My junkie friend secretly died

It was posted on Facebook but I didn't know! Now my friends think I didn't care!

Published December 21, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I have never written a letter seeking advice from a columnist before, but since I think you are the best advice columnist that has ever lived, and since you are quite well and alive, I thought I would ask for your advice today.

I recently had a friend die, a friend that I had not seen in over a decade, but whom, nonetheless, I had remained quasi-close to during most of that time. He was a musician, as am I, and so we both influenced each other at times although I consider him my mentor still, to this day. He taught me a great deal about old-time country music, from Dock Boggs to the Carter Family; from Doc Watson to Norman Blake. He was a god to me.

And he was also a junkie.

He quit junk a few years after I met him -- we all knew this. I did not find out until later that he had been smoking crack to keep himself "straight," however.

I have never so much as more than smoked a joint in my life, so you can imagine how distraught I was the first time I learned that my friend, "Nephew" Jimmy, was a junkie. One night, as I remember, at some party, I actually begged him on my knees in front of all of our friends, hysterical and in tears, to stop shooting smack. Silly me.

That was 10 years ago. I no longer live in the same region of the country, and I hadn't contacted him in well over six months, when he shamed me for asking if he would like to buy an album we had just put out.

"Are you kidding me?" he wrote. "I'm living in my CAR man! I have no money to buy anything, let alone your new CD!"

After that, and a few such snarling exchanges, I gave up writing.

Last week we played a club in East Denver. An old friend of his came out to see me and my partner do our show. As we enjoyed conversation over dinner he said, "Well, Jimmy would have liked it that I came out to see you. He's been dead two months, but I still miss him."

My heart skipped a beat.

"Oh my god," he said. "You didn't know!"

No. I didn't.

When I questioned his friends in the succeeding days, they all said, "Well, it was on (his ex-girlfriend's) wall. Everyone knew. Why didn't you know?"

I have since been defriended by two long-standing friends over my issue with not being informed, in a usual manner, of my friend's death. They claim I am being selfish and petty. How can this be? How can being upset over not being informed, in a regular way, of a friend's death be "petty" and "selfish"?

I could really use some advice.


"Petty," in a Selfish World

Dear Petty,

These friends of yours are acting out of grief and pain and rage and do not really know what they are doing. Forgive them. Someone has died and everyone is sad and no one is really in their right mind.

The best thing for you to do is mourn your friend in an honest and dignified way. If you can write a song for him, or perform a set for him, or do something to show your love for him, then do that. It will be good for your soul and it will help heal the grief of those around you. Grieve for your friend openly. Show those around you that you loved him.

This may be hard. You may have felt more deeply and more complexly about him than you can show; your emotions may feel overwhelming. You may be trying to keep them in check. The truth is it's just very, very sad. Your friend was an addict. Since you are not an addict you may not instinctively grasp the whole sad, screwed-up way that addicts manipulate and deceive even their closest friends and family. So you may feel guilty for shutting your friend out of your life. You may feel guilty for not being able to save him. But there was nothing you could do. That is the sad truth of it. You may not know all the drama and the lying and the shifting alliances that the addict orchestrates, but you probably sensed that things were not on the up-and-up and so you distanced yourself. That is natural and wise. It is sad, but that's how it is.

Addicts are not evil but neither are they harmless. They are dangerous. If you are in a relationship with an active addict you are dealing with a person who is pretty much crazy. For starters, let's just consider the absurd proposition that it's a good idea to get off heroin by smoking crack. Crack is not a good substitute for heroin. OK? To even suggest that smoking crack is a good alternative to shooting heroin is crazy. The truth is that addicts substitute one substance or activity for another in a pattern that is fundamentally the same: addictive, compulsive behavior.

It must have been painful to the point of traumatic to have realized two months later that your friend was dead. But that is how addicts die. They disappear in strange and obscure ways because their social connections are frayed and broken. They live lives of isolation so when they die we often do not know right away. They're not good at staying in touch.

So when these people equate your lack of knowledge with a lack of caring they are acting cruelly, because you loved him as much as they did, but they are acting out of blinding grief and rage, so they can be forgiven. Grief makes us all a little crazy.

Personally, what bothers me is how we treat musicians economically in this country. We basically let them die. We pretend that they should abide by the same work rules as others but that is insane. They are not executives or programmers. We ought to better understand the personalities of musicians in order to better care for them as a society. We don't do this. Consequently, many musicians live lives of miserable subsistence and near-poverty.

They adapt and for their scrappy ability to adapt we ought to have nothing but admiration but instead we see their meager digs, their threadbare clothes, their rusty cars and ask, what's wrong with them? We do not provide health insurance for musicians. Nor do we care for them in their old age. We force them to tour and live meager existences in a star-centered economy in which a few may make millions but the vast majority live a subsistence lifestyle or are forced to essentially be hobbyists, even though they have highly professional skills.

So I salute you and all the working musicians around the world. You bring joy and beauty to us and you often die in obscurity. We owe you gratitude. So play a concert for your dead friend. Sing for him. Your song will be a prayer.

p.s. "Evidence here shows that high levels of psychotism [sic, 'psychoticism'] appear in drummers, guitarists, trumpeters, and trombonist [sic] players." One study indicates that solo musicians die at a higher rate than band members. This would accord with my observation that stars die of isolation.

p.p.s. Thank you for saying such kind words about me and my work. It is another strange, little-understood job, like that of a musician.

By Cary Tennis

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