Get Out of the Chronic Rescue Rut . . .

And accept that you can't always save the people you love

I always envy those people who glide into January resolving to lose weight, quit smoking, or kick their eBay habits. These are self-inflicted vices, ones that might possibly be solved by the person suffering from them. My problem is completely beyond my control, and certainly beyond the reach of your average New Year's resolution.

My problem? My brother is a drug addict.

His chemical dependency is old news. He's been on one substance or another since he was 14. Marijuana, Ecstasy, alcohol, cocaine, crack. You name it, he's used it. He's 36 now and on meth because it's all he can afford. After two decades of drug use, he can't hold a job, so this son of two parents with master's degrees has resorted to the white-trash drug of choice.

If you can't help them, at least you can help you.
Mike Maas
If you can't help them, at least you can help you.

I always thought he would outgrow his craving for drugs. "It's a stage," I told myself. "We all experiment."

But my brother experimented himself out of the Marines, a half-dozen jobs, and a marriage. He lost his house. He has been beaten up several times by people to whom he owed money for drugs. None of it ever squelched his cravings for longer than a month or so. He once completed a 30-day in-house rehab program, and a court order once sent him to Narcotics Anonymous -- neither of which had any effect.

I saw him a few months ago when I was back home in Alabama. He looked like someone you would see on Cops: dirty, unkempt, with tattoos and piercings covering his thin body, deep lines etched on his once-handsome face, blue eyes as bleak as an empty winter sky. He looked like he was in his late 40s, not his mid-30s.

I realized, at that moment, that my brother will die from his drug addiction.

There will be no hitting bottom, no epiphany that leads him to rehab and a fresh start in life, no day when he looks back on his misspent youth and laughs sadly about lessons learned. My brother will overdose, or he will wreck his car, or he will be killed by some of the dangerous people he meets on his eternal quest to block out the world. He might even kill himself, because he radiates misery. The phone will ring one night, and it will be my mother tearily telling me he is dead. It could even be the police telling me my brother killed my parents in a meth-fueled rage before killing himself. I am preparing for the worst.

People tell me all the time that this is not my problem. They tell me my brother will get what is coming to him, as if that is some sort of comfort. "Just let it go," they tell me, in the way of people who have never known the pain an addict brings to those who love him. "Focus on your own family," they say, meaning my husband and two beautiful children.

Let it go. Easier said than done, people. I've read the self-help books about detaching oneself from the addict, about accepting the problem, about moving on. I've read books that explained my mother's co-dependency, my father's food addiction, and my own role in this train wreck of a family as the overachieving, hyper-responsible sibling and child. All the classic advice rings in my head like an advertising jingle: Learn the freedom of surrender, work the 12-Step program, yadda yadda. I know there are groups out there that help, such as Al-Anon, but this cynical agnostic has a hard time believing a Higher Power exists, much less gives a damn.

Accepting that your only brother will die from his drug addiction is slightly more difficult than cutting up your Visa card to stop your compulsive spending. It's particularly hard when you're the only person in the family facing the facts. My parents continue to pay all of my brother's bills and look the other way. My husband is as sympathetic as he's able to be, but he doesn't understand. My friends listen to my stories and then uncomfortably change the subject. Because meth addiction happens to other people -- to poor people, for God's sake -- they don't care. I feel like a lonely Cassandra, possessed by a vision of doom that everyone else is trying to ignore.

So I lie awake nights thinking about my brother, clenching my jaw in free-floating anger. I wake up with the sort of headache you get when you drink too much cheap wine.

Other times I cry.

"How did this happen?" I ask myself during those nights. My brother was a natural athlete, a gifted musician, a sensitive child who picked up the dead birds he found in our yard and buried them. How did he become so unhappy, so completely unable to deal with life? He told me once, in one of those meth-fueled rages, that he was afraid to get a job, and the words haunt me. The root of his addiction lurks in those words. He is afraid.

That's what keeps me awake. I lie there wondering, as the hours creep past, what I can do or say that will give him courage.

Yeah, I know, that's stinkin' thinkin'. I can't control him. I can't fix him. Nor can I save him, and that's the thing. All these years, I've been using my brother's rut to obscure my own. Wrapped up in his almost-certain doom, feeling so alone down here, I've denied myself any real chance to climb up and out into the fresh air.

But I'm tired of carrying this around all by myself. How many millions of sisters, brothers, parents, and kids all over America are just like me -- watching a loved one self-destruct right before their eyes? And what are they doing to rescue themselves?

Another new year, time for another resolution: It might be time to go looking for some help, somewhere.


There's much more help out there for addicts than for those hapless loved ones whom addicts make suffer. Even so, you're not alone.

Nar-Anon, a 12-Step group for people whose lives have been affected by a relative or friend's drug abuse, offers one weekly support meeting in the Phoenix metro area. It's at 11 a.m. each Saturday at the North Scottsdale Fellowship Club (7119 East Shea Boulevard; 602-222-6229; www.naranon.com).

Al-Anon, not to be confused with Alcoholics Anonymous, offers help to the family members of addicts in general, alcoholics in particular. There are dozens of weekly Al-Anon meetings around metro Phoenix. Go to www.al-anon-az.org to download a copy of the schedule, or call 602-249-1257 for meetings in Phoenix, 480-969-6144 for meetings in Mesa.

Narcotics Anonymous, which sprang several decades ago from Alcoholics Anonymous, works on the premise that addicts are best at helping other addicts recover -- by admitting there's a problem, engaging in serious self-examination, and making amends for harm done. NA doesn't offer any specific programs for family members, but visitors are welcome to come and gain insight into their loved ones' struggles from recovering addicts who are more than happy to talk. There are around a dozen NA meetings a day, seven days a week, in the Valley area. For the full schedule, call 480-897-4636 or go to www.arizona-na.org.

Center for Recovering Families (4325 North 75th Street, Scottsdale) offers one-on-one, private counseling. Call Richard Smith at 480-945-3115.

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