“I know I’m the addict and all but you have it too, Dawn,” my brother said.
If he had been standing in front of me when he said it, I would have gone Britney Spears on his ass—not the angel-faced Mickey Mouse Club Britney with the wide eyes and soft cheeks but rather the 2007 bald Britney, the one who cracked car windows with an umbrella and walked barefoot into truck stop bathrooms. Luckily for him, there was approximately 2800 miles of mountains, phone lines and black top between the smog he was breathing in LA and the coffee I was sipping in Brooklyn.
So instead I started biting the inside of my cheeks in frustration. “What do you mean that I have ‘it’? Are you calling me an addict?”
“Nah. I know you don’t do drugs and shit like me, but you still have it.” He paused after a puff of silence. “Yo, you there?”
I rolled my eyes, sucked the air out from between my teeth and smacked my tongue on the roof of my mouth. “Yeah.”
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I lied and shook my head. But I couldn’t stop myself. “You just said it yourself: I don’t drink and do drugs like you. So then how could I have it?” I railed. “Correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t you the one that just get out of rehab?”
It was day two of the Rodney King riots when my brother had arrived in South Los Angeles from the East Coast. He was slumped on a pile of crumbling church steps somewhere downtown, completely blitzed, when a random guy—or dude, as he called him—appeared out of nowhere and said, “Man, what are you doing? You gotta get out of here.”
“Whaa?” my brother mumbled and laid back, folding into the soft cushion of his last hit of meth. He was squinting hard at the sun-drenched silhouette towering above him. The silhouette continued, “Man seriously, don’t you know what’s going down? There are riots out here man, and they’ll kill you. C’mon, let’s split.” Call it divine intervention—a brief flash of sanity that pulled my brother out of his drug-induced trance long enough to feel the heated frenzy rapidly boiling around him; he agreed to follow the man’s lead. What took place next could almost be a piece of addiction folklore. It just so happened that the guy that saved my brother’s ass also worked at a nearby rehab/sober living facility for men which meant that by the end of that day, my brother was not only still breathing but also checked into rehab.
Once he transitioned out of sober living, with a rainbow assortment of sobriety chips in tow, I flew out to LA for a visit. I remember sitting in an NA meeting with him and feeling as if I stuck out—like the loudest, most obnoxious shade of 80’s florescent green. The burly guy to my right with the matted goatee reeked of cigarette smoke and let out a guttural, gurgling snort every five seconds that rattled the tip of his nose and triggered my gag reflex. Getting up at that point and moving seats would have drawn unwanted attention so I leaned as far to the left as I could. I needed something to take my mind off of him so I decided to play connect the dots with the black stains scattered on the cheap synthetic carpet around me. My thoughts kept floating back to my best friend in elementary school and the pristine wool carpets that had blanketed her house. I coveted everything about her family—from their Benetton sweater shopping sprees to their summers lounging at the local country club. The closest she ever seemed to get to addiction was in high school Health Ed class where, within the span of an hour, you learned about conflict resolution, the difference between the uterus and the urethra and how to say no to drugs. She had what I didn’t have—a perfect-seeming, drug-free family. And that was the only kind of “it” that I was ever interested in having.
By the time I hung up the phone, my coffee was cold and a series of thin brown rings had started growing on the inside of my mug. Sheryl Crow’s tight voice crackled out of the CD player on the windowsill while the conversation I just had with my brother reverberated through the air around me. The truth is that I knew exactly what he meant and I hated giving his words space in my head. I didn’t need time in rehab or to have the 12 steps memorized to know that my personality, with all of its self-centered extremes, provided an ideal breeding ground for an addiction to manifest. On the morning of a close friend’s wedding, while she sipped on a fizzy peach mimosa and had the final coat of blackest black mascara painted on her lashes, I sat on the corner of her bed with my arms crossed like a spoiled toddler and bitched about how nasty I thought her maid of honor was. Now, sabotaging my own happiness, which has always been a specialty of mine, was one thing but robbing my friend of hers by spewing my petty bullshit all over her satin and chiffon gown was insanely selfish and self centered. Sadly, it wasn’t until I got married almost two years ago and someone at my wedding—ironically, perhaps, an addict in recovery—did the same to me that I truly understood how I must have made her feel. This was only one of numerous times my narcissism reigned supreme.
Even though my parents and both of my brothers are addicts, the fact remains that I am not. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why. And although I’ve spun myself in circles trying to find an explanation, the best I can come up with is this: I just don’t know. Still, there’s something I do know. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Barbie doll blonde with a closet full of Benetton sweaters or live in a trailer park with a matted goatee and nicotine-stained fingertips. As the saying goes, addiction takes people from Yale and people from jail. And it doesn’t seem like having “it” that’s the problem; it’s being able to live well in spite of it.
Photo courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe (Self-photographed, https://mstyslavchernov.com/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via WikimediaCommons (resized and cropped)