Voices on Addiction: What We Forget, What We Remember


I don’t remember the types of guns he had lining the windows. The way he would pace, back and forth inside his house, during days and nights that must have merged into one murky color. At that point, he had stopped calling me, so I don’t remember what exactly he feared, or who he thought was after him, or why he didn’t sleep. His eyes became more and more hollow, his face receding from what it once was. I don’t remember the broken floorboards my mother described, the unkempt home with dog feces and piles of garbage, slanted blinds in his townhouse windows that stood out from all the other identical but functioning homes.

I don’t remember the night that the feds broke down his tired door, stormed into his basement and found the plants, the scales, the vials, or whatever else might have been there. I don’t remember if it was chipped bricks of cocaine, or unlicensed guns, or how they took him to jail, a trip in the backseat of an unknown car that probably saved his life. I sat on a stairwell at my work conference crying, after clicking a link to the article: “Raid at Home of Judge’s Son,” a succinct journalistic summary of the end of my brother’s freedom, with his full name and age and address and the charges, and I don’t remember the lead or the background info or the reporter’s name, only the comments calling my father a fraud and a capital-D dirtbag.

I don’t remember how this all began. I don’t remember my brother ever acting the ways an older brother should: sitting at a dinner table without being asked to leave, bringing home homework from a backpack and taking it out at a wooden desk. I don’t remember when or how he made the memories captured in printed photos locked away in his closet drawer, of smiles I never saw at home and friends and cases of cans of Natural Light and t-shirts with marijuana leaves and cigarettes behind ears. We were young, and our house wasn’t made to hold such things; it had a piano, a screened in porch, a computer room, and a bookcase full of encyclopedias.

I don’t remember why my parents removed his bedroom door, my father on a step stool with a drill and toolbox below. I don’t remember when he ran away; I just remember him being gone more often than not. I remember the day he called and my mom stood nearby in the kitchen, not breathing but asking me with her eyes what he was saying, as he told me through the big white receiver that he was sorry, he was going to kill them, he knows they are my parents but he fucking hates them and wants them dead. I didn’t tell him the new garage code, although he asked.

I remember nothing in between being tortured by him and being tortured by his absence. I don’t remember any calm, muted feelings, like I imagine other siblings have, or scenes of normalcy, like sitting on some metal bleachers with Fun Dip watching a big brother’s Little League game. I don’t remember waking up sweating or frantic, just the vivid nightmares full of torment, words I can’t recall, something about my nose being too big and my stomach too fat, and such a baby, baby, little baby, then closing my eyes to find that my eyelids had disappeared and couldn’t shield me from his cackling, oversized face. I don’t remember his punishment after the Christmas morning when he gave me an enormous box filled with smaller and smaller boxes inside until I opened the smallest one, fit for a pair of earrings, and found a penny and a note written in sloppy, slanted blue pen reading, “Dear Emily, Go Buy yourself a life.” He signed it from himself and his girlfriend, who I loved like a sister, with her cute brown skin and dangling curls, who would always hug me and sit with me on the bench of my piano, the way a sibling should.

They tell me now that I was the reason they had to send him off, that they couldn’t let him be home any longer because I was so young, and all the damage that they feared he would cause was too great. I don’t remember being “a reason,” being why they had to push him further to another place that he eventually ran away from, too, to become a missing person somewhere in the Northeast. And that night when I found my father in the basement crying over a box of old photos of his only son, forehead wrinkled with troubles as he held each memory in his old-man hands, I don’t remember what I said to try to comfort him—perhaps because there was nothing—but I’ll never forget the pain of watching the strongest man I knew collapse into the saddest, most helpless part of life, into those moments where you see beauty backwards, after its fall.

I don’t remember when my fear and hatred turned to love and longing, turned to crying into my flower-patterned bedspread at night beneath a ceiling of painted white clouds, wishing he would be there having a tantrum in the room next to me, missing the days where his fullness—however angry and desperate—helped weigh down our house. He and my sister left the same year—she to a fancy engineering college and he to a boarding school for troubled youth—and suddenly it was me and only me, tiptoeing in the quiet air between two parents with the sudden space to grieve. The rooms became museum-like, untouched, and that formal feeling spread through our carpeted hallways and found its way to our dinner table and everywhere else. Silence can be louder than screams, I learned. Their tentacles seemed to bear down on me after that. I don’t remember the slow change between being the child my parents were proud of and being another child to worry about, to punish, to argue over with muted voices behind their closed and locked bedroom doors.

And these days, I try not to remember anything, except for where we all ended up.

The warm reddish color in his face, cups of water he drinks at Thanksgiving, the questions he asks me about my life, the way he listens when I respond. The translucence of his eyes, where I look and see no fear, only presence. The photo of all of us on the hospital visiting deck, my father tangled in in a mess of wires, holding up an “I’m Going to Be a Papa Again” t-shirt, both men smiling through tears. How we talk on the phone about the cancer. I didn’t think he would look so bad, he tells me, I just feel like an asshole, like I should have been a better son.

How he will drive an hour to come look at my bathroom light on a Sunday, stand up on a step stool with his tool box below, arms raised above until it’s fixed. He holds my youngest and blows silly raspberries on her belly, just like he does for little Colette, his ten-month-old daughter, as she cackles and yells “Dada!” in his tattooed arms, and he licks his fingers, and smooths her hair.  He will text me for advice about her formula, her sleeping habits, her fingernails, her first words.

I don’t remember how we got here, but in the pictures he sends me, she smiles with him, blue eyes like little marbles, and she remembers nothing but this big strong man who holds her, who is clear and calm and present. So, I choose to do the same.


Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.


Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.

Emily James is a writer and teacher in NYC. More from this author →