Picking Up The Pieces
Every single day, 365 Americans die as a direct result of drug use; 120 of those deaths are overdoses. This means that approximately 135,000 people in the U.S. lose their battles to addiction every single year. It doesn’t matter how these people died, or what their drug of choice was. What matters is that each person was someone’s child, or sibling, or grandchild, or niece, or nephew, or significant other, or best friend. What matters is that every single year, the loved ones of another 135,000 people have to learn how to navigate the world after losing a part of their heart to drugs. Children face growing up without one or both of their parents, siblings lose part of their identity, parents and grandparents are forced to do the unspeakable act of burying someone who should have outlived them by decades. Spouses are burying their soulmates, friends are losing the people who knew them best in this world. Every single day, the loved ones of 365 more people are picking up the pieces of someone else’s addiction, applying tourniquets to their hearts and moving on.
Every time I hear of someone else losing their battle with addiction, my heart breaks all over again. Of course I’m sad for the person who died, but I’m mostly broken for the family and friends who had to watch a piece of their heart self-destruct before their very eyes for months, years, or even decades.
Because I’ve been right where they are.
In the background of every addict’s story, you’ll find the story of every person who’s ever loved them. Hidden between the lines of the story of every person in recovery are the stories of the people who helped them get there. Written in fine print at the bottom of the story of every addict who?s lost their fight are the stories of the loved ones who are left to mourn their loss.
And sometimes – a lot of the time – those stories get lost in the shuffle.
And while every addict’s journey is different, so are the experiences of the people who love them.
Sarah, or Sarah-Keturah, or Keturah. However you knew her, she was my sister. And even though she was 6 years younger than me, I was always a little jealous of her. She was tall, and naturally beautiful, and she could give a downtrodden stranger some hope just by smiling. Her voice was amazing. When I close my eyes and think of her, it’s as though I can actually hear her singing. And her laugh. That god damn laugh.Sometimes it was almost like she couldn’t control her body, she would slump over when she was laughing really hard at something and before you knew it you were crying tears of laughter with her. That’s what I’ll always hear. And that’s what I’ll always miss.
Six and a half years is a big difference in the high school and college years. We were alike in some ways as far as school goes -we both got good grades, were voracious readers and we both sang in the chorus. That’s about where the similarities end. I went to private school from the time I was barely out of diapers and graduated with just 43 kids in my class. Sarah went to public school starting at the age of 11, and was one of hundreds in her graduating class. If I wasn’t in my first class of the day, my parents were called repeatedly until my teachers had an answer as to why I was absent. One year, our mother wasn’t called until Sarah had missed enough school to be suspended. As far as drugs are concerned, weed was a big deal when I was in high school; anything harder than that was the stuff of crime dramas, drugs kids like us didn’t take. When my sister was that age, I heard stories of kids inhaling Dust-Off in the library, cocaine and prescription pill abuse was running rampant. And this wasn’t just where she was enrolled – I was hearing the same stories from my alma mater. The younger brother of someone I graduated with died after overdosing on heroin.
And it still wasn’t anywhere close to being on my radar.
Years later, Sarah was in nursing school and I had an empty room in my house so she moved in with me. I was excited to finally forge a closer relationship with her; to get to know her as an adult, to have my sister back under the same roof with me.
And then her boyfriend walked in the door with her, and within five minutes I knew something was wrong with him. He didn’t come close to looking me in the eye when she introduced us, and kept glancing around the house nervously while we were talking. That night I watched him shove some food of mine under his shirt and run up the stairs, not realizing I was in the living room watching TV. I would come home from work and smell cigarette smoke in the house. Things were rearranged in my room on more than one occasion.
I was naive when it came to drugs, but I asked my sister repeatedly if he was using. She swore up and down that he wasn’t.
It never even crossed my mind that she might be using, too.
She was going to class every day while he used her car and her phone. He would disappear for hours while she sat at home, worried. When she questioned him, he would tell her it was none of her business. I told her it was. She wouldn’t listen. Every day someone new asked me what he was doing at my house – whether it was people who had known him back in the day or people who had met him recently, no one had anything good to say about him. I told her I wanted him out of my house.
She told me he had nowhere else to go.
One day while I was getting ready for work, I heard him talking to another guy in their room. A few minutes later, they were yelling at each other. I pounded on the door until one of them opened it, and all I could see was pills and money strewn all around the room.
I told him to get out or I was calling the police, and then I glanced over on Sarah’s dresser, and there was a needle sticking out of her makeup bag.
The reality of what was really going on came crashing down, and I could barely catch my breath.
My sister came home as he was screaming in my face; he called her fat and worthless when she jumped to my defense.
I grabbed him by the throat and slammed him against the wall.
I had never done anything like that before, and I most likely never will again. But that’s what happens when you realize the person standing in front of you, the person you love with every part of you, your little sister who you’re supposed to protect, is shooting heroin in to her veins. That’s what happens when you have someone standing right in front of you who you can blame for what was ultimately her decision. That’s what happens when you want to point the finger at anyone except the girl who used to don a Superman cape and cut her own hair and dress up like a flower fairy with you for Halloween. That’s what happens when the little girl who used to beg you to read her bedtime stories transforms into someone you don’t know right before your very eyes. That’s what happens when you love an addict.
