A Sibling’s Story: Facing Their Brother’s Substance Use – We Didn’t Know What We Didn’t Know

    In the last 31 months, I have seen a quote from Maya Angelou pop up from time to time: “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” Forgiveness is an incredibly difficult process on its own, but when it comes to forgiving myself, I still haven’t been able to do it fully, and I truly wonder if I ever will.

    This stems from the fact that 31 months ago, my younger brother, Marc, passed away from a heroin overdose on November 16, 2018. He was only 29 years old. Marc struggled with substance use disorder for many years and it all began back in November 2010. A drunk driver hit Marc on the way home, and he was ejected from his vehicle. He broke his pelvis and was unable to walk for almost three months. Unfortunately, I think we’ve all heard a similar story before, so you know what comes next: he was prescribed opioids to help with the pain in that time, and when those ran out, he turned to other drugs.

    Through a concerned friend of his, I found out what had been going on. I remember feeling every feeling imaginable with a HEAVY dose of denial. Marc knows better. Marc wouldn’t do that. Marc is just going through a phase. This can’t be real…but it was very real.

    This next part is difficult for me to admit, as I may be viewed as a terrible sister, but it’s the awful truth. I don’t know how much time passed from when his friend told me of his problem to when I finally talked with Marc about it in person. I remember texting my brother very casually to check in with him. See if he would bring it up. He didn’t, and I didn’t want to press him on it. And thinking back on it, it is a huge blur of time where I took no action.

    You’ve heard of fight or flight — did you know there is a freeze too? Because freeze is another option our bodies will do in response to danger and stress, and I froze. For months. Why did I freeze? I was scared. This isn’t a topic that I felt like I could talk to anyone about because I didn’t want anyone to think badly of Marc, and I didn’t want anyone to think badly of my family.

    However, I do remember the first time my younger sister and I decided to discuss his substance use with him. At this point, he was no longer in school because he didn’t want to go anymore and was living back at home with my parents.

    He was sitting on the floor of his room. I remember the shades were closed in the middle of the day. We shut the door and sat next to him. I don’t know what verbiage we used, but we said we knew he was using drugs. We told him we want to help him and it’s ok to talk to us about it. I remember him saying, “I’m really trying to stop because I don’t want to be like this. No one wants to be like this. No one wants to be a drug addict. And I’m really trying hard and I will figure it out.”

    And as his sisters, we believed him because we didn’t know what else to do. The three of us have always had an AMAZING relationship. He was honest with us and Marc has overcome everything else so far. We were scared to push him over the edge and try to force him to do things. We didn’t realize the impact that drug use would have long term. At that point, he was a more subdued, withdrawn, quiet version of Marc, but I could still see Marc. He was functioning. At least I thought for someone who was using, he seemed to be functioning.

    After this conversation, I took a passive approach. As someone who has always been a proactive person, it pains me to go back and think of how passive I was about this. I thought I would give him time to figure things out. He knew he could talk to us, so what else could I do? However, with the information I have now, there’s just so much more I could have done.

    Marc did try treatment programs and he had long stints of recovery, but unfortunately, he would relapse, and the cycle would start again. Back then, my family and I thought the only option was “rehab” because that’s all we ever heard discussed in books and in the media. Marc would repeatedly tell us that rehab does not work for him, but we insisted that it would work and that he needed to go because it would be best for him.

    As I write this, I can hear in my head current Jaclyn screaming at past Jaclyn, “THERE ARE MULTIPLE PATHWAYS TO RECOVERY! STOP FOCUSING ON REHAB ONLY!” This is where I wish I had a DeLorean and I could go back in time to impart current Jaclyn’s knowledge on past Jaclyn.

    After Marc died, I could have chosen to never discuss SUD, addiction, heroin, anything triggering ever again. However, something in me would not let me do that. I decided to go the big, protective sister route: defend Marc, defend people like him, and make sure the memory of my brother stays alive. In that last 31 months, I have learned so many other pathways to recovery. So many things that we never knew about that he could have tried. It didn’t just have to be rehab or nothing for him like we thought.

    This sounds really simple, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We didn’t know that there were medications for addiction treatment (MAT). We didn’t know that we should have Naloxone on hand (and in a lot of places, you can get it for free). We didn’t know about peer support. We didn’t know about parent coaches. We didn’t know about the concept of harm reduction. We didn’t know how many other families have gone through this. We didn’t know that organizations like Partnership to End Addiction existed. We didn’t how many support groups were out there to help us navigate this. We didn’t know there are other people out there who are compassionate and wouldn’t judge us.

    We didn’t know all of these things because back then when searching for “addiction treatment,” results were flooded with rehab facilities. Then the task of sorting through all of those facilities is daunting, so it never really dawned on us that there are other ways we could have tried to help Marc. This is where I repeat that Maya Angelou quote to myself in my head, in hopes that it calms these feelings.

    So, current Jaclyn is here now to tell you, current reader: sometimes we are so focused on the destination that we fail to see that there are many paths to get there. We get that tunnel vision of just wanting to get our loved one to a better spot. We don’t feel we have the time to stop and really evaluate if other options exist or maybe there is a better way to approach our loved ones about their substance use.

    If you have a brother or sister going through what Marc went through, please know you are not alone in this. There are so many resources out there to help your sibling and your family through this. As much as it seems like time is running out, take the time to pause and look at all the paths available. I wish every day that I did and that Marc was still here. However, my path now is to advocate and educate in hopes that no one has to go through what we did.

    I miss you, Marc.

    By Jaclyn Brown
    July 2021