Living with an addict: a two year journey

For those who might not know, I was married once before and it was quite the journey for the time he was around. We met in Boston, MA while I was living there for seven months with a close friend. He died in March of 2018 and the experiences we had together were nothing short of intense.

Starting things off

When we first met in Boston, we did a lot of random things together that excited me because they were, let's say, different. One of our first dates was just walking around the cemetery because he was fascinated with them and it was quite peaceful. He also had the cutest accent that he claimed didn't exist every chance he got. Throughout our time together in Boston, our interactions can only be characterized as chaotic and confusing. So many random things would happen that I was incapable of fully processing but make much more sense in hindsight, especially given some of the other things he did in the later parts of our relationship.

The first event occurred fairly early. He claimed that his roommate was fairly abusive and always tried to treat their situation as a relationship when it was not. The guy texted me at one point trying to scare me off and even called the police to have Zach committed to a suicide watch before he left town once. Afterward, I offered to allow him to stay with us instead since it seemed like the guy was trying to control him a bit too much. Regardless of what their relationship status was, it was incredibly inappropriate to have him taken for a psychiatric hold just to keep him away from other people. But regardless, Zach never really explained the situation any further - just told me not to worry about it - and I never found out whether they were dating at the time.

Shortly after that event, he asked to borrow my phone to make a phone call. I agreed and didn't think much of it because it was just a phone call. I assumed he would just be outside. But hours went by and he never returned. I ended up noticing he still wasn't back because I got logged out of a work application and needed to get a verification code for my two-factor authentication, except he still had my phone and I had no idea where he went. So I tried using the tracking mechanism that was built into it to get an idea of where he might be and it geolocated to a nearby hospital. As I was getting dressed to go exploring to see if I could figure out if he was there or not, he texted me that he was in the hospital. I arrived at the hospital and found him to get my phone back. He refused to tell me anything about why he had ended up there, but I was able to overhear the doctors talking about why he was there. EMS had found him passed out on a sidewalk in the city unresponsive and drove him to the hospital, where they determined he passed out due to high amounts of alcohol.

Forgive me, my memory of the remaining events is a bit limited and I cannot recall the specific order that they occurred. So I am just going to list some of the other things that happened.

  • At one point I bought him a cheap Chromebook just so he could use a laptop whenever he wanted because it was rare that he was able to use mine - I was almost always on it. He only had it for a couple of weeks before he claimed it was stolen while he was walking through the park.
  • One day he was complaining about some pain in his side. He was very reluctant to visit the hospital but eventually, I convinced him to go and ask for help. He refused most of the tests the hospital was willing to perform. When the doctor looked up his record, she came back and accused him of drug seeking and threatened to call security.
  • He had consistent run-ins with my roommate who claimed that he kept drinking all of his alcohol. I didn't pay much attention to what was happening with that because I never cared about alcohol.
  • When trying to get out of bed one morning, he fell and smashed his head into the door frame. He refused to go to the hospital claiming he didn't have a concussion, despite a distinct bump on his head and the fact that he was slurring his speech. When I pointed it out to him, he just ignored me.

The final thing that happened before we left Boston was the most severe. We received a notice from our landlord about a break-in that occurred on the property. Zach had broken into our neighbor's apartment trying to acquire... something. He was never willing to talk about what had happened or why he was in there, but it was inappropriate for him to have been climbing through a window to gain entry. The landlord demanded that he leave because he was not on the lease, and it was a struggle to get him to do so because he put little to no effort into finding someplace else to go and refused to go to a homeless shelter. He ended up convincing another neighbor to let him stay with her for a month.

Making the move

As my time in Boston came to a close, we had to make the incredibly tough decision of whether he would follow along and move back to Omaha with me. I say it was difficult because I was considering all the things he would be losing by making the move. He would lose access to the free healthcare system available in the state, he wouldn't be living in a big city that he can freely explore anymore, and he wouldn't have access to any of the friends he made. It didn't seem like moving to Omaha was a great idea for him, but he didn't seem particularly concerned about any of it which made the discussion much more difficult to have. We almost broke up that night, mostly because I was crying and terrified that he wouldn't survive being there.

We tried to make the trip pleasant at least. We were traveling over the New Year and I thought it'd be really fun to visit Niagara Falls on New Year's Eve. So we got a nice falls view hotel room and got there a few hours before midnight. They were far more beautiful than I ever imagined. The hotel room even had an in-room hot tub that we didn't get a chance to use because we arrived too late. Maybe someday when I return it'll be a bit more relaxing.

