Updated: Jul 20
I was 19 years old when heroin knocked on my door, when she made herself present in my life. I never invited her. My brother didn’t invite her either. But we got to know each other too well. I wish I never knew what heroin looked like. I wish I never knew what it sounded like when someone smoked heroin or how someone looks when they’re under the influence of heroin.
There are words that have entered my vocabulary in the past few years that I wish I’d never heard before. I wish I could say I don’t know what a bundle is, that I don’t know what heroin is. I wish I could say that I don’t know how something small enough to fit in your wallet can destroy your life. I wish I never watched heroin take my brother’s life. I wish I never saw her leave him nodding out in an elegant restaurant for my father’s birthday. I wish I never heard the words she made him say to my mother. I wish she never made me feel the way that she did.
But I do know one thing. The Andrew who stole my debit card and my jewelry, who lied to me endlessly, who manipulated me, who crashed my car, who was arrested numerous times, who jumped out of my window, who broke my heart.. was not Andrew. That was heroin. Heroin had taken his place years ago. She had taken his voice, his mind, and soul. And then one day she took his breath.
As I am writing this, his box of ashes sits at the other end of the table. I stare at it wondering if I did enough. And I think no, I didn’t. I spent the past four years being angry with him for various reasons. I was angry with him because he stole my debit card. I was angry with him because he stole my jewelry. I was angry with him because he constantly put himself and my family in danger. Because all my parents ever did was fight despite their undying love for my brother. Because my parents stopped living together. Because they stopped smiling. Because I couldn’t live in my own home anymore. Because I didn’t feel welcome or safe in the home I’d been living in since I was born. But most of all because he was digging himself into a hole that would later be identified as his grave. I saw him as a selfish, carless narcissist.
But the truth is: Andrew isn’t a selfish, careless narcissist. He never was. He was always the kind of kid who looked out for you and put himself in your shoes. He was the person who told those snotty little elementary school kids that my tooth was bleeding when it became obvious that I had peed my pants in the snow. Blood isn’t yellow, duh! But his first instinct was to put himself in my shoes. How did I feel? Embarrassed. Then to protect me. “Her tooth is bleeding! It’s blood!” My point is he never wanted to hurt anybody. He wanted to do the exact opposite. This quality of his became much harder to come across as he grew older and something more powerful had taken over his being.
But anyway, I’m sitting here thinking did I do enough? And I feel a tsunami of guilt when I think about the horrible things we’ve said to each other in the past few years. I feel a tsunami of guilt when I think about the fact that I left the country. I left him. I was selfish. I moved to Central America and didn’t talk to him for an entire year. I was damaged. I felt I needed time to recover from the pain he had inflicted on me. I needed to recover from listening to my parents cry and from hiding all of my belongings every time I left the house or just went downstairs. I needed to recover from all the lies he’d told me that I believed, hoping maybe this was finally coming to an end. How every time I thought “just one more chance. Maybe he’s being sincere this time.” And how every time I was left disappointed and feeling like an idiot for believing someone who continued to take advantage of me. I felt like he knew exactly what he was doing and he was playing me and he had succeeded too many times. But that wasn’t Andrew. That was heroin.
Nevertheless, I feel that I failed as a sister. And now I’m alone. I have no other siblings. My parents still argue. And now we’re just another one of those many families that have lost a young one to this devastating epidemic. The only comforting part is that we aren’t alone. Unfortunately, due to this rife epidemic, I know many people my age who are now missing a sibling.
But what is an epidemic? What determines an epidemic? How does it start? Is there someone that we can hold accountable? How does it end? What happens when it ends? People may say that things go back to normal but how can things go back to normal when lives have been lost. Shauna doesn’t get her brother back. Sally doesn’t get her son back. Chris doesn’t get his friend back. Marissa doesn’t get her sister back. Tristan doesn’t get another chance at life. I don’t get my brother back. These people don’t come back. They stay where there are, wherever it is that they’ve gone. We aren’t cats. We don’t have nine lives. We can’t run in the middle of street, get run over by a car and learn from it. We die and that’s it. We don’t come back.
And what about the victims of the epidemic? The people who get lost somewhere in between. The people who’ve seen death but never personally met it. The people who’ve seen life but don’t really understand it. The people who’ve lost a part of themselves to the epidemic? They aren’t the same person anymore. They’re hurting. They’ve lost part of their lives and that part never comes back. It haunts them for the time that’s left. They don’t get a re-do on that part of their lives. They don’t get to do it over again. There’s no rewind button in life.
And the outsiders? Well, they see everything and it makes them feel sorry for the people involved. But they have no idea. They read the newspaper and feel sad for one moment but then they put the newspaper down and they go on with their day. They think that it will never happen to them. That is until they become bystanders.
And the bystanders? We’re like secondhand smokers. We’re not smoking but we die a little bit too. We lose part of ourselves too and that part doesn’t come back. And our perception of the victims of the epidemic forever changes. We can’t see them in the same way anymore. We remember what they were like before the epidemic swallowed them whole and spit them back out and we know them now, if they’re still alive. They aren’t the same person and they will never be the same person to us. They will never mean the same to us. As awful as it is, we can’t weed those thoughts and memories out of our heads. Our relationship with them is forever changed.
It’s crazy what an epidemic can do to relationships. Last week a friend messaged me. All he said was “hello.” But my heart immediately dropped into my stomach. I instantly anticipated bad news. I should never feel that way when a friend says “hello”. But I have heard so much bad news in respect to this epidemic that I can sense it coming. I’m accustomed to how someone begins the conversation and to their word choice. “Don’t be shocked.” “I wasn’t sure if you’d heard yet.” “I wanted to be the one to tell you.” “I’m so sorry you have to find out like this.” Or simply just saying my name accompanied by nothing else.
And you know what, every single time I always thought “it’s Andrew.” But it never was. But I never stopped fearing that it’d be him. Until the day it was. Until the day my mom told me “Andrew’s in heaven.” I didn’t believe her. I shouted at her and I burst out in tears and everyone came running to me. It’s like everybody already knew. Like everybody was just waiting for me to find out.
I have all of this new knowledge that I wish I never had. Knowledge and feelings that I would never wish upon my worst enemy.
If you are one of the people who has not been affected by heroin, consider yourself lucky. Count your blessings. But never think that it won’t happen to you. Never let your guard down because that’s when heroin finds you. Heroin finds you when you’re vulnerable and gullible. Heroin finds you when you least expect it. And she doesn’t play nice. She doesn’t give up easy and you shouldn’t either. Keep fighting every day. Don’t be too quick to judge people because you never know what kind of hell they’re living in. You never know who heroin has stolen from their life. And I sincerely hope that heroin never knocks on your door.