Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Finalist Essay: Charlie Lockyer

Charlie Lockyer's entry for the My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest was unique among the 10 finalists. Why is that? Because not only has she has been affected by her older brother's addiction and her mother's addiction, she has faced addiction herself.

Charlie is a brave young woman who is studying psychology at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I am thrilled to share her incredibly brave and honest essay with you.


Breaking the Circle

By Charlie Lockyer

Andrew has always been THAT guy. The one you want to be with. Good looking, funny and surrounded by friends. Pushing everything to the limit and rarely getting caught. He is six years older than me, and when I was growing up he was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. He was also my protector from life with an alcoholic mother. She was verbally, physically and mentally abusive and he was the buffer between real harm and the quiet of my family's own dysfunctional kind of normal.

In the final years of our Mom's drinking, Andrew began to steal her booze. I learned that he would sell the booze, and use that money to buy weed. In my eyes this impressed me even more. It was a cunning business venture and the adults had absolutely no idea. When our Mom finally entered recovery, our world began to change. My parents' eyes were opened to the three of us wild children, and a budding business died. Even though he was put out of business, Andrew continued to be wildly popular and continued to use a variety of drugs. I grew up to be almost exactly the opposite, even though I desperately wanted to be like him. My idolization of him eventually led me to my own downfall.

In every branch of my family tree, and perhaps even down into the roots, there is addiction. It is simply how our brains seem to be wired, so to speak. When the concept that my siblings and I might have a greater likelihood of having addiction issues, we all reacted in different ways to that knowledge. My younger brother completely accepted it, and has the foresight, even at 16, to want a life free from mind-altering substances. I was neutral, and while I had an intellectual understanding of what I was being told about my chances of developing a problem with substance misuse, it wasn't resonating emotionally. I was working on my anger and PTSD in therapy, but was still too confused to really listen or care, and the need to feel connected to my peers was so strong. Andrew, however, denied the possibility that addiction could be genetic flat out. In order to repair our familial connections, we all went to therapy as a family, but Andrew refused to participate, driving himself away from us rather than forgive and learn to move on from our broken pasts. He seemed to let it fester.

Andrew's thirst for adventure and need for excitement led to him join the military by the time I was in high school, and I was desperate to follow. There, too, he was still Mr. Popularity. I struggled in high school and was not so well liked. I was awkward because I was trying to be someone I wasn't. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I had few friends, and I couldn't figure out why I just didn't fit anywhere. I looked at the differences between my older brother and I, and found a key. I didn't touch drugs. I didn't go out of my way to avoid them; I just never took up people's offers. Andrew would come home and tell us all about his adventures on and off base. More and more often, these adventures became centered on his bar crawls, his drunken antics and sneaking drugs that would be undetectable on drug screens. I feared for his job and his life. He flew planes, shot guns and was in uniform. I was also enchanted by it all. It became glamorous, death defying and he was always the center of it everything. The drugs and alcohol were main characters--a central theme. None of it would be possible without that fuel. It was the adventure and glamour I wanted--but also the way he fit in anywhere, with anyone. After Andrew left the service, he continued, this time on the rave and festival circuit, with X--sometimes real and sometimes synthetic. The raves look incredibly fun, and the different music festivals he posts about on Facebook and Instagram look like such a great time. He presents as happy, like he is living life however he wants it--as if he is in control of it all. I wanted that more than anything! But it’s an illusion, like all of those pictures. I only saw what I wanted to see.

My Mom received a phone call one day. My siblings and I had a very complicated relationship with my Mom--she was an active alcoholic during most of our childhood, and has now been in recovery and has been sober for more than eight years. It was Andrew, admitting that he had a drinking problem and that it was out of control. He was going to start going to meetings and getting help. I didn't really think too much about it, until a month later, when he was back to raving and bar hopping. I asked him about it, and he told me that he isn't an addict--it isn't possible for him to be an alcoholic. He told me that addiction is in no way genetic, he had overreacted, it was under control and he had taken a break and it was all good. No problem. Looking back on my own experiences, he is wrong.

My life was great--I had gotten into a college I believe to be prestigious, and that was a perfect fit for me. The school was heaven, and I loved it. I was away from my family for the first time, and I wanted the kind of friends my brother had. Andrew's voice got louder than what I learned from my Mom's recovery. After years of being on the sidelines and winning dodge ball games in gym simply because nobody noticed me, I found somewhere I could start over and be just like him--be popular and cool. So when my friends partied, I partied too. I began drinking socially and smoking pot. For a month or so, my life was well balanced. My studies and my partying didn't impact each other. As the semester ground on, my drinking became uncontrollable. In a very short time, I was beginning to lose control over my life. Alcohol became my higher power--when I felt any negative emotion, my automatic thought was that I needed a drink. When I was happy, I wanted to celebrate by drinking. My older brother made it all seem normal, that I was just being a college student, that it wasn’t a problem at all. But the path that I was on led me into a dark place--I nearly lost my place in the freshman class, as well as the few friends I made. My grades slipped, and I was losing everything I loved. Within four months of me first raising a bottle to my mouth, I was drinking every day, smoking weed any time I could get my hands on it, and it was escalating fast and destroying my life. The smallest tension became a huge argument and lead to explosive confrontation. Who was I? Many members of our family struggle with addiction, but nothing impacted me like my brother's use. He continues to make that life look glamorous, but now I know better. Alcohol and drugs are not going to win me friends or fill up any empty spaces in my life. It took nearly ruining my own life to realize that Andrew isn't right about a family connection and substance abuse disorder, and I had to nearly destroy my life to see just how the four generations before me prove us both wrong.

