365 Days Later / by Thea Gajic

‘my dear vlad, you will be dearly missed. We will all join you sooner or later, but the world was a better and more interesting place with you in it, and because of this I am saddened. Keep well my brother; good journeys.’
           - alejandro toledo (friend via facebook)

My dad was found dead, on this day last year; a heroin overdose. He was 44.

Deaths involving heroin and/or morphine in UK increased from 579 in 2012 to 952 in 2014, the highest age group suffering being 40-49 year olds.  A year on and my dad was one of them. The number of male deaths following accidental poisoning has risen to 79% of all drug related deaths.

I made the decision to speak openly about this due to the utter lack of knowledge/support around drug/alcohol related deaths. Nobody knows what to say and nobody knows how to help. I feared everyone who didn’t know my dad would instantly judge the person he was if they found out what happened.

My dad was born in Serbia (former Yugoslavia) and came to London in the early 90’s after fleeing the Yugoslav Wars where he did a year’s service in the Military Police. He was a non-violent man by nature and it wasn’t uncommon for Serbs to turn to drugs as a way of escapism during this period.
He was in rehab when I was very, very small – I have vague memories of this and I obviously didn’t know it was rehab at the time. I wasn’t actually aware that he ever had drug issues until a few years ago; when he felt I was old enough to know the truth about his past. He’d been clean for as long as I can remember and we had no idea that my dad was using recently or had relapsed.

He wasn’t perfect and I struggled with my relationship with him at times as a lot of us do when we’ve grown up without a father at home. Despite this, we had come to build a wonderfully strong bond over the last handful of years and I knew him as a counsellor, a mentor, a passionate musician and a friend to almost everyone who met him.
It wasn’t the usual stereotypically fuelled drug story – most of them aren’t. There were no bad teeth or squatty flats. No cider in blue plastic bags or greasy haired girlfriends. Instead there was love, pride, unforgettable conversations and advice, adventure, spontaneity and tons of silly, silly laughter.
It was and still is an utter shock.

In the year since his passing I have battled consistently with finding someone relatable to talk it through with despite the overwhelming statistical evidence that a problem is at hand. I have felt abandoned, ashamed and guilty. Overdose deaths often get socially avoided, swept under carpets and covered with shame, stigma and discomfort. As a result of this, much of my coping mechanisms have been quite reclusive due to the lack of relatable sources. I have found writing to him very soothing and the need to release has spilled out into art rather than direct conversation.

Losing a parent is hollowing.  I get most upset thinking of all the things he won’t be there for and all the things he’d love to see that he never will.
I have cried myself to sleep wondering why I couldn’t save him as I always thought love was enough. We must remember that our parents aren’t superhuman in the ways we assume they are. They too have deep rooted issues and tendencies and sometimes-toxic pasts even if they can cover it all underneath the beacon of light they share for us.
It has taken me endless conversations with myself to get to a point where I can practice self-forgiveness. Why can’t we save anyone?

You will drown yourself with what ifs and everyone will tell you it isn’t your fault – not to blame yourself – you were the love of his life; but loss isn’t a rational thing. It is haunting, addictive and overwhelmingly exhausting.

It is important as a human race to talk about things that make us feel uncomfortable, things that we fear, things that others squirm away from or shun, find vulgar, taboo or provoke controversy. It is our primal instinct to stay alive – as individuals and as a species. As with war, poverty, racism, the abuse of power etc - If something is killing large amounts of us, it needs to be addressed whether the cause is self-inflicted or not. We must protect each other and where that fails we must nurture safe places for healing afterward.

I had meetings with BBC3 to try and create a doc exploring my experience and that of other young women who had lost their fathers in similar ways. I was eager to explore how it affected them, their identity and their relationship with men.
The doc never happened but I promised myself I’d write something in the attempt to raise awareness for anyone else going through the same thing.

Trauma (as you may know) knocks you off balance. I have found that the majority of women spend a lot more time working on themselves than the majority of men do. By the time most women are 21 they are quite well in tuned with themselves; I definitely was.
I am not anymore.

Loss changes everything you know to be true; everything becomes trivial and your opinions on most metaphysical things change completely.
I cannot remember the person I was before he died.
I have spent a year juggling with both purposeful ignorance and hyper-awareness. 
I have repeated mistakes and ignored intuition.
I have not loved myself everyday.
I have experienced failed attempts at any sort of romantic relationship.
I have completely revaluated my relationship with men and the values that I think are important in a partner.
I have never understood what longing meant until I couldn’t have what I longed for.

I also know these are all things that can be transferred into positive outcomes and they have added an invaluable level of intricacy to my psyche and creative work. 

My dad told me there are 3 key things that are needed for a balanced, happy life and that you should check in with yourself regularly to keep them all ticked. Those things were:
Something to do
Something to look forward to
Something to love.

I make every effort to ensure I keep these checked.

Loss is surreal and sometimes there is no light at the end of the tunnel for a very long time. Instead there is the thing that fills you with warmth when you laugh or the sight of a sunset after a testing day.
Some moments are wonderful and others tear you back to day one. I don’t think it gets easier but I do know it is possible to let the pain fossilize until it becomes something beautiful.

                   ‘and here you are living
                    despite it all’
                                  - rupi kaur

      My mother – who’s constant love, strength, beauty and subconscious teachings have equipped me with the capacity to heal.
      My best friends – Tola, Paris, Camara and Raphique who came to my house the same night and held me; who hold me still.
      My fathers best friends – who have loved him and me for as long as I can remember and who are like wonderful slices of him whenever I speak to them.
      Everyone who has offered invaluable support, presence, patience and tenderness.

  And my father – for his vibrancy in life, appreciation of art, his flare for adventure and his sharing of vulnerability.  You are missed every day.

Things to note:
International Overdose Awareness day - August 31st  : http://www.overdoseday.com/
CRUSE : http://www.cruse.org.uk/
BEAD : http://www.cruse.org.uk/drugs-and-alcohol