This photo essay is part of our exploration into the theme of Addiction.
This story is a personal journey that delves into the taboo subject matter of drug addiction on an intimate level. May 13th, 2015 was a day that would change me forever — it was the day I lost my father to addiction. It was also the day I decided to wake up and honestly see addiction for what it is and the effect that it has on people’s lives.
I didn’t recognize the depth of my dad's sickness while he was alive, and when I did it was too late. The traumatic experience of his death changed how I view the world; it made me recognize that most of us struggle in some way or another, whether visible or invisible. I wish I could have understood my dad’s sickness better and known what was going through his head during his most difficult times, but those are things I can never truly understand. Unfortunately, my brother Justin has followed in my dad's footsteps and currently battles with drug addiction himself, which inspired my mission to educate myself and others on the disease through visual storytelling.
Justin, 23 years old, smokes a cigarette out of his bedroom window, a typical morning ritual for him. He has been an on and off again smoker since he was a teenager. In this picture I had just surprised him by coming over and waking him up. We had no concrete plans to hang out, and I think it made him happy, even feel special that someone was thinking of him and wanting to spend time with him. Justin often feels that no one is really there for him or thinking about him. He thinks he has to battle his addiction alone.
I find other people’s personal spaces to be very intimate. They describe who they are. I remember being in Justin’s apartment once, waiting for him to get ready, so I decided to walk around each room. I wanted to explore and learn my brother’s space because I felt like I was learning more about him.
“When my kids’ dad died, I had done a lot of work to forgive him for a lot of things. I was super sad but I was also relieved. It’s been a relief ever since because we’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know now. But with my kid, always waiting for the other shoe to drop – it’s a horrible limbo to live in.”
“I had prepared myself for him to die already. I had cried it out, I was ready. I already knew what was going on. I knew if he was gonna continue down this path, there was only so much I could do. I had given up, kinda. I’d yelled at him. I’d done what I could (I thought). And I’d given up and was just waiting it out, really.”
Justin visits dad’s headstone for the first time since his passing in 2015. This is not an easy place to go for my brother and me. It’s a constant reminder of the permanence of death, the nagging questions of why and how, the never-ending wonder. Watching Justin touch dad’s grave makes me think about how real this all is, to never see, to never feel, to never touch.
A list of important phone numbers Justin wrote down at breakfast before entering himself into a rehab facility. He had to write them down because you’re not allowed a phone in rehab.
“[When I use] My ethics change, my values change, and I’m just not myself. So that’s why I’m trying to get help. And I’m just sick and tired of lying to mom and stuff. And it kills mom... I think she’s proud of me for admitting it to her.”
Mom holds the door for Justin as he enters the rehab facility. Justin has been to rehab before but this was the first time he made the decision to go on his own. He was proud of himself.
Justin shows me his tattoo, the same one my dad had in the same spot on his body. The M represents our last name, Milberger, and the A, J, and N on the crown are the initials of our family: A for Avery, my dad, J for Justin, and N for Noah.