Over the past few years I’ve seen far too many “RIP” status updates for people who have died at the hands of their demons. Part of the reason I felt the need to share my sister’s story with the world when she died is because I was sick of people pretending that their loved ones had died of natural causes or an accident instead of as a result of their addiction or mental illness. I was tired of people thinking that they or their loved ones were immune to the disease of addiction. Staying silent would have just contributed to the stigmas attached to the disease that Sarah had fought so hard to overcome. I knew in my heart what I needed to do, which was to say something. That’s not to say I wasn’t scared to speak up. That’s not to say I was necessarily ready to hear what people had to say about her or the way she died. That’s not to say it didn’t feel like I was breaking with every letter I typed. That’s not to say that writing about it was easy, or that I wasn’t shaking as I clicked the word “post” on my Facebook page.
That’s not to say I didn’t feel the need to physically brace myself for the response.
For the most part, I was overwhelmed by how understanding people were. I was so used to the looks of disbelief, the blatant disgust, the utter shock I was greeted with so often when I shared that my sister was an addict. I rarely shared her story with anyone, so these reactions were from close friends and family, not the strangers you might expect. I had already cut ties with numerous people as a result of their open disdain for my sister’s struggle, and addicts in general, and I was prepared to do the same with others after I made my initial post about her death. Instead, I was inundated with messages of people sharing their stories with me; I could almost sense the relief that they were finally able to talk about it beyond writing in their journals.
And then there were the people who turned their backs on me. I had considered some of them my very best friends. People I thought would be right by my side through all of this didn’t even return my phone calls after they heard how Sarah died.
Maybe it hit a little too close to home and they weren’t ready to face their own issues, or those of a loved one.
Or maybe they’re just judgmental idiots and think they’re above the disease of addiction.
In the months since Sarah died, I’ve noticed a change. Where people posted vague RIP statuses before, they are now speaking up and making sure people know why their loved ones are no longer here to share their own stories. They want their friends and family to know that this can happen to anyone. It’s a harsh reminder that life is a gift; that fighting addiction is one of the hardest battles anyone can fight, and not a lot of people come out on top. Obituaries are being written. Instead of seeing phrases like “died suddenly at home,” we’re seeing “lost their battle with addiction,” or mentions of mental illness. People in recovery are refusing to stay anonymous. Support groups are being formed on Facebook; strangers are offering others support and helping them fight.
Fewer people are remaining silent. One day at work a few years ago I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years; I was friends with his younger brother in high school and I asked how he was. His response stopped me in my tracks –
“Oh, he’s hooked on drugs, he’s been stealing from my family and at the moment we have no idea where he is.”
I stood there for a minute, completely speechless because I’d never heard anyone be that blunt about addiction. Ever. After I regained my composure, I responded with four words.
“My sister is too.”
People are realizing that the disease of addiction is real, and it’s an epidemic, and people are dying. Every day. And they’re realizing that it could be their child, or their sibling, or their parent or significant other.
On the other side of that coin, I’ve seen more and more people openly sit in judgment of addicts and their loved ones. Sometimes – a lot of times – people who are so bravely sharing their stories with the world in order to help others are faced with fellow human beings who throw stereotypes around like it’s nothing. These people who are opening their hearts and souls to strangers in an attempt to erase some of the stigma attached to the disease that’s turned their world upside down, these people who are putting aside their pride to bring some hope to someone else, these same people are being met with words of hate.
Here’s the thing. Addicts are everywhere. Everyone you know is probably affected by addiction in one way or another. Voicing these stereotypes and contributing to these stigmas is only perpetuating the cycle of the disease. Yes, they are opinions, and I’m aware that everyone is entitled to their own. But to say that reading and hearing these “opinions” is hurtful is the understatement of the century.
I mean who wants to admit they have a problem if they think they’re just going to be disregarded as a human being?
And that’s what addicts are, right? Human beings?
So many people seem to forget that fact. So many people seem to forget that they were young once, that they’ve made stupid decisions in their lifetime, that they haven’t always been the perfect role model for their kids, that they’ve done things they’re ashamed of, that they’ve hurt people they love, that they could have died once or a hundred times as a result of their own actions, that they’ve hated themselves, that they’ve disappointed their parents, that they’ve stolen, or lied, or cheated, that they’ve manipulated a person or a situation, that they’ve been a “bad person,” that they’ve done bad things, that they’ve been a bad influence on someone, that they’ve been reckless or careless or selfish, that they’ve taken what looks like the “easy way out.”
Because only addicts do those sort of things, right?
Until you’ve walked a centimeter in an addict’s shoes, until you’ve lost yourself so completely that you look at your reflection in the mirror and you don’t recognize the person looking back at you, until you’ve stared down the barrel of a gun and contemplated ending everything, until you’ve watched the person you love most in this world become an empty shell of him or herself, until you’ve cried yourself to sleep, praying for a miracle to save your addicted child/sibling/friend/significant other/parent, until you’ve felt the desperation of having nothing left to lose, until you’ve found yourself sitting on the bathroom floor with a needle in your arm, half hoping this might just be enough to kill you, until you’ve found your beautiful 29 year old daughter laying on your bedroom floor with a gunshot wound to her head, who are you to judge?
