Voices on Addiction: The Opposite of Hallelujah
My brother keeps his shoes on a stacked wooden shelving system, one pair per compartment. Everything in his home is labeled in careful, imperfect handwriting. He eats with his fist closed tightly around his fork. He broke up with a girlfriend once when she tossed a recyclable into a garbage can. If someone sets clean clothing of his on the floor, he gets irritable. His routine is tidy, predictable. His possessions are sparse and cared for. And when I find the burned barrel of a ball-point pen in his room, smell the acrid mix of scorched plastic and chemical powder, I wonder if he can see it, if it hurts—the untidiness of his own life unraveling amid his carefully ordered world.
He really was the cutest kid. There are pictures of us together—me in the wheelbarrow, my blond curls blowing back toward him. He wears a serious expression: wide blue eyes almost glittering, alive even on the glossy page. The concerned big brother. In one picture, he smiles a crooked villain’s smile under a tall cowboy hat shot through with an arrow. There are punky printouts that dad over-edited when he made a birthday album for him—grainy black-and-whites of my brother sliding his skateboard over rails, down ramps. He worried about the way our parents dressed him. He didn’t want to be made fun of. But he courageously dressed in drag one Halloween in middle school; he jumped—after hours of careful study—from a tall cliff into the mountain lake we visited in the summer. Sometimes he was brave. I’d cry when he interrupted an important movie with a vulgar interjection. He did poorly in school. He would defend me against anyone who spoke ill.
Is it clear? I do not know my brother.
I cannot tell you what he carried—carries—inside, can only show you glimpses. Maybe somewhere in that composite album is a truth. He was, and is, loud, gentle, insecure, meticulous, easily embarrassed. He was exuberant as a child, my mom says, he filled the room. If Finn was happy, everyone was happy. If Finn was upset, so was everyone.
When Grandma died, Finn got her Datsun. He crashed it in a DUI on the oaky hill above town one night. At some point in his early teens, he started smoking pot in the thorny scrabble of rose bushes behind the workshop. It was always more for medicine than for rapture, I think. Shortly thereafter, he found cocaine. And still he surmounted each of these substances in turn—he had the will for it. Until he started rattling through the drawers for pills.
In a manual for opioid pill usage, we are warned that the written instructions “do not include all the information needed to use OxyContin® safely.” It advises against performing “potentially hazardous activities such as driving a car.” I think of my brother’s proclivity for wreckage long before the first pill bottle popped open. I imagine the rush of steely machinery across pavement: lotus eaters speeding dreamily on an unforgiving freeway. “Crushing, chewing, snorting, or injecting the dissolved product” will kill you, it claims, but even taking it precisely as prescribed might stop your breath. The pamphlet uses the words “death” twenty-one times, “abuse” sixty times, “fatal” sixteen times, “depression” sixty-two times, and, once, “euphoria.”
We were driving together, my mom, my brother and I. We were preparing my brother’s property for sale. His tenants had canceled their garbage service and were stacking their trash in the garage. The smell of it soaking in its own juices was swampy, almost fecal. The roof needed work. A deconstructed red plastic play set leaned against the south wall.
It had been a good real estate scheme, to buy and rent property in an up-and-coming outer Bay Area city. It had one of the highest concentrations of resident sex offenders of any California town, but the BART line would be coming soon and property prices were sure to rise. But unemployed after losing his job of ten years, with his taxes and homeowners insurance unpaid and his scant ROTH account already cashed in for pain pills, my brother needed to get out well before the promise of Bay Area wealth came to the front steps of Antioch, before the house crushed him.
My brother was uncommitted to the project of selling; my mother was tense behind the wheel from weeks of trying to convince him to take action. Thumping music pulsed audibly from my brother’s earbuds. My mother asked for quiet. Instead, my brother pulled the cable from his phone and filled the whole car with his playlist. My mom swerved in multi-lane traffic. My brother turned up the volume, held the phone up to her ear.
Why are you doing this to me?
It’s just music, Mom.
Finn. Turn it off right now, this is not cool, I tried to reason with him from the back seat. Mom, pull over safely if you can.
Cars glinted all around us. I could feel the insulated whir of quick tires across asphalt.
Stop it now, I said as Mom navigated toward the shoulder, Stop it, stop it now.
And when he didn’t, I struck him across the face.
