Life of the party
June 26, 2005
On Wednesday, the Aspen community looked at itself without the rose-colored glasses of hype and promotion. It was sobering to see the Shangri-La myth melt away like last season’s snowpack.”The Divided Self: Crisis in Paradise,” a conference sponsored by the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, painted a picture of substance abuse that took me back 30 years to an incident I’ll never forget.It was in the summer of 1974, and we were going to Kevin’s house. Since his parents were away, we thought a party was brewing, so we parked in the driveway of this typical suburban Chicago home and rang the doorbell.It took a long time for the door to open, but when it finally did, Kevin’s face appeared with his wild blue eyes and frazzled blond hair. “Brian OD’ed!” he croaked in fear. “Help me!”We followed Kevin to a bedroom where Brian lay on the bed. His face was cadaver white and he was barely breathing. “Help me get him up,” slurred Kevin, obviously narcotized himself. “We need to get him moving.”Fred and Kevin hoisted Brian off the bed and held his slumping body between them. Kevin slapped Brian’s cheek. “Come on, walk. Please walk!”Brian’s eyes flickered open, but only the whites showed. Kevin slapped him again and the pupils came into view. Brian’s eyes were dull, opaque. They saw nothing. He puffed through flaccid lips colored a sickly purple.”Keep him moving. We’ve got to keep him moving,” urged Kevin. He and Fred struggled under Brian’s dead weight and walked him out of the bedroom. By the bed, on a nightstand, I noticed the syringe, the candle, the rubber hose, the spoon.A minute later, Fred and Kevin struggled through the door with Brian tightly in their grasp. Now his eyes wandered, vaguely searching. His legs were working and his feet stumbled for footing. They sat Brian heavily on the bed. He dropped his head between his knees and moaned. Kevin looked toward the ceiling and sighed. Brian suddenly snapped his head up and looked at the three of us. An inebriated smile twisted his mouth. His face was still flushed, but the color was coming back. His words came out in a slur that I can still hear: “That’s the best rush I’ve ever had on junk.”Brian dropped his head back between his knees and swayed from side to side. He moaned in numb delirium. We glanced at each other in disbelief.”You guys better get outta here,” urged Kevin, whose mood suddenly shifted. He wanted us gone, regretted what we had witnessed. He was frightened.More frightening still were the words Brian said. In that moment between life and death, Brian had risen like a phoenix, and it was that exaltation, “the rush,” that held meaning for him.Kevin and Brian were in their 20s. We were peers, growing up in suburban America. I never saw either of them again, and I wonder to this day what became of them, whether they eventually succumbed to the rush.During “The Divided Self” conference there were stories told from the front lines of drug addiction from the casualties of a party town who hit bottom but had the strength and support to pull themselves up. There are people in Aspen who are on those front lines now, testing how far they can fall.Aspen, despite its exalted image, is a place where people soar for a brief glimpse of the sun. Then, Icarus-like, their wings melt and they crash. That crash is the sound of the broken pieces of human frailty.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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