WHO. ARE. YOU. TO JUDGE?
You use words like “COWARD.”
A coward is someone who’s scared to face the truth. A coward would rather sit back and condemn someone for something they don’t understand instead of opening up their mind and attempting to learn something. A coward sits behind their keyboard, spewing “opinions” that are no more than ignorant, hate-filled rants about something that may just end up hitting a little too close to home one day. A coward is someone who breaks people down instead of building them up; someone who searches their brain for the most hurtful word or phrase they can think of to use against someone instead of using that same breath to ask how they can help. A coward is someone who refuses to step outside of their own comfort zone to help someone else hang on for one more day. A coward runs from adversity instead of holding the hand of the person who loves them and telling them they’ll help them fight.
I know this much to be true, because I was one. For a long time. I was the coward in my sister’s world.
Sarah was a beautiful, strong, selfless, loving, hilarious, intelligent, loyal woman.
She was never anyone’s coward.
YOU SAY THAT ADDICTS ARE SELFISH, THAT THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT ANYONE EXCEPT THEMSELVES, THAT THEY’RE RECKLESS WITH THEIR ACTIONS, THAT THEY DON’T CARE WHO THEY HURT.
My sister HATED being an addict with every ounce of her being. She hated how much she was hurting everyone around her. The truth is that Sarah loved so fiercely and cared so deeply about every one of her friends and family members that she would have done anything to take away their pain and carry it on her own shoulders. That doesn’t mean my sister didn’t lie, and manipulate, and stretch truths, and inflict worlds of pain on herself and others. But she was the farthest thing from selfish, or reckless. She loved with her whole heart. I like to think she loved all of us a little TOO much, and that’s why she took her own life – so that she wouldn’t hurt us anymore.
Rich, her friend and manager at work, said this in her eulogy: “Sarah became somewhat of an older sister to our younger co-workers. She loved sharing life experiences with them, and always took great care to help them avoid making any of the same mistakes that she’d made herself. Her advice always came straight from the heart, and it was NEVER given just so she could hear herself speak. It was always genuine and full of insight and wisdom. We can speculate that she’d still be here if she was as good at taking her own advice as she was at giving it, but that just wouldn’t have been Sarah’s style; because she was ALWAYS so much more concerned with helping others than she ever was with helping herself…and while some might say that was her downfall, I think it was one of the most beautiful and envied things about her.”
YOU SAY THAT THEY CHOSE THIS LIFE, THAT THEY DON’T HAVE THE WILLPOWER TO CHANGE, THAT THEY COULD STOP IF THEY REALLY WANTED TO, YOU SAY THEY LACK FAITH.
YOU CALL THEM WEAK.
I don’t know anyone who hopes to grow up to be an addict. I don’t know anyone who, when asked where they see themselves in five years, would respond with “probably shooting dope in a gas station bathroom and wondering where my next meal is going to come from.” I don’t know anyone who, if given the option, would choose a life of alienation and shame and non-stop struggling.
Yes, these people did, at one point, choose to do drugs. In one way or another, a decision was made that sent them down that path. A path that, by the grace of God, you haven’t found yourself walking. This decision could have been to crack a beer, or smoke a joint, or pop a pill. The same decision that you or I or pretty much anyone has most likely made at one point in our lives. For an addict, whose brain is wired differently than yours or mine, this one decision is the only decision they get to willingly make. Unfortunately, that one pill or that one hit could trigger the beginnings of the disease that could very well end in their death.
My sister fought for years. She fought this god damn disease as hard as she could. Some days she would win – she would win for months, or even a year at a time, and then she would slip. And one slip is all it took. Every time. One slip is all it took to send her back down the rabbit hole in to that darkness. It’s like watching someone try to climb out of a deep well, with nothing but their hands to aid them in scaling the moss covered walls. They might make some progress, and get almost to the top, but one false move and they could slip all the way back down. Once that happens, all they can do is try to claw their way back up. Sometimes they manage to get to the top, and climb out into the sunshine and never look back. Sometimes – a lot of the time – they don’t.
And it is NOT for lack of effort.
I still can’t pretend to completely understand my sister’s struggle. It still makes me angry, and frustrated, and I wish I could shake her and make her hang on a little longer. But one thing I’ll never do again is question her strength. Or her willpower. And no one else should either.
LIAR. THIEF. SCUMBAG. DEGENERATE. JUNKIE. TRASH. LAZY. DIRTY. LOSER. FREAK. DERELICT. UNGRATEFUL. THOUGHTLESS. UNMOTIVATED.
These people are your children, your friends, your siblings, your employees, your servers, your accountants, your CEO’s, your neighbors, the actors and actresses you idolize, your favorite athlete, your doctors, your lawyers, your therapists, your family.
And yes, in the grips of addiction, they might also be liars, and thieves and a million other things they’d never be if they were in their normal mindset. But they’re not. It’s not personal – to them, finding their next fix is like finding air to breathe. In that moment of desperation, they’re not concerned with the consequences. It doesn’t matter to them what they’re doing to get it; who they’re sleeping with or stealing from or lying to or manipulating. That doesn’t mean we can’t be furious with them. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for the things they do while under the influence. That doesn’t mean that you can’t hate them sometimes; it doesn’t mean they won’t hate themselves for the same reasons. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to separate the person you love from the addict standing in front of you.