Back in Omaha, he didn't get along well as I fully expected - he hated it there. We lived in a suburban area where there was nothing within walking distance and nothing to do in the area. So we eventually decided on moving someplace else and settled on Kansas City, mostly because they had Google Fiber available and we had no other real desires for where to live. After less than a month in Omaha, we were moving off somewhere else once again.

Before the storm

The beginning of our stay in our new apartment was fairly uneventful. Over time, it seemed like we were just drifting apart. Because of his habits, he would frequently stay up overnight while I was sleeping and spend most of the day out on the balcony smoking or out on walks. Though, reflecting now, his choice to always be awake while I was sleeping was likely just to prevent me from figuring out what exactly he was doing.

Occasionally, minor things would prop up. He dropped a bowl on the kitchen floor and shattered it. Every once in a while he'd burn something on the stove and set off the smoke detectors because he wasn't paying attention to it. His behavior at the time seemed fairly mild compared to all the things that had happened in Boston. He was making friends that he liked hanging out with, and my life wasn't all that stressful at the time.

The card house collapses

Everything changed one day when he was complaining repeatedly about his side hurting. He refused to go to the hospital for some time, but eventually later at night when the problem only got worse I convinced him to go to the emergency room to be checked out. The doctors weren't able to figure out what was wrong quickly and decided to keep him overnight while they waited for some tests. Thinking nothing of it, we said good night and I went home to sleep expecting to come back in the morning and know what was wrong.

Arriving back at the hospital the next day, I was informed that he had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit. Well, that's never good. But apparently, the doctors had discovered a serious gastrointestinal problem that required significant treatment and they were continuing to run tests. A couple of days later, a full diagnosis also included renal failure and liver failure. His side hurt because all his organs were starting to shut down and we didn't know why. Of course, now we know that he knew why and he just didn't want to share it with everyone else.

All the details started flowing out when the psychiatrist he requested came to visit. He was asking me some basic questions to kind of confirm what Zach had told the nurses because he suspected drug abuse based on the symptoms. Zach had told them that he only smoked cigarettes sometimes once a day. I almost laughed because I was just so confused as to why he would lie about how much he smokes. He was out on the balcony smoking all day every day, way more than once. Alcohol? The same response. The doctors just looked at each other and one said that they'd need to significantly change his treatment because he would start going through withdrawal soon.

But those weren't even the worst of the problem. Something I haven't mentioned yet is his use of poppy seeds. He would get giant bags of them, dump them into an empty container with water and lemon juice (I think, I never really paid much attention), and shake them up for a while to make tea, or at least that is what he called it. Starting to realize that maybe he was downplaying other habits of his, I decided to catch the psychiatrist on his way out and ask about this poppy seed tea.

If you weren't aware (I was not), poppy seeds contain trace amounts of morphine. The mention of it set off alarm bells with this psychiatrist and he started explaining to me that this was an avenue for drug addicts to self-medicate on doses of morphine and that he was severely addicted. He immediately went off to make changes to Zach's treatment plan to account for the severe addiction and withdrawal that would ensue shortly. But also, they needed to put many precautions into place to make sure he didn't trick any of the staff into giving him things he didn't need.

When the withdrawal set in, things got even stranger. At one point he got so erratic that he had to be restrained to the bed by the hospital security staff after his flailing in the bed caused him to hit one of the nurses and give her a black eye. Eventually, the doctors opted to intubate him and put him to sleep. It was strange seeing him like that. At times when he was conscious he wouldn't even recognize me, but he made sure to struggle every moment he could. The stresses of dealing with the constant hospital visits and all the news started to take their toll on me as well. Near the end of his ICU stay, I also got sick and ended up in the hospital for a couple of days with an E. coli infection, exacerbated by my decreased immune response due to the stress.

Getting out of the hospital wasn't the end of the problem either. Then the hospital bills came. Fortunately, I work for a company that completely covers all of our deductibles with 100% coverage after that so I didn't have to pay a penny out of pocket, but getting to the point that the hospital would stop bothering us was still an annoyance. The hospital bill came out to almost $500,000 and took forever to get approved through insurance because the hospital wasn't sending the correct details through to be approved. On the side, the psychiatrist was billed separately and all of those were rejected because he was out-of-network and could only be approved as an emergency, which couldn't be verified until the hospital claim was finalized. But after several months of back and forth, the hospital and insurance company finally communicated with each other and got everything resolved. That part of the story was finally over.

