The first time I saw my future BFF, we were in 7th grade. The way I remember it, she stood up in our chorus class and challenged another student to fist fight her. While smiling. It was love at first sight.
Lauren was everything I was not -- blonde, fierce, unafraid. She oozed the kind of confidence that women twice her age wish they had. She wasn’t cheerleader cool; she was above-it-all cool, like she just walked off the set of Degrassi High.
I don’t know why she wanted to beat the shit out of everyone else but me. I can get philosophical about it, but the point is, we became besties the likes of Thelma and Louise. (Or maybe CC Bloom and Hillary Essex. I’m really more of a Hillary.)
She tried to drag me into strangers’ cars to smoke weed and get Mountain Dew at the Taco Bell drive-thru and I tried (and most often failed) to say no. We hatched a detailed plan to run away from home and travel across the country on nothing but our wit and imagined grittiness and I backed out when I realized I would have no money for Infusium 23. (I maintained that as someone with naturally straight hair, she could not possibly understand the necessity of my frizzy hair care essentials.)
There were definite signs of trouble ahead, but at 14 I didn’t know it wasn’t normal for a girl my age to throw back a bottle of gin and still be conscious. A pattern emerged where she got out of control and I tried to be the voice of reason or cover her tracks. Sometimes she appreciated it -- like when I cleaned up her vomit after she passed out so her father wouldn’t beat the crap out of her -- at other times she resented it, like when I told her she was acting like an idiot. (In later years, this would be replaced with the more refined, “You’re being self-destructive,” which wasn’t welcome either.)
Lauren wanted a partner in crime, yet she encouraged me to do better things, like do good in school. Or maybe that was her polite way of telling me I was a wimp. Either way, I was often left out of her most exciting exploits, which I took personally, so I strived to be as carefree and wild as she was. I wanted her to be in awe of me the way that I was in awe of her, but I just wasn’t a badass in the sex, drugs, and rock n roll department.
As we got older, everyone flocked to her; and if they didn’t, they were just jealous. She was young, sharp, naturally beautiful, raising a pack of kids on a shoestring, and making it all look easy. The neighborhood kids were in and out of her house from morning to night because she always had something for them to eat and plenty of patience for noise. She’s the only person I know who could make driving a minivan simultaneously edgy and maternal.
When I started grad school, something changed. I noticed it in small ways. She was distant. She was short with me sometimes, even mean. She was drinking. A lot. She was taking Vicodin, first for pain and then for fun, and way more than I knew.
Like when we were younger, she kept the worst parts hidden from me. The heavier her drinking got, the angrier she was about anyone confronting her about it. Mostly, I tried to ignore it or laugh about it. She was like a superhero to me, and superheroes might have weaknesses, but they never lose.
She called me one night (which was unusual in itself, since evenings were busy with kids and spouses) and spilled her guts.
“I think I might need help,” she said, “I’m drinking too much. And, I started taking some pills.”
I was relieved that she admitted she needed to cut back. I said something like, “Good. Just take it one step at a time. I’ll help you with whatever you need.”
And she said, “Well. There’s more.”
She launched into a long story full of people whose names I didn’t know. I zoned out for a minute until: “…and she said, ‘If you like Vicodin, you’ll like this even more.’ That’s how I started taking methadone.”
My stomach lurched. I didn’t like where this conversation was headed.
“Wait. You were taking methadone? Why?”
“Because I ran out of Vicodin. But that’s not why I called you. I have to tell you this now before I back out. Most of the time I was taking methadone but, you know, someone offered me some heroin and, I didn’t know…”
Heroin. All I heard after that was the wooshing in my ears. A few months before, I had a vivid nightmare about a high school friend who overdosed on heroin in our early 20s. In the dream, she was trying to get my attention but I was walking in circles. When I called Lauren and told her about it in the morning, she sounded a lot more unnerved than I’d expected. Now I knew why.
I’m not the type who can keep her emotions hidden, but I managed to keep my tone as even and non-judgmental as possible, as if I wasn’t fazed at all. “Nope, I’m totally cool. This is just another phone call from a good friend talking about her recently acquired heroin habit!”
I recognized the edge in her voice too; she was struggling as much as I was to keep it light.
“I’m telling you this because I made a mistake but I’m done with it. You know, no big deal. It was just a thing,” she said.
