‘The officer asked, ‘If you’re a nurse, why are you with a junkie?’ They searched for ‘evidence.’ My person was gone.’: Woman says love of her life died of addiction because of ‘shame, stigma’ surrounding the disease

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“I met Jared in high school. We were in the marching band together. He played drums and I played the xylophone. I was two years older than him but his magnetic personality and the distinct way in which he was different from other boys immediately drew me to him. He had soulful eyes with long lashes, a laugh that could be heard from across the room, and a gentle way of interacting with people. Jared was popular, highly intelligent, athletic and musically gifted. The total package. We ran in different circles but had a special friendship. He shared his poetry with me, we talked about our dreams of leaving small town life, commiserated over our typical teenage struggles with parents. Jared was my first kiss but never my high school boyfriend. Soon, I went off to college in Chicago leaving small town life behind. It was a time before social media so J and I lost touch, but I never forgot about him.

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

Fast forward to the invention of Facebook. I remember Jared being one of the first old friends I searched for. We reconnected and began talking on and off via social media. I’d heard rumors from other high school friends that J was dabbling with drugs and partying too much. I never pried for information, figuring he’d eventually tell me himself if he wanted to. We mostly talked about current events and his love for writing but feeling lost with what he wanted to do as a career. Typical fears of college students facing a massive recession in a post 9/11 world. On December 10, 2008, we talked for a different reason. A mutual friend of ours had died in a car accident. Jared was beside himself with grief. Lots of rumors swirled about drug use. We talked for hours that day, and then not again until 2010.

I was sitting at my dining room table in my tiny apartment in Logan Square on the Northwest Side of Chicago the first time I heard from Jared again. It was early fall and I was cooking professionally at a great restaurant in my neighborhood. I’d just posted a picture of some beef stew I’d made at home when he messaged me. The conversation started about food and cooking. About my life in Chicago. About all the years we needed to catch up on. Jared was the same boy I remembered from high school but now a man. Still incredibly handsome, intelligent, hilarious. We talked for hours that day. And the next and the next.

Jared had just moved back to our hometown and was working for his dad selling insurance. I was shocked and a bit surprised. This seemed like a far stretch from his hopes and dreams. He admitted that he’d been struggling with heroin use. He spilled his guts. He talked about his anxiety and the way in which he felt lost in the world. How he felt like he never fit the mold that was expected of him. How his parents’ divorce and his dad’s affair had torn him open. How doing a few oxy’s to ease his anxiety had suddenly spiraled to injecting heroin which had spiraled further into physical addiction. He was no longer injecting to get high, just injecting so he didn’t feel sick or experience withdrawal.

I learned that shortly after the death of our friend Devin, overcome with grief and guilt, Jared experienced his first overdose. In the parking lot of a strip club in East St. Louis. Revived with Naloxone. It was the first time I heard that word — naloxone — but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. J’s dad came to collect him that night. Took him to his house where he could detox. Jared described writhing on the heated tile floor of the bathroom alone and in pain. No medical assistance to detox and no professional help for the emotional pain he was holding. By the time Jared and I had this conversation he’d decided to enter methadone treatment and go to work for his dad to try and get his life back on track and figure out where to go from there. For whatever reason, none of this scared me. I adored this person telling me this story. I admired his vulnerability and honesty, his determination to live his truth. Our old friendship quickly progressed to a quiet relationship. Jared would drive 5 hours to the city to see me. We shared every difficult detail of the years we’d been apart. No stone was unturned, we kept no secrets.

At Thanksgiving I had decided to stay in the city because I had very few days off work. Thanksgiving was Jared’s favorite holiday and he was furious at the idea that I would stay home alone in my little apartment. Somehow he convinced me to take the Amtrak to our hometown and surprise my parents. He orchestrated the whole thing, ordering my ticket and coming to the train station to pick me up. The next morning — Thanksgiving Day — he drove me to my parent’s house where I knocked on the door and shocked them with my presence. I will never forget that morning, the look on my parents’ faces, the joy in Jared’s eyes at having planned the whole thing. It was all magical. And I knew at that moment I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this person who had made it all happen.

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

Fast forward to spring time. Not only had we made our relationship public, I’d moved back to our hometown too. We’d moved in together and told the whole world (or at least our whole world) that we were going to do life together forever. Things moved quickly but they worked. We worked. Literally, we put in work to be partners. We shared everything, continuing with the no secrets mantra. We talked about everything, especially the hard things. We got a dog and a cat and a house with a garden. We visited his grandpa who lived up the street and I formed a close bond with Jared’s mom. I was happy to be living near my parents again. I started a small catering business and worked part time at the library.

