Living with addiction: not for sissies

Many of you are aware of my family history. I have written about it several times on social media, much to the chagrin of others who believe it’s a topic best left silent. There’s a lot of stigma associated with talking about growing up in an environment like mine.

I’ve never had a lot of respect for these people, who think that these universal experiences should remain hidden. Their philosophy is: best to think about the comfort of others, and know that talking about such taboo subject matters makes them feel unsteady.

But that is Canada. Canadians are puritans, they are also emotionless, generally speaking. And before you start let me preface with yes there are exceptions to this rule, I know.

My brother is a drug addict and he is homeless. I haven’t seen him in over 20 years. I don’t want. I do not like him. People become angry with me when I verbalize my dislike for drugs and addicts. They think I’m being too harsh, but few of these people have ever lived with an addict. Let me tell you from first-hand experience, it leaves life-long scars that you never fully recover from.

My brother wasn’t only an addict. He was mean. Selfish. Entitled. Arrogant. He had an unearned confidence about him rooted in deep insecurity. He isn’t all to blame. He was the oldest son, and my parents had pinned a lot of their hopes and dreams for a better life on him. He was somewhat good at hockey, but he was short. What he lacked in height, he made up for in aggression. When he failed to live up to my parents’ expectations, they gave up on him. Over night.

Once my brother came home from a hockey game and my mother admonished him for not making a goal that night, “only” an assist. There was tremendous pressure placed on him and my parents often fed his most basic, and crass instincts. He was simply put, not a nice person to be around.

He was a bully. He hated everyone and anyone who was remotely different from him. But so did my parents. They were under the impression that they were better than everyone else, and this self-importance rubbed off on their children.

Enter gay me. I was gay, I was studious, I liked to read, I was disinterested in appearing cool, I didn’t care to have friends. I liked going for walks in the rain and I used my imagination, what my parents called, “my fantasy world.”

Because of these traits I was a prime target for ridicule. Once when my brother saw me standing in an effeminate manner he yelled out loud, in front of all who could hear, “you’re not a faggot are you?” Upon hearing this my mother screamed, “you better not be a faggot!” and then proceeded to shake and say, “my nerves are shot, I can’t handle this!” I was mortified. I didn’t know what a faggot was, but I knew it was the worst thing a person could be.

When I spoke up for myself my brother would punch me. He would hit me all the time, often when we were alone, so as to have no witnesses. When I tried to speak up, to let my parents know what was happening, I was told that I was lying. There were no bruises.

I was intimidated by my brother and I hated being near him. It wasn’t only the physical intimidation, but the verbal abuse, the humiliation I endured daily. Any instance my brother had to embarrass me, he made sure to do it. Usually in the vicinity of those who could witness it.

He was a nicotine and pot smoker, he was an alcoholic, he took steroids which resulted in many episodes of rage and he did crystal meth. He dabbled in cocaine and once, when I was a teenager, I walked in to his bedroom to find him and his friend taking heroin.

My parents were well aware of all of this, but they were more interested in keeping up appearances, so did nothing to solve the issue. In fact, they didn’t even want to address it, because to do so would acknowledge the truth. But it was more than that, they didn’t want to acknowledge any of it because they would then have to address their own failings as parents.

There were times as a child when I would go to bed afraid my brother was going to murder me.

Let me explain to you the affects that addiction has on an already dysfunctional family. I am the middle child of five. My sister is a recovering addict, incapable of keeping work. My brother his homeless. One of my youngest brothers is haunted by memories that he is pressured to bury, to not talk about. As a result he turns to alcohol. My other brother, who is intellectually disabled, is a lost case.

Addiction impacts people’s lives forever. Not only the addict’s life, but the lives of all those, like me, who were forced to observe it in person.

When I was 16 and my brother was 19 he lost his driver’s license because of intoxicated driving, and I was tasked with waking up at 5:00 every morning to drive him to his factory job in Milton.

For those of you unfamiliar I grew up in a suburb of Toronto called Brampton, and Milton was a 30 minute drive from Brampton.

After I dropped him off I would drive back home, shower, dress in my school uniform, and go to school. Then after school, I would drive back to Milton, pick him up, drop him off at home, change into my work uniform, and go to work until 11 at night.

This went on for almost two years. I worked 44 hours a week while attending high school. I did my homework, got good grades, enough to receive a full scholarship to one school, and a partial scholarship to another.

I didn’t have a typical high school experience because I had to make sure my addict of a brother kept his factory job! Once in the car, while he was berating me for not doing enough for him, I told him that I didn’t have to do this for him any more, to which he replied that as I was his brother, it was my job to help him. For some reason, as that time, I believed him. When he wanted to go to a friend’s house, I drove him. When he wanted to go to the shop I drove him. I was essentially his driver.

Rightfully so I have a strong dislike for addicts. I have found, in my experiences, that they are selfish, entitled people who will use others to get what they want. Usually that means another high.

We like to talk about forgiveness in North America, but I don’t forgive easily. It’s not that I’m left with hate, or animosity, but it’s that I don’t believe many people are capable of changing. Often times in my life I’ve given second and third chances, to learn that the person wasn’t worthy of them.

A lot of recovering addicts would read this and take umbrage with my comments here, and that’s their right. I’m sure they want to be forgiven for what they’ve done to others. And perhaps they will be. Perhaps they already have been.

What I implore in those who don’t know any better is that living with an addict is insanely challenging. Growing up in it, I felt trapped. I couldn’t escape it. It wasn’t simply living with a deranged person like my brother, it was living with parents who didn’t know how to be functional.

I look back at those times and I cringe, still. I’m not sure to this day, at 42, how to repurpose what I experienced into something more positive. Sometimes I see the light, it did make me into the person I am today, and I truly like who I am. Maybe because all the adversity made me appreciate the importance of perseverance. But also it’s taught me not to give a shit, to go for what makes me happy, to not be deterred by the opinions of others.

In Canadian culture, people are obsessed with fitting in, with being ‘cool.’ And yet, none of them are what I would consider cool. Convention to me isn’t all that great, it’s confining, restrictive, limiting. I don’t want to be a part of any of that.

Today, I can spot an addict upon meeting them. I can spot misery. And I know who and what to avoid.

When I started speaking more openly about this topic I was met with a lot of resistance. Not only from people online, but from my parents who threatened to sue me. My father tried a myriad of ways to intimidate me into silence. He screamed, name-called, shouted and hollered.

One of the bravest moments of my life is when I stood up to him for the first time and told him that I was no longer afraid of him. That he didn’t intimidate me. That I was free from his bullying.

I was free.

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