If a Loved One Is Struggling With Drug Addiction, Is it Wrong to Cut Ties?
"I have one sibling. Except, at the moment, it feels more like I’m an only child. My younger brother isn’t my brother anymore."
Illustration by Ashley Goodall
This article is part of High Season, VICE's newest series breaking down all the ways Australia's drugs laws are broken. Read the rest here.
I never thought I’d have to call the police on my own brother. Recently though, uniforms and statement pads and the divvy van I’ve seen him crawl into screaming and spitting have become all too familiar.
Looking back, it’s difficult to pinpoint where experimentation with drugs morphed into something more sinister. The escalation in the last year has been rapid, but I would hazard a guess it started some time back in 2010. He was in Year Eleven, and had moved on from the school we both went to after an altercation with another student over a tiny bit of money, or a tiny bit of weed, or perhaps both.
If I’ve learned anything from my mum’s career in drug education, it’s that punishing a student severely for drug possession does more harm than good. The fact our mum works in drug education is an irony not lost on any of us, least of all her. But profession has nothing to do with it, when it comes to family. My parents, particularly my mum, grapple constantly with what they know is the right thing to do in the long run, while trying to keep a hold of the son they once had.
But he’s been slipping away for a while.
There was the time, shortly after his 18th birthday, when my brother was arrested for supply of an illicit substance. He went uncharged—a privilege not all young people in our community receive and a result of my mother’s knowledge of the system—and was ordered to complete community service. For a while, things seemed to get better. He got a job he enjoyed, and was a participating member of our family and wider community.
But then he got bored and wanted to move onto something else, I guess.
That’s what he does. He has always been impulsive, throwing himself excessively into something for a burst of time, before eventually giving it away. But ice doesn’t really work the same way as painting or martial arts or learning a musical instrument or any number of his former passions do. Not when you’re using it at such a high frequency that you develop a dependency. Eventually, that dependency can make itself known through weight loss, intense paranoia, memory problems, and particularly alarming aggressive and violent behaviour.
Growing up though, my brother's personality complimented mine, and vice versa. When he was born—after the initial shock that not all of my parents’ attention was for me—I realised being a big sister and having someone else to look out for and show the world to suited me. As it turned out, being a younger brother suited him much the same way. We became a cheeky, inseparable duo for the first few years of our lives together. We wanted for very little. Our parents weren’t exactly wealthy but they made things work. There's a photo pinned up at my mum's desk at work from my first day of primary school, when my brother climbed into the bag and insisted he was coming with me.
But when he did finally join me at school, it quickly became clear he didn't like it as much as I did. I remember one day when he was in prep and I was in grade three, a boy in my year started picking on him, pushing him around one day at play lunch. I saw it from across the playground and, as was my duty as an older sister, jumped down from the monkey bars and marched right over to give the bully a piece of my mind. Things didn’t quite go according to plan. Before I knew it, I was wrapped up in a pretty vicious two-person brawl in the dirt behind the portables. That’s just how I’ve always been—quick to defend and stubbornly support those I care about. Most of all my brother. Sometimes, as it’s been pointed out to me, that can be to fault.
Perhaps that’s why it took me years to get to where I am now. Coming to terms with the need to step away from my brother—the person I’m most inclined to want to help—to preserve my own mental and emotional wellbeing. It has been a long process. Everything I’ve read (and I have read a lot, because this is unfortunately not an uncommon situation) save for one article focuses on how to best support a sibling through addiction with a view to recovery. There's no guidance for knowing when you need to step away.
The problem is not every addict wants to recover. Regardless of the number of times they end up in hospital, or in the back of a police van, or in front of a magistrate.
For a long time, I wanted to believe giving my brother enough love and support was the solution. But when trying to help is just enabling their behaviour—I don’t mean drug use, necessarily, but rather the continued mistreatment of those around them as a result—it becomes clear that nothing will change no matter how supportive you are. It wears you down. It’s worn me and my parents down. They have become tired, sunken versions of themselves.
Often when reading about drug addiction, especially in relation to the impact on family, you come across one of two perspectives. Recovery from substance abuse, or resignation to a very final loss, usually death. Being stuck somewhere between those two places and totally unsure of which outcome you’ll be left with can be overwhelming, alarming, and confusing. I am in my mid-20s and I have one sibling. Except at the moment, it feels more like I’m an only child. My younger brother isn’t my brother anymore.
I haven't seen my real brother in months; in fact, I would go so far as to say years. The person who climbed through my dining room window one recent morning as I was getting ready for work, and refused to leave until I phoned the police, he is not my brother. My brother is observant, opinionated, bright, and unapologetic. But aside from the unapologetic part, the person in my dining room is so far removed from the one I grew up with that I can’t begin to describe him. Even his skin looks sick. Not recognising a person you once knew like the back of your own hand is scary. Even scarier is not knowing if you ever will again.
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This article originally appeared on VICE AU.