This story, while tragic, is all too common. Very often, mental illness and drug addiction grow together like mutually-feeding parasites, compounding problems and confounding treatment.
It’s understandable, of course. The anguish of mental illness is indescribable and when people find a way to make pain stop, they will usually use it. If mental illness is not treated (or is treated inappropriately, or inadequately), the risk of substance abuse increases.
I am privileged to share another story from an anonymous blogger, though I’ll be honest; this one isn’t easy for me. Mental illness affects everyone it touches, and siblings are often powerless to do anything but bear witness to the chaos and pain. Jacob, Abbie, and Spencer will carry a burden the size and shape of Carter for the rest of their lives. They love him, but being his siblings has hurt them deeply. This author carries the same terrible weight.
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My brother was always a bit of a volatile person. He was adopted at three days old, just as I had been. My parents were unable to conceive and as soon as my brother was old enough to understand what being adopted meant, he began to have abandonment issues.
He also had severe learning disabilities and ADHD that the doctor attributed to the fact that his birth-mother smoked (and probably drank) while she was pregnant, and his birth weight was incredibly low. I always felt bad that he had to follow four years behind me in school with teachers that always had the same high academic expectations for him that they had for me. I was an honors student. He could barely scrape by with a passing grade, even with the support of an IEP and tutoring. I’m pretty sure he resented me in some way as he got older.
By the time he was in middle school and adolescence had hit, he was also slipping into a depression. The doctors put him on anti-depressants in addition to his ADHD meds. Then he couldn’t sleep, so he was put on sleeping medication, too. I think this was where his addiction started. By the age of twelve he couldn’t function without at least three or four different medications each day.
He was not exactly a calm person, either. He threatened me with a steak knife when he was nine while I was babysitting him and wouldn’t let him do what he wanted. My dad has a similarly volatile personality and when my brother would get agitated, it would set my dad off. I distinctly remember at one point, when I was in high school, my dad slamming my brother up against the kitchen wall by his throat. I ran upstairs and locked myself in my bedroom, crying hysterically into my pillow. This is the only time I ever remember my dad being physically violent. It was usually just yelling.
When I went away to university at age 18, and my brother was in high school at 15, things started to take a turn for the worse. I hated going home for breaks, because I felt like I had to walk on eggshells around my whole family. My mom and dad were fighting. My mom and brother were fighting. My dad and brother were fighting. I felt like I’d left and my world fell apart.
With some not-so-great friends influencing my brother, he started smoking pot. I have nothing against this, but these friends pushed the boy who was desperate to fit in to much harder things. He started drinking heavily behind my parents’ backs at 16. He was taking illegally-obtained Oxycodone to numb himself before he ever graduated high school. He totaled my dad’s BMW. He already had one underage DUI by 18.
He was only able to graduate thanks to our state having a “Certificate of Completion” instead of a traditional diploma. He couldn’t pass the state-required math exam to graduate with a real diploma. He was incredibly ashamed of this. He wanted to be an architect but knew he couldn’t hack it at any university. Instead, my mom (who was separated from my dad by this time, and that’s a whole other story…) found him an apprenticeship with a local contractor as a carpenter.
At first he loved it. He was making something of himself and cleaned up for a while. But then his coworkers (and previously mentioned bad-influence friends) got him back to the drinking and pills. And I honestly can’t blame him. He was in lots of physical pain due to some kind of bone abnormality in his heels that could only be remedied by extreme surgery. He was on his feet 8-10 hours a day. Then he’d come home and, behind Mom’s back, numb himself with whatever he could find. He refused surgery because it would mean no work for 12 weeks, minimum, and he was in SERIOUS debt, even though he still lived with our mom.
Right before I moved home after grad school, he got arrested for his second underage DUI. My mom didn’t know what to do with him. She tried to convince him to go to counseling. He refused. We had an intervention with friends and family. He ignored us. My mom brought a cop friend over to talk to him. It didn’t matter.
By this time, we all knew he was bipolar, even though he refused to get any help, any diagnosis, or any medication that was actually prescribed to him. When I moved back home, post-grad-school with no job prospects in sight, I saw him really deteriorate.
He’d have incredibly manic weeks during which work was great, he’d party with his friends, want to take me out to lunch, and lavish love and gifts on Mom. Then he’d slide into a very dark place. If he wasn’t at work, he’d be “asleep” in his room. I’d find empty bottles and cans under his bed, under the couch in the basement, in his car. And I’d clean them up and put them in the trash without my mom finding them, because she was suffering enough as it was. She was carrying all of this on her shoulders, as if it were her fault.
Late in the summer after I’d moved home, Mom and Brother had a HUGE fight. He ran off and later called from his cell phone, saying he was in his truck parked somewhere with a gun. He was high as a kite, threatening suicide over the phone. My mom and I both panicked. We called my dad. Big mistake. He got seriously pissed at us and at Brother, like that would help. We were all hysterical. Finally we were able to find out where he was, and after my mom called the police, they found him and escorted him home. I later found out that this was not his first suicide threat. He’d done this a few times while I was off at school, but never got as far as getting his hands on a means to do so.
The following summer, I got married and moved out. I didn’t see my brother as frequently. We lived on opposite sides of the city and both had full-time jobs. The only communication would generally be phone calls when he was high on something. It got to the point I couldn’t deal with him at all in that state of mind, so I wouldn’t even answer. I’d delete voicemails without even listening to them.
