The world you knew was endless. From Massachusetts to Alaska, Moscow to Chicago, Boston to Maui. Before I understood why you hid your shaking hands, I saw you in a photograph texted to me by a stranger. You, dragging yourself from your motel room. You, no longer hiding your hands. Now, your world was an alley in Austin, Texas. You sat between two dumpsters across from your motel room. The paramedics found you as a cliché of alcoholic: passed out with another empty bottle. The fifth time in three days. The world you knew and what is now our reality is no kinder. Maybe someone cares for you who looks beyond your frail form—the IV punctures and hangover hair.
Do you remember being pulled out of bed before dawn, told to hush by Mom and not to worry about changing out of our pajamas? Mom and Dad hurried us into the backseat of Dad’s used Chrysler, the sun slumbering somewhere we had yet to believe in. Dad drove while Mom’s worn leather purse sat cradled in her lap as she counted out dollar bills and shiny change in her left palm. Donut money. Dad pulled into the local donut shop and shuffled inside, the back of his dark hair sticking up in tufts. We giggled because he didn’t know. Minutes later, he returned to the car with a dozen fresh donuts and two Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate, whipped cream softening the grip of the plastic lids. We took a cup each and began to slurp while Mom and Dad shared an army-green thermos full of coffee that Mom had prepared the night before. Our time together was routine. Comfortable.
Comfort was the car’s back seat, where we set up temporary camp underneath a shared blanket until we arrived at our destination. How many trips did we take in the car together? Trips spent close to home and others far away. Times spent exploring the mountains on foot, being taught how to hike and explore, set up camp, and pitch and take down a tent. Those hikes with me complaining about how heavy my pack was, and eventually, Dad giving in and taking my backpack along with his own. You teased me and told me I was a crybaby, that I was too weak for nature. But I knew you were wrong, even then. I always believed in unicorns and magical creatures, and I know you did, too.
During one camping trip, I snuck away from you, Mom, and Dad resting in the shade. I saw a wildflower field filled with columbines and other colorful flowers that beckoned me. I became lost in a sensory overload of beautiful blooms, an impossible field filled with what seemed like thousands of flowers, all meant for me. The field swallowed my small body as I studied each blossom and petal, memorizing the delicate architect of each different flower, wondering how something could possibly be so beautiful, how a single moment in time could mean so much that I never wanted to leave. Some memories are like that moment in the field of wildflowers. When everything feels perfect and the possibility of something magical happening seems more than a dream. Mom came running into the field, grabbing my arm as I reached out to touch another bloom, her face and voice frantic with worry from my unexplained absence. But the magic was there. Holding its breath. Waiting for me to come back. I want to go back and take you with me. I want to show you how even in the dark places our hearts and minds slip to when our lives feel worthless, that there is another place meant just for us, waiting, unchanged, where your demons can’t find you.
We both can disappear in our own ways, can’t we?
By the time Dad pulled into the parking lot of Memorial Park, the hot air balloons were slowly inflating, their huge, colorful heads gaining structure as if a giant were blowing life into the base of their skulls. Mom and Dad hurried us to a grassy area, Mom spreading the familiar, patterned rug on the grass while Dad wrapped us in my big white comforter. The four of us sat together, watching hot air balloons stretch themselves into the creamsicle sky, sipping hot chocolate and arguing over who got the last pink sprinkled donut.
There were times we fought like cats and dogs, but you always gave in. You always gave me the last donut, the good toy, the shotgun seat. Years later, long after Mom and Dad divorced, I read a book Mom had on her shelf about Cassandra. How she was a seer, but no one would listen to her. How, eventually, everyone around her turned their back on her; how she couldn’t be married off and so her mother sent her away to live amongst the Amazons, hoping she might return having forgotten her gift of sight.
If I could go back in time, I’d turn to you at the very moment you stole the last pink donut out of my hand, sprinkles lining your lips like candied lipstick, and tell you, Brother, you are going to throw yourself away like a soiled bag of garbage one day. The best you can hope for is that someone will find you and scrape your body off the graveled alley ground and lift you into an ambulance. Some argue addiction is not a disease; it’s a choice. I would tell those people they have not seen your thin body in a hospital bed, a breathing tube down your throat, skin yellowing like these letters will, years from now. I will be holding a light for you in the form of a white candle, nine hundred and nineteen miles away, forcing energy to heal you.
They say you can’t go home again, but home isn’t only a physical entity. Home can consist of memories and energies you go back to again and again. A dreamscape where the outcome hasn’t been determined yet. A place before the storm hits, where you can imagine a new, different ending. You and I will never be able to return to those sleepy nights in the home that was whole before everything fell apart. Dad reading to us from books that took us to faraway places, me in my pink pajamas, you wearing your favorite Star Wars T-shirt, the two of us playing tug-of-war with the blanket while Dad tells us to quiet down, clearing his throat dramatically before he begins spinning new worlds. What I didn’t know then was this would be the last ritual we would all have together before the word divorce came to split us in half—a moment I’d return to so I might remember that you were once a little boy, before you were broken.
How many suns have risen and fell since you became the shadow that haunts us? They say there are limits when trying to save an addict. There are times when I have to say no. Tough love is what saves. Others say addicts don’t deserve second chances. But I say this addict is not just an addict. He is my brother. He is a human, a soul, and he has dreams we can’t know.
I am not Cassandra of Troy. I had no way of warning you of what was to come over thirty years later. Now, I am nothing more than a vessel to help you remember the good times instead of the bad, instead of the times that led to your self-destruction. We can return to those pre-dawn mornings, our two sibling souls wrapped together in perfect pairing of sugar and wonderment. The sky explodes in a brilliant botanic of balloons, and we know nothing, nothing of our split heartbreaks to come.
Rumpus original art by Han Olliver.
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.