That also doesn’t mean that those labels need to define them for the rest of their lives.
Most of the recovering addicts I’ve met are incredible people who make my world a better place. Unfortunately not everyone thinks that way. People in recovery are successful business owners, valuable employees, students at the top of their classes, contributing members of society. These people should be shouting their victories from the rooftops, and instead a lot of them are forced to stay anonymous out of fear that their businesses will suffer, that their children will be ostracized, that they’ll be treated with the same level of distrust as they were in active addiction.
The owner of the restaurant where Sarah worked walked up to me in the receiving line at her funeral with tears streaming down his face. He told me that the last meeting they had wasn’t about hours, or profits, or money, or anything to do with running the restaurant. It was about how worried they were for my sister.
I can’t imagine anyone holding a meeting like that for a scumbag, degenerate, lazy, worthless, unmotivated, ungrateful junkie.
I can’t imagine anyone doing that.
YOU SAY ADDICTS ARE A RESULT OF BAD PARENTING, THAT THEY MUST NOT HAVE ANY FAMILY, THAT YOUR CHILD WOULD NEVER BECOME AN ADDICT, THAT YOU RAISED YOUR KIDS BETTER THAN THAT.
Sure, there are situations where parents aren’t in the picture. There are even parents who do drugs with their kids, or who turn the other cheek when their children are showing signs of a drug problem. These parents are few and far between when it comes to addicts in this day and age. These kids come from good homes; their parents are involved in every aspect of their lives; they have been warned about the evils of drugs.
None of that really matters, though, does it?
Ultimately, the truth is that no parent can attach themselves to their child’s hip every second of the day. Parents who have never even had a sip of alcohol in front of their kids are burying their son after a heroin overdose.
The simple fact is that this disease doesn’t discriminate. Religion, geography, class, education – none of that socioeconomic crap matters.
Stop thinking it does.
YOU SAY ADDICTS MUST NOT HAVE ANYONE IN THEIR LIVES WHO CARE, THAT WE MUST NOT LOVE THEM ENOUGH.
What exactly is “enough?” Sometimes we love another person so much that we’re blinded to what’s really best for them. What we think is support might actually be enabling. To all of you sitting in judgment of addicts: I hope you’re never in their shoes. Or their family’s shoes. And if you ever find yourself there, I hope you can find the strength they do to love each other enough. And I hope there’s no one there to question whether you did or not. Because that is enough to break someone. All over again.
The family and friends who love an addict are fighting their own battle right next to them, and it’s hard as hell. So choose your words carefully, people. They’re powerful. What’s said cannot be unsaid. There’s a difference between standing by your beliefs and being a close-minded, arrogant ass. There’s a difference between being outspoken and being brashly ignorant. There’s a difference between being opinionated but open-minded and spouting off at the mouth while blindly shutting out anyone else’s point of view.
People are still dying. Every single day I hear of someone I know going through the same heartache and pain I’ve been feeling for the last nine months. And that’s enough to break me. I am brought to tears on a daily basis, wishing I could shoulder the pain for friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. I find myself wanting to reach out to every single addict and beg them to hold on for one more day. I am absolutely terrified to bring children into this world. I have the urge to find every single person in recovery, share my sister’s story, and hopefully give them the strength to stay clean for another day.
As sad as it makes me to read about these deaths every day, the fact that people are finally TALKING and EDUCATING and LEARNING and LISTENING is amazing to see. Because the only way this pain is going to stop is if we all work together to erase the stigma of addiction. It makes me proud to see so many people in my circle who are working towards just that.
Because I’ll tell you this. The recovering addict who wakes up every single day and puts his or her feet on the ground and fights to stay clean another day is made of some of the strongest character and heart in this world. Regardless of who you became in the grips of your addiction, regardless of how you found yourselves in a place you never thought you’d be, you fought your way out. And I know that you’re still clawing your way out of that well. Every single day.
So even though I don’t know you all personally, and even though I’ve never been in your shoes, and even though I may have judged you before I knew any better, and even though my sister isn’t here anymore to gain knowledge and strength from all of you, and even though if I’m being honest sometimes I wonder why she had to die instead of someone else, I admire every single one of you with every ounce of my being.
And if any one of you ever needs a reminder of why you need to keep fighting, and sharing your story, come see about me. I’ve been known to dole out tough love on the daily and I’ll do anything in my power to keep another family from having to feel the same pain I’ve felt for the last nine months and 28 days.
To everyone who has found the courage to share their souls with me and everyone else:
To everyone who has found the courage to share their souls with me and everyone else: KEEP GOING. KEEP FIGHTING. KEEP TALKING. KEEP LEARNING. KEEP EDUCATING. And for the love of God, keep loving each other and the addicts in your lives. Give them something to fight for.
And for the love of God, keep loving each other and the addicts in your lives. Give them something to fight for.
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