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Learning to Cope After Losing My Brother to Addiction

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Coping with grief is a topic I never once suspected I would have any expertise or useful knowledge in. Suffice to say, the pain of death’s grasp on a loved one taught me that the hardest goodbyes can also bring you the best hellos. As backward as that may first appear, over time we can all learn to embrace the change that death may bring.

Growing up in a family dynamic with addiction and mental health struggles surrounding me, I often found it extremely hard to cope with how unfair the world seemed. When I grew closer to my older brother, Colin, I found solace in a way I had never thought I could. Although most of my family members can vouch for Colin and I being at odds to an extreme extent as small children, we experienced trauma together, and after we got over our childlike bouts of arguing over dolls and video games, we built a relationship that outlasted any I’d known previously. Or at least any relationships I’d be consciously appreciative of this far in my life.

As Colin and I grew, he was always a step ahead in some ways and a step behind in others. Though he was four years older than me, in terms of responsibility it seemed he was four years younger. I grew to understand as time went on that Colin struggled in ways that he and everyone else projected as self inflicted pain and misery. To my newest understanding, it all stemmed from a lack of understanding and consciousness about the world surrounding him. A lack of an ability to accept his trauma was not his fault. A lack of the strength it takes to tell your parents they were wrong in how they handled a situation, or that they were not helpful enough in times of turmoil and pain.

And Colin, as much as he went on about his dislike of parental figures and his hatred of our capitalist society filled with wrong doers and evil-loving power figures, had the biggest heart I’d ever seen. He shared all he could with those around him, and to those who hurt him, he shared even more.

He always told me: “Dev, you know, just because people do things wrong and mess up and hurt us, doesn’t mean they are trying to be vengeful or vindictive. I don’t hate out of spite, I love out of necessity. They act how they do because of how the world treated them. And I understand that pain. That fear and anguish. So I always help out the bad guy, even if that means I get nothing in return, not even acknowledgement.”

And though I can’t say I share the exact same methodology for approaching certain people who have wronged me, I can admit I strongly admire his wisdom and ability to re-examine perspective. I came to value Colin’s wisdom more than anyone’s, and I felt that was almost an oxymoron. Purely because by everyone else’s standards, he wasn’t successful. He didn’t work, he didn’t go to college, he had troubling relationships with women and quite often mistreated them.

But the other side of that was his ability to treat people he loved with a sense of home, humor and safety, in a way he longed to feel for himself. And the times he hurt others were the times he treated himself with the most cruelty. He was confused, unsure of where his own mind and heart began and ended, and where others began. But he continued to teach me lesson after lesson about the value of a friendship, a hand to hold, a person to call, laughter to be shared, especially in times of crisis. Maybe he couldn’t save me, he’d say, but at least he could hold my hand and make me laugh on my journey to being my own savior.

Towards the end of my high school career, Colin and I became the kind of friends who were inseparable. Though on the surface it seemed impossible given our previous dynamics, and his motivation levels being so far off from mine, we made it work. Because we shared the same values. I just wasn’t aware of that yet. And I did not become aware until it hit me that Colin was becoming addicted to hard drugs.

I watched as he gave himself away, depleting his already low tank of love to give. He ran himself dry. So much so that he lost his ability to function in society, in a family, in any real relationship besides ours and his with my father. He suffered. He struggled. He cried for help and no one came. I did what I could, racked with guilt each night over my own inability to save him, I beat myself up. I refused to believe in a world that could be so relentless and cruel to such a kind and gentle, albeit extremely lost and misguided, soul. I still find myself at odds with this concept from time to time. But the day that changed my life was the day that Colin had to say goodbye.

In 2016, I had just left an abusive relationship with another female, and Colin was the only person who kept his presence in my life unwavering through it. He refused to turn his back to me when I went back to her, allowing her to hurt me more. He understood, he would tell me, it’s only natural to turn to the most comforting pain I knew. And that struck a chord with me. Months later, and with a reconnected family relationship to a friend of my grandmother’s, brought me to the realization that I was hurting myself by staying. I had undervalued my own sense of safety and stability to give this girl love in all of the places I myself was longing for the same. I grabbed my courage and left.

Colin called me the next day to tell me he was beyond happy that he finally got his true sister back, and he couldn’t wait to hang out again soon. But at this point his ability to stay away from substances overcame him. He found himself in a home with someone he called a friend, someone he could share his substances and addiction with. I pulled away. I explained to him I could not bear to lose him the way I’d lost others. Or worse yet, I couldn’t bear to watch his life dissipate from his body until he was a corpse. I feared he would kill himself. And if I remained too close, I could go down with him.

For days I rang my hands with guilt and anxiety. Maybe I wasn’t understanding enough. Maybe he was too lonely and my distance would force even more pain into him. Maybe I could get him to change his mind, bring him to a therapist or a meeting or rehab, and he would get better. Maybe he would hate me if I did that. Maybe he would hate me if I didn’t. On top of it all, I cried with the heart-wrenching pain of wanting to spend time with him, even though it hurt too much. It hurt just as much to stay away. I was at odds with myself and the world over this.

And then that night came. December 2, 2016 is a blur in my mind now, but the nighttime is the most distinct memory I have. I was up until midnight trying to fall asleep. Laying in the dark and staring out the window at the snowfall, I watched as the car headlights zoomed in and out of my window frame making shadows of snow on my walls and ceiling. I had this feeling that there must be some reason I can’t sleep. This feeling was never so strong for me. My gut told me I was up for a reason; my mind told me to just try to sleep. And so for many hours I tried unsuccessfully.

At 3:45 in the morning, I rolled over to check the time with a slight suspicion that my phone screen might portray this message as to why I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I saw the time just as the phone downstairs began to ring. My heart dropped. I knew something happened. My grandmother ran down the stairs and grabbed the phone. I got up and followed, hearing her gasping for air as I bolted down the narrow and steep staircase in her old home. She told me to wait but I couldn’t, I reached for the phone from her hand as she crumbled into the couch. Her frail body practically fell to pieces as my mom’s voice began to speak through breathless sobs.

“Devin. It’s Colin. He’s….he’s…he’s…” More sobbing told me what happened. He overdosed.

“Is he in the hospital? Is he OK?”

Hysterically I began screaming as I fell to the floor. I lost control of my body.

“No.. Devin I’m so so sorry. I never imagined having to tell you such horrible news.”

All I could think was it must have been even more difficult for her to hold that news herself. For her to feel the heartbreak of losing a child to something so terrible. And then having to tell her other two daughters that their beloved older brother had actually died. To explain to her 9-year-old that he had done something bad and it cost him his entire life. And he was only 22.

I spent the rest of that day and the following week trying to be a beacon of strength for my parents and family. I helped make the phone calls to let everyone know what had happened. I called and relayed the news to my own father, to my brother’s best friends, to everyone. Over and over I called them to tell them the worst news I could possibly share. Colin had died. Colin, the symbol of love and laughter and hope for them, had become the figure of despair and longing. The world was too much for him. He was too much for this world. Either way, he was gone and there was nothing we could do but sob. Scream. Pray. Repeat.

After his funeral, I had a relationship go south. My boyfriend was using drugs and I was too lost in my own grief to even notice. I spent my days feeling numb. All the while knowing my life was in shambles, but refusing to acknowledge where the pain was stemming from and that it was unrelenting. I was determined to pretend it was all going to be OK and that I was happy. Because I had to be happy. If I wasn’t happy then what was the point. Colin suffered. He struggled to find happiness. He was gone now. I had no choice but to be his happiness. I had no choice but to try to do what he couldn’t. And fear stopped me from facing my reality time and time again.

Months later I had moved in with my father, and eventually met the girl I have been with since. I struggled entering a new relationship, especially with another female. I wondered what Colin would think. How he would feel. If he was mad at me. I wondered if I’d be strong enough to ever love someone the way they deserved.

But Kelly and I fell in love in less than a single glance. My life continued to expand in ways I’d once felt unimaginable. I met a medium who taught me a world I once thought was impossible. I began to see light in all the places I’d felt only darkness. I found laughter and a hand to hold in Kelly. And she taught me that death is merely a doorway to a different form of a relationship. Colin may not be there physically, but he was around in every other way imaginable.

Without his loss, I never would have found myself. Without his light, I never would have faced my own darkness. And I have learned from all of this that at the end of the day, no matter the pain you face, no matter the hardships and adversities, a perspective shift will create a new world. It’s always important to have a broad perspective. To be aware of all the struggles every human and animal and creature on this planet faces individually and shared. And for that lesson, my life has changed for the better.

I feel Colin around my home and my heart in the best ways. I hear his laughter in times of sadness and it makes me smile. I see his face in my dreams and know he is protecting me. It’s not the way my human mind prefers and I’d still give anything to give him a physical hug, but at least I know I can overcome anything thanks to him. Thanks to him, I have a life that keeps getting better. Thanks to him, I have found myself. And that is the best gift anyone could ever ask for.

Getty image by Nadezhda1906

Originally published: January 22, 2020
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