A Quest for Meaning



A Quest for Meaning

Category : Dispatches, The Howl, Uncategorized / by


It’s difficult to put a precise date on when my recovery began because it is never as simple as not using or just saying no. No recovery is without its setbacks, but recovering from addiction is more like fits and starts. You clock some clean time, fall off, and then repeat.

But the clean time, if that truly is your focus, becomes more and more and the fall offs become less frequent until eventually the addiction goes into remission and you can again live a healthy, productive life. Sticking with it long enough to reorient your entire life is the hard part. But as long as you’re trying–truly trying–you are healing.

The counselors say heroin addicts tend to become treatment lazy, meaning once they start feeling better they become complacent and begin to falter. Before they know it… BAM! they’re warring with themselves once again.


Addiction–as in real, bonafide addiction–is a lot like driving too fast for conditions: You’re in total control until you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re accelerating until it’s too late.

When junkies crash, like reckless drivers, they crash hard.

Some emerge from the wreckage unscathed, while others, like Sarah No, don’t emerge at all.

Others, like me, emerge badly battered and barely alive, but alive nonetheless.

With a little grace we recover. With a lot of effort we learn to live again. With a little luck we might one day resemble who we used to be, but no matter how well we heal, we’re never the same. We’re never an improvement over who we were.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?


What doesn’t kill you doesn’t kill you.

But each time it takes a little something from you. Recovering from addiction is learning to build upon the ruins of a past life. Heroin never made anyone stronger. It only makes you less alive or more dead, more or less lucky, since survival depends not on endurance, but chance. And whereas its physical symptoms fade eventually, the psychic wounds can bleed for a lifetime.

Sarah No on the Taos Gorge Bridge outside of Taos, New Mexico, in May 2012.

Sarah No on the Taos Gorge Bridge outside of Taos, New Mexico, in May 2012.

For me, that bleeding wound is named Sarah, who would’ve turned 26 on Dec. 13, had she not died eight days before turning 25. Following her death, I fell into an emotional tailspin. Racked with grief and guilt, I returned to Madison on a mission to destroy myself. I did a remarkable job of it, too, although I failed in my primary aim of slipping forever with her into the neutral space of that pre-birth nothingness. I could not cope with the fundamental unfairness of going on with my life after Sarah had been robbed of hers. Anything short of joining her felt like betrayal.

But dying comes easier to some than others and each of these failures only confused my inability to make sense of why she died and I didn’t. My pursuit of death became something of a mad spectacle of induced overdoses and last minute rescues that only aggravated my suffering by living to see another day and tending to new injuries.

Short of death, you don’t anticipate all of the things that can go wrong during an overdose. A year later, complications from those many injuries persist. From the brain damage to the broken bones, each one pales in comparison to Sarah’s fate, so I do not dare complain. Eventually, I tired of the hospital stays and follow-ups and life-saving medications I really couldn’t afford and stopped trying to die even though that sense of betrayal lingers on.

A large part of my recovery has been finding meaning in my survival.

Hearts Club

Over the next several months I’ll be writing about addiction and recovery, not as an expert, but as someone whose life has been affected by America’s War on Drugs since birth. My aim is to provide anyone who is interested in this netherworld with raw and candid frontline accounts from multiple vantage points, but all within the context of my recovery.

As I re-evaluate the various roles narcotics have played in my life, I hope others can find wisdom in my story, which is neither a unique nor an uncommon story, but it’s my story. And in many ways it is Sarah’s story. She was still figuring out what to do with her life when she died. Each career she had taken into consideration was one that helped people. From becoming a sign language interpreter to a child psychologist, she wanted her life to mean something for others.

It is in that spirit I’ve elected to pursue this series, not only for advancing my own personal quest to make sense of what is ultimately senseless, but to help shed light on one of the greatest public health and policy issues of our time: substance abuse.

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