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KIM ROSEN/The Globe and Mail

'You are my best friend, and I love you forever," read her e-mail.

These were some of the last words I would hear from my beloved friend. I'll call her Maya. In Hindu, Maya is a concept that means "illusion," and in her case, the illusion that she wasn't lovable, talented or deserving took hold of her cocaine-addicted soul.

Two months after she e-mailed me, her powdery supply was found on the night table beside her bed, where her small, rigid body lay.

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I don't know if I was her best friend in the real sense of the word, but I tried to be. By that point in her life, she didn't have many true friends left.

Pretending she wasn't using cocaine any longer, begging for money to pay off drug dealers who she said had robbed her place for debts owed, and claiming she wasn't addicted had worn people down. Only her psychiatrist knew the truth, being privy to the regular blood tests he insisted she have.

Still, for almost nine, gut-wrenching months following her death, during which I felt as if swallowed by a black hole, I tried to make sense of a life consumed primarily by despair.

I watched television documentaries about cocaine addicts, spoke with former ones, confided in other friends of addicts, but still I found no peace. Before Maya, I had never had a friend who used drugs, but in my more than four decades of life, I'd seen many – from Victoria to Toronto. The cities are vastly different, but the faces are not.

They were just like the ones I'd seen as a kid. Dishevelled teens crouching in the alley behind my father's downtown Toronto store; him throwing open the door to yell at them to scram, them staring back in a trance: too numb from the drugs, the glue, the self-loathing, and I'm sure much else. To him and many others, these teens were just the dregs of society. But this label was just another illusion. To me, they were human beings in need, with no real place to call home. As a young teen, I'd linger by his side, wishing there was more I could do.

When Maya entered my life on a small Gulf island years ago, I didn't see the drugs. I didn't know they were there. All I saw was the kind woman with wavy hair, working behind the counter at a store I entered one bright summer day – one of the friendliest people I'd ever encountered. One who would regale me with stories and laughter every time I returned.

To others who saw Maya in her manic, drugged state, she just "didn't care about life, didn't care about others, and was less than a human being."

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They didn't see the person who sought me out to help save her sanity through Buddhism, they didn't know about this broken soul who lost her best friend – her step-father – at age 13, and they didn't know about the step-mother who told her she wasn't wanted. Nor did they know the child piano prodigy nor the angelic being who changed my car's flat tire when I wasn't around.

Rather, this was a woman who had driven me around town pointing out drug dealers' homes, asking that I'd expose them so that they'd no longer be free to feed her addiction. Sure, some days, she would claim that she didn't have a problem – and that she hadn't used cocaine in months, although my impromptu visits to her home would reveal otherwise: smoke wafting through the air, a kitchen table almost covered with white powder, knives, pipes, supposed "friends" lounging on every chair possible, more knocking regularly on the door.

Maybe I could have done more, I ruminate; I bought her groceries, I asked her doctor to see her weekly, I introduced her to spirituality. But I had to return to Toronto to visit a dying grandmother. And while I was gone, Maya's flame extinguished, the darker forces and circumstances in her life finally sweeping her beyond reach.

Perhaps I should have let her brother report her to the police, as he suggested, to protect her from herself. But would jail or rehab have saved her life, when we could not? I begged him to find another way.

Five years later, I still catch myself reading her e-mails. I still torment myself: Why do people become drug users? Why can't some stop? Why and how do some wonderful human beings fall through the cracks? I still watch former addicts being interviewed on TV, and read the stories of those who survived. Saved in time, saved from themselves.

And I still have no concrete answers. Maya fell through the cracks. Perhaps, at least in her case, the "worthless" stigma about drug users created a vicious cycle whereby her self-esteem plummeted ever lower, plunging her into a suicidal abyss. Into a lonely glass jar on a shelf, which now holds the ashes of her once-vibrant self.

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Safe-injection sites, better rehab centres, and better enforcement laws for hard-core drug dealers aren't the only things much needed in society. It seems that from the day we emerge from the womb, to the milennia of days that follow, unconditional love and compassion are.

Lisa Miriam Cherry lives in Toronto.

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