I still love and adore my older brother. He is brilliant, funny and THAT guy--even clean. Especially when clean. He was my hero, my protector, and he was exactly who I wanted to be. I no longer idolize him, or want to follow in his footsteps. I am so afraid that he will use some combination of booze and synthetic drug and he will react badly to it and die. That is one of my worst fears. He still has not let go of his anger from our pasts, and refuses to seek treatment for his PTSD. He uses to mask his feelings with others but with his family he rages. He drinks to the point of blackout every time. He has driven wedges between himself and all of us, even though we love and accept him for who he is. He has separated himself from us, much like our Mom often tried to separate from the family in our younger years. This brings back awful memories for me, my own PTSD. He and I no longer have a relationship, because I cannot build a bridge without a foundation. I miss him, and love him dearly, but his addiction and his refusal to get help has created a chasm between us. He seems to walk down the path our Mom took, and that is the circle of addiction that I want to help people break free from.

Today, I have found myself again. I am in early recovery, and am working on bettering myself as well as my life. I am coming to terms with the consequences of my downward spiral, and accepting them with as much grace as I possibly can. I am still attending my dream college, however my major has changed, and my life plan has as well. I began to form a new plan with a new dream. I am now majoring in Psychology, with plans to work with addicts, and the families of addicts. I want to help families like mine, ravaged by addiction issues, because I understand them personally. I know what it is like to be the child of an addict, and to be the sibling of an addict. I want to work with people with substance use disorders because I know what it is like live with one. While in college I will be advocating for sober living environments. My dream is to help people who are affected by the disease of addiction, fight stigma and get on with the business of living. I want to be THAT woman but for all the right reasons. The first president of the school that I attend said in his final commencement speech, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." I am not going to be ashamed. Not of who I am, of my addiction, of my family--as long as I am present in my life and do my best I will have won.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Finalist Essay: Taylor Suarez

As I continue to share the essays from the 10 finalists in the My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest, I have to say it again: The young people who entered this contest and poured their hearts and souls out into their essays are truly amazing--and then some. I know how much my son's addiction affected me as a parent, and I know the ripple effect of addiction means that it touches everyone in the family. My hope is that these essays have given a voice to the siblings, who are frequently unintentionally forgotten in the midst of a family's chaos.

Today's finalist essay comes from Taylor Suarez of Gretna, Louisiana. He attends the University of New Orleans and is studying computer science.


My Experience of My Brother’s Opiate Addiction

By Taylor Suarez

My parents really wanted me to give this essay a shot, though I'd really prefer not to write about it. My brother is seven years older than me, and we both live with my parents. About five or six years ago (it's hard to remember when this all started happening) my brother began getting involved with some not-so-good people, and subsequently spiraled downward in a haze of drugs and crime. For the next two or three years, my parents began noticing severe behavioral shifts in my brother's personality. It wasn't really until three years ago, when he nodded off at a family dinner (fork in-hand) that everyone really began to get the idea about what was happening. All the slurred speech and naps started making sense. My brother had become addicted to hydrocodone, or Oxycontin, or whatever opiate he could get his hands on (not heroin). My parents noticed that the pills prescribed to my brother after his shoulder surgery had already been used up, even though it was just a couple days after his surgery, when the prescription was for a month's worth of pain meds. There was lots of questioning, fighting, and blaming going around the family. Who held the fault for his addiction, and what could my parents do to stop it? This was probably the worst part. For the next two years my brother would be in and out of rehab, constantly relapsing, always lying, stealing, but through all this my parents only saw one thing: their child was in a life-threatening situation and they needed to try their very best to remedy it.

The way this affected me was negligible, or at least I felt that way. I'm the youngest of three sons, my two brothers being nine and seven years older. By the time I graduated from high school, they were out with real jobs and houses. My oldest brother graduated from college and started a family (accidentally, another fairly tumultuous ordeal), but my other brother dropped out of college after losing his baseball scholarship due to his aforementioned shoulder injury and began working menial jobs with his friends. After his addiction was in full swing, he could no longer afford living on his own, and moved back into my parents' house, which is where I was currently living with my girlfriend. Him moving back home brought a whole onslaught of drama, and my girlfriend and I would do our absolute best to stay out of everything. Being seven years apart, my brother and I were never as close as some might expect, so I thought it would be easy to distance myself from his bad decisions and just tolerate all of the screaming and crying that he would exchange with my parents. My room and his room were right across the hall from each other, so I always got a front-row seat when my parents approached him about his drug use.

This affected my parents terribly, as I'm sure you could imagine. They were the ones who I really felt sorry for at this time. My parents don't always make the best decisions, but what they want the most out of this life is for their kids to be healthy and happy. This drug saga destroyed them. My dad, a very large Cuban man and a former police officer of 25 years, became a shell of himself. He was always small-tempered, but all of his emotional walls were broken down in the wake of my brother's addiction. My mother would always assume the worst. She would talk to me of nightmares where she walked into his room and found him overdosed, blue and bloated, sitting in the chair that he would always nod off in. My parents lost contact with all of their friends, as the only thing they would think about would be how their son is on drugs. Every resource of attention they had was dedicated to my brother; I, understandably, fell by the wayside.

Ironically, this addiction brought us together. My brother, who I never made an effort to associate with, began taking up a lot of space in my thoughts. I would talk with my girlfriend about how much I started to worry for him. Through his addiction, I began to realize that I loved my brother and that I couldn't let him kill himself with his abuse. I started talking to him, and it seemed to show progress. I would tell him that if he needed anyone to talk to that he could come to me and I would always help him. When he would have a falling-out with my parents (they had many falling-outs) I would talk to him and try to reason with him. He would always confide in me, or so I thought.

It's a curious thing when you find out that someone lies to you. My brother would promise me that he wouldn't be doing drugs any longer, but his promises always fell through, and with each lie I could feel a little bit of my love for my brother chip away. I began to hate him for all the turmoil that he would put us through. He started stealing indiscriminately from my parents and me. Who knows how many thousands of dollars' worth of possessions were stolen and pawned in order to supplement my brother's addiction. At this point, with no job and being forced to resort to stealing, my brother could no longer support his pill-popping ways, and he was forced to turn to what I can only imagine would be a parent’s worst nightmare: heroin. I remember finding his "kit" in the bathroom, cleverly hidden in a shaving bag. With great sadness, I felt forced to tell my parents that my brother had crossed that line that they were hoping they could avoid.

