I wrote this short essay for my students in December of 2014, on the occasion of losing my little brother.
To my ears, my brother Dan could shred. More than once I stood in my mother’s walk-out basement, listening to him do his best Marty Friedman. He loved metal. There was no greater pleasure in his life than chasing the next note on his black, B. C. Rich guitar, the one he called “The Beast,” at speeds that would make Vin Diesel say, “Woah, maybe tap the brakes.” Or so it sounded to me. But then, I’m not into heavy metal. When he was sixteen, I took him to see Megadeth and Sevendust, and fell asleep during the main act. I hadn’t listened to metal in years, until I looked it up on YouTube to listen to after school last Friday.
That’s the day I learned Dan had died.
He was thirty.
Back when I was driving him to that loud-yet-apparently-soporific concert, it was not yet clear to me that Dan was ruining his life. I would find out a few years later that he had been drinking, smoking cigarettes and pot, and experimenting with other drugs since just past junior high school. When he told me that, I remarked that if I’d realized he was doing these things at the time, I’d have kicked his ass. I said this, I think, because I didn’t know what to say, and it’s the sort of useless thing that you say to your little brother in that situation. Addiction comes into a family’s life like a force of nature, an Act of God. If we are brave enough to stand, looking into the storm, we do so pitifully, shaking our puny fists. The storm takes no notice, and rages on.
Or so it seems. I actually do believe there are things we can do for loved ones with destructive addictions.
Now, please don’t read this as a “Don’t Do Drugs, Kids,” kind of lecture. There are surely kids who start drinking at a young age, or experimenting with pot, or worse, and manage to pull themselves out of the abuse. But Dan couldn’t, and didn’t, and my family and I will spend the rest of our lives wondering why. So I don’t have many answers. What I do know is that he certainly had been exposed to the notion that substance abuse could ruin his life before ending it, had heard that he should Just Say No, and DARE to resist drugs, and none of that had an impact. That message alone doesn’t break through. Too often, the people who hear it think the adults saying it are oversimplifying or moralizing, and tune them out. I know Dan did.
Yet addiction did ruin his life. Substance abuse wasn’t the thing that finally did him in, but it wasn’t irrelevant, either. An adolescence and adulthood spent ruining your ability to think, to remember, and to make competent decisions offers all kinds of opportunities to die. And so he is dead, and we mourn him, even as we’ve been privately, inwardly mourning him for years, wondering every time we saw him whether this time would be the last. Eventually it was.
It’s hard not to see music culture as part of the problem, which is not something I ever thought I’d say. My brothers and I each found a subculture that made us feel we belonged. For me, it was writing and comics; for Steve it was acting, swordplay, and Renaissance Fairs; for Dan it was heavy metal music; for Zeke it was film and stand-up comedy. Every subculture built around artistic expression has its history of substance abuse, and each encourages some tolerance for that abuse. There are a lot of openings to experiment with unhealthy things, and a lot of chances to turn them into unhealthy habits.
So at the risk of sounding like an old man who doesn’t get it, I have three requests for students who might read this. First, if you’re not close to anyone at school who has these problems, but there are people in your classes who you suspect of having unhealthy habits, do not assume this conversation is not for you. Be part of the solution. Invite that person along to a study session. Go out of your way to draw them into conversation. Be generous. Make them feel welcome among people who are not making self-destructive decisions.
If you have a friend or acquaintance who you think might be abusing drugs or alcohol, you need to become the person in his or her life who can make the difference so he or she can get back on some healthier track. Let them know you’re worried. And when they tell you to fuck off, don’t. That can be a hard choice to make; such friendships seem fragile, and are often built on mutual, unspoken agreements that I won’t hassle you if you don’t hassle me. But they need you to break that agreement, and you probably have a better chance at getting them to think differently about their own behavior than anyone else they know.
And if you, yourself, have been experimenting with alcohol or drugs, because it eases your pain, or your anxiety, or your depression, or your boredom: please consider where it is taking you. Death is not romantic or edgy, and death in early adulthood is a true, colossal waste. There are many, many years ahead of listening to the music you love, and watching the movies, and laughing with friends, and food and sex and all the rest that life has to offer, and we don’t want you to miss it. We want you here, in this world, among the living. We love you.
That sounded like a Don’t Do Drugs lecture. But it really isn’t. It’s a Listen to the Ones You Love lecture, a Be Aware of the Depression Around You lecture, a Don’t Let Your Choices Consume You lecture. For Dan, those messages did not get through. Grieving, my family can only stare at the photos of the long-haired boy with his guitar, as he recedes from our lives faster than his fingers once moved across its strings.