Mike Chalmers is a consulting editor and former editor-in-chief (2016-2020) for The Observer.
— If we’re going to truly address the addiction epidemic, we’ve got to be brutally honest about it. I’ll go first.
When we took over at the new Observer, we knew we wanted to place ourselves firmly within the emerging conversation surrounding addiction’s caustic rise in our state and surrounding communities. We want to be a resource, a channel, a point of influence and hopefully inspiration for people struggling within this epidemic—both users and the people affected by them.
That said, we’ll continue to stack up as much information and perspective as we can—and you can read it each month in The Observer.
… I lost my brother to heroin, aka Mr. Brown, a little over two years ago. I mentioned it briefly in a piece for The Observer in 2014, but I didn’t want it to look like a crusade—especially as I took over here recently. It’s difficult, in this position, to write about something personal and either (A) not have it look amateur and self-serving or (B) not say too much and mis-preserve the person’s memory or invalidate the good parts. But again, unique problems call for unique solutions, and the addiction epidemic in this region, this state, and this country needs all the help it can get.
My brother would have agreed. And as much as he knew he’d made a colossal mess of his life, he was adamant that it be used as an example for other people, young or old, in a similar position—or about to embark on a comparable dead-end path. I’m confident that he would approve of a piece like this—and would be honored to know that much of The Observer’s endeavor to address this topic was in part influenced by his consumptive journey.
If a two-thousand-word essay about my personal relationship with a drug addict and his 22-year path of abuse, self-destruction, dreams-deferred, bridges burned, relationships ruined, hope lost, and life relinquished becomes part of the conversation that ultimately helps people cope with and/or escape this chaos, then I’m willing to take that risk—without reluctance or regret.
My brother wasn’t stupid. Anyone that knew him would probably argue that he was one of the smarter people they knew. And that’s obviously one of the harshest frustrations for me—and for anyone in a similar position. He knew what he was doing to himself, his future, and the people in his life. He’d run it all through his mind dozens, hundreds of times, I’d imagine. Similar to how he probably regretted himself to sleep every night.
But it wasn’t enough to make him stop. Over and over and over again, for more than two decades, he looked the people that cared about him most in the eye, and walked in the other direction. He chose drugs and the lifestyle that came with it, again and again and again, over his family and friends—even his two young children. That reverse-abandonment was the silent killer for most of us, I’ll admit. The fact that he would choose to destroy himself, and any hope for a normal, or even productive life instead of putting in the effort it would take to claw his way out of it—especially when we were all right there offering to help him.
It tells you how unbelievably strong addiction truly is for a lot of people—and how unforgiving the pattern becomes as the months and years stack up. Too many times, he and I would argue about the mess, and I’d try to impress upon him that: “… this is going to take way longer than a month in rehab and some check-ins with a probation officer to fix, man. You’ve spent YEARS to get to this point. And you think it can be fixed in eight weeks? And then you can go back to living a similar life, hanging around the same people—and everything will somehow be fine?”
His biggest problem was that he simply couldn’t leave the lifestyle. Even if he was “clean” for a brief moment in time, he still hung around the same people, the same places. You could almost set your calendar by his relapses. And each year that passed, he was only deeper in the hole—that much farther from any hope of an escape.
And that’s what it is at its most primitive. Endless lies, manipulation, and deviant behavior notwithstanding, an addict simply chooses a particular lifestyle, and the immediate gratification that comes with it, over a sustainable, productive life, and the people who want very badly to help him or her reacquire that life.
It’s immensely frustrating—to the core—to see someone look squarely up at the escape hatch—to look squarely at the people above the hatch reaching down to pull him through—and then simply climb back down the ladder into the darkness below. The true twist of the knife then becomes the repetition of that act. Consider if you will, that my brother passed away at 37. Now just imagine how many times he walked away from help—how many times he climbed back down that ladder—leaving the people above at a loss for how to make sense of it.
The Longer You Wait, The Worse It Gets
In those 22 years, I probably spent 10-15 years either upset, angry, or enraged at him—a little gift that keeps on giving now that he’s gone, I assure you. He was arrested nearly 30 times, in the hospital too many times to count—car wrecks, fights, overdoses, drug-related accidents, domestic disputes—it was a revolving episode of COPS. He practically had his own locker at the local jail—even did a prison spot.