Along with stealing, my brother also took money in another way.  My parents, being borderline "well-off" money wise, dumped thousands upon thousands of dollars into fixing my brother. They bought him multiple rehab stays, psychologists, therapy, and, when they became maddeningly desperate, even an out-of-country ibogaine cycle (people seriously believe that stuff works; I for one condemn these snake-oil salesmen who prey on people looking for help for their loved ones). All the while, my girlfriend and I stayed in my room, being audience to the drama that had been playing out across the hall for the last two years.

Finally, a few months ago, my brother made the decision to join the National Guard. I'm not a military kind of guy, but I was glad to see him leave and start a new chapter in his life. Upon his leaving he was still in the throes of addiction, but he's been gone for months now so hopefully it's out of his system. Most of all, my parents and I (and my girlfriend) have gotten a much needed break. Our sanity has begun to heal, but we can't help but notice the scars we have. I don't blame my parents for "neglecting" me when everything was happening, their actions were understandable. But I couldn’t help but wonder if their unrelenting drive to help my brother was ultimately causing him even more harm. This is a question that I'm afraid I'll never be able to answer.

I dropped out of college while all this was happening, and I have since returned for the Spring 2014 semester and have made significant progress toward my degree. I'm looking forward to a future career in computer science, and I often think about making something that could help people who are in the situation that my parents and I found ourselves in just a few years ago. I do my best not to think about how I felt just a year ago, but I know I'll never forget it. I feel for anyone who has to go through any sort of similar situation. It's not fun watching someone you love slowly wither themselves away, and sometimes the end isn't a good one. Luckily, my brother seems to be on the right track, but I still worry about him sometimes. Hopefully this will be a moment that he can look back on in 20 years and see how far he's come since he was at his lowest.


Taylor Suarez

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Finalist Essay: Kaitlyn Taylor

Kaitlyn Taylor of Orangeburg, New York, was one of the 10 finalists in the My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest. Her essay talks about her big brother Colin's addiction, and how it impacted her. Katilyn attends Dominican College in Orangeburg. I'm happy to share her writing with you.

Overshadowed

By Kaitlyn Taylor

My big brother, Colin, has always been my hero and my protector. We had a lot to deal with growing up with a verbally abusive alcoholic father, but Colin was always there for me. When an issue would arise at home, he always wanted to shelter me from the fighting and yelling because I was his little sister. Even when I was at school, being a quiet, shy, and insecure girl, I felt a little safer knowing Colin was in the same building. As we got older, the issues at home escalated and Colin found himself needing his own escape from the chaos.

When we were in high school he began using marijuana. The abuse at home became more than Colin could handle and more often than not would escalate to physical altercations with my father in order protect my mom and myself. Colin began slipping further into his addiction. Marijuana was simply not enough anymore and he began searching for an even greater high, which he found in cocaine. In my eyes he was still my amazing big brother, but I hated when he was under the influence. When a fight would occur, I would beg him to stop fighting with my father and it was like a clearing of clouds after a terrible storm in his eyes. He had a weak spot for me in his heart like I had one for him.

In a few short years his abusive relationship with drugs escalated very quickly. He began to steal from our family to support his habit. He could no longer maintain a job and would often go missing for days at a time. We would not hear from him during those missing days and always expected the worst. My mom vented to me, her only escape, and I felt the pressure of not only wanting and needing to fix my brother, but also to be there for my mother. It soon became apparent that I was better at handling these situations than my mother was, so I felt I had to be strong for both of us. I did not understand why when I begged Colin to stop I no longer saw clarity in his eyes but rather a frightening emptiness. I remember going to a wake for a friend’s brother who had passed away from an overdose and seeing my brother in the casket. My friend said to me, "We knew this was how he was going to die, we just didn’t know when it would be." Those words still haunt me to this day. Nobody should have to feel that way, yet I understood what she meant all too well.

Colin began getting more physical with my father as his habits continued to get worse. He started adding pills to the mix and it was not long before he was snorting and injecting heroin. He had moments when I thought he hit rock bottom and was willing to go to detox and rehab, but this became a cycle when he felt he had no other options. He always used again and I began to feel helpless. There were many nights with minimal sleep because I had to drive him to hospitals to detox, and I began missing work because I had to drive him to rehab each time he decided to go back after leaving.  If I wasn’t driving him, my mom wanted me to come because she needed the support.

I realized his rock bottom was a lot lower than most other people's when he began to steal from my grandmother. Around this time I was away getting my undergraduate degree. When I came home for breaks he would ask me if I wanted to go visit our grandma, who had severe Alzheimer's at the time. I was thrilled with this idea and hoped seeing her would give him some reason to stop using. Once we arrived at her house he would always need to use the bathroom, and it was not long before I caught him with our grandmother's jewelry to sell to support his ongoing habit. When I returned home for the summer, my mother told me my grandma was dying and plans were being made to bring her home on hospice. My mother also told me that Colin had continued stealing checks from our dying grandmother’s checkbook and that he had also stolen $7,000 from me. I wanted nothing more than to break down, but I had to stay strong for mom who was losing her mother and had to deal with her drug addicted son and alcoholic husband. The day my grandmother died, I watched Colin sneak into the refrigerator to steal the morphine provided to my grandmother. I could not tell my mother and add more to her plate, so I took it upon myself to watch him.

For years I was conflicted with feelings of anger and resentment toward my brother but ultimately I loved him.  I went through periods of not talking to him and then forgiving him as he went through his cycle of using and getting clean. I knew it upset my mother when I would ignore him, so I would suck it up and forgive him.  I told him as long as he was clean he was forgiven for stealing all of my savings. When Colin started using heavily, I felt added pressure to be the stable child. I matured much sooner than most people my age. I could not understand when I would beg my mom to take action against my brother for stealing from all of us and she would simply reply with, "I can't he's my son." I could not comprehend this; was I not also her daughter? Could she not see what this was doing to me? My feelings and needs were pushed to the side and that hurt the most.