My dad struck him, too, although I think it was the last thing he wanted to do. My dad, who made friends so easily. My dad, who understood how to ask for what he wanted, always understood how to listen, how to shoot the shit. What does it mean to be the son of a father who is bolder than you, more at ease? Do you watch? Do you rage? The rage funneled in both directions: when Dad punched him, he punched him only once, and hard.
It is a complicated thing, to love someone and not to understand them. It’s a thrashing, messy, combative, bewildered kind of love. Where are you? You want to shout. Come back where I can know you.
My brother and I are equal pieces in the strange little puzzle of family. Mom frets and wheedles, tries to solve problems for us, weeps when she fails. Dad lived large, worked hard, and died abruptly in a scuba diving accident that left us all adrift. I help sort papers that mom can’t face, mediate when there are differences, advise when I shouldn’t. Finn smokes outside and glazes over when asked to do things too quickly. He lives with occasional eruptive anger, twists mom’s wrist to retrieve his car keys until she yelps aloud at the surprise of pain. He wonders, although rarely speaks it out loud, if he’d been there like he was supposed to be on that dive, if dad wouldn’t have drowned. When the jumble of your own pieces doesn’t fit cleanly, how do you lay the edges against the edges of kin?
I try to imagine the days my brother leads. In the time since he lost his job, he hasn’t been able to hold a new one down. Even Uber dropped him when a customer complained that Finn was acting like he was under the influence.
I wonder who his friends are. Certainly not Mitchell, across the street, who taught Finn how to turn a quick dollar hunting for antiques and reselling them on eBay. Finn defended him until Mitchell shot out his living room windows. The glass is still broken. Not the strangers in the bar who beat him bloody and left him to stagger, uninsured, to the hospital. Not Jason, who sets him up with meth to sell in order to help Finn stay afloat, who employed him as a driver in a drug delivery across state lines. My brother is so gentle, and—can he not see it?—so easily used. When I imagine his days, the loneliness of it all makes my chest tighten.
He drew out money on two different credit cards. The debt is extraordinary. The cash from his IRA account was gone in three days. Bills build in stacks. He is on a narrow highway and veers close to its edge daily. In a rare moment of honesty, he tells me the addiction costs three hundred dollars a day. Buying the recovery drug on the street—the one that inhibits opioids and helps addicts train themselves off their habit—costs even more than the pain pills. There’s a nice doctor who renews his OxyContin prescription for him, and I wonder how it is that she is not in jail. Does the news reach her when one of her patients dies of an overdose? If it does, can she sleep? When the money runs out, Finn turns to smoking heroin. It’s all just poppy dust, anyway, or some bastardization thereof.
In the midst of it all, Finn gives. With twenty-five dollars in his account, he showed up hours late to Christmas last year with gifts for us. The “ROSS Dress for Less” price tags were still attached to the tea boxes he brought me. He brings meat to grill when we come together as a family—more than we could ever hope to eat.
The day we checked his account balance and found out about the credit cards, we stopped with my brother at a gas station so he could buy coffee. I watched through the car window as he stepped out of the station door and, unsolicited, approached a girl sitting near the curb. She looked like she’d been living outdoors for a while—her sweater was skinny and gray and her skin shone with a kind of sickly translucence. He handed her the change he’d gotten from his purchase. I couldn’t hear, from inside the dull insulation of the car, if they exchanged any words.
How can you resist? He asked me once. When I’m offered something, I take it. I can’t describe how good it feels. It’s like you’re flying.
On long night drives through the desert, I listen to Jens Lekman and wonder, if my brother liked language, if he might tell the same story.
We made our way home on the bikes we had borrowed
I still never told you about unstoppable sorrow
My life must look easy to my brother. As a child, I got the grades our parents wanted to see. I danced onstage and got bundles of yellow roses and imagined Broadway. Now, I fill out my tax forms on time. I find jobs that satisfy me. My brother worries that I’m being unrealistic in choosing work that doesn’t pay much, and I send him movies of Prince Ea rapping us toward living our dreams, and Finn tells me “you don’t understand.”
But sister, it’s the opposite of hallelujah
It’s the opposite of being you
You don’t know ’cause it just passes right through you
I move from wild land to wild land, craving mountains that are bigger than I am. I don’t ever stick around too long. I choose jobs in places far from our hometown’s topography of loss. I choose jobs in places where there is no cell service, where I can’t be woken in the night with bad news. I choose jobs at sea, and in glacier valleys, and in deep woods where winter’s ice slick can spin a car, wheeling, into the oncoming blaze of logging truck lights.
