Voices on Addiction: Primary Source


Anything we write now is a primary source. At the beginning of our COVID-19 isolation, my four teenagers had a dinner discussion about keeping journals. Their teachers were imploring them to keep records since we were, we are, characters in an unfolding drama, a historic event. I felt the same pull to write down, to track what was happening in my life. I made a vow to the kids: Let’s do it. Let’s document that we were here in this time. But before COVID-19, my family was embroiled in another drama, one I did not want to record: the opioid epidemic, which had stolen nearly half a million lives in two decades, and hit close to home.

My brother, a forty-three-year-old attorney and father of five, died last night, of an assumed overdose. To call him a statistic sounds cruel. Statistic evokes a tally on a whiteboard. One-two-three-four-slash. Easily counted; easily erased. My friend Margaret lost her brother to opiate addiction a few weeks ago, too.

I am not ashamed of my brother. He died in an era of ignored victims. It is fitting. To recall his sudden death reminds me of, at the time of I am writing, the over 435,000 COVID-19 deaths worldwide. The bus driver who recorded a coughing passenger, and begged our nation to stay at home, only to die two weeks later. The elderly in nursing homes, dying behind the glass that separates them from their loved ones. The economy more important than lives. Pharmaceutical sales and bonuses more important than my brother’s life, and the lives of those like him. My brother was never jailed for illegal possession or use of drugs; he was not shot down in the street by police for the color of his skin. My brother is dead, and the world is burning, and I feel guilty for grieving.

Because of the pandemic, the bottom has collapsed from the scaffolding. The opioid epidemic, though still raging, has disappeared from view. Intimate twelve-step meetings, usually convened on folding chairs in church basements and libraries, steeped in black coffee and accountability, have moved to Zoom interactions in sealed-off bedrooms, or worse, closets. As unemployment skyrockets to nearly twenty percent, suffering brothers and sisters have lost their livelihoods, and the routines they relied on to stay clean. My brother’s housing, we now know, was slipping away. His ex-wife, my friend, sent him money, which we fear he spent on pills. The newspaper says there’s a fentanyl influx in Boulder. We won’t know the truth until we have a toxicology report, in six to eight weeks.

I feel guilty for writing about his assumed cause of death before the results; I have no proof it was the drugs. But the part of his brain that was capable of responsive affection perished five years ago when my dad died. He couldn’t handle it. He tripped into withdrawal in the ICU at Dad’s deathbed. Clawing at the skin on his neck, sweating through a Nike Golf ball cap, he nervously checked his phone then announced that he had to leave. My weary mother snapped to panicked attention while holding Dad’s hand.

“You’re leaving? Now?”

“It’s the office. I gotta change the water cooler.” Then he left.

My brother was terrifically wild and funny. He was a daredevil, and even though I am, I was, I am (which one?) six years older, I always struggled to keep up. I remember a summer trip to an amusement park, Hersheypark, with distinct clarity. There were few lines, and no crowds—we were among the first to arrive for the day. We strolled, with purpose, along a damp, fresh-scrubbed, blacktop pathway that meandered past Tudor-style snack bars, Wild West shooting ranges, and Ye Olde Tyme photo booths. Colorful, lush potted plants, freshly watered, hung from the eaves of gift shops. Impatiens and azaleas bloomed in manicured beds of cocoa bean mulch… even the air smelled of chocolate. It was a setting of complete control and comfort, other than the fact that each pathway had a terrible destination: a roller coaster. I was afraid of them, especially the rickety one that teetered atop what appeared to be a stack of two by fours. The flowers, the shops, even the piped music offered no security. I was going to have to strap into a death machine or be humiliated by my little brother. He would tease me if I didn’t ride. He was six years my junior, and fearless. He was scrap and sinew, with shiny summer-blonde chlorine straw hair. His face was covered in a galaxy of freckles. Mom said he had been kissed over and over again by the angels on his way in. He was cracker-jack smart, with a gift for sensing insecurity. He could smell fear and would use it against me if I sat out the Super Duper Looper. I imagined his squeaky report at the dinner table: Jennie was too scared so she waited for me at the exit.