I don't know if it's part of his addiction or that he’s just a terrible person, but he picks on my mother's insecurities. He tells her if she kicks him out he will end up dead in a ditch. He calls her fat, and miserable, then tells her that she is a horrible mother. I have stopped asking her to force responsibility on him because of how he yells at her and treats her. I only asked her to because I know how much she does for him and that she does not deserve to be treated this way.  My mother says she is a prisoner in her own home and I feel the same way. I am stuck at home because I can barely afford school so I definitely cannot afford my own place. My entire family, including my father who has been sober for 2 years, has to walk on eggshells around my brother. I do my best to cheer my mother up when Colin treats her so poorly, but she feels such immense guilt and responsibility for the person he has become that anything I do or say hardly makes a difference. Through my attempt to understand addiction, I have read that a person stops maturing at the age they start using, therefore, my 26-year-old brother is still mentally 19. All he has to do is yell, throw a fit, and break some things in the house and nobody wants to deal with him. He knows that we will always love him no matter what, and he takes advantage of that.

I recently was accepted into a graduate program for Occupational Therapy and will begin in the fall. For the first time in my life I feel like I belong and I am doing the right thing. My mother has no money to help me pay for school and so that burden is on me. I am still trying so hard to be the responsible one and at this point I work three jobs, go to school, and pay for my own financial expenses. I am taking everything on as loans. I would be incredibly appreciative of the scholarship money. I thank you tremendously for the opportunity to participate but also for the chance to get some of my frustrations out about my current situation. Siblings of addicts are often overshadowed and for the first time in a long time I felt that my feelings mattered. I am very excited to take my first step toward a career where I can help people, people who truly want and need the help. I have pushed myself harder than ever to be accepted into this program. I know it will be difficult, but more importantly I know it will be worth it. 


Kaitlyn Taylor

Friday, August 14, 2015

HopCat's "Crack Fries" Bother Me

(Note: This blog post was originally published as "Why Do People Think Crack Cocaine Is Funny" on The Fix's website on July 9, 2015.)

In addition to being a writer and a recovery advocate, I love food. I love to cook it and I love to eat it. So I'm frequently perusing the Internet for recipes, local restaurant reviews, and those ever-present lists that rank the best examples of certain categories of foods.

A couple of weeks ago, I was directed to such a list by an email I received from the Food Network. "America’s 10 Best French Fries," the subject line teased. As someone who's been known to enjoy a good french fry from time to time, I clicked through to see just which fries the Food Network thought stood above and beyond the rest.

When the page loaded, a photo of the first of the 10 best fries was staring me in the face, and they looked delicious. So I scrolled down a bit to see which establishment these mouthwatering fries belonged to. What I saw was a bit of a shock to me.

The fact that these fries were from HopCat, a small chain of beer bars that started in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2008, wasn’t a big deal to me. But what HopCat calls their fries made me a little sick to my stomach.

"Crack Fries."

They do look addictive, don't they?
As the Food Network piece parenthetically pointed out, the fries are "named for how addictive they are." I figured that was the reason as soon as I saw the name, but it didn’t lessen the impact on me at all.

With addiction being such a huge health crisis in the United States, it boggled my mind how any responsible restaurant could even think of naming an item on their menu after a drug that has ravaged so many people and ripped apart so many families.

So I took to Twitter to ask the question:

Does anyone else find the name of these fries offensive? Or is it just me? @HopCat ‪#AddictionIsntFunny #ImSensitive

I received a few responses from some of my followers in the addiction/recovery community, and they were equally offended. A little while later, I got a reply from HopCat:

When we started we honestly didn't think about offending. We just thought it was a good name...

Hm. So at least they admitted that they weren’t thinking. My next tweet to HopCat:

This might be a dumb question, but how 'bout just changing the name? There's NOTHING funny about crack or #addiction.

And their reply?

Not a dumb question, but we have no plans to change the name. We hope we can do some good by helping those in need

That part about helping those in need refers to the fact that HopCat told me on Twitter that--since March of this year--their Detroit location "has donated $1K from sales of Crack Fries to help treat drug addiction." According to the person behind HopCat's Twitter feed, that money goes to Mariners Inn, a Detroit shelter and treatment center for the homeless.

While I applaud HopCat's donations to help people suffering from addiction, I find the whole situation to be kind of hypocritical. The restaurant is basically exploiting addiction by naming their popular french fries after a highly addictive drug. Then they're taking a portion of their profits and donating it to an addiction treatment center. It’s almost like HopCat is saying, "We screwed up. We'd better fix this."

HopCat's "Crack Fries" got me thinking about crack in general, and how it's become a joking matter in our society. If something tastes really good, we say it's "like crack." If someone does something stupid or desperate, we call the person a "crackhead."

Hell, President Obama even made a crack-related joke last year. While talking about how much he'd miss the tasty pies created by his retiring White House pastry chef, the president said, "I don't know what he does--whether he puts crack in them, or…"

So why is crack funny?

The simple answer is that it's not. There's nothing funny about addiction, or any drugs that cause people pain and suffering while destroying their lives and the lives of those around them. Why crack has been singled out as the go-to drug when trying to be witty is completely lost on me.

It’s almost like "crack," which used to be a word with an extremely negative and unpleasant connotation, has become a euphemism for something that's highly addictive. And that’s completely messed up.

As I told the HopCat folks on Twitter, "Why didn't you just call them 'Heroin Fries'? Or 'Cocaine Fries'? Or 'Meth Fries'? Those names are no different." Ah, but apparently those names are different. Why? Because people wouldn't think those names are funny.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that HopCat's menu describes their fries as "Beer battered fries with a special cracked black pepper house seasoning." So maybe the "Crack" in "Crack Fries" has something to do with cracked black pepper, too. But I think we all know what they're really trying to do with that name.

I’m curious what others think about HopCat’s "Crack Fries," and about why we oftentimes just shrug it off when people reference crack cocaine when trying to be humorous. As the father of a son in long-term recovery, am I just being overly sensitive? Or do others feel the same way? 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Finalist Essay: Cailin Adair

Here's another one of the essays that made the final Top 10 in the My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest. This one is from Cailin Adair of Rising Sun, Maryland. She studies bioengineering at the University of Maryland, and her brother's addiction has had a profound effect on her.

