“Shannon…hey, Shannon… Shannon…,” my brother said with a giggle. Like he had just shared an inside joke that only he understood.
“What Jeff?” I replied with a sigh, letting out the air in my lungs. I was looking anywhere but at my brother. I really didn’t want to encourage a conversation. I could tell that whatever was about to come out of his month, was going to be something I wouldn’t want to hear.
I was correct.
“Did you know that God, our God and Savior…s-savior..” He stuttered. “Did you know that we are connected. He and I. I and Him.” Jeff was now pacing in front of the windows by the airport check-in counter. His arms were becoming animated as he prepared to tell me what he believed to be the truth. That God was calling upon him.
I started to twist my hands together and force myself to not roll my eyes for the hundredth time. This conversation felt like it was on repeat. Each time my brother started to speak about God, I wanted to cringe and retreat. I tried to stare straight ahead and flood out his voice with my own thoughts.
Only ten more minutes and he would board a plane with my parents and be taken over 3,000 miles away. I couldn’t wait. That thought was immediately followed by guilt. He wasn’t going on a vacation. And I wasn’t going to see him again for months. I should have been upset but I wasn’t. In fact, I felt lighter for the first time in months. I needed time away from him and his constant conversations about God. Having my brother talk out his delusion about God, did not bring me closer to my religion from my youth. If anything, the pain it brought me created a separation from my belief system. And that belief system had been my support. Not only was my brother falling apart and my parents were at a loss of what to do, but now I didn’t even have my faith. Those were dark moments with a sliver of hope that Jeff was about to get the care he needed. However, this hope was also clouded by guilt. Guilt that I was happy he was going to be far away. That my parents might get some sleep. That they would focus on my life for once since his illness came about and took priority.
“Sorry,” Jeff said with a clear voice that made me turn away from the window and face him. “I know you don’t like when I talk about God. I can stop.” He was no longer pacing and looked into my eyes when he spoke.
A part of me wanted to crumble. He was back! A part of me wanted to tell my parents to cancel the plan tickets. He didn’t need to go. He was clear now. My heart was racing. Everything was going to fine, right? I didn’t know what to do. Should he go so far away from his family? From the people that love him and instead be with a bunch of strangers? But that’s what ‘the experts’ said he needed to do.
“Jeff needs to be away from everything that is familiar to him in order to recover from his addiction.” The owner of the Florida christian-based alcohol and drug recovery farm said. “In order to break the cycle of addiction, Jeff has to be far away from temptation. This time away will help him create new coping strategies.”
All of that made sense. If you knew where and whom could sell you drugs then it would be hard to resist. Leaving that world behind for a new one while your body and mind healed made sense. Everything but the separation from his family. That last part is what made me hesitate.
“I love you Shannon,” Jeff said and I had to shake my head to refocus on where I was.
“I love you to,” I replied. “Be sure to listen to everything they tell you to do. I will come visit you in three months.”
“It’s time to go,” My mom called out to us.
My brother pulled me into his arms for a hug like he always did. I was never a big hugger but my brother refused to leave, even for school, without a hug and an “I love you.” He had grown so much since he graduated from high school. My 5’5” height dwarfed against his now 6ft frame. In that moment, while I was hugging my large teddy bear of a brother, I thought back to being the one to carry him around. I would give him piggy back rides, pretend to be a surfboard he could ride at the pool, and horse play with. Now I would be squashed by his size.
“Bye,” Jeff said as he walked to my parents and down to the terminal walkway.
I waved and stayed rooted to the spot for a minute before I turned and fled.
Twelve weeks later I took the same flight my brother had previously boarded to travel to Florida. An odd combination of anticipation and trepidation floated through me.
Would Jeff be happy to see me?
Would he be angry that I had abandoned him to this place?
Is he healing and going to be able to come home?
Do I want him to come home?
So many questions kept me wired and on edge throughout the flight. My parents were in the seats next to me, but, as usual, I kept my questions and fears to myself. The only person that I confided in was my then-boyfriend but he wasn’t with me on this trip. Technically, I wasn’t alone, since my parents were with me, but I was alone since I didn’t want to add to their burden. Feeling alone was becoming the norm.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want my parents to ease my concerns. What kid doesn’t want affirmation from their mom or dad. Any sibling that has walked the tightrope between their needs, the needs of their parents, and the ill sibling will understand how I became such a closed box. A behavior that I became an expert in.
Do I ask my parents about this place? Do I ask if Jeff is going to become well again? If I ask, what am I risking? Do I risk my parents health by asking questions that deeply effect them due to their own worries about their son. Or am I risking ‘the pause.’ The hesitation or pause that lets any kid instantly know that their parents either don’t know the answer or are about to lie to them. Either way, I risk having to face the reality that things might not get better. By my thinking, the risks outweigh the benefits and my closed box grew bigger.