You lose control sometimes.
I started sobbing. I told her that he needed to leave while I begged her to stay. I promised to help her get back on track, that I’d do anything I could to get her help, that she was better than this, that she was worth more than this.
She turned around and walked out the door with him.
I called her for a week straight and got no answer. I called her friends. They hadn’t heard from her. A few weeks later, she was arrested with him for possession of Oxycontin and kicked out of nursing school.
And that’s when I turned my back on her.
And that’s where the lines of my story start blurring together with the stories of so many others. Maybe not word for word, but the basic plot is always the same.
Imagine this: you’ve come to the realization that one of the people you love most in this world is walking down a path of drugs and destruction. You’ve never been in this situation before, and you haven’t the slightest idea what to do. Maybe you have someone you trust whom you can turn to for advice.
Maybe you don’t.
You’re confused, and angry, and terrified, and ashamed, and shocked, and sad, and completely and utterly consumed with worry.
You talk to your spouse/call your doctor/search the internet/reach out to a friend/buy a book/visit your pastor/pray/wish on a shooting star/consult an “expert”, and this is what you’re told:
SUPPORT THEM BUT DON’T ENABLE THEM. LOVE THEM BUT NOT TOO MUCH. GIVE THEM TOUGH LOVE BUT DON’T THREATEN THEM. IGNORE THEIR CALLS BUT ANSWER THEIR CALLS FOR HELP. LET THEM HIT ROCK BOTTOM OR DON’T BECAUSE THEY MIGHT DIE. KICK THEM OUT. DON’T KICK THEM OUT. CALL THE POLICE. DON’T CALL THE COPS. TRY THIS TREATMENT/THAT TREATMENT/NO TREATMENT. EVERY ADDICT IS DIFFERENT. JUST WAIT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS. DON’T WAIT ANOTHER SECOND. DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING THEY SAY BUT BELIEVE THEM WHEN THEY SAY THEY’RE READY TO GO TO TREATMENT. GET THEM ON METHADONE/SUBOXONE. DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU TO GET THEM ON METH OR SUBS. DO THIS. DON’T DO THAT. LISTEN TO THIS PERSON. DON’T LISTEN TO THAT PERSON.
Easy enough, right?
Imagine being told your loved one has a disease but there’s no set treatment and every piece of advice has a contingency attached. And those “buts” constitute the finest lines possible between helping them and hurting them. Imagine watching someone you love walk the tightrope of addiction and recovery while you try to balance on that thin rope right beside them, hoping and praying that you can just hold on, hold on, hold on, and that will be enough.
For both of you.
Because when you love someone, your natural instinct is to hold them close, to protect them from harm, to nurse them back to health, to defend them at all costs, to support them financially and emotionally, to wipe their tears, to fix their problems, to love them unconditionally, to drop everything to help them when needed.
To save them.
Imagine being told to go against every instinct you have when it comes to dealing with a loved one’s addiction.
Because if you don’t, they might die.
It starts affecting your personal life. You fight with your significant other. Your kids start acting out because you’re spending all of your time and energy worrying about your “Sarah”. You’re being mentally and sometimes physically abused by someone who would never treat you that way normally but they’re in the grips of this god damn disease and you’re just trying to “play by the rules”. You’re not eating. You’re not sleeping. You’re on the verge of losing your job because you can’t focus. You’re haggard, your marriage is in shambles, you’ve isolated yourself from your friends, you’re terrified. All the time.
You’ve lost yourself.
This is what it’s like to watch someone you love battle their demons.
While they’re fighting for their life, you’re fighting for your own. And theirs.
You feel guilty, you’re ashamed, and just to top it off, you feel guilty that you’re ashamed. You want to hold them, you want to shake them, you want to punch them, you want to wrap them in your arms and never let them go. You want to go back in time, you want to fast forward to when you can picture them clean, you want to stop time and keep them alive because if another day goes by you’re afraid they’ll die. You love them with every ounce of your being, you hate them so much you can’t see straight, you know they hate themselves even more, you don’t think they even care. You want to force them in to treatment, you know that treatment won’t work if they’re not ready, you don’t understand what it’s going to take for them to be ready, and what does “ready” even mean? You try to understand their struggle, you can’t wrap your brain around the disease, you think it’s their choice, you know they had no choice in the matter.
You feel like you’re going insane.
Then there are the pleas/guilt trips/threats from your addict:
I NEED MONEY FOR RENT/BUS FARE/BABY CLOTHES/FINES/CLASSES/TO PAY OFF MY DEALER. IF YOU DON’T GIVE IT TO ME I’LL BE HOMELESS. MY BABY WON’T HAVE ANY CLOTHES. I’LL HAVE TO WITHDRAW FROM SCHOOL. I’LL GO TO JAIL. MY DEALER WILL COME LOOKING FOR ME. YOU OBVIOUSLY DON’T CARE ABOUT ME. YOU HATE ME. YOU NEVER LOVED ME. YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PARENT/SIBLING/GRANDPARENT/AUNT/UNCLE/BOYFRIEND/GIRLFRIEND/SPOUSE/PERSON. WHY DON’T YOU TRUST ME?? I HATE MYSELF. I’M A TERRIBLE PERSON. I’LL KILL YOU. MY DEALER WILL KILL ME.