Just a thing. She promised there was no reason to worry about it. So I tried not to, even though I knew better, even though that went against my anxious nature. I wanted to believe her. I was loyal. If she said she was done with it, that’s all I needed to know.
Except she wasn’t done with it. Not even close. Since I was busy with school and teaching and kids, I missed (or ignored) the glaring signs that things had taken a sharp turn for worse. Subconsciously I must have known what was happening, but I chalked up the growing time between calls and visits to my stressful schedule.
I had a harder time explaining away why, despite having two jobs, she was so broke that she didn’t have a phone or money for groceries. Why she lost 20 pounds in such a short period of time. Why her stories about the landlord evicting her for no reason weren’t adding up, why she had so many brand new “friends” who were giving her rides to unnamed places.
It was obvious to everyone but me. For awhile, I lost track of her. Every once in a blue moon I got a phone call when she tried to get clean. When she called, I listened, but I didn’t know how to talk her through it. Everything I said felt like the wrong thing.
After one of those calls, as I sat sobbing on my couch, I texted her: “Please get help. You are my sister. I can’t imagine my life without you.” There was an impenetrable fog surrounding her, like heroin was a parasite that had taken her soul and formed a barrier to keep people from getting to her. I imagined reaching through and snatching her back, leaving a puff of smoke behind that would slowly dissipate and die.
Then she had a breakthrough. She accessed extended treatment. She was clean for over a month before she even called me. I knew the road was going to be long, but she was back to normal. She looked healthy. She laughed again. I felt like a missing piece had been put back into place.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. I saw the itch creeping back in on her, a little twitch here and there.
She started speaking, in glorified terms, about the good times she had when she was using, exposing herself to people and places that were major triggers. I was frantic. What if she started using again? What if (once again) I didn’t know about it for months until it consumed her, and I got used to her being around again just for the wound to be ripped wide open? Wasn’t I supposed to do something to stop this?
I resorted to my reasonable voice. “You should tell your counselor about these feelings. That’s what they’re there for.” Lame. I knew I was supposed to be strong for her, but what did that even mean? I was never as strong as her, and now she was weak, and I was even weaker.
I could tell we were both getting aggravated with each other, but we had never experienced a direct conflict in our friendship before and this was a bad time to start. Years of pent-up animosity were about to reach a fever pitch and neither of us were in a position to take a step back and count to ten.
I wasn’t surprised when she revived a relationship with someone she had been using with, but I was infuriated. She responded to my reasonable voice (“Do you really think this is a good idea? What would your counselor say?”) with her disarming, assuring voice: “I can’t believe you think I would use. I’m way past that. I want to help him. He needs help too.”
We were dancing around each other with polite words but it was clear. I was directly interfering with her plans. And she was not having it. When she stayed out all night, I made a decision that I knew would probably end our friendship but might put an end to the madness. At that moment I was willing to make that sacrifice if it meant intervention.
Since I didn’t know the name of the social worker who was handling her recovery, I told her teenage daughter, who was aware of the addiction, that Lauren was out with someone she used to do drugs with and that she should tell the caseworker.
The fallout was brutal but pathetic. Our goodbye after 20 years of friendship consisted of a couple of angry voicemails and a flurry of cruel insults hurled at each other through text messages. For the past few years, I held on to the dim hope that she would magically recover, that the real Lauren would break out of her addiction and we would put it behind us and go back to making crafts for the kids and having long conversations about the energy of the universe and what makes us human.
The reality is harsh --my best friend, my soul sister, my hero, is gone, has been gone for years and I didn’t know because I refused to face it.
The grief lingers. It strikes in the moments just as I start to forget the gaping empty space she left behind. Something as simple as a run-in with her favorite coffee creamer at the grocery store can set off a domino effect of mourning that will haunt my entire day.
My summers are empty and lonely without her dragging me off to the beach, without the sound of our pack of kids running in and out of the house, without our all-day-long phone calls. My most frustrating parenting moments are even more unbearable without her eternally positive perspective, which often stood between me and melodramatic despair. (Which begs the question I ask myself often -- how could she see the good in everyone and everything except herself?)
A few years ago I pictured our kids being friends forever, that she would always be my shoulder to lean on at family functions, that we would someday celebrate the birth of each other’s grandchildren. Now I don’t know if I will ever see her again. I don’t know if I even want to.
The worst part is thinking of her out there, somewhere, and wondering if she’s OK. I wonder if she ever misses me, too.