One of our greatest pleasures was cooking together and sitting down to share meals and talk with each other. We looked like a typical small town couple. But Jared also woke up at 4:30 a.m. and drove 75 miles each way several times a week to a methadone clinic to get the medicine he needed to keep him well, medicine he didn’t feel like he could tell anyone about but me. Jared carried so much shame about his addiction and drug use. His world had made him believe he was weak minded and lacked willpower — the things certain people in his life believed would heal addiction. Jared was still writing. His poems and stream of consciousness pieces had become more raw and sometimes bordered nihilistic. He had zero passion for being an insurance agent at his dad’s company but felt like it was the only path for ‘someone like him.’

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

About 15 months into this life Jared started to isolate himself. He slept a lot and started losing weight. I tried to brush it off and told myself that the multiple 150-mile drives at 4:30 a.m. were getting to him. We talked a lot about how the small town dream we’d cooked up hadn’t quite been what we’d hoped for. We’d struggled to reconnect with old friends and there were few new friends to be made. We both felt a bit like outsiders. I decided Jared was just depressed. We started researching places we might like to move. ‘Maybe selling insurance somewhere else would be better. Maybe I just need to get out of my dad’s shadow,’ Jared said. Then one day I noticed a bruise poking out of Jared’s long sleeve shirt. I looked him in the eye and asked, ‘Jared what is that?’ He looked at me with tears running down his face, like he’d been waiting forever for me to notice or ask. He said, ‘Its exactly what you think it is and I need help to stop.’

I’d learn that for a few months he’d been getting up at 4:30 a.m. not to drive to the methadone clinic, but instead to buy heroin to inject. Things were getting close to becoming out of control. He was once again physically addicted to heroin. Within a few hours we’d told my parents. Jared didn’t want to tell his mom. He was afraid she wouldn’t be able to handle the news. He had to tell his dad, after all, his dad was his boss and needed to know he was going to rehab. We called his dad to tell him we needed to talk and would be by later. When we told him, he was emotionless. He seemed more concerned about other people finding out than with Jared’s wellbeing. The next morning I loaded Jared into the car to drive to Indianapolis for his first trip to rehab. His dad told me later that he’d imagined we were coming over to announce a pregnancy, not an addiction. Jared stayed 21 days in treatment. Immediately following his release we drove to Asheville, North Carolina, for a vacation and to scout a possible new place to call home. Jared fell in love with the fresh air and the mountains immediately. We signed a lease on an apartment that week and came back to Illinois to pack and sell our house. Within a couple months we were living in Asheville. Jared took a job waiting tables at a large resort and I took a job cooking at the same place. For a few years our life was almost perfect. Jared was thriving and so was I. We were happy and healthy and enjoying building a new life with friends who quickly felt like family. The South agreed with us.

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

In the fall of 2014 Jared got a disturbing phone call letting him know his mom had fainted and was in the ER. Within a few hours he learned that she had been life-flighted to a large hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, and shortly after that we were learning that she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. The next few months were a whirlwind. Jared struggled with the reality of the situation. Chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, ICU stays. In June of 2015, 7 months after her initial diagnosis, Jared’s sweet mom died. The same fall of her diagnosis I decided to quit cooking and follow my heart to nursing school. I threw myself head first into a new path while trying to be a supportive partner to Jared.

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

After his mom’s death he spiraled into chaos. He did not grieve, instead covering all his pain with substances. His use was chaotic and erratic. He would binge for days at a time and then ‘come to.’ He would go through withdrawal feeling awful for days, cry, feel shame for using, engage in negative self talk and generally hate himself. He tried desperately to ‘fix’ himself while hearing from some members of his family that he was weak minded and lacking willpower. I begged him to seek treatment but he was resistant, believing he needed to do it on his own. In November of 2016, just before Thanksgiving, Jared left in his car after days of erratic behavior and heavy drug use. He was out of touch with reality and deeply missing his mom. November was her birthday month and Thanksgiving her favorite holiday. I knew he had taken off driving but had no idea where he was and hadn’t heard from him in almost 24 hours. I was beside myself with fear and worry. Somewhere on the highway in rural Kentucky Jared was in a car accident. He was arrested and placed in jail. Eventually I got a phone call from Jared. He told me what had happened. He was scared and feeling an immense amount of shame. His drug use had never caused legal troubles nor put anyone else in danger. He was angry with himself for driving while intoxicated. He begged me to find him somewhere to go for rehab and said he’d stay as long as possible so he could get well and stay well. Jared spent a week in jail and then went directly to treatment where he stayed for 100 days. Throughout the 100 days we worked with family therapists to heal our relationship and Jared did intense work to begin truly grieving his mom and deal with some painful memories from his past. He poured himself into healing. I was so proud of him. When he came out of treatment in March of 2017 he was like a new man. He was ready to live.

