to avoid), she would always remind me to love them anyway because everyone deserved love, including me. Little by little the walls I had constructed against this idea, walls I didn’t even know existed, began to give way under the strength of Joanie’s love, compassion, and tolerance. Behind these walls is where my whole heart existed.
Joanie took me with her to a large 12 step convention, and at the end of the closing meeting, we stood up and held hands with about 1500 sober alcoholics and drug addicts to say the serenity prayer. The prayer began with its usual, “God, grant me the serenity…” and I felt something rise in my chest along with the sound of everyone’s voice saying the prayer in unison. I opened my eyes to look around the room, and the sight of everyone praying together like that made me shed the most genuine tears I had in a long time. I felt Joanie squeeze my hand, and I looked over to find her looking right at me. Her eyes were shining bright with the knowledge that we were feeling the same thing, and suddenly I got it. Every one of us in that room should have been wiped out by addiction at some point or another. Instead we had survived the impossible and we were really living for the first time ever.
That’s when Joanie’s infectious enthusiasm for life spread right through me and in that moment, all of her love and gratitude and lessons cracked my heart wide open. I finally realized why she had spoken up that day on the porch about the weed. She hadn’t wanted me to miss this. She had wanted me to live.
After 90 days in the program I left and moved in with my dad. Shortly after I moved in with him I began drinking again. I felt I was too young to be sober, and I was determined to drink like a “normal” person. I tried to put my rehab experience behind me, but I began drinking alcoholically almost immediately. Joanie and I spoke on the phone a few times and she expressed concern for my lifestyle, which I dismissed as her being overprotective. Eventually, we lost touch.
One year later I learned that Joanie was found dead in a bush from an overdose.
I was devastated, and that night I got piss drunk and screamed and cried about the unfairness of it all. While I slept the ghost of her beautiful voice played over and over again in my dreams, and even the next day I couldn’t forget it.
“Now I can dance, now I am free!”
I didn’t get many details of her death, but for addicts and an alcoholics like us the story was all too familiar; Somewhere along the road Joanie’s demons had called to her, and she had simply given up doing the work it takes to defeat the urge to answer them.
It was 5 years before I finally found recovery again. Today, at nearly 9 years sober, I have a better understanding of what it means to really live free from alcohol and drugs day by day, craving by craving, amongst massive amounts of temptation and fear. Because of Joanie I also know that it is imperative that I do something every day towards my recovery to quiet the voice of addiction that whispers in the background of my big, beautiful sober life.
I sometimes still get angry and sad about the loss of Joanie, and the way that she left this earth. It seems unfair to me that the beautiful soul who carried me through the darkness with her light had to die such an ugly death. I find a little peace in the idea that maybe some people come into our world for brief periods of time in order to give us the transformative lessons that shape the rest of our lives. I think that Joanie really was an angel, sent here to show those who knew her what life is really all about. There has not been one moment in my own life where I have not felt her with me.
I don’t know what purpose writing about Joanie will serve, aside from a selfish need to get the experience in print, to immortalize someone who I sometimes feel is slipping from my memory like even the most important things often do with the inevitable vaporization of time.
I guess the point is that I knew her in the first place. She gave me something that can’t easily be erased, a quality of life that I never forget to try to pass on to someone else. Because of her I often find myself filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what can only be seen as my second chance at life.
She showed me how to stop and smell all the good things, and how to disarm the bad things with a beautiful smile. She showed me how to live sober. She taught me how to love everything. The point is that I wish you would have known her too.
Knowing her made me so lucky.