Death Wish

By Cailin Adair

A folded, blue piece of paper within a tiny plastic bag floated in the toilet. It was nothing I had ever seen before, so I fished the bag out of the toilet, unfolded the blue piece of paper, and read the words "Death Wish." At the time, I was in middle school and had no idea what it was, but it seemed strange to me that it was floating in the toilet. I brought it to my mom, and she pretended it was nothing, trying not to involve me.

Weeks later, I found my brother, Connor, in a position that I should have never seen him in. He was extremely pale and held a belt in his hand that was buckled into a very small circle. His long sleeve was rolled all the way up to his shoulder, and he just stared at me, wide-eyed, like a deer in headlights. I stared back in disbelief. I never imagined that I would find my brother injecting drugs in our house.

This is when Connor confessed to using heroin. All the signs were there, but I was completely shocked. Yes, he was extremely skinny, was stealing money, wasn't acting himself, but he was still my big brother. I suspected he was in some kind of trouble, but I never thought my big brother, who protected me, and who I looked up to, could be addicted to such a hard, dangerous drug.

Connor went to rehab for the first time, and then came home after a couple of weeks. He looked great and acted himself again, and I felt such relief. I had my brother back. He opened up about everything, from when he started using to how he was going to Kensington in Philadelphia to get heroin every day. One day, we even drove through Kensington so my brother could show us where he went every day to get high. He was being so open and honest, and it really seemed like he was going to stay clean.

Then, he relapsed. Connor was constantly nodding out, money from my mom's bank account started disappearing, and some of my jewelry went missing. My mom would try to drug test him, but he would always say he didn't have to pee. Finally, he would give in and "pee" in a cup, but, instead, he would come out of the bathroom with room temperature yellow liquid (which turned out to be a mix of apple juice and water) that was obviously not urine. My mom would still test it and conclude that the test said he was clean, but she would ask me what I thought. I would tell her that I didn't think it was Connor's urine she was testing, so she couldn't conclude anything. She didn't always want to believe me, so she wouldn't do anything about my brother being high, which left me extremely frustrated and hopeless.

There were countless nights where I would listen to my mom and Connor argue about the fact that he was high, but my brother would come up with any excuse to say he wasn't. His addiction made him become incredibly good at lying. I would get so frustrated and end up yelling at my mom that my brother was obviously high and that she shouldn't listen to his excuses, and I would yell at my brother for constantly lying. Connor would finally admit that he has a problem, and he would either go away to rehab or get himself clean at home. I felt like my life was a never ending cycle of my brother getting high; my mom, my brother, and I all arguing; my brother getting clean for a short time; and my brother getting high again.

Finally, Connor hit his "rock bottom." Police showed up at my house one day, and Connor told me to answer the door and tell them he wasn't there if they asked. I refused, but he begged me and told me he just didn't want to answer the door or talk to them right now. He told me it wasn't a big deal. So I answered and told them he wasn't at my house right now, and I asked why they were there. They wouldn't tell me much, but they made it seem like it wasn't a big deal. They asked for my brother's and mom's cell phone numbers. My mom received a call telling her that my brother was part of an investigation. He was going to big parties, like wedding receptions and bar and bat mitzvahs, dressed in a suit and pretending to be a guest. He would steal the cards from the gift table, take out all the cash he could find, and throw all the cards and envelopes away at a nearby gas station. This crime sounded like it was pulled straight from a movie; it was too far-fetched to happen in real life, so I couldn’t believe it was happening in my life. Connor needed the money to get high, and he didn't care how he got the money anymore.

After all of this information came out, Connor immediately agreed to go back to rehab. But I had to face everyone I knew pretending like they knew nothing about my brother's addiction, even though the story, along with his name and picture, was on the news. No one really knew anything was wrong in my life prior to that news story. I was a straight A student, always smiling and laughing, pretending like I wasn't terrified that I was going to go home to find my brother overdosed on drugs and dead. This horrible thing that my brother did actually helped me open up more to my friends and tell them what was happening in my life, and it also helped my brother go back to rehab.

So, Connor went to rehab for about a month, and my mom and I visited him every weekend. He came home, and the cycle of his addiction seemed to stop. He got a good job, met a really nice, smart girl who became his girlfriend, and he seemed like he was back to his old self. He was clean for two years, and it seemed like he was going to actually stay clean this time. Unfortunately, these two years clean and sober ended last fall. It was an extremely exciting time for me because I was going away for my first year of college at the University of Maryland. I saw my brother two days before I left, and he didn't look right. He was eating cereal in our kitchen and nodding out, which was the number one sign to me that he was high. I just stared at him in disbelief. I was supposed to be excited to leave for college in a couple days, but this made me so upset and worried. I was so angry. I told him I knew he was high, and he denied it. So, I made myself believe that he wasn't high because I didn't want to believe it. I just continually told myself he was tired, he wasn't high. I didn't get to see my brother again before I left for school because he came home late and left really early. I left for school not knowing if he was okay, or if he was using heroin again.

I worried about him every day, and every time I talked to my mom on the phone, I asked how he was doing. She would just say Connor was fine. I believed her for a while, but, one day, I just had a feeling something was really wrong. I begged my mom on the phone to tell me what was going on.

Connor relapsed and was no longer living with her. She had to throw him out of the house because he refused to admit he had a problem, and he refused to get clean. He was fired from his job, and he totaled three cars, including mine, because he was driving while he was high. He lived on the streets for a couple days and my mom didn't know where he was. Finally, she got in contact with him and got him to go into a detox program, where he checked himself out of after one day. He stayed with friends for a couple nights, but then he didn't have anywhere else to go, so he agreed to go into detox again.

I started hysterically crying. Part of me wished I could be home so I could support my mom, but the other part of me was so thankful that I was away at school and didn't have to witness all of the drama.

It's summer now, and I am home from school. My brother has a new job and his own apartment, but he is still using heroin. I see him every Sunday for church and every Monday for a meeting at my church for addicts and families of addicts. Sometimes he looks good and clean, and it gives me hope. Other times, he looks high, and I wonder if he will ever get clean for good.