An attempt at recovery

After being discharged from the hospital, our priority was getting him into a rehab program. This seems like something that should be easy but was probably the most annoying process I have ever encountered. We eventually found a facility down in Mississippi that was willing to accept him and made the flight down there to drop him off, which was just as frustrating of an experience. They sent us to the wrong location to have him admitted and we spent a lot of time lingering around waiting for rides.

A week later I get a call from him that he would have to leave. The facility had made a mistake and our insurance would not cover the full rehab program that was supposed to take 60 days. Our insurance would only cover a 14-day detox program, which was somewhat useless given he already did that while in the hospital for a month. Because of their mistake, they offered to waive all the payments and did not bill our insurance at all, but it was a real blow to morale to have gone through all that effort just to be rejected at the last minute.

We never found another facility that he could go to for treatment. Instead, we found him an addiction psychiatrist - the closest one being a good 30-minute drive away. The psychiatrist was great, but he was very limited in what he was able to do with Zach. The treatments that would have been best for him were either not yet legal or just didn't have appropriate facilities nearby to perform them. So he was stuck just seeing the psychiatrist and that didn't help for very long.

Despite being told by doctors at the hospital that he should never drink alcohol again or risk his organs failing, it didn't take long for him to start it up again. I became increasingly frustrated with how little he tried to avoid things and consistently claimed that it wasn't a big deal. Maybe I had gotten better at detecting things ever since finding out he was an addict, but it didn't feel like he was even trying to hide it anymore. Now that I knew, he didn't feel like it was necessary to conceal his habits. My mom even caught him huffing from a can of compressed air out on the balcony at one point, in plain sight for everyone to see.

Compounding on his lack of concealment, he also got into the habit of taking my credit cards to go to CVS and nearby tobacco and alcohol stores to buy things. Well, no problem, fortunately credit card companies have very useful features that allow you to lock your cards from being used. So I made it a habit of locking my credit cards whenever I didn't need them for a specific purchase. He had the audacity to confront me about it one day and talked about how "embarrassing" it was to have the card declined while trying to make a purchase. This just roiled me, given he was using them without permission to buy things he should not be consuming for his own health and would even lie about what he was buying when making a purchase.

The end of the line

The day that Zach died was quite the mix of emotions. The thing is, I never actually interacted with him at all that day - he slept the entire day, or at least I assumed he was sleeping. For me, the day was filled with stress. It started with a notice from our property manager. Someone in the complex had witnessed him vomiting on the patio and he never bothered to go back and clean it up. The maintenance team cleaned it up and it was reported. That was not the first issue he had caused, though, and we were sent a warning about his behavior stating that further violations would be considered a breach of our lease and we would be evicted.

I didn't know how to process the letter at first. It was yet another thing piled on to the mountain of stressful things I was dealing with that he directly caused. I just tried to get through the workday and ignored it at first, figuring I would bring it up to him later. Or at least, I'd figure out how to even bring that up to him. He hadn't exactly been forthcoming about the things he was doing in the past.

At the end of the work day, he still wasn't out of bed. Rather than go pester him to get up, I decided to just relax and stayed in the office playing video games to destress a little. It didn't help that much. Eventually, I decided I wanted to call my mom to try and talk about the letter and what I should do. Not wanting to wake him or have him listen to what we were talking about, I decided to leave and drive out somewhere. That ended up just being the parking lot of the nearby Hy-Vee, but the location just wasn't important.

I don't remember a lot of what we talked about - the entire conversation was kind of a blur and by the end, I believe over an hour had passed. But I do remember that one thing came up in particular: divorce. I had tried to avoid the subject for so long because I wanted to believe he would improve. He showed signs of trying to do so, but at the same time showed just as many signs of getting even worse than he was before. I started crying at even bringing up the possibility, but my mind was finally coming to terms with the fact that he was actively ruining my life and I needed to take care of myself first.

When I got back home, he still wasn't up. So I played some more video games for a bit before I decided to go to bed. While it wasn't out of the ordinary for him to sleep through entire days - he'd done it many times in the past - I learned why he hadn't gotten up that day. As I was crawling into bed, I grabbed his hand to move it out of the way. It was ice cold. The kind of cold where you just instantly know something isn't right. So I turned on the light next to the bed.

