My brother was a drug addict for a little while.
I know putting it that way makes it sound like just some phase he went through -- like that time I got bangs -- but I feel both experiences can be peripherally compared. Each was devastating.
Before him, addiction was something I experienced from a viewer's perspective while watching movies, and I look back now and cannot believe that I watched those movies on a loop. In junior high, my friend and I would stop at the video store (RIP Larkfield Video) on the way home from school. We'd rent either St. Elmo's Fire (RIP Rob Lowe's mullet!) or Sid and Nancy. What was an eleven year old doing watching Sid and Nancy? Well, my mother worked. You can get away with a lot when you have the house to yourself. That my rebellion only involved watching scandalous movies and episodes of Divorce Court is actually pretty impressive.
These days, I have quite the DVD collection. I love my movie collection; it's displayed in my home like my shoes are, as though they are pieces of art, which I believe to be the case. Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream are part of my collection, and I'll never deny their cinematic brilliance. But you couldn't pay me to watch them in full today.
What I think these movies don't get right is what haunted me during the time my brother was lost: the way another person's addiction can slice a family in three.
In a family, especially when it is currently made up of mostly adult children, nobody deals with things the same way. There's no daily regrouping at a dinner table to arrive on the same emotional page. I have one sister and two stepsisters, and between us, we live in three different states. And we couldn't be more different from one another than if we had different parents, which two of us do.
The first time I knew something was definitively and desperately wrong was when my brother was home from college and I went to my parents' house before we left for a Yankee game. My brother came walking up the driveway with his friend.
"Who is that?" I asked my mother as we stood on the porch.
"That's Devin," she answered.
Admittedly, I need glasses, and when I find frames that look cute on me, perhaps I'll deign to wear them. But that moment of not recognizing my own brother had nothing to do with lack of vision. He looked nothing like himself.
Devin was always an athlete; he was tall and handsome and physically strong. This person walking towards me was gaunt and looked unclean. He kissed me on my cheek.
Then he went into the house for a moment and I turned to my stepfather and said, "Your son is a drug addict."
He looked at me, surprised.
"Jack, he looks like Christian Bale in The Fighter. He weighs nothing."
"Well, since he stopped playing lacrosse, he's lost his muscle mass," Jack replied.
It was at that moment that denial became the newest member of my family, and it began to RSVP "yes" to every gathering.
We piled into the car and dropped his friend off. The kid was polite and high as a kite.
He's dead now.
On the way to the game, Devin kept nodding off and I searched his sleeping form for track marks.
I didn't see anything, but it might have been the tears clouding my eyes.
I knew things would never be the same.
During the time he was home, his best friend went to speak to my mother. Hysterical, she revealed my brother had been smoking OxyContin for some time. She said if he left to go back to college, he'd die.
I usually get ultra-calm in a crisis; this time I got emotional in the very worst way. I was told they were holding an intervention, but that I shouldn't come because my reactions would be too heightened. I reluctantly agreed.
It did not go well. He left the house and returned to school. He wasn't attending classes, but that secret hasn't come out yet.
At that point, the whole family was aware of what was happening. My sisters sent him text messages daily that said variations of "I love you. Please get help."
He never responded, and his voicemail was completely filled so they couldn't leave him messages.
I did not send messages, but, strangely, I'm the one he would text.
"Nell, I'm fine. Nothing's wrong. Don't be worried."
I'd text him back: "Devin, I don't believe a fucking word you say. You are an addict. You are destroying yourself and this family. Don't blow smoke up my ass, because I do not believe any of it."
He'd call me sometimes, often late. I'd answer the phone, and I'd try to keep my voice level. His voice sounded like a drone. It terrified me. He terrified me. He literally wasn't himself anymore.
I knew he was selling his possessions for money. I feared he was going hungry. Sometimes I'd have food sent to his apartment that I paid for with a credit card from New York.
I heard he was starting to sell his blood.
My parents found a rehab program for him near his school. He agreed to go -- but he never checked in.
