Look at that face. It is the picture I see in my head when I think of my baby brother. It’s odd that I have a harder time picturing his face now—the man I hardly recognize as that child. For me, that sweet little boy, holding a puppy, and that serious little blonde boy on the right are the embodiment of the issues we face as Americans. They are my brothers—and the souls who remind me that behind all the political posturing are the very human faces of people in need.
I know this is not an unfamiliar story. But many of us don’t talk about the hurting and the broken ones in our families. I didn’t. For a long time I was embarrassed to admit to all the normal and successful people around me that I grew up in a family that society would have labeled “dysfunctional” had they known the truth of my childhood. My colleagues knew that I had worked my way through college, but for a long time none of them knew that my youngest siblings didn’t fare as well.
And then a strange thing happened. Somewhere along the way, when some of my colleagues became close friends, I began to share stories of my profound grief for my brothers. And I began to learn that while few of my colleagues grew up as poor as I did, many of them had family members that, in one way or another, hadn’t fared well either. Our stories are common, but most of them remain untold. Only when a celebrity like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of a heroin overdose is our society reminded for a few weeks that it isn’t just the dregs of society who die after shooting up.
My middle brother, the chubby child who rarely frowned as he did in this picture, died in 2007 of a prescription drug overdose. As a child of poverty, he accumulated a mountain of debt for the two years he attended college. He took a job as a bartender—a place where his interest in people, his ready laugh, and his charming amiability would earn him a single night’s tips that amounted to more than my sister and I made in a week from our work-study jobs. But after he died, a friend of his who was also a bartender told me that in those days doing cocaine was an everyday part of the bar scene in their lives. My brother knew he needed to get his life in order and felt he couldn’t do it in a college town, so he quit school and joined the United States Army. For a while after he served, he had a good life, but when he lost his job at the beginning of the recession, his life spiraled out of control. His story, tragically, is an all-too-familiar one.
My youngest brother, the sweet-faced boy with the puppy, just got out of jail for the third time on charges related to his heroin addiction. He served 17 months for what is probably the lowest point of his life so far. As our mother lay in a nursing home, dying a slow death after a debilitating stroke, my baby brother took one of her checks, forged her name on it, and used the money, allegedly, to feed his addiction. (He maintains he used it on living expenses.) He finished his sentence in November and will be on a probation that requires him to be drug-tested for the foreseeable future. He tells my remaining two siblings and me that he’s clean and that he’s trying to find a job but that no one seems willing to hire an electrician’s helper who has a prison record like his. His story, sadly, is also a familiar one.
I have become more open about telling these stories, and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. Poverty, abuse, homelessness, addiction—and most of the problems we face as a nation—are easier to ignore at an arm’s length, and I don’t blame people for wanting to distance themselves from my family’s reality. But if our leaders knew how many “normal,” “successful” people are affected by these issues, our nation might be in a very different place.
We need research into the genetics of addiction. We need support and therapy for children broken by abuse. Ultimately, the only way we will ever diminish the numbers of the abused and addicted is to stop treating them like criminals and to find ways to heal their broken bodies and wounded psyches. And as long as we as a nation tell ourselves that these people are to blame for their own problems, we will never make progress as a society in dealing with the issues that face us.
Please. Tell your stories.
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