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This story has a happy ending. I need to tell you that here at the top of the page, because things will happen in the paragraphs below that will make you doubt the ending. I don’t care for tension, so I am taking it out here for both of us. Tension makes me ill. Like the tension in the middle of a movie, when the person you’ve come to love is about to make a terrible decision. They could still change their mind, they could still choose differently, but you know they won’t. I hate that tension and always want to jump to the end, so I am saving you the heartache and telling you up front, this works out.
My sister had a plan and it was in her pocket. She kept touching it, patting it gently, to be sure it was still there. Her father, our father, was driving her to the umpteenth halfway house or community service board or whatever it was. It doesn’t matter, because the plan was in her pocket and everything was going to be fine.
It was winter and my father was driving the family van. We always had a van. There were just so many kids and our parents loved to be on the road going somewhere/anywhere, so vans were required. This was the blue and white van, the one that had windows all around so everyone could look out no matter where you were sitting. On that day my sister was in the front seat, occasionally patting her plan, watching the winter landscape fly by. Barren trees, frozen ponds.
Looking back now, she can’t recall how many years she’d been using, or where in the downward spiral this particular moment occurred, but in this timeframe in which there were many shitty moments, this one still sticks out.
Dad was driving her to get a urine test. If she failed it, she would go to jail. That morning she had promised him, sworn to him, she was going to pass. And she was going to pass. She reached back into her coat one more time to touch the baggie of bleach that was going to make her pee clean, make this particular shitty moment go away. But this time, when she touched the plan, it broke apart. The pungent smell smacked her nose and her shirt was instantly soaked. But before the panic could set in, before things turned cold and clinical, there was a moment of calm.
The wetness was warm against her chest; my father had not yet gotten a whiff of the bleach. In that moment my sister was free and healthy, not an addict heading to jail; my parents were strong and certain, not shattered and desperately searching for solutions.
And then, of course, it all turned to shit.
Just as there are many paths to recovery, there are many paths to loving someone who is in active addiction. I am aware of the tactics often used in this situation: codependence, enabling, tough love, rock bottom. I am not offering an opinion on which path to take. Instead I am just sharing the story of my own family.
Last week as I drove home after watching A Star Is Born, I went back 20 years ago, to the blue and white van with my sister and father. The terribleness of that time came back to me quickly and in stark detail. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga do not spare us from tension in their movie and I still felt ill from watching someone I had come to love make terrible choices.
When my sister was in trouble, for all the years she was in trouble, my parents refused to let her go. Rock bottom was not an option for them and so it was not an option for her. From my vantage point as an older sibling, I was always furious and terrified. I wanted my sister to stop hurting herself and hurting my parents, I wanted it all to end. But no matter what happened, no matter how bad things got, my parents refused to look away. Their love for my sister only got softer, never tough or harsh.
I recently heard Deanna Axe, a mom who lost her daughter and unborn grandson to an overdose and founded Addicted to Hope, put into words the actions of my parents: “You have to love them all the way through,” she said.
My sister began her recovery during the year she spent in prison. She now lives in rural Virginia with her husband and 3-year-old son. Last week, she pulled over to help a deer that had been hit by a car. A young man had also pulled over and already called the police. Animal Control had been dispatched.
The deer was young, he still had his spots. His back was broken and he was in obvious pain. While they waited, another man pulled over. He jumped out of this truck and started yelling at my sister and the young man. “It’s people like you! It’s people like you who just stand there and watch! Get out of my way,” he said. “I’ll do what you’re too stupid to do.” He grabbed the deers’ legs and drug it further off the road. The deer had settled down, but now it started to flail about again, its pain worsened. The man stomped back over to his truck and retuned with a piece of wood. He was going to beat the deer to death, put it out of its misery. Rock bottom it.
“Get away from him!,” my sister yelled. “You’re making it worse! We aren’t doing nothing! Animal control is coming and we are waiting here with it!”
My sister and this man stared at each other on the side of the road, cars flying past them, the dying deer between them, the young man watching silently. Finally, the man blinked. “I’m going home to go get my gun,” he said. “And if that deer is still here when I get back, you’re not stopping me from pulling the trigger.”
A few minutes after he left, Animal Control arrived. They gently put the deer in the back of their truck and drove it away. Before getting back into her car, my sister gave the young man a hug. “Thank you for stopping,” she said. “I wish there were more people like us.”
When she told me this story, I asked her what she meant by “more people like us.” More people who took the time to pull over, she said, more people who will stand and witness. More people who don’t look away or pull out the weapons, even when there is not a happy ending in sight. More people who love each other all the way through.
Erin Wickersham is the managing editor and lead writer for the She Recovers blog. She lives in Virginia where she has been working on and blogging about recovery since 2013. After years of trying to do recovery alone, she discovered the beauty of connection and friendship through She Recovers in 2017. You can find her here and on IG @ewickersham.