My brother's addiction has affected me in countless ways. For one, I have learned that I cannot control everything. I tried to do everything I could to help Connor stop using drugs. Much of my time was spent researching heroin to find how it affected the body and why people become addicted. The drug fascinated me. I also read a lot about different medications he could take to stop his cravings, and addiction groups he could go to for support. Since then, I have realized there is nothing I can do to stop his addiction; it is up to him to get clean.

I have also become a stronger and more realistic person as a result of Connor's addiction. There were so many times when my brother would go to rehab, and I would think, "Finally. This is it. He is going to stay clean this time." And when he relapsed, I would get so upset and disappointed because I expected him to stay clean. Now, I am hopeful that he gets and stays clean, but I understand that he may relapse and I am prepared for the worst. Even with other struggles in life, I seldom get upset about small things anymore. If something goes wrong, I try to find a solution. If it is something I cannot fix, I hope for the best, but I think realistically about the outcomes so I know what to expect.

In addition, my brother's addiction led me to become more independent. My brother and his addiction were almost always the center of attention, so there were many times when I was by myself and had to figure things out on my own. I learned to work harder to understand new concepts that I learned in school because I didn’t always have someone to answer my questions. This independence helped me excel in school and continues to help me every day.

My realistic attitude, strength, and independence have been essential to my success so far, and I believe they will continue to be crucial to my success in the future. I am currently in the Honors College at the University of Maryland and studying to become a bioengineer, and I plan to go to graduate school to further my education in bioengineering. With a graduate degree in bioengineering, I can conduct research to help create solutions to medical problems. As a result of my interest in bio engineering, in addition to my fascination with addiction, my dream is to conduct research to create better preventions and cures for this horrible disease of addiction. Because of the hardships I have gone through caused by my brother's addiction, I hope to lessen the number of people whose siblings have a "Death Wish" due to drugs.

Cailin Adair

Monday, August 10, 2015

Finalist Essay: Amanda Keaty

Over the past week, I've shared the winning essay and the runner-up essay from the first My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest. Today I start sharing essays from the other eight finalists, beginning with the entry from Amanda Keaty of Enumclaw, Washington, who writes about her experiences with her older brother, Devan.

As you read Amanda's emotion-filled essay, I want you to keep in mind two things: 1.) These heartfelt words are coming from a 17-year-old, which is truly amazing; and 2.) Imagine how difficult it was for the judges to read 30 similar essays and choose just 2 as the winner and runner-up. All of the essays we received were so good, and all of the essayists deserve to be recognized.

Here is Amanda's essay.


Aspirations Born of a Broken Heart

By Amanda Keaty

I live on a roller coaster--and not the fun kind. With each unexpected twist, turn, climb, and descent comes a flood of inescapable emotions. It is a terrifying and frustrating place to reside. However, I was born on this ride; I cannot change its tortuous path and I must put up with it. As the younger sister of a heroin addict, this meandering excursion represents the battle I face every day which has dragged me through my lowest valleys, deepest heartbreak, and greatest challenges. 

The worst part about having a sibling who is hooked on drugs is that our bond has been broken. Devan and I used to be best friends. We did everything together, from watching and acting out morning cartoons to playing hide-and-seek in the back yard and sneaking into each other's room past bedtime just to talk. Once he started chasing the dragon, he began to break away from our friendship. He became less friendly and more irritable and he no longer wanted to spend time with me. I could not figure out what had happened between us and I came to the conclusion that he had simply stopped liking me. I thought that it was my fault and I blamed myself for being too clingy and annoying. I tried so hard to maintain our friendship, but to no avail; and eventually gave up. I told him not to talk to me anymore after a simple conversation escalated to a brutal argument. After having a few months to breathe and cool off from this stirred-up aggression, I tried texting him again, but if he replies at all, it is with one-word answers. I often become jealous of my friends when they talk about their siblings with whom they spend time and who pick on them, even who they dislike or find annoying. Hearing this always makes me envious and resentful because I would do anything in this world for my brother to pester me like most brothers do and for him to be involved in my life. Devan used to play jokes on and tease me, but the more he grew dependent on narcotics and stimulants, the less he cared about family and the more it feels like I do not even have a brother at all.

Since Devan was sucked into this black hole of drug dependence, the essence of our family has declined. We used to be the "perfect" family consisting of a mom, dad, brother, and a sister who were all happy as can be. Every Sunday night was family night. We cooked dinner together, played board games, and watched a movie that we alternated turns choosing. When things with my brother went awry, so did the entire Keaty household. We stopped having family nights, stopped eating meals together regularly, and the unity that once completed us rapidly faded away. Evenings were frequently interrupted by the police showing up at our doorstep, getting calls from the hospital to pick up Devan, or with the regular fight that had me sent upstairs every other night. Little did they know, I only went halfway up the stairs where I sat and eavesdropped, but in the old, thin-walled house that we live in, I would have been able to hear the yelling from my bedroom anyway. As I grew older, my parents realized that there was not much more they could hide from me and I began sitting in on the arguments. I’m not sure which was worse--having my parents try to hide things that I already knew or being in the room to watch.

While my parents are often are caught up dealing with Devan’s jail sentences, court fines, treatment centers, etc., I stand behind, faded, and merely exist. Although I know it is not their intention, I feel customarily ignored, expected to figure things out on my own. I am pushed aside as less of a priority to my parents. I am "self-sufficient," they say. They brag that I am "the good child": responsible, smart, and independent. Mom and Dad say that unlike my brother, these qualities are natural for me. No, Mom and Dad! The reason I am each of these things is because I had no choice! I was forced to embody these qualities. When my parents were called to the police station, I learned how to cook my own dinner. While they were out searching for the runaway, I managed to tuck myself into bed at night. When they were too busy to help me with my homework, I discovered Google as my tutor. I stopped asking for help. Being "the good child," is not a compliment. Being "the good child" sets a superior standard to which I must reach in order to feel and be treated like I am adequate. As "the good child," I feel an obligation to be perfect. I am careful not to show weakness or pain that might cause even more distress upon my parents. I seldom shed a tear in their presence, even when there is ample reason to cry. I have become accustomed to not receiving attention from my parents, so now when I do, I feel guilty. Too much heedfulness from them makes me feel uncomfortable, and I have yet to discover the reason. "The good child" is the strong one. "The good child" keeps everything together. I was the one who would tell my mom that everything was okay when she broke down crying. I was the one who had the power to sway my brother's decisions. He was protective and had a soft spot for me, which settled on me more responsibility. Each time he walked out the door after a screaming session with our parents, I would follow him and tell him I loved him and I could almost always convince him to stay rather than going and getting even more high than he already was. After so many times, trying to control the situation became another liability for me. Even though he is not living with us currently, I still feel like I have to call or text him to prevent him from relapse.  And when his stability caves in, I blame myself. By trying so hard to be the pure and unbreakable one, I have instead, become more vulnerable.

