A Devastating Death: Sometimes We Just Can’t Save the Ones We Love from Their Addictions
Jeff was found in his trailer, dried blood in a spreading pool on the floor. The beloved 68-year-old horse trainer had apparently gotten up in the middle of the night, tripped on one of the many pairs of discarded cowboy boots, and struck his head on his dresser.
While blunt force trauma was the cause of death, his fall had simply shortened a long, sad suicide.
Jeff had drunken himself to death. That was the larger truth. Had he not started his consumption earlier and earlier in the day during the last months of his life, he wouldn’t have fallen, hit his head, and quietly expired on the floor of his home.
Those of us who knew him and loved him, ached. We saw this coming and were helpless to stop the downward slide. This is the price we all pay for loving people with addictions.
Jeff’s life was full of achievements. A tall, quiet, unassuming man, he’d run several successful restaurants before getting burned out on the food business. A lifetime horseman, he had a terrific way with challenging animals. He turned to training horses, which responded warmly to his quiet style and gentle way of developing trust.
Some years ago I’d watched Jeff guide a spirited Arabian stallion from a flighty, untrained state to a docile, responsive horse willing to obey. All without a harsh word or any kind of physical intimidation. This was Jeff’s style. That style produced many a well-trained animal that provided their owners with many years of safe fun.
Jeff’s skill with horses drew women- because women are the ones who own the horses in America (https://www.statista.com/statistics/388979/gender-distribution-of-horse-owners-and-managers-us/)- like bees to honey. When he would conduct training or a riding lesson, women gathered around the corral to watch. They pulled up lawn chairs, oohed and aahed, and then signed up for lessons themselves.
Jeff was fully in his element. He had his own private audience, and plenty of applause. He was a master of his craft and women loved him for it.
Eventually, however, those women moved on. They aged out, they moved to another state, gave up riding. The circle of admirers grew smaller, until there were only two left. One is my closest friend.
She hired Jeff to do all kinds of work on her ranch. Jeff also provided key assistance during the breeding season. He was critical to her success, and she worked hard to keep him engaged. She supported him, bolstered his confidence, gave him all the work she possibly could. She saw all the problematic signs, and dedicated herself to doing all she could to stop the slide.
The other friend, Sue, for whom Jeff was a big brother, also did her best to steer additional work Jeff’s way. These two women cared deeply about this good man, but nothing they could do could stop the inevitable deterioration.
Work was Jeff’s lifeline. Without that adoring audience, Jeff was adrift on a sea of drink.
Jeff’s son lived with him for a while. The son was addicted to painkillers and drugs, and the two of them argued bitterly. Neither helped the other move forward. If anything, both enabled the other’s addiction, and it spiraled out of control.
Stripped of his adoring audiences and without the engagement that a restaurant clientele offered a man with a high need for social reinforcement, Jeff turned increasingly to the bottle for solace.
Something had gone out deep inside him. Even the chance to work with a lively young horse no longer captured his attention any more. His two closest women friends did their damnedest to keep his spark live, like people desperately blowing on a tiny flame to get a campfire up and going in the depth of a cold night. Jeff’s cold night ultimately blew out that spark. It would only take a minor incident to do it.
One day my best friend hired Jeff to assist with a breeding mare. In the middle of the process, that mare decided she’d have none of the interested stallion. Jeff had his hands full with the plunging animal. My friend ordered him to let go of the mare’s halter, but he held fast. The mare slammed him to the ground, where both horses ran over his body. The horses cracked his ribs. He denied any pain, but he was badly injured.
That incident was the beginning of the end. Jeff realized that he had lost some of his skill with horses. He disappeared into his trailer, drinking earlier and earlier in the day. My best friend still wonders whether her request for his help with the breeding was the last straw. Truth? It made no difference. Not really. Something else would have happened, and Jeff would have died just the same. He was determined.