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

Jared decided he wanted to pursue a masters in Social Work and needed some undergrad courses in order to get there. I was well into nursing school and we figured we might as well both be students. Jared started taking undergrad classes at a local community college and was doing incredibly well. His gift for writing came back. Jared had always been an incredibly soft and kind person but his gentleness and ability to connect with strangers was stronger than ever. Jared threw himself into doing random acts of kindness. Throughout the next several months he paid for a little boy to go to summer camp, sponsored a little league team but asked to remain anonymous, he always did my laundry and made sure I had freshly ground coffee beans ready for brewing before school. Jared had a special place in his heart for the people in our community who sleep without shelter. On many occasions I saw him connecting with the people we tend to forget. He shared hugs, stories, cups of coffee and gave time and kindness to people most ignored. One day he removed his boots, handing them to a man on the street walking away in his socks. When I looked at him, he shrugged and said, ‘I have lots of shoes at home.’

Jared loved people  — even stranger — in a way he was never quite capable of loving himself. He had a gift for making people feel loved, safe, comfortable and accepted. When November came, Jared’s mood shifted. He said to me, ‘I f*cking hate November.’ I told him we were in this together and it would be ok. He wrote a beautiful paper about the history of heroin and his professor praised him for his timely and poignant writing. He admitted that he was struggling and asked me to ‘keep finding ground to stand on next to me.’ We’d been through so much, there was no way I was going to give up on him. He said, ‘no matter what happens, I know when I look up you’ll be there.’ He was right. I adored Jared. All facets of him.

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

On November 17th, 2017, I baked cheddar and rye scones for my class. Jared begged me to leave some for him — they were his favorite. When I got home from school the scones were gone but Jared didn’t seem like himself. He was irritable and restless. We went out to eat BBQ. He teased me for wearing all black but was quick to remind me it was just teasing and he thought I was beautiful. When we got home, I took a nap on the couch. When I woke up it was dark outside and Jared was not in the house. I called him and he said he’d gone outside for some air. When he came back in he went straight to the bathroom and I could hear what sounded distinctly like snorting drugs. When he came out of the bathroom he could barely stand up. His pupils were pinpoints and he refused to talk to me. I asked him what drugs he’d just done and he told me to mind my own f*cking business. He never talked to me like this. His voice dripped with anger. He told me I’d be better off alone and to get away from him. He yelled at me. Jared never yelled. I don’t know why, but I listened to him. I turned and picked up my purse and got in my car. I drove for a little while and then felt terrible for leaving him. I drove straight home. When I opened the back door, the washing machine was running. Jared had started my laundry.

I walked through the kitchen and that’s when I saw him face down in our living room. I screamed his name but there was no movement. I ran to him and shook him. When I turned him over his face was gray and he’d vomited. The only words I remember uttering were, ‘damnit Jared.’ It was clear he wasn’t breathing. His entire airway clogged with vomit. I ran back to my purse to get the Narcan kit I always carried. The kit I had recently considered giving back assuming there was someone who needed it more than me. While I was pulling Narcan into the syringe I called 911. I injected the drug into Jared’s hip, hoping for that miraculous Lazarus moment where he would wake up. Nothing. I started CPR and waited for paramedics to arrive, injecting him with a second dose of Narcan a couple minutes later. The nurse in me checked his pupils. They were blown wide open and nonreactive. A terrible sign. My person was gone and I knew it. When the police and paramedics arrived they talked about Jared like he was an object. The lead medic said, ‘I’m not working it,’ and stepped over Jared’s body and walked past me. Jared was dead. An officer asked, ‘So, if you’re a nurse, why are you with a junkie?’ They pulled apart my house looking for drugs and ‘evidence.’ I called our two closest friends to come and be with me. They took me to their house where I began making the phone calls. Jared is dead and I am supposed to graduate from nursing school in three weeks.