As the younger sister of an addict, I carry a feeling of emptiness. I am trapped by a never-ending cycle of emotions that hides every piece of my being--my happiness, my optimism, my innate zest for life. On this roller coaster, there is, of course, sadness, heartbreak, anger, and frustration. There are also phases of excitement when my brother shows progressive steps and I am filled with abounding hope that it will finally be the attempt that does not fail. When he relapses, however, I am devastated. I either sink back into a state of depression or I become angry, sometimes at Devan but also at myself for being naively hopeful and not being mentally prepared for the event. Sometimes, I tell myself that I am done caring, but really, I just try to repress how I feel so that I do not have to think about the situation or deal with the emotions. I cannot control these sporadic feelings no matter how hard I try. I wish I could just make up my mind on how I mentally respond to my brother's addiction, but unfortunately, it is not that simple--the roller coaster does not pause. With so many surprises and unexpected turns, it is impossible for my mental state to remain steady. There is one thing felt, however, which underlies each stage of the circuit: fear. My biggest fear is that by the time my brother rises back up to fight against his disease, it will be too late. He has overdosed way too many times and has survived only by miracles. I am scared to death that the next time he injects the merciless liquefied substance will be the dose that finally wins the battle and steals his last breath.

Most seventeen-year-old girls go about their day with simplicity; they contemplate their plans for the day and what friends they are going to hang out with. They worry about relationships and completing their homework on time. I, however, have grown up differently. The contents of my mind are far more complicated than that of the average teenager. I have always remained the quiet one, only talking when necessary or invited to and I am never a conversation starter to those I am not close to or comfortable with. I am not one to attend crazy high school parties for fear of being involved in what had once destroyed my brother. Because of my tendency to observe rather than to speak and my unwillingness to attend parties, some people have said that I am stuck up and that I think I am better than others, which is the opposite of who I really am. Afraid of being disappointed, I oftentimes push people away unintentionally and avoid getting too close to someone who might leave me like my brother did. It has always been difficult for me to let go and just have fun like a teenager should because I have so much going on at home and in my head, which my friends could not understand. No one knows what is going on or how I really feel. Because I have been so preoccupied with my brother’s addiction, I feel like I have missed out on my childhood and formative years.

What I lack in having a normal social life, I make up for with knowledge of the drug world. I know what it means when there is a tiny plastic bag on the ground. I know that it was not a doctor who dropped a needle and syringe in the local grocery store parking lot. Although I have never used, considered, or even been offered drugs, I have witnessed firsthand the malicious greed that is addiction. Most would not guess that I have learned by direct observation the truths of substance abuse, for I have seen what no child should and have been exposed to things I wish I had not.

Siblings of drug addicts face a rare kind of pain and are hardly given the consideration that they deserve. Because I know and can relate to that suffering, I want to help brothers and sisters of addicts so that they no longer have to feel alone. I have a unique opportunity already set in motion that will help me to achieve this goal: "Battlefield Addiction," a non-profit organization co-founded by my mother that helps addicts, families, and communities plagued by the epidemic. One branch of the company is "The Family’s Battle," which directs and provides cathartic exercises to affected parents. "The Family’s Battle" has taught parents not only how to guide their children on the road to recovery, but also how to equip themselves to do so while coping with the pain, restoring many broken families across the country. This is my vision once the siblings become a point of focus. Having spoken at a past event and my mom being a stakeholder of the company, I can help assemble a branch specifically for siblings to be incorporated into the organization. My aspiration is to bring hope to those who fight the same war as siblings of addicts and to guide them through the demanding and burdensome roller coaster on which we are all stuck.

Having lived in the shadow of an addict, there is nothing I want more than to make an impact on others' lives. Not only do I have a passion for helping people, but also for science, psychology, and addiction medicine. After high school, I aspire to become a Substance Abuse Nurse Practitioner in an inpatient treatment center. I am working toward my goal by taking nursing prerequisites at Green River College through the Running Start program, which allows me to earn college and high school credit simultaneously. I have big dreams for my future, which, despite the financial stress that the disease has placed on my family, require funds to obtain. Earning this scholarship will ensure my enrollment for three quarters as well as partial tuition of summer courses on my way to those aforementioned future goals.

As a Substance Abuse Nurse, my objective is to help ease the recovery process for addicts and to make a difference in their lives. My brother once came home from treatment eager to tell me all about a specific nurse who not only aided him in detox but also continuously encouraged him to keep fighting, which motivated him to take on his recovery with confidence. I, too, wish to be the nurse who makes a life-changing impact on her patients. I want to be the nurse who can mend the broken heart of a little girl when she is reunited with her real, sober brother. While helping to heal bodily damage and ease the process of pain and withdrawals, I hope to also gain a relationship with each patient. Sometimes, an unexpected person can make the largest impact on others, and I hope to be that for someone in the future. Every patient has someone back at home who cares and worries about them. By helping those with the debilitating disease of addiction, I will be indirectly helping entire families as well.

