by Patti Fish Stephens
Over the past few months I have begun writing and speaking openly about my daughter’s struggle with alcohol and heroin addiction. The result has astounded me: more people than I can count have, in turn, shared with me stories of addiction–and loss–in their family or loved ones. This has given me great hope that through continued conversation and education we, as a society, can eventually remove the stigma of addiction and further the understanding and treatment of it as a disease. In the course of sharing about my journey through addiction with my daughter, I have mentioned my brother’s death several times, but never shared the difficult details of losing him until now. It is my great hope that sharing my story will also further the conversation about grief, especially of overdose deaths, in our modern culture.
Saturday, December 31, 2005 was the last time I ever saw my older brother, Glenn. I was 36 and he was 43 years old. He looked, quite honestly, terrible. He’d had surgery on his arm just a few days before Christmas, and had a bad cold on top of it, so I had been checking up on him by phone. When he called to wish me a happy birthday on December 12, we’d had a jovial conversation which ended with us making a bet about how long our family Christmas dinner would last; the winner would get to pick a restaurant for lunch and the loser had to pay the bill. We had planned to work out the details the following week after we determined which one of us won the bet.
But when I saw him at our belated family Christmas luncheon that day, he looked like he had aged years since the last time I’d seen him, which had been a few months; normally I would’ve seen him at Thanksgiving, but that year he had been sick. So I probably hadn’t seen him in person since his annual Fourth of July party. In the months since then he had put on a significant amount of weight, his face looked drawn and ashen, and his hands were shaking so badly that I had to cut his steak for him. I was concerned about him and despite my insistent offers to drive him home so he wouldn’t have to drive his stick shift car with one arm in a sling, he brushed off my worry and refused my offers of help. He told me he had a follow-up doctor’s appointment on January 5th and I made him promise to call me afterwards with an update.
But later that evening I was pleasantly surprised by a phone call from him, even though we had just seen him and planned to talk again in a few days. He was very emotional and wanted to thank me and my husband for one of the Christmas gifts we had given him: a new belt sander. I was humbled by how much the sander meant to him. I will never forget how choked up he sounded when he asked me to thank my husband and said, “That was the nicest thing anyone has ever–that anyone has done for me in a really long time.” I asked him if he wanted to talk to Brian himself. He said no and asked me to pass along the thanks; then he went on to tell me how lucky we were to have found each other and how glad he was that he knew Brian was such a good husband to me, something along the lines of how it was comforting for him to know that Brian “took care of” me. This struck me as only slightly odd, because my brothers were very overprotective of me when we were growing up, and it took Glenn quite awhile to approve of Brian. But later I would remember this conversation and wonder if the comment about me being taken care of indicated something deeper.
He never called that week to schedule our lunch date. He never made it to his doctor’s appointment. And to my eternal shame and regret, I never called to check up on him when I didn’t hear from him; I was busy recovering from the holidays and preparing for my husband’s birthday, which is January 9th, and I had a passing thought that I should call Glenn on Monday if I hadn’t heard from him by then. I figured we could go out to lunch that week.
We never had that lunch date. On Sunday evening, January 8, 2006, after a relaxing dinner at Claddagh celebrating my husband’s birthday, I got the phone call that changed my life forever. My niece had found her dad, my brother, dead. He was at home in his bed. She called her siblings, who called my other brother, who then called my mother and me. The phone connection was at first bad, and the call dropped. Then my brother’s wife called back and when I answered, she asked to speak to my husband, which I thought was odd. I could tell from Brian’s face and voice that something was very wrong. When he got off the phone and said, “It’s Glenn” I heard a waver in his voice I had never heard before; he said, as gently as possible, “Patti, he’s dead.” I will never forget the feeling of my legs going numb; as I slid down onto my knees, I just repeated, “No, no, no, no, no” over and over until I couldn’t speak or breathe through my sobs.
