Let’s be real, we all have our troubles, issues, burdens to bear. It is all in how we deal with them. Everyone has something that can send them over the edge, that we don’t handle in a healthy way. The addict is just like us, but they cope to the extreme. I am a mother, wife, daughter, and sister. For the privacy of my family I am not sharing my name, but I am one of millions. My story is not unique.
My brother is an addict; he is addicted to alcohol. He is an alcoholic and has been for the majority of his life. His addiction has affected every part of his life. He is one who handles every setback, every triumph, which are getting fewer and farther between, by getting drunk. Shoot, he handles day to day life by drinking. Oxford dictionary defines addiction as, “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects.” He, my brother, one of the people closest to me, is my personal definition of addiction. His adverse effects have been divorce, arrest, job loss, alienation of friends and family members, physical withdrawal, and withdrawal seizures.
Our relationship has always had it’s ups and downs. The older we get and the more his addiction takes hold, the more downs we have. As is the case with many siblings, we can push each other's buttons like no one else can. But it seems that I am the one he often continues to turn to. I am the one, in the quiet of night when unable to sleep, who has written his obituary and eulogy over and over. I have even, in moments of weakness, wished he would die, so it would all be over. If I refuse contact, and he does die, alone, how do I live with that? How do I forgive myself?
One in 10 people, about 23.5 million people in the United States are addicted to either alcohol, drugs or both. That’s about the populations of Florida and Connecticut combined. But this is about only one of those 23.5 million. Really, it’s about one, his enabler. Me.
I don’t know if there was one major trauma in his life that lead him to alcohol, none that I am aware of. With alcoholism being an issue on both sides of our family, I believe that the greatest factor leading him to becoming an alcoholic was being genetically predisposed, along with early exposure and use. Early, as in early teens. He saw it as cool, fun, it lowered his inhibitions and allowed him to feel more like himself among his peers that he viewed as the ‘cool kids.’ It made him cool, too.
The definition of empathy that is used by Path2Empathy is, “to walk in another’s shoes to experience how they live, feel, and be.” Through my brother’s addiction I have tried to walk in his shoes, to have and feel empathy for and with him. However while walking this walk, my empathy has often turned to enabling. I have tried to shift my empathy for this situation by seeing it through my mother’s eyes. The eyes of his #1 champion, the eyes of a mother, the eyes that look at him and still see her precious little boy. When looking at it through the lens of a parent, my parent, who has also lost a sibling to the ravages of alcohol, my empathy has become even stronger enabling. How do I change it? How do I have empathy for the addict as his sister and my mother’s daughter without enabling?
Oxford dictionary defines enabling as, “giving someone or something the authority or means by which to do something.” By this definition, when I help him pay rent, I am freeing up money for him to continue to drink, but my empathy says I am keeping him from becoming homeless, and keeping my family from wondering where he is, if he is warm, if he is safe, if he has eaten. The balance between the two is a fine and dangerous line. A line I struggle to find and stick to.
When I refuse to help him, or in my weak moments when I push back, his reactions are often volatile (not violent), manipulative, and hurtful. My brain knows that it’s the addiction and not the person talking, but my heart says otherwise. My heart asks, “Who are you? Where’s my brother? And, how can you say such things?” My gut says to cut my losses and leave, cut ties, save myself the pain and frustration. As a parent, I know I need to shield my kids from his addiction, but how? How do I shield them from an uncle who lives less than 5 miles away? An uncle who has never done anything negatively to them. An uncle who makes their mom cry behind closed doors. Addiction sucks; it just plain sucks.
Sometimes the only way I can begin to try to empathize with him is to put myself in the place of the hungry, the starving. The hungry man craves what can save him, nourish him, keep him alive. The addict has that same level of hunger, of craving, but for what will ultimately kill him. As I walk this path with my brother I am constantly finding, crossing, and losing that line between empathy and enabling. It is never easy. The thing that addiction has taught me is that wanting what is best for him and wanting to make sure that he is taken care of are not always the same thing. My path with my brother is far from over, and even though I can recognize right from wrong, and empathizing from enabling, I know that there will be steps in my future path that cross that line, too much enabling and not enough empathy. But I am trying. And I am not alone, because I know that there are 23.5 million addicts out there, and an equal number of families and supporters just like us; people trying their best to make sense of addiction- to care without giving in, to help without hurting, and to heal without losing.
In 1969 the Hollies released a song titled “He Ain’t Heavy...He’s My Brother” This is my song for him.