THE GREATER THE RISK

WRITTEN BY JENNIE BURKE
Jennie Burke writes about family life, teaching and addiction, in addition to features for local magazines. Jennie holds a BA in Education and English from Boston College and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Jennie is proud to be a writer based in Annapolis, Maryland, where she lives with her spouse of 23 years, their four teenaged children, their rescue dog and their friends. She is honored to have her work on addiction featured in ENDPAIN.
Photos By William Nein
William Nein is a London-based songwriter, documenting the world around him through music, writing and photography.

You can listen to William's albums here: https://williamnein.bandcamp.com
The Greater the Risk

This essay is part of our exploration into the theme of Addiction. Check back all August and September for more stories on the theme.

My brother invited me only once to visit him in rehab. It was a sunny December Sunday, in the second week of the first stint; the hopeful dawn of the yawning years he hopscotched from institution to institution. During that visit, he told funny stories about the chemical-fueled misdeeds of his fellow patients. This disclosure made me uneasy—weren’t these friends and experiences supposed to be anonymous? Stuart assured me that it was fine.

He also said that the first thing to come back in sobriety is the sense of humor. Recovered addicts, he said, were the funniest people around. Tears of laughter rolled from the corners of his eyes, renewed and glittering, down his ruddy cheeks and into the soft down of his strawberry beard. He doubled over, cackling, and tried to tell about a friend, a patient who had been taking 17 Xanax a day when his family brought him in. The friend was so far gone upon arrival that he didn’t remember the first half of his 28-day stay. Stuart could barely breathe as he gasped “the doctor told him to take one whenever he felt nervous!” I laughed along, like a lie. Like false communion. I felt fear, that there were fathers and mothers out there driving carpool and hosting sleepovers on 17 Xanax a day. What anonymous addicts might be part of my community, and who was hiding them? I felt strange relief too. My brother had a tribe that found humor in this variety of despair. He had company.

I, however, did not. Stuart’s sobriety was short lived. I shared the personal pain of my brother’s illness with no one. I sounded the suspicion alarm to my parents, but they were wrestling another demon. My father was terminally ill. Their energy was stolen by the doom of failing lungs; the swift-nearing finish line of their short half-century together. Stuart’s substance abuse was a source of frustration and shame to them. The responsibility of attempting the impossible—to make him want recovery—fell on me. Naturally, I failed in this. He moved on to opiates. My family grew to resent my inconvenient insistence on intervening in his life. Stuart’s wife stopped speaking to me when I asked her to please attend the final family weekend at rehab, instead of going to a weekend yoga class. My parents said that the problem was me: I held impossibly high standards for Stuart. Our estranged brother, the one that moved away from our madness, mentioned how ashamed he was to know someone like me when I finally told my parents that I could no longer be around our brother when he was using. Even my compassionate husband asked me to seek out a therapist, since Stuart’s addiction was taking over my life. (I did, and it helped.)

THE ADDICTION WOULD BRING SHAME TO OUR FAMILY AND WRECK THE GOOD THINGS THAT MY PARENTS HAD WORKED SO HARD TO BUILD. TO SHARE MY PAIN, OR EVEN WORSE, STUART’S ADDICTION, WOULD MAKE ME A FAMILIAL TRAITOR.

Yet in all of this, I insisted on demanding that my brother pursue recovery, with the hope that he might become sober. I feared he could hurt someone while under the influence, and that whatever fearful thing might happen would somehow be my fault too, since I knew he was using drugs. I feared his imminent death. Or, worse, that his children might find him dead. And I felt the squeeze of our societal pressure to say nothing of this. The addiction would bring shame to our family and wreck the good things that my parents had worked so hard to build. To share my pain, or even worse, Stuart’s addiction, would make me a familial traitor. I was screwed tight in an impossible vice.

In the decade that this drama smothered me, I was beginning a writing career. I wrote mostly about what I knew: teaching, mothering, health, home and military life. I was a student in an MFA program. My hope was to compile my essays into a parenting book. I brought the essays to workshop, along with another essay, a shitty one, just to juxtapose. It was about my life as the sister of an addict. I hoped that my peers would recognize it for what it was: a puke-draft. A cathartic binge. Fodder. I begged them to keep my work under wraps and tell no one about it. I felt afraid until the stack of marked-up essays was back in my safe-keeping at our workshop the next day.

After compassionate study, my classmates encouraged me to ditch the Mom Blog stuff. They were disinterested. If you can, you gotta write about the brother, they agreed. My mentor, a bright, friendly, no-nonsense, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist spoke last. There would be greater risk if I examined the crucible of addiction pain. “The greater the risk, the greater the reward,” she said. Like a promise. And she knew. She had written about her family too.

