The stigma of addiction and mental illness is alive and well, even in our own families.
In five days, my brother Brett will be 50 years old. It should be a big party with love, laughter, family and friends. But there will be no party.
I can still hear it ringing in my ears: “Your brother was a junkie who deserved to die.”
Anyone who loves or has lost someone addicted to drugs or alcohol has heard this statement in one form or another. Several times. It can often be ignored. Tolerated. Accepted. Maybe someone didn’t say it to you directly, in those exact words, but you hear them loud and clear. And our beloved too.
I usually don’t react, it’s not my style; after all, it’s a waste of precious energy for me to shout and challenge everyone I come in contact with. I have confidence not only in who I am and in my belief that addiction and mental illness are diseases, but also in who my brother was.
Everyone can be pushed beyond their limits. Where they’ve had enough. They are injured. Frustrated. And they have to stand up for what they believe is right, when someone else can’t find the courage to have their own voice. Not because I fight my brother’s battles; after all, we are no longer two and six playing in the neighborhood sandbox. But rather because I walked this painful road, witnessed the judgment and because of that, I see the world in a more empathetic way.
I vividly remember my mother and I sitting for about an hour waiting for my brother to be seen urgently. His leg was shaking anxiety until he was taken to a private room. We explained to the nurse that Brett was severely intoxicated and needed help to quit alcohol safely, not that we needed it as his situation was very clear from his scruffy appearance and glassy eyes . And she started taking her vital signs.
It wasn’t the nurse’s cold, dissociated approach when he took my brother’s blood pressure, pricked his arm with a needle, or asked him how much he had drunk that made my blood boil. It was the fact that it was obvious she absolutely hated him. For the very first time, like a bolt of electricity coursing through my veins, I felt judgment – exactly how my brother must have felt. Pure and unadulterated judgment. As she left the room, I quickly ran after her, catching up with her in front of the nurses’ station.
“Excuse me,” I said. She didn’t hear me so I repeated myself. She turned to look at me.
“Hi. Listen, I don’t mean to be rude. I fully understand and appreciate how difficult your job is and how many different things you have to see. I even understand that on some level, maybe for you my brother is not sick the way most people here are, and you think it may be purely self induced. What I need to remind you is that he is a human being .
She didn’t blink.
I continued, “Now I don’t care what you did yesterday or how you are tomorrow. All I care about is that right now when you walk into that room you show some compassion because it’s a person in there. A person! He’s somebody’s brother, somebody’s son. And despite what you very obviously perceive as completely disgusting, someone loves it. Do you think you can do this?
I didn’t give him time to respond.
“Because if you can’t, then what I suggest is that for the next hour or two, you do!”
I pulled away so I wouldn’t have to stare at his stony expression for another second. Before walking through the door to sit quietly in the corner of my brother’s room, I caught my breath because I was so pissed off.
I understand and appreciate the hard work of nurses—after all, our mother is a nurse—and I can imagine they see all kinds of things. But it’s their job, a job they choose. To treat someone in a very obvious way, regardless of their situation, as if they were below the dirt, I can’t stand. As I looked at my brother at his worst, like I had so many times before, all I thought was that he was in there.
The doctor arrived soon after. I knew the exercise; it seemed to me that I had already heard that a thousand times. They couldn’t keep Brett overnight because all the beds were full, although I appreciate the doctor giving him a Valium injection. At least I think it was Valium, which I then knew belonged to the class of drugs called benzodiazepines. It is used for the short-term relief of mild to moderate symptoms anxiety and for alcohol withdrawal. Mom and I knew that at least this would help Brett get through the night, and the doctor’s suggestion was that we go back to rehab in the morning.
What most people don’t know is that people with severe addiction may actually die from the effects of withdrawal. Whether you want to challenge your mind with this truth or not, the debate over choice doesn’t work here: they can’t just stop. My brother needed medical supervision and help to stop drinking. Normally, it would take four to six days of giving him things like Valium to work his way through the excruciating pain and suffering of the withdrawal process. Alcohol is actually one of the most dangerous substances to come off. People who are dependent on alcohol can experience symptoms like nightmaresvomiting, diarrhea, chills, sweating, rapid heartbeat, fever, tremors, chest tightness and difficulty breathing.
That’s if things go well.
If things go wrong, our loved ones may have a stroke, a heart attack or a grand mal seizure. During withdrawal, long-term alcohol users may suffer psychosis which manifest as hallucinations and delusions, which is why they should be monitored by a healthcare professional. Delirium tremors (DT) can sometimes be associated with tremors extremities and secondary symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacksand paranoia. All these realities. And yet, we are once again sent away because all the beds were full.
It looked like a completely different nurse had entered the room, but that was not the case. She was kind, compassionate, and caring, and as she left, she said to my brother, “Take care of yourself, Brett.
I whispered “Thank you” to her as we walked out the door, and I hope she knew how much I meant it.
My gorgeous, smart, witty, handsome, kind, soft-spoken, much-loved brother took his first sip of booze in high school, as most of our own young children will one day. Sadly, he lost his battle with severe substance use and Mental Health questions on March 18, 2012 when he committed suicide. I remember very well that a few months after his death, someone from our close family circle was standing in my office and he said directly to me, “Your brother was a junkie who deserved to die. He had more than enough chances.
I could be shaken, offended, shocked; I could have screamed and screamed and told him to get the hell out of my office. But I did not do it. Instead, I calmly took a sip of my coffee, said a little “hmmm” to myself, and changed the subject. I assure you it wasn’t because I was quiet, scared or didn’t know what I wanted to say. But rather the opposite because I am confident, daring, outspoken and shamelessly honest.
I have no interest in getting into a war of words. I have grown and learned so much since that hospital visit over fifteen years ago. I learned that stigma is alive and well, not just in the health profession. In society. In the media. And even in our own families and circle of friends.
I am neither shocked nor surprised that we live in a world where some believe this statement about my brother and others who fight addiction. It surprises me that we live in a world where it’s okay to say it out loud. That somehow, it’s okay to intentionally inflict pain on someone who has lost someone they love dearly.
My approach is to choose to devote my time and energy to calmly and confidently sharing my journey and experience, every uncomfortable element, without shame. The truth is I’ve been surrounded by alcoholism all my life; it’s on many branches of my family tree. But what I experienced with my brother; most could not understand. I think if people hear the whole story, starting with us as innocent children, it could open their hearts, change their perceptions and maybe give understanding and compassion to people with addiction and mental health issues in society – our mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends and our neighbors.
For me, I’m not going to spend my life arguing, debating, letting people break my spirits for what I know and believe with all my heart. What I am reminded of when I share our story to enlighten others is that this way of thinking and talking about Brett with hurtful and condemning statements is not at all about my brother’s character or who he was; it is theirs.
Send love, light and strength when you need it to everyone, this Saturday, September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day.