We exited the airport and traveled thirty minutes to the place my brother was staying. This place was a non-traditional way of treating addiction disorders. The organization had a network of farmlands, where people with addiction issues could live, work, and heal. The community my brother was at was for men only. The idea was giving both the body and mind a place to heal away from temptation and all things that the person knew. On that piece of farmland, they were insulated, away from anyone that they knew and away from bars and dealers.
We first walked into a conference style room to meet with the administrators of what I started calling, ‘the Farm.’ The staff believed it was important to also work with families in order to prepare them for when their loved one was ready to come home. That was why we were there. It was family weekend, where we would come visit with Jeff and the staff. Healing was crucial not just for the person but also among the family members.
“Welcome,” a man in blue jeans and a polo shirt said. He identified himself as Ray and the man in charge of this facility. “Jeff has had a difficult time adjusting and has kept himself separate from the rest of the men here. And when he does interact, it’s a bit stilted and almost combative.”
I’m not sure if my parents and I were surprised by his words. I mean, this wasn’t the old Jeff, but this was a new Jeff we were starting to become familiar and frustrated with.
The elephant in the room that wasn’t being spoken but one we all knew to be true, including to Ray, was that my brother didn’t just have an addiction disorder, but also a mental illness. In fact, the addiction was secondary to his mental illness. It was like no one wanted to voice their opinion out loud. It was as if we actually said the word, then we were cursing Jeff to live a horrible life without the possibility of finding work, independence, or love.
For my brother, that turned out to be true.
I left blue-jean Ray in search of my brother. I had tired of speaking about Jeff without him in the room. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Ray but he didn’t know my brother. Six weeks didn’t make him an expert. I also understood that he had to be devoted to the success of all the residents, but I only had to be devoted to one. I found him by himself at the basketball field, bouncing the ball up and down. A mask of frustration on his face after he failed to get the ball in the basket. All my old big sister protections kicked-in. My brother did not take failure well. In fact, he took it as if it was the end of the world. That if he failed once, he would always fail. I constantly worked on changing his mind, and if that failed, then I tried re-directing his thoughts.
I already felt exhausted and I hadn’t even said hello yet.
“Hey Jeff,” I called out to him before he could throw the ball into the nearby stream. He looked as if punishing the ball would make up for his lack of skill.
Upon hearing my voice, his whole demeanor changed and his face lit up with a smile.
Re-direction it is.
“Hey sis!” He walked over to me and gave me one of his big hugs. In that one blessed moment, everything was perfect. Why do perfect moments have to end?
He had lost weight. I vaguely remembering Ray stating that he wasn’t eating and he was doing a lot of praying.
My parents caught up then and said their own welcomes before a bell rang indicating it was time for lunch.
The lunch area was several large ranch style tables that were placed outside on a covered porch the length of one side of the main building. The food was served farm style and everyone, family members and residents, shared.
My brother piled food on his plate and proceeded to stare at it. There was a fight going on inside of him that we were not privy to. In the end, he lost the fight and said he wasn’t hungry before getting up and leaving the table. He had not spoken a word or answered any of my mother’s million questions.
At this point in our journey, I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know why he was behaving like this. But what I did know is that my brother needed peace.
I silently joined him by the stream. For a while we just stood there.
“Uh…” I hesitated, not sure of myself, as if I was talking to a stranger. But I wasn’t talking to a stranger. I was standing next to my brother and it upset me that I would feel so uncomfortable starting a conversation with the same boy that I grew up with. “What do you think about this place?” I managed to squeak out.
“It’s good…you know good…” he giggled.
No, not again. I could tell immediately where this conversation was about to go. How could this be. We had a moment. In that moment, he was clear. Why would he allow this stupid illness to control him. Clearly this was all his fault.
The anger was starting to burn in me. And more and more items were being added to that closed box. The box that I locked in a corner of my brain. I was sure it was ok to compartmentalize the box but now it was growing, and I was no longer so sure.
Later I would come to understand that none of this was his fault. That he didn’t ask for a mental illness. In fact, I think his salad talk was a release for him. My brother was always more of an extrovert than I. I reenergized. with alone time and he needed and thrived on social companionship. He needed to talk and get out what was on his mind. That didn’t mean I had to like it but I couldn’t be angry with him for it.
I left the ‘farm’ with the excuse that I needed to get back to the hotel to study. Yeah right, try studying when your brother looks like himself but is a complete stranger. When you know deep down something is wrong but you have no idea how to fix it or if he will ever be the same again. Essentially this was the moment when grief started to kick in.
Grief isn’t reserved for the moment someone passes but when something devastating happens that is out of your control and with no potential future of getting better.
I told myself to suck it up. To focus on my work and to get myself back to my brother and try harder. This wasn’t about me but about him.
Pep talks to yourself while grieving don’t always stick and actually can send you on a spiral of guilt and self-loathing. So I went back to the farm the next day and my heart broke a little more.
To be continued….