Yesterday, while my brother was dying in a locked room in a shared townhouse in a Boulder suburb, I was nesting at home in Baltimore. Just like I did before my dad died. I cooked batches of farm-share vegetables and had Hawaiian guitar on the Spotify in our sunny kitchen. We took our skiff out on the Chesapeake, since our governor had lifted the stay-at-home order, effective at 5 p.m. My brother died to the brilliance of an orange, melty sunset. We took photos and listened to Top 40. The teenagers made TikTok videos. I nestled in the crook of my husband’s arm behind the steering console.

By the time we returned home it was dark. We gripped each other and stumbled our way around, returning buoys and life jackets and coolers to the garage. We emptied the fridge then sat quietly around the dinner table, shoving in sandwiches, hungry from freedom and fresh air. Then the kids did the dishes and I excused myself for a shower. While I undressed in the bathroom, my brother’s ex-wife called. She was calling, not texting, so it was something. It was late, not early, so it was something. I learned in therapy to set boundaries, and this was one I didn’t want to cross. A late-night phone call about my brother could wait until morning.

In the early stages of his addiction, these calls were monumental. Like: left-over Percocet was missing and he’s being really weird. Then we would all make excuses or freak out. Maybe the cleaning lady took it… Maybe your kids’ friends took it… Talk to him! Hold him accountable!

The disease progressed, and the discretions became more routine, more alarming. I learned to surrender in hopeless retreat and ignore her exhausted requests for help: I just got a call. Someone found him passed out in a parking lot. The kids are asleep. I can’t go get him. Can you?

“Good Lord, just call the police! It’s the middle of the night!” Click.

This time, I ignored the call and took the shower. I finished, tied a towel on my head, then changed my mind and returned the call. Because what if he had COVID-19? What if it was a blessing, and he had to be hospitalized, and he could detox, supervised, in an ICU? When Heather answered, she didn’t say hello. She asked if my husband was home. When I said yes, she hung up.

I fiddled with the phone and tried to call her back. I heard Mike’s footsteps plodding up the stairs, closing in, one at a time, as he spoke: “Oh, no. Oh, Jesus.” I went to the landing, naked, towel on head. He repeated her words.

…so the roommate hadn’t seen him in thirty-six hours… bedroom door was locked… dog was barking… roommate will take the dog…

The towel toppled from my head to a damp heap on the floor. Mike spoke like I wasn’t there.

I shook my head gently. “No, Mike. I understand. You don’t have to say it.”

In my practice for when the inevitable and the imagined converged with reality, there was wailing. But in my first second without an earthly brother, I opened to the possibility of whatever that moment could hold. Matt came back. He was muscled and mighty: the adored husband, the respected attorney, the compassionate friend. Father, son, and now ghost. It was instant and effortless, this recovery of the brother I knew. He was laughing heartily, tears in his eyes, pink in his cheeks, recalling some past hilarity. Maybe the time we penned goatees and obscene thought bubbles on the covers of Mom’s Ina Garten cookbook collection in black Sharpie. Maybe the time he feigned a back injury to con my husband into picking up the dog shit in his backyard. Maybe a tender memory, like the night he brought over a book of Andrew Wyeth paintings and a pint of Cherry Garcia when my dog died.

Matt’s addiction was a runaway freight train I thought I could stop, despite what the books and programs and therapists and doctors said. But in the moment I learned of his death, each terrible memory was replaced. Disease be damned, we were together again, inches apart, riding the roller coaster, looping the bluebird sky unafraid. I remember that when the cars came to rest, and the restraint was lifted, Matt deserted me without hesitation for another ride. I remained on the platform, scanning the rosebushes for my mother. I wanted to tell her I survived.


Rumpus original art by Jen G. Peper.


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.

Jennie Burke holds a BA in English and secondary education and an MFA in nonfiction. After teaching English to grades 6-12 for many years, she shifted to speaking to school groups about her experiences as a person impacted by addiction. Jennie’s work in progress is a collection of mini-memoirs about her years as a sister, daughter, mother, and wife in a family struggling across the addiction spectrum. Jennie is a married mother of four teenagers. She lives in Baltimore. Find her on Twitter at @jennieburke. More from this author →