noun \ trig·ger
1. a piece (such as a lever) connected with a catch or detent as a means of releasing it, especially the part of the action moved by the finger to fire a gun
2. something that acts like a mechanical trigger in initiating a process or reaction
noun \ warn·ing
1. something that warns or serves to warn, especially a notice or bulletin that alerts the public to an imminent hazard
Warnings should come first. Something is about to happen: a tornado or flood. Act now to avoid the damage. You have time.
A trigger does not necessarily lead to an action, but when I do not know the trigger, there is no time to stop the finger from pulling the lever. There is no warning.
August 23, 2013
I have never seen my brother in bed with a woman before, but he needs to wake up early this morning. I’ve drawn the short straw.
It’s foggy outside, just like every San Diego morning. I walk up the stairs of my mom and stepdad’s beach rental, careful of the creaking floor. I stop at the door behind which my brother and his new girlfriend sleep. Mom tells me she’s blonde. It’s not what she expected. She doesn’t say more. I knock and hear rustling.
Downstairs, my parents, stepdad, and brother’s boss wait for us. Though he’s in his early fifties, the boss has a Tom Selleck–like swagger. He is a fishing legend in San Diego and has known my brother since he was a teenager. My brother will hate that he’s here.
I’ve spent the morning deciding if I would seduce Mr. Selleck (not really my brother’s boss, but let’s pretend). He’s twice my age and married with kids, but I’m testing out poor decision-making after a life of being the good child.
I’d let loose two years earlier after a long, messy relationship ended in New York. I found someone new who didn’t ask questions and would party with me whenever I asked, which was nightly. Every night was our last until the next night came. We fucked and got high; that was it. I couldn’t stop. I finally hit bottom. I left New York the following morning and never did hard drugs again. Once someone offered me coke in the bar I worked at in Guatemala, and I broke into hives. My body rejected the idea—a warning.
Though I was not using drugs any longer, I’d kept up the habit of problematic romantic partners. My Tom Selleck look-alike might be another in a long line of poor decisions; I recognized the complications of seducing my brother’s boss on the day of his intervention and decided against it.
I knock again and open the door a crack. My brother and his girlfriend are face-to-face. The door creaks and my brother turns toward me. If he’s surprised to see me in California when, for all he knows, I am in New York, he doesn’t show it. It’s been five months since I’ve seen him.
“Hi,” the blonde says, pulling the sheets tighter.
“Sorry.” I look away. “Bud, I need you to come downstairs.”
“Yeah. Okay,” he says and turns away.
(San Diego)—My brother is thirteen when he starts working on a fishing boat. Every summer, he signs up with one of the boats leaving Point Reyes. He spends his days pulling in fish caught by amateur anglers, mostly well-off white men on their yearly vacation away from their families. Locals trying to stay on the beach a little longer round out the crew. At fifteen, my brother dropps out of school to crew full time.
The patrons use recreationally—fun times on their vacation. The crew indulges too. Cocaine primarily, at least while at sea. Keeps the energy up. They’re up at 3:00 a.m. after four hours of sleep. They stock the boat with bait and food, liaison with Mexican customs officials, and are on call 24/7. Lousy weather, sickness, or calamity—they are responsible for lives out there, so no one will deny them a little escape.
His use is recreational for years, but in his early twenties, my brother’s doctor prescribes him Oxycontin to help with knee pain from playing basketball on concrete courts. He’s sunk.
August 21 & 22, 2013
(New York)—My mom and stepfather are on vacation in San Diego for two weeks. They would have missed the warnings if they’d been delayed. I read my mom’s email at my desk in my old office on Lafayette Street. I’m broke and back in New York after over a year of travel.
Mom’s email is nonchalant:
SO THAT YOU KNOW, YOUR BROTHER IS HAVING A QUARTER-LIFE CRISIS. HE QUIT HIS JOB ON TOM’S BOAT, AND THINGS BLEW UP BIG TIME. HE’S HOMELESS AND BROKE. HE OWES A LOT OF PEOPLE MONEY AND WRECKED HIS TRUCK. HE HAD TO TELL HIS NEW (BLONDE) GIRLFRIEND ALL ABOUT IT. HE’S LOWER THAN WHALE SHIT.
She has a mother’s intuition about his prescription drug use. “There’s more to the story, but I will have to pull it out in bits and pieces.”
She wants to stage an intervention—the TV kind—two days from now.
The next day, my brother ODs on pills (he passes out on his turkey sandwich). Mom asks me to call his friends to help. Few agree. Tom says he’ll moderate and recommends a rehab in Newport Beach. An intervention facilitator advises Mom to confront my brother while the moment is right before he is back using again.
“Look at flights,” she says, “you shouldn’t be alone right now.”
