By Tom Robotham
I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real. The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting. Try to kill it all away, but I remember everything. ~ Trent Reznor.
In the summer of 2014, while hanging out with a group of friends at a local pub, I met a man named Joe Porfert. When we introduced ourselves, he said he was familiar with my writing, and I asked if he wrote as well. He told me he did. We chatted for another few minutes about the exhilarations and challenges of crafting good sentences or verses. Had the environment been different we might have talked for much longer. But as is so often the case in life, potentially deep connections are cut short by interruptions and distractions.
I saw Joe many times after that, in the company of mutual friends. We talked here and there, but it was mostly surface stuff—light hearted banter in groups. The last time I saw him was one evening in late April of 2015 on the patio of the bar where we’d first met. He seemed somewhat quiet and melancholy that night. I was in a bit a funk myself, feeling alienated in the crowd, and I couldn’t help wondering if he was feeling something similar.
What I didn’t realize is that Joe had been embroiled for many years in the fiercest of battles with his own inner demons. A week or so after our last encounter those demons got the best of him. In the early morning hours of May 6, 2015, Joe went into the bathroom at Cogan’s, another bar we’d both frequented, stuck a needle in his arm and overdosed on heroin. A short time later, after someone discovered him and called 911, he was pronounced dead. He was 28 years old.
The following evening I ran into a group of Joe’s friends. Their sense of devastation was palpable as they struggled to wrap their minds around what had happened. In the weeks afterward, one of his closest friends shared more memories with me. Increasingly, I regretted that I hadn’t made a greater effort to get to know him. Given what I’ve heard since his untimely death, I think we would have related to each other.
That became even clearer to me recently while reading a soon-to-be-published book, ironically titled I’ll Be All Right—a collection of his poetry and journals, interspersed with biographical sketches written by Norfolk-based writer Joe Jackson, a longtime friend of Porfert’s family.
I’ve never done heroin. But I understand depression that leads you to wonder whether life is worth living anymore. I also understand the impulse to turn to intoxicants of various kinds. Sometimes you want to feel something other than pain. If you don’t understand this, you’re fortunate beyond measure. But perhaps you do. Perhaps you, too, have endured cycles of despair, momentary relief, and despair greater still as the vise of addiction tightens its grip with every turn. The knowledge that there’s temporary relief at hand—a bottle, a pill, a few lines of coke—is hard to resist, even though you also realize that the relief will be fleeting. In its wake comes more pain—but at least it’s pain of a different kind.
Don’t get me wrong: I cannot know the specific nature of the torment in Joe’s heart that night. But the book makes one thing clear: For more much of his brief life he had struggled to find his place in a world in which authentic human connection is rare.
“Joe was a mystery to his friends,” Jackson writes. “On the surface he seemed smart and easy-going, with an odd sense of humor.” But there was another side of him—a side, according Porfert’s childhood friend Wes Mason, that could be “dark and self-deprecating, almost to the point of self-loathing.”
When Joe entered high school at Maury, he was, in a sense, walking into a perfect storm—a turbulent soul crashing against a turbulent social environment where heroin use was common. He was only 16 when he tried it himself for the first time. “Many experimented once or twice, and dropped it,” Jackson writes. “Others, like Joe, couldn’t let it go.” At some point afterward he began stealing. Two years later, he was arrested for larceny and spent 10 days in jail.
That appeared to be the wake-up call that he needed. He entered a methadone program, and went on to earn an associate’s degree from Tidewater Community College with a 4.0 GPA. After that, he transferred to Old Dominion University, with the goal of becoming an English teacher. While at ODU, he seemed “on top of the world,” according to his friend Stephanie Brown. But when a girl he’d been seeing started dating someone else, he plunged into depression yet again. He’d completed his coursework at ODU, but quit shortly after beginning his stint as a student teacher. Subsequently, he wrecked his car, lost his job and began stealing again.
It didn’t help that he started seeing another girl who had also used heroin. The following fall, the two of them made a suicide pact. The plan, Jackson reports, was that “they would gather as much heroin as possible and end their lives.” When the effort failed, his girlfriend wound up in rehab, and he in jail—this time for two and a half years.
Ironically, it was in Norfolk City Jail that Joe seemed to come closer to his true calling. He came to be known as “the Teacher,” due to his efforts to help other inmates with their letters and GED studies. A correctional officer with whom Jackson spoke recalled that Joe had “lots of potential” but would, at times, get “so down.”
And yet, after he got out of jail on Christmas night, 2013, he got a job at a local restaurant, began a new relationship, and eventually got his own apartment. There were more setbacks to come—in particular, a back injury that led him to use heroin again to control the pain. He lost his job. But he found another, and for a while he seemed to be doing OK. He was a constant presence in the bar scene, but he also continued his efforts to make a positive difference in the world by reaching out to friends who were suffering, continuing to tutor inmates and their children, and working at a women’s shelter.
“Joe was an empath,” Brown recalls. He felt other people’s pain. And at times, she believes, he felt it too deeply. That appears to have been the case in April 2015 after three people he knew committed suicide. At any rate, it was at this point that he was drawn into another vortex of despair.
After his death, some people speculated that he’d overdosed on purpose. Jackson questions that, pointing out that the dope on the street at the time was commonly cut with Fentanyl, a highly potent drug. Perhaps he was just looking for temporary reprieve from the agony and didn’t realize that the dose would kill him.
“Life is hard, harder for some than others,” Jackson writes on the book’s final page. “Perhaps life’s purpose boils down to helping one another through such despair. That is the lesson Joe brought to Ghent from Norfolk City Jail.”
Jackson goes on to quote one of Joe’s former employers who remembers him as one of those people who “bind a community together.”
“He would have become something great if he had lived,” he adds.
Based on what I have learned of him, I have no doubt that he would have made many more contributions had he survived. But the impression with which I am left is that he did become something great. For one thing, many of his journal entries reprinted in this book reveal dramatic personal growth, leading to a realization of the ways in which he’d hurt people. But personal growth is not enough—and Joe knew that. He knew that life’s ultimate meaning lies in compassionate connection with others. The number of hearts he touched, the number of people he helped, and the value of those efforts, are beyond measure.
This, to my mind, this is how he should be remembered, first and foremost—as someone who felt the pain of the world and wanted desperately to help. That he couldn’t do more was one of his deepest sources of his own pain, I suspect. And therein lies the ultimate lesson of this book: the world can be brutally cold—and in response, it’s difficult to avoid dwelling in bitterness. But there is another way: To be gentle with ourselves, even as we try to be better—and to love one another ever more fervently. We never know, after all, when it will be too late for that.
On Oct. 22, from 8-10, Café Stella in Ghent will host a party to mark the publication of I’ll Be All Right: The Life and Writing of Joe Porfert.