Again, most addicts—whether they want to hear this or not—are dead by 30. If not, they’re definitely incarcerated, or skulking through a grotesque existence that the world would rather ignore. And if you’re reading this thinking that some great storyline is going to emerge for my brother, and thus yourself via some warped connection, I’ll break it to you softly: you’re going to die or go to jail if you don’t make an effort to change. That’s it. Anyone that tells you different is lying to you because they feel sorry for you or love you, or both. And every day you wait, you’re that much closer to those two things. Some addicts do grow old, but not gracefully. And you’re old by 30. You have to want to save yourself—because in the end, that’s the only person who can do it. Everything else is just verbiage for a poster.
It became harder and harder to have a productive conversation about anything with my brother because I was so angry, and held so much resentment—especially as I watched my mother’s life being dragged down with him—financially, emotionally, spiritually, literally—for no other reason than she loved him unconditionally, and would do anything to save her son.
And though no one ever stopped loving him, and he never stopped loving us, the cycle was just too strong. The pattern. The addiction. And that’s another thing people don’t talk about much. It’s not just the actual substance that addicts end up devoted to; it’s everything that comes with the substance. The people, the places, the habits, the drama, the storylines, the miniature narratives that develop within the pattern—no matter how misguided and ridiculous. Addicts can’t let go of the drugs because their bodies fight it, but they can’t let go of the lifestyle because their minds fight it. Oddly enough, it’s a comfort zone—an alternative to the much scarier and demanding world of recovery. And ultimately, addicts are willing to die for that world—and often do (because of it).
All my brother would have had to say to me was: “Mike, I don’t want to do this to myself anymore. I don’t know how to escape. Please help me.” Or any version of that. I would’ve dropped everything—we all would have. But he didn’t. Or couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. It’s too late now to ever know why. Pride was part of it—again, ironic. You might think: how does a junkie still have pride? Well, pride is a many-headed beast, as well, and is at the root of why many addicts can’t ask for help.
And so what’s left? After 37 years—22 of them addicted to drugs—what’s left? I’ll tell you in no uncertain terms: a $600 sculpture holding his ashes on a book case in my mother’s house—surrounded by a few poems and pieces of memorabilia; an eight-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son—who we all silently hope won’t somehow follow in his footsteps as the proverbial children of this epidemic; some inexorably aging photos; some jewelry and clothes that hang in my closet; his cologne that sits in my bathroom vanity—that I occasionally wear; his work boots that sit in a box in my office—the fragments of some part-time work he was doing for cash—trying at 37 to counterbalance the calamity all around him while still coming home most nights and shooting up, snorting, inhaling, swallowing—anything that would help to numb reality; and sadness. Just plain-old, achy-heart, hollow-chest, empty-room sadness.
What Remains is Forever
He and I didn’t talk much after a major blowup in 2010. And then, two weeks before he died, we did talk. For about five hours one night. Just out of nowhere—in the way that life walks up to you sometimes regardless of your plans—on the back porch of my grandmother’s house. The hard part is that I actually think he was ready to reach up through the hatch that night, though his circumstances had also become quite complicated. We hugged before he left. He sent me a happy birthday text a few days later. I went on a business trip a few days after that, and got a frantic call from my sister towards the end of it. He’d overdosed. Nine days after my birthday. April 28, 2014, at some point in the early evening.
People have asked me: do you regret being mad at him in those final years—leading up to his death? My answer to that is, no. I’m a human being, and I was angry for a reason. I tried to help him within the boundaries of who I was and the life I lived. I bent; my sister bent; we watched my mother nearly break. I watched him choose an alternative to us—and the lifestyle that went with it.
A more intrusive question might be: do any particular parts of it haunt you? My answer would be two-fold. On the macro level: all of it. The whole 22 years. It’s an all-consuming tragedy that happened in real time and sucked the air out of my family’s world and irrevocably altered the course of my mother’s life. With answers still dangling in the air to this day.
And then the micro level: my little brother, sitting on a filthy floor in a forgotten room of a derelict house on a nowhere street in a county that dubiously carries the honor of leading, or almost leading, the nation in overdose deaths year after year. My little brother: a wonderful athlete; a gifted writer; a deep thinker; an alluring combination of charisma and introversion; and one of the funniest people I ever met—who even at his worst, wouldn’t leave the house without ironing his shirt, pants, socks, and underwear—slumping down a dirty wall. Oblivion setting in. Eyes closing. Breath slowing. Muscles relaxing. My little brother. Pulse fading. Unaware, though perhaps not, that the heroin he’d just injected was a batch of bad brown. And sadly enough—with one last mental glimpse at the mess he’d made for himself—probably being okay with it.
That part will haunt me. Forever.By Mike Chalmers