Brian had puffy eyes. Puffier than I remembered them being in High School anyway.

I’ve had a few friends get deep. I’ve even spent a few nights burning the candle at both ends myself – I write about poker for a living, for God’s sake. Party Poker is far from my sole vice and in spite of whatever you may think of , I’m not judgmental (just opinionated and observant.) But Brian’s eyes were so red and so bleary and so puffy.

A couple of years ago, after I’d finished up at UCLA, I headed back to Long Beach to do what all recent college graduates do – sleep on my Mom’s couch and mooch. I’d wake up anywhere between 11 and 3 and lounge about, cataloguing time by the syndicated idiocies that fill daytime TV (2:30 PM was not 2:30 PM but Judge Judy on KCAL o’clock.) I’d slink out to trawl bars and re-meet friends a South Park or two after my Mom brought home dinner. Then I’d come home around midnight, get on Party Poker and make the damned day worth something.

We’re all gamblers here Party Poker people, so let’s be real – most of us tend towards over-consumption. Most of us can almost always stand another drink, another smoke, another buy-in, another workout – another anything. Most of us are even aware of that fact and place limits on ourselves so that above all else, we avoid another disaster.

But sometimes we go broke.

I saw Brian outside of a scummy bar called the Green Dog sitting next to a guy I didn’t know. Brian’s hands were full of a $2 schooner of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a pack of Marlboro Reds and both he and his companion were wearing threadbare bits of flannel for clothes. I’d been at the dive for more than an hour but hadn’t noticed my old friend.

“Brian!”

He looked up lugubriously and his eye balls surged a bit out of his skull when they came across an old friend. He was surprised to see me and become more energetic. We talked a bit about the past few years, smoked a few cowboy killers, I mocked his incorrigibly awful taste in beer (how and why people subject themselves to PBR is beyond me) and he mocked my hoity-toitiness.

“The princess and his Guinness.”

We talked about this and that, money, women, women that we’d spent money on, and while it was wonderful to see my good friend, something hung in the air between us. Brian was skinnier than before, real bony and was obviously thinking about something else – not telling me something. And his friend didn’t contribute one word to our conversation. The guy just sat there, occasionally scratching and repositioning his jaw in his mouth. Then there were Brian’s eyes too…

“So who’s your friend?”

“Oh uh, this is Sam…”

Sam, apparently, shot me a “Hey” and a glance hidden beneath his tumbleweed of hair to gesture cordiality. I was thinking heroin – they were probably on heroin. But that isn’t really the sort of thing that you just come out and ask someone who you haven’t seen in more than four years, plus I was headed back to my Mom’s couch to use the internet that she was paying for to play poker until in all likelihood the sun came up. And who knows what he was thinking about me – so, together in our vaguely happy conversation, we kept to ourselves.

Last call came and went, I snared a cab, bid adieu to Brian and Sam and headed back to Mommy’s house. The whole way home I was contemplative in that sort of wistful, “So it goes” way. He made his choices and I’d be nice whenever I saw him but I’d have to keep my distance because heroin addicts are… well… heroin addicts.

I think I played for 3 hours that night/morning – I’m not totally sure. I beat the sunrise to sleep though, I remember that. Anyways, I kept that lifestyle up for about three months and even though Brian called me twice to go out, I came up with some cockamamie excuses to avoid him.

Eventually adulthood set on and I grew tired of living a fangless vampire’s life. I had the degree and figured that I might as well use it, so I got a real job and started playing poker before midnight. I got some ducks in order and moved out, even quit smoking again. Outside of avoiding him, I didn’t really think that much about Brian.

Two weeks ago, I was out on Sunday afternoon getting a cup of coffee at my favorite little coffee house (Viento y Agua in Long Beach, CA) when who should appear but Sam, Brian’s chatty buddy.

“Sam, right?”

“Nick, you’re looking better”

“I – uh – what?”

Sam explained that Brian had been worried about me since our last meeting. He’d said that I’d looked terrible and had wondered if I’d gotten involved with drugs.

“Me? But Brian had blackened duffel bags hanging underneath his eyes.”

“Well it was midnight and a good friend of ours had just lost a long battle with cancer. We wanted to drink and suck down cigarettes – we didn’t exactly want to talk about it.”

“I’m sorry Sam, but who exactly are you?”

“I… live with Brian.”

“So you’re his roommate?”

“Well…”

And then it hit me – Good Lord, Brian was gay! That explained the weirdness and he wasn’t on heroin and Oh God… Brian was gay?

Sam went on to tell me that this was a new thing for Brian (like I needed him to tell me that) and that most of his friends and family didn’t know. Then the guy who was living with my friend who did not, in fact, have a problem with heroin asked me if I wanted to talk to someone about my “lifestyle.”

“No no no, look I live in Long Beach and have no problem with you wanting to do whatever you want to do with whomever consents, but I have absolutely no desire to, uh, experiment wit – “

“ No, not that. My brother works with addicts, maybe you should give him a call. No pressure and I’m sorry but I’ve got to get down to the Queen Mary, nice to see you again and clear this whole mess up.”

And with that, Sam left his brother’s card and headed off to the great parked ocean liner.

There are a lot of definitions of addiction, too many. Everything that you do (at least all of the fun stuff) now comes with a “responsible use” disclaimer. And in today’s pseudo-psychoanalytical society at some point, everyone thinks to themselves, “Am I addicted to this?”

I don’t know how the brain chemistry works and frankly, life is too short not to indulge from time to time. I think that the question “Am I addicted to this?” is more or less worthless. I think that the only real questions are: “Is this activity benefitting me?” and more to our point “Am I really seeing what’s in front of me or am I just seeing a reflection of what I am looking with?”

I had been unable to see Brian because I was too consumed with my own crap. Does that make me an addict? Maybe. I don’t really care what you call me, I just know that I had to deal with the crap that was blinding me.

Instead of worrying about whether or not you’re addicted to something, worry about the tangible consequences of your behavior and whether or not you are able to recognize reality.

After all, most professional poker players play well over 20 hours of poker per week – does that make them addicts?

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