I touch men but refuse to hold them. I linger long enough that they might think, for a little while, that they’ve found love. I flatten against walls where I can feel their wanting rattle my shoulders against the supports. I melt into shared tents on mountains and into shared beds below city windows bright with spitting snow. I leave before I’m locked down, looking for the next quiver of connection.
Do I resist? My big brother puts things inside of his body to normalize; I don’t. I do, though, put my body inside of things. Places, pleasures, that nomadic paradise of movement.
I still don’t know anything about you
Is it in you, too?
Our bodies are perfectly built to receive opiates, like those long-bodied flowers that only allow entry to just the right hummingbird that pollinates them. We create our own opiates, or endorphins. When they match up with receptors on our spinal cords, our brains, and other organs, they produce feelings of euphoria, they slow essential body functions—at too high a level, our breath slows toward death. The more external opiates we slam into our bodies, the more our bodies seek balance. We begin to manufacture fewer of our natural opiates to combat the firestorm of chemical ones. In time, opioid users stop taking the pills to feel good. They take them—more of them, and more—to avoid feeling bad.
Our bodies are perfectly built, too, out of common materials. Mineral and mother, food and failure—these things shaped my brother’s fingers, eyelashes, ribs, and mine. Where do the differences lie between his skull and my own? We ate the same crusty sourdough, growing up. I inherited his bin of Legos when he had outgrown them and I popped them elaborately together and apart. From the same blocks, new architectures.
I can’t do it, I can’t do it, my mother sobs into the phone. I can hear her brittle hair brush against the speaker and I can hear the tears catching at the back of her throat, thick and gulpy. She almost crashed her car the other day from lack of sleep. She wakes up to surges of adrenaline, certain that Finn has died in the night from a bad batch of heroin, from one too many pain pills. They shout at each other. I hate you, he says. I would die for you, she responds. When she and I spoke last, she had come knocking at his locked door in the city, hoping to talk, maybe to ride bikes, to sound out how she might help lead him toward an exit.
She fumbled with her copy of the key, found my brother in bed. His face was so dark, she says. He had sores all over. He hit me. He locked himself in his room and started using. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do.
What reptilian corners of the brain nudge us toward monstrosity? What does it mean to help, and who gets hurt when we do it the wrong way? Can we turn back toward each other after we have turned away?
I don’t have any of the answers. I wear the questions like old stains on my clothes—untidy, insoluble. I remember when we locked him out of the house late one night when he was eighteen. He was high on cocaine, and manic, and mom wouldn’t allow him in. He rummaged through the lavender and night-fragrant mint outside the windows, startling the crickets silent. He broke into my room, illuminating his way with the flashlight on his cell phone. It was such a bright light and I couldn’t quite see my brother behind it. I didn’t know what he was capable of. I was frightened of him. But looking back at that moment, I can see that he was even more frightened. He needed company. He had done something to himself that confused him. He needed to talk his way out of his brain. I turned over in bed and told him to try to get some sleep, and when he came in again later, cell phone flickering, I sent him away again. It is a cruelty that I sit with and roll in my hands like a rough little stone.
Last night, he called me for the first time in weeks, and I listened late into the night. You don’t even hear yourself making the phone call to buy more pills, he said, it’s so addicting. Your body makes choices for you that you kind of watch from the outside.
He talked about how he wanted a life, maybe a child someday. How he wanted to marry the girlfriend that left him for Belgium two months ago. How about the day to day devastation that it causes? he asked. Death almost seems like a nice alternative. You’re living in hell.
At first glance, his wreckage is soft. He’s not one of the ragged people you see in glossy magazine exposés on the drug epidemic. He doesn’t shoot up behind garbage cans or sleep in doorways. He spent three nights in jail last month for falling asleep at the wheel at high speed. But his shoes stay stacked; his papers stay orderly in his monastic little room.
Still, the quieter he becomes on the other end of our text exchanges, the more I wonder how fair or useful it is to differentiate between degrees of collapse, between species of monster. My brother is locked somewhere on a glinting highway that perhaps I live on, too.
Is it in you, too?
We are not so dissimilar, brother and sister. Our hands hang immovably at our sides, hungry for contact and refusing to seize it. We are unmanageably human, alone, alike.
Rumpus original art by Becca Shaw Glaser.
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, interviews, and book reviews 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.