Just looking at him laying there, I knew he was gone immediately. His hand and arm were completely stiff and wouldn't move. I tried checking his pulse and there was nothing. While I was on the phone with 911, I also noticed the darker sections under his back that suggested lividity had already set. I told the operator on the phone and that seemed to confirm all suspicions. No ambulance was sent, only police to verify and secure the scene until the coroner could arrive. He was gone.

The officer that arrived sat with me while we waited for the coroner to arrive. Apparently, it was a busy night and it took well over an hour. We talked about some police things due to my experience, but he also mentioned that he had interacted with Zach in the past. Someone called the police trying to claim he was trying to break into their apartment, but it turned out to be a misunderstanding. He was trying to get ahold of his friend, who lived in that apartment as a roommate and just wasn't home. It's nice to know his friend defended him being there, but deep down I knew it wasn't true. Past experience suggested he really was trying to enter with or without permission. The coroner arrived and did all their things, asked for all the pills he had been taking so they could compare to what was in his system, and then they were all gone. I just sat on the couch waiting for my parents to get there.

A sigh of relief

It will always be odd to say that I was relieved that he was gone, but I honestly cannot think of a better way to describe it. My mind was racing through all the problems I had just been crying about and thinking about how they'd all just vanished in the blink of an eye. At the same time, I was emotionally devastated. No matter how much it hurts to have someone in your life, it hurts even more to have them suddenly disappear. After so long of holding in my emotions, I decided to take a shower and struggled to even stand. I sat in the shower for some time crying non-stop.

His mother and aunt eventually arrived to help with his cremation. I didn't participate a whole lot in the process. I mostly just sat there staring at the floor most of the time everyone was around. But she did spend some time talking to me one-on-one and it was interesting hearing our own experiences and thoughts that we otherwise wouldn't have shared had Zach been around. A lot of it revolved around the many lies he had told over time, finding out that some of the things he's said about his life were in fact this or that and not as dramatic as he made them seem. We also briefly discussed the credit card debt he was racking up with his habits and she offered to give me a check to pay off all the debt he had caused. I remember she also questioned what was on the wall behind the bed. I looked at it and told her it was probably vomit, as he had done that in bed on several occasions and probably didn't clean it up fully. She was disgusted and decided to clean it up herself.

It also took a while before they were allowed to make all the final arrangements. Because he was so young at death, the medical examiner had to do a more thorough analysis to determine how he died. But eventually, we got the final report that he had died due to heart complications caused by his genetic conditions and not because he overdosed or anything, as initially expected. After his body was turned over, I decided not to see him again before he was cremated. I didn't need the extra time as I had already seen him every day of my life and seeing him in that state would probably be a worse memory than just what he was before that.

Cleaning up

The months following his death continued to be strange as we kept discovering other things. One thing that I decided to do was a deep clean of the apartment to round up all of his belongings, figuring out what I wanted to keep, give to his mother, or throw away. That revealed a lot of other things that we never knew about. Under the couch, we found dozens of alcohol bottles, some empty and some full. We shared stories with some of the neighbors who had interacted with him and some of the odd things he had told them and the damage he had caused. Much of his belongings ended up getting thrown away due to severe damage from being dropped or damage due to him leaving lit cigarettes laying on top of them and burning holes.

By far the most unexpected discovery after the fact came from his phone, which my mom decided to look through for some reason. He had been receiving emails from an elderly woman in Boston for the past two years. She claims that he had started a fire in her kitchen while dog-sitting one evening and also stolen a couple of sentimental items from her home. He had agreed to return the items and pay for the damages (which he obviously wasn't capable of doing) and she was now threatening to go to the police and have him arrested because she was tired of waiting. We never bothered responding to her, just let it die. The police will have informed her of his death when trying to file the police report.

These days, I still think about him but not always in the same way I did back then. I've had a lot of time to reflect on everything that happened and have learned a lot from it. I've since finished my degree in psychology and learned about addiction from many sources. But one thing that always sticks in my mind to this day is how little I knew about his life. He had told me a lot, but outside of the experiences I was present for over those two years, I can't help but feel like I didn't know him at all. Sometimes it feels like I spent two years living with a stranger.

I don't have a noble goal for writing all of this and kudos to anyone that managed to read through all of it. Maybe some of the things I went through will help others realize the signs of addictive behavior they may have seen. But ultimately, I just wanted to get the full story out there - to share everything I went through during that time of my life and let others better understand my past experiences.

March 24, 2023