I then called my dad and step-mom to inform them. We all had the same initial reaction: disbelief. Glenn had epilepsy; I thought maybe it was a mistake, that he was unconscious from hitting his head during a seizure, and once they took him to the hospital he would be alright. But it was evident to the few people who saw him that my brother head been dead for some time. This was always the hardest part for me to process and tell others, and the thing that still haunts me: he died alone, then laid there for days–possibly a full week–alone. He had put his beloved English bulldog, Sparky, in his crate in the basement before he went to bed for the last time. Sparky was barely alive when he was found, and never really recovered. He died a few months later, I heard.
Because of the condition of my brother’s body, we were unable to have an open casket at the wake and funeral. This made grasping the reality of his death harder for me. My bereavement counselor later explained to me that not being able to say goodbye or see the loved one’s dead body causes “complicated grief,” or what is technically labeled as Complicated Bereavement Disorder. This means, in the simplest terms, that it takes the grieving person much longer to accept the loved one’s death. That was certainly the case for me.
The thing that made grieving Glenn’s death even more complicated, however, was not knowing how or even when he died. The first thing people ask when they hear you’ve lost a loved one is how the person died. I don’t know why this is; I guess it is human nature. I have asked the same question myself. But with a complicated death like my brother’s where we had no cause of death, I didn’t know how to answer the most basic question people asked. It became excruciating to even speak about his death, yet I could think of nothing else. He had been sick with a bad respiratory infection on top of the arm surgery he’d had on December 23. He had also recently told me his doctor wanted to put him on medication for high blood pressure. Questions and conjectures circled round and round in my brain in the weeks and months after his death. Did he take too much cold medicine that caused his heart to beat erratically, resulting in a heart attack? Did he have an epileptic seizure that somehow injured him, leading to his death? Did someone break in and assault him? Did he take too many pain pills from his surgery?
Did he do it on purpose?
This was the question many of us asked ourselves and each other in the early months following Glenn’s death: was there any chance this was a suicide? After many years of replaying his last weeks and days over and over, I do not believe it was. Despite the fact that, in hindsight, I realize he was far more depressed than I knew or he let on, there were also many indications that he was not suicidal. Also, I don’t believe he would have left his dog defenseless and trapped that way. But it was the autopsy report from the coroner that provided the final evidence I needed to know in my heart that his death was accidental.
It was in April, over three months after his death, before we got the report from Glenn’s autopsy, and the result was a shock: the cause of death was listed as overdose, but not from pain pills. Although he did have one dose of pain killers in his system, it was his blood alcohol content that was off the charts. It was measured in several blood draws from different areas of his body, and the highest reading was measured at .59. Yes, you read that correctly. The blood alcohol content normally associated with the legal definition of intoxication is .08 to .10, and the level considered to cause unconsciousness is around .30. Death can occur with a blood alcohol content of .37, and a level of .45 or over is considered fatal for anyone, no matter how much tolerance they have. Now that I had a cause of death, I had another shock to try to process. And now I still didn’t want to answer the question of how he died, due to the shame and stigma of that word: overdose.
I couldn’t stand the thought that someone would judge my brother’s character and entire life based on just one piece of information–really just one word–that described how he died: overdose.
Clearly, my brother had built up an astonishing tolerance to alcohol if he could consume far more than enough to kill him. Most people would pass out long before they could reach such astronomically high blood alcohol levels. I had to accept the fact that not only was my brother far more depressed than I realized, he also had a serious drinking problem that he hid fairly well for a long time. I also believed for a long time that I chose not to see it, even when it should have been glaringly obvious. For many years since his death, I have had a tremendous amount of guilt that I didn’t know how much he was struggling. I have berated myself for not reaching out to him more. I have wondered, in the past two years as I have learned about addiction and recovery alongside my daughter, why I–and others–didn’t see the signs of severe depression and alcoholism in him.