When Sue visited Jeff’s trailer after not being able to reach him for some time, she discovered his body. The trailer was a rank disaster. The refrigerator was full of rotted food. The kitchen sink piled with stinking, moldy dishes. Stale, dirty clothing and shoes were scattered everywhere. The trailer was a picture of despair, a life beyond redemption. A man who had given up entirely on life.
In a gesture of extraordinary grace and respect, Sue spent hours cleaning up the heartbreaking train wreck that was Jeff’s house so that his daughter wouldn’t have to bear witness to her father’s self-destruction. That is love. This is what true friends do even for those who shred their hearts.
My memory of Jeff was of a gracious, kind man with impeccable manners. This was just one reason women loved him. He loved their horses, and treated them with great respect. In a world where old-school manners are increasingly rare, he was one-of-a-kind. Yet, that one-of-a-kind good man drank himself to death in an orgy of self-revulsion.
Sometimes we simply cannot do enough. Jeff left us at only 68. That’s still very young. There are decades ahead, particularly for those like Jeff and my brother who were immensely talented, capable and in many ways, very well-liked. They were athletic men with tremendous skills even late in life.
Yet they were not salvageable. They didn’t choose to be salvageable.
My brother, a lifetime drunk and drug addict, hated himself. So did Jeff. No matter what others did for them, no matter what anyone tried, it was never enough. They needed to be right about how they weren’t worth loving, and that they didn’t deserve to live.
No amount of external affection, reinforcement or positive feedback can pull someone from the brink, when their emotional life is a gaping Black Hole. There is something in that deep dark that feeds them, and they must leap into it. Any rope we offer, they will cut without compunction or apology.
The other day as I listened to my friend relate Jeff’s sad story, it reminded me that those of us who parent, love or care about addicts are sometimes doomed to fail. Those of us too close to people with addictions have made all the mistakes that this site argues against: (https://www.narconon.org/blog/drug-addiction/why-do-addicts-lie-and-manipulate/). For so many of us, love is expressed in our anger, our frustration, our deep and abiding pain that we are helpless onlookers to their self-immolation.
When my brother took his life, I spent months teetering on the knife-thin edge of the same Black Hole. I was the last of my family. How easy it would have been to simply leap in after him, and end the sadness and the feelings of hopelessness. While suicide affects each of us differently, those closest to us cause us to ask extremely difficult and immensely unfair questions about our ability to save that person.
Jeff didn’t want to be saved. Neither did my big brother.
If we are to survive those who have lost their battles with addition, then we too have to release our addiction to being saviors. Sometimes people do not wish to be saved, and our need to pull them back into the light can ultimately end up with our being hauled into that same darkness with those we love. That’s a battle that is not ours to win for them. It’s theirs and theirs alone.
Sometimes the most important gift we can offer is to love ourselves enough to not be sucked into the quicksand that surrounds people who have given up on life, and are far more committed to being right about their right to die than to cooperating with your attempts to get them to live.
Grace lies in understanding what you can and cannot do, and letting go when continuing on that path may cost you your sanity or your life.
Sometimes the greatest test of, and lesson from, those who self-destruct is to learn to love ourselves enough to let go. I have no wisdom about what this looks like. All I know is that when my brother ended his life, I had to make a choice: follow him, or live my life out loud.
I chose the latter. It wasn’t easy. It never is. As I’ve had my own battles with thoughts of suicide, if he gave me ultimate gift, it was that I chose life. I choose to continue to embrace and learn to live with the demons within.
If Jeff’s son is lucky, he’ll learn the same thing. He still has a chance. As do we all. Not all of us take it.
Love an addict? It’s an exercise in setting boundaries. Learning how to love yourself enough to back away. If you are also an addict- and I’ve had my share of compulsive behaviors- this can be the one experience that ultimately saves your life, if not that of the one you love.
I will miss Jeff, as will we all. I miss my brother. But I don’t miss the anguish, the pain, the unending feelings of hopelessness that endless failing efforts force us to face. I’m not saying give up. I am saying that implicit in our attempts to save those we love, is the message about how to love ourselves enough to not self-destruct along with them.