He doesn’t deserve that, I think.
“I can’t drop everything and fly to San Diego.”
She’s disappointed but understands. She asked that I coordinate a call with my dad to plan the intervention. It will be the first time they have spoken in almost fifteen years. I am on the phone with them, trying to plan and work simultaneously.
“Natalie,” Mom asks, “what do you think?”
I have no idea what she’s asking because I’ve been typing into a spreadsheet, not listening.
Five minutes later, I am in a cab headed for La Guardia, and I’ve already booked a flight to California.
As the intervention begins, my brother looks like he just committed a capital offense in front of his parole officer.
“So how long do you want me to stay there?”
The ottoman he sits on bends his legs at a forty-five-degree angle so his knees are almost parallel to his rib cage. He’s in flip-flops, and his toenails need a trim. The blonde sits next to him. An old girlfriend (a brunette) is next to her. My mom and stepfather are on the couch; Dad and I are standing. No one else came.
I’m curious what my brother thinks of this hodgepodge collection of people from his life, especially our parents, sitting together in one room. I shared a pullout couch with Dad for fifteen minutes of sleep the night before, so I hardly know what to think. But my brother is only concerned about one person in the room.
In the future, I will remind anyone who forgets that my brother didn’t stay put at 6 a.m. solely for this bizarre family reunion. He stayed put because Tom sat directly across from him in khaki shorts, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and sunglasses resting on his head. As long as Tom was there, my brother wouldn’t move a capillary.
“One hundred days,” Tom replies. “Ten for detox. Ninety for rehab.”
My brother winces.
“But you could be out in forty,” Mom says desperately.
“No way,” says Tom. “If you do this for me, for your job, you’re there one hundred days.”
I didn’t fully appreciate the leisure fishing community until later, through talking with Dad. Tom’s boat is the apex. Everyone wants to work it; almost nobody does. To borrow from Top Gun, Tom’s boat is the best of the best—only the best of the best crew it.
My brother hesitates.
“Bud,” I say. After two eighty-dollar cab rides, one canceled flight, three airports, a bumpy landing, and an early morning rental car drive from LAX to San Diego, my voice is shot, but I say as tenderly as possible, “Look around you. Look who’s here for you and how many people care about you.”
“This is your clean slate, son,” Dad says, “take it.”
We’re a Lifetime movie.
The cords sticking out of Mom’s neck are three times their normal size. She can only whimper into my stepfather’s sleeve.
My brother’s career in the leisure fishing world is on the line. We all know it. As Dad said, one good word from Tom could wipe the slate clean. But that good word will cost my brother his freedom.
He laughs like he’s a naughty child. He rubs his arms, and the black hair resettles like feathers. He quiets.
“So?” Tom asks.
June 4, 2015
My brother smokes on the back patio. When he isn’t chain-smoking, he chews tobacco or grinds sunflower seeds between his teeth like he’s watching the last inning of his life, and it’s a tie.
My brother stares at the lemon tree. I started the drive from LA at six, so it’s barely noon in Phoenix, but it’s already one hundred degrees outside.
“Thanks for coming, Sister,” he says like I just popped by from down the road.
I smoke my own cigarette, trying not to cough. I’ve quit (several times), but I’m trying to prove I’ve not lost my cool. I am no longer the sister who lives in an exotic location, tends bar, climbs volcanoes, and rotates him through a Rolodex of friends living their best lives. I’ve been back in the States for almost two years. I have a steady job, a lease with my name, a forthcoming graduate degree, and a fiancé.
“Mom think I need a babysitter?” His hat masks his eyes.
“Mom doesn’t know what to think,” I said. “Neither do I.”
He looks adrift. Our impromptu sibling rendezvous wasn’t his idea either, I take it. I’m sure he’d rather be tossed overboard to avoid having to spend one more second with me. For a moment, I think he’ll leave, walk out the back gate and run. Instead, my brother sets down his cigarette, lifts his hat, and smooths his balding head.
“Yeah,” he says, resettling his hat. “Nobody knows what to think.”
(San Diego)—As far as we knew, my brother never paid back his drug dealer, and he’d been lucky that the guy never came after him. But my brother’s dealer finds him one night leaving a bar, pulls him off the street, and throws him into the trunk of a car. His dealer then drives for what seems like hours, the sounds of busy streets gradually giving way to nothing but the car engine. When the trunk pops open, my brother is in the middle of the desert, miles from anything. The dealer sets him standing, puts a gun to his temple, and says, “Have my money in a week.”
No “. . . or else.”
The implied threat is sufficient.