I did graduate three weeks later. I knew Jared would be furious if I didn’t. I spoke at my graduation ceremony. I threw myself into my work as a nurse. I was determined to thrive and not just survive. I became an outspoken advocate for harm reduction, legalization of all drugs and ending the drug war. I emailed all Jared’s professors to let them know what had happened. I got back letters of praise for his writing and one educator described Jared as a ‘compassionate defender of justice.’ I couldn’t have described him better. Going through his journals in the weeks following his death I found a passage that read ‘the totality of my possessions doesn’t reflect the totality of my being. I am not what I have. What is mine is not me. Remember, always be humble and kind.’ He was truly a beautiful being. I am lucky to have been gifted with his presence in my life.

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

In the weeks following Jared’s death a man was arrested for selling him what I would learn was pure fentanyl. A man named Kevin was charged with second degree murder in Jared’s death.

In the beginning it was easy to hang the hat of blame on Kevin. It’s easy to blame an individual for something big and scary that hurts you. I needed someone tangible to hate for a moment. It’s hard to look at systems. To call out failures of huge institutions, failures of families, of societies, of capitalism, of governments. But those are things that caused Jared’s death. Not Kevin. These are things I hate. Not for a moment but for forever. These are things I cannot forgive. Kevin sold Jared drugs back in 2016 before he went to rehab. I knew this and sometime along the line I said something like ‘f*ck Kevin.’ Jared  responded — ‘Stop it Vanessa, I would be Kevin if I was poor and black. I would sell drugs to feed my pain and my family if society forced me into a hole with no way out. Leave him alone.’

He was right. He was always right. Jared saw the world through the lens of justice. He would have forgiven Kevin. He would have never wanted him to sit in jail rotting with no healing or help. And we know there is no healing or help in jail. We know he is nothing more than an animal in a cage to the state. But he is Kevin. He is a human with hurt and pain and suffering at the hands of an unjust world. He is a father and a son and husband. His own wife died shortly before Jared. He is a man who is now even more traumatized because Jared died, and he was made to believe it was his fault.

He stood in court and said, ‘I am responsible. I am the reason Mr. Runyon is dead.’

But Jared is dead because drug use is criminalized. Because an illness is criminalized y’all. He is dead because there is no safe supply. He is dead because the shame and stigma of addiction in our country forces people to use alone in bathrooms. He is dead because he felt like a failure, because people told him his illness made him weak-minded and lacking willpower. He is dead because his brain was hijacked by a drug and a societal rhetoric that made him think we’d all be better off without him.

Kevin was sentenced to 21 months in prison. He has already sat in jail for 500 days. In those 500 days he hasn’t gotten treatment for his own addiction. I’m certain no one has addressed his trauma or his pain. Soon he will transition to prison where it will be more of the same and then he will be released to my community where I imagine we will continue to fail and punish him.

This does not serve Jared. It does not honor the man he was. It doesn’t bring him back or make his death less in vain. And it certainly does not speak to the spirit of justice and compassion which Jared embodied.

My grief and suffering should not cause more grief and suffering. Jared’s suffering should not create suffering. Vengeance is never the answer. It certainly isn’t here. I must recognize the privilege to even be telling this story, because this is a privilege. Poor folks and people of color have been dying from complications related to chaotic drug use, physical addiction and overdose for years. It wasn’t until recently when young white folks who come from upper middle class families started dying that we started having a real conversation about drug use. Suddenly folks are beginning to realize that addiction is not a moral failing but rather a failing of systems. And yet we continue to use the deaths of these young upper middle class people as a means to punish overwhelmingly poor people of color for their deaths. I cannot in good faith tell this story without also acknowledging my immense privilege. No one was interested in the stories of the families who lost their loved ones to the crack epidemic in the 80’s … ask yourself why.

Honor the dead by supporting evidence-based harm reduction programs that give dignity and empower people who use drugs. Loudly denounce the criminalization of drug use and laws which seek to punish those who supply drugs involved in an overdose. Push for healthcare systems that honor the dignity of people who use drugs and seek to truly care for their complex needs. See the world through a lens of justice, the same way Jared did. Challenge the systems that brought us to this dark place. See people you’d rather ignore. Extend a hand, a hug, an ear. Meet people right where they are at that moment and love them exactly as they are.”

Courtesy of Vanessa Ryann

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Vanessa Ryann of Asheville, North Carolina. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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