I’ve always enjoyed being a big sister. I’m the oldest of three kids, with two younger brothers: Bobby, who is now almost 27, and Bryan, who is nearing 23. Bobby and I are pretty close in age, I’m 29, and I have such fond memories of constantly creating adventures together. While I was starting my first business at the age of 9 (it was a baking business, I was really into chocolate chip cookies), my brother was excelling as an athlete, playing every sport imaginable. He was always outside and with some form of a ball. When Bryan was born and we became three, we started to settle into our familial roles. I was the over-achieving oldest, a goody two shoes and a bit of a drama queen. Bobby, the athlete, was charismatic and emotional, but quite a mischievous middle child. To this day, he still can give you this look—it’s a mix of a smirk and a smile, with a certain twinkle in his eye—that means he’s up to no good. It’s a look we’ve all come to know quite well.
I can’t remember exactly when I realized my brother wasn’t just a classic middle child, but an addict.
I don’t think it was when he was in high school—I was in college—and he was smoking a ton of pot. He was always stoned, and always in trouble. His teachers couldn’t understand how it was even possible we were related. I was always a perfect student, and he was always a nuisance. Constantly asking why?, challenging authority, sleeping in class, and eventually bringing drugs to school.
It may have been around the time he was kicked out of school all together, when the trouble started to get more serious. The police were involved occasionally. My parents were stressed all of the time. Our younger brother was growing up around all of this, a decent student and a strong athlete, but very high strung and sometimes angry. I felt detached from what was happening because I was away from home, in school in Washington, DC. I realize now I was blissfully ignorant of the deep hole my brother, Bobby, was digging himself into. Only recently did I come to learn that not only was he high all of the time—now with various drugs, not just pot—but he was also dealing, and stealing, and breaking into houses. That he could have been arrested, thrown in prison, he could have died so many times.
I felt guilty and foolish when I learned all of this—primarily while we were sitting in the car waiting for my grandfather’s funeral to start, when it seemed that Bobby had drunk a truth serum and decided to anecdotally share a lot of it with us—because I had somehow missed all of this. How did I not see the depth of what was happening? And even worse, had my overachieving drive created some sort of resentment that manifested itself in all of this behavior?
But, I definitely realized he was an addict after he went to jail for the second time. It’s hard to remember what exactly the charge was, but after spending a few days in our local jail, my parents put him on a plane to go to his first rehab in Southern California. He had finally admitted to them that he was addicted to Percocet, and was ready to get help. Since then, my brother has been in and out of rehab more times than I can count, has had a baby with a girlfriend he’s no longer with, started using meth and heroin, and just recently—as in, this week—was released from prison again. This time for violating his probation to come to my wedding in Italy. I’m sure you can imagine the complicated feelings that come with that. Getting Bobby there was a feat unlike any other I’ve performed—it took so much planning and coordinating to get a functioning addict on an international flight on his own—and I burst into tears of relief when my parents called to say they had met him in Rome, he had made it and gotten off the plane. He spent his first few days in Italy going through withdrawal, but trying to put on a good face for all of us. And by the time we made it to Tuscany he had returned to the bright, beautiful boy of our childhood. Smiling, laughing and making jokes. Walking my grandmother down the aisle. Dancing with me and my mom. I know he came without permission because he knew how disappointed I would be if he hadn’t been there. But I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible and guilty for the position he’s in now.
For someone like myself, being the sibling of an addict is (not was, it still very much is) something I don’t really know how to cope with. We grew up with extremely loving and supportive parents, who through my eyes treated us exactly the same way. But it often feels like there are decades that separate us, rather than years, and a completely different life view that I still can’t reconcile that we don’t share. He’s been using some form of a substance for at least 12 years and I was terrified of drugs when I was the age he was when he started using. I’ve never even taken Adderall and Sudafed makes me feel high. And for a long time I couldn’t figure out why he just couldn’t get his shit together. I thought he kept making terrible choices for himself and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand that he is suffering, and that he’s lost the ability to truly be in control—that the drugs he takes have robbed him of that.
