It is perhaps the most painful thing to realize that we are all, actually, separate people. Which means that I am just as separate from the ones I love the Most as I am from the cashier at Target or Sarah Sanders or Oprah. And with that notion of separateness comes the awful secondary realization that I cannot fix anyone but myself. I reject this, formally and for the record, even while I know it to be true. It’s pretty much opposite to how I live my life most of the time, as if everything and everyone hung in the balance of me getting an email’s wording exactly right.
Eight months ago my brother began his second round of rehab, working through the decision of whether he was willing and able to save his own life. He was in a very different place than he was during the first go-round, a bottom-er bottom this time, having lost everything – his child, his home, the financial support of his family, and (for at least a time) his freedom. Everything, pretty much, but his life. And yet, everything was still within his grasp to win back, with a lot of commitment and even more work. It was a particular and precarious intersection, and while he was standing, paused and alert, in the middle of it, surrounded by rush hour traffic, the rest of us were holding our breath with suspense and terror and hope.
This is an unknown land unless you have charted it. I think about Susan Sontag’s seminal work on Illness as Metaphor, her description of cancer as a country requiring a passport and citizenship, its language and customs foreign unless you live there. So too with addiction. Outside the borders of alcoholism and drug abuse, when someone is standing in the center of a dangerous intersection, we rush towards them and yank, tug or fireman’s carry them into safety, no questions asked. But in this country, that is usually enabling and not only unhelpful, but probably also harmful. It’s a land of obsession and compulsion, where as soon as you lift your eyes to the Thing consuming your friend or beloved – the drink, the pill, the whatever, you too get sick and can’t look away. You endlessly discuss its evils with girlfriends over lunch, examine your own relationship with the vice, scan your loved ones’ pupils for signs, count drinks, read the tea leaves everywhere. Essentially, you go crazy. It is a mountain that looms over the landscape, and so even in your earnestness to HANDLE IT and HELP – to discuss moderation, abstinence, keeping track – you too are becoming just as sick, just as myopic in your tunnel vison.
The worst part about inhabiting this land are the fun house mirrors at every turn, the dishonesty and half-honesty and omission of honesty, all designed to keep you doubting, not trusting the distorted, wavy reflection of what is right in front of you. Outside this country, you might just ask someone, “Hey, I’m worried. What’s going on?” and expect to hear an answer and then have a conversation. Inside the boundaries to this territory, you ask questions that are often turned against you, “Why are you always on my case?”, or that try to get you to notice a squirrel instead, “You don’t really love me,” or questions that force you to doubt yourself, “This is really about you and your control issues.”
The only thing that breaks the spell and helicopters you out of there is remembering you are a separate person, responsible only and singularly for yourself.
And to be sure, this upside-down land is far, far worse for the ones in the throes of the addiction. For them, it is truly Hell and yet, perversely, they have to keep the hell intact, keep the façade propped up in order to survive. Or so the thinking goes. The truly tragic thing is that the rest of us, who love them so, must evacuate this country on the last flight out without first knowing what their thinking is or what will happen. We rip ourselves away, impossibly detaching and breaching our deepest belief systems like “family first” or marriage vows or what parents promise their children in order to save ourselves. We tear ourselves away with the desperate hope it might help save them too, knowing nothing else we do will. (We know that because we immigrated here by way of so much pain and denial and lies and illusions of control). But we leave the island, with no idea of whether they might follow.
This is radical! This is totally different than the bedsides of our sick loved ones in all other countries, all other illnesses. Can you imagine — your husband is diagnosed with ALS and you say, “I love you and I want you to get well and I know that best hope you have is for me to get out of your way. I’ll be at my sister’s in Florida.” That would be nuts! Criminal! And yet, with this disease, in this country, this is what we must do. Both because that statement is true, the only chance anyone has is on their own two feet – and because we have traveled to the brink and realized the only life we can save is our own.
Sometimes our being airlifted out does provide the right trigger for our loved one to get well. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, we rip out our own hearts and leave, walking across parking lots, out of living rooms, down apartment staircases, through rehab hospital corridors, blind with pain and heartsick with unknowing. For some of us, leaving looks like walking into the next room and picking up a book. We leave not just to save ourselves but because we love this person enough to get out of their way, to let them make their own decisions without trying to engineer the solutions for them, (which didn’t work the first 27 times we tried it, anyway).
Some of us have also learned that we can love a lot better when we are not our well-meaning, obsessive, list-making, eye-twitching controlling selves.
Six months ago, just after I expatriated, I only heard a quiet static coming from my brother’s country. I was terrified. Will he or won’t he? I didn’t know and no longer had a passport to get nosy and find out. I watched the clock and the calendar and went mad with suspense and anxiety. My dentist office called to schedule my next appointment six months out and I thought – “In six months, will he be homeless? Or dead? Or will he be in recovery?” Then I would remember my own sickness, my own obsession with his mountain and need to fix his life, and I would make my appointment and mind my own business and try to get back to work. This happened over and over. This constant need to remind myself there is so much I can’t know, because I am, actually, a separate person.
Occasionally little messages of hope came through. He completed his program and found a place to live. He quietly reported he was more determined than ever. He said he knows that words no longer matter, only actions.
I would breathe a little and plan a month or two out, trying to live my own life.
Back when I was 30 a good friend from college died of anorexia. While we all knew how sick Seth was, his death was shocking nonetheless because of his vibrancy, his brilliant and curious mind and expansive heart. So many of us showed up at his funeral with a mixed bag of emotion: bewilderment, pain, even anger. His sister gave his eulogy and I remember how her own anger felt like something I could touch from the pew. The priest stood up after she spoke and delivered a homily so comforting to the hurt and confusion of losing a friend to a disease that seemed controllable, something preventable and avoidable. He looked out at all our stricken faces and said, “None of us can know what Seth’s conversations with his God were about at 3am.”
I breathed through the fall and winter, aware that I knew nothing of what my brother’s 3am conversations with his God were about – nor could I presume to. I knew a bit of how bad he felt, I knew he loved his son above everything else in this world, I knew he was working hard and the grip this beast had on him called everything into question, but that he seemed to be reckoning with it. In his own way, at his own pace. I knew, slowly and with growing assurance, that it had nothing to do with me.
Steven, my husband, is nearly 6 years in recovery, after his first 7-year stint at white-knuckling sobriety. Fortunately, his Recovery Part Deux is a strong one. Yet we live every day understanding the reality of this disease: that there is no remission, that any day could quickly mean deportation back to that country if he doesn’t walk his path, work his own program. It would be terrifying to know I could be deported back to that place with him, with its magnetic mountain and forest of fun-house mirrors. But thank Buddha, I don’t have to be – singularly because I now know I am separate person. That as much as love my husband, I would also be okay without him, if I absolutely had to. Similarly, this time around, Steven is not investing in his sobriety and recovery for me and the kids – he is doing it for himself. We are both stronger and happier in our union for knowing where the other person ends and we each begin.
The same is true for my brother, who in the past couple of months has become my hero through his quiet persistence in reliably showing up. He offered his amends recently and said, “I don’t trust my thinking back then, I just know I’m sorry.” He shows up at my house with chicken to cook or comic books for the kids. When he leaves, I watch from the window as he walks to his car, my heart all but busting out of my chest as he puts the roasting pans or comic book box in his trunk and then turns on the ignition in the twilight. This is love; this is trying. He is mine; he is separate. The realization has both saved my life and flung open wide how much more I can love.