My eyes teared up as I read the post on social media, written by a high school friend of my son, Ben. She’s recently posted several times about her sister who is in the hospital, hanging onto life as one body function after another fails. But the information has been limited with no other details.
That is, until today when she posted a message from her sister, who revealed that she has abused drugs and alcohol for most of her adult life, and it has ravaged her body. She wants everyone to know the truth of what is happening, and why. Her desire to come clean to people she doesn’t even know caused my tears. In doing so she’s also confronting herself, her reality. She’s in crisis but alert enough to know that if she survives this, it’s a gift to start anew.
There are parts of this story that speak directly to me. My son’s friend, now a woman in her mid-40s, is a beautiful, successful, happy person with a family and fulfilling career. Her sister seems to have taken a different life path. But they have a sibling bond that is strong as one takes care of the other in this most dire circumstance.
I take care of my younger brother who is in prison. My parents died years ago, as did two other younger brothers. He has no life partner or children, only me. Now a 62-year-old man, he’s docile, introverted, settled into a sparce life in a small cell with another inmate. He works in the kitchen, reads books and magazines, and watches TV. He calls me often and I always answer, hoping it’s only because he’s lonely and not because there’s a problem. I send money and give him sisterly, and often motherly, love. “Love you bunches,” we say to each other at the end of each call.
Some people turn their backs on a troubled family member that they perceive has made bad choices or see as weak or ignorant. We make choices to protect ourselves, especially when there are long established patterns of hurt. I think I choose to help because when I look back at my family life, unlike my brothers, I was lucky to have opportunities and outside support that changed my life path. I have survivor’s guilt. How did I get so lucky? And why?
The other part of the woman’s story that I relate to is harder to reveal. In my late 30s/early 40s, as a newly single woman, I got involved with someone who drank a lot of alcohol and did cocaine. This lifestyle felt familiar to me because of my alcoholic father, and my brothers drank and used drugs. I was devastated by the loss of my marriage and found that taking such a drastic turn from my past life into one of partying helped numb my pain. Then my first grandchild was born, and I stopped doing drugs. But I was involved in a lifestyle of drinking alcohol that I continued while dealing with my ongoing circumstance. It took a few more years to break that cycle.
It wasn’t all bad; there were successes and good things of which I’m proud. I earned a college degree and performed live music. I enjoyed my work and friendships. I spent quality time with my sons and their growing families. I also had to handle hard things including several deaths, my mother’s depression, and the arrest and conviction of my brother. But I still have regrets about the past. I put myself at risk, wasted time and energy on partying and hangovers, and lost my self-control and common sense. Eventually I reclaimed my life and gave myself another chance. Again, somehow, I was blessed with luck. I am extremely lucky. I’m thankful I didn’t harm anyone else, and I found a life partner who has helped me come to terms with my past. I believe that what I went through ultimately changed me for the better.
My life experience has given me deep empathy for people. I lost my precious son Ben to brain cancer in 2004. When I visit my brother in prison, I see other inmates’ loved ones ranging in age from newborn to elderly. Each one hurts just like me. How our life will evolve begins with the luck of when and where we are born. Life is hard. Trial and error, mistakes and redemption. I understand what my son’s loving friend is going through as she sits day and night by her sister’s hospital bed, hoping for a miracle. I also understand her sister. Love with grace. Have mercy.