Learning to Speak: Breaking the Shame of Addiction
Tomorrow would have been my brother’s 29th birthday. Another first in the long line of events we are enduring during our struggle to make sense of this new world without him. The idea that my baby brother will never again see another year turn is heartbreaking. I so clearly remember the day he was born and that first time I met him. We waited in the hospital room for my mom to be wheeled in from delivery and once I saw them I couldn’t help but be in awe of someone so tiny and so fragile. My brother was the person that I grew up feeling that I needed to protect. He was the one I wanted to shelter from all things. I wanted desperately to help him through life events and struggles that I had already experienced. I wanted the hard lessons that I learned to be given to him through my words instead of through his own actions.
It was a hard lesson for me – that you can’t save someone from pains and disappointments in life. All of us have our own struggles and all of must face them head on. My brother had to face his own demons. Some struggles that I found quite familiar and others that I knew nothing about. The greatest of these resulted in his death.
Andrew was a heroin addict. That is a truth that was hidden for so long from so many people. People who were close and those that we love. He was ashamed of the path he took and maybe we were too, but mostly I’ve been afraid of the judgment. This world is cruel and people are often no better. With the surge in overdose deaths, stories fill our news reports. The words that comes from some people’s mouths are incredibly painful to hear…
“Good! One less junkie”
“We shouldn’t even bother trying to save them”
“They are a complete waste”
His path was one that we kept hidden because we could see and hear the disdain all around us. Even from those close who had no idea what we were facing as a family. Who had no idea of the pain we carried for years. Yes, years we struggled with trying to get him help. Addiction is a horrible cycle of getting clean, having hope and then diving back into despair. The helplessness you feel when you can’t save someone you love is shattering in ways that I could never explain. We would have done anything to save him from himself. We would have done anything to take away his pain and to instill in him even an ounce of the hope we clung to.
With addiction there is no easy answer or one size fits all solution. We tried everything from complete enabling to absolute detachment and every step in between. Nothing worked for long and so we watched as his life continued to crumble. We watched as his personality changed and his actions became more and more out of touch with who he was. I watched from afar after I reached my point of needing to disengage. Of needing to keep my kids away from the destruction and pain. I needed to turn from protecting my brother to protecting my kids and my heart from the yo-yo life that comes with addition.
But still, his struggles weren’t something that I wanted to talk about with many people. You see, my brother wasn’t just some junkie and he was worth more than the snap judgment that comes when you say the word heroin. He was thoughtful and loving. He was incredibly sensitive and loved making those around him happy – even when it affected his own happiness. He loved animals, Frisbee golf and video games. He didn’t wake up one day and decide to become addicted to opioids. He didn’t pick up a needle and decide to throw his life away. He simply found something that took the edge off his pain and slowly it escalated and morphed. One baby step at a time toward a path that spiraled out of control.
When he was clean, he was the brother I knew and loved so dearly. He was Andrew and we could talk for hours. He always came off as the quiet one growing up but once you got him talking, you better sit down….it’s going to be awhile. He loved his family and was an incredible uncle to my son. He had fun just hanging out and would be over in an instant if you needed help. He could fix anything and dreamed of working on cars for a living. When he was doing well, you could feel the pride he had in himself. The sense of accomplishment he felt after completing treatment. He was full of hope and life. His dreams flooded back and he was excited about the future. When he struggled, the despair ran deep and nothing you said could get through to him.
As the years went by, his own hope for his life diminished. He changed and his relationships changed right along with it. He was exhausted. Defeated. He no longer talked about the future in the way he used to. Looking back, I can almost pinpoint when he gave up. It’s as if he thought that there was no turning back or hope left. He didn’t believe that he worthy of getting clean or that he would still be accepted after the choices he had made. He felt despair at turning back to drugs and it’s as if he thought his chances were up.
No matter how many times you told him that you loved him, he didn’t believe it. Drugs convince people that they are not loveable or worthy. How incredibly wrong that is. The demons in their life take over control and eat away at the joy that used to live. To us he was never a throw away case. He never reached a point in which we could have stopped loving him. Up until his last moments, we would have done anything in this world to save him and to have him as he truly was underneath the drugs and lies. There was always hope which is what made the journey so painful and what makes letting go so hard.
It’s difficult for me to write all of this because I’ve felt that I need to protect him from the judgment of others. That I need to protect his memory. I don’t want people to think that he is any less worthy of grief or the love that I will always carry. Then I realized something important as I was in bed last night. I realized that people judge because they don’t know. And they won’t ever know if we always keep quiet and mask the darkness we’ve faced. No matter how much we wish his life had turned out different, denying his path will never bring him back to us. Not talking about it won’t take away our memories from standing around his hospital bed or cancel out the pain that we’ve carried these past several years. And keeping quiet won’t stop us from hearing the painful comments.
It’s always going to be easy for people to judge and to say harsh words when they’ve never experienced the pain of addiction. Putting addicts down is a way of saying – ‘It would never happen to me. Not my kids. Not my family’.
We used to think that too.
I will never forget the night he called me crying and first admitted that he was using heroin. The shock I felt was intense. I had no idea. Maybe we should have seen the signs, but why would we have been looking? That wasn’t in our family or our neighborhood. It wasn’t something that we needed to pay attention to. Heroin addicts were the bums on a street corner, not my brother. Not the guy holding down a steady job. Not the guy who would sit around a campfire with me for hours. Not the guy who stepped in as a male role model for my son when he needed it most. Not the guy who would come over in an instant to fix whatever it was that I recently broke. Not our family.
We all need to wake up and to open our hearts to those around us. If you take anything at all away from these words that I’ve been struggling to write, please take this – Please be slower to judge. Please withhold the harsh words towards those who are struggling. Please wake up to the pain in others. And please stop comparing sins as if yours are all somehow better than the next person’s.
We all need a little more compassion and understanding in our lives. And if we can’t muster kindness, can we just keep quiet about those topics we don’t have insight on?
Maybe I can’t keep trying to protect Andrew’s legacy by staying quiet about his struggles. Maybe his memory instead is supposed to help others by opening up minds and hearts to the pain that this epidemic is causing. Maybe it can provide just a little bit of comfort to someone by showing them that they aren’t alone. That no matter what the struggle or how far you’ve gone, that it is never too late to make a change. Hope is power. And while my hope for Andrew now lives with my grief, I hold a new hope for others who are struggling. That they can find the help they need without judgment or fear.
For more information on opioid abuse and where to find help: https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/