Joel was my second son, born 22 months after his brother and as different as night is from day. He was stubborn and independent from the very beginning – but also charming, quick-minded and deeply loyal. I remember his fifth grade teacher telling me, “All your kids are bright – but Joel is incandescent!” I have never forgotten that description – incandescent. It was so accurate. He got things quickly – when he wanted to. If he wasn’t interested, forget about it. Later, as an adult, he was diagnosed with ADHD, which explained so much. He could hyper-focus when he wanted to, but there was no threatening, cajoling or nagging to make him pay attention if he didn’t consider it worth his time.
Joel loved deeply and formed tight relationships with a small group of people. He was always popular – people loved being with him because of his wit and his talent – but he was close with a small circle of friends. Those friendships tended to last for a long time despite the ups and downs. It always struck me as funny when he would mention someone he had known back in elementary school – someone I had forgotten all about but he had remained in touch with. He started smoking pot with one of those close friends when he was about 13 or so and a fuse was lit. He progressed to pills and cocaine all through high school, along with fights, threats, banishments, the like, until he discovered meth. He told me later it was like finding nirvana. He felt invincible, peaceful, crazy and out of control, all at once. Despite the constant use, we never really fully grasped the depth of his involvement or the seriousness of his addiction until much later. Denial is a cruel and enticing liar.
His rehab experience ranged from basic warehousing – to “gold-plated” 30 day stays with results tied to how much money you had – to forced compliance tied to sentencing – with minimal success. We went bankrupt trying to fix a problem he didn’t want to fix. Like many parents, we began to pray he would get arrested so we could get a good night’s sleep at least knowing where he was. Short stints in jail were no deterrent – he’d go from there to a state-funded rehab that he just viewed as an extension of his sentence, soon to be over. That’s not to say he didn’t make some attempts to get sober during these times, he just wasn’t committed to staying sober once the time was up. He was ultimately given a five-year sentence that seemed to sufficiently frighten and wake him up. Joel began working towards self-improvement with an eye towards getting a serious job and forming a real family with his long-time girlfriend. Enter California AB109 that allowed for early release of non-violent drug offenders as a means of reducing jail over-crowding. For Joel, it was a Godsend. As a condition of his early release, he went into a state-funded, mandated holistic program that incorporated medical treatment, psychological counseling, work release, and job training. Finally, treating the whole person, not just the addict! It was during this program that he first learned he had a serious heart condition that his SUD had only made worse. The most frustrating thing about this program – it would never have been available to him as a non-offender. The options for treatment are woefully few – for this one, you have to show up high. For that one, you have to show up sober. For another one there are no beds so just keep coming back. None of this is conducive to the lifestyle of the addict. Our hearts were broken over and over and over again, while trying to get help.
He did so well we began to hope for a sustained recovery – he began working in construction, earning a number of certifications in heavy equipment. He was proud of his recovery and that he was walking the “Legit Stroll.” He and his girlfriend got engaged and moved into a beautiful apartment to be close to her daughter who lived with her father. A family was formed. But also debt, acquisitions and pressure … none of which are things a person in recovery can handle very well. A hectic work schedule and a lengthy commute led Joel to believe the lie that he no longer needed step studies, meetings, or accountability. Without support and under increased pressure to make more money, he relapsed. Meth and heroin, dealing a little here and there, and soon he was full-blown back in the life. Happy go lucky Joel was gone – mean, self-destructive, double-crossing, lying, IV using Joel moved in.
Joel was arrested early in 2017 and suffered a heart attack in the jail cell when they administered Narcan and didn’t attend to him. He was found unresponsive, rushed to the hospital where he was revived and then told his heart was seriously damaged. He needed a pacemaker and surgery was scheduled – I got permission to see him in the hospital where he was chained to the bed and wearing an external defibrillator. Add another site I never expected to see to the long list of sad firsts. The surgery would never happen, though. The surgeon stated he was “not going to put a $100,000.00 piece of equipment in a junkie’s chest” and it was completely within his jurisdiction to make such a decision. It’s a good thing I had already returned home, 400 miles away – or who knows what I would have done to that surgeon. Through a bureaucratic mistake, Joel was discharged rather than returned to jail, wearing that external defibrillator. He was now homeless, needing multiple heart medications, with a life-saving apparatus that required daily charging. Not exactly sustainable – he was gone in a matter of months.
Joel died on November 27, 2017. It was a sad, gut-wrenching end to the battle he waged for at least 20 years and included the usual litany of rehab, sober living, relapse, jail, and the desperation of those who loved him most. He was a prolific writer and talented hip-hop artist – he was an old soul in a young body who never found a comfortable place in this world. He was so much – and not enough – all at once. How we miss his goofiness, his depth, his capacity to love, and his eternal optimism that he could beat anything. When that optimism died out, so did he. The phone call you think you’re ready for – you never are.
Story by Pattie Vargas