So for years, I think I tried to ignore what was happening to Bobby. Our relationship became pretty much non-existent. He would only call me when he was in trouble and was too afraid to deal with mom and dad. Or if he needed money, which I’ve foolishly given him so many times, thinking that I was helping him in times of need when he was clean, only to realize later that of course he had been using. I read in David Sheff’s book, Beautiful Boy, similar experiences where you want to do anything you can to help, where you become blinded to your best judgement by the overwhelming sense of love and powerlessness that you feel when you love an addict and you do stupid things. I’ve done a lot of stupid things for my brother, usually at the detriment of myself, and ultimately of him.
When I would go home to see my parents he would float in and out of the house for an hour or two at a time and we’d only make small talk with each other. I also realize now that the number of actual conversations we’ve had in the last year about real things can be counted on one hand. This is probably the thing that still upsets me most—that this wonderful human that I love so unconditionally and I are totally disconnected from each other. He’s disconnected from my parents and my other brother too, I realize it’s not just me. And ultimately, we all serve a different role in his addiction. My mom has so much empathy for him that it sometimes blinds her, enabling him—it’s something I know she struggles with deeply, and that she’s suppressing so much anger and pain. I think it makes my brother feel guilty, and so he avoids her. My dad is more confrontational, and less empathetic, and incites a certain anger in Bobby. When he needs tough love without the emotion, he’ll reach out to my dad. My younger brother and Bobby seem to be even more disconnected than he and I are. I assume that Bobby feels a lot of guilt for putting him through experiences that I can’t categorize as any other way but “fucked up” when he was too young. And with me, he’ll return my calls out of obligation when he’s doing okay and avoid me when he’s not. And I try to give him life, no bullshit, with little emotion—to be a guiding light when and where I can, although it’s likely that my advice is falling on deaf ears 99% of the time. But when he’s sober, he’ll call me and we’ll talk.
There have been periods of his sobriety where I can recognize the person I’ve known. Where there’s a haze that lifts and a brightness that returns and we can talk again, and laugh again, and he has ideas and plans and dreams. Periods where he realizes that his life is worth living, and he’s getting himself together. These moments have been few and far between over the last few years but we—my family and I—cherish them and hold on to them and they continue to give us hope in other moments of darkness. In the moments where I’ve convinced myself that he’s overdosed somewhere, and in the dread I feel each time I get a call from my parents at an unusual hour and I just know it’s the call that I’ve been fearing for all of these years. I’m sure most loved one of addicts, especially opiate addicts, understand this sense of all consuming dread. There’s this idea that the person who is my brother as I knew him is already, in a sense, dead when he is using. His soul doesn’t exist when he’s on drugs, just this body full of foreign substances that have stripped him of his consciousness. But as long as that body is still breathing, there’s always a sense of hope that he’ll come back to us. That he’ll re-inhabit his flesh and bones with his deep, emotional and loving soul. But if his body dies, then our hope dies with it, and it’s another experience of grief that I’m certainly completely unprepared for. This fear of his bodily death are the moments that have become the majority of my thoughts about my brother.
About two years ago, I decided that this experience—of being the sibling of an addict—isn’t really something you can just ignore or brush off, and that it was affecting me in ways I couldn’t fully comprehend. It became the only thing I talked about with my parents—if we were on the phone and didn’t mention Bobby and how he’s doing it felt like there was just a big elephant in the room. It had created moments of deep contention and strain in my relationship to Josh, my now husband, who has been with me through the darkest moments of Bobby’s addiction. And inside of me, it had manifested a lot of sadness, and anger, and fear and anxiety that I continuously was forcing further down into the depths of my body and my mind so that it wouldn’t taint the beautiful life I’ve been building for myself, quite tirelessly, for all of these years. It’s like his addiction is the attic in my house that I never want to visit—it’s too frightening, too dark—yet it’s always there, just above your head, hanging over everything. And as much as you want to avoid visiting the attic, you can’t avoid it forever, because there’s stuff you cherish in there, and it’ll always be a part of your house.
After my brother was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, I decided I had to climb into the attic. I started seeing a therapist and the majority of our conversations are still about Bobby. In a way his addiction has taken over my life as much as it’s consumed his. It’s become a dark cloud that covers the brightest moments—and for me, the biggest challenge is that it’s not something I can fix. No amount of problem solving in the world can cure him of this disease, and I now understand that it’s truly what it is. This has always been a marked difference between us: I am constantly running at problems and trying to solve them, whereas my brother avoids them in a way that just creates more problems. On top of that, under all of this, he is a perfectionist and has very high expectations for himself—something we both have in common. But he lacks the self confidence needed to get there. And this is where the disconnect happens when we try to talk about his future. I realize now that Bobby is not only an addict, but is incredibly depressed and also deals with anxiety. His addiction stems from and has exacerbated mental health issues that continue to be undiagnosed and untreated, regardless of the fact that he’s been in rehab so many times and has also seen various therapists over the years. The failures and incongruity of our mental health and criminal justice systems is, quite frankly, disgusting.
But the therapy has been helpful—I cry each time I talk about him, a sign of the hurt that I feel, but also the opportunity for a release. Though the thing that’s been most transformative in my parallel journey of my brother’s addiction was our time at the retreat.
For weeks I had been telling Garance—who has stood by and supported me through a lot of dark times with my brother too— how much I needed the retreat, but I couldn’t articulate why. This year was so good for me, I got married and my brother was even there for it, clean and present and wonderful (although I didn’t know at the time that he was there without permission to be). But each time a new issue arose with Bobby I could feel myself plummeting into darkness again and again. In October, just a few weeks before the retreat, my parents flew back to Philadelphia from California, where they are now living, to find my brother passed out on the kitchen floor, our house that we grew up in and he still lives in now, in complete shambles. I was disappointed again when he decided not to come to New York for Thanksgiving, opting to spend the day alone at home, with possibly the opportunity of a few hours with his daughter, my niece, who he is surprisingly a fantastic parent to. Yes, that may sound surprising, but it’s true—seeing the two of them together and the affection they have for each other is incredibly fulfilling. And I’m constantly impressed to find him looking for activities to do with her, rather than just sticking her in front of a screen, or giving her healthy snacks rather than the sugar she’s given frequently when with her mom. My feelings are so mixed about the safety of him being responsible for her, but I also see that when he’s with her, he does feel responsible, and loves her so unconditionally, and that her presence may be what’s keeping him alive. It’s quite possible that she is what he is living for.
So when we arrived in Chile, I brought Bobby with me. My entire body felt heavy when we touched down in the Atacama and there was this sensation of emotion bubbling up inside of me. On the second day, the tears started coming and they didn’t stop until we left. On the third day, even though I had been thinking about my brother during our meditation and free journaling practices, I needed to share, and as we sat in a circle, talking through one of Susan’s teachings, I let go and let it out that I have a brother who is an addict. And that his addiction has been consuming me for years. As the day went on, and the week went on, I shared more and so did everyone else. I learned that many of the women in the room also had a loved one who is an addict. That there were other complex challenges that each and every person was also facing in their lives. So we shared, we told stories, we offered advice without pretense, we cried, we held each other. And we continued to meditate and to journal. And in this experience and those practices, I was able to see thought patterns and negative self-talk that I hadn’t recognized in myself before. I was able to gain perspective. I was given very selfless advice about coping with my brother, but also coping with my brother in the context of my other relationships. And I was able to come home feeling like the clouds had started to lift and in their place there were warm rays of sun enveloping me that certainly came from these other women.
I’m taking what I learned on the retreat—both in practice and in self observation—and applying it to the newest set of challenges I’m facing with Bobby. I’m actively releasing myself of the responsibility I feel for and towards him. I’m not trying to problem solve for him unless he asks for my help specifically. And I definitely stopped giving him money. I’m trying to just communicate to him that I love him unconditionally, but take everything else out of it—the guilt, the criticism, the frustration—all of it. I still feel hopeful that he will get better, but I also know it will be a lifelong process. And I know I couldn’t have gotten to this point where I am right now, feeling a bit lighter and continuously more hopeful, had it not been for my experience in Chile. I hope that I’ll continue to create those connections in my everyday life back in New York, because I now know that I don’t need to do this alone.
– Addiction Help Today
– National Institute of Drug Abuse
– Narcotics Anonymous
– To Write Love on Her Arms