An Obituary for Sarah: Love and Loss in the War on Drugs

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IMAGE: Neal FowlerCreative Commons

I looked for her for years. I asked around, I googled her name on the regular. Things would remind me of her now and then, and I’d be flooded with waves of regret that we hadn’t kept in touch.

Sarah was the child of two schizophrenic parents. She didn’t know where her dad was, and that was just fine with her. Her mom Jane*, however, was a constant presence in her life. To say Jane was unstable is a colossal understatement. She had something like 50 inbred cats that lived with her in a filthy little apartment, and she would regularly call Sarah to say she was witnessing the resurrection of Christ in a pile of dirty laundry. Untreated schizophrenia will do that to a person.

ManyMugsNot surprisingly, Sarah struggled with mental illness herself. She’d been diagnosed as bipolar, and in her manic phases, she’d create beautiful art and arrive unexpectedly in the middle of the night and play dj and entertain all of our friends with her wicked sense of perfectly timed humor. When she was depressed, she’d become violent and aggressive, and her outbursts wrecked countless friendships. She told me a couple of times that despite the fact she’d never been officially diagnosed, she knew she was schizophrenic. I was afraid for her. There was always drama.

One night around midnight, Jane called me and asked me to pick up Sarah where she worked as a bartender and drive her over to the cat and laundry-filled apartment.

“Jane,” I asked her, “do you have any idea what time it is?” I had to work in the morning.

“You need to pick her up,” Jane answered. “Johnny just died.”

Johnny was Sarah’s stepfather, a quiet old dude I’d met a couple of times. He and Jane had been on-again, off-again since they were kids. He had taken care of her.

I figured we’d get to Jane’s apartment and comfort her for a while which would undoubtedly be rough, but I was entirely unprepared for the scene we encountered upon our arrival. The body was still there, and there’s really no pretty way to say that Johnny was lying facedown in a cat litter box. He was on the floor just inside the front door – you had to step over him to get into the house. Jane was sitting on the bed in her laundry-strewn bedroom, sobbing to a priest who looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. The place was swarming with cops. It was a complete and utter shit show.

“Who are you?” one officer asked me, clearly appalled by the scene, shining his flashlight on the track-marks on Johnny’s arms.

“I don’t have anything to do with this,” I told him, stepping away from Johnny’s body and trying desperately to distance myself from the horror of the situation. The light inside the apartment was bright, overpowering. I started babbling, “I don’t live here. I’m not related. I’m just his stepdaughter’s ride…” Johnny’s body was just a few feet away from me and I could hear Jane’s wails from the bedroom beyond.

How do you care for a friend in a situation like this? I wanted to help, to fix it, to clean up the place at the very least. It all seemed so hopeless: I’d brought groceries, I’d scrubbed floors, I’d helped coordinate spay/neuter services for the cats. But it never seemed to matter, because in a matter of weeks or even days, the chaos would inevitably return. The sad truth was, I couldn’t fix mental illness, and though I am ashamed to admit it, sometimes I just had to distance myself and walk away.

ElwayBut it wasn’t always like this – there were good times too. Sarah and I took a road trip to California once, posing for photos by the “Needles” sign, with Sarah wearing sunglasses and chomping on a cigar a la Hunter Thompson. She drew startlingly realistic cartoon likenesses of all our friends, and wrote beautiful poems. She commandeered the mic between sets at a local music joint one night and sang “Me and Bobby McGee” a capella because our friend Aime felt like hearing some Janis. When my elderly cat Elway died while Sarah was cat-sitting for me, she wrote me a book of clever death haikus about him. She also stored Elway’s body in her boyfriend’s freezer, so that I might pay my final respects when I returned from my vacation. She was crazy, and she was an addict, but I loved her.

Sarah’s drug of choice was methamphetamine, but she was also a big fan of marijuana. We had a friend who grew this amazing kind bud, and Sarah would often say, “all I want is some of that magic hairy purple shit.” Neither of us really realized it in these terms at the time, but marijuana was extremely effective medicine for Sarah’s mental illness.

She hated the pharmaceuticals that a long list of doctors had prescribed and she rarely stayed on them for more than a week or two at a time. But when Sarah smoked weed she was calm, serene, grounded. She would play the piano for hours, and sing, and draw pictures, and write stories, and sleep every night. She told me it made her feel almost normal.

After Johnny died, Jane decided to move to California to live with her mother. Sarah went along – Jane, she thought, would die without her.

We stayed in touch for a while, but it wasn’t easy because Sarah never seemed to have the same phone number for more than a week or two. I was moving on with my life, in a relationship, working a 9-5. Simply put, I was getting my shit together and Sarah wasn’t. I lost track of her somewhere along the line. Regret doesn’t begin to describe it.

Our friends felt the same way as I did: Sarah was beautiful, brilliant, talented, and filled with promise that would never be realized because her sicknesses – both mental illness and drug addiction – seemed impossible to overcome. Over the years since we lost touch, I tried to imagine her living a stable life in California with a doting husband, a white picket fence, and 2.5 beautiful children. It seemed unlikely, but it was easier to picture than the other more realistic scenarios.

Yesterday, I read something online that mentioned the name of the little town in California where Sarah and Jane lived. For the umpteenth time in as many years, I googled her name, and I added the keyword “obituary” because that’s what you do when you lose track of an addict. No dice; I found nothing. No obits.

But something made me take my search a step further – I clicked on a popup ad for one of those “People Tracking” sites. I entered Sarah’s name and her last known residence and paid $22.95 for a search. When it came up, it read: DOB: March 7, 1973. (Deceased, 2007)

It hit me like sledgehammer, as Sarah might have said, though she would undoubtedly have turned it into a twisted haiku that went something like,

I googled my friend
And she’s dead like Johnny but
Not in a cat box

Sarah would have loved that, she would have laughed and laughed and hugged me and told me she loved me. She would have written something like that for me if I’d been the one to die and leave her behind.

Beautiful SarahIt sounds strange to say I miss a friend who’s been dead for seven years, a friend who I never really tried hard enough to find while she was living. But I do, I miss her terribly. I miss her and I love her and I always imagined that somehow we’d see each other again someday – and now I am overwhelmed by the sadness of knowing that we won’t.

Though there is an official death record, there is no obituary online, no final tribute written by a loving friend or family member. I have cried a lot in the past 24 hours knowing that Sarah’s last years must have been very lonely.

I imagine a world where things might have been different for someone like Sarah. I imagine a world where Sarah’s doctors would have prescribed her some magic purple hairy weed instead of Risperdal, a world where she would have had a constant supply of natural medicine that might have prevented her from using other, harder substances to silence the chaos in her head.

Although Sarah probably wouldn’t have cared about having a traditional obituary in the paper or on the internet, she deserves to be remembered. I want people to know how smart and funny and quirky she was, and I want them to understand that our society needs to have a lot more compassion for people who struggle with mental illness and addiction.

For all of her flaws, Sarah was an incredibly beautiful human being. And she was, in my mind, a victim of the war on drugs. According to the death record, she was only 34 when she died.

The Godward Bus
I have made for you
A box called Godward.
In it
I keep the words of man
and shreds of the cloth
that one day
will be on display
in the back of a
gas station museum
with a sign that reads:
“The Towel Jesus wore
answering the phone at the
and we will collect a quarter
from everyone that sees it
and we will be touted
as Stereovisionaries
and it will arouse
such perfectly sublimated
in good Christian men and women alike
that a wave
of horny righteous indignation
will gush along Interstate 40
and we will sneak out the back
with fare enough for the Godward bus.

-Sarah H., 1973-2007

*Some of the names in this article have been changed