My brother isn’t working on Tom’s boat anymore. He is on a lesser boat, and he knows a big trip is coming up that could get him at least $500–600, but he’ll need more. He gets a job processing fish at a cannery; he can do shifts around his boat work. He works around the clock, never sleeping. Still, he knows he won’t have enough, so right before leaving the dock, he steals another deckhand’s paycheck, endorses it, and then cashes it. My brother confesses to his fellow deckhand, who is surprisingly cool about it, but the captain finds out. As punishment, he demotes my brother and tells him he can’t work the next trip.
He goes to Dad’s because San Diego isn’t safe anymore. Dad chastises him in a quiet “I’m so disappointed in you” kind of way. It’s not my father’s style, but he’s at the end of his rope. He cuts off my brother’s phone and insurance. “You were smarter at fifteen than you are at twenty-eight,” Dad says.
May 31, 2015
(Los Angeles)—With people with a substance use disorder, you usually don’t find out about the trigger until you’re staring down the warning like the barrel of a gun that’s just shot your face off.
It starts when I call my brother to check in. I’ve been doing this regularly in the time since he’s been out of rehab, but in my last few attempts, the calls have failed.
“Your father cut off his phone,” Mom tells me. “He’s going to be staying here for a few days.”
“I’m still figuring that out.”
When I finally get him on Mom’s cell the next day, he sounds, as she would say, lower than whale shit. I ask him yes or no questions because I figure their binary nature will make it easier to spot his lying. I don’t know if it helps though. I tell him I loved him. I’ll help him and defend him to Mom, Dad . . . whoever. He has to be honest with me. One hundred percent, no matter how bad it might get.
He agrees. He wants to return to San Diego immediately to clear his name, but I think it’s a bad idea. Stay put and regroup at Mom’s, I advise.
I tell Mom I will come to spend a few days with him if she drug tests him and cancels her trip to San Diego. But she and my stepfather have had this trip with his kids planned for months. Flights are booked. She has to go. So, just the drug test. Make him take it; whatever the results are, I’ll come home, but I need to know what I’m walking into. Mom agrees.
She never tests him, however.
The day before I leave, we speak:
“What can I say to make you feel better?”
“Nothing. You’re not drug-testing him because you’re afraid of the results. You think you’ll lose him again. You’re choosing him over me.”
She inhales, weighing her words carefully.
“No, I’m choosing your stepfather. Don’t come home. It’s for the best.”
She hangs up.
She’s a mess, no doubt about that. We have other problematic men in our family. Our paternal grandfather took his own life. His son is in jail for drug use and dealing. A cousin committed suicide while inebriated. Our mother lives in fear that these fates could befall her son. I don’t want him to end up like that, either. He’s my brother. I only have one.
I come home.
It’s evening, and my brother still sits on the patio in the same position as when I arrived. Now it is dark out, and a light buzzes overhead. His eyes are still glued to the lemon tree, his cigarettes, chew, and seeds are lined up like blackjack cards in front of him. I am nursing a solid drink. The glass sweats profusely. I’d like a refill, but I’m afraid I have sweat stains on my rear, so I don’t move. We’re mostly silent.
I begin to stand when my brother says, “Must be nice.”
“Being you . . . being perfect.” He takes a drag and exhales out his nostrils.
On the drive through the desert earlier, passing signs on the roadside for Cactus City, Sore Finger Road, and the side-by-side state prisons, I imagined we would spend the next three days having heartfelt talks. So far, that has not been a reality. We’ve been like eels, barely making contact for fear we’ll electrocute each other. I didn’t tell him Mom and I fought about him. Yesterday was only the second time she’s ever hung up on me. The last time, she’d called immediately to apologize. This time, I hadn’t heard from her.
“You think I’m perfect?”
He laughs. “Mom and Dad do. That you did everything right.”
He ashes into the bottle. “You know. School. Jobs. Your man. It’s all right. Dad worships you.”
I flush. “Mom worships you. You’re still a little boy in her mind, and she won’t do anything that could make you run. She was supposed to drug test you before I came, and she couldn’t do it because she’s terrified you’ll cut her off again.”
I sip and then continue. “They want what they can’t have, for both of us to adore them. I’m not about to start adoring Dad, and you can make your own decision about Mom, but don’t worry—I’ll be the one to clean up your mess when it all blows up.”
My brother truly looks at me. He has never seen me come close to anger. I meet his stare, daring him to speak.
He doesn’t, though. After a moment, he wipes the sweat from his nose and takes a long drag.
I take this as a victory in whatever sibling battle we’re engaged in and head toward the door.
“And by the way,” I say, the heat and the vodka making me pissy, “I don’t know one person in any office I’ve worked that wouldn’t trade their bullshit desk job for what you have. Or should I say ‘had’? You want to have a chat about who’s the favorite in this family? Who’s the golden child? Shut up. What the fuck are you doing here anyway? Clean up your life, dude. It’s not that hard.”
