We Are All Trying to Avoid Suffering

Claire George on addiction, grief, and why and how some of us "cross the line."

We met in the camping section of Sasquatch Music Festival, next to someone waterfalling bagged wine into their mouth before backflipping off an RV. A real recipe for romance, I know. The backdrop of debauchery didn’t break my stare, though. I was locked in as soon as I saw him: piercing blue eyes, dark brown hair, an atrocious fashion sense, and a shyness that only quadrupled my endearment to him. He squirmed about in his flip flops, green and yellow gym shorts, and maroon and blue checked flannel, as I effectively forced words from his mouth. He was indeed a Muppet of a man (that is a compliment), and I was the Miss Piggy to his Kermit.

Even though I’m sure my extreme extroversion and domineering approach to flirtation overwhelmed him, I think he actually got a kick out of me. He must have, unless I just bullied him into dating me long-distance for two years.

He never made me feel like I needed to be different. He let me flutter around him with ease, and he always found a way to calm me down when my flutters became flustered.  

I called him “The Cove,” because I felt safe when I was anchored in his arms.  

I called him “Pep,” because, well, I don’t think either of us ever knew why.

He made me feel loved for being the most natural version of myself. We bonded over a mutual love of talking absolute nonsense. He made me laugh until my belly ached. We’d send each other obscure YouTube videos of people trying on shoes and Boomers filming themselves on nature walks. We were obsessed with this fake Burlington Coat Factory Twitter handle which eventually got in trouble with the real Coat Factory, though in my humble opinion it was doing wonders for the brand. He had a rogue eyebrow hair we named Louanne, which I threatened to pluck out and make into a hair doll. He told me she would always grow back, and the supply would be endless. We were a match made in heaven.  

He worked as a fisherman in Alaska, and I as a forensic accountant in San Francisco. He fished in the summers and traveled the rest of the year, often to Laos where he helped his parents with their work removing land mines. When he wasn’t in Asia, we traveled together.

For New Year’s, we went to Portland, where we stayed in a bougie hotel drinking hot toddies while a string quartet dressed in what can only be described as “Mister-Tumnus-core” played in the lobby next to a table of gingerbread houses. We stayed out dancing until 4 AM. I loved the way he danced. He had this sort of bobbling jig that filled me with joy and weakened my knees. That was the night he first told me he loved me. It took him all of five minutes, writhing through the sheets, to spit it out. I was so confused. I thought he had to puke, but he just had to speak, which I guess is basically the same thing for most of us when we try to communicate something important and honest.

For Valentine’s Day we spent a week in Colombia. We took a bus to Barranquilla for Carnival without a place to stay that night. Classic. All the hotels and hostels were booked so we stayed out until the sun came up dancing in the streets, throwing flour bombs at each other. We made friends with some European tourists who were staying in an elementary school, and at dawn we went to sleep on the tile floor next to the kids’ desks. We traveled to Tayrona where I had the divine privilege of watching him ride a horse for the first time through the jungle, a sight that can only be compared to those stuttering electronic dog toys that flip around the kiosks at the mall. There we slept in hammocks on the beach. When I was with him, I would go anywhere, sleep anywhere. 

I loved him with every cell in my body. We shared many wild adventures together, but at some point, I just couldn’t handle the wild part. When we first met, I was fresh out of school, still shaking off the idea of pregaming, still learning which professional email sign-off best fit my personal style, still figuring out how to detach from my Verizon family plan. There was still some wiggle room where it was not so out of the ordinary to party as if I were still in college, but as time ticked onwards, I felt that room shrink.

I began exploring new sides of myself. I joined a band, wrote my first song, played my first show. I fell in love with making music and decided to leave corporate life in pursuit of a creative one. As my new life unfolded, it grew more difficult to reconcile with the old one. I felt a deeper sense of purpose and responsibility to myself, and partying made me feel increasingly anxious and depressed. 

He came to stay with me for a month in San Francisco. He had just finished a grueling fishing season and was beginning a long travel stint. I had just left my full-time job and was getting ready to record an EP with my first band. He was in vacation mode.  He didn’t want the party to end, but I wasn’t able to keep the lights on. We would stay out late, sleep until noon, and then I would rush into the studio unprepared and upset with myself. The dissonance drummed up my anxiety, the alcohol exacerbated it, and not even “The Cove” could keep it at bay anymore. I knew then that I had to end the relationship for my own well-being. I was ready to shake off the college habits. Part of me thought the breakup might encourage him to do the same. I figured he was still adjusting.

The breakup hollowed me out. The fluttering breeziness of young love was replaced by a vacuous melancholy. I instinctively tried to evade the sadness with drinking, but both the alcohol and the hypocrisy only made me feel worse. It was then, for the first time, that I turned to songwriting as a release. Writing and producing on my own created a safe space for therapeutic inquiry and helped me address my feelings head on instead of numbing them out with partying. Perhaps songwriting saved me in a way, it gave me a reason to stop self-destructing.

