Addiction is my brother’s cruel keeper

Reader columnist Michelle Ryder; photo by
Reader columnist Michelle Ryder; photo by News Tribune

Every year I have a reoccurring nightmare. Like all nightmares, it's not pretty.

I dream my brother disfigures his young face. It’s a grisly set of self-inflicted wounds that blinds him permanently and leaves him with severe muscle damage that makes it impossible to eat and communicate. It robs him of any semblance of a normal life.

Overwhelmed, I wake up to simultaneous feelings of elation and despair: happy it was only a dream, but devastated by the realization that the suffering and emotional anguish symbolized by the dream are all too real.

It’s a dream that speaks to my experience as a person with a drug-addicted sibling, the horror I feel watching my little brother, in his early 20s, slowly destroy himself. It’s a dream, perhaps, that anyone who has witnessed the violent destruction of a young, promising life by the thresher of addiction can relate to.

Yet, as painful as my brother’s experience has been, his story is not unique. He is an addict in a city full of them. I know this because substance abuse is nothing short of a public health crisis in our communities.

Instead of personalizing the issue, I have made peace with it. The problem is bigger than us, yet nothing will change until he wants to change, and that day may never come.

So for now I stand by my brother's bedside, in one cheerless hospital room after the next, as he moves in and out of alcohol-induced comas, his world in perpetual pause. Over time the artificial cadence of breathing tubes has become soothing and I have become fluent in “coma communication,” conspiratorially acknowledging he is always listening, no matter how deep his sleep.

Each time he snaps back into his body, my father writes down the date and the words “returned to earth" on the same garage wall where he records mundane things, like oil changes.

Paradoxically, only when my brother is most defeated by his illness, only when the machines are breathing for him, can we get close enough to kiss him and tell him we love him. Ashamed of his struggle with chemical dependency, he has slowly pushed us away over time.

Addiction runs so deep in my family, anger has never been an option. Anger breeds pain and reinforces the illusion that only the individual who acts freely deserves our anger. But due to a combination of factors, I believe my brother has never been free, in any sense of the word.

Besides, when you recognize that your mother drinks her coffee in the morning knowing the probability that her son is in the ER is one in ten, it’s better to be strategic with your energy because the specter of tragedy is always around the corner. At any moment, we could lose him.

Deep down I know my brother wants to get better, but can’t. Where people see suicidal selfishness, I see hurt. I see a person crushed by the weight of who he's become, wishing he was better, wishing he could successfully battle his demons and come out the other side a different human being.

I see someone living in the ruins of his shattered psyche. I know his story, his fears, his weaknesses, his sins. But as a socially conscious person, I also know how the system at large has failed him. The world has little love for the mentally ill and drug-addicted.

But what pains me most is knowing he has adopted the self-image of the addict, believing his life to be doomed. Until that changes there will be no redemption when he wakes up from the next coma. No pure joy, no celebration.

Just a reoccurring nightmare.

Michelle Ryder is a freelance writer living in Bonney Lake. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at akkadia@gmail.com.