When I first met Greg, he was living on the streets a few blocks from my office. I hadn’t been in Portland long, maybe nine months, and he had posted to the Portland subreddit about losing his job, then apartment, and eventually becoming homeless. He seemed like a nice guy, and I get an hour for lunch, so I offered him a meal and conversation. I had just started my job–in fact I was able to afford lunch because I’d just received my first paycheck–so I was still in training and working a 7-4 shift.
Greg was waiting for me outside as Old Town Pizza opened their doors. We sat in a cozy elevator shaft that had been converted to a dining area. He brought his laptop and showed me some of the things he’d been reading. (At this point I don’t even recall what they were, I only remember being impressed that he had a number of interests spanning multiple disciplines.) We talked about technology, politics, and human nature while eating warm pizza as the late February wind rattled the windowpane. After lunch, I returned to the controlled comfort of my office building. Greg went to a coffee shop until it closed, then spent the night on the sidewalk.
Truth be told, Greg could have been one of my coworkers. That’s what I kept thinking after meeting him and talking with him for an hour: he could have been any number of people I’ve worked with over the years. It’s a bit overwhelming to realize that, save for a different set of circumstances and poor decisions, you or someone you consider a colleague could be living on the streets. One of the things Greg kept mentioning was how difficult it was to find social services to help, though he did say there was an abundance of food to be had for those who could not afford it. What a sad thing to be proud of in a first-world country.
We spoke often. I’ve known him for a year and a half, and looking back through my inbox there are over a thousand messages traded back and forth between us. Some of them are short, such as, “Sounds good! See ya soon.” Others are long, rambling paragraphs about teaching crows to collect change that would then be donated to charity, how best to hide your trail online in the new reality of constant electronic surveillance, or funny stories from our pasts. He met my girlfriend and she loved him. He was so charming it was almost impossible not to. Even the dog loved Greg, sometimes seemingly more than me.
He found a few different places to stay for short amounts of time, including with us for a few weeks. We live in a quiet cul-de-sac in the suburbs, and I think he missed being in the middle of the frenetic energy that flows through downtown Portland. A friend of Greg’s was kind enough to put him up in her basement while he worked to get back on his feet. During that time, he began to volunteer at Free Geek with more regularity, and would come to teach several classes. One of the things so impressing about Greg was how adamantly he desired to help others. In my belief, this desire is what led him to work with the Animal Beta Project and to teach classes at Free Geek. Looking at his reddit history, just a month ago he commented on a post to leave encouraging words to someone dealing with depression. Even while his own life was falling to–no, was in–pieces, he gave of himself.
There’s so much more I could say about him, and I’m sure I will eventually. Right now I simply hurt. I don’t hurt for myself, though there is a degree of pain because I’ll never see my friend again. I hurt for those who will never get to know Greg, for the people who would have walked right by him sleeping on the sidewalk without giving him a second thought, for the people who weren’t there when he needed them the most. I hurt because I am no better than this to others. I walk by people every day who sleep wrapped in newspapers and threadbare blankets. You become desensitized, maybe even to the point you don’t consciously recognize they’re there. But they are there. They are people. Most of them are probably very different from Greg, but they are still worthy of some basic aspect of human dignity.
I’m also angry. So damn angry. Over a month before his death Greg had an accident, followed by another a few weeks later that put him in the hospital. Both of these accidents occurred at least in part due to mental health incidents. I told them as much at the hospital. Since I’m not related to Greg, I had no legal or medical pull while he was in the hospital. He was admitted with a broken arm, broken ribs, and an ankle swollen to the size of my bicep. They wanted to send him home that same night. If you know anything about the American healthcare system you know why. Greg had no insurance. I firmly believe this was a factor in the quality (and quantity) of care he received.
The hospital kept him overnight, but only after I made a big stink about the fact that he lived alone, was in a physical condition that greatly reduced or eliminated his ability to care for himself, and would likely end up dead if he had another mental health incident that resulted in injury. Even talking caused Greg to gasp in pain. They discharged him the next day while I was at work. He wasn’t even able to walk or use his arms, and they tried to send him home with only crutches. He had to beg for a wheelchair. They said those costs are typically paid by insurance or out-of-pocket. Neither was an option for Greg.
I met up with him last Wednesday. We went to Safeway to get a prescription filled. He couldn’t afford the $13 cost. I don’t know if there are social programs out there that could have helped him, but I do know he was not in any shape to take advantage of them without some outside assistance. I am happy I was able to be there for my friend, even though I wish I had done more. How many others have no one? We talk about people falling through the cracks as if they were breadcrumbs in grout or coins dropped down a sewer drain. It’s so much messier, nothing but absolute apathy in the face of the meat-grinder gore of reality. Wednesday was the last day I saw Greg. I think I was the last one to see him alive. I’ll never see him again.
I’m ashamed of my country–the richest one in the entire fucking world–for not having it together enough to catch people before they are broken, sometimes irreparably, by hitting bottom. I’m ashamed of the society that demonizes those with mental illness. While I admit a bias against organized religion, I believe that it is an actual demonization, a holdover of the archaic belief that ill minds are caused by evil spirits rather than chemical imbalances that helps to propagate this attitude. Those with mental illnesses don’t need to be ostracized. That’s the opposite of what’s necessary. They need help without judgment. They need us to give a damn. We are failing this group of people in innumerable ways, and the consequences of it are immeasurable, the losses staggering. I’m ashamed of my fellow humans. I am ashamed of myself.
My friend also struggled with addiction. Some who deal with mental illness self-medicate. This tendency can be exacerbated when suffering from other medical conditions that bring chronic pain. As a non-believer, Greg expressed to me a number of times how uncomfortable he felt in most recovery programs, almost all of which demand an acknowledgement of a higher power and are steeped in other religious language. Overcoming addiction requires peace and support. He did not feel he had either.
It’s so hard to see what drugs can do to people. I love Greg dearly and do not wish to tarnish his memory, but I also think it’s important that people know what it does to not only the drug user but to the people who care about him or her. It got to the point where I wouldn’t give Greg money, but would instead go with him to buy things. Courtney and I would take him to the grocery store for food. He and I took the MAX to Pioneer Square to buy him a Trimet pass. My friend Greg would have never lied to me; the junkie in him would have said whatever was necessary.
I remember telling Courtney at one point that I didn’t feel qualified to help Greg, that I am just a geek, not a doctor or a psychiatrist or a social worker. He likely needed all those things, but he also needed a friend. I’m glad I could provide that to him for a time.
Illegitimi non carborundum. Don’t let the bastards wear you down. I love you, Greg, and I’m really going to miss you.
So it goes.
If you or someone you know is battling addiction or mental health issues, please seek assistance. (If you’re a non-believer, contact the Secular Organization for Sobriety.) If you’re feeling depressed or having thoughts of taking your own life, please call 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE. If you believe someone you care about is contemplating ending their life, please talk to them. Show them you are there. Their lives may depend on it.