I Became an Only Child This Year
At the age of 31, I lost my brother to alcohol & depression
A disease that has no cure, that can go on and on with few symptoms, that will eat away at a person until it is too late.
My brother and I were just eighteen months apart. Growing up we did everything together. We played little league together, hung out with the same kids together, and went to the same schools together. We were best friends. But even as we were so close we could not be more different. We were quite literally the classic Ying and Yang combo. I was the cute and calm toe-head, and he was the rambunctious and mercurial ginger. It’s putting it mildly when I say my brother marched to a drum beat all his own for over 30 years. And that’s when we lost him to alcoholism and depression and I became an only child for the first time in my life.
It’s a weird feeling to have someone always be with you without fail for so long and, poof, they’re gone in an instant. That feeling is compounded when they’re your best friend. Sometimes you want to tell them something only to remember a split second later you can’t; or when you see something that reminds you of them. These are feelings we will encounter at some point in our lives. It is inevitable. But it’s a lot different when it’s someone so young and their death so sudden, like getting the wind knocked out of you. You were okay one second and then feel like the world was trying to crush you the next.
There is an uncomfortable truth I could only admit to myself recently. My brother was an alcoholic. I guess we all knew it in some way, we just never talked about it. Just one of those family secret things that you always hope will get better but they rarely do. For me it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment it all went so wrong. God knows my brother had enough tragedy heaped on him from an early age: temporarily paralyzed after a skiing accident or discovering the body of his girlfriend, dead at the age of 29 after accidentally taking a lethal dose of prescription drugs and alcohol. All I know for sure is that this was something he had been battling for years.
That’s the insidious nature of this disease. A disease that has no cure, that can go on and on with few symptoms, that will eat away at a person until it is too late. By the end, my brother was barely a shadow of the guy I grew up with. The alcohol and depression took their toll and turned him into someone I no longer recognized. He didn’t laugh or smile and we didn’t joke around with each other like we used to. For a long time I kept hoping he would get better; that things would go back to the way they were. I dreamt about the day when I could fly him out to California, show him around and just hang out together. It would be a fresh start. But that day never came and now it never will. In the end, it was simply a hole he could not dig himself out of.
You can’t force anyone to change if they don’t have the will to change themselves.
My mother did try though. She lost her brother the same way a decade before. The tragic similarities were not lost on me. There were so many fights between her and my brother the last few years. She was righteously furious at him for the drinking, for the state of his bedroom and place in life, for his lackadaisical attitude about the whole situation. But my brother was stubborn. He was mud: you couldn’t break him down but you couldn’t build him up either.
I sometimes feel guilty for not doing more and wonder if I should have tried harder. If I should have been more forceful or more confrontational or more enraged at his self-destructive behavior. Would that have changed the outcome? I don’t have the answers. How do you get angry at your brother for having a disease? Better yet, how do you help a family member with a disease that’s as vicious as cancer but even more stealthy? I loved him so much and I was willing to do so much for him but I wasn’t willing to force him to the get the help he needed. And that’s the other horrific facet of the vicious life cycle of depression and alcohol. You can’t force anyone to change if they don’t have the will to change themselves. My brother didn’t and it killed him.