BLAIR'S STORY: VALE LUKE -- OR IN SUPPORT OF SUBOXONE
Best friends Blair and Luke met in rehab and went to NA together. Both achieved abstinence, but sadly Luke was shamed because he was supported by a Suboxone prescription. People around him embraced the myth that buprenorphine and methadone are “just legal highs”. The fact is, these drugs are part of a legitimate and important treatment option, overseen by specialist doctors. In the end, stigma and discrimination caused a preventable death.
(Editor’s note: We at NUAA don’t use the word “clean” to refer to someone who is abstinent or has stopped using drugs, or to imply someone is not living with a blood borne virus (BBV) such as hep C or HIV. “Clean” is a stigmatising word that implies that people who use drugs or have a BBV are “dirty”. Having said that, we have used the word “clean” in this article because the piece is about a person struggling with the Narcotics Anonymous (NA) definition of abstinence. The word “clean” is used widely in NA culture and its stigmatising nature is at the centre of the story.
We encourage you to use other words that do not discriminate. Check out the language guide on the inside front cover of this edition for words that are best left behind us and some alternatives we prefer. Stigma kills. Acceptance empowers.)
I had started work for the morning at a city coffee stand when I heard that my best friend Luke had died. We had been close friends from the day I met him in Odyssey House a year prior. We had many similarities.
When we both left rehab, I managed to stay abstinent, while he swung in and out of drug use. I will never forget that unbearable feeling of being torn three ways, among tending to his girlfriend Danielle’s anguish as she screamed hysterically into the phone; the annoyed looks of the customers lining up for their morning coffee fix; and my own desire to run far away, even into the arm of the same drug that stole my best friend. Anywhere but behind that coffee stand.
The last time I saw Luke was in the musty lounge of the inner-city halfway house we both shared with 12 otherwise homeless men. He was a few days into his Suboxone withdrawal, his body spread across the old damaged recliner, detox sweat lining his face, his legs occasionally jerking as we tried to make light of the situation.
I reminded him that when he felt well enough, I would drive him again to 12-step meetings. Then he’d proudly identify as “clean” to those he felt didn’t accept him while he was on Suboxone. This was my attempt to keep his eyes on the prize.
A few nights prior, I had dragged him to the local NA meeting at a nearby church. During the intermission, the chairperson called out the obligatory “clean-time” countdown, as group members stood to acknowledge their respective times spent abstinent from all drugs and alcohol.
“The newcomer is the most important person in the room. Is anyone ‘clean’ one day?” One teenage guy stood. The room clapped and a group member behind him patted him on the back as he received his first white-tag.
“And has anyone used drugs today, or is anyone on drug-replacement?”
I looked over to Luke, who was considered as part of this category, having been on Suboxone for months, I was unsure if he’d own up to being on “drug-replacement”, a category of people who are sometimes looked down on by some people in NA. He sighed and stood. He was the only one. The room clapped, he received his obligatory pat on the back. I was proud of him, but as he sat back down all I saw on his face was a look of shame. After the meeting, we sat on a bench outside, shared a cigarette and debriefed.
“I gotta get off this Suboxone shit bro. I hate not being ‘clean’.”
I reminded him again that there was no rush, that people can have a good quality of life on Suboxone.
“Besides the way you use,” I reminded him, “it’s better to be on Suboxone than to be dead. You've been Narcan’d 5 times this year, man. Don’t forget.”
But my reminder wasn’t enough. Within a day of that meeting, Luke had been to see a doctor and received a script for Valium, and the staff at the halfway house cleared him to do a home detox.
Six days later, on his pay day, Luke was found dead on the top story of a housing commission flat car-park. When a passer-by saw his legs sticking out from between two cars, he rushed to find a doctor from the nearby Community Health Clinic, but it was already too late. The pale colour of death had taken him. They estimated he had stopped breathing at least 20 minutes prior.
In the coroner’s report, the doctor who found him mentioned that Luke looked “otherwise healthy, like someone who hadn’t used for a while”. And he was right. Luke hadn’t used heroin for months while he was on Suboxone. The only time he wasn’t injecting heroin was when he was on Suboxone.
It’s obvious to me now, that from the day Luke left rehab it was largely Suboxone keeping him alive. It was Suboxone that allowed me to have those precious, few, good months with my friend. We had some really good times. He was funny, lovable and laid-back with a quick, dry wit. I miss him dearly to this day.
Before Luke’s funeral I found it difficult to grieve, to cry, and to express any form of hurt. But as I helped carry his coffin and felt the weight of my best mate on my shoulder, and as I heard the sound of Danielle’s impassioned cries as she pleaded with the sky, “Please don’t take my boy!”, my tears flowed for the first time in years.
As tragic as the loss of Luke was to me, it wasn’t the first time I’d lost a best friend to heroin shortly after they stopped taking their drug replacement. Both times the survivor’s guilt was swift, merciless and suffocating.
As a dependant heroin user, I became quite familiar with death. Familiar is the right word, because I never really got used to it. But this isn’t a story about me. It’s about a friend who would likely be alive today if he didn’t feel compelled to stop taking his life-saving medication. This story, and the many lives lost to overdose, should remind us all that “we can’t get abstinent once we’re six foot under”.