I accepted the workshop wisdom, but not without trying to appease denial’s pull one last time. Instead of writing about my pain, instead of owning it, I decided to generalize through researching the attitudes of Baby Boomers on modern-day addiction. I could address what happened in my family, without sharing the shame, and certainly without acknowledging my personal pain.

That tactic didn’t work. My anger and grief continued to erupt through the research. There was restraint and insecurity in my voice, as I tried to hide that I was writing from personal experience. I worked for six months in this way, when another mentor recommended over lunch that I put my book aside. Instead, she suggested I write her a letter.

“Just tell me what happened,” she stated, stabbing at a mound of salad on a plastic plate. It was a slow eureka! kind of moment that unfolded in that minute. It’s still burned in my mind, three years later, the simplicity of it, sitting there, frozen in reverence for this kind of connection in the beehive of a college cafeteria at midday. What happened?

I wrote to my mentor over the course of a week, beginning with my brother’s recreational teenaged drug use, and ending with the frustration, anger and sorrow that our family endured as he snuck around, maintaining inexplicable highs, in the final weeks of my father’s life. In writing to my mentor, the seeds of a green gift gently pushed through the arid gravel of my mind. A topic. A place of expertise, if I dared to go there: myself. I didn’t have to tell the story of what happened to my brother. But I could share what happened to me, as a sister, as a daughter. I could dissect the many facets of alienation, insecurity and rejection that I burdened and caused in trying to force sobriety on my brother. The pain that I faced alone, because I was groomed in the ways of saying nothing.

Writing about this time in my life was not easy, and the purpose was not catharsis. It was to participate in the tradition of writers, who have dared, through exposure and self-implication, to keep their readers company in pain. There’s a sibling of an addict that needs my experience. I can save someone the trouble. There are parents that might gain the courage to intervene in their child’s downfall. Or to walk away. My readers will feel less alone when they dignify their own life stories through mine. I am reminded of the writer’s obligation to history and humanity every time that I read a brave, honest memoir. The experience of the family in the opiate age deserves to be documented. I did enough. I am enough.

Another unexpected gift came to me in the two years that I wrote the manuscript: my family supported me. My sister-in-law helped me remember dates and places over long, wondering conversations on the telephone. In communicating with her, I found understanding where I once laid blame. The yoga, for example, saved her. It was her only escape from fear, anxiety and loss of control. I shared my pain with my brother (the one who was ashamed of me) when we found the courage to talk about our separate lives, and our shared experience as our brother’s siblings. He apologized to me. His grace opened the door for me to offer some long overdue apologies to him. I had been scared to do that. He appreciated it, and said that it was all in the past. We forgave each other. My mother and my husband encouraged me as I wrote, even though they knew I was writing about them. Their support was an act of faith—that I would get it right. That something good might come to someone through this. I think they wanted the something good to be peace for me. For their brave devotion, I felt even more compelled to get the story true. To deconstruct my own actions with the same scrutiny that I examined everyone else, as we orbited solitary and fitful around one addict. How can I explain my gratitude for my family that loved me and granted me permission to write about their mistakes and their pain? I can only say that they too have set me free. They too have made their contribution to my record of the opiate experience.

I WISH THAT THIS KNOWLEDGE WAS NOT A BYPRODUCT OF HIS STRUGGLE, OR THE SUFFERING OF OUR FAMILY, BUT IT IS. LAUGHING FEELS BETTER NOW THAN IT DID BEFORE ANY OF THIS HAPPENED.

When I completed the manuscript, I shared it with trusted colleagues, and turned it in as my master’s thesis. Currently I am pursuing direction from other writers and professionals in the industry. One reader acknowledged the loneliness of my experience. I had a life filled with friends and family, and yes, I was absolutely alone. Now that time is over. The laughter, which came back so easily to my brother in those early rehab years, has finally come back to me. It doesn’t take much to get me going, either. After profound isolation and pain, the renewed ability to laugh is even sweeter. I hold sacred gratitude for all that I see and know standing opposite the abyss of my brother’s addiction. I wish that this knowledge was not a byproduct of his struggle, or the suffering of our family, but it is. Laughing feels better now than it did before any of this happened.

It’s a privilege to arrive in the place of telling, with confidence and faith, a shameful story. The head and heart wrestle for a good, long time over the paradoxical dilemma of tip-toeing around addiction’s swallowed truths. This isn’t good for anyone. It prolongs the despair. I hope that my brother, and all people suffering from addiction, and all siblings that love them, will feel embraced if they choose to set their lonely stories free.

Just tell us what happened.

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