I turn and walk through the sliding door as I down the remaining ice-turned-water in my drink. It is neither cold nor refreshing.
December 2015—March 2016
This is the longest time my brother spends on the ground. I rarely see him, but he’s with me like an invisible second skin. I wear him everywhere.
Now triggers and warnings come so fast it doesn’t matter which comes first.
(San Diego)—The blonde dumps him. They’ve been together since his stint in rehab, but she’s tired of that feeling like he’s hiding something.
My brother holes up at Dad’s for two weeks, speaking to no one. We don’t see him for Christmas. He’s a ghost.
(Phoenix)—My brother delivers his 2016 Playbook, a near-perfect recreation of the playbook created by Pat in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. He spent two weeks on the book, handwriting, typing, editing, and then retyping his plans for the coming year. He would, he wrote, start his fishing captain career again and rebuild the trust he’d lost. He’d get a second job that would be compatible with his captain’s schedule so that he could start saving money. He’d investigate getting his GED. He’d woo the blonde back. He’d make things right with me, Mom, and Dad. He’d become, the playbook said, the brother and son of whom we could be proud. He delivers my fiancé and my copy of the playbook, and that is the last time I see him for months.
(San Diego)—He returns to San Diego to start the playbook. He’s on a crew and gets a second job working retail at a boating supply store. The captain allows him to live aboard the boat rent-free. He’s working on getting the blonde back.
Still, he’s triggered. Is it the sighting of an old using buddy? The monotony of “adult” life, earning paychecks and using the money to buy groceries rather than meth? Does he register the trigger in his brain? Or is it deeply inaccessible in his subconscious? That is the thing about triggers—they are wily. Before long, this:
March 3, 2016
(Phoenix)—My stepfather and I are in his study. He says my brother stole his boss’ credit card, used it to rent a motel room, then invited his friends over to use and trash the place. He’s been arrested. He went to jail but is out now. His dealer posted bail.
“I wanted to tell you before your mom gets home.” To spare her, he implies.
March 10, 2016
(Chandler)—My brother’s birthday. As far as I know, he spends it alone at Dad’s. This might be the first year Mom doesn’t buy and deliver him a present.
March 23, 2016
(Flagstaff)—I got married. My dad and brother weren’t invited. I lied and told Dad we eloped to Vegas. I assume he told my brother.
After a short honeymoon, I’m back at school. After teaching one day, I notice a missed call and voice message from a San Diego area code. A deep voice looking for my brother left a message. It’s very important that he finds my brother, and if I know his whereabouts, please call. This is either my brother’s bail bondsman or his dealers fronting as such to find him.
Other classes have let out, and the sidewalk that leads to my office is packed with students enjoying one of the first warm days of spring. I have not contacted my brother since before his birthday, and he knows better than to contact me.
This message, however, means that my brother handed my number over to his bail bondsman as insurance or that I am a conduit to him, if only through the Internet.
I delete the message, block the number, and text:
YOUR BAIL BONDSMAN IS LOOKING FOR YOU. PLEASE DON’T GIVE OUT MY NUMBER. DON’T CONTACT ME AGAIN. KEEP ME OUT OF YOUR SHIT.
I do not know if he tried to respond because I blocked his number.
Warning (Brother) & Trigger (Mine):
March 28, 2016
(Flagstaff)—I’m walking from campus to my car when Mom calls: Dad kicked my brother out. I defend Dad, betraying her. Everything I say, however accurate, gravely wounds her.
I should keep my mouth shut; she doesn’t need facts. She needs the me that protects her from sons, but that me is now tired of brothers.
She’s screaming. I try to soothe her but raise my voice to compete with her. People are staring. I lock eyes with a fellow grad student waiting for the bus. She averts her eyes. My mother rages for eons. The sound crescendos, then static as she hangs up.
I am shaking. I take two Xanax before I can drive home. She’s unhinged me. We won’t speak again for two weeks.
If it made one of us feel better, I wouldn’t let it affect me, but the two of us laying waste to each other like this chucks hot coal on a tender place inside us, the one where I remember she’s not just my mother, and she remembers her son isn’t my son.
August 23, 2013
My brother goes to rehab willingly. He stays for forty days. He hasn’t worked for Tom since.
June 4, 2015
Three days after our argument, I leave Phoenix. That first night is the closest we came to heartfelt talks. My brother did tell me that he’d used drugs twice since leaving rehab, once right after getting out and once about a month before he came home.
I thought he was being honest, so I defended him, though I suspect now that he lied to me.
March 28, 2016
Despite who’s to blame for my brother and his addiction, there are two things neither my mother nor I can deny:
The first is that my brother is using again.
The second is that her son, my brother, is now homeless.
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.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen