I believe that growing up with a sibling who was an addict provides me a unique perspective to share with Families Connected. The decade or so of unfathomable turmoil that my family faced in dealing with my brother, Justin’s, addiction, ended tragically with his death due to a drug overdose this past January. I’d like to share what it has been like to be a part of a family that has struggled with addiction but as a member that largely felt helpless to steer the course of my family’s path.
As I reflect today, a part of me wishes I could have loved my brother more unconditionally. By that I mean I wish I had done all I could to understand, sympathize, and connect with him and his struggle with addiction. But in the midst of the torture I saw him put my parents through -- the weekly guilt, sadness, fear and despair – and the pain this caused me to witness, I often felt more resentment than love. It was this pain and frustration that shaped my perspectives of Justin for many years. I saw him as an anchor, weighing heavy on our family, dragging us all down.
One of the worst parts about being close to an addict is the overpowering selfishness of their behavior. I think it has taken me a very long time to understand that an addict’s love and an addict’s selfishness are not mutually exclusive. Growing up, I believed that Justin’s insistence that he loved our family and wanted to get better was just a lie, aimed at targeting the vulnerability of my parents’ hopefulness and further propelling his addiction. I didn’t understand that his addiction was so overpowering that Justin struggled with the same anguish and frustration at his own inability to overcome addiction. My parents recently shared a poem they found that Justin had written shortly before his death, and it tragically relays in its stanzas the torment of an addict, the loss, pain, and constant disappointment that he felt toward himself. I wish I had understood this while he was alive. Instead, I just spent a lot of time mad at him and frustrated with my parents’ endless supply of “second chances.”
As a result, I spent the last ten years encouraging my parents to be harder on Justin, to show him “tough love,” or to just cut him off completely. As I look back today, I wish I had been able to comprehend the depth of his sorrow instead of only considering that of my parents’. I now believe that the only thing that comes from completely cutting off a child who is an addict is that you have an addict with whom you never speak to, as opposed to an addict with whom you still attempt to maintain a relationship. I can’t speak, obviously, for the behavior of all addicts, but one poignant detail I gleaned from a family group session at one of Justin’s rehab centers was that often, the only thing that kept an addict going was the love of his family. In the depth of the self-loathing that an addict feels, I can’t imagine being in that dark of a place and existing beyond it without the glimmer of love from another source. What I mean to say is that cutting Justin off from his family’s love wouldn’t have made Justin any less of an addict; it only would have only made him an addict with nothing left to hope for. As hard as it may be, cutting an addict off from the love and support of his family doesn’t appear to present a viable path to redemption or recovery.
My family and I have talked a lot about Justin these past ten years or so, always discussing his most recent hopeful recovery or his consistent slip back into darkness. I think if we could do it again, I wish we’d gone to our own family counseling, reached out to others who were dealing with addicts in the family, or even just discussed the clinical and psychological truths of what addiction was all about. I think doing so could have helped me compartmentalize Justin as the addict and Justin as my big brother. I think being more open and proactive would have given me the perspective that I lacked for so many years and would have allowed me to lighten up on the criticism I inflicted on my parents for their seemingly unending forgiveness. Instead, I spent a lot of time angry—angry at Justin for his addiction, angry at my parents for what at times seemed enabling, angry at the way our family suffered, and angry at my own distance and apathy towards my brother.
I now have a lot of regrets about the judgement I rendered on my brother. I regret not taking the time to try to understand him or his addiction more. I regret not humbling myself enough to recognize that my brother’s life of living under overpasses, in tents, or on a stranger’s couch, and constantly not knowing where the next meal, shower, or high was coming from, wasn’t a happy existence. If there is anything I can pass on to parents, it’s to include all your children in the terrible journey of your son or daughter’s addiction, because no matter your efforts to shelter your kids, it will impact them directly.
Now that Justin is gone, I really miss hoping. There is such finality in death; only now in its presence do I realize just how much hopefulness I had held onto. Even if I didn’t consciously think Justin would get better, I unconsciously hoped for it every day. Now all that’s left is an incredibly cold “I told you so” feeling that carries its own weight. In the end, I suppose I’d always rather have the opportunity to be hopeful than to be right.
I miss my brother and will always wish things could have been different. I’d like to leave you all with this one last thought: the only time it’s too late to try a new tactic, clinic, or solution, is when they’re gone. It’s a family struggle, but it’s a family hope as well.