In the years after our breakup, we drifted apart, staying in touch as distant friends. Meanwhile, I found myself in relationships with the same issues, the same endings. I felt like I was stuck on a mobius strip looping forever, making the same mistakes and getting nowhere. How did I end up there again, heartbroken and desperate to help someone change? Why didn’t I learn my lesson the first time? Did I have a problem with drinking? Was I looking for someone to enable me, was I looking for someone to save, or was I just drawn to the “life of the party”? Why couldn’t I change him? What could I have done differently?

In September of 2019, shortly before leaving for my final tour of the year, I saw a photo of him. He didn’t look like himself anymore. I reached out. Checked in. He got a good season in. He was ready to get out. Fishing was hard work, he said. Back to school by winter, he hoped. I hoped too.

In November I got the call. He was gone. An accidental opioid overdose. My first love. Their son, brother, friend. Our person.

I was on tour when it happened. I barely remember playing the last two shows. We wrapped the tour in Seattle where I had planned a week of writing back at my childhood home. I’ve never consistently kept a journal until we started dating. Then I kept one every day. I found the journal two days after he died. I read it front to back a dozen times. My heart ached as I realized I was the only one left on earth still holding the memories. My heart ached as I realized I had been tracing a pattern onto the pages. Every time we were together, we stayed out all night drinking. Every entry included a beer or two. I knew when we broke up that we both needed to shed some skin, but at the time I just thought it was normal for our age. We were just two 20-somethings beginning our lives after four years of party school ruckus.

How do you know where to draw the line? When do you cross the line? Why do some of us cross it and others toe it? I was left alone in the same place of solitude where I penned my first body of solo work, still asking the same kinds of questions. I tried to write, but mostly I sat alone crying on the floor drinking wine. I sank into a deep depression. A carnivorous grief consumed me, and over the next few months I stopped writing entirely. It was too painful to touch. I wanted to self-destruct, but I felt I owed it to him to pick myself up. I found a therapist, went on antidepressants, and got a handle on my drinking.

In the months that followed, I slowly found the courage to go back to the pain, to gently hold it in my palm. With my hurt in hand, I began to write the songs that would eventually turn into my album. Writing these songs gave me a chance to capture the memories I shared with this person I loved, to preserve them long after I go. The grief doesn’t go away, but writing about it, acknowledging it, helps me cope.

I don’t know when he crossed the line or why. I could speculate that his severe shyness, which made it hard for him to go after the opportunities I know he really wanted — he could break a sweat just thinking about an interview — made him turn to substances as an escape. I could speculate that the loss of several of his best friends to violence and drugs made him feel such depth of despair that he turned to substances to feel better. I could speculate that he was genetically predisposed to addiction and that he had no control over changing the habits he learned in college. I could speculate that if he found an outlet for self-expression, as I was lucky enough to find, then he might have ended up on a different path. I could speculate for the rest of my life on why or how it happened, but I will never have a full or clear picture. I only have a snapshot of his inner world based on the parts of himself he chose to share with me while we were together. I suppose that is the trickiest part in trying to help someone suffering from addiction: no one has the full picture. A person suffering from addiction often experiences shame, which may lead them to lying or hiding things. When we last talked, he seemed to be doing well, but I have no idea if that was the truth. Did he present himself that way to everyone? How can you know what bubbles below the surface when the water is murky? Even if someone does have a problem and you know it, if they can’t admit it, how can you help them?

I know they say, “once an addict, always an addict,” but there is something permanent and limiting about referring to a human being as “an addict,” as if they can never tear the scarlet letter from their chest. As if their disease defines their being above all else. I hate that in the wake of his death, the cause of death felt more like the focus, when I just want to remember the person.

I recently came upon an Instagram infographic which for once actually helped. It said, “Instead of saying ‘he was an addict,’ try saying, ‘he suffered from addiction.’” Well, since we’re in the business of boiling things down, I’d like to try “he suffered,” because that’s what it is, isn’t it?  Life is full of suffering. That is the human experience. It is our most basic instinct to try to avoid suffering. For some, substances become the most effective tool, but we are all trying to get away from discomfort. We are only human. 

Maybe he would be here today if he had found a way to ask for help. Maybe he would be here today if he had access and gave himself permission to go to therapy. Maybe he would be here today if he had found another outlet. Maybe he would be here today if we’d seen the whole picture, but it’s all just speculation. I cannot go back, even though I torture myself with the endless “what if” statements. I can only go forward trying to process my grief in songs, carrying the precious snapshot I have of this bushy-browed, bubble-bath-loving, bear-of-a-man I loved; this man who lived; this man who suffered.

Last summer would have been his 31st birthday. I sat on a rooftop in tears thinking about him. I looked down at the street below and on the corner, a dumb red sign with a B in the shape of a heart caught my eye: Burlington Coat Factory. I laughed. He would have laughed.

(Photo Credit: Kkanvas)

Claire George is a synth-pop artist based in Los Angeles. Her debut full-length The Land Beyond The Light is out now via CASCINE.

(Photo Credit: Kkanvas)