Every conversation I had with any member of my family would quickly turn into a screaming match as we all disagreed about what should be done. There were no normal times anymore. He was thousands of miles away, but Devin's choices impacted every moment of our lives. And the only one who remained unemotional was him. It didn't look like he'd ever get better.
I joined my mother at a Narcanon meeting. I sat around a table with family members who were emotionally destroyed. I listened to them talk about their children who were addicts: the stealing, the lying, the arrests, the newest moment of broken trust.
I saw in their weary faces our present and our future.
It was then that I started to wish he would just die.
I'm completely aware of how sick that sounds. I'm ashamed to have thought it, and I'm ashamed to, even now, type the sentence. But I've read about people finally cleaning up after hitting bottom, and at that point my brother had lost friends, lied to his family, experienced jail. If all of those experiences didn't constitute the murkiest of the bottom for him, I didn't think anything would.
I began to try to make peace with his impending death. I'd picture myself at his funeral. I'd see a hazy image of myself: I was numb, I was in black, and my eyes were dry.
I tried to remind myself that he was already gone. It became about saving the rest of us.
I got an email late one night from my stepfather. It was addressed to me and my sisters and it stated that he and my mother were disowning my brother. I don't even remember at this point what caused that proclamation, but I did know that this sentiment shared in such a manner was ridiculously unacceptable. I knew my sister Leigh was asleep when the email came through, and I knew she'd become hysterical upon seeing it in the morning. I called my stepfather and told him that this family was not a business. He couldn't send a cold email informing us that he was letting his son go like he'd been excessed. And I told him that I could handle this craziness, but my sister couldn't, and I would not stand by and allow her to deal with a decision he'd surely end up reversing in the morning, which is just what happened.
I'd get together for dinner with my mother. She's very strong and she was holding up as best as she could, but we would talk around the issues. We'd discuss my job and my friends and the guy that I liked. Our real connection was evaporating; it all felt surface because surface was all that was safe.
We were all hiding from ourselves and from one another.
Then something happened, and to this very day, I'm not sure what it was. Out of nowhere, Devin left Arizona and flew back to New York. He stayed at his mother's house. And he said he stopped using drugs.
I didn't believe him. My parents began to spend time with him and they told me that what he was saying was true -- he really was clean. They told me to call him. I wasn't ready yet.
A month went by. My brother got a job. He sometimes went to meetings. He knew off the top of his head how many days sober he had.
One day I was visiting my parents and Devin was on FaceTime with my stepfather. We still hadn't spoken; I still wasn't sure I could believe him. And I was still furious about the pain he had caused us. But I walked by the computer and I saw his face onscreen. I locked eyes with his image. He was smiling shyly. He had put on some weight. His hair was wet. He had just showered.
"Hi, Poodle," I said softly.
"Hi, Nell," he responded.
Later that week, I texted him and asked if he wanted to get dinner. He wrote back quickly. He was in.
I picked him up at my parents' house where he was starting to stay again. I got there before he did. I sat in his room and I looked around. I saw nothing that looked incriminating. I saw sneakers and a baseball mitt lying on his floor. He had started playing sports with his friends again.
He walked in and we hugged hello. It felt almost formal, and I asked him if he was hungry. We left the house and went for dinner.
Over appetizers I told him that I had been sure he was going to die. He nodded. I asked him what made him finally stop using.
"It just became time to get better," he said.
On the first year of his sobriety, I bought him a stuffed poodle and pinned a button to it that says "Sobriety Rocks!" He keeps it on his dresser.
He's still clean today, and I don't understand how he has done it, but he's back to being totally himself. He's charming and funny and protective and gorgeous. He has a beautiful girlfriend. He's working hard and graduating college next month. He reads this blog.
"Who do you think is your dad's favorite?" his girlfriend asked Devin and me one night at a family gathering. "I think it's Nell."
"It used to be me," Devin said.
"I know," I responded. "Thank goodness for that smack addiction you went through for a while. I was able to slip into the top spot."
He laughed hard.
He was back.