All during this time, he still lived at home with Mom. She either refused to acknowledge his behavior or was somehow enabling it. She tried to keep her family together by having everyone over for dinners, especially at holidays, but Brother would either hide in his room, claiming to be “tired” from all his construction work, or he’d be completely manic or hopped up on something.
Quite possibly the best example of the latter would be my first Christmas after getting married. My mom invited my husband’s entire family over to her house for Christmas dinner. Not too long after everyone got there, he emerged from his bedroom and proceeded to hump the Christmas tree, laughing hysterically. Keep in mind, my brother was a very shy person *usually*. Then, while we were all in the living room, he disappeared into the kitchen and proceeded to empty the entire fifth of Tuaca (vanilla liqueur) we’d brought to go with dessert.
My husband went to the restroom sometime during this debacle and found white powder residue on the counter of my brother’s bathroom. He’d definitely snorted something so he’d be able to “come out of his shell” and function around a crowd of relatively new people.
These behaviors continued for a few years. He’d have sober moments, and my mom would cling to those. He’d bounce from construction job to construction job as the industry wasn’t doing so well. I think the sober times came when he had no money to supply himself with any drugs. He’d become increasingly depressed.
Then out of nowhere, he’d have a few “good” weeks and decide to try and move in with some friends. That never worked out, and within a week, he’d be back home with Mom. And the cycle would begin again. He attempted to move out three times during these epically roller-coaster years.
I only knew of these because my mom would tell me. I’d pretty much cut my brother out of my life, as he was no longer the baby brother I knew. The person he’d become scared me. I couldn’t deal with him or the unpredictability. He’d essentially become dead to me.
Our contact became spotty, and finally right around his 24th birthday, as he’d seemed clean and stable for a while, we began to heal our relationship. He had a job, was contemplating getting therapy for the first time since he was 13, and was moving to an apartment near Mom’s house with a friend.
Just after that birthday, I was stricken with a heinous stomach virus. Mom and Brother came to visit one day while I was home and my husband was at work. I was in desperate need of more toilet paper and Gatorade. He seemed great! I was so happy for him.
Two weeks later, in the dead of night, there was a pounding at the apartment door. The dog started flipping out. I made my husband answer, as I was terrified. He came back into the bedroom with my mom and two of her friends trailing her. She was hysterical. Wrapping her arms around me, she barely managed to get the words out, “Your brother’s dead. He’s gone.”
I started rocking back and forth curled in a seated fetal position, in shock, repeatedly scream-crying, “No! He can’t be! It’s someone else!” My mom and I sat there, tears streaming down our faces for about an hour. Once I was about ready to pass out from all of the stress, my mom’s friends persuaded her to leave, and my husband managed to get my quivering mess of a self back into bed. He just held me.
What happened, it turned out, was that day, a Saturday, September 13, 2008, my brother’s roommate came home from work to find him sitting in the living room armchair, college football on TV, empty beer can by his side. She hoped he was just unconscious, of course, so she called 911. When the paramedics arrived, he was pronounced dead. They said he’d probably been gone for at least an hour by the time she had found him.
My mom had been out of town on a church retreat, so it took them a while to find her to let her know. The police officer who had to share the news was a neighbor, and she thinks of it every single day when she walks her dogs, as she has to walk by his house. She wasn’t able to tell me until late that night, because by the time she’d gotten the news, gotten back into town, and gone to the hospital morgue, it was that late.
She got a pastor from her church to call my dad to let him know the next day. This news sent my dad into a horrific fit, that I still don’t think he’s dealt with. To compound things, the exact same day, while my dad and stepmom were at the aforementioned football game, my 16-year-old stepbrother, who was also bipolar with anger management issues, set fire to my dad’s bedroom. My dad’s never been able to deal with people with mental illness, so he sent my stepbrother off to a residential behavioral treatment facility, then to live with his biodad.
It turns out that my brother had a drug-induced seizure. All of the damage he’d been doing to his body for about 6 years finally caught up to him, and his body shut down. With all of the pain, physical and mental, that he went through, day in, day out, I like to think that he’s in a better place now, wherever that may be.
I still think of him every day and wish that I’d known him better as an adult, but I have no regrets. I wish my mom would be able to deal with his passing a little bit better. She guilt-trips me for not wanting to celebrate his birthday with her and talks to photos of him every day.
She still hasn’t gotten rid of (or even gone through) the boxes of his belongings, and I’m afraid she still hasn’t come to the acceptance stage of the grieving process after two years. She’s a therapist, herself, and she’s a prime example of therapists not being able to take their own advice. I love her, but I wish she’d go back to her own therapist so that maybe she’d be able to deal better. When we talk about it, she thinks she’s doing okay, and I’m the one who hasn’t grieved properly.
I’m now starting to worry about the mental status of my mother. I guess we can just take it a day at a time, and hope that eventually, we all come to accept his passing and live. He always wanted to live a happy, pain-free life but wasn’t able to with the horrors that went on in his head. I’d like to think that going forward in a content life would honor my brother’s memory more than anything else.
If you have family members (or you, yourself) who you suspect are bipolar or have substance abuse problems, I hope you are able to convince them to seek professional help before it’s too late.
Thank you to Adrienne for allowing me to share my story, as rambling and stream-of-consciousness as it is. It’s not over yet, I know. The healing for my family will continue for years to come, or at least I sure hope so.