“I know the whole truth there is horrible,
It’s better if you take a little at a time.
Too much and you are not portable,
Not enough and you’ll be making happy rhyme.”
—The Gypsy Life, John Gorka
Days after Colleen died I found myself alone, by choice, going through her things. Partly because it was something to do to stay busy, partly because I wanted some of the memories gone, partly because I was looking for something—anything—to feel closer to her. Weeks later, my therapist would help me see the ambivalence I felt as a positive to my recovery.
I donated most of her clothes to Wayside House and sought out female friends who wore a size 9 shoe. They got Colleen’s beloved boots. From time-to-time I get text pictures from them showing Colleen’s boots out and about, treading this earth as they should.
Then got to Colleen’s journals. They were really more exercises than journals. Exercises from her therapist and from residential treatment centers that tried so hard and did help her. As I looked at the journals—before opening them—I thought there are probably two schools of thought. One would say that these are deeply personal and she would never want them read, especially by me. Another would hold that she’s dead, never coming back and her writings should be open to the world and walk this earth. I thought about those two roads diverging for a long time and opted for the latter. The swing vote in the supreme court of my mind was the search for something—anything to feel closer to her.
Reading her journals was like trying to stand under a high mountain waterfall of human emotion: anger at those who had taken things deeply personal to her, remorse for how I could have been better for her, sadness for how she felt stuck in a vicious cycle of addiction while others moved forward with their lives, joy for her good days and victories, hope that she would reemerge into sunlight.
In going through her writings I found a letter entitled “Dear Addiction”—it was conspicuous in the care she took to color every square inch of it. She wrote it January 2017, when she was in-residence at her second treatment center. In thinking about the opening quote to this post, while I’ve shared this letter with immediate family and close friends, I hadn’t felt ready to do so more broadly. It felt like too much, too soon; I think it’s time now.
Please draw your own conclusions, but the first thing I saw was the beauty of her prose, metaphors and allusions, and her unfailing first-rate intellect. It also struck me that she seemed to have it all together and had a clear-eyed view of her addiction and what she needed to do. I cry when I think about everything she went through after she wrote this, let alone before she wrote it. Finally, I hope Colleen’s firsthand perspective is helpful for anyone struggling with addiction or trying to help a loved one.
Original images of Colleen’s letter in all it’s glory and artwork are below my transcription. As Colleen’s close, childhood friend Kristine said so well, “Col’s handwriting was epic.”
My friend, my partner, you have always been there for me. Steadfast but not so true. You have been my rock, jagged and sharp, you are, though I did not notice at first. Early on, I found you to be smooth and shiny. You have been the friend in whom I sought solace. Then you began to crack; you began to mirror me. The reflection was distorted though. One I could not see clearly. I have found glasses now. In wiping your surface clean, I have found that I no longer need the weight of your density around my neck. The security I thought you gave me was false. Oh the fun we have had, the memories sharp and often pain filled. Your friendship was a weight, a burden, that separated me from those I loved, that masked my true self. I know now that my love was not true. You did not bring me strength and peace, but a false gravity that weighed me down. You were the tool with which I used to hide.
I am finding lightness and peace with you gone. Sadness, happiness, anger and joy. Dear addiction, I will remember your effort, your cunning, your false wisdom, and what it has meant to me. I am beginning to rise without the gravity of your weight, so I must say farewell, and I too shall fare well in lightness, hope, and strength.
Whatever it takes.
When I shared this with Colleen’s ever-astute brother Kevin, he replied:
Lung cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s are some powerful villains too but they never pal around as your friend for part of the journey. Battle lines are drawn early. But addiction is that Judas level of betrayal. Prince Joffrey to young Sansa.
While I still almost hesitate putting such a deeply personal letter out there so broadly, I think about Colleen. What she liked to do more than anything was to give people things and to help others. I don’t want to take that from her in death. Please consider this letter from her to be a gift to you. I hope it is helpful understanding and facing challenges that you or your loved ones may be having.