I’LL KILL MYSELF.
Imagine listening to those words come out of the mouth of the person you love most in this world. Day in and day out. You have to take those words and you have to sift through them to find out if there’s any truth behind them at all. You have to make a decision based on those threats, knowing that what you think is helping them is actually killing them.
Imagine hoping that your loved one will be arrested, praying that their sentence will be longer as opposed to shorter. Because maybe then you’ll be able to get some sleep – at least you’ll know where they are and that they’re safe. And that they’re not using.
Imagine living your life every day with your heart beating out of your chest, waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re praying for a phone call, hoping against hope that it will be your loved one calling, asking for help to get into treatment.
Hoping against hope that it’s not someone telling you they’re gone.
You stare at your phone, willing it to ring, and then your heart skips a beat when it does because it’s a number you don’t recognize. Every time you hear sirens, you think the worst. You’re grasping at straws, you drive around searching for a sign that your loved one was there, and you have to pull the car over because you can’t see the road through the tears in your eyes. One day you might find yourself in an abandoned house with boarded up doors and smashed windows, standing over dirty mattresses on the floor, looking for your “Sarah”. And then you have that utterly existential moment where you just stop and wonder what on earth you’re doing there, hoping to find your sister or child or spouse in that den of filth, alive, but with the light gone from their eyes.
How did you find yourself here?
No one sends you flowers when your loved one is an addict. No one brings you dinner, or floods your house with well wishes and sympathy cards. No one calls to ask how treatment’s going, or tells you they know someone who knows someone who’s the best in their field and they’ll make some calls to get them the help they need. No one checks in to see if that new doctor has any fresh ideas, or if there have been any changes, or if there’s any ray of hope to hold on to.
No one offers to go to those flop houses with you, no one asks if you’re okay, no one helps you scour the streets. No one holds your hand when your sister is dying in front of your eyes, because she’s not dying from cancer or some other rare disease.
It’s still a disease, though. And they’re still dying. Every day.
Here’s the thing. I get it. I understand why people don’t drop everything to be there for those of us who find ourselves in that club we never wanted to join – the one entitled “loved ones of addicts”. It’s not because people are heartless, or they don’t care about us, or they think our problems are less than their own. It’s because they don’t know how. The disease of addiction has such a stigma attached to it – so many people think that just by speaking the word “addict” they’re throwing themselves in to the ring of judgment that goes along with being associated with addiction.
Sometimes even I don’t know what to do or say or how to act, and I’ve walked this path before. I’m still there, every day when I think about my sister. I’ll always be a member of that club.
A friend of mine once said that watching someone you love battle addiction is like mourning someone while they’re still alive. I had never thought about it that way, but her words blew me away with the truth behind them. You brace yourself for the inevitable. You think about them like they’re already gone – maybe that way it won’t hurt as badly if that ends up being your truth. You miss them as much as you miss someone you’ve already lost, even though they’re still walking the earth.
You grieve for who they were before they succumbed to addiction.
So whether you know someone whose loved one is in the throes of active addiction, or whether you’re watching someone pick up the pieces after a loved one lost his or her battle, remember this.
There is no “correct” way to deal with a loved one’s addiction. You simply do what you have to do to get through your days without breaking in to a million pieces. Some people might not show their sadness on the outside. That’s most likely because they know if they let one tear fall, just one, they’ll be a sobbing mess for the rest of the day. So they put on a brave face and go through the motions of being “fine” and continue about their day. That doesn’t mean that person isn’t crumbling on the inside. That doesn’t mean that person isn’t using every ounce of strength they have to get out of bed and navigate through a world that doesn’t seem to exist in the same way it did before. That doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge their pain. Tell them you’re there, that it’s okay to break down, that they don’t have to be made of steel all the time. Tell them you’ll be their strength.
Some people might not be able to contain their sadness behind a strong facade. Instead of shying away from someone who simply can’t “pull it together” on a daily basis, embrace them. Offer them your shoulder. Offer them some of your strength. Offer them your smile when they can’t seem to find one of their own. But don’t you dare judge them. Or the person who puts on the stoic face and saves their tears for the comfort of their bedroom.
Talk to them. Hold their hand. If you can’t find the words, tell them exactly that. I don’t know anyone in the world who has words in their vocabulary that have the power to take away someone’s pain. I don’t know anyone in the world who has shoulders strong enough to carry someone else’s burden of this magnitude.
But I do know one thing. The smallest act of kindness, the simplest act of love, a fractional display of human decency, can take that pain away. If only for a second or an hour or a day. Simply knowing that someone sees your tears through your smile, and will hold you in their light instead of letting you wallow in your darkness, is enough to get you through until tomorrow.
So. For the love of God, people. There are so many things going on in this world that need our energy. Sitting in judgment of another person’s battle isn’t one of them.
But being kind to one another is.