Being the younger sister of someone who is enslaved to a substance is a complicated and heartbreaking journey to travel. The emotions I have felt are visceral and I have often wished this roller coaster would break down so that I could escape. Although the road is painful and exhausting, all negative encounters have helped me learn, grow, and establish my purpose. I have learned a lot about addiction and its mechanics and I have gained insight to better understand its root cause. Because of my experience, I have compassion and empathy for others who are dealing with the same affliction and harnessed steadfast bravery and conviction in knowing that I can help others. My older brother's addiction has scarred me in ways that may never fully heal, however, I will turn these cuts and bruises into helping hands by creating a light of hope in the lives of both drug addicts and their families.


Amanda with her brother, Devan.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Runner-up Essay: "Why We Fall Down"

On Monday, I posted the essay that won the first My Life as 3D College Essay Scholarship Contest. I think you'd all agree that Ryan Gruchala's essay--"Will We Be Able to Move on from This?"--was pretty amazing.

But Luke Moran's runner-up essay is amazing, too. And thanks to actress Kristen Johnston and her SLAM charity, Luke will be receiving $500.00 to help pay his tuition at the University of Delaware in the fall. (Note: I will be posting the other eight essays that were chosen as finalists by the judges in the days ahead.)


Why We Fall Down

By Luke Moran

Every little kid has a hero. There was, of course, Superman, and naturally various animated characters from shows like Pokemon and Dragonball Z. But the most important role model for me was my only sibling, my older brother Jake. Even without a cape and x-ray vision, Jake could do no wrong in my eyes. He was everything I wanted to be. He was tall, I wasn't. He was a natural athlete. I wasn't. He always had a girlfriend. I didn't. Life seemed to come so easily for him. But the best part was he always made time for his little brother. This is why my most devastating memory was the day my brother Jake was arrested.

My brother was an addict and it had finally caught up with him. I guess I knew on some level that he was on a downward spiral, but my young mind had not yet stopped to really judge him. He was all that I had, my only sibling, and I loved him no matter what.

There is something to be said about the loss of innocence. That day three years ago my personal Superman had succumbed to his own Kryptonite.

When I first got the call that Jake had been arrested, I remember exactly where I was. I was working as a busser at a restaurant. My heart immediately stopped and time seemed to stand still. I went into autopilot mode. Nothing made sense. I wasn't really thinking about my brother, and I wasn't exactly doing my job either. I was somewhere in between. Until then, the worst news I’d ever received was when my 93-year-old great grandfather died. But when Jake was arrested, the only way I can explain it is that it felt like it actually somehow happened to me. Like some part of me got lost.

I still remember the first time I visited Jake in jail. After months of my parents nagging me, I finally agreed to tag along one Sunday morning for a visit to see my brother. Looking back on it now, I think dreading that early morning wake up call was really just cover for dreading what that day would really be about. My mom drove and I sat in the passenger seat, anxious, distracting myself by trying to find appropriate music to play through the car stereo. (Looking back on it, I don't even think a live performance from the King himself would have eased the tension.) I tried to keep our conversation light, but Mom was in no mood for idle chitchat. Instead, she gripped the steering wheel with both hands and stared straight ahead the whole way.

When we pulled into the prison parking lot, I immediately felt uneasy. Just the environment felt tense. The big electric fence encircling the facility taunted me: "There’s no getting out of here anytime soon." My brother, my hero, was not getting out of this one. This was real. That hit me hard. Because he had always been so confident that his actions were incapable of coming back to haunt him, and that he could get into any mess he wanted to without facing repercussions. Of course, I was aware that he was wrong and that his overconfident attitude was probably more of a coping mechanism than anything else, but still it hurt me to think of him in such a helpless situation.

The visit itself was underwhelming. My mother talked to him about his upcoming trial while my dad kept it light with stories about his two weird cats. When it came time for me to talk to Jake, he just asked me about movies that had come out recently and what video games I had been playing.

It wasn't until the lights flickered, indicating our time was up, that I felt the uneasiness again. And I realized why: I had just visited my brother in prison. I saw my brother from behind prison glass and I was somehow okay with it. How is this remotely okay? The other visitors that day visiting other inmates seemed fine, like everything was normal. There should not be anything normal about visiting your brother in jail. He didn't belong there and neither did I. That fear of normalcy was sickening. If my brother being incarcerated was normal then that meant everything was real. Surely, this wasn't my life. Surely, the brother I grew up with, who I idolized, who played tag with me and shot hoops with me, wasn't behind bars.

I didn't know how to deal with those confusing thoughts so, at first, I slipped back out of reality for a while. Instead of focusing in school, I would waste time on my phone or social media. For the longest time, I left the room while my parents talked about Jake's trial. I never answered his letters and I didn’t talk to him over the phone for months. It wasn't that I didn't want to talk to him; I just didn’t want to face reality. I was just trying to be a normal kid and pretend nothing happened.

To quote a favorite movie:

"Why do we fall down, Master Wayne?"

"So we can get back up."

Even Bruce Wayne tried and failed. Batman isn't perfect and neither is my brother. I've since realized that there is a reason for everything. There was no point in wallowing in sadness or avoiding reality. This was an opportunity for me to learn from my brother's mistakes. I had to assume responsibility for my own future because if I didn't, no one else would. I joined cross-country, I studied religiously and I began to use my computer productively to teach myself CSS and HTML instead of just scrolling through Twitter. I even got a better-paying job to cover my own car insurance and gas. My grades improved dramatically because I realized that the next few years of my life were crucial. My hard work paid off. I was recently accepted to the University of Delaware as a computer science major.

Witnessing my older brother's addiction and incarceration has helped me become a better person. I learned that no matter how miserable your world is, all it takes is a little motivation and self-discipline to get yourself through it. This tragic event in my family has had rippling effects on us all. None of us will ever be the same. But we have all grown from it. Jake is healthier now. He’s being released soon and he’s ready to get his life back on track. And watching him go through this sparked the otherwise idle switch in my head from a carefree teenager into an independent, young adult who knows how to deal with tragedy and put himself to work when everything around him seems to be crashing down. I refuse to let the prison of addiction and incarceration my brother faced lock me out of a positive future. Jake will always be my hero, but today, I want to be his.


Luke's older brother, Jake (c. 1993)