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FIRST PERSON

Giving Up on Hope to Finally Let Go

February 08, 1996|MARK CROMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's never easy burying a friend you've lost to drugs.

But I can tell you it's a lot harder to do when the guy's heart is still beating. It's a bit odd knowing he may try to call you after the services are over. Nevertheless, I went to the funeral. It was a little strange being the only one there.

I drove my Chevy up the mountain to take in the sweeping view of the valley we both once called home. Feeling a little symbolism might be appropriate, I brought a single beer and cigarette for a final toast to Kevin's memory. Recalling all the good times, I held my own private goodbye to the talented young photographer I had known for five short years.

It had been a long trip since last April, when I wrote a column for The Times that chronicled the frenzied efforts my friends and I had made to save Kevin, who by that time had wasted away on heroin, crack and enough other hard drugs to do William Burroughs proud.

But it was a time when I still believed, wretched as his life had become, a happy ending was within his grasp. We had managed to get Kevin into a detox center and from there he transferred to a clean-living house in Santa Monica. He got a job at a camera store and, as a result of a felony possession arrest, was in a court-ordered diversion program. It looked as if he'd hit rock bottom and the only way left was up . . . or out--and I didn't imagine he wanted to die at the age of 27. As the old saying goes, hope springs eternal.

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Shortly after my column was published, I received a letter from an expert who knew better. Kitty spent years married to a heroin addict and had weathered the chaos of trying to save him. She'd been through the tangled webs of lies, the rampant theft and the midnight trips to the emergency room.

But she stuck it out and got him into a top-rated rehab center. She joined numerous support groups, determined to see him through it. Things started to look up. He promised her he would get clean and stay clean. He told her he didn't want to lose his family.

Three months after he walked out of that rehab center, he overdosed on a cocktail of heroin and morphine and was left to die on his front porch by the junkies he'd been hanging out with.

Kitty's letter was a salty rejoinder to my optimistic column.

"If it seems you have done something for your friend, well, you haven't," she wrote. "My husband was an addict and will forever remain so, even though he's dead."

Her advice was simple enough: "Look inside and heal yourself."

At the time I chalked it up as the passionate but misdirected emotions of a junkie's widow. Her husband was dead, but Kevin wasn't; her efforts had failed, but our friend was getting on the straight and narrow. I filed her letter and continued to be confident that I'd yet again work and hang out with Kevin.

Eight months later I found myself sitting across from Kitty in a Sherman Oaks bar, thanking her belatedly for the reality check and searching for some perspective on where we went wrong.

Like Kitty's husband, Kevin had slipped back onto the junk while in the clean-living house. One night he called me from Union Station so loaded he kept nodding out while I was talking to him. In an ironic moment, I asked why he wasn't back at the house. "What good would that do?" he mumbled. "Ain't nothing goin' on there."

A few weeks after that phone call, Kevin slid off the deep end for good. By his own account, he was getting sicker despite fixing almost daily and his dealer decided to cut off his line of credit. Desperate, Kevin said he tried to rob a kid on the street but botched it and nearly ended up getting caught at the scene by witnesses. He fled Santa Monica that night, jumping probation to hitch a ride up to San Francisco, where he has been living in shelters and on the streets ever since.

He told several friends he thought he had HIV and no longer cared what happened to him.

The last conversation I had with him he was a little more chipper, if only in a sinister sort of way. He said he was making $35 an hour selling dope to "college punks from Berkeley" in the Haight. I told him he'd be looking at three strikes before long and ought to come back to L.A. and face the music while it was still survivable. He laughed, thanked me for the advice and gave me his supplier's number, in case I needed to get in touch.

Two days later, Kevin was arrested for being under the influence of crack and threatening a person's life.

Kitty said she understood why my friends and I went to the extremes we did to try to save Kevin, but we were doomed from the start because the guy with his finger on the syringe really didn't want to be saved.

"In all my naivete, I thought my love for my husband would conquer his addiction. But it didn't and it never could have," she said. "All of my energy was totally devoted to him, everything we did circled around him, it was phenomenally draining. And in the end, it didn't make a bit of difference."

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