But strangely, it was going through my daughter’s struggles with addiction, rehabilitation, relapse, overdose, and recovery that has helped to finally give me some peace about my brother’s death. It has taught me how truly ignorant I was about addiction before my daughter’s disease took hold. Tending to my own recovery in Nar-Anon has helped me to forgive myself for not recognizing certain signs of his disease, and for not knowing what to do about the signs I did see; despite having grown up in a family with many alcoholics, I had never seen any kind of treatment or rehabilitation attempted by anyone I knew; the term alcoholic was never even used. So even when my brother got a DUI and pointedly asked me if I thought he was an alcoholic, it still didn’t occur to me to encourage him to get treatment.
Because what we grow up with, we normalize.
I grew up with depression and alcoholism. It simply never occurred to me that there was anything to be done about his drinking. It was just the way certain people were. Even if I had recognized the severity of my brother’s alcohol addiction, I had no model for seeking rehabilitation. Despite the ubiquitous Alcoholics Anonymous references all around me in society, it never occurred to me that AA could help my brother, or that he needed it. The only people I knew who had gone to “rehab” were a couple of kids at school, whispered about in the halls during their extended absences. The idea of treatment was nothing more than sensationalized gossip; the kids who needed it were both pitied and revered. I encouraged my brother to seek counseling and to call me when he needed to talk. I thought that he drank because he was depressed, and that he was depressed because he was lonely after his divorce; therefore if he got counseling, he would have someone to talk to, he would would not be depressed, and wouldn’t need to drink. Problem solved.
But learning about the disease of addiction through family days at my daughter’s inpatient and outpatient rehabs, along with educating myself through community programs, online resources, videos, books, and my fellow Nar-Anon members, I now understand that addiction is a stand-alone disease. Yes, it often co-exists alongside other mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety (this is called co-morbidity), but addiction is not caused by these illnesses. No amount of counseling or anti-depressants would have helped him without treatment for his alcoholism as well. Addiction is a brain disease with a genetic component which makes the brains of alcoholics and addicts react very differently to drugs and alcohol than the brains of people without the disease (see end of post for more info. on this). But I, like so many others in our society, did not understand this simple truth while my brother was still alive.
Now, more than eleven years after his death, I can say without shame that my big brother, Glenn–who loved me, protected me, teased me, took care of me, listened to me, encouraged me, and sometimes drove me to high school on his motorcycle–died tragically from an alcohol overdose at just 43 years of age.
And despite the fact that it still hurts like hell to say he’s gone and I still miss him desperately, I am no longer afraid or ashamed to say how he died, because I now understand he was very, very sick. He had a deadly, debilitating disease that stole him away from all of us far too young. Are people ashamed to admit their loved ones died of cancer? Heart disease? Diabetes? No, of course not. Because we as a society understand that these are diseases which we can sometimes impact for better or worse with our own behavior, but we don’t blame someone when the disease kills them. We sympathize and empathize with their plight and their loved ones’ grief. And that’s exactly how we, as a society, need to learn to react when we hear someone died of an overdose. That person was someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s parent, someone’s cousin, someone’s friend. And all of those people love and grieve their loss just as they would any other. They don’t deserve to feel shame for their loved one’s deadly illness. They deserve compassion, especially because during the months and years leading up to their addict’s death, they likely have been through hell trying to save them.
Sadly, in the decade since my brother’s death, overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the United States, especially here in my home state of Ohio. If you or a loved one needs help, please reach out.
- If you live in Northeast Ohio, please go to http://www.greaterthanheroin.com and look for treatment options in your county.
- Do an internet search for your local county’s Opiate Task Force or ADAMHS (Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services) Board.
- Visit http://www.aa.org to find the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous meeting
- For loved ones of alcoholics, visit http://www.al-anon.alateen.org
- For loved ones of opiate addicts, visit http://www.nar-anon.org
- For loved ones of addicts of any kind, visit http://www.familiesanonymous.org
For an explanation of the difference between the brains of alcoholics/addicts and other people, I highly recommend the videos in the “Loved Ones Group” section under the “Resources” tab of the Robby’s Voice website: robbysvoice.com
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Patti Fish Stephens