The not-so-American dream

“OxyContin In Your Words” stories are unedited accounts of OxyContin and heroin addiction. Help us break through the shame of addiction and share your own story. Confidentiality, if requested, is assured.

I grew up in a small city, on a one-way street, with the same families who had lived on that block since my father moved into that house when he was ten years old. A big, green house with an American flag on the front porch, and a front yard with green grass, flowers, a bird bath, and a maple tree.

When I was little, I loved that house. I loved the history of it. The idea that my family had lived there since my great-great grandparents bought it. I loved the park that’s across the street and the bike path, or the “tracks” as we called it, that runs behind that park. I loved the smell of donuts in the morning from the donut factory that sits on the “tracks.” I loved my backyard, the shed that’s there that matches the green on my house and the rock box that my father built behind it. I loved the yellow roses that grew along the lattice next to my back door. I loved the smell of freshly cut grass in my backyard on Saturday mornings. I was only a child; this was what I saw.

From the outside looking in, people seemed to assume us to be the cookie cutter White, American, Catholic family. There are four of us, Megan, Alex, Diana, and me, Emily, in that order. Our parents, Mike and Maureen, have been married for thirty years and have been ‘together’ for even longer.

My dad has always worked his hardest to support us the best he could, and my mother was a stay at home mom for most of our lives. We went to church every Sunday, then Sunday school afterwards, until each of us made our confirmation. My dad coached each of our basketball teams at least once and my mom was at every single game. Every night we sat at the dinner table as a family, no excuses. And every night on our plate was always a home cooked meal and everyone drank a glass of milk with dinner. My dad ran for Alderman once, and my oldest sister was on School Committee at age twenty. My mom never missed a single PTA meeting from kindergarten up to senior year of high school, for all four of us. Either mom or dad was at every single game, graduation, talent show, school play, dance recital, prom, banquet, or awards night.

Sounds pretty cookie cutter, huh? I know. And as I look back on it, it was. Or at least it seemed like that when I hadn’t yet learned what the world was made of.

That perfectly cut cookie seemed to last most of my life. I thought it would always be like that, and even if we weren’t the perfect family, people viewed us as at least a good family, a strong family. We had a reputation, whether we agreed with it or not.

A spoon, a syringe, and a five dollar bag of heroin changed that forever.

My brother Alex was always quiet, not so much when he was with friends, but around the family he pretty much kept to himself. Not like you can blame him. He had three sisters and was one of the middle children.

When we were younger he and I got along a lot better. Even though he did cry the entire morning after I was born because I was not a boy, I think he was happy that I became such a little tom boy and loved spending time doing “guy things” with him and my father. In kindergarten and first grade I actually wanted to be a boy so badly so that I could be more like Alex. I even tried to pee standing up once, which was what probably made me realize that no matter what I did, I was always going to be a girl, whether I had liked it or not.

I guess after first grade, when I started picking dolls over dirt, the relationship between my brother and I was never really the same again. I hadn’t given up everything I learned with Dad and Alex, like playing basketball and going fishing, I just didn’t spend as much time with them anymore. I started dance lessons, grew my hair out long and pretty, learned how to paint my nails and started to wear my mom’s heels around the house. We just had nothing in common anymore; we went our separate ways, which I guess was bound to happen eventually, and never really built our relationship up again.

Then when Alex hit puberty, he really separated himself from the family. He spent most of his time with his two best friends, Peter and Stanley, who became very much a part of our family or playing basketball. He was never really too concerned about his school work. He always just slid by. He wasn’t as worried about his grades as us girls were. After some ups and downs throughout high school, with both his school work and basketball, he ended up graduating on time in 2004.

After high school, Alex didn’t really do much. He bounced around from part time job to part time job, and spent a ton of time unemployed, still living with my parents. He pretty much kept to himself. He slept during the day, was up or out all night, came in as he pleased, went as he pleased, no questions asked.

He would walk through the door, grey face, sunken in, glossy eyes, dosing off one minute and ecstatic the next, yelling, “Hey Ma, Hey Pop! What’s up Sis?!” And the minute he opened his mouth, you could tell, he was high.

But at least he was nice when he was high. He treated me like he always should have, like a big brother. He acted more like he used to, almost like we just skipped the last thirteen years and we were little kids shooting hoops down the park again. He asked me about school, my friends, boys, and always told me that he loved me. And I hated it. Because it wasn’t him, it was the heroin. Heroin became my big brother.

Alex began using OxyContin sometime between 2003 and 2005, and heroin sometime in 2006, or at least that’s what we’ve heard. My family had not even the slightest idea of his abuse until the winter of 2007. Between that winter and the spring of 2008, my brother overdosed on heroin three times, went into detox five times, four different rehabs, and two halfway houses.

Alex’s addiction made for a world of change in my house. Everyone was always tense, angry, confused, or upset. The dinner table was quiet on most nights now. Except for when Alex was sitting at it, high of course. Other than that, no one really had much to say to one another. We weren’t all on the same terms with each other about Alex and his abuse, especially my parents and me. We fought about it constantly. Questioning is he using or not this week? Or did he go to his meeting? Was he lying about where he went all night? Or did he take that new DVD I just bought?

My brother’s problem changed my last two years of high school drastically. A time that most teenagers spend making great memories that last the rest of their lives. For me, those last two years were something like a horror film. Every day after school I never knew what I could be walking into when I got home. He and a group of junkies could be lingering on my front porch, or even worse in my living room. He could be high and I’d have to worry about being home alone with him. Or my front door could be wide open because he broke in when he was supposed to be at rehab. Every time I would hear him lock the bathroom door or run up the stairs to his room my heart would stop, waiting to see if he would come out.

Alex and I didn’t talk when he was sober, and when he was high all we did was fight, to unimaginable extents. He stole from me repetitively, so much that I refused to live in my own house without a lock on my bedroom door.

What he did to me, to my parents and to my family as a whole, has changed the way I will look at my brother forever. Now when I see him, I don’t see a big brother or the star of the basketball team. I don’t remember the boy that was with me the first time I scored a basket down the park or who was there when I caught my first fish. I see a junkie.

I don’t love that house as much anymore. It’s not filled with all good memories like it used to be. It’s filled with memories of my brother lying on a bathroom floor, or his bedroom floor, half dead. A bathroom sink filled with water, with a floating spoon and needle. A belt tied so tightly around an arm it had turned completely blue. No matter how hard I try to rid my mind of them these images will be burned into my memory forever. That park, the ‘tracks’, my shed and my rock box, are now all places where my brother once shot heroin. How could I look at those places the same way I did when I was a little girl, when the world was so much nicer? I would never be able to.

The same as the way people will never look at my family the same. Not like we ever agreed with our image, or cared much about it, it’s just a dramatic change in who we were before my brother’s addiction. Before, we were for the most part a happy, well put together family. Now, we’re a family who together has to battle heroin addiction. It is not something that goes away overnight, or that someone else can change for the addict. You can’t just tell yourself that you need to be or should be clean and it’ll happen. It’s a grueling, stressful, and intense process of recovery.

Together we have to try our hardest to forgive and forget what has happened and what has been done and to help my brother move forward in his life with something positive. It is now our job, whether we want it to be or not, to be there to support him and help him through the steps of recovery. No matter how hard it may be for us to see the lighter side of things, without us, he will never successfully recover. And no matter if it’s been 2 weeks, 3 months, or 5 years, that person will always be an addict in recovery.

We will always be addicts in recovery.

~ Submitted by Emily

About Erin Marie Daly

I’m a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. My book on prescription drug and heroin